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Jonathan Brandis: How Life After Teen Stardom Can Take a Wrong Turn

Jonathan Brandis hanged himself 10 years ago this week (November 12, 2003) at Sixth and Detroit in Los Angeles, in the second-floor hallway of an apartment building south of Hollywood near a decent doughnut shop and a cat groomer. He was 27 years old. And he was my first big crush.

If you’re picturing him in your head, you’re imagining him young. Brandis began modeling at 2, scored a soap opera gig at 6, and by 10 was a TV regular with guest appearances on Alien Nation, Who’s the Boss?, Blossom, L.A. Law, Full House, The Wonder Years and Murder, She Wrote. He was 16 when he made Ladybugs, 17 when he was cast as teen genius Lucas Wolenczak in Steven Spielberg’s seaQuest 2032. You can’t picture him any older than that, because when seaQuest was canceled in 1996, just before Brandis turned 20, the casting offers stopped.

“A time’s coming when I’m going to play the father in a movie,” Brandis insisted to a journalist that year while on a small publicity tour for a TV flick where he played a boy befriending a lion. He vowed that would be his last kiddie role.

Brandis had 4,000 reasons to believe that was true — the year before, at the height of his fame, that was the number of fan letters he received each week. Three security guards had to escort him through the screaming girls who staked out the seaQuest set at Universal Studios in Orlando, and the editor of Tiger Beat put him on the cover of eight out of 12 issues. “I never perceived myself like this — a teen magazine kid,” Brandis said. “As an actor, you just hope to continue working.”

Brandis tried everything to keep working. He dyed his hair black to play a drug addict, wore goofy glasses to play a murderer, and grew a beard for a Western. No one noticed. He went two years without a job. Then he finally won a small part in the Bruce Willis World War II film Hart’s War, but got depressed when his part was cut even smaller, with less than two minutes of screen time. The year after Hart’s War was released, he was dead.

Over the years, a friend and I have half-joked about painting an Elliott Smith–style memorial to Brandis on the block where he died — maybe something with a soccer ball and a dolphin? — but half-jokes are cruel to someone who ended his life as a pop culture punchline. Also, when we’ve half-joked about it around people, half of them have to be reminded who he even was.

How did a kid who graced a hundred Bop covers get so quickly forgotten? Because male child stars are always overlooked. While the culture frets over what really got between Brooke Shields and her Calvins, how much Mary-Kate and Ashley are eating, and all things Lohan, the mental struggles of actors like Brandis go ignored.

It’s the odd gender paradox of young fame: Girls get more scrutiny, boys get more puff-piece press. Part of it is the hand-wringing moralization we force on kid actresses. But the simpler reason is economics: Teen female fans buy stuff. They squeal over posters, snatch up pencil boxes with their favorite stars, and sardine themselves outside movie premieres with a fervor that your average teen dude would find embarrassing. (Besides, teen guys tend to aspirationally age up and lust after underwear models.)

Take the teenybopper magazine that seems so culturally normal when filled with photos of high school guys in flannel shirts posing on trees and flip the genders. Can you imagine a cheesecake mag of underage girls on sale at 7-Eleven?

Then add in the middle-school preference for boys who look soft: big eyes, round cheeks, full lips, thick hair. Muscles and chest fur are scary — tweens favor male stars who look like their idea of a hot date is a milkshake and a cuddle. The No. 1 insult boys in my eighth grade had for Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Renfro, River Phoenix, Corey Haim, Macaulay Culkin, Edward Furlong and, yes, Jonathan Brandis was, “He looks like a girl.” Which was especially hard to deny when Brandis came to fame playing a soccer star who dressed in drag and called himself Martha.

How many of those teen heartthrobs transitioned into adult stars? One. DiCaprio acknowledged the cull in a 2010 interview with Rolling Stone. “My two main competitors in the beginning, the blond-haired kids I went to audition with, one hung himself and the other died of a heroin overdose,” he said. The suicide is Brandis. The OD could have been any one of several.

Four thousand fan letters every week aside, it’s tough being a girly-looking guy with your face all over the newsstands, even if the articles themselves are nice. For one, your face probably won’t age into something masculine enough to play adult roles and action heroes — even DiCaprio has had to disguise his soft features with a thick layer of fat. Worse, teen girls are fickle. When they get a new crush, those letters stop.

“When you’ve been on covers of magazines for years, when that stops happening, what’s your identity?” Tatyana Ali, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star and Brandis’ ex-girlfriend, explained in an interview about his death. At least young actresses who never experience that Tiger Beat fan frenzy don’t have to surf its sudden dropoff. More of them survive: Natalie Portman, Jodie Foster, Winona Ryder, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michelle Williams, Dakota Fanning, Christina Applegate, Claire Danes.

Girls, of course, have their own problems: the intense media fascination with their weight and virginity, the dulling de rigueur “naughty” phase. As a culture, we need to stop caring if our teen actresses have sex. Let’s start caring about if they — and their male co-stars — are happy.

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Here Come The Oscar Films! Clooney! Leo! And Lots of Fucking!

Oscar films are piling up faster than in-house Christmas party invites, all begging for the gold like street hookers dressed up like grande dames, or vice versa. And it’s a pretty spicy batch of gravy meats this year.

George Clooney makes a grab at more trophyhood in The Descendants, the Alexander Payne–directed piece about a deficient husband dealing with the absence of his faulty wife and the fact that he now has to connect with their wildly imperfect daughters. Clooney’s a master of economical, unfussy acting. He doesn’t strike false notes or ring wrong bells. He’s, you know, perfect, in this nicely etched character dramedy that also provides welcome turns for Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer as a whole other messed-up couple Clooney has to negotiate with. A slow start and an overload of initial narration scare you into thinking this is a long way backwards from Sideways, but things pick up the second someone gets called “a motherless whore,” and the ownership theme begins to resonate, Hawaiian-style.

The French Clooney, Jean Dujardin, owns The Artist, a 99 percent–mute ode to the silent era, and though I prefer the Mel Brooks approach, this one will have a lot of people making pleasant sounds as they admire the sheer audacity of it all—a silent movie about silent movies, made in the loudest year in recent memory.

Screen noise returns with Roman Polanski‘s upcoming Carnage, based on the play about two couples turning into barbarians as they fight over their imperfect kids’ schoolyard tussle. (I saw it in an overflow theater at the New York Film Festival.) The film purposely doesn’t escalate to the animalistic extremes of the source material and some of the dialogue always translated banally, but Polanski knows how to film an apartment building angstfest (see Rosemary’s Baby), cooking up a civilized comedy about the lack of civility in the adult world, the star performances giving it some projectile heft.

Someone fucks himself over by trying too hard to get fucked in British director Steve McQueen‘s cautionary tale Shame, which has pool-eyed Michael Fassbender as a lean machine out for nibbly bits, a heavy-handed idea that makes promiscuity look way worse than it really is. But McQueen’s filmmaking is sleek, especially when he shoots from weird angles and sticks with them because that, after all, is what artistes do. Carey Mulligan is especially stunning as a woman who re-enters Fassbender’s life and tries to get him to actually talk about things. Of course (spoiler alert) he just keeps fucking, reaching bottom by getting serviced in a gay sex club! Shame!

In A Dangerous Method, Fassbender makes us feel so Jung as he guides masochistic patient Keira Knightley through a “talking cure.” But it’s also a fucking cure, complete with some light whipping, all in order to help advance modern psychology. Still, this isn’t an NC-17 Shame-type experience, nor is it a typical Cronenberg leap into sociopolitical darkness. (Although he has done the two-doctors-fight-over-a-kinky-patient routine before. Remember Dead Ringers?) It’s spiffy-looking, chatty, generally reined-in, and very Christopher Hampton–esque. In fact, Hampton wrote it! But though Knightley does well with her character’s fiery shrieks and spasms, I rarely felt Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen (as Freud) were doing much more than dressing up and playacting. Then again, I desperately need a fisting cure.

Another doctor performs offbeat stunts on his subjects in Pedro Almodóvar‘s The Skin I Live In, which is best when it’s at its absolute weirdest, especially when surgeon Antonio Banderas‘s half brother, on the lam in a tiger outfit, forces himself on a woman who was . . . Well, you’d better get an eye lift and see for yourself. This one makes Shame look like The Muppets.

And the art house circuit got even wilder with Martha Marcy May Marlene, unexpectedly starring the younger sister of those eternal kewpies, the Olsen twins. And she’s good! In this assuredly directed first film by Sean Durkin, nomination hopeful Elizabeth Olsen plays a mishandled teen who finds refuge in a culty commune (led by a Manson-like John Hawkes), which ends up providing the opposite of safety. The actress must have learned from Clooney; she never overplays her hand nor overdoes her emotions, instead letting the character’s torment lie just below the skin she lives in. Sarah Paulson‘s also terrific, as Olsen’s well-meaning sister. (Like Shame, this sexual horror tale has a concerned adult trying to rescue a lost sibling.) But the film should definitely not be renamed Full House.

Former Growing Pains star Leonardo DiCaprio digs for gold in J. Edgar, which treats his life as a tortured gay love story in which only one kiss was shared, and even that happened during a fistfight. It’s truly bizarre—but hey, Leo looks great in mama Judi Dench‘s ensemble. At least her dress came out of the closet, if not her darling son.

Michelle Williams also scores in a dress in My Week With Marilyn, but it’s not a home run, mainly because no one could come close to the lip-pursing screen legend. (The film’s two musical bits are the most in need of some real Marilyn magic.) But Williams doesn’t try for the caricatured Marilyn, instead going for human tones, which results in “wow” moments, while Kenneth Branagh is consistently deft as the bristling Olivier, who can’t understand all the fuss his curvy co-star makes when “It’s just a comedy!”

Just a tragicomedy, Melancholia moves so slowly toward its wrap-up that they should rename it Apocalypse Later. But Kirsten Dunst might finally get a nod, especially since she had to endure the quick explosion surrounding Lars von Trier‘s Nazi shtick at Cannes.

And let’s not forget War Horse. If you think that one’s galloping to the glue factory instead of the Kodak Theatre, you’re a motherless whore!

musto@villagevoice.com

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The Perils of Communal Living in Martha Marcy May Marlene

As taut and economical as its title is unwieldy, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene—a first feature that won the Best Director award last January at Sundance—is a deft, old-school psychological thriller (or perhaps horror film) that relies mainly on the power of suggestion and memories of hippie cult crazies.

Carefully constructed, Martha Marcy divides its eponymous protagonist (Elizabeth Olsen) into two personae, each associated with one of the movie’s two main locations: a posh new summer cottage on a Connecticut lake and an isolated communal farm in the Catskills where the action opens. It’s an idyllic, disquieting Sundance-style pastoral as docile young farm women put out dinner for their handful of male comrades to eat under the eye of their crafty, hyper-alert leader, Patrick (John Hawkes). Cut to a mountain of dishes in the sink and commune members sleeping on pallets six to a room.

This deliberate table setting (figurative as well as literal) is dramatically upended when Martha, a baby-faced beauty whom Patrick has renamed Marcy May, wakes up early and takes off into the woods. Eluding Patrick’s second in command and de facto pimp (Brady Corbet), she makes a fearful call to her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), establishing contact for the first time in several years, and is soon ensconced in Connecticut comfort. Lucy is aggressively bourgie; husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) is impatient and snarky. Traumatized Martha would have trouble readjusting even if she weren’t so fabulously inappropriate—wondering aloud why they need such a big house, swimming nude, asking if it’s true that “married people don’t fuck.”

Lucy blows hot and cold toward her sister—just like Patrick, whom we see in flashback, running his head trips, initiating the drugged, newly renamed Marcy May into his preferred form of sex, writing a special song just for her and performing it for his appreciative followers. (The commune’s men all seem to be untalented musicians.) Angular, sinewy Hawkes is a calmer, scarier version of the hillbilly meth monster with heart he played in Winter’s Bone while, as directed by Durkin, Olsen (younger sister of the Olsen twins) gives a superb performance, battling confusion, radiating anxiety, and desperately asserting her beleaguered identity. Martha baffles Lucy with the declaration that she is “a teacher and a leader” and enrages Ted with her hippie ideology. (Calling her behavior “fucking insane,” he doesn’t know the half of it.)

Typically match-cutting images of deep, still water from the two different locales, Martha Marcy is full of foreboding. The spare, angsty score by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi is as ominous as distant thunder. Past and present begin to merge. Martha wonders whether her memories are really dreams. She wanders through a party of her sister’s friends as if in a trance and then begins to freak—perhaps because she participated in what the Mansonoids used to call a “creepy-crawly” home invasion.

Martha Marcy is purposefully abstract, sharing a certain coolness with the similarly performance-driven youth shocker Afterschool, produced by the same group of youthful NYU grads, along with a similarly studied, Bergmanesque interest in psychological states. Martha’s yearning to belong is existential. It’s never explained how she landed at the commune; not until late in the movie is it clear why she left. Nor is it obvious how Patrick maintains control. (Unlike many counterculture mind-messers, he doesn’t appear to have the benefit of LSD.) The withheld information only heightens the spookiness.

When Patrick declares that “death is the most beautiful part of life” or asserts that “fear creates complete awareness” (and awareness is a form of love), he’s paraphrasing America’s favorite boogeyman, Charles Manson. Ultimately, Patrick’s evil is less haunting than Martha’s madness. Olsen’s wide-spaced eyes and slightly flattened features give the impression of a face pressed against a window. She’s locked out and desperate, a lost soul looking through a glass darkly.

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WORK IT

If we learned anything from last year’s first-ever Fashion’s Night Out, the all-night fashion party event that kicks off Fashion Week, it’s that it is nearly impossible to see everything you want. So before you head to tonight’s citywide extravaganza, look at the handy map on the Fashion’s Night Out website, which maps out everywhere you want to go, and ask yourself: Can I really go uptown to Barneys to see the Olsen twins, then Bergdorf’s for Mary J. Blige, then to Opening Ceremony’s French flea market at the Ace Hotel in Chelsea, then to Ralph Lauren in Soho for some time with André Leon Talley, and then over to the block party with Rag & Bone and Phillip Lim? (Well, a girl can always dream, can’t she?) Keep up with all of the week’s goings-on at our blog, Runnin’ Scared. And if you see Anna Wintour out and about, give her a big high-five for us. For more information on participating retailers and exclusive giveaways, visit fashionsnightout.com.

Fri., Sept. 10, 2010

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CLOSET CASE

As we all know, the current economy has not been kind to anyone in the fashion industry. Tonight, The Future of Women’s Fashion, a panel discussion with Isaac Mizrahi, Ashley Olsen, and The Washington Post‘s Pulitzer Prize–winning fashion critic Robin Givhan, looks at how this whole mess is likely to impact what we’ll be wearing for years to come (and it better not be plastic bags!). The conversation will cover topics such as the state of the retail industry, the new ways that women shop, and “the Michelle Obama effect,” or how the First Lady’s wardrobe decisions create a frenzy among shoppers and have rocketed several under-the-radar designers to mainstream success. Glamour’s editor-in-chief Cindi Leive moderates.

Wed., Oct. 21, 8 p.m., 2009

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President Rejects Gay Hustler!

Joan Rivers just had a party for her TV Land series, How’d You Get So Rich?, at her sumptuous East Side triplex, the one she recently put on the market. “Make your bid!” Joan chirped, giddily pretending it was an open house, too.

But why try to unload her place now, of all times? “When I buy, that means ‘Don’t,’ ” the fresh-roasted comic admitted, “and when I sell, that means ‘How stupid are you?’ I’m the only one that lost money on Fabergé. People say, ‘How much money did you make on the czar’s personal watches?’ I say, ‘Nothing! I lost a fortune!’ I’m like the Top Shop of Fabergé!” I guess the watches laid a big Fabergé egg.

Speaking of collectible food items, Julie & Julia is highlighted by Meryl Streep‘s culinary cutie Julia Child practically orgasming when eating a piece of buttery fish and gleefully comparing cannelloni to “stiff cocks.” By the time Child is boning a duck, you’re surprised she hasn’t strapped on her “dill dough.” . . . An aroused source who saw Quentin Tarantino‘s re-cut version of Inglourious Basterds says it’s more glorious than it was. . . . Speaking of revamped careers, they are really pushing the shit out of Whitney Houston‘s intended comeback. Press releases are sent out every two seconds about all aspects of the new record, her image, and her rising from the ashes (though you can’t discuss just what ashes those are). Clive Davis must be holding a guillotine over peoples’ heads, saying, “Make her hot again or die!” As well he should! . . . Transsexual icon Amanda Lepore is certainly on fire again. She just told me, “My career is doing much better with the recession. It’s because I’m fantasy!”

Reality surfaced after last Monday’s performance of The Temperamentals—the Off-Broadway play about gay pioneer Harry Hay—when there was a “Militant Mondays” talkback featuring lovable curmudgeon Larry Kramer, who’s pretty much the Hay of today. Larry said he was fascinated by the Bob Herbert editorial in the Times about the Henry Gates incident (a/k/a Gatesgate): “Herbert was basically telling black people to go out there and be Act-Up!” Kramer said, admiringly.

Meanwhile, Kramer’s acting up again, this time about making the White House way more rainbow-colored. He’s writing a sweeping book called The American People: A History, which will report that George Washington was gay (and mad for Alexander Hamilton) and that John Wilkes Booth was a hustler hired by Abe Lincoln’s love object, shopkeeper Joshua Speed, for Abie baby’s personal use. But supposedly, the Prez wasn’t interested in freeing his snake for that bit of business, and, as Kramer told me, “Hell hath no fury like a hustler spurned.” That’s so true—look at Ashley Dupré!

I hung with the ‘hos at Beige, but I also got to meet one of TV’s Real Housewives, who was slumming there, so I asked her how New York is different from New Jersey. She gave me a long, involved answer—”New York doesn’t have small towns like New Jersey does,” etc.—but then I found out she was NeNe Leakes from Real Housewives of Atlanta! Oh, well. “So you love the gays?” I asked, gracefully switching gears. “Love them? This is my gay husband,” she exclaimed, introducing me to a fey creature. “So you’re married to him?” “Twice!” she joked.

Just then, I found the real Real Housewife of New Jersey, Danielle Staub, in another corner of the club. So you love the gays? “I love my gays!” she exulted, as the twinks developed stiff cannellonis from the echo effect. “I just came from Barracuda. They said we had to sing karaoke, so we said, ‘Oops, gotta go.’ Then we went to Citrine, and now we’re here. I love New York! It’s so accepting. You can be a model or a homeless person.” “And in the case of the Olsen twins,” I wittily interjected, “you can be both!”

There was one more reality star by the bar: Ra’mon from the new Project Runway season, who sported a mohawk the size of NeNe’s five-inch heels. “It was God-given,” he swore to me. And a well-coiffed Frances Bean Cobain, aged 16, was there, too—with another rocker spawn, Zowie Bowie—but not drinking, I’m sure! Or mainlining, either!

Also in the crowd—God, what a night—photographer Patrick McMullan told me he ran into original Supreme Mary Wilson at the Box and asked her if Joe Jackson ever came on to her, back when she was in her 20s. “I was too old for him,” cooed Mary, frankly.

Nostalgia was on the menu again when I dined at Employees Only with owner Billy Gilroy, who reminisced about being the manager of Nell’s, the snooty yet mildly decadent Victorian lounge that opened in ’86. The wildest night there? “[Disco singer/space alien] Grace Jones and her gal pal were humping the pillars, and the owner, Keith McNally, was loving it,” Gilroy remembered. “But then we heard loud crashing noises. Grace had started taking bottles from the bar and furiously throwing them. Me and three other guys had to grab her by the limbs and remove her as she kicked and screamed, ‘You bastards!’ ” Gilroy said he can still hear the karate kicks that Jones aimed at the door for hours once she was on the street! I guess he’s a slave to the rhythm.

One more festive flashback came with the Andy Warhol birthday party at the Gershwin Hotel, where I stayed much longer than 15 minutes. There, I told performance artist Penny Arcade that in the otherwise enjoyable An Englishman in New York, Cynthia Nixon isn’t quite abrasive enough as her. “You could also use the word ‘charisma,’ ” she said. “Why would you have someone non-charismatic as me? But I hear she was not allowed to see any footage of me and Quentin Crisp. The only one the director wanted to meet was Sting! And what about the clothes? They used those ugly-assed clothes that nobody in the East Village wore in the ’80s!” Make your bid!

Meanwhile, Ann Coulter‘s been accessorized against her will over at Air America’s offices. While visiting there, I noticed that someone had generously put a Hitler mustache on a poster of the blonde motormouth. Heil, honey!

A tyrannical baby demands blood in the new genre film Grace, which is sort of like Rosemary’s Baby meets Little Shop of Horrors, with eggs more cracked than Fabergés.

Playing the mama with bloody nipples is Jordan Ladd, who talked to me last week about the maternity mania that has rocked our patriarchal society.

“I don’t know what this obsession with baby-making is,” said Ladd. “I was born in the mid ’70s. When we went out to the yard and fell and broke our arms, it was a badge of honor, a rite of passage. Society is far too concerned with overparenting now, and with when you should have babies and how many you should have. Being a divorced 34-year-old woman, I can’t say I’m immune to that pressure. I’m reminded of it every time I pick up a tabloid: ‘Oh shit, I’d better start now!’ “

Jordan knows from scrutinized parenting—she happens to be the daughter of Cheryl Ladd from TV’s Charlie’s Angels—but she was protected from cameras as a child and was so young that she didn’t understand that she’d landed in a showbiz dynasty. “But,” she added, “I did have a moment when my mom was on The Muppet Show, and that was pretty exciting to me. Everyone knew Miss Piggy!”

Jordan, alas, never got to know Miss Farrah, but she’s fully aware that “it’s an awful story.” So’s the one about Ryan O’Neal unwittingly hitting on daughter Tatum at the funeral. “I’d hit on Tatum,” said Jordan, laughing. “Are you kidding?”

musto@villagevoice.com

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Bad Flirt

With songs titled after The Wonder Years episodes and a first place finish in Mary-Kate & Ashley’s online battle of the bands, one might claim Montreal’s Bad Flirt for the (nostalgic) tween-set. While their Bangles-meets-Metric sound could give you an aspartame headache, an energetic vibrancy shines through angular guitar lines and flippant boy-girl harmonies on the full-length Virgin Talk. Plus, they love the Circle Jerks! With Hollerado and Ferraby Lionheart.

Mon., Feb. 16, 9 p.m., 2009

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Josh Roseman’s Extended Constellations

Heah, getcha diaspora heah! The dubadelic trombonist with the witty way of dispensing grooves augments his septet for the weekend, giving 12 instrumentalists jobs during the recession. That means his improv-tronics and their drum ‘n’ bass proclivities will have a jazz richness, whether romping through the Beatles or a nifty little number entitled “Olsen Twins Subpoena.” Bring your butt along; he’s got Jamaica in his soul.

Jan. 16-17, 9 & 10:30 p.m., 2009

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Glamour Do: Hanging with Dita Von Teese

When a box decorated with a pair of formerly alive crimson roses arrives at my desk—you get all kinds of things in this job—I pray, Please let it be candy. But it isn’t. Instead, it contains an airline-sized bottle of Cointreau and an invitation to interview Dita Von Teese about something called “The Cointreauversial Movement: A Return to Glamour.”

A return to glamour? When did it go away? I start to think about who might embody this elusive, much-vaunted quality, and I must say Ms. Von Teese doesn’t immediately top my list, maybe because I don’t actually know very much about her: only that she is very pale, she used to be married to Marilyn Manson, a man with a girl’s name (something I would do!), and she makes a living as a burlesque performer, though I am not entirely sure what this entails.

Actually, when it comes to glamour, believe it or not, the first name that springs to mind is someone—OK, two people: the entity that played Michelle, the ugly baby on
Full House. This creature may not have been much of a looker in her early years, but she—they—have grown up to be the style icons of the 21st century.

I’m not kidding! I love the Olsens! I love the way they mix vintage and unbelievably expensive designer stuff, the way they wrap their little emaciated bodies in yards and yards of fabric, their no-holds-barred trash-bag aesthetic. But then it occurs to me: Maybe Mary-Kate and Ashley are not, in fact, the epitome of glamour—maybe they’re just incredibly stylish in their will-o’-the-wisp sort of way. Maybe the epitome of glamour is—I know!—Christiane Amanpour. Because don’t you sometimes wish you were her, having a brandy at 4 a.m. in the hotel bar in Basra or Lahore, a female Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat? No?

Anyway, when Cointreau asks if I want to come up to the Ritz-Carlton and talk to Von Teese, I say, “Of course.” Which is why I find myself, a few days later, being ushered into a suite where a team of Cointreau executives—a bunch of French people—is already swilling Cointreau cocktails even though it isn’t even noon. They believe in their product! The Frenchies tell me how excited they are that Dita is their new spokesmodel, and how she’s developing a special burlesque show celebrating Cointreau, an extravaganza that will debut in London and then travel to the States and Asia, but will, alas, not be seen in France, since French law forbids the use of an actual person in a liquor ad.

Then, suddenly, here is Dita herself, like Snow White minus the dwarves, a long way from West Branch, Michigan, the small farming community where she grew up feeling distinctly unglamorous in the shadow of what she claims were two prettier sisters. Von Teese spent her childhood whiling away the hours watching old movies with her mom. “I took notice of Hedy Lamarr and Betty Grable and Dietrich—their hairdos and eyebrows and red lips.” In that suburban living room, a light dawned: “I could paint my way to glamour!”

From the time she was old enough to dress herself, Von Teese loved vintage underwear; throughout her teens, she worked at a place called Lady Ruby’s Lingerie. Though she studied variously to be a stylist, a dancer, and/or a fashion designer, nothing stuck: “I don’t think I’m a very good dancer, and I hated sewing.”

She finally settled on a career path of her own invention: “I decided I wanted to be a retro pinup. I wanted to be photographed.” Scholarly research meant poring over men’s magazines from the 1930s and ’40s; Von Teese noticed that many of the naughty models were burlesque performers. “They were probably the only ones who thought it was OK to disrobe for the camera,” she muses.

Desperate to find an authentic corset—not so easy before the Internet—Von Teese finally got from a friend the address of a hardcore fetish store. Lightning struck once again: “Why shouldn’t I be the next big fetish model?” she thought. Pretty soon she was cavorting in front of the lenses, happily hog-tied and ball-gagged. (Not everyone’s idea of glamour, perhaps, but it worked for Dita.)

Like practically everyone else in public life these days, Van Teese is working on a book. “I do all my own hair and makeup, so I’m doing a beauty book for HarperCollins. All the books out now tell you how to be normal. My book will say, ‘Wear the blue eye shadow if you want!’ It’s all about eccentric makeup!”

(This reminds me of an experience of my own, with the coincidentally named Glamour magazine. I had a monthly column offering advice on how to dress: Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak? It turned out I had no idea how to correct these supposed defects. Furthermore, the magazine did not agree with me that bulky gals look fine in polka dots and that it’s OK to mix plaids, flower prints, and feathers. Anyway, they fired me, which I totally understood, but they did it by voice mail. Voice mail! Not what I’d call glamorous, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee.)

When I ask Dita who exactly she thinks is the real deal these days, she mentions one of my personal favorites, the wildly nutty blue-haired Italian fashion editor Anna Piaggi, who is not above combining, say, a McDonald’s apron, a Victorian fan, and a Trilby hat. “I like a really distinct sense of style,” Von Teese explains. “People who are not doing it to please someone else. I can see right through that. I like people who are doing it for themselves.”

Like the Olsens. Or Christiane Amanpour. Or a self-effacing stripper from West Branch, Michigan.

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Dean Johnson’s Legacy, Anna Nicole’s Lunacy

For the Bible Tells Me So, the documentary about the way religion craps on homosexuality, premiered at a church, but it was just the right one: Marble Collegiate, where Liza Minnelli married David Gest. Before the film unspooled, I heard some devout talk from the media in my pew. (“I know you write for the Huffington Post too. What section are you covering this for? I’m here for the Living section.” “Oh, don’t worry. I’m just writing about divorce and religion.”) But then everyone—even some people not from the Huffington Post—quieted down and took in the sensitively done filmic affirmation that misusing the Bible to bash gays is an “abomb-nation,” as Jimmy Swaggart so illiterately pronounces it.

Afterward, the director and cast swarmed to the altar and congratulated each other, getting extra choked up about having just won awards at a Milwaukee film festival. Bawling the hardest was a woman whose daughter killed herself after Mom denounced her lesbianism. “She’s one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met,” the director said, crying as he hugged the woman as if she were an Oscar. Say what? Well, after the suicide, mom did some research and realized gayness isn’t bad after all!

Sleuth—based on the movie based on the play—isn’t very religious, though there is some flaming stuff in there, and Sir Michael Caine
bedecked in ladies’ jewelry is just the start of it. At the Kobe Club premiere party, director Kenneth Branagh bravely submitted to my own sleuthing (for the Living section) as follows: Q: Hey, Ken. Were you happy screenwriter Harold Pinter put in all that queer material? A: I thought it was an interesting departure to have a third-act development—are one or both guys gay, or is it a prelude to the ultimate humiliation? Keeps you guessing. Q: Speaking of the ultimate humiliation, was the C-word in the original version? A: No. It’s part of the way Pinter breaks the taboos and both shocks and amuses with language. Q: Fuck! Was it weird to have Jude Law, who remade Caine’s Alfie, star with Caine in a remake of Sleuth, which once starred Caine in the Jude Law role? A: No. They had great camaraderie. Caine is a great raconteur, telling stories about Sinatra and the queen—but not in the same story. There’s a line in the film where Jude says “What’s it all about?”, but we didn’t intend that as a reference to Alfie. Q: Keeps you guessing.

The truly ultimate humiliation happened to Rita Cosby at the Pacha bash for her Anna Nicole epic, Blonde Ambition, when a Howard K. Stern droog handed her his lip-smacking lawsuit right on the way in. Defiant Rita took the stage to cheers and promised, “We’re not going to be intimidated by this smear campaign. We stand behind what we have in the book 110 percent!” She then wisely thanked her lawyers, who came out to give testimonials about how great she is. Then Anna Nicole’s mom, Virgie Arthur (yes, Anna Nicole was like a Virgie), came out and—sobbing even harder than the lesbian’s mother—declared “Rita’s done a great job!” and thanked her lawyers, who were the same two from Rita Cosby! And finally, to complete the cable realness, Natalee Holloway’s mother bounced out and declared, “When Rita came to Aruba, she had one mission—to seek justice!” Hey, maybe Howard killed Natalee too.

For me, the shocking assertion in the book isn’t the sex video—two people in showbiz gay? No way!—it’s the fact that not long before his death, Daniel reportedly went to a private investigator to say he knew he was going to be killed.

Whether he was murdered or just took in a bad drug cocktail, rocker/rebel Dean Johnson will be missed by those who appreciate nose-thumbing in a dress and stolen earrings at its finest. (He looked way better than Michael Caine.) At the Rapture Café tribute to Dean, I read excerpts from an ’80s Voice profile I wrote, which detailed how, on the day of a photo shoot, Dean tried to kill himself by swallowing a batch of sleeping pills. Said Dean, “I told the photographer I’d rather die than do another shooting with him.” The big baldie survived anyway, and when he landed a club gig and wowed the crowd, he realized, “Hey, this is better than being a suicidal drug addict.” Dean also starred in a porno movie, but he wouldn’t tell me the name of it because “I want to wait until I’m really famous and it can be a bigger scandal.”

Dean’s gay ethos? “I wanted there to be a strong homosexual figure on the scene, so I created it myself. I’m so fed up with Boy George‘s ambivalence. He’s so unsexual, saying he’d rather drink tea and have a good conversation than have sex. That’s not a very good image. If he’s not very sexual, how can he be thought of as homosexual?” Point taken.

Today’s strong homosexual figures on the scene? There’s Joey Arias, who’s coming back to New York after four years in a Vegas Cirque du Soleil show. Now the real sideshow attraction is watching drag stars Edie and Sherry Vine battle it out to replace him.

At Splash, I caught Bearforce1, a Dutch quartet of gay bears who do dumb but vigorous covers of disco songs with Village People–via–Busby Berkeley–type choreography. But weirdly, two of them are sort of thin, and the third isn’t exactly Camryn Manheim either. What next—the Olsen twins on The Biggest Loser?

Over at Cuckoo club, a skinny ninny barreled up to stylist Philip Block to say, “I love that you’re on TV!” Replied Block, “I love it too. Now keep moving, babe. We got started on the wrong foot.” Block then turned to me and conspiratorially related, “He pushed me in the bathroom!”

No one will have to be pushed at Peter Gatien‘s wildly roomy new Circa club in Toronto. I hear it’s a 55,000-square-foot “entertainment complex” weirdly aiming for rich people in a dangerous neighborhood. “Are there 3,000 nightly high-end clubgoers in the greater Toronto area?” wonders a source. “This ain’t New York.” Still, when Gatien started crying, Virgie-style, at a press conference last week, it was from joy that the place was finally opening, not from fear that he’ll have to invite the D-list to fill it up. He’s one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met.

In a cry for justice, Rosie Perez told me for Out magazine that she’s the one who got Jennifer Lopez hired on In Living Color back when Rosie was the choreographer. She said J. Lo always gives the credit to Keenan Ivory Wayans, but actually, “Keenan didn’t want her because she was overweight and she couldn’t dance that well. But I said, ‘She’s got star quality.’ He said, ‘Your job depends on this.’ ” She’s been working ever since.

As for her own star quality, Rosie’s high-camp medley as wacko chanteuse Googie Gomez (starting with “The sun’ll come out mañana“) is the apex of the revival of The Ritz, the desperate but funny farce set at a time when the only health hazard at a gay bathhouse was a mafioso in hiding. In another conversation, Rosie told me about the dramatic reactions her role has been getting: “This one woman in the press said, ‘Off the record, how do you feel about playing a negative stereotype? You’ve been one of the pioneers in pushing us forward.’ I said, ‘But that’s how I can do this! Rita Moreno won a Tony for the role! What are you talking about? That’s your issues! Then don’t see the show! Miss out on the fun! Take your mouth off the floor! Rita Moreno, Tony, Broadway, hello! I’m stepping into the spotlight! Don’t try to dim any of it for me. Move! If your wounds are still open from everything we’ve endured, I can respect that, but mine aren’t! I’m reaping the benefits of our struggle! Let’s enjoy the successes we’ve had!’ ” Hola! Put that in your Living section.

WEB EXTRA

My neurotic little life is centered around the Oscar nominations, and since they’re only three and a half months away, I thought I’d tell you what and who will most definitely, undoubtedly, probably, possibly be in the running: No Country For Old Men, Atonement, Gone Baby Gone, Juno, Keira Knightley, Marion Cotillard, Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Casey Affleck, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney, Amy Ryan, Hal Holbrook, Julian Schnabel, Hairspray, and Julie Christie. Any arguments?

And furthermore: Don’t care about the nominations, even on the actual day of the announcement? Well, I’ve got a much more exalted diversion for you. How about checking out this new wikipedia interview with a fabulous celebrity who has no chance whatsoever of being nominated for something as crass as an Oscar—me!