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Introduction: An Uprising of Glamorous Outsiders
"Life's a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!"
We've done something silly.
In our fevered quest to find gurus and role models to admire and look up to, we have not always looked in the best places. In the 1980s, for example, a collective screechy hysteria infected popular culture, and everybody rashly decided that movie actors were really, really, really important. During this recklessly superficial period, they, the movie actors, became the icons of our age. No, we didn't pick useful people like brain surgeons, firemen or coffee shop waitresses. We chose show-biz folk. And then we sat there like puddings and inhaled all this drivel about the supposedly squintingly brilliant glam lives of these celebs, and we actually started to believe the hype. And gradually by the 1990s, we strove to live vicariously through them. If only we could be one-millionth as fabulous as Julia or Nicole or even Linda Hunt!
Movie actors reciprocated this adulation by becoming progressively more self-important. They started to refer to their own bodies as their "instruments." On podiums and red carpets from London to Burbank, they lost no opportunity to share heartfelt, irony-free observations about each other's "interesting choices" and about the "courage" it takes to "build a body of work."
Acting was once thought of as a simpleton's profession. In ancient Rome, actors were held in the same esteem as hookers and shoplifters. At best acting was a grown-up version of "let's pretend": that's why child actors never need acting lessons. By the 1990s acting had become a "craft" and actresses now referred to themselves as "actors."
Though unfortunate, this pretentious buffoonery is all fairly harmless. And thankfully the celebs all look quite delightful in the free drag, which they receive from Giorgio Armani and others. But now, nearly twenty years later, aren't you starting to question the whole notion just a tidgy bit? Shouldn't we expect a bit more from our cultural icons than good looks, the ability to keep their weight down and a talent for showing up on a movie set on time? Shouldn't we, instead, be worshipping people like Isabel Garrett?
If we have this burning desire to deify somebody or other, why didn't we pick Miss Garrett? Busty, coquettish Isabel is so infinitely more worthy of our idolatry than Gwyneth or Halle or even Dame Judi.
Who the hell is Isabel Garrett?
For starters, Isabel is a free bird. She's a skip-along, go-anywhere kind of a gal who is a total dab hand at maneuvering a motor home, which isn't really surprising, since she spends most of the year driving around the U.S. in a rather large one. She stops occasionally and sets up shop at the swinger conventions and biker rallies, where she sells her fetish-wear. This mobile maison de la mode is the nerve center of Body Webs, the slashed-and-sexy-spandex business that Ms. Garrett has operated since the early 1990s.
I first became aware of Isabel when an intuitive colleague drew my attention to a piquant write-up about Body Webs in Women's Wear Daily. I tracked Isabel down, to a nudist colony.
When not peddling her wares at Dressing for Pleasure or at the Lifestyle Convention in Las Vegas, she parks at the Cypress Cove Nudist Resort in Kissimmee, Florida. She's been a go-go dancer and a follower of Ayn Rand. Oh, and did I mention her white-hot, meteoric rise to prominence in the toy industry, where she gained notoriety as the creator of the acclaimed Whoopsie Doll?
Isabel is a multifaceted, untamed supervixen powered by an uncensored, unfettered creative energy, which could and frequently does blow the toupee/chest-wig off even the most adhesive-conscious swinger. Isabel is one of a new breed of women. Isabel is a wacky chick.
Who are the wacky chicks? And what makes this new breed of insurgent revolutionaries tick? Gird up your loins, stiffen the sinews, paint your wagon and summon the blood, because you're about to find out.
Wacky chicks are a burgeoning and highly entertaining phenomenon. Wacky chicks will change the world. Wacky chicks dare to annoy. Wacky chicks empower themselves and others without acting like blokes. Wacky chicks are having more fun than most regular chicks and all men, except maybe gay men. Wacky chicks are disapproval-immune. Wacky chicks are like grown-up Eloises. Wacky chicks are belligerent, resilient, uninhibited, naughty, creative and hilarious -- i.e., wacky chicks are B.R.U.N.C.H.
When I first encountered Isabel, I was bowled over by her reckless individuality. When they made old Izzy, they definitely broke the mold -- or did they? Gradually I found I was meeting more and more of these over-the-top broads. Was I witnessing a trend? Almost overnight, I found it was impossible to leave the house without running into obstreperous, fishnet-wearing, nonconformist, often stylish and not infrequently foulmouthed females: Brigid Berlin, the former Warhol muse, who divides her time between scarfing down Key lime pies, cruising round Manhattan in a chauffeured limo with her pugs and making paintings with her ample breasts; abortion activist and vintage-clothing maven Sunny Chapman, who successfully vanquished out swarms of bees from under her dirndl skirt while working as a mead wench at Renaissance fairs; celebrity hypnotist Jessica Porter, who produced and performed in the world's first macrobiotic dinner-theater productions; photographer and Tom Ford-muse Lisa Eisner, who is obsessed with what she has dubbed "geezer chic." This mother of two drives around Bel Air in a ragtop, sleazeball Cadillac dressed in Sammy Davis's old clothes.
Performers too: Strangers with Candy star Amy Sedaris, who has decorated her apartment like a woodland glade to appease her pet rabbit, Tattle-tail; Pearl Harbour, the rockabilly queen and former stripper who has always exuded a burlesque 1950s glamour, even when she was living in a storage locker. And women of color like Audrey Smaltz, who fought for her civil rights alongside Martin Luther King. Her weapons? A chinchilla chubby and a mascara wand.
I decided to study this new and terrifyingly fabulous phenomenon.
Locating and interviewing wacky chicks turned out to be relatively easy. Most of these divas have a healthy dose of exhibitionism: for the price of a Kahlúa 'n' cream the average w.c. could usually be prevailed upon to spill her guts and even a few beauty tips. And were they fun, or what!
Wacky chicks are entertainingly diverse -- socioeconomically and personality-wise -- but they have one thing in common: they are all blowing a giant raspberry at society's expectations. And, most important, they're getting away with it. And there are legions of them: Isabel, as it turned out, had just been the tip of an estrogen-infused, and often quite entrepreneurial, iceberg.
I started to consider the possibility that wacky chicks might not be such a new phenomenon. Since biblical times the critical eyes of conventional folk have forced many a Mary Magdalene type to hide the throbbing disco light of her electric personality under a bushel. History is littered with the corpses of these risk-taking funsters. Burnt at the stake, or eaten by wolves while doing interpretive dancing in the woods, the wacky chicks of yore were often victimized horribly for their kooky ways. If they weren't driven to suicide or absinthe, they were, like disgraced British poofters, sent to live somewhere like Morocco where they took to opiates and inflicted nasty disinhibited adult behaviors on the locals.
Eager to put these girls up where they belong, I profiled a few w.c.'s in my weekly column in the New York Observer. The response was dramatic. These strutting eccentrics seemed to have a universal resonance for both my male and female readers. The more deranged they were, the more my readers responded to them. There was only one conclusion to be drawn: it seemed as if the whole female population was ready to support, if not join, this anarchic fringe movement and confront the utter pointlessness of our celebrity-obsessed culture.
Engorged with motivation, I vowed to write a book in celebration of these self-invented tempestuous viragos. I wanted to find out what made these chicks tick. What kind of gasoline were they pumping into their flame-emblazoned tanks? I resolved to learn the magical recipe and share it with the women of the world.
As I truffled and researched, my enthusiasms waxed: in fact I developed a verging-on-inappropriate obsession with these gals. The shriek and yodel of their personalities was a haunting and irresistible siren call for moi. I soon found I could spot a wacky chick at fifty paces and invariably tune into her wavelength. My impulse is always to rush toward her and validate the crap out of her wackiness: e.g., "I don't care what they're saying about you -- I think you're just great!"
What was fueling this growing obsession? Why did these wacky chicks seem so eerily familiar? It didn't take Sigmund Freud or Ann Landers to figure it out. A cursory survey of my formative years held the answer. You see, dear reader, I was raised by a wacky chick -- my arch and hilariously contrarian mother -- and I guess I was looking for what caring people like Ricki Lake and Oprah call...Closure.
Martha Elizabeth Doonan, née Gordon, was born in Northern Ireland in 1918 (the year that British women over thirty got the vote) with a fantastic set of genes. Her mother made hats with birds and fruit on them. Her dad assisted a local interior decorator. But no nelly he: Guinness and off-track betting were his hobbies. From her parents she inherited creativity, joie de vivre and belligerence.
Martha, or Betty as she preferred to be called, left school at fourteen in search of a job that matched her aptitudes, and found it, butchering pigs for a local grocery store chain. By the time war broke out, sassy, quick-witted Betty (it's pronounced "Byaaaatteyh" in Belfast) was second in command. But, determined to "do her bit," she joined the Royal Air Force and became a leading aircraft electrician. Byaaaatteyh, the riveter, was frequently the only woman in a hangar filled with thousands of horny, uncouth males -- but she always demanded, and received, respect. Snaps from the time reveal an archetypal 1940s broad: strong, Jewish features (she claimed to be descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel), upswept hair, overpainted Joan Crawford lips, suede platforms and a great pair of legs (which I inherited) encased in sheer seamed stockings.
After the war, she applied for a job at the Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory and was told she would be paid less because she was Irish. Needless to say, she told them where they could shove their chocolate-coated digestives. Undaunted, Betty eventually bluffed her way into the editorial news department of the British Broadcasting Corporation. She held her own for more than twenty years alongside many Oxbridge grads. Like all wacky chicks, she actively cultivated forthright, prejudiced opinions on all subjects and she hosed other people with them, regularly.
Here are a few of the less offensive ones:
Short people are better balanced emotionally than tall people are.
Cigarettes are O.K. [she smoked enthusiastically her whole life with no ill effects], but white sugar is white death. Throw it out!
South-facing rooms must be blue; north-facing rooms must be orange or coral.
Kittenish behavior will get you pregnant.
English people are dreary. Jews and Scots are fabulous without exception.
French and Italians are sleazy.
Seamed stockings, always.
Frilly nighties are grotesque and make you look as if you are recovering from a hysterectomy or playing the part of a deranged Tennessee Williams heroine. Pajamas! Pajamas! Pajamas!
The neighbors are ordinaire.
Not everybody is beautiful -- make the best of what you've got and don't get fat.
Childbirth doesn't hurt unless you are a whiny person.
Roses are mumsy; gladioli are beautiful.
Mother's Day is for morons.
On the latter matter, Betty was always very specific: She wanted nothing! She found Mother's Day patronizing and demeaning, her theory being that acknowledging her magnificence annually on one paltry day amounted to nothing less than ungenerous tokenism. We always gave in without a fight because Betty was always right. Like all wacky chicks, Betty hated to lose an argument: she would hurl bogus statistics at her opponents and preface her observations with the phrase "California researchers have shown that..." Yes, mater was unusual, and that's where the dreaded Closure comes in.
At the age of eight I suddenly became aware that Betty was not like the other women on our street: in the 1950s the average British housewife did not ride a white bicycle down the middle of the High Street while smoking a Woodbine and wearing rubber high-heeled galoshes with glitter flecks in them. "Your mum is strange," hectored my fascistic little playmates, igniting a priggish conformist spark in me. I temporarily succumbed to the cringe-inducing censures of my peers and craved a more conventional parent. My mum's splashy dirndls, cleavage-enhancing bustiers and overpainted lip-line became an embarrassment to me.
Then, out of the blue, weird things started happening to me: I found myself staring intently, and longingly, at my scoutmaster's hairy legs and, when my mum was out at work, staring intently at my mum's galoshes...on my feet! I was exhibiting -- albeit only to myself -- all the early signs of an enthusiastic cross-dresser. I fought these disquieting impulses for a few months and then gave up. By the age of ten I knew that I too was different and that my mum and I had more in common than a penchant for Woodbines. We were Glamorous Outsiders whose unconventional tendencies incurred the small-minded censure of the less vivacious folk who surrounded us. My wacky chick obsession results from a deep-seated need to establish that -- contrary to popular belief -- it's O.K. to be different. In fact, it is positively preferable and really rather fab.
By the time I hit my teens, I decided I wanted be a woman. Not like my mum -- that would be too Norman Batesish and creepy. No, I wanted to be a dolly bird. It was during the 1960s. How totally fab it would be -- or so thought my cheery, wholesome teenage brain -- to iron my hair and wear top 'n' bottom lashes à la Twiggy, and to buy all my clothes at Mary Quant and Biba, and to subjugate myself to a member of the Rolling Stones. How pacey and mod! A gorgeous and stupid knock-kneed fashion model, that's me! Just like Pattie Boyd or Chrissie Shrimpton. I wouldn't eat much. I'd drink Pimm's, giggle a lot and get shagged by Brian Jones. Pas mal.
I lost those inclinations when, in the late sixties, the dingbat dolly birds turned into earth-mother hippies. One look at those caftan-wearing, joint-rolling, tofu-stroganoff-baking Mama Cass look-alikes -- the female hippies did all the schlepping and housework -- and my transgenderish yearnings soured like bong water. Trina and the other Ladies of the Canyon would have to stave off their munchies and thread their wampum beads without my complicity.
In the 1970s I finally became a woman, sort of. And so did every bloke. Glam rock arrived and turned us chaps, both gay and straight, into feather-boa-totin' poseurs. We upstaged any adjacent chicks: remember Angie Bowie? No? I'm not surprised. Nobody was looking at her while Ziggy Stardust was mincing about. Quel draggy era for women! And things were about to get a lot worse.
In the 1980s men became men again but so, unfortunately, did women. This era saw the arrival of the pseudo-empowered, having-it-all chick: Alexis Carrington without the estrogen/glamour...i.e., a young Hillary Clinton...i.e., an all time low. Women with names like Brooke donned Dacron suits and tie-necked blouses and lashed themselves into an overachieving frenzy -- all in the name of equality. How naff!
To fulfill herself, Brooke snagged a hubby and kids and a shiny Volvo and she worked like a dog/bitch to optimize her multifaceted, increasingly fraught self. Poor cow. Brooke took on all the really dorkiest aspects of being a bloke -- e.g., corporate ambition -- and kept all the tragic drudgery of womanhood. Egged on by people like Naomi Wolf, Brooke eschewed feminine allure so as not to be manipulated into buying lots of cosmetics or something like that. And she did it all willingly and with great fervor, while wearing shoulder pads, Reeboks, "scrunch" socks and panty hose!
Now almost two decades later, Brooke's shagged-out Volvo has rusted, and she's driving it, muffler dragging, into the sunset of her exhausted Zoloft-fueled middle age...alone, because her turd of a husband has traded her in for some fresh crumpet. She peers through the bug-splattered windshield of her life looking for a welcoming hostelry. There isn't one. The sun is setting: the glare is refracting through a thousand specks of grunge and it's obscuring her vision. Watch out! Oncoming traffic! Ohmygod! There's a big motor home hurtling toward her from the opposite direction. It's Isabel! Look out!!!!! Aaaaaah!!!!
Brooke doesn't know it yet but she has just collided with salvation. It's not too late to tear off that teal, 100 percent Dacron, tie-necked blouse and start living again and Isabel will happily show her how.
Brooke, while you're exchanging driver's licenses, take a long hard look at Isabel. She's totally B.R.U.N.C.H. and she's having a blast. And -- bonjour, girls! -- Isn't that what feminism is supposed to be all about. If the goal of Women's Liberation was to create a world where the sisters could do whatever the hell they wanted, then the wacky chick must surely be the screeching apotheosis of feminist achievement. Non? Could it be that, after nearly half a century of ridicule and false starts, feminism has, without fanfare, finally achieved its goal? Germaine, Kate, Gloria, Susan, congrats, it was all worth it -- unconditional emancipation has arrived at last, and she's barreling down Route 66 in a mobile home on her way to a biker convention. Mazel tov!
Filled with missionary zeal, I reevaluated my concept: this book wasn't just a bunch of kooky case histories. This was a book that would unleash the wacky chick in every woman. This was about Liberation.
A fully actualized wacky chick is invincible. She throbs with passion, ambition and creativity. She is, above all, a participant in life, not a spectator, and, just like Auntie Mame, she's grabbing life by the balls. Anyone who tries to rain on her parade will be beaten into submission with her unique brand of chutzpah, bravery and street smarts. Our movie actor gods, upon whose every word we collectively hang, pale in comparison.
Regarding celebs: There is a secret community of wacky chicks in the movie industry. They are extremely closeted and their publicists are making sure they stay that way. These irritating gatekeepers are always poised and waiting with a gag in case their allotted celeb says something revealing or interesting.
In sharp contrast to today's withholding celebs, my girls exhibit a willingness to share the good, the bad and the ugly. The wacky chicks whose lives fill the following pages are fabulously generous and uninhibited when it comes to divulging every aspect of their lives. They give, give, and give. They are compelling and fabulous and entertaining and infinitely more deserving of a private jet than John Travolta.
So study the lives, mores, views and tenets of these, the most insane women in America. Marvel at their kooky ways and their unorthodox lifestyles. Worship at the temple of their irreverence.
Caution! Rule breakers tend to be a tidgy bit narcissistic and w.c.'s are no exception. You will resonate with some more than others, depending on your own hang-ups and inklings. In making my selection of wacky chicks, I tried to gather a democratic cross section. There are no bankers or politicians, though, honesty compels me to admit, I did toy with calling Janet Reno.
Many of my wacky chicks are from the world of fashion, which has always had a high tolerance for loud and proud women. There are, I hasten to add, no fashion victims. All of my girls (sorry if I'm starting to sound like Miss Jean Brodie) are testaments to the ultimate unimportance of dictatorial fashion and the totally raging importance of developing your own unique style. Personal style is the missile defense system of the wacky chick, and all of my chicks have it in bucket-loads.
I have tried to immerse you in their machinations and show you how they live, love and laugh at life: how they earn a living, how they got to be so wacky, how they glue on their lashes in the morning and how they tear them off at night. My hope is that these glamorous outsiders will entertain you and, collectively, they will incite you to unleash all the unorthodox impulses that are no doubt lurking under your blouse. At the very least I hope you get a few laughs, cringe occasionally and acquire a styling tip or two. For those of you who already have a dab of glitter in your galoshes, I hope my w.c.'s will inspire you to greater excesses of strident glamorous originality.
Copyright © 2003 by Simon Doonan