Behind the Gilded Shell

It’s very rare that I share anything from the NY Post, which I have absolutely zero respect for, but their article on L’Wren Scott’s suicide was very on-target.

I live in NYC. I see these people every day. I see the businessmen with the sharp suits, the perfectly gelled hair, the manicures, the briefcases. I see the women fashionably dressed, with the right artistic touch, the perfect carat of jewelry, a genuine Prada purse that costs more than all my traveling combined, and all of them have one thing in common: their eyes. The eyes that say that they really want to be anywhere but where they are. They can hide it, they can talk a good game, but I’ve been talking the talk myself for a few years too. I know when people really don’t want to be where they are.

The creative world, especially the higher end of it, is built on impressions, but those impressions cost money. And if you don’t have – actually have the money to back up your impressions, then you’re basically stuck putting on a very elaborate charade that is bound to catch up with you eventually. And if you want to make a living in the high-end creative world, that is to say in fashion, acting of the Hollywood caliber, even in music, then your image has to become a part of your product. That image does not, by any means, come cheap, and again…it’s just the image. It’s not at all, in the least.

What L’Wren Scott’s life had turned out to be is, unfortunately, no different than the lives of many, many people in this city. Most of the creative folks I meet have either been in this gilded scene or are trying to get there. It’s an expensive endeavor, and keeping up appearances and the inflow of money do not always reconcile. This is why I have always told a fellow writer friend of mine: you absolutely have to have a job, because no matter how much you write, you have to find a way to sustain yourself. Because otherwise, the real life of paying your bills and the life you have in your social circle, especially if said circle consists of people that you want to see you as this successful, glamorous, wealthy individual, will diverge very quickly.

What no one will tell you is that while social scenes can and often do fade with time, the reality of the everyday sticks around. Rent still needs to be paid. You can’t put a trip to the Maldives on a credit card and not expect that bill to stop racking up interest and disappear. Your garbage needs to be taken out. And eventually, when it comes to choosing between the publishers’ soiree at Chic Restaurant and paying Con Edison….Con Ed will always win.

But the pressure to put on the show for others’ benefit is outrageous. I have often written that people who are most in the public eye are the people who need to get away from it the quickest, and the last person to whom this applied was Philip Seymour Hoffman. Yes, people knew that he was struggling with addiction, but did anyone ever ask why? Well, this is why: he had to keep putting on a show off the set too. He had pressure on him to go places, see people, laugh it up whether or not he wanted to do any of the above, schmooze with people he may’ve detested… You get the idea. The public eye is a pressure cooker. Philip S. Hoffman may’ve not even known how much money was in his account, but he knew that he had to buy a round to every single Hollywood person at The Hot Party, or else he would’ve been wrung out to dry and kiss a good role farewell. Or so he – and everyone else around him – believed.

Same for Amy Winehouse. She was struggling, she should never have been performing, but they shoved her onto the stage anyway…with the same result.

And L’Wren Scott, a designer of quite a bit of talent, was caught in the pressure cooker that is NY’s fashion scene, where everyone is expected to carry on as though they have no budget constraints, even though the jobs in fashion and publishing don’t pay anywhere near enough to sustain such a lifestyle, never mind sustaining the outrageous cost of living in NYC.

It doesn’t surprise me one bit that it was discovered that she was deep in debt. But it greatly dismays me that the creative world puts such pressure on people working in it. It’s like expecting them to stop being human beings, with very human struggles and human budgets, and instead dressing them up like dolls and parading them out on display.

Michal Baisden posted this on his Facebook page a long while ago, and I cannot help but agree. “People spend money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.” Whether or not Baisden had composed this quote I do not know, but it sums up the conundrum of the creative world in a nutshell. All we, the observers, see are the show people put on, and then later down the line, the end results of what happens when the show becomes too much work to maintain.

And L’Wren Scott could not keep putting on the show. Reality has never gone away and it caught up to her with a vengeance. The gilt had eroded to reveal the coarse, heavy, gray lead beneath. What’s my favorite saying for these situations? If you make like an ostrich, all it means is that someone can come by and give you a kick in the arse.

No matter how many parties you go to, you still have rent  to pay. No matter how many trips you take, you’ll still need to pay your electric bill. Your cell phone can have a $100 case on it, but the $200 bill for usage still needs paying. It adds up, and it adds up to where you have to choose whether or not you want to go take that jaunt to a week-long party in LA or maybe it’s a good idea to see how much is in your bank account to last you to your next payday.

This is where you have to see whether or not the show is even remotely sustainable anymore.

This is actually why I love jazz as much as I do. It’s real. It’s raw. And once the performer off the stage, you see very well that they’re every bit as regular a human being as the rest of us. They have other pursuits. They have families, or pets, or parents, or significant others they take care of. They’re not perfect. They talk about paying bills and working, and maybe giving away a CD or a song or two. They’re absolutely, refreshingly human. They don’t need to pretend that all is right and perfect and gilded in their worlds because their world and ours are all but identical. Just that theirs has a lot more music in it.

And the same goes for the fans. about 95% of them are just astoundingly real, no matter what their walks of life are, and I love it when I meet them. I meet them everywhere: in line at the Note, behind a cash register, checking in for a flight…you name it. Real, raw individuals who love music and love life. They don’t have to pretend everything is glitzier and more glamorous than it actually is, because they know life can’t glitter all the time.

There are, of course, exceptions. And in my experience, the people who try to show themselves as more “chic”, more “wealthy” (regardless of actual wealth), or somehow “classier” than the people next to them are the ones who are putting on the biggest charade of all. This is the thing, folks, and I know I may sound like a fortune cookie when I say this, but it won’t make it less true: your true colors will show eventually no matter what charade you put on, so you might as well be real from the get-go. You can have the big house, the hot car, the designer outfits, the fancy gadgets, the perfectly coiffed hair, pay your restaurant tab with crisp hundreds, but none of this will hide who you really are for long. And it’s worse if you’re trying to show yourself off as more chic/wealthy/classy than the person next to you. It never works. The harder you try to portray yourself as “better”, the more you show that you’re the opposite.

More than once, at several shows, I sat next to people who would try anything to assert some sort of superiority over me. Men are not exempt from this, but I get it far worse from the women. Yes, I know I’m the youngest person in the house, yes, I’m aware I don’t wear designer clothes and don’t carry a $500 purse, and yes, I’m 100% aware I’m not taken seriously because of my age, and yes, I’m aware that they think I’m a groupie if I’m seen talking to the artists – again, because I’m young and female. Do I give a shit about any of the above? No. But when someone – who nearly always happens to be female – tries to assert herself as “superior” for whatever reason, whether it be her “status” with the artist, real or perceived, or the fact that she sees me as a “plain little nobody”, is just plain ridiculous. Laughable, even. We’re not in high school, first of all, and secondly, we’re in the same space for only a handful of hours. You may not ever see me again. So why pull the “I’m better than you” routine? What, exactly, is the point of trying to make yourself feel superior over a complete stranger?

Besides, jazz is not the scene where flaunting wealth or looks gets you anywhere. In this world, you get further by simply being a real human being.

Personally, I don’t give a shit for appearances. Nothing I put on ever costs more than $40 (excepting maybe boots and my winter coat), I wear things until they’re so faded and shrunken in the wash that they are no longer fit for being worn, I walk around in sweats, cargos, glasses, I wear makeup next to never – because none of that matters. My photography, my writing, how well I am able to hustle, my bookkeeping, how quickly I can get my work done and out the door – those are the important things. I can put on a cocktail dress or a suit just as easily as I can throw on my favorite sweatshirt. But if I had to choose between the two, the sweatshirt wins. Always. Comfort over show, every time.

And yes, having a job helps too, because like it as not, the hustle always works better with some backing behind it.

But most of all, what is important is to keep an eye on reality not fading in the glitz. It’s easy, so easy, way too easy to get caught up in things. L’Wren Scott spent her entire adult life caught up in this world – at the cost of her reality, and ultimately her life. But fashion is a world of outward appearances, shallows, and illusions in and of itself. A stroke of a brush can transform someone’s age, but no amount of makeup and foundation can erase long-term trouble, whether the trouble is in the wallet or in the soul.

It’s something that we, from all walks of life, in all creative scenes, can stand to remember.

In Memoriam, L’Wren Scott.

K.G.

6 thoughts on “Behind the Gilded Shell

  1. So, so needed to read this today. I try to explain to people why I look, act, feel the way I do – from now on, I will refer them to this post. Specifically the second to last full paragraph.

    • Thank you. I’ve seen a very disturbing pattern with very talented people lately. L’Wren Scott, Philip Seymor Hoffman, and so on…
      I’m so very glad I never reached best-seller status. I take pleasure in my solitude and thrive in my relative anonymity. I cannot imagine losing those two things. That’s actually why I never marketed my books as much as I should’ve…

  2. Wonderfully said. I particularly liked your closing: ” A stroke of a brush can transform someone’s age, but no amount of makeup and foundation can erase long-term trouble, whether the trouble is in the wallet or in the soul.”

    We’ve certainly created a society where “things” and “image” seem far more important than they actually are. We’re constantly bombarded with messages that tell us we need to buy this item or that item because it will make our lives better or easier or this product or that product will give us status. I think you really need to know what you want and you need to truly abide by what your means permit to avoid falling into that trap.

    • Thank you. It does take A LOT of willpower to stand against the grain, but in today’s world, especially if you’re in the creative arts of any kind (music, writing, fashion, publishing), your image is a part of your product. It becomes inseparable from what you sell, and that’s a ripe opportunity for the divergence between image and reality to take place. It’s incredibly important to stay grounded, because images change, fade, and disappear. It’s what you have when you don’t have an image anymore that’s important. The Prada purse won’t pay rent, but it will fetch a penny on resale.

      What we have created will come back to bite us as a society, if it hadn’t already. We have lost so much talent already because we as viewers couldn’t let off the pressure cooker. It makes me wonder whom else we have to lose before the message gets through to people.

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