“A friend of mine recently said, ‘Dude, I didn’t know you’re a TV presenter! I thought you were some rich b**** whose dad paid for her to stay here.’ I really I hope I don’t appear stupid…” She raises a perfect eyebrow. “Model hang-ups.”
“I feel like I’m blagging it, even now. On stage at the Fashion Awards, standing with the other winners who worked really hard to achieve their success, it was like I’d been given a prize for having a pretty face.”
Like every other journalist on the planet, I’m writing a magazine piece this week about Amy Winehouse. But the above quote made me think of another famous British woman: Kate Moss.
When I interviewed Moss last year for Aussie ladymag Cleo, people were eager to know “what she was like”. Which, now that I reflect on the questions I was asked, pretty much meant “what she looked like in the flesh”.
“What was she wearing?”* “Was she insanely beautiful?” “Did you just want to kill yourself looking at her?”
Most of the time, I told them she was small. Boring, I know, but that was my first and most overwhelming impression: that she was shorter than I expected. Not the 5’7” she is officially promoted as. More like 5’6” or 5’5”.
My other thought - and I couldn’t find the words to explain this until I read Laura Barton’s article on Amy Winehouse - was that she looked like a woman who was too busy living to be overly invested in how she looked.
By which I guess I mean that I imagine that if you spent 20 minutes in a room with someone like, say, Jennifer Aniston, you be bowled over by her glow. The toned limbs from her daily yoga classes with a personal trainer, the glossy blowdry, the prenaturally dewy skin, the fact that the woman hasn’t had a slice of cake since the second season of Friends (okay, so maybe I exaggerate a little…).
Such comments aren’t an insult to Aniston anymore than Moss’s “messiness” is an insult to her. The woman is a beacon of health, and it shows.
But if Aniston is yoga and vegetables, Kate Moss is cocaine and clubbing. And again, it shows.
Our interview was part of a beauty promo day, but the only make-up she was wearing was thick black eyeliner. She looked like a good looking 37-year-old who has taken lots of drugs, drunk a lot of alcohol, and spent years sunbathing on the Mediterranean and partying at music festivals - which is of course, exactly who and what she is.
Moss has a face could light up any camera, but she’s also a woman who - as Barton’s article about Winehouse put it, has chosen to “live a little wild” and “follow her heart”. It’s not what everyone’s heart would choose, but I kind of liked the fact that - despite being a supermodel - she didn’t feel the need to play that role every day. That she’d rather live her live in a way that she obviously enjoys than have perfect skin. Which is probably why people like her so much.
* She was wearing black, if you’re curious. I don’t remember the outfit in any further detail.
As a teenager, usually when I was walking through the park on my way home from school, a familiar refrain would often run through my head.
“I’m going to be an actress.”
That this would happen is mystifying chiefly because I never actually wanted to be an actress. An Oscar-winning film director married to Leonardo DiCaprio, yes. A Lily Allen-style pop star who’d cheekily satirise the Grammies while holding hands with her newly-cool boyfriend, Taylor Hanson? Abso-fucking-lutely. I had more than my fair share of delusions of grandeur. But being an actress was never among them.
I mentioning this to one of my friends at the time, and she suggested that this recurring thought was more metaphorical than literal. That it wasn’t “being an actress” that interested me, per se, but what it signified.
My thesis may be ostensibly about “sex”, but it’s also partly about this cultural fiction we have around youth; this idea that the under 20s are these supremely self-confident, super-attractive, sexy, self-possessed, libidinous beings. It’s bullshit - for most people, at least. One of the things I like most about the musical Spring Awakening is how it captures the uncertainty and pure suckitude of being very young. The song ‘My Junk’ captures my later years of high school perfectly:
In the midst of this nothing, this mess of a life
Still it’s just one thing just to see you walk by
It’s almost like loving, sad as it is
It may not be cool, but it’s so where I live
I lie back just kicking, and lay out these scenes
I ride on the rush, all the hopes, all the dreams
I may be neglecting the things I should do
But we’ve all got our junk, and my junk is you
We cringe at the desire of the young (in particular, if not exclusively) to be famous, but I think that desire stems in part from our positioning fame as an escape, a means of elevation, a protection mechanism - even if its reality is something much more vulnerable. That’s certainly what my mantra was for me: a means to protect myself from my internal insecurities and the outside risk of derision. A fantasy of a better, future life in which nothing could hurt me.
Did anyone else entertain similarly outlandish fantasies as a teenager?
Julia being the marginally famous, Laura being the ridiculously famous.
Gradually, your fame settles on you, it’s like a new coat or a new car that you become used to, but it continues to provoke odd and awkward behaviour in others. At your public events, people you never knew, friends of friends of friends, your college boyfriend’s aunt, the neighbor of your plummer - they, too, claim you, reciting the few degrees of separation between you and them. At private events unrelated to you or the reason you became famous, the weddings or cocktail parties or school fund-raisers you still attend to try to convince yourself you remain a regular person, other people eye you heavily. You try to be modest by not assuming anyone recognizes or is looking at you; if you’re meeting a person for the first time, you introduce yourself, you remark on the flowers or the food or the weather. But really, all they want to talk about is you: how they are connected to you (the more tenuous the connection, the more they insist on establishing it), or where they were when they saw an article or television segment featuring you, or what they overheard people on the street saying about you. They want to talk to you about how strange it must be, being famous; they don’t realize they are even now creating the strangeness.
And then you become truly famous - not locally or regionally famous, but famous famous - and of all things, your burden lightens. Steadily, your entourage has been growing, and now it is large enough and professional enough that there is a buffer between you and the rest of the world. In public, you’re flanked by aides; either visibly or invisibly, you’re accompanied by a security detail. You can’t just be approached, and the situations in which you can be approached are controlled and systematic. This is why it’s harder to be moderately famous than very famous; when you’re moderately famous you still go to the grocery store, you still do the things you did before, while at any moment, you might be noticed and accosted. When you’re very famous, you don’t go to the grocery store unless it’s for a photo op, and you know that wherever you do go, you’ll be recogized at once. Any environment you set foot in will be altered your presence will mean that everyone must start talking about your, taking your picture with their cell phones.
- American Wife, 2008