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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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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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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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Who Are Your Favorite Siblings?

Which clusters of genetically-linked performers strike you as the most valuable to have around? Which ones are the most entertaining, sincere, and likable? No, you may not say the Jacksons. Your pre-approved choices are as follows:

The Olsen twins. Their homeless chic mixed with their monkey faces and weird ties to Heath Ledger give them an edge of compelling darkness.

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The Duff girls. They’re sort of the modern day Olivia DeHavilland and Joan Fontaine, minus the talent and the interesting feud.

The Jonas brothers. Funny, I knew them before they were virgins.

The Arquette family. You know, David, Patricia, Rosanna, and the trannie.

The Wayanses. Four zany brothers and their sister Kim, all competing for sequins and the spotlight. They fierce!

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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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In Praise of the Less Attractive Siblings

It’s got to be rough to be the brother or sister (or even half bro/sis) of a star who’s way more movie-star gorgeous than you are–but at least that scenario generally helps you build character. I’ve come to love the following famous sibs because I always favor the underdog, especially in show biz where every weird facial feature will cost you a million at the box office.

I’ll list them along with the rude comments they’ve no doubt had to endure since entering the public arena:

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Beau Bridges. “What does Jeff say about you? ‘He aint heavy, he’s my brother’?”

Randy Quaid. “Wait, you’re Dennis’s brother? Was there some mixup at birth?”

Maggie Gyllenhaal. “Well, at least you’re the less hairy one, right?”

Wynonna Judd. “You’re literally her big sister, huh?”

Mary-Kate Olsen. “Ashley’s so much hotter! Kidding! You’re identical!”

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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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Olsen Twin’s Drug Legacy Continues!

The days when Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen starred in cutesy flicks like How The West Was Fun are as over as era when Nicole Kidman had an expressive forehead. Nowadays, of course, Mary-Kate shows up on Weeds, playing “Tara, a devoted Christian girl who falls in with a family of drug-dealing suburbanites.” And I just saw a screening of The Wackness, a cool little film about a young drug dealer in love, and while I’m not at liberty to reveal anything substantial about it just yet, let’s just say that Mary-Kate’s brief role might not be completely unrelated to narcotics. Of course, none of this means much since, as we know, it takes three instances of anything to create a real trend. And I’m not going to be so horribly low and crass as to mention anything about Heath Ledger here.

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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.