I met Cintra Wilson one evening in May 2010 at the West Village restaurant called Pasita, where she hosts a regular monthly salon. She greeted me under the mistaken impression that I had come from a local television station to conduct a brief and frivolous interview on some topic that now escapes me. It was to her considerable relief that I came only with sound-recording equipment, and that the state of her attire and makeup were therefore not at issue. And it was to my own considerable relief that the person with whom I found myself conversing was warm, generous, and eager to please: in short, that she shared with her authorial persona only the sharp critical intelligence and the intense colloquial wittiness, not the somewhat terrifying edge often brandished in the columns for which Wilson is perhaps best known.
These include “The Dregulator” and “The C-Word,” and, until recently, her regular contributions to the New York Times under the rubric “Critical Shopper.” It was in the “Critical Shopper” column on JCPenney’s new Manhattan outpost that Wilson leveled a cheerful sarcasm at the company’s strategy of drawing customers from Macy’s by offering clothing for people of all sizes. (Penney’s, she observed, “has the most obese mannequins I have ever seen. They probably need special insulin-based epoxy injections just to make their limbs stay on. It’s like a headless wax museum devoted entirely to the cast of ‘Roseanne.’”) This remark drew down upon the author the ire of what seemed at the time like the whole of the internet. Subsequent apologies posted by Wilson on her website were taken to be sarcastic rather than genuine, and the episode spiraled into a nightmare of public scourging that Wilson herself has likened to Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Wilson is also the author of a remarkable and underrated satirical novel, Colors Insulting to Nature (2004), and several indescribable but undoubtedly brilliant works of nonfiction, A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations (2000) and Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny (2008). She is a cultural critic and political commentator of Swiftian inventiveness and force; her next book is Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America’s Fashion Destiny (forthcoming from Norton).
I. FROZEN FACE
JENNY DAVIDSON: I’ve been a big fan of your writing ever since I read Colors Insulting to Nature, which I feel should be known as the great novel of the last decade, right?
CINTRA WILSON: Oh my God!
JD: It’s the best book! I just re-read it and it lives up to my earlier estimation. So I thought that I might just open by asking how you came to write that book.
CW: Well, I wrote my first book, A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease…
JD: … and that book is sort of the commentary on Colors Insulting to Nature?
CW: Well [skeptical]…
JD: They’re really intertwined.
CW: That was the non-fiction version of me being this flaming weirdo talking about the dangers of celebrity. And I kind of wasn’t done with the idea.
JD: So you’d pursued that line of argument about fame and personality in the non-fiction book, but you had only made a certain part of the argument and you needed a different medium to finish it?
CW: Well, I felt like I needed to make the argument a different way I still felt really strongly about it, and I didn’t feel I’d gotten my point completely across in the first book. So I had to break down to the personal.
JD: You felt like you couldn’t get it across because people couldn’t hear you and understand you, or just because you weren’t satisfied?
CW: Probably because nobody bought the book.
JD: You can’t use sales as a judgment on books!
CW: I didn’t feel heard yet. That was a means of making it more versatile, because I really did feel that for so many people in my generation—and I grew up in the pre-YouTube generation, you know; I mean, we had the internet, of course, but it was pretty fresh, and there was this really distinct feeling that unless you were famous, your life meant nothing. And I think that still exists to some degree, although social networking and Facebook and YouTube —
JD: – or even just digital photography –
CW: — have sort of democratized fame. Or atomized it, in a way that it’s almost tolerable – but before there was only what we used to call the deck of 51 heads. There were 51 or 52 famous people and Cher was the joker who just kept coming up all the time. It was a really elite world, and you were only allowed to press your nose up against the window, and you were not allowed to access any part of it. And I did a lot of theater and stuff, which was worthless.
JD: The theater of young people who want to be famous!
CW: I was so in that theater.
JD: The novel speaks to many who also have had those stages in their artistic lives…
CW: Oh, man, that theater was rough.
CW: Let’s just say that the theater descriptions [in Colors Insulting to Nature] were fairly real to a theater that I went to. It was that real go-getter energy: I’m a trouper! I’m a winner! I’m gonna make it happen! And the idea that if you never said never and you believed in your dreams, no matter how mediocre your talent was, you would somehow become famous eventually. Despite the fact of every possible humiliation-obstacle-beatdown that could possibly come your way. And I saw a lot of people go down that road, and it was not a pretty road.
JD: They’re going to try and transcend.
CW: You have got to figure that statistically, 100% of people in the world are not famous. That’s a real statistic, because the sliver of people who are actually famous is so small that statistically it doesn’t exist. So for everyone to believe that they’re going to be one of these people — I believe that if you scratched everybody that I knew, even people who got their master’s degrees, even people who are really, really smart in my generation…they all sort of believed.
JD: There’s this aphorism by Wittgenstein where he says something along the lines of When I was a little boy I strongly believed that I was special ,and it was before any talent in myself had emerged that gave me grounds to believe that I was special. He’s just observing this very neutrally. But it seems to me really true. And maybe in particular when you’re ten or eleven, this pre-pubescent thing, before the age when you have full fantasies of sexual transformation, you have fantasies of this incredible desire for attention that you feel will only be satisfied by…
CW: I think that in America, the libido never gets actually fully separated from the desire for fame. And I think it gets confused with the desire for fame. So you get this sexual awakening, but sexual awakening for us is movies. It’s this rush of first love and here’s how it’s supposed to be and it’s supposed to be this golden moment and aaaahh! It’s all part of being famous somehow.
JD: And it’s so mediated through TV and movies and stuff like that.
CW: It’s informed by that. And it’s that faulty mythology which I think makes everyone miserable. That was the point of that book, that we have this really faulty mythology.
JD: There’s a line in Colors Insulting to Nature that I wanted to ask you about. When Liza goes back home and she sees these things that Ned has been making, you have this sentence: “It hit Liza that Ned, the whole time she had been screwing around with her appalling vanities, had been working like a monk on the tireless creation of pure beauty.”
CW: [laughing] Uhhhh, yeah, well…
JD: So in that book you do have this picture of Ned making these — I don’t know if there’s a particular artist you had in mind. They’re not like Cornell boxes, they’re light boxes.
CW: But you can imagine them.
JD: It’s very vivid.
CW: I was trying to think of something really meticulous and time-consuming.
JD: I love the description of this obsessive work, the cutting up of these little pieces …
CW: Little tiny pieces of Mylar.
JD: And the gels and Mylar – they express the tackiness and impermanence of that sort of theater world, so it really works well as something beautiful being made out of it. But really you’re not wholly a cynic: you’re a satirist, but…
CW: I’m a dork. I’m a total believer. I mean, I absolutely have an un-cynical adoration for expression and pure culture and art and stuff and music. The Roland Spring character [in Colors] is a really obvious example of that. Whatever that is, I worship it.
JD: Do you think that everybody finds it equally magnetic?
CW: I think a lot of people find cheap things magnetic too. Like, I think charisma is really magnetic, but charisma is kind of cheap. You can have a lot of charisma without actually having any talent.
JD: I’m extremely suspicious of charisma and it makes me very irritable when I find people using it on me.
CW: Yeah, charisma can be really dubious. But I think charisma plus actual talent is something you don’t see very often together, and that’s so radiant.
JD: Can you give me an example of a person who combines those two?
CW: Jack Black. He’s probably the best example I could think of, of somebody that’s just… pure. Just that pure thing. I mean, we were friends back in the day, but he is that guy. There’s nothing fake about him, really. Just in terms of raw talent and the ability to transmit — this ability to actually be this channel for some kind of otherworldly joy…
JD: There aren’t that many actors who have that, I find. A lot of them can produce a cheap simulacrum of it.
CW: Or they can cry on cue and they have nice tits. There’s a lot of that, too. I’m not knocking anybody who can actually—there’s a lot of skill to being a bad movie star.
JD: And it’s certainly necessary for the culture industry, which we love, to have a good supply of highly competent and good-looking actors.
CW: They have a skill that I don’t have. They have this kind of frozen face and this ability to be utterly transparent as a personality – they can make their own personality utterly transparent. And I couldn’t do that. I had too much self involved in myself to do that. But to be able to be a window – I mean, you have to be kind of vacant in a way, but it’s a skill. It’s a skill to be that vacant.
II. THE SUN BELT, THE BIBLE BELT, THE JELLO BELT AND THE GUN BELT
JD: A book of yours that I only read very recently was your Caligula book. How did you come to write that?
CW: You know what? You’re so smart and you’re so well-read, I really want to hear your most savage critique of it!
JD: I thought it was hilarious, and I especially have to say that I loved the bibliography, which was so, like…
CW: Academia, eat me!
JD: It totally cracked me up, especially because one of my complete favorite books when I was a little kid was I, Claudius, which I must have read about twenty times because it’s the best book ever!
CW: Ever! You and I have the exact same taste.
JD: Really our idea of Caligula doesn’t come from Tacitus , it comes from Robert Graves writing that book and then also the insanely brilliant TV show.
CW: OK, I’ve watched that show twice a year for, like, 20 years. It is my go-to.
JD: So for you it’s the TV adaptation more than the book that’s the real deal.
CW: I don’t even think I ever read the book.
JD: The book is great too, but the TV series is its own…
CW: I’ve memorized it. I mean, it’s 14 hours long; I know almost every line.
JD: I had a childhood obsession with Derek Jacobi purely because of that TV adaptation.
CW: For me it was John Hurt. He’s so gonzo!
JD: And the image of him with all the blood on his mouth, you know?
CW: [deep English accent] Don’t go in there… Don’t go in there!
JD: It’s truly extraordinary…
CW: [still in accent] There will be no pain! I promise you!
JD: One of the things I really like about the TV adaptation of I, Claudius is that it conjures up those over-the-top, ‘50s Roman movies like Ben Hur and the Burton/Taylor Cleopatra and all of that stuff. And yet although it verges on being sort of campy and tasteless in the costuming and so forth…
CW: It’s so low-tech.
JD: It’s so low tech.
CW: And the video quality especially.
JD: A six-year-old now could make a better movie. The iPhone would give you much better quality. And yet there’s something truly gripping about it. What is it?
CW: Sian Phillips as Livia. That’s all you need to know. She’s a total genius.
JD: A total genius! So you wrote this demented book in the voice of Caligula.
CW: I really wanted to write a book in first-person Caligula. I think I write in that voice most of the time. My writing voice is pretty much that voice.
JD: But the novel isn’t really in that voice at all. It pulls on parts of that voice, but the third-person narration and the forward momentum of story-telling give it a different kind of pace. The pacing is really different in that than it is in your other stuff.
CW: I’m writing another non-fiction book first, but I want to get back to fiction at some point. It’s a much different animal, and it’s also more thankless. It’s really thankless to write fiction as a female. They go, “Oh, you’re female. We’re going to pigeonhole you into Tampon Literature. Here you go! Are you Young Adult? Or should we put you in the Regular section?” The book covers that I got were like… Put it in a tampon box! That’s how many men are going to buy it now. No men are going to buy this book. Men like my writing, actually, but they kept trying to pigeonhole me into Chick Lit. And I was like, what? Don’t put me in that section/ghetto, please…I’ve been writing my whole life trying not to be like that. I mean, men really like that book, you know? But if I was a guy, I’d be so embarrassed to carry it around. And I had to fight really hard. In the Netherlands they gave it this horrible cover and it’s just like [cutesy accent] the pink pointed party shoe! You’d have to be the most flamboyant drag queen on earth to carry that around with you.
JD: So your next non-fiction book, is it public domain what it’s going to be about and what it is or…
CW: Yeah, yeah. It’s called “Fear and Clothing.” It’s about fashion determinism. You create yourself through fashion in many ways, and then I think that the political economy of your region also dictates what’s available to you, it organizes what would be the Lego parts you are actually able to build yourself with.
JD: I have a sister-in-law who does wardrobe stuff for movies. And she tells a story — I hope I’m not breaching her confidentiality — she tells a story about when she was a kid, and her father being somewhat unpredictable in whether he turned up and what sort of state of mind he’d be in. Something about his state of mind, always the first thing that you could see it in would be the clothes that he was wearing. Something about his whole demeanor and aspect –
CW: Ahhh! That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
JD: – was most expressed in his personal style. Like, the set of the cowboy hat and the nature of the denim that he was wearing – it was sort of ominous or inspiring or exciting –it would give all these cues to her. She sees that as being part of how she became obsessed with clothes and fashion and stuff.
CW: I think it is also socioeconomic. I mean, going into my own personal history, when I was writing the first chapter, it was sort of like, “Well, I grew up with a bunch of drag queens!” When I was in San Francisco. Why? Because a bunch of homosexuals were out-processed into San Francisco in the forties from the military. It became this very gay-friendly mecca, and then economies built up around that.
JD: So those histories really affect what might feel to us as more autobiographically inflected?
CW: Whatever that regional economy becomes, it only persists if it thrives. It stays there because there’s money. And then it becomes this gay economy, and then that gay economy informs the way I dress.
JD: So maybe it’s just part of your intellectual temperament that you see things on those different scales.
CW: I think it’s interesting to go macro with these things to a certain extent. Not to be obnoxious about it, but I think you can make an argument that in the corn belt, people dress one way, and in the rust belt, you have steelworkers and their families and they dress a different way, and then you have the frost belt and the sun belt, the bible belt, the jello belt and the gun belt –
JD: I find it really amazing and delightful that you’re writing this “Critical Shopper” column for the Times, because I feel about the Times that they manage to turn everything incredibly bland. All sentences and all columns are indistinguishable from all others. And yet your column is definitely still yours – it’s not had all of the oomph flattened out of it. Is it two or three years now that you’ve been doing that?
CW: Two years. I owe everything to Anita LeClerc, my editor, who read the book and just had the vision.
JD: You had a problem with that JC Penney piece, eh? If you don’t even want to talk about it now, that’s fine…
CW: No, you know one thing I want to say about it, because it’s one thing that nobody knows, is that nobody actually read that column.
JD: It was not an offensive column, can I just say? CW: If you read the whole column, you knew, but if you read the quotes out of context –
JD: Yes. If you took the quotes out of context, you would have entirely misunderstood the sort of piece that it was and what it was that you were trying to do.
CW: And that’s what Jezebel did. It was crazy, it lasted a month.
JD: And with the internet, it’s very vituperative, people are just sending you awful emails–
CW: Choire Sicha from The Awl says that it’s 40 times worse for women.
JD: I think that’s right.
CW: 40 times worse for women. But he would actually know that, as an actual metric! He would know. There were a lot of blogs involved, and there was a lot of assailing me on the most personal level. I mean, somebody just accused me of killing my ex-boyfriend, who died in tragic circumstances when I was 3000 miles away. They accused me of murder. [laughs] It was insane.
JD: But it’s not going to make you stop writing your column in your own voice?
CW: No! Fuck those people! It was just ridiculous. The interesting thing was that I actually looked up how many people had read the whole column — you can look it up at the Times. It was not one of the 50 most read. Not of the week, not of the month, not of the day –
JD: It wasn’t the most emailed that week.
CW: No! But 14,000 blogs wrote about it, so you do the math. It was written about 14,000 times, but it was not one the most-read columns of the day? So nobody read the fucking column.
JD: It’s interesting that you can actually get data at this point.
CW: I have the data to show it! I honestly thought it was like 150 pissed-off women when it first happened, which is why I was responding on my blog like “Oh, shut up!” And then it was like, oh, no, wait, it’s millions of people who are furious! It was insane. The level of anger was just raw. I compared it to The Birds:
JD: There was a furor.
CW: What’s neat about it, though, and what’s informative about it even if it’s against you, is the possibilities of solidarity. The unfortunate thing is that it’s always negative solidarity. It’s a tea party. All these racist, hick-weed bozos kind of find each other on the internet and then there’s movements. Which is sort of how Obama got elected, if you think about it. It’s not the same type of people, it’s the progressive people that got Obama elected, but…
JD: You don’t think it might be better if we returned to benevolent dictatorship and the voice of the people was much less effective?
CW: I think we’re in one now, honestly. I think that executive power has been concentrated at the top to this alarming degree and Obama is — you know, he’s Augustus, basically. He is the benevolent dictator, because he hasn’t formally renounced any of the executive powers that the Bush Administration claimed.
JD: He has an Augustan gravitas.
CW: He does! He does. He’s earning all these character points that actually don’t work in an eight-year system. And the only problem is that he can’t rule until he’s dead.
III. BREAD AND CIRCUSES
JD: You have a lot of different kinds of gigs. That would be a fair way of describing it?
CW: Different kinds of gigs?
JD: Well, you’re a writer first and foremost, but you write in a lot of different places…
CW: Well I’ve had to, to survive. I haven’t had a straight job since I was twenty-four.
JD: I know a lot of the friends I have who mostly are freelancing as writers have had no luck being hired in the last year.
CW: Brutal. No, it’s a bloodbath. It’s really bad.
JD: Places are paying less and there’s less freelance work generally?
CW: I’d probably say that a tenth of a money is coming in that came in ten years ago.
CW: Articles that I would have done ten years ago for twelve hundred dollars, I’ve got offered a hundred and fifty bucks.
JD: I’ve definitely noticed that two hundred and fifty is the top amount of money that anyone seems to be offering for a job!
CW: That’s absurd. I mean, you can’t deliver good content for that. You really can’t.
JD: Not reported content.
CW: The cost of living has actually kind of gone up too. If we didn’t have stuff like Pro Publica right now, or Democracy Now — it’s up to these little tiny, privately funded institutions to actually dig the reported journalism up. Thank God I’m not in that world.
JD: That’s a tough place to be right now, isn’t it?
CW: It’s courageous. I have a lot of respect and a lot of admiration for those people. But that’s the really dismaying thing about government right now. Like, why are you not supporting actual information? I heard a statistic that we have such a totally tiny amount of money devoted to any kind of public broadcasting, whereas every other country in the world has, like, a hundred and fifty times what we have. Because it’s actually good to get real information out, at some point, that isn’t just Lindsay Lohan’s tits and Samantha Ronson’s beer bottle in her face.
JD: And that’s part of the argument that you make in the Caligula book: that the huge, huge volume of coverage of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, etc. etc. somehow seems to absolutely swamp even the most calamitous revelations about what’s been going on at the highest levels of government.
CW: These real news stories get eclipsed all the time. Like, wooah, Britney shaves her head! When actually there’s something really skeevy going on in Washington. And, you know, that’s the bread and circuses…. But it’s also weird woman-hating, in a way. It’s almost a sport. It’s sort of like bear-baiting, which was actually humane, back in the 1850s. Now I think we have blonde-baiting. Kill the blonde.