Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Take These Broken Heels: Los Angeles, 1990

She sits cross-legged on the bed, casually dressed in black slacks and a short-sleeved black turtleneck. Outside, the sun coruscates off the Pacific and throws small darts of light around the room.

Unlike the rest, she wants to know about me. How I came to be here in her home by the ocean and not somewhere else. Didn't I also start out at a Dairy Queen? It's really quite remarkable, this home, except that by now I've been in enough of them to recognize that this one is probably a rental or a loan. There's a distinct lack of personality in the white-on-white color scheme, relieved only intermittently by touches of pale blue. The room looks like a careless movie set, as if the prop department has forgotten that people do things from time to time and spill the occasional cup of coffee.

I can see that someone has been here before me; there are two garment bags lying on a chaise longue in the southwest corner of the room. The order in which we are seen isn't really relevant, not when you have the gift of persuasion, although my boss will insist it is the most important thing of all. The first visual, she calls it. That's the one they remember.

I have some inside information that says this isn't strictly true.

Carole, my boss, lives for this type of encounter. Normally she'd take this call, but right now she's over in Italy on business and I've taken up the slack. Carole has already called three times this morning. It's a big step up, she says. A-list. You should be excited and terrified. I remember my first time. Don't cross that line.

She means that I'm not supposed to be too familiar. The previous assistant had asked for an autograph. When she got back to the office, she was fired.

Carole is starstruck and I am not. I am not starstruck because I did time in the trenches myself and I understand there is very little difference between the person sitting cross-legged on the bed and me. Luck and timing. That's the difference, not something you can manufacture, study, or buy. Carole, on the other hand, believes in a distinct separation between mortals and Gods. Goddesses, in this case. Let's call my client Terpsichore.

Normally I take B-list clients and Alex C. There is no D-list, not yet. D-list we would not give the time of day. Even C is marginal, although there are a handful of comers in that category whom it wouldn't be wise to snub. Cementing the relationship early, paying forward, paying back: It is on this fragile network of debt that we owe our Hollywood necks.

Carole reminds me that if I weren't doing this, or didn't do it well, I might as well be working in a mall outside Chicago. At a chain store. How many people, she says, do you think get to meet Julia Roberts or Sharon Stone? Did you call the car service? Did you reconfirm? Did you call her PR and double-check? Please, whatever you do, do not say her latest movie is a piece of crap!

Unlike Carole with her fan's enthusiasm, the reason I like this job is that I enjoy observing the delicate and tangled network on which the client's image--hence livelihood--depends. I can diagram this in my head, although I do keep a notebook that details every piece of apparel anyone has worn to an event in the last ten years, with photos or clippings from magazines. It's also important to know when relationships have shifted and the reasons why. She's through with him. I also include snippets of conversations, in quotes. These are mostly things I have either heard as gossip or underneath bathroom stalls. "You won't get her out of Ungaro." "I heard that Valentino is working on something for...," "'s brown, for God's sake!"

A lot of it is just pissing in the wind.

Most of the quotes are amusingly incorrect, a special sort of disinformation spread among the ranks for the purposes of throwing one off the scent. Today's appointment, I should point out, is only our second with this particular client. Terpsichore has seen something in Vogue and would like to see it in person. I am aware that I am playing a dangerous game. Terpsichore has been wearing Designer X for years. If I land this, I will be both hated and respected and then I will be the one who has to watch my back. Or I might get a better job offer. The Vogue dress is in my garment bag. It's our little secret. We cannot run the risk of letting the fish slip through the net, even if her last movie reeked like a dead mackerel.

The dress I have is a slim black number with armbands that aren't really sleeves. These bands aren't done quite right. They hang too limply, although most editors have missed that this is unintentional. The style of the dress is gently retro and, for 1990, exceedingly spare. Very simple, very understated. The event is a press corps thing, publicity run-up to a movie. Not an awards show; those are a different thing requiring the finesse of a diplomat and the nerves of an assassin. I take the dress out of the bag and run my hand down its length. This is something Carole has taught me to do. It looks like an elegant flourish, a presentational fillip, and it also serves to flick away any speck of dust the dress might have picked up in the crucial moments between bag and demonstration. Dust, dander, cat hair--they are all enemies of state, even if we picked them up in the client's home. Carole tells a story about someone who had eight cats and wanted to see some cashmere capes. Cashmere is a magnet for cat hair and as soon as Carole unzipped the bag the hair was attracted to the wool like that science experiment with iron filings.

I've already guessed that the bags on the chaise longue contain boldly colored, poofy apparel that won't suit the client. She's unfussy and in her personal style egalitarian; she has been photographed in clothing from the mass market. She likes black. There is nothing wrong with black unless it's a year in which puce, pink, lime, and chartreuse are popular. It's a fine line between correct and reject.

Yellow, she says. Someone sent yellow. I hate yellow.

You have to wear red lipstick with yellow, I say. I know she never wears red lipstick.

My own garment, on the other hand, doesn't require any particular cosmetic color scheme. Nude, deep pink, cyclamen (cyclamen is very popular right now)--all will work. I bring the garment closer and she touches the waist, into which is built a very clever--but hidden--reinforcing panel. The neckline is especially attractive. Classic cleavage.

Would you wear that? she asks me.

Absolutely, I say. (Oh, for some larger tits.)

Take off your jacket.

My jacket?

Yes. I want to see your arms.

I am not particularly proud of my arms, but I take the jacket off anyway. I work out daily, with weights, but the end result is still the upper arms of a Bavarian peasant. A man from Hamburg took special glee in pointing this out. We did not meet again.

She surveys my arms and then says, Hmmm.

Of course, I offer, you are thinner than I. I wear an eight. (I am lying. I wear a six, but I know she wears a four.)

Do you think so? Her face brightens. You wear an eight? Well, yes, I guess I can see that.

She takes the dress and goes into the dressing room to try it on. While she's changing, I notice that the bathroom walls are made entirely of glass, so if you are bold you can get the effect of taking a bath in the Pacific. The house is like an ocean liner, I decide, berthed next to other ocean liners with variously glittering passengers. I went to school with one of those passengers and may have even drunkenly kissed him after the senior talent show. His hair is prematurely gray, but he glitters just the same. Who knows? Glitter may be overrated.

I've always been amused at how people with a perfectly good house in one part of town will hole up in another for weeks at a time, but this is how things are done here and despite my democratic theory, they aren't exactly people in the same way you and I are people. No one cares if we rip out the seat of our pants. When I first started this job, I found the house carousel confusing. The beach house? The penthouse? The Chateau Marmont?

Terpsichore and I are exactly the same age and exactly the same height. We were even born in the same part of the country and were probably both similarly unremarkable, perhaps even gawky, until someone noticed her and her red bikini on a beach in New Jersey and that's when we diverged. That's when she ended up on magazine covers and I went home and wrung the sand out of my own bikini and packed it away for winter. I am always interested in the philosophical angle of things, how things slot together or slip apart, and I figure that eventually I'll have some answers.

Not today, though. The sun is out, and in that way peculiar to Los Angeles it is always out at the beach even when it isn't. Some alterations to the dress will be necessary. She wants it taken in even though I assure her that it is an exact match for her most recent measurements. I have said the magic words: You should have that. I don't know what it is about those four words that has such power of persuasion, but it works nearly every time. It's both the subjunctive tense and the verb "to have." "To take" wouldn't be the same (too coarse), nor would "to wear" (too ordinary). "Have" is the opposite of "have not." "Have" plants the suggestion that not having would mean the person didn't deserve it. You owe it to yourself to have it. Self-debt, unlike self-doubt, is a strong motivator.

You should have that.

Language is the most powerful weapon on the planet.

Can you take it in a half inch all around? she asks.

Sure, we can do that, I answer. By tomorrow. I can bring the dress back then. Before noon.

She walks over to the window and mentions how damaging the sun is to the skin. You want to be careful of that, she warns. On the beach below I see someone from Baywatch playing with a dog. He is paid not to be careful. I zip the dress back into the bag and head down the stairs to the door.



Sorry. Suzanna. Would you take these broken heels and have them fixed for me? She dangles a pair of black slingbacks over the railing.

This is the other part of the job, the unrelated one that no one wants and everyone gets. If you hang around long enough, that is.

Yes, I say. I'll bring them back tomorrow, when I return with the dress.

No, you won't. I need them tonight. You'll just have to come back before five. I'm going to Campanile.

It's the end of August. There are only two seasons in LA: production and summer. I go back up the stairs, take the shoes, and go out to the car. The driver is reading a tabloid magazine and drinking some stale coffee.

We may just have a good year after all.


WendyB said...

Great post. :-))))

Suzanna Mars said...

Thank you, WB, I'm always tryin'.

susie_bubble said...

Your insight into LA life is truly fascinating and slightly disturbing...but in the way that is ever so intriguing to me...

dressedandpressed said...

Very cool. Subtle, well written, compelling. Well done.

Suzanna Mars said...

SB, that's just the existentialist in me--everyone's experience is different.


Heather said...

I was really sad to see this one end.

Suzanna Mars said...

Heather, I'm a storyteller at heart. There is always more where this came from.

Anonymous said...

Carole reminds me that if I weren't doing this, or didn't do it well, I might as well be working in a mall outside Chicago. At a chain store. How many people, she says, do you think get to meet Julia Roberts or Sharon Stone? Did you call the car service? Did you reconfirm? Did you call her PR and double-check? Please, whatever you do, do not say her latest movie is a piece of crap!

- this totally reminded me of the wicked Chuck Palahniuk's style. and even more curious was to see Helmut Newton's image as an illustration which brought me to the idea of the worlds, the aesthetics of these two colliding. Wouldn't it be an interesting imagery? Something forbidden, something rough, something sweaty, yet cold and cruel...
PS I'm in love with your blog. Even made a quotation in my 'inspirations' notebook. About the'have-to-owe-to' mantra.

Suzanna Mars said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Suzanna Mars said...

DPB, I am glad you enjoyed it. I wasn't sure that storytelling would engage readers. And you also picked up on the satirical tone--well done!

I chose that image because in that line of work one often was really just decorating a torso, enhancing and accessorizing what for many is not a person but a personality. On this personality we can project ourselves: our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our intentions. That these clientele were identical to us (save for occupation and later effect of occupation) is often lost in the media. I thought that by illustrating such a client as headless and legless (this is my fave Newton, BTW) it would promulgate the message that, stripped of any identifying features, we were all identical and informed mostly by what we chose to drape across our bodies.

Anonymous said...

oh, i love the way you consider your particular job. but... where's the line between decorating a certain character (i suppose this defenition suits better than 'personality' because it is far less about the actual person and it's 'filling' but more about the exterior, something you can drape and paint on) and CREATING a character through the same mediums. the length of the skirt, the jewelry or the Louboutins... in this media-obsessed world sometimes the patent tote is much more a totem, a symbol of someone's strength or inner passion than the actual accessory you or me would pray for at the net-a-porter. how far can we stretch the meaning of someone's appearance and can it be a substitution for someone's REAL 'it' whether it's bad or good?
does it make all those 'media heroes' once more, cliche-d and parodied? and who benefits from that after all?