"I agree with the gay Englishman [Irishman Oscar Wilde] who said you should either look like a work of art or, if you can't, wear one. Sometimes I do both!"
– Julie Newmar
In 1986 I was sitting at my desk – an old wooden thing I'd found on Twelfth Street and dragged up four flights to my Second Avenue apartment – and attempting to pump some inspiration into a novel I'd begun the year before, about a magazine editor who defenestrates (my favourite word) from the 43rd floor of a swank hotel in despair at the ruthless superficiality of the fashion world that has consumed her life.
Almost twenty years later, this seems like a really bad premise for a novel, but at the time no one was writing about fashion in fiction – and besides, for my first novel I imagined myself as a modern-day Barbara Cartland, the British romance novelist who had once served me tea at her home and given me a gold-dipped acorn from a tree in her garden that Queen Elizabeth I had planted, and who would dictate bestsellers to one of her six secretaries while lying on a chaise lounge under a white mink blanket. In writing this book – I have no idea now what the title was – I had two honourable ambitions: I wanted to make bucket-loads of money like Barbara Cartland, and I wanted to wreak a Vaudevillian revenge on some of the fashion people who had once employed me.
Before moving to New York City in 1985, I had been the founding editor of Harper's Bazaar Australia, but I'd been fired after ten issues for being too "avant-garde". We'd had Boy George (in drag) as a cover girl, the first male to ever appear on the cover of a women's fashion magazine. (Life magazine did a piece on it at the end of the year.) Our fashion pages had been full of the fashions of the day, which were mostly rip-and-tear fantasies that looked like they'd been pulled out of the ragbag at the local thrift store. (Does anyone remember the Buffalo Girl look?) Worse still, we'd done an issue in China (I'd herded buffalo for one shoot and handed out toy koalas to the peasants who appeared in our pictures) and printed the sayings of Chairman Mao across the published fashion pages. I was a very naughty girl and I had to be replaced by someone who would return the fashion to predictable niceness and make the advertisers feel more comfortable.
The only thing to do was leave Australia. My husband was interested in becoming a photographer so, after a month in Tahiti (where I contracted dengue fever), then a couple of weeks in LA staying at an actor friend's North Hollywood house while serial killer Richard Ramirez stalked the neighbourhood, we landed in New York. It seemed like a relief. My husband immediately got a job as an assistant on a Vogue shoot, we found a ramshackle eight-room floor-through fourth-floor walk-up with marble fireplaces in the East Village (very Roman Polanski I thought) and I began my novel.
That night in 1986 was a hot one. The streets outside were jumping. Our apartment was in an old brownstone situated between Twelfth and Thirteenth Streets. In those days – hard to believe now – the area was very marginal. The crackheads had taken over Thirteenth Street and only the foolish ventured beyond Avenue A. Later Thirteenth Street would get its own troop of Guardian Angels. I would often have to fight my way through a group of dealers huddled in our doorway. I was once chased down the street by a druggie attracted by my fake leopard-skin coat ("Hey Leopard Lady!" he shouted.) A family (pimp, prostitute and baby) took up residence in their ancient Oldsmobile right outside our house. One night, a gang of men tried to pull me into their car. On another wintry night we'd been to see Jean Cocteau's Blood of the Poet at Theatre 80, the revival house on St Mark's Place, and when we emerged into the street, we almost stepped into a huge puddle of blood in the snow.
BUT THE DANGER MADE IT FUN TO BE YOUNG and alive. The streets below Fourteenth, especially in summer, were throbbing with possibility. There were plays and poetry readings at St Marks in the Bowery. Motorcycle gangs with elaborately decorated bikes brawled at the bar across the road. Punk icons like John Sex (who reportedly stiffened his white-blond hair with ejaculate) munched on Swedish pancakes at Café Orlin. John Spacely, whose image was once painted on a wall in St Mark's Place, stalked the streets in a long leather coat and eye patch. People carried ferrets under their coats. Quentin Crisp lived on Fourth Street and Phillip Glass round the corner. You could have an audience with Mr Crisp if you bought him a meal at Phebes. You bumped into Richard Hell on First Avenue. Down on First Street, a young Texan woman called Ellie Covan ran a nightclub/performance space in her lounge room. Battalions of homeless people sold old shoes and magazines at Cooper Square and, if you were lucky, you could nab an original copy of Flair. There was a shop on Ninth Street where you could buy old clothes by the pound. Little shopfront art galleries spread like rashes, showing inflatable plastic toys, and their vinyl-clad patrons spilled out on to the street clutching Styrofoam cups of bad wine. Stephen Saban for Details, Michael Musto for the Village Voice and photographer Patrick MacMullan were the chroniclers of the age. Downtown had a real cachet, and the world's eyes were on us. You were proud to proclaim you got a blood nose if you ventured above Fourteenth Street.
And then there were the clubs. The Saint on Second Avenue, which was once the famous Filmore East. Area (formerly the Mudd Club) in Tribeca. CBGBs. Pyramid. Mars. Save the Robots. Danceteria. The scandalous Limelight, a cathedral of decadence in a deconsecrated church in Chelsea. Later, The Tunnel, where rats ran over your feet. And, biggest and hottest of all, the Palladium on Fourteenth Street, only a couple of blocks from where I lived. If you got on the mailing list for these clubs – and you did this in a variety of ways, by an exhausting attention to looking fabulous or knowing someone on the door – you could be at a club "event" every night and get free drinks too. The "Club Kids" were a force of nature, and soon this raggle-taggle bunch of drag queens, fag hags and exhibitionists had become a moveable Factory, no longer restricted to Andy's pad, but desperately seeking attention in doorways and on dance floors (where they'd pose to Cabaret Voltaire and Bronski Beat) all over downtown. The Club Kids became so fabulous they had to rope themselves off in VIP areas to keep themselves apart from the hoi polloi. Soon a new category of person emerged – the young downtown novelist (Jay, Bret, Tama) – and you could find them, joined at the hip, under the glare of klieg lights in the same roped-off VIP lounges.
THERE WAS ANOTHER KIND OF ROPE TOO, and I don't mean bondage (which was a very fashionable style at the time). I'm talking about the velvet rope outside the club. Traversing this was sometimes as difficult as pushing a camel (you) through the eye of a needle (the person on the door). The Doorbitch (or Doorwhore) was a totally capricious breed of human being who paid no heed to logic. There was nothing – nothing – you could do to gain entry to the club if she or he didn't like the look of you. You could be dressed to the nines and you wouldn't get in because that night the Doorbitch was over people who tried too hard. (The first time I made the cut at Palladium I was just walking by in black t-shirt and shorts – which, I admit, is the last time in history I've ever worn shorts.) That same Doorwhore would reject anyone wearing blue the next night. The following, she'd let in leisure suits. Sometimes you'd wait for hours outside in the cold or rain and, when you finally got the nod, you'd enter a vast, cavernous space with three people in it. It was legitimised tyranny because the act of getting into the club was more important than what the club had to offer. Some people got in, had a look around and made a point of leaving. Many others whiled away the hours in the bathroom. If I recall correctly, Palladium had fabulous bathrooms.
One night, I ventured down to a new club on Fourteenth Street. It was called Nell's. Nell Campbell is a fellow Aussie who had a long innings as "It Girl" of New York. Her eponymous club opened its doors in the mid-'80s and it was an instant hit because of its moody Weimar Republic décor and because, like all New York clubs in their first flush of popularity, it catered to a self-appointed in crowd. The girl on the door the night I attempted entry was a wistful blonde who nevertheless had the requisite mean streak. I was wearing my gorgeous fake leopard and crocodile shoes and I was accompanied by a friend, a casting director who had discovered Johnny Depp. But I broke the first rule of getting into nightclubs, which is never being hesitant. The girl looked us up and down critically and asked me, not quite sure (I have been told I look like a certain movie star on a very, very bad day): "Are you somebody?" Fool that I am, I said "No."
Nell Campbell told a magazine at the time that she had a fabulous life, lying around in bed all day deciding what to wear to her club at night. But there were other "It" girls and the competition was tough. The glorious Suzanne Bartsch, now an "event producer", was the Queen of the Night, throwing extravagant costume parties where she might – for instance, come as Marie Antoinette with sheep. Chi Chi Valenti ruled the door at the Mudd Club in an SS uniform. Another Doorbitch, Sally Randall, set the trend for being famous for being famous. New York magazine ran an eight-page story on her, which caused an outbreak of rampant jealousy. Most famous of all was Dianne Brill, bodacious babe-around-town and later self-help author, now a mother of three and lipstick designer. Dianne palled with Cher and Andy, modelled for Jean-Paul Gaultier and managed to get her face and cleavage everywhere – a nobody who became a somebody, fleetingly, through sheer willpower and the judicious use of masking tape. She lived on my block and I would often see her teetering by wearing five-inch heels and a red rubber dress (she'd sprinkle herself with baby powder to get into it), her blonde hair piled Bardot-style in a beehive on top of her head.
ON THAT SUMMER NIGHT IN 1986, Dianne Brill was probably putting on her false eyelashes, Sally Randall was giving an interview to a downtown newspaper, Ellie Covan was moving the furniture in her apartment to better accommodate the crowds and Nell Campbell was lying on her bed thinking about what she would wear. Is it so strange that I would ditch my fictional magazine editor and her fall from the 43rd floor and start channelling a young woman called Reality Nirvana Tuttle.
Reality dictated thirty pages to me that night, and in the following couple of years it took to finish Fabulous Nobodies she wouldn't shut up. In me, she found a willing scribe; in her, I found a voice for everything I knew about the glorious perversity of fashion ("There are dozens of rules. If you're fabulous, you know them instinctively. If you're not, you don't."), what it's like to be young and clueless ("This is one of the two great tragedies of modern life, which are: Most of the truly desirable men are gay and most of the frocks don't fit.") and the fragile nature of identity ("I've got to look more me than me tonight. Everyone else is going to look like me, so I've got to out-me them all.")
She was a girl after my own heart. Ever since I'd discovered that my grandmother had cut the back out of a gorgeous 1940s beaded jacket to use as a dishcloth, I'd been a champion of recycling clothes. Not that I called anything in my closet by name – that's Reality's thing – but I'd seen the messy fashion closets in magazines like the one at Perfect Woman that so incensed Reality and I've been devoted to flea markets and thrift shops all my life. I'd furnished our East Village apartment from things I'd found in dumpsters and on the street. I still routinely go through people's trash, much to the horror of my teenage daughter. I still have trinkets I found in New York streets, markets and junk shops in the '80s, including a handsome pair of ashtrays in the shape of an Arabian man and woman and a beautifully framed print of Leonardo's Madonna, sold to me by a drag queen who insisted it was an "original". And I've kept some of my '80s clothes, including a suit by Azzedine Alaia with shoulders so big they make me look like the Sydney Opera House. Reality can borrow it anytime she likes.
She's a girl after other people's hearts too. When Fabulous Nobodies was first published in 1989, a band called Voice of the Beehive dedicated an album to her. This further cemented her fabulousness. Of course, if she were around now (and there are, I assure you, Realitys lurking everywhere) she'd be on cable with her own fashion show. Reality TV, she'd call it, naturally. And she would be executive producing another kind of reality TV show – Fabulous Nobodies, in which fabulous nobodies show off their talents, rather like American Idol meets Queer Eye. She always did like TV, even if it were black and white and she could only get one channel (as long as it showed The Champions). Perhaps her friend, gossip columnist Hugo Falk would be the Simon Cowell of the fashion world. Both of them would be taking full advantage of the '80s revival, which comes and goes, just like the '70s revival. As Reality says: "We're recycling so fast we're gobbling up a decade every few months." How true, even today.
WHAT REALITY DIDN'T KNOW IN 1986 – and neither did I – was how prophetic she was to become about another age. In her need to be somebody, to be validated in the pages of a magazine, she predates the frenzy of the celebrity culture of today, where the media is a great churning machine that packages nonentities – a certain heiress comes to mind – as somebodies, like a production line plopping eggs into cartons. Warhol recognised it and the Club Kids milked it for all it was worth. But even they didn't realise that one day we'd wake up to a world where we were swamped by it.
"The somebodies wouldn't come to the clubs if it weren't for the nobodies standing around wishing they were somebodies," Reality says. "That's why we need nobodies to make the somebodies feel superior. The somebodies wouldn't come if they couldn't be sure they'd have nobodies to trample over. And the nobodies wouldn't come if they didn't have somebodies to stare at ... they'd sell their mothers for the privilege." But it's a delicate bargain. "The subtlety of all this ... is that somebodies sometimes don't look like somebodies. They look like nobodies ... When you're on the door of a nightclub you have to know the difference between a somebody who looks like a nobody and a nobody who looks like a nobody. It's elementary." And, as Hugo points out, morphing from nobody to somebody is a tricky business: "I never write about anybody who needs publicity. If you need publicity, you aren't fabulous. And if you aren't fabulous, well, you're just not fabulous enough for me."
I'm not sure that today's army of photoshopped somebodies (remember that Reality and Hugo live in a pre-Adobe, pre-iPod, pre-Nokia, pre-CD, pre-DVD world) would pass Reality's fabulous test. In fact, I'm sure they wouldn't. Like me, she wouldn't be impressed by the current obsession with bland computer-mutilated celebrities. Reality had a higher standard. She might aspire to be best friends with Chloe Sevigny and Andre 3000, but she'd draw the line at Carmen Electra. She'd be snooty about the Sex and the City girls, the way SJP appropriated her look. But, then again, she'd be heading towards 40 and she may have learned the essential wisdom in Hugo's POV: "That's the nature of fame, Reality. A great door but an empty room."
When I'm not a novelist, I'm a journalist. (I'm both Reality and Hugo, to tell the truth.) I've had my brushes with fame. I could care less. Call me perverse, but I have no curiosity for sphinxes without secrets, to use Truman Capote's borrowing of Oscar Wilde. (Two guys I adore, by the way.) Once a person loses his or her individual nobodiness and becomes a somebody, my attention wanes. I don't want to know with whom they're canoodling at Soho House last Friday or whether or not the J.Sisters do their Brazilians. And, while there are certain complicated and talented individuals I wouldn't mind being stuck in a stalled elevator with for an hour or two – Robert Downey Jnr and Marianne Faithfull come to mind – it's their essential nobodiness that really attracts me. Celebrity is a two-dimensional thing. It's the third dimension I'm looking for.
And, even though she doesn't realise it, Reality is looking for that too. She's looking for authenticity in Reagan's America, where the masters of the universe are faceless men in suits, wound up in their own sense of entitlement. A true little socialist (albeit with a fascist bent) she's on the side of the fashion students, the waiters, the homeless, the shop girls, the aspiring models, the drag queens, the discarded frocks. She might change her hair, her clothes, her shoes, her face several times a day – she boasts of seventy-two different fashion personalities – but who she's really looking for is herself. The much-coveted Chanel suit is, in the end, not her. By the conclusion of her story, she's getting closer to self-awareness (although no one could safely assert she's there yet!): "Not only am I what I wear, I am what I don't wear. It's fundamental."
A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I WENT TO an extravagant party at New York's east side Armory, which was presented on the scale of the kind of bashes they threw in the '80s. The vast space was filled with enormous projects of clouds, the champagne flowed, there was a caviar bar, a famous DJ and a crowd that included Leonardo DiCaprio, Hillary Swank and a Queer Eye. Standing there, in the middle of this gorgeous room, I looked around and thought, where are the fabulous people? The room was populated by suits. Even Leonardo wore a suit. In the '80s, those fabulous nobodies, the Club Kids, would have been top of the A-list. Now the A-list consisted of agency people and media executives. The friend who accompanied me had been responsible for some of the interiors at Studio 54. We both fell glum. Where was the insanity? New York nightlife was now corporate. The suits had won.
I've been reading recently of a company that will escort normal people to popular Manhattan clubs and make sure they're treated like celebrities. By prior arrangement with the club, the velvet ropes will clip open for them, a table in the VIP lounge will be set aside. This is all done for a hefty fee, of course.
Reality would be horrified. ♦