Sisterhood Ass Tattoos
It is early March in Paris and I’m at the Westin, crashing in a room paid for by the Italian luxury brand Fendi, best known for its clever purses. Given it’s Fashion Week, the streets outside my hotel are packed with women so beautiful and so insanely tall they look like aliens, carrying portfolios and cradling cell phones and moving as if by sonar.
My room was meant for one Tara Perkins, a girl with two different names for two different lives. Under the alias Annie Oakley she created and manages the Sex Workers’ Art Show Tour, a traveling cabaret featuring performances by people whose art is informed by their time working in the sex industry. As Tara Perkins, she’s manager for the Gossip, an indie-punk band with overtly queer/feminist lyrics who, though they’ve been little known in their native US, are huge overseas, in large part because of their charismatic, outspoken, fat, femme lead singer, Beth Ditto.
Beth is short and her body is a stack of curves upon curves. Her hair changes so swiftly you could mistake it all for wigs, from a black bouffant to short, choppy, and orange to the jet-black asymmetrical bob she wears to Fashion Week. Also of note, Beth is a lesbian, and is super outspoken about it. Same goes for feminist. Same goes for her emergence from a legacy of backwoods Arkansas poverty that few people escape.
But even in Portland, Oregon—where Beth lives in a ramshackle house with her best friend and her pet, a brain-damaged, blind cat that was accidentally killed while getting spayed, then revived in present, imperfect condition—people have little idea how insanely famous Beth and the Gossip have become in Europe. Unless they are total music nerds with a subscription to London’s New Musical Express, they likely don’t know that the influential magazine voted Beth Ditto the number one coolest person in the world in 2006 (the first time in the history of the magazine that a female had been so dubbed). The following year Beth was naked on the NME cover, covered in giant lipsticked lip-prints. By 2007, the London paparazzi began behaving badly, flinging themselves in front of Beth’s cars, clambering up the sides of buildings Spider-Man-style. She turned up on Jonathan Ross, Britain’s David Letterman, telling stories about her pothead cousin shooting backyard squirrels to satisfy his stoner munchies. She began penning an advice column, “What Would Beth Ditto Do?,” for the Guardian. She accepted an offer to design a line of clothes for Evans, the plus-size women’s clothing chain owned by Topshop’s parent company.
By the time Fashion Week 2009 rolls around, Beth is naked on the cover of Love, a new magazine created by British fashion avatar Katie Grand. A larger-than-life blowup of the photo—featuring Beth with messy, flame-colored hair, topless, holding a ruffled fuchsia bolero jacket against her crotch—is plastered onto the side of a building in London, and it is official: Beth Ditto can no longer safely ride the Tube.
Even Karl Lagerfeld is obsessed with her, he who infamously declared the existence of fat French people more alarming than the scourge of anorexia (and this during that fashion season where starving models were dropping like flies, one on his very own runway). Currently designing not only his eponymous collection but also for Chanel and Fendi, Lagerfeld invited the Gossip to headline the Fendi party scheduled to close out a Fashion Week in a time when rich people are feeling poor and the notion of luxury is being scaled back from, oh, five-thousand-dollar dresses to, um, four-thousand-dollar dresses. Who better to end the party than a girl who grew up in a part of Arkansas with no MTV, no telephones, no indoor plumbing, and no money?
As Beth’s fame overseas has grown, many of her most loving fans have been fashion people. Though many would think of the term fashion people and conjure rail-thin, snotty, sickeningly wealthy women and their male counterparts, in reality a lot of fashion people are ex-nerds, small-town gays who dressed eccentrically and got made fun of for being flamboyant and fruity. In other words, most fashion people aren’t so different from Beth. Beth’s inroads to the fashion world have included playing at the opening of Alexander McQueen’s Los Angeles boutique in a custom hand-spangled McQueen catsuit; hanging out with the McCartney sisters, designer Stella and photographer Mary, in the UK; repeatedly visiting the Vivienne Westwood press office to receive steep discounts on voluminous dresses and a rainbow assortment of jelly shoes. She’s had outfits made for her by Charles Anastase (a silk-cotton dress printed with animals devouring each other), Louis Vuitton (a red lamé skirt), and Gareth Pugh (a totally shredded black dress). And she’s cultivated a BFF-ship with Kate Moss, a model who, you might think, would be on Beth’s shit-list for popularizing the strung-out-skinny look. But then you would be underestimating the seriousness of the sisterhood tattoo inked across Beth’s ass. Beth and Kate became friends after the NME pitted them against one another in the “Sexiest Woman in Rock” category at their awards show. Beth made a snarky comment about NME standing for New Model Express, and pointed out that sleeping with musicians doesn’t make you one. (Kate Moss won.) The media went apeshit at the thought of the fat punk and the skinny model having a hatefest, but Beth’s beef was with the magazine, not with Kate, who showed up at a Gossip show in Los Angeles shortly thereafter. The two spent the rest of the night hanging out in a hotel bathroom singing Rolling Stones songs.
So the reason I’m staying in Tara’s room at the Westin is because Tara will be staying in Beth’s room. Beth is actually afraid of the dark, and needs her manager to sleep with her. I can imagine less-fun job duties than reporting for nightly slumber parties with Beth.
As I wait for Beth and Tara to arrive from London Fashion Week,
I rendezvous with some queer Parisian acquaintances who regard my posh hotel room and my participation in Paris Fashion Week with a complicated horror. They have a queer punk activist’s hatred of capitalism; one boy feels like a freakish dirtbag in the lush environment of the Westin, with its Versailles-inspired mirrored halls, its wooden elevators and trompe l’oeil wallpaper, its ornate chandeliers modestly wrapped in dusky screens. But the girls—the girls are femmes, and I watch them wobble between criticism of the madly consumerist culture of Fashion Week and a longing to sink into the unbridled excess of it. I understand, sisters. For a long time I hated beauty for the way people used it as a measuring stick to beat people, especially women. But I came to believe in a vast idea of beauty, one that included me and all my beautiful weirdo friends. As for more conventional beauty, I didn’t have to hate it just because people let it make them stupid. My attitude moved from the conceptual to the concrete: Take a beautiful dress. Say it’s a Rodarte dress, made by these sort of creepy, goth-ish sisters who live with their parents in Pasadena. Their dresses look like a storybook princess messed them up while wearing them on a jaunt through the space-time continuum. They are torn tulle and stiff corsets and lots of lace and flowers and fluffy bullshit stuck all over the place. Parts make you wonder if these sisters, the Mulleavy sisters—see, even their names make you think of the dark family landscape of a Joyce Carol Oates novel—are employing some sort of spider-beast to do their weaving. The dresses cost upward of ten thousand dollars at Barneys. At one time in my psychological development, this would have made me hate the dresses, hate the designers, hate those poseur Mulleavy sisters, hate anyone and everyone who could afford them, hate capitalism, hate the world, hate the universe and whatever string of incomprehensible events led to the big bang. Now I think—when I go into Barneys to visit these dresses (the way I have gone into the SPCA to visit with various animals I can’t adopt), to just pet their glorious fabrics and marvel at the endless detailing and giggle at the whimsical appliqués—I think: It isn’t the dress’s fault that it’s so expensive. I love it like a living thing, and visit it at this department store. I don’t love a painting on a museum wall any less for my not being able to own it, do I? This is the relationship I have cultivated with this level of fashion. And all of this is to say that I understand the struggle my queer punk friends are having around me, a person they like, taking such joy in these symbols of everything bourgeoise they are trying to smash by—well, I’m not sure how they are trying to smash bourgeoise culture, exactly, but certainly the first step is not supporting it, so no, they will not go to the Stella McCartney party with me later that week, but they do hope I have a good time.
Those Tolerant Europeans
Beth and Tara just moved into their hotel room and it looks like they’ve been living in it for a week. There is shit everywhere, clothes bursting from flung-open suitcases. Beth blares the Modern Lovers on her iPod. “You like them? I knew you’d like them! I’m playing them for you!” On their mantle sits a dramatic headpiece by Noel Stewart, a grand white plastic bow affixed to a headband that, when worn, looks like it is taking flight from your head. The pair went shopping in London, hitting designers’ press offices, where high-end clothing is given away or offered at a steep discount to celebrities. “If people think you’re rich they give you things,” Beth says. “If they think you’re poor, they don’t give you anything.”
Beth and Tara are trying to figure out if it’s OK to go to breakfast in their pajamas. “It’s Europe, they’re very tolerant,” Tara quips. Tara is wearing a pink ssion T-shirt and sweats. Beth throws a long, stripey sweater that looks sort of Rick Owens–y over her seafoam-green pajamas and decides to take breakfast in her socks. “Deal with it, world!” she says, and keeps saying it. One thing about Tara and Beth is that they are hilarious, and the form their hilarity takes is a constant banter that is generally absurd and self-deprecating with occasional streaks of meanness.
Beth slides through the mirrored hallway in her socked feet. A word about Beth’s face: It is beautiful and strange in an otherworldly way. She is pale the way maidens in fairy tales are pale, and she has gotten rid of her eyebrows, which makes you want to keep staring and staring at her face, wondering what the fuck is it about that face of hers. Having no eyebrows makes a person look like an alien or a drag queen or a doll, and Beth looks a little like all of these things. Then there are her eyes, which are a spooky, fragile shade of blue. She is gorgeous the way models are known to be gorgeous; that is, pretty with a shot of something weird you can’t put your finger on.
Talk turns to proms. Beth loved her proms. She went to both her junior and senior proms, and her aunt made both her dresses. “I was so dressed up! I love getting dressed up,” she sighs. “Both my proms were in the school cafeteria.” Tara says she got caught sneaking her boyfriend into her house a week before her junior prom, was forbidden from going by her pissed-off parents, and was forced to return her dress. By the time senior year rolled around, she was too punk to try again. “I wish I was too punk,” Beth says sadly.
After breakfast, the wearing of socks throughout the Westin continues.
“We’re adults!” Beth hoots, waggling her feet. “We’re punk!” She references her friend the Portland zinester Nicole J. Georges, who holds punk as a trapdoor that lets you escape any breach of good conduct or manners. “We’re punk!” Beth explains to strangers as we board the elevator and return to our rooms for a nap before the Nina Ricci show that night.
The Nina Ricci Show That Night
“That’s Anna Wintour right in front of us,” Tara whispers to me in the hugely dark hangar where the Nina Ricci show is unfurling itself before our eyes. Our seats couldn’t be shittier, aren’t seats at all, because we were made late by our desire to have our hair and makeup done by Beth, who threatens regularly and seriously to throw this rock-and-roll life away and pursue beauty school. I’m wearing a full face of makeup, including powder that settles into my wrinkles and makes me look ten years older. But my hair has been smoothed out with a flat iron, smoothed and given a little flip right at the end, and it looks fucking awesome.
Fashion shows only last about fifteen minutes, and Nina Ricci’s had already started when we showed up at the gates, Beth set upon by totally adorable-looking fashion kids, queer boys with great style and no connections, who love Nina Ricci designer Olivier Theyskens, and who also love Beth. “You’re Beth Ditto?!” one boy in heavy glasses and bright clothes asks/proclaims. Beth gets sort of nervous and sweet, sort of guilty, because the boy wants to come in with us and she can’t bring him and she just doesn’t like saying no to people like that, leaving a gaggle of cool kids on the other side of the gate. But it’s not a Gossip show—Beth herself is lucky to be getting in.
“I’ve got survivor’s guilt,” she says. “I’ve got punk guilt.” I shrug the kid’s predicament off easily. “Whatever,” I said, “you’ve done your time outside the show, everyone does.” Beth shakes her head. “I actually haven’t. I’ve been really charmed.”
All the shows we’ll see this week are previewing clothes for the Fall–Winter 2009–10 season. The clothes we see at Nina Ricci are insane. Aeon Flux–y, sci-fi, comic-book goth, skintight bodices and slinky floor-length skirts with fat, crazy ruffles at the crotch. The impossibly tall models are made impossibly taller by virtue of their fetish-height, heelless platform shoes. That’s right, heelless. Google it. They seem to be on stilts, walking with a awkward, creepy gait, wearing tiny, molded hats that dip over their faces. With the vision-obscuring hats and those chunky hooves on their feet, I don’t understand how they don’t wipe out, but they don’t. They’re so beautiful it’s sickening. Dresses have black trains as ethereal as shadows; they stick ever so slightly to the ground, resisting motion. Then, the lights go out. The electronica shifts to drums, sad and angry and tribal, familiar. It’s the Cure, Pornography. Oh my god, Olivier Theyskens is so cool! I get goose bumps and my eyes well up with tears as the models are sent back in an endless stream. Oh my god, I’m crying at a fashion show. I love Pornography, Robert Smith’s jumbled mumbles like he’s talking backward. The lights return and the models are sent back in a river of rich sparkle and spindly, architectural wonder. Olivier Theyskens comes out for his bow but I can barely see him, just the lights shining off his glossy hair as he turns and ducks backstage. It’s his final collection for Nina Ricci; the owners had been trying to fire him for a while.
In the cab back to the Westin, Tara simultaneously tries to buy Beth a house in Portland and begin a lawsuit against the College of William and Mary. Tara bought her own house in Portland from a tour bus while traveling with the Gossip on the True Colors tour. “Nothing can ever happen in a normal way,” she says ruefully.
Tara then starts communicating with Sony, which is releasing the Gossip’s next album in the US. The Rick Rubin–produced record is due out on June 22, and is, as of yesterday, officially done. “Well, what’s it called?” I ask, excited. I should tell you, the Gossip are my favorite band. Because Beth has come out of the same DIY, queer, punk, West Coast scene that I’m from, it’s easy to forget, while sitting in a cab with her, the awe she inspires in me. Especially when she performs. You can’t really say you know the Gossip—their music or even what they are about—until you’ve seen them live. Seeing Beth Ditto sing must be the same sensation sought by tornado chasers who risk their lives to get close to that powerful cloud. Her presence is mighty and her voice is mightier, seems to be something she is pulling up from the earth through the soles of her feet, all while emitting a fierce, energetic force field. She runs hot, can break a sweat sitting still, so onstage she is known to strip to her underwear.
“I can’t tell you what the record is called,” Beth demurs. “I just can’t yet. Superstition won’t let me.” (In April, the title is leaked; it’s Music for Men.) The cab cruises along the Seine, past a giant mural bearing depictions of various occupations children can aspire to when they grow up. “How about a mural of twenty things my friends’ brothers can be?” Beth suggests. “Drug dealer!” She looks at Tara. “Pickle prince!” Tara’s brother is starting a pickle business, called Perkins Pickles. Beth entertains herself creating jingles for Perkins Pickles:
If you’re jerkin’
For the workins’
Pick the perfect pickle, Perkins!
Salty sweet, bread and butter
Trust me, girls, there is no other,
Don’t believe me? Ask his mother!
Actually, Beth entertains herself and others writing jingles for life, all day, everyday. Her thoughts come to her in melody, so often whole thought processes are sung in little harmonies. Or a rewritten tune will get stuck in her mouth and sung again and again, such as Bonjour, mes amis to the tune of “Come On Eileen,” or “Come and wear my Dior” to the opening of the Three’s Company theme song.
“I need to get money for Tara Perkins and money for the Gossip,” Tara says when we get out of the cab, and we walk together to an ATM. The neighborhood is, I think, Palais Royale, and it is super posh.
“I want to design a pair of galoshes for fat girls,” Beth says, and details her vision for a pair of galoshes that won’t get stuck on a big girl’s calf—funnel shaped, with a series of ties that cinch the rubber to the leg. They sound awesome, and now that Beth is partnering with the plus-size emporium Evans, when she has little ideas like this she can actually make them happen. Which is crazy. Beth wore a pair of fat-unfriendly galoshes at Glastonbury, a British music festival on farmland prone to flooding. They became stuck to her body, and getting them off turned into a carnival involving Kate Moss’s bodyguard pouring essential oil down her legs while Kate Moss’s boyfriend, Jamie Hince from the Kills, tried to keep her laughing. “And I was not wearing underwear,” she recalls.
Getting Over the Hating On
Usually Japanese shows start ten to fifteen minutes late, so since we’re not concerned about missing Issey Miyake, I’m sitting still for another Beth Ditto makeover. Again with the powder that seeks and illuminates lines I didn’t know my face had, but my eyes look awesome—swoopy black and dramatic—and my straightened hair continues to render me unrecognizable to myself, a delight. I’m wearing a black satin high-waisted skirt. It’s by Vivienne Westwood, which means it’s got this crazy black satin shark fin that juts bizarrely out to one side. Beth is sporting a sequined zip-up jacket by Marc by Marc Jacobs. It’s very Desperately Seeking Susan, and Beth decides it will be her trademark look for the week. Beth and Tara and I talk about growing up broke. It is so truly bizarre that we are here, all three of us together, that the lives we improbably built from art and activism have led us to this moment at a posh hotel at Paris Fashion Week. Tara, who ran away from a nonfunctioning home in Detroit and got a job at Subway; Beth, whose former bandmate Kathy saved up money slinging corn dogs at the A&W in Olympia, Washington, and bought Beth a ticket out of Arkansas; me, who hauled myself to San Francisco with hooker money and a hippie hand drum. Getting a political consciousness about class and poverty usually means you spend a good chunk of your life hating on people with money and moneyed culture, and so it is with this background that the three of us sit beneath the chandelier in this hotel room thinking about the edge of unease that mars the ability to really fling yourself into the present moment, always with the shadow of whomever you left behind at your back—an alcoholic mom, a mom working a fast-food job, a mom who just lost her house.
“I remember when I moved to San Francisco, I saw Dorothy Allison read for the first time,” I start. “Oooh I love Dorothy Allison,” Beth says in a reverential tone. Tara loves Dorothy Allison, too. You have to be a moron not to love Dorothy Allison, but for poor girls who pick up Bastard Out of Carolina in their twenties, Dorothy Allison is a sort of guru. “She was talking about being poor,” I continued, “and how she didn’t want to be poor, how it wasn’t romantic, how only people who were never poor think it’s romantic to be poor.” It was life-changing to hear someone I idolized state that she didn’t want to be poor, and state it so strongly; in my addled brain, the best solution to the poverty problem I’d come up with was that everyone should be poor, and whoever desired something more was the enemy. But Dorothy Allison was the opposite of the enemy, and so a splinter was sunk into my bravado, and even now, when I am in situations that trigger those class wounds—sitting in a five-star hotel in a designer skirt on my way to a fashion show—I think, Well, Dorothy Allison doesn’t want to be poor, I don’t have to want to be poor, either.
“It’s an important phase,” Beth says about that bravado, the loyalty to poverty and pride in having nothing. “You empower yourself, and get rid of all that shame from your childhood.” Truly. But then what empowers you to break out of poverty, and to rid yourself of the shame of succeeding?
Empathy for Sean Penn
Issey Miyake does not make me cry. There is a beautiful winter coat that looks decorated by one of those Spirograph toys from the ’70s, loops and loops. There are dresses that look pieced together from a jagged, subtle patchwork. There are black leggings with iridescent stripes, colorful gowns that look like chiffon squares piled into a person-size column. The models walking across the light-up floor at the Carrousel du Louvre are more diverse than the white-and-blond bonanza at Nina Ricci last night; those models were so uniform that Tara Perkins gasped aloud when they were sent out en masse—she thought it was the same three models coming out again and again. Issey Miyake has a black model, an Asian model, a foxy androgynous model with a pompadour and a big nose. He has real martial-arts artists coming out between sets, women with athletic bodies punching the air and making gut-ripping growls. At the end, the designer himself bounds onto the stage and sweetly strikes a pose alongside them, nearly getting punched in the face by a choreographed fist. After the show, Beth, who had front seats, is mobbed by photographers asking her what she thought of the show. “I loved that none of the shoes were heels,” she says about the flats—gray, with neon yellow or fuchsia soles—sent out with everything from pants to gowns. Beth lives her life in Vivienne Westwood for Melissa jelly flats. I stand off to the side with Tara, who hovers hawklike on Beth’s periphery, always, waiting for a situation to be managed. This is her job. I mention the andro model, a dreamy tinge to my voice, and she wrinkles her face like I passed gas. “It looked like birds had picked away her flesh, leaving bones for them to nest in.”
At the Vivienne Westwood show I have my first experience of the paparazzi. They come charging toward us, a dense cloud of men in black holding giant strobing machines to their faces, hollering in chaotic rounds, “Beth Beth Beth Beth Here Here Here Here Look Here Look Here Look Here Beth Beth Beth!” This provokes in my body a panicky sensation of being attacked, and I instantly understand why Sean Penn and others haul off and punch these camera-wielding maniacs. It is a miracle more paparazzi don’t get punched. How do celebrities live like this, hounded by a bunch of maddeningly loud, overbearing, downright scary men chasing you and yelling at you, without losing their minds? Beth looks sort of scared. Maybe her response to the fear is to act super-duper nice, ’cause that’s what she does, she acts really nice, really sweet, gives everyone a photo if she can. It is Tara’s job to play bad cop to Beth’s good cop, barking “No” and “Let’s go,” dragging Beth away by force when she needs to. “Sorry!” Beth yells kindly back at the wall of men.
“Believe me, Beth would not let me do any of that if it’s not what she wanted,” Tara says. “You know her. She does exactly what she wants to.” So Beth plays the acquiescent celebrity, regretfully waving good-bye when her hard-assed manager yanks her away. This works for smaller crowds, but the crew is intense at the Place Vendôme outside Vivienne Westwood. With the aid of Frederic the gentle stylist—he of the limpid blue eyes and smoothly shaved head and the witty designer scarves—we form a pod around Beth and smuggle her into the show. It reminds me of clustering around a woman and walking her through a gang of Christians protesting a women’s health clinic—a similarity made more intense by the presence of anti-fur protesters holding full-color posters of skinned dead animals. Paparazzi and fur protesters are present at all the shows, but not as severely as at Vivienne Westwood. The designer’s new spokesmodel is Pamela Anderson, and she is scheduled to walk the runway; it’s almost certainly her celebrity status that drew the extra cameras, and her PETA activism that spurred the protesters.
The room the show is to happen in looks either massively under construction or deeply deteriorating, it’s hard to say which. For sure it seems like pigeons are about to fly out from all the chalky holes in the ceiling. Beth is seated in the front row, conducting a steady run of interviews. One journalist after another ambles up with a microphone or a camera or recorder. She’s wearing
a vibrant red Westwood dress that fits her amazingly well; her jagged black bob, quite short, looks great against her white skin and complements the dress’s bold color. She looks rad, per usual.
Tara sits beside Beth while Frederic and I huddle behind them. Beth asks me to take a picture of her ass with my cell phone to make sure her butt crack isn’t visible in photos. Eventually, the show begins. There are lots of what I peg as knits, but which Beth later suggests are crochets. Of course! This is high fashion! With their deliberate fuck-head hairdos of musses and tangles, the models look like they’ve just rolled themselves up in giant balls of yarn and slunk onto the catwalk. Some models look like they are crying. I start tripping out on this. Are the models crying? People get so crazy when they don’t eat food and I’m sure these girls just aren’t eating well. But they’re not, it turns out, crying. I think they just worked multiple shows and their eyes are irritated from so much eye makeup. Back to the clothes. The sweaters are complicated. There are those tulle skirts with the backside blown straight up, as if hit by a big gust of wind. Are those crocheted chaps? Amazing! There is Pamela Anderson, again and again and again, all blond hair and a giant, California smile. I truly do not understand why she is the spokesmodel. She is a distraction from the clothes and to the organic flow of the catwalk. It makes me think that perhaps Ms. Westwood, who is getting on in the years, has gone a bit daffy.
We get to go backstage, which in this case is downstairs, a room that reveals the whole building to be a former bank by the presence of a giant steel vault in the center. Beth gets whisked away by some stylists, but not before detailing her three favorite things: (1) getting dressed every day, (2) Googling mystery, (3) dressing her friends.
Tara is alarmed that Beth has vanished. The space feels like a grammar-school cafeteria, with the fold-out tables holding stacks of plastic cups. Ducking behind a beam at the back of the room, I find a mousy lady with humble vibes. “I make Vivienne’s hats,” she says in a British tweet. This is Prudence, creator of Prudence Millinery. “After the shows I always hide from Andre.” Andre is Andreas Kronthaler, Vivienne’s ruggedly handsome, much younger husband. “We had an argument Saturday.” Prudence continues baring her soul to me, even though I am a stranger who is writing everything she says in a notebook. Heedless, on she goes. “I just can’t handle the stress.” She dips her tiny face around the beam. “Is he coming? Oh, no.” “The hats were so great!” I console poor Prudence. “Vivienne said, ‘Make them look fucked.’” “They did,” I assure her. “They did look fucked. They looked like someone ran them over with a horse-drawn cart, then left them with a drunkard for mending.” “Oh, good,” she says earnestly, but her face still looks drawn and nervous.
Tara pops her blizzard of hair around the bend. “Did they go that way?” She motions to the front of the room, where Vivienne Westwood stands, ringed by lights and cameras, regal in her long, carroty hair and some sort of quilty-looking cape. Beth is there, waiting to meet the queen of punk. More than any single individual, Vivienne Westwood has most influenced the way I look, starting back when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, all the way up to now. I follow Tara over to where Beth hovers on the outskirts of the media, breathlessly observing her idol. “Her skin is so beautiful,” Beth says, and it’s true. Pale like she’s never seen the sun, her age etched into it like a design. Eyebrows veer off the sides of her temples, drawn on. But it’s really the time on her face that strikes you, and strikes you as beautiful. “Aging is punk,” I realize, and say it aloud. “Aging is punk,” Beth agrees. “So is cellulite.” When it’s Beth’s turn to meet the Dame, she engages her on the subject of Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement activist accused of killing a couple of FBI agents in the ’70s. He has been imprisoned ever since. Vivienne Westwood has lobbied heavily for his release and uses her media attention whenever possible to spotlight his struggle. After Vivienne confusingly suggests Leonard Peltier could maybe get his own ass out of prison if he just, like, said he did it—Really? Is she really saying that? Am I totally hearing things wrong?—Vivienne then admits that she does not know who Beth is, but is impressed at how informed she is about the plight of Leonard Peltier. “I’m a lesbian,” Beth says. “We know about these things.”
For the Love of Swag and Kanye
“Is wearing a designer to their show like wearing a band’s concert shirt to their concert?” Tara asks nervously. “I don’t know,” I say. “Is it bad to wear a band’s concert shirt to their concert?” Today’s first show is Jeremy Scott. Asked during an interview whom he would most like to dress, the designer said Dolly Parton and Beth Ditto, and a friendship was born. Jeremy Scott’s club-kid clothing is stretchy and fun, and Tara and Beth both have pieces made from fabric screened with images of anthropomorphic hot dogs and pretzels and puffs of cotton candy. Tara removes a snug red and white Jeremy Scott sweater after Beth says, “I don’t like it. I’m gonna be honest.”
“It seems a little ski-lodge-y for a fashion show,” Tara concurs. Beth is wearing a skintight Jeremy Scott dress, black and covered with images of people wearing 3-D glasses. It’s very ’80s new wave, the way ’80s new wave played with ’50s kitsch. It’s ’50s kitsch via ’80s new wave reinterpreted by someone making hip-hop-influenced club clothes in 2009.
What I see when I walk into the Jeremy Scott show makes me suck in my breath with excitement. Each front-row seat is topped with a Jeremy Scott for Longchamp tote. They are folded into neat little squares—red canvas covered with the designer’s curling black telephone design, and brown leather handles. All I wanted from Fashion Week, really, was to get a free bag and see Kanye West. Here was a free bag. But I did not have front seats, I had standing room. So did Tara. Only Beth had a front seat. The two seats next to hers were open. The bags were just sitting there. Just sitting there! The media hoopla that surrounds Beth keeps people away. The lights dimmed. I threw my ass on a Longchamp bag and Tara sat down next to me. “Gimme,” I said, and took her bag and smooshed it next to mine, beneath my ass. I opened my Moleskine to take notes. I drew a little picture of a crying stick figure punching another stick figure in the face. this is what will happen if someone tries to take our bags from us I wrote at the top of the page, and flashed it at Tara.
The show was pretty awesome. Toni Basil’s “Mickey” came over the speakers, and a bunch of models came out wearing clothes inspired by Mickey Mouse. At the end of the show, Jeremy Scott ran out in gym pants and a mullet, and we joined the crush of people trying to get backstage. Right as I am almost through the door, I look to my right. Kanye West. Right there, one person away from me, also getting crushed on his way to the door. He’s wearing white Wayfarers and a pink and white sweater, probably Jeremy Scott. His lady friend, Amber Rose, is wearing wraparound Chanel sunglasses with a gold and leather braided chain affixed to the bridge and draped down the back of her neck. Plus a sage green patent-leather Jeremy Scott motorcycle jacket. She is lunatic-hot. I hug the stolen Longchamp bags to my chest happily. I have seen Kanye West and scored a bag. Yes!
Backstage we shuffle Beth past Fischerspooner toward the designer, who is getting his photo taken with Kanye. Off to the side, a separate clutch of photographers snap pictures of Amber Rose, who pouts and poses and generally makes love to all the cameras. Beth is invited into Jeremy’s media circle for a round of photos with him and Kanye. “Your Saturday Night Live performance was the best one since Nirvana,” she tells the rapper, and his face lights up with joy. Kanye West has good vibes. “Did you hear that?” Kanye calls back to Amber Rose. “She said my SNL performance was the best one since Nirvana!”
I Have A Favorite Model.
Next up is Loewe, which is pronounced Low-vay—thank you, Beth and Tara, for catching that—and is held in a hall that is like a caricature of French luxury, with marble busts and marble floors and a string quartet and everyone seated at little café tables with waiters bearing trays of crustless sandwiches and bitter espressos and slender goblets of champagne. We are late, and they scramble to seat us. I wind up very close to where the models will soon be walking. “It would be so funny if Michelle fell out of her seat and onto the runway,” Beth says. “I would seriously shit my pants.” The models come out wearing leather everything. Leather dresses, leather shirts, leather pants, leather leggings, and of course leather bags and leather shoes. Once again we are seated across from Anna Wintour and her sidekick, Vogue’s creative director, Grace Coddington, who, like Vivienne Westwood, has unruly red hair, appears to be letting herself age, and seems all the more punk and awesome for it. At a nearby table is Harper’s Bazaar editor Glenda Bailey. The model Raquel Zimmermann comes down the runway and I get excited. “That’s my favorite model!” I hiss at Tara, surprising myself. I have a favorite model? I noticed her in Fendi ads because she sort of resembled my friend Sharon, and then I projected all the good feelings I have about Sharon onto this model, and voilà, I have a favorite model. But there is something cool about her. She seems strong, and tough, and like she’s laughing at everything on the inside. Not in a mean way, just in the way you’d hope a model would be laughing at everything on the inside, because she’s smart and sees how fucking absurd everything is but still can’t argue with the beauty of an exquisitely cut leather dress. Beth loved the leather dress, too, and tells the designer, the young, humble, handsome-in-a-nerdy-way Stuart Vevers, when we meet him backstage. “That would probably fit me,” she says about it. “That’s how I judge things.”
“A Fashionable Darth Vader”
Maybe you already knew that the ’90s were back, but in case you didn’t, Beth says the models were all wearing Doc Martens on the Gaultier runway last night. She loved it. “He wants me to walk in his show next time,” she said. Gaultier sent the plus-size model Velvet D’Amour down the runway in 2006, not as a real move to integrate people of different shapes into his shows but to use her to comment on Spain’s announcement to start regulating body size on runways in hopes of stopping models from dying of anorexia.
Conversation takes a random turn, as it will. Beth and Tara discuss their shared hatred of the extremely muscular Black Flag singer and spoken-word performer Henry Rollins. “He can eat a dick in hell,” Beth says. “I want to have a public spar with him. Any asshole who reads a jihad book on a flight to Australia right after 9/11—there’s just twenty-five things wrong with that. For one, what if you were person of color reading that book? He is just filled with rage.” She pauses. “I do want him to pick me up, though.”
“He’s like a shell-shocked Vietnam vet who never went to war,” says Tara.
“He’s like Andrew Dice Clay but political,” Beth agrees. “He’s like a shell-shocked Andrew Dice Clay who never went to war.”
Up in the hotel room we all prepare for Karl Lagerfeld. Beth is wearing a simple, gorgeous cobalt blue Lanvin dress she found at Nordstrom in Los Angeles for three hundred dollars, with a pair of Karl Lagerfeld for Repetto sandals topped with Karl Lagerfeld for Repetto perforated patent-leather cuffs snapped around her ankles. What are these cuffs? They’re like, like—ankle collars, maybe? Frederic Baldo suggests as he deftly snaps one above her sandal. They flare out like the ruffles on a frilly pair of ankle socks but not so babyish. They’re like spats for femmes. I want a pair badly. Frederic attaches one to Beth’s other ankle. “The gentle hands of Frederic!” Beth coos. Tara sticks her head out of the shower. “You have a New York Times interview!”
“Hey, I made up a joke,” Beth says. One effect of Beth’s insomnia is jokes. They come to her when she can’t sleep, or when she finds herself suddenly awake in the middle of the night. “What do D&D-playing goth couples fight about the most? The thermoLeStat! Get it?” This joke was inspired by Beth always being hot and Tara always being cold and their subsequent bickering over the thermostat.
We walk to the Lagerfeld show, which should be no big whoop as it is just across the street in the Tuileries, but there are heels on Beth’s Karl Lagerfeld for Repetto sandals, and Beth cannot walk in heels. She steadies herself on Frederic—who, we are all shocked—shocked!—to learn—is not being paid to dote on Beth. Not paid to get us all into the shows, to carry the jacket Beth is too hot to wear, to snap ankle collars around her ankles and to gently, as is his manner, teach us to better our French. Frederic shrugs bashfully. “I just do it for fun.”
Inside the Tuileries, Beth’s precarious balance is further compromised by the gravelly, uneven ground. She threatens to pull the shoes off and just walk barefoot through the garden, which reminds Tara of the time they did that show in Australia and Beth walked shoeless through glass and mud and had to have it all picked out of her feet afterward. “It was worth it,” Tara sighs wistfully. “It was an amazing show.” And I am reminded that, like me, Tara is a fan of the Gossip, a big fan of this person who is her friend and now, oddly, both her employer and charge. “How do you know Beth?” I ask her. “Just from Olympia,” she says. “Me and my ex-girlfriend Will would follow her around and look at her butt. True story.”
Walking up to the throng of people waiting in gray drizzle to enter the tent housing the Lagerfeld show, we move through a group of paparazzi and end up with our photos on New York Times online. We stream toward the warehouse, the photographers trailing to the side, screaming for Beth. She flashes them her armpit and we enter the tent.
The tent is dark. We can feel the ceilings somewhere above our heads; before us stands the hulking backside of a wall of risers, and beneath our feet a plasticky carpet is oddly squishy. “This feels like one of those Christian haunted houses,” Beth says, stepping gingerly in her Repettos, half-expecting an undead actor with exaggerated Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions to pop out of the darkness. Instead we are startled by “the biggest media in Germany,” who pokes a fuzzy mic in Beth’s face and asks how it feels to be at Paris Fashion Week. “I feel crazy,” she says. “It feels surreal. I feel really lucky.”
The German asks if Paris is the capital of fashion. Then he asks if Beth thinks fashion is important. “I think fashion is really important,” she says. “I don’t think it’s the most important.” We shake the German and deposit Beth in her seat in the front. Tara and I have seats a few rows up, and Frederic is cheerfully in standing room. Before I leave, Beth begs for a slice of paper from my Moleskine, to origami into a fan. She is sweating in her sleeveless Lanvin, waving her hand in front of her perfectly made-up face, trying to preserve her work. Beth is currently favoring dramatic black eye-makeup with lips the same color as the skin of her face. The affect is startling and avant-garde and very sophisticated. I tear her a piece of paper and she folds it into a wimpy accordion. “I’m going to give this to Karl Lagerfeld,” she jokes. “Since he lost weight it will be the perfect size.”
The lights come down. An electronic band, Metronome, composed of three men, walks slowly down the runway, playing a song, in Lagerfeld suits, looking disheveled. It sets a nice mood, but I am impatient for the models. And then they come. The colors are black and gray, with ropey silver detailing, and the cuts are severe, clean, militaristic. The models’ hair—uniformly blond—is crimped and brushed into wide, thick manes. Unless they are wearing furred motorcycle helmets, as lots of them are. They are crazy and bulbous on the models’ heads, taking luxury to new, fuck-you levels. Some have fur scarves dipping down the back of the helmet onto the neck, like a babushka tied around a grandmotherly head of curlers, only it’s fur and it’s tied around a motorcycle helmet. The helmets, I realize, have little pockets on the outside for you to slip your iPod into, and there are headphones built inside. It’s a total environment, these helmets. Some are not furred but extravagantly jeweled. A cavity-sweet Stooges cover accompanies the models down the runway. “This is like the Pussycat Dolls doing ‘Search and Destroy,’” Tara comments. We whisper about how wiggy Anna Wintour’s bob looks. She and Grace Coddington are again seated across the runway from us.
When Lagerfeld sends the models out at the end of the show, it makes me breathe funny, and I feel the sting of the same tears provoked at Nina Ricci. There is something so overwhelming, so insane and gorgeous and fascist about this army of too-tall, too-pretty, too-identical women marching out together wearing fur helmets and giant shoes. I flash on the work of Vanessa Beecroft, whose assemblages of live girls, naked, a whole bunch of them together, reference fashion runways, and I instantly understand what she is trying to evoke. It’s really, really powerful. I’m sort of scared of these women, and I want to be among them, too, and maybe I would also like to gobble them up, like a terrible ogre devouring a child. They turn and leave. We get a peek at Karl, and the show is done. So much work for fifteen minutes, and in the case of the Karl Lagerfeld line, the clothes aren’t even for sale. I guess if you’re a crazy-rich fashion lady you can have him couture you something, but mainly what we all just witnessed functions as a very elaborate, very expensive performance piece.
Beth and Karl meet backstage, and it’s fairly anticlimactic, though seeing Karl Lagerfeld in the flesh is special. He has found one outfit and he has stuck with it—the snowy ponytail, man makeup on his aging face, his shirt collar starched up his throat, those motorcycle gloves on his fingers, and always the sunglasses, giving him the aura of a fashionable Darth Vader. I take a picture with my cell phone of Lagerfeld resting his arm on Beth’s shoulder, dipping into her ear to speak to her in the backstage cacophony. Behind me the boys from Metronome lean against a wall, drinking champagne and smoking cigarettes, looking over it.
otherwise known as stella mccartney’s dad
We are in a car on our way to the Stella McCartney show. Frederic and I sit in the narrow jump seats that fold like Murphy beds from the back of the front seats. It feels like we are being trundled through Paris in a carriage. “We’re running roughshod,” Tara says. “This one time, I had gotten a job that paid, I think, twelve dollars an hour, and me and my friends were talking about how, wow, that’s so much money, what are we going to do, buy a cart of sweetmeats and run roughshod over the countryside? Because that’s what they do in The Brothers Karamazov, and it’s the downfall of the family.”
In a couple more days Tara, Beth, and the rest of the Gossip will train it over to London to take the photos that will be used to promote the forthcoming album. “I don’t know who the stylist is, and that makes me nervous,” Beth says. Originally, the band’s look was to be in the hands of Love editor Katie Grand, but she seems to be backing out. “What makes a bad stylist?” I ask. “Um, someone who brings all black, or all Torrid,” Tara says, referencing the Hot Topic for fat girls mall chain. “People who want me to dress burlesque,” Beth adds. Magazines are always wanting to dress Beth burlesque, in feathers and corsets and other looks that died out around the turn of the present century, or else they want her to be naked. Beth’s onstage strippage has more in common with Iggy Pop’s frolic in broken glass than a burlesque act. It’s sexy, but it’s punk, and functional, ’cause she’s overheating. This public near-nudity may be the reason why stylists keep wanting her sexed up and naked, but some of it has to be laziness on the part of stylists unused to dressing fat girls. Putting a girl of Beth’s size boldly nude on the cover also has both a radical freshness and a more cynical shock appeal, and both surely sell magazines, but at this point Beth has been nude on the cover of the now-defunct lesbian sex mag On Our Backs, NME, and Love. Our carriage sits idly in the street while some people unload a truck in front of us. “These people are wild as fuck,” Tara observes. “Block the street for an hour? You’d get beaten if you did that in New York.”
At Stella McCartney I sit directly behind the designer’s dad, and take pictures with my cell phone of him hugging Pink. I snap a few more of Kanye and Amber Rose, watching him stroke the back of her neck with his finger. The famously leather- and fur-free designer sends out some innovative winter coats that look like they’ve been woven from clean dryer lint. I love them.
Backstage at Stella McCartney is like a daycare, with people holding babies or else trying to roll them in strollers through the crowds of photographers. There’s Twiggy. There’s the iconic Italian fashion maven Anna Piaggi, looking like Quentin Crisp in drag, a shrunken leather Stephen Jones Union Jack top hat pinned to her head and Baby Jane makeup coloring her face. There is Nan Goldin—Nan Goldin!—whom I try, unsuccessfully, to befriend. An Italian journalist breaks us up with predictable questions: Nan, what did you think of the show? “Yes,” she replies.
Back at the hotel, a crisis. Last night a French rat dashed across Beth and Tara’s newly upgraded room, taking refuge beneath the sink. The hotel workers tried to convince Tara that what she’d seen was just an adorable mouse, not a rat at all. Tara, who sort of didn’t care all that much, feigned outrage. “It was like a pageant,” she says. “The pageantry of my indignation.” “That should be the title of your memoir,” I say. The worker pried the bottom off the sink, revealing a dish full of rat poison.
The next crisis is that we have all been invited to lunch with the McCartneys—Stella, Mary, Paul, etc.—but the French style magazine Libération Next has rented a suite and has been assembling a wardrobe of designer items, and Beth is due there fifteen minutes ago for a photo shoot. “We can’t do it,” Tara says. “Yes, we can,” Beth insists. “No, we can’t,” Tara maintains. “Yes, we can,” says Beth. “We just got an invitation to have lunch with the McCartneys.” She says it stressed and slow, in case Tara is confused about what is actually happening. “That’s crazy.” Tara shakes her wonderful hair. “They’re all here.” She means the stylist, the photographer—Roxanne Lowit, who has shot Andy Warhol and Klaus Nomi, among others—the hair stylist, the makeup artist, plus bigwigs from Sony, all of them waiting for Beth’s arrival. “That would be really bad,” Tara says. “That would be ridiculous.”
“Long story short, if I want to go, I’ll go,” says Beth. “Period. Do y’all want to go to lunch with a Beatle?”
“I don’t really care about the Beatles,” Tara admits.
“Are you drunk?” Beth demands, and turns wistful. “My mother loves the Beatles.”
We sit together in the room, waiting for a phone call letting us know if we can be excused from the photo shoot to lunch with a Beatle. In the meantime we watch the Ssion video for “Bullshit,” in which twenty-five pounds of mashed potatoes were colored with brown tempera paint and made to look like a pile of excrement that the band falls into. The video ends, no phone call comes, perhaps Libération Next will not even deign to dignify such an outrageous question with a response. We leave the rat-infested hotel room for the Libération Next megasuite down the hall.
The Libération Next suite has the smoky, delicious smell of a hot iron on really expensive fabrics. A cute stylist boy works the wrinkles out of a pink-and-white-striped Sonia Rykiel smock. Beth is seated behind the hotel room’s desk, which has become a makeup table, and the makeup artist, a British ex-goth with a long, bleached ponytail, gets to work darkening Beth’s lids. Roxanne Lowit compliments Beth’s ethereal eyes. “Thank you,” she says, almost uneasily. “I always feel like they’re weird.” Beth is exhausted. “It would be amazing if you could just paint my eyes on, and my lips, and I could just fall asleep and y’all could take my picture.”
I get kicked out of the suite before the shoot begins, because loomers make Beth nervous when she’s getting her photo taken. Despite the amazing, brightly colored Sonia Rykiels, despite the complicated striped and hooded Castelbajac that looks like a wearable beach umbrella, despite a couple of sharply androgynous YSL suits, the Libération Next people style Beth half-naked in a corset and feather boa and arrange her cheesecake-style on a Fendi fur bedspread.
Beth is super excited about Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, whose theme for Fall ’09 is the Muppets. Beth has long cited Miss Piggy as a personal hero—fat, femme, glamorous, bossy—and has worked the puppet into her own designs for Evans: a radical and cheeky move, putting a pig on a T-shirt being marketed to fat girls, and totally Beth’s style. The larger Castelbajac theme is comics, and the stage backdrop is the heavily pixelated mouth of a woman—red-lipped, Brenda Starr–y, Roy Lichtenstein–esque. In front of the darkly opened mouth is music equipment, soon to be taken up by Le Corps Mince de Françoise, an all-girl synth band that sounds like a harsher Ladytron.
Castelbajac’s clothes make Jeremy Scott’s look conservative. There is a clear plastic trench coat stuffed with blond hair. Black gloves with silver zippers up every finger. A tiny Kermit the Frog top hat. An entire suit cut from Muppet-covered fabric. A hot-pink fake-fur hand muff stitched with the face of Muppet drummer Animal. Dresses with hairy tops printed with the faces of Andy Warhol, Clint Eastwood, Michael Jackson. At the end of the show the models toss fake dollar bills printed with Barack Obama’s face and the order be pop! scrawled across them in fake lipstick. Backstage, the designer beams. His collection was a mad success.
The Gossip Arrives.
Tara and Beth moved out of their rat-infested room and into the one left behind by Libération Next after the shoot. One giant sitting room with a circle of pillow-thick sofas and armchairs. A giant bedroom simply wrecked with fashion, with boxy shopping bags sent over from Hermès and Dior and Issey Miyake. Two bathrooms, an outdoor patio as big as my room, and free Internet for Tara. The night of the Fendi party, this is where we gather.
The rest of the Gossip have arrived. This would be Hannah Blilie, an impish butch with an asymmetrical hairdo who replaced original drummer Kathy Mendonca. Kathy split to go to midwifery school just before the band broke overseas. Beth is fiercely protective of Kathy, her first girl-crush ever, and gets pissed if anyone mentions the Gossip and their newfound success in front of her.
Hannah was playing drums for the punk band Shoplifting before becoming an actual member of the Gossip. She is amiable and quiet with full sleeves of tattoos up her forearms. The other actual member is Nathan Howdeshell, who plays guitar and, on the new CD, keyboards. Nathan’s talk is fast and constant, suffused with insane enthusiasm for his subjects, declaring most everything “A-maaaay-zing!” or “Hi-LARE-i-ous.” The Knife song “Heartbeats” is “the most heartbreaking song ever!” The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is “the most amazing love song ever!” In addition to playing for the Gossip Nathan is (1) starting a record label, vinyl only, called Painekiller, after his alias, Brace Paine; (2) curating art shows, recently with Deitch Projects at Art Basel Miami Beach; (3) creating art, like the three-hour video installation Girls Gone Oscar Wilde, in which fair maidens “resist work, bare their ankles, and read poetry in slow motion”—this still in the conceptual stage—and (4) making a porn with his girlfriend, whose name is Olivia and who is also a drummer and who has black hair and big red glasses on her face and is sporting a fur she nabbed earlier at the Fendi press room and is, like Nathan, a fast talker. I do not think the couple is planning to actually be in the porn, but I could be wrong. Rounding out the Gossip, on bass, is touring member Chris Sutton of Dub Narcotic Sound System, a tall, intensely good-natured Aquarius sporting a fine Fendi fisherman’s cap also lifted from the press office earlier. It is extra cute that Chris is currently playing with the Gossip, because while they were put-upon punk teens in Arkansas, Nathan helped bring Dub Narcotic Sound System to town, and Beth interviewed Chris for a zine she never did. “I’m still aspiring to do a zine,” she quips, ducking beneath a chandelier wall sconce to check her makeup on the mirrored wall. Also present: hair stylist Lyndell Mansfield, who looks exactly the way I fantasized everyone looked in New York or London in the ’80s—bleached, curly hair, thick black Siouxsie makeup, loads of silver jewelry, tight white jeans with wide holes down the side strung with chains. Her boyfriend is Tommy, a cherubic poet with a dangly crucifix earring who looks like a young Marc Bolan. Who else? My French friend Deb Degouts, a musician who is such a fan of the Gossip she is unable to speak in their presence, only chain-smoke; Karen Goldie Sauvé, an Amazonian party planner managing tonight’s soiree. Karen is so tall, her belted fluffy blue Fendi dress comes up short on her tanned and rather powerful legs. Maybe she looks like a drag queen and maybe she looks like a character from a Jackie Susann novel. She is informing Beth of the choreography of the post-show photography. How they will not take a million pictures with Kate Moss and Karl Lagerfeld before the show, out of respect for her performance. They will take a million pictures afterward, backstage.
There are eight pieces of fabric dangling from the mantle and the back of an armchair. They gleam darkly, completely spangled. It’s Beth’s Lagerfeld-designed stage outfit, and it’s actually genius. Karl must have watched Gossip footage and noted that show after show, Beth takes off her clothes, because he made her a wonderful Russian nesting doll of an outfit. Beneath each garment removed lies another scrap of glittered couture, and another. Sequined underwear, shorts, a skirt, a corset, a top. A garment that is like a hula skirt, only instead of grass there are long strips of fur. Beth can’t quite figure out what to do with it. She looks sleek and bejeweled in her custom gear, her hair a precise mess of jet spikes. Lyndell reclines on a sofa, having just swallowed a Xanax bummed off Alexander McQueen’s best friend. “Do they have Xanax in our country?” asks Tommy, meaning Britain. They do. “If you say you haven’t been coping well lately, they’ll give it to you,” Lyndell offers helpfully.
The Fendi party is at a club on Rivoli. The VIP Club, no joke. There is a round of photos as the group enters the club, and another round in front of a wall papered with Fendi’s Lagerfeld-designed double-F logo. The club is madness; we catch only a glimpse of its craze as we’re led past a glass-walled, truly VIP balcony where King Lagerfeld holds court, up a shabby staircase, and down a decrepit hallway into a cramped and stuffy room that appears to be under construction. It is empty but for some chairs, a bare clothing rack, and a table loaded with bottles of Coke, cans of French energy drinks, and plastic trays of creepy-looking supermarket sushi. “Really?” Tara lifts the edge of a tray and lets it fall with disgust. Hannah goofs with it. “Want some? Looks good!” Soon Kate Moss will arrive, in a silver lamé Fendi gown that doesn’t seem to fit her properly, a Fendi fox-fur chubby covering her shoulders. She’ll be with her boyfriend, Jamie from the Kills, who was recently hanging out with Nathan at strip joints in Portland, much to Kate’s consternation. “What, all the girls are feminist!” Nathan defends himself. Soon men wearing leather kilts will come bearing great glass bowls laden with ice and champagne. Karl Lagerfeld himself will arrive, with a gang of stupidly handsome Italian male models. Karen Goldie is orchestrating everything nervously, drinking nervous glasses of champagne and smoking nervous cigarettes, even though “my boyfriend doesn’t know I smoke.” When it is time we’re all led back through the dumpy labyrinth to a little hallway where we linger, the whole group of us, waiting for a Fleetwood Mac song to end so the band can take the stage. Beth has decided to wear the wild fur skirt on her head, like a headdress. “It’s like Cher drag,” Nathan says. Fleetwood Mac ends and in a rush the band is funneled through a crowd and onto the stage. The rest of us, the stylists and girlfriends and managers and supermodels and hangers-on, we dash behind them, up to the front of the stage, and watch Beth strut easily to the mic, grab it, and declare, “I’m very, very rich!” as she flings her fur headpiece into the audience. Lyndell catches it and tucks it away. Beth has decided this is the last time she’ll wear fur; the skirt gets re-gifted to Hannah’s femme girlfriend, Brandy, who recently spent a Halloween dressed as Donatella Versace.
I don’t even see Beth’s skirt come off, but before the first song is over—“A love song for the homosexuals!”—it’s been kicked off the edge of the stage, and Karl, above us on his balcony, seizes up for a moment. Somehow a fedora has gotten onto Beth’s head. The backdrop is a giant Fendi logo superimposed with the Gossip’s logo, which is just the word Gossip in an impatient scrawl. All around us, the walls, giant LED screens, are flashing with the words Fendi ♥ Beth, and Fendi ♥ Gossip. Even though I have been here all week, knowing that every moment was leading to this, watching Beth accosted by photographers and flattered by designers, I still cannot get over how this little band that I have known for so long, this indie queer feminist punk band, is the absolute star of the Fendi show. The reality is staggering. In many ways it shouldn’t be a surprise—less-talented, less-interesting, less-charismatic artists get famous all the time. They just tend not to be so outspokenly queer, so flamboyantly fat, so poor in their roots, so disconnected from the music industry, with no secret dad producer or mom publicist. The Gossip got to this lit-up stage in Paris through the force of their own dogged dedication to their DIY garage-rock band. It makes my eyes fill with fucking tears, real tears this time, not those pretty-provoked goose bumps. Watching Nathan dance around, kicking his feet out in his white jazz shoes, my vision goes blurry. Nathan was the punk kid who got fagbashed all the time in Arkansas for looking like a weirdo. Beth was the fat girl who got taunted and fucked with by packs of loser boys, and here they are, and here I am, weirdly, writing about them, beside my good friend Tara, who is, weirdly, managing them, and I turn to her and shout, “I’m crying!” over the soulful gusts of Beth’s voice, and Tara nods and yells, “Me too!,” her eyes glassy.
On the stairs that lead up to the stage sits Kate Moss, wiggling around besides the twelve-year-old heir to the Fendi empire, who is at her first rock show and wearing platform shoes and leather leggings. Moments earlier, when a friend of Kate’s tried to push past me in the tight space, Kate lifted her hands, placed them on my thighs, and gave me a shove. I wobbled in my platform boots but did not fall, my hip propped on Lyndell. I looked at Kate Moss with an expression I hoped had read: Really, Kate Moss? I took note of the incident in my Moleskine. Now I watch her pump her fist in the air, looking at Beth with pure adoration, and she seems like a benevolent fairy. The room is being transformed with the magical power of the Gossip’s utter realness and authenticity, with the heartbreaking power of Beth’s voice. There is no room for bad vibes, not even toward rude supermodels.