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Interview: Plum Sykes

Bergdorf BlondesI don't care what Choire Sicha says: I liked Bergdorf Blondes. I found its goofy glamour fairly irresistible, much as I found Plum Sykes to be disarmingly nice when I called her to chat about her book.

A friend of mine compared her Bergdorf Blondes experience to eating a big bag of candy from the bulk-foods store: at first, it's yummy, but then you keep eating it until it makes you feel kind of sick, and even though you really want to stop eating it, you just can't help sticking your hand back in the bag. My friend meant this as a criticism. I find it to be an apt description of this novel's particular charms.

There is nothing aspirational about Bergdorf Blondes. Its author has no illusions that her novel is anything more than a silly romantic comedy dressed up in a Michael Kors frock, and its heroine has absolutely no interest in serious introspection or personal growth. Given that most chick lit is a parable of self-improvement masquerading as entertainment, I find Sykes's lack of pretension or fake gravitas refreshing.

em>Bergdorf Blondes was, in many ways, what I hoped The Devil Wears Prada would be. Comparisons of the two books are more or less inevitable—both are accounts of the fashionable life by Vogue staffers, and the latter was re-issued in paperback just as the former was published—but the two novels are really quite different. Lauren Weisberger's fictional doppelgänger Andrea Sachs is a typical chick-lit heroine. As the assistant to the editor at Runway magazine (Weisberger is, of course, the onetime assistant to Anna Wintour), she's clinging to the edges of glamour. Moi, the otherwise unnamed narrator of Bergdorf Blondes, is, like her creator, the real deal: she's a style reporter whose best friend is a grotesquely wealthy department-store heiress. Andrea has dreams of writing for the New Yorker, and her story is that of a young woman coming into her own. Moi, on the other hand, has dreams of Chloé jeans, and her story is that of a young woman who goes in search of a husband because all her engaged friends have really incredible skin.

On the occasions when I read chick lit, I usually find that it's like flipping through women's magazines with their conflicted, unsettling mix of earnest self-help advice, faddish diet tips, girl-power boosterism, and airbrushed beauty. Bergdorf Blondes, on the other hand, is like the narrative offspring of Net-a-Porter and Page Six, a charming diversion blessedly free of mass-market wisdom and advertorial insight.

April 29, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

The Wall Street Journal Gets Satirical

There's an essay in yesterday's Opinion Journal that begins with the headline "Will same-sex marriage lead to incest and polygamy? Let's hope so!" In his response to the piece, Ted, my fiancé, writes: "I've never read any Republican humor funnier than this article."

I think that pretty much says it all.

April 27, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Beauty Review: Orange Is the New Pink

It never occured to me to wear orange makeup until several seasons ago, when François Nars created a green and orange palette for Prada's runway models. The lipstick he used was an intense, matte red-orange called Heat Wave. It struck me as an interesting alternative to red, much as brown is an interesting alternative to black. It's a playful shade—red with a wink—but it's also a demanding shade. It doesn't complete one's outfit; one builds an outfit around it. It's not casual: it requires a buttoned-up, tucked-in, slicked-down look. I can only manage it about three times a year, but I enjoy it when I do.

NARS Duo Eye Shadow in RebeccaIt doesn't seem that NARS makes Heat Wave anymore, which is too bad, but the eye shadow duo that appeared on the same Prada runway is still available. It's called Rebecca, and it's a very nice combination: a leafy, golden green and a slightly shimmery apricot. The green is subtle and pretty, and it's one of my favorite eye shadows. The apricot is surprisingly dramatic, a grown-up version of a style I used to affect as a punk-rock teen: I would, on occasion, apply red blush around my eyes to create a look I'll call "Romantic undead." Photographic evidence from the era reveals that, at the very least, I got the second part right.

Delux Beauty Sheer Lipstick in AngusWhile I may never need another orange eye shadow, my experience with Heat Wave inspired me to experiment with other, more easygoing versions of that lip color. On a trip to Sephora last summer, I picked up Delux Beauty Sheer Lipstick in Angus. It's a wonderfully cute color: it makes my mouth look like I've been eating an orange Popsicle. I wear it when I'm feeling too sassy for pink, and too goofy for red. Bloom Solid Lip Gloss in Tangerine On the same shopping excursion, I also bought Bloom Solid Lip Gloss in Tangerine. It's a very rich, creamy gloss in an almost opalescent coral. It smells like vanilla

While cruising the local Marshall Field's, I discovered that Bobbi Brown just launched a lip gloss called Tangerine. This color is a little wild for Bobbi—her specialty is natural, intensified. Its very existence is a testament to the appeal of orange. I snapped it up as soon as I saw it. I am crazy about Bobbi Brown's lip glosses. The pigmentation is sheer but even. They have a subtle, lovely sheen. The texture is just right, and they last much longer than most glosses. I anticipate that I'll be wearing Tangerine a lot this summer.

On a recent visit to Target, I bought Sonia Kashuk Cheek Sheer in Summer Girl. It's a gel blush, pleasantly translucent. It goes on smooth, and it blends nicely. It is a highly unnatural color, so it should be chosen mindfully and applied with caution. I've only worn it once, to a bar, where its exuberance was tempered by dim lighting. I imagine it would also look good outside, on a magnificently sunny day.

April 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

And goof off on the company time.

Today is Take Our Sons and Daughters to Work Day. Thus, my office is crawling with children. I like to approach the 8-year-olds and say, "Man, I've got one meeting after another today. What's your schedule look like?" They have no answer for this, but I keep asking. I also enjoy handing them a manila folder and saying, "Here. File this."

What I'd really like to tell them is that having a job sucks. Having to go into work every damn day—even when it's gorgeous outside, even when you'd like to spend the day watching cable and getting a little drunk, even when you think you're going to die if you have to do it for just one more day—is totally bullshit. I'd also like to tell them that, unless they become doctors or teachers or celebrities or something, they will ultimately be crushed by the knowledge that whatever it is they do for a living is completely meaningless. They should, furthermore, know that, even though whatever it is they do for a living is almost certainly going to be beyond pointless, they will be surrounded by people who act like it's fucking armageddon if there's a small typo on page 6. Finally, I'll let them in on the secret of surviving life at the office…

April 22, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

How else do you justify being allies with Pakistan without your goddamn head exploding from cognitive dissonance?

I've pretty much given up on reading the newspaper (unless you count Page Six) because I seriously cannot take it anymore. I do, however, continue to follow Get Your War On, perhaps the finest political commentary available in America today.

He went to YALE. What the fuck?

April 20, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Today Rocks!

It's official: Spring has finally come to Ann Arbor. There have been a few days already that offered tantalizing, restorative whispers of Spring, but today is the real deal. It's the first day that I don't just feel warm on the surface. I feel the sun all the way through. It's awesome.

My New Favorite ShoesAlso, I am wearing my new favorite shoes: they're pink, but they also have skulls on them, which I luv.

These shoes looked spectacular under the black lights at the Blind Pig last night, where Davy and Peter Rothbart launched their forthcoming Slapdance Across America Tour. They're going to be visiting more than a hundred cities this summer, and if one of those cities is yours, I whole-heartedly recommend you see them. Davy reads funny, sad, shocking, and altogether revelatory submissions to FOUND Magazine. Peter performs "The Booty Don't Stop," the greatest love song of all time. If you can't make one of their performances, or if you want a preview, you may wish to buy a copy of the brand new FOUND book, a delightful volume which will, I predict, soon be joining Our Dumb Century on coffee tables and toilet tanks across the nation.

Speaking our books, today I found used copies of In Pursuit of Flavor by Edna Lewis and Peg Bracken's Appendix to the I Hate to Cook Cook Book (first edition!), still more evidence that today rocks!

I am returning to the out of doors now, because outside is totally where it's at today.

April 17, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Lesbian Kung-Fu Porn

Hot Kung-Fu Master on Kung-Fu Master ActionFor, like, the past ten years, I have occasionally mused, "You know what would be the greatest? Lesbian kung-fu porn. Seriously, wouldn't that be the greatest?"

Now, at long last, it's here!

"LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter)—Here! TV, a supplier of gay- and lesbian-oriented content to satellite customers via pay-per-view, is eyeing an Oct. 1 lauch for a round-the-clock programing service that will feature classic and original films and TV shows…

"The Here! TV original series include… "Weapons of Mass Destruction," a spy thriller starring Cynthia Rothrock as a lesbian action hero."


April 16, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Save the Date: FOUND at the Blind Pig, Friday, April 16

I Love SexThis just in from Davy Rothbart, creator of Found Magazine:

hi everyone—the FOUND book arrived at my house, it looks great! to celebrate, we're having a big, ridiculous FOUND Magazine party this friday, april 16th, at the blind pig—i hope you can come.

me and my brother peter are headed out in two weeks on a 50-state, 126-city, 8-month FOUND tour—"Slapdance Across America 2004!" is what we're calling it. but we're kicking it all off with this hometown party. i'll share some of the amazing, fucked-up and hilarious finds that have been pouring into FOUND HQ these days, and peter will play a couple songs based on finds, including his unbelievable cover of the Found booty-rap song 'the booty don't stop.' [it really is unbelievable. i wanted peter to play it at my wedding, but he's got another wedding on the same date.—JLJ] and please bring your own finds to share!

doors open at 9pm, and the FOUND show is gonna go from 9:30-10:30pm… come on time so you don't miss it! later in the night, some incredible bands take the stage—check the details below.

it'll be a fun night, so please come join us. it costs 6 bucks to get in—which is a lot, i know, i tried to get it to be cheaper. but i promise you'll have a good time. 18 and over are welcome, if you're under 18 and want to come, email me and i think we can figure something out.

ok cool! thanks for reading this, peace out for now ++davy

FOUND @ the Blind Pig, 207 S. First St., Ann Arbor

Friday, April 16, 2004—9:00 pm sharp!
FOUND show 9:30-10:30pm

followed by Switch Stance, Fifth Period Fever, and the Soul Power Experience Unlimited Band

April 15, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

A Brush with a Brush with Fame: Britney Spears at Lucky Cheng's

Boxers or Briefs?This just in from my pal Griffin:

Becca and I celebrated our birthdays at Waikiki Wally's—the Hawaiian-themed restaurant that is the backside of the drag-themed restaurant, Lucky Cheng's. After Hawaiian food, we cut through to Lucky C's for karaoke. Britney walked through the room and upstairs, where we ran to watch her rub her butt (in neon-green short-shorts) up against the crotches of hapless straight males who'd been brought up on stage by the drag queens to compete in a "best chest" contest of some kind. [According to various other news reports, this was a competition called "Boxers or Briefs?"—JLJ] Anyway. We were only a few yards away from Britney. The drag-queen MC of the karaoke bar kept promising us that Britney would come down to lip-synch with us all, but she never did show.

It's worth mentioning that while the real Britney was being dry-humped by "Best Chest" contestants upstairs [According to various other news reports, a girlfriend of one of the contestants was outraged by Brit-Brit's handling of her man. A catfight almost ensued, but was prevented by Britney's bodyguards, which is too bad, because that would have been awesome.—JLJ], on the karaoke stage, anonymous, un-famous girls were belting out Britney's top tunes. My friends and I were all appalled by their hubristic karaoke choices. I actually turned to my friends and asked, "Jesus, if Frank Sinatra were in the next room, would you really karaoke to The Lady Is a Tramp?"


April 14, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Worst Thing I Have Ever Seen on TV

I watched every episode of the first season of Joe Millionaire. As an amateur cultural critic, I felt compelled to document the show's popular misogyny. I also enjoyed the show: it was grotesque, sure, but entertainingly so.

When I first started seeing ads for The Swan, I thought that perhaps Fox had finally gone too far—too far for me, anyway, which is saying a lot. But the commercials kept on coming, and I found that my reaction was evolving from superficial disgust to serious, heart-sick dismay. Silently not watching wasn't enough. I felt compelled to bear witness.

The goal of the show is to turn an "ugly duckling" into a radically improved version of herself through dieting, therapy, hundreds of hours in the gym, and cosmetic surgery. I think I'm supposed to feel pleased when the contestants look at themselves in the mirror and don't recognize what they see. I think I'm supposed to melt into tears of astonishment and joy, just like they do. But I don't. When Rachel first gazed upon her improved reflection and said, "I don't look anything like that girl," I didn't feel excited and glad. I wondered, who was "that girl"? Was she the new self that Rachel couldn't recognize as her own, or was she the old self that Rachel hated so much that she had disassociated from her? As Nathalie Chica suggested in her own evisceration of the show, either answer is horrifying.

Having spent some time on the message boards at The Swan's official website, I know that there are women who would argue that I am being perversely political, that it's arrogant of me to judge the joy of the contestants. Honestly, I'm glad that these women are happy. I'm glad that they like themselves for what may be the first time ever in their lives. But their happiness just makes me more sad. I'm sad because they hate themselves so much. I'm sad that they had to undergo surgery and submit to someone else's vision of what they should be in order to feel this happy. I'm also sad because they don't look like people anymore. They look like porn stars. They're all arched eyebrows, pert noses, pillowy lips, and comic-book breasts: anything distinctive has been cut away or lifted or pumped full of collagen. I'm also sad because I wonder how long this happiness will last.

The Swan makes a profoundly half-assed attempt to be about something more than physical beauty. In addition to enduring the ministrations of a personal trainer and various surgeons, the contestants also get counseling. This aspect of the show, however, is to me the most unconscionable. I find the televised liposuction substantially less objectionable than the televised therapy sessions. I wish the show wouldn't even bother. Its conception of emotional wellness is, at best, dubious. In an interview, one of the show's producers, and its "life coach", said, "I wanted to show women that anyone can be beautiful with the right amount of money and (internal) work. Stop thinking that somebody out there is more special than you genetically. They're not." Why am I not relieved to learn this?

All of the contestants on the show so far have had, in addition to obvious issues with self-loathing, serious relationship problems. Listening in to Rachel as she tried to talk to her husband was harrowing. I can't think of a time when I was more uncomfortable watching something on TV. On last night's episode, Kristy said, "When I come home, looking like a real woman, my husband's going to regret not treating me better." This prompted the following from the show's host: "She still has 20 pounds to lose. Will revenge be enough to motivate her?" I'm finding it difficult to decide which part of that is most fucked up.

The "experts" on the show use the word "feminize" a lot. Is it worth explicating the ways in which this show defines femininity, or is it too self-evident to bother with? I will point out, just before the new Kristy was revealed, the hostess described her as "the self-proclaimed 'funny girl' desperate to become a woman". I wonder if future episodes will feature a "self-proclaimed 'smart girl'". (One thread on the official message board notes that there will be no "self-proclaimed 'black girl", not this season at least.)

I've taught several classes in which I've had to explain to my students that, until quite recently, women were regarded as not quite human. Once upon a time, women were malleable, ill-defined, unformed, imperfect. The students are always shocked by this revelation. They laugh: it's too ridiculous to take seriously, it's too far removed from their own understanding of what it means to be human—male or female.

Watching The Swan, watching as doctors treat women as raw material, as rude matter to be sculpted and cut and refined, I marvel that my students are surprised by, say, ancient Greek or medieval European conceptions of womanhood. I'm amazed and thankful that they value themselves, or their sisters and their girlfriends, as more than flesh—flesh that only has value so long as it can be shaped to fit rigid cultural ideals.

Heather Havrilesky, TV critic for Salon, expressed my own sentiments when she wrote, "I watch trashy TV every single day, but this show is making me queasy." Watching Joe Millionaire was horrifying, but it was also fun. There's nothing fun about watching The Swan. It's like watching an execution on TV. It's like watching someone die.

Sometimes transformation can be like death, and sometimes death can be transformative. Sometimes destruction has meaning. But the self-sacrifice these women are undergoing is senseless. It's wasteful and disheartening. Martyrdom requires a certain level of consciousness, a triumphant awareness of one's own power and agency. From the stands, it might have looked like the Christians who allowed themselves to be eaten by lions were participating in their own ignominy and annihilation. But the narrative they were living was different from the narrative the Romans wrote for them. These Christians didn't succumb to suffering: they turned suffering into liberation.

I wish I could say that the contestants on The Swan were performing a similar alchemy. I wish that they were turning the paradigm that created this show—that created their desire to be on this show—inside out. I wish I could say that they were entering this beauty contest only to transform what it means to be beautiful. I wish I could say that, but I can't. These women are entering this beauty contest to transform what it means to be themselves, and they're letting the Fox network and a team of plastic surgeons define that transformation.


April 13, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack