The following diary entries by Michelle Olley document her experience appearing in Alexander McQueen’s runway show VOSS on September 26, 2000.
Monday, September 18, 2000
“First of all, you won’t be entirely naked…”
When you’re five foot three inches and the wrong size of a size 16 dress and thirty-flamed cake, you know that when you’re called into a casting at Alexander McQueen, you ain’t gonna be wearing the bridal gown. No suh. This is, after all, the man who brought spectacle and wonder back to the catwalks with his phantastic creations of ribaldry and menace. McQueen’s oeuvre of slashing and tailoring is pregnant with possibility—but a short, fat bird in his latest evening gown? Get outta here… I’m not that stooped… Naked, they’re saying? Err…
McQueen’s trusty right-hand woman, Sidonie Barton—an old comrade-in-arms in the disco campaigns of the 1990s—had called out of the blue, asking me to come in and meet Katie England, who was putting together the show. And now, here I was, sat by the sample rails in the McQueen office, surrounded by what looks like the detritus of a New Orleans Mardi Gras, listening to the man himself explaining the concept for the next week’s womens wear spring 2001 show… “Basically, it’s all about decay oppression,” he says. So no pretty frock for me then. No. I’m wearing dead moths. And about a thousand wriggly, twitching live ones… “You’ll be in a box, well, a box within a box, and at the end of the show the sides will come crashing down and all the moths will fly out…”
Knowing McQueen’s predilection for spectacle, I had my suspicions that this was going to be some kind of Angela Carter–style visceral she-beast role. And sweet Jeezus I was right. Monsieur McQueen was cooking up a Big Momma Muerte finish. I would be naked on a chaise lounge, behind a wall of frosted glass, inside another frosted glass cube, filled with live moths. Oh yeah, and I would have a full-face rubber hood with tubes attached, coiling up and out of the cube. Kind of William Blake-meets-Damien Hurst-meets-Joel-Peter Witkin-meets-Silence of the Lambs-meets-Slipknot. And I said, “Sure, I’ll do it. Why not?” I must be outta ma wee heed…
I’m not normally a shy person or prone to phobias and I’ve done nude stuff before for Peter Saville and Nick Knight’s hi-tech, postmodern candy-coloured photo set, Sister Honey. But as I walked away from the studio, still reeling from what I had just agreed to do “for art” (and still wincing from the fact I actually said that to him—like it matters to a man with thirty models to dress, six shows a year to do, etc., etc., but it seemed really crucial to let that be known), I realised that what I had so glibly acquiesced to was the stuff of nightmares. I had agreed, for the first time ever, to be:
- Naked in public—at my age! With my “Tiny Tears” figure!
- Covered in dead insects
- Caged in a small glass coffin for the best part of fifteen minutes with thousands of moths
- Have my head encased in a hood and my breathing restricted, attached to the “roof” by tubes. While covered in moths. In a glass coffin.
- A glass coffin encased in high glass walls that crash and smash around me. Followed by the coffin.
This was the closest I was going to get to sheer, physical terror without jumping out of a plane on a piece of elastic. It was doubtless the maddest thing I would be doing all year. But almost as scary—and intriguing—was the thought that I was turning myself over to someone else’s idea, and I wasn’t really sure what that idea was. Did I represent freedom or oppression, death or rebirth, or just dusty, ample flesh? My body’s going to be so at odds with the fashion sparrows and bony old crow-people in the audience. I’m glad I won’t be able to see their faces. I suspect my body shape will alarm some of them more than any horror movie special FX McQueen could drum up, and I draw a cheeky little buzz from that. I am what most of them fear most—fat. My poor boyfriend’s mortified. He doesn’t want my body to be declared monstrous. He’s anxious that I’m being exploited. I don’t think I’ll ask him to come to the show. I feel weird about showing him this hobgoblin side of me…
So, diary, why am I doing this? It’s not for fashion. I couldn’t give a monkey’s purple bum about fashion. It’s not my friend, denying me access through its gates with bitey little zips, unbending waist measurements and impossible standards. I’m not scared of looking ugly, but public nudity is really not my bag. Why, when McQueen was explaining it, was one half of me screaming “Yes!” while the other was going “!!! Arrrrgh—scary!”? I think I want to be that rattled. I’ve got a book to feed1 and going over these coals could stoke it right up. Getting one particular passage right frightens the hell out of me, so much so that, apparently, I’m prepared to be boxed in naked with thousands of flying insects. Well, it beats macho Hemingway boozy-bugger bollocks as a means of inspiration. Instead of killing a bull, I will become it. There’s something really liberating about allowing yourself to become monstrous. Becoming other. You can feel most alive in moments like this. Like Sebastian Horsley’s soon-to-be-all-over-the-place crucifixion film, shot in the Philippines by Sarah Lucas, sometimes you’ve got to go there. Or something…
If there’s a possibility of transcendence in this moment, then I will gladly cast away my dignity in the search for self-knowledge. Just like I used to every Saturday night.2 It’s kinda kinky. It’s kinda religious. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll be praying to someone, somewhere when I’m stuck under that glass, wheezing for breath, bound to those long tubes, flapping legions tickling me to distraction, all my sins of the flesh exposed John Merrick–style to the beady-eyed glare of the world’s fashion meedja. Thank GOD I’m wearing a hood. Most of us—me absolutely included—sleepwalk through our lives on auto-repeat. I want to kick myself awake. I want to be part of a ritual, however elegantly disguised. That’s why I’m doing it. Probably.
Tuesday, September 19, 2000
What. The. Fuck. Have. I. DONE?!?!?!
Last night it started sinking in just exactly what I’d agreed to. The secrecy alone is going to lay havoc with my social life. Should I go to Torture Garden3 on Saturday or should I be focussing on staying match fit? Can’t tell Tina, who I’m seeing for food tonight, can’t tell Eric at Acupuncture4, who I’m meeting with this morning… Suddenly, going to the Attitude5 party at Heaven tomorrow has become a tortuous endeavour. Ironic, as they’re throwing the party to launch their “Naked” issue, which I have a piece on Iggy Pop in. I think I’ll take along my Raw Power T-shirt for luck this afternoon—to cling to…
Ah yes, this afternoon. After a morning discussing the relative merits of trainers, I am due somewhere in South East London for a plaster cast to be made of my face. Definitely don’t remember any mention of this yesterday afternoon. Am beginning to feel a bit overawed about the physical task ahead—what if I’m allergic to the glue? What if I can’t breathe? Is this the moment where I face my ultimate fear (going completely loop-de-loo—I don’t think I’m claustrophobic—but it can be brought on can’t it)?
It’s been way too easy to get carried away on the witchyness of all this Wing of Moth, Bare of Arse business. Only last night, the TV was a spooky brew. BBC Learning Zone dished up a programme on early medical anatomical textbooks with loads of beautiful but vaguely creepy engravings of pregnant women—sketches obviously taken from cadavers. I turned over to Channel 4 for some light relief, instead I got a programme on nakedness including an octogenarian naked artist fella, Joel-Peter Witkin, talking about his work (I kid you not, space cadets) and Jenny Saville, Plaster of Paris–ing up her big lady models. Spooky, but strangely reassuring.
What am I, then?
I am McQueen’s pulsing mirror, fashion’s greatest fear staring right back at them.
I am piggy in the middle.
I am the heart…of glass…
I am the death of fashion. The death of beauty. The death of fetish.
I am the death of my old self. Maybe.
I am going to be three days into my period next Tuesday.
I am terrified.
Just got back through the pouring rain from Peckham. My drains overfloweth. We have had no electricity/lights in our flat now for six weeks—am beginning to feel like I live in a cave. Somehow this and today’s rain, which soaked me—no cabs for miles thanks to rain and petrol crisis—fits in with my impending role—after the rain, it all comes to darkness and dust for us foolish mortals. But nature, she’s always moving, my love…
Am beginning to think that my little tableau is genius—ample flesh and moth—surely the two most terrifying things in the fashion lexicon. Stephen Metcalf, the guy making the mask, was really nice. Thank GOD I didn’t have to do the face-moulding thing. I just presented my cheeks and he held the Witkin-esque death mask up. It looks a bit like McQueen around the nose. I just missed him, apparently. He was asking for extra jowl-age—luvverly. Apparently I won’t be breathing just through the tube going up out of the glass case as Mr McQueen first described (it wouldn’t be physically possible, plus they’re full of copper filings and paint anyway) but through noseholes which Stephen assure me will be large. I’m not yet on “Lee’’ terms with the man, and after I called his chosen Joel-Peter Witkin image “that old chestnut,” it remains to be seen whether or not I ever will be6). The tubes will be full of rusty paint, so the noseholes have got to work. Ohmigoddddd, my past is coming back to haunt me. Seven years in the fetish scene and never worn a mask coz they freak me out—and now—hahahahahahaha…gulp. Slipknot, be my guides. Help me love my disguise. There are eyeholes, so I can see out apparently. Feel a certain ambivalence about this…
Sidonie called in the evening to see how I am, which was sweet. Sidonie’s always been such a lovely lady. McQueen’s gotta be sound to have her working for him. It makes me like him without really knowing him. More importantly, it makes me trust him. Apparently Gwyneth Paltrow’s coming. GWYNETH PALTROW’S GOING TO SEE MY BITS!!! Bizarre… I think she looked wicked in a ‘tache a britches in Shakespeare in Love…
It’s really hard not talking about it when it’s all I can think about. There’s such a stimulating variety of terrors to obsess on. This is so mad. So milly molly mad; so milly molly mad McMadlington. I still can’t decide whether or not to tell my mum. And there’s the dinner date with a friend tonight over in Kings Cross, north London, where I can’t discuss this at all. And a plain day tomorrow working on press releases for trainers then going to see Carlton Books about editing a third coffee table art/sex “tasteful nudes” photographic anthology. Am wondering if the fact that I’m willing to put myself through this has anything to do with my, ahem, “chequered” past in erotic publishing? After seven years at Skin Two, six nightmare months failing gloriously to revolutionise/evolve pornography with Penthouse UK and all these erotic “anthologies,” is this all about crossing the line between the mediator and the mediated? Maybe… Half-remembered snatches of Jon Berger’s Ways of Seeing are making me jump… I offer myself for objectification, and yet, I feel confident that I’m in safe hands—that the object I am becoming is meant to reveal some human truth or other.
Wednesday, September 20, 2000
Am starting to go a bit funny now. Maybe it’s the old fetish dust on me, but am starting to really cherish the sensation of clothing—particularly my boyfriend’s fleecy Puma top. I’m retreating into comfort wear. Am beginning to worry about:
- Temperature—will it be too cold/hot?
- Posture—will I be doing my back in on that chaise lounge? If I’m on there for more than an hour, it’ll hurt like fuck.
- Face—it’ll be sweaty and foul under there. Can I hack it?
- What am I going to wear if there’s a party afterwards? I’m going to look feral. Maybe I should just play up to it—I suppose feral is a look for a McQueen party…
Thursday, September 21, 2000
Starting to get weird dreams now. Women Who Run With the Wolves stuff. Dreamt I was on a catwalk, in a hood, which I pulled off and I was naked, all savage and covered in my own menstrual blood. I was reaching between my legs and smearing it all over me7, flicking it at the fashion doyennes. Isabella Blow was clapping but the rest of ’em were grossed out. For the record, I’d SO never do that. Way too Glasto.8 I think in my dream I was confusing myself with some hippy ladies I saw do a nude body-painted “Hey Nonny No” number at the artist Andrew Logan’s Fire and Ice Ball at the Clapham Grand years ago. No more Quavers9 before bedtime for me…
Head fulla moths today—sleeping’s been hard. God I hope the electricity man doesn’t come Wednesday morning—or Tuesday morning for that matter…
One of the things I’m realising through all this is how age taints everything. The fact that McQueen is about my age and from the same London peer group means I expected to get on with him and be on some kind of level. Right now though, I’m thinking realistically, I’m an extra—a little person—despite what he’s asking me to do. I might as well be a chair or a wig for all he needs to take any notice of what I think/feel. We’ll see…
Imagine a piece of stop-action film of a black McQueen jacket, full of tiny lights in a white room. A host of moths fly to the jacket and impregnate it, then we see the lava hatch and eat the jacket. That would be so cool…
Off to Pinewood tomorrow, probably not with McQueen as originally planned. Looks like I won’t get a chance to talk to him about it. I’m just the pork in the art sandwich. We’ll see…
Decided to get some confidential showbiz “stunt” coaching from my master magician friend, Simon Drake. He had a pretty good idea how the box would work. Most likely, he told me, the smashing of the glass would work via a pin that hits the glass when it reaches a 45-degree angle, so the glass (which will be safety glass, so will break with thick, blunt edges) cracks evenly before it hits the floor. This stops the shards flying off in unpredictable directions. I also told him I was worried about the mask. “Just make sure you get some practice in wearing it before you get in the box,” he said. “Ask if you can take the spare home.” Nice idea, but turns out there is no spare…
The electricians did indeed want to begin rewiring the flat at 9:00 a.m. on the day after the show. Have put them off for twenty-four hours. So I will still be a cavewoman when I go into the box. Somehow this living in the dark seems meaningful to all this. Right now everything is pregnant with symbology. I have to get a grip. Seriously. It’s only a frock show…
Friday, September 22, 2000, 8:00 a.m.
Had another freaky dream. McQueen phoned me up and told me he needed me to wear this pink-bodiced voluminous ball gown number and twirl around Trafalgar Square in it. When I woke up I realised this was a Paula Yates dream. My strongest memory of her was from Record Mirror, a music magazine she used to have a weekly gossip column in (“The Natural Blonde”) that I used to buy religiously on my way home from school when I was thirteen years old. I remember a photo of her perched between the paws of a stone lion in said square, looking 80s-tastic in an Anthony Price ball gown and matching Christine Keeler pointy shoes. Those shoes were mind-blowing to me—this being the arse-end of the 70s and clumpy shoes still the only option in my hometown. This was my dawning fashion consciousness calling. Maybe. Poor Paula’s tragic death had been all over the papers on the day I went in for the casting. I decided to try and say a little prayer for Paula when I was “chez box”…
So…up and out to Pinewood.
We take a people carrier from the McQueen studios, picking up Katie and “Lee” (still feel a bit sheepish about calling him that) on the way. Heading out to the famous film studios is a mixture of groggy and harassed characters. I’m wearing a maroon hoodie—and so is Lee. Aargh! He must hate me. Katie England is Brown Owl10 on the McQueen shows and fashion director at uber-fashion and arts mag Dazed and Confused—and I’m as starstruck to meet her as McQueen if I’m honest. We get talking—she’s lovely—and find out that we were born within a month of each other, same town, so same hospital probably. Spooky. I mention all the other spooky stuff that’s been coming up recently, trying to reassure her that I’m Not Spooked At All by all this synchronicity. I’m babbling. Shut Up Michelle.
At Pinewood we watch the box fall and break open. George, Lee’s partner, volunteers to stand in the box with a shoe box sample worth of moths to see how it will play. Everyone else stands well back. It’s a loud crash, and it looks great. The box is like something they’d put a stuffed buffalo in at the Natural History Museum. We go back into London excited. I babble on to poor Katie at a hundred miles an hour. This is a woman with a very long week ahead of her.
In the afternoon, I go into work at the-hotel.com.11 Can’t get anything to work. Frustrated and tired I trudge home—two hours to get across London. Ain’t Fridays on the underground just great?
Sunday, September 24, 2000
Hungover after night at Torture Garden. Managed to keep a lid on it by not staying too late and/or having too many sherbets. Back to McQueen for a mask fitting and patch test with the glue they’re going to use to stick the moths on. Make-up legend Val Garland is doing the testing—I’ve met her before on the Sister Honey shoot with Nick Knight. It’s agreed/decided that I will be fully naked—after Lee offers the option of a flesh-coloured thong and I decide it’s pointless. He does one of those massive head-back laughs he does when I say I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb…
Tuesday, September 26, 2000
Well, it’s the morning of the show and I’m going through my checklist. Another sleepless night—started worrying about getting too hot, and moths flying in through the mouth hole, coughing and cramp. How many hours will I have to wear that damn thing? My liver—or whatever organ lives on my right hip—hurts. Must have water and painkillers. Got to be there for 2:30 p.m. in loose-fitting clothing. Actually exhausted. Kind of want it to be over now…tired…but pleasantly unemotional/calm and stripped of all my recent hocus pocus symbology head clutter. Now I’m easing into the real Go so much to do, better get on with it…
Fashion Designers Are From Mars; Box Models Are From Venus
Wow. That was something else.
I arrive at the strange municipal warehouse building at the appointed hour. The backstage bustle is only just beginning. Val is setting up her mirrors. Bin bags of makeup are spilling out onto the long tables, then scrupulously rearranged, ready for the show. I end up lurking with my old mate Robert by Rhonda, the catering lady. Master mask maker Stephen (who usually does this sort of thing for the English National Opera) with makeup legend Guido have a quick practice bandaging my head. They pull a nasty, tight stocking leg over my head, then nicked the centre to make a hole to wrap the bandages around. It’s tight on my neck. I hate it. Go into the box and sit on the chaise lounge, which is a designer number made from Gormenghast-style huge wild cow horns. Stephen measures me up for the tubes that will hang down from the ceiling and attach to my mask. Pulling and pushing the headpiece on and off dislodges my bandages, so I get an hour or two’s reprieve. Guido and Stephen decide that the latest they can wrap my head, then set and paint the mask, is 6:00 p.m. The show’s due to start at 8:15 p.m.
At 5:30, Val calls me over to get my body makeup done. Here we go—nudey time. There’s nowhere private, so two lovely French makeup artist ladies take me into the “production office” (tent in the corner). Armed with two Mac Ivory N1 face powder puffs, they process to powder me up. “Don’t worry about being naked,” the pretty blonde one says. “We are both mothers.” This is strangely reassuring. Suddenly I feel like a giant four-year-old being Johnson’s Baby Powdered down after a bath, not a naked fat person in the middle of a fashion show.
Stephen, thank goodness, reminds me at 5:55 p.m. that I’m due in the chair in five minutes. Time for a last bathroom trip, which involves a long walk in my robe, down into an underground car park where there’s a portaloo. Of course, I can’t “go” can I? Six p.m. on the dot I’m called to the chair, handed two radio earpieces to stick in my lugholes, rewrapped, bemasked, sponge-pinned and painted. Guido and Stephen are laughing about the fact that Lee has asked for some white paint on the top of the mask to look “a bit like bird shit.” He’s a wag, that one. Then it’s straight over to the box where the butterfly people are waiting (a jolly nice husband-and-wife team—exactly what you’d expect English entomologists to be like), and my two mother-makeup artists. They are elected to go into the box and glue the moths on me as they are the smallest. It’s cramped in there with all those moths. J, the art director, is also helping out. Pretty soon, they’ve got a moth production line going: J’s gluing, the mothers are sticking—one at either end of me. Some of these critters are HUGE. They don’t all want to stick either. There’s a big scrum of people gathering, who I can barely see through the tiny eyeholes. Stephen’s there with my camera, taking pictures, the entomologist couple are there taking pictures too; there’s a bunch of production guys checking the box is ready. Ian, my personal paramedic (!), is making sure I’m OK and Lee is at the very back, jumping up and down a bit, hurrying the thing along. Before I know it, they’re hoisting up the glass panel and waving goodbye. I wave back as all becomes brown, stained glass. Peace—and darkness—descends. Stage manager Anna checks that the earphones and hidden microphone I’m sitting on are working (my only line out of the box). She’ll be listening to me constantly throughout the show. So now…the wait…
In my little cocoon head, covered in perilously glued-on, highly breakable insects, I feel pretty placid. Have done since the mask went on. (Later, my mate Scouse Tony asks, “Was it a bit like when they put the cover on a budgie’s cage and it goes straight to sleep?” Me: “Actually, yeah.”) I can only get my fingers up through the mouth hole (where the tube attaching “bung” goes) as far as the tip of my nose, so if I squeeze, if I get an itch or start crying, I’m screwed. Calm calm calm. Yoga thoughts. My yoga teacher’s voice in my head: “Focus the attention on the breath. Use the breath to find any tension in the body and release it…”
If it weren’t for yoga I’d be in absolute agony by now. I can’t move much because moving breaks wings; my lower leg is dead after about twenty minutes on the chair. I’ve got at least an hour and a half alone in here, and that’s if the show starts on time, which of course they never, ever do. After about another fifteen minutes my right shoulder, which is leaning on a cushion, starts to ache. I’m clutching onto Stephen’s best scalpel—which I need to slash open the butterfly net that contains 250 live moths and butterflies. I’m holding the net in my other hand trying to keep it still so I don’t disturb them. The radio earpieces are throbbing—they’ve been hurting since they wrapped the bandages round them. It’s not too bad in the mask. I can breathe OK. The temperature is awful, though. They need to keep it cold in there so that the moths will remain still/placid. Cold air is being piped in, as when the lights go on at showtime, it’s going to get really hot. The cold air is giving me goose bumps and making the glue/moth parts all around my body really itchy. My head’s hot, my body’s freezing. Time to test whether they really are listening at all times. I ask Anna to turn off the air con and they agree to give it a rest for ten minutes. I have no idea how long it took to shut it off or low long it was off for, but it wasn’t enough. Before I know it, the pipes are blowing again—sending another flurry of broken wings and antennas off me and I’m shivering. Anna tells me they’re running about twenty minutes late (it was about an hour to the official start by this point). By this stage I have no idea how long I’ve been in there, or how long I have left. Time has ceased to be quantifiable. I’m too focussed on not thinking about my discomfort, not getting emotional, saying warm and not thinking about the fact I was busting for a pee. I just wanted desperately to get it over with. Sometime later Anna calls to say it would be another fifteen minutes on top of the twenty (“We’re waiting for Gwyneth, who’s stuck in traffic”). Bring. It. On. Before getting in the box, I’d seen all the names on the chairs through the two-way mirrored glass. Paltrow was at my feet, next to Nick and Charlotte Knight; my backside was right to Isabella Blow, Grace Jones, Sharlene from Texas and Ronnie and Jo Wood. Could they tell I was hatching a radio mic? I’d also spotted Tracy Chapman, Tracey Emin and Jake Chapman’s names on the chairs. My early comment about “doing it for art” was coming true in an unexpected fashion.
“Ten minutes.” Anna was counting me in now. Time was still weirdly bendy, but now seemed to be going pretty quickly. A heartbeat had been playing over the sound system for over an hour (I think) and Blue Velvet/Uncle Frank–style heavy breathing intro music so it was a relief to hear the house-y soundtrack kicking in. I started to see shapes passing by my filthy brown windows. Anna called to say “release the moths” halfway through, at thirty-six outfits. I slashed and shook the net bag. The butterfly breeder had said they were pretty robust, but I was careful not to catch any with my vicious little blade. I had been toying with the idea of keeping hold of it and just dropping it a few seconds after the glass came down, as a bit of a personal contribution to this slashing of the beauty myth theme, but who was I kidding? I wasn’t about to interfere with McQueen’s concept.
Having all those beautiful butterflies and moths flutter around me was unworldly and exciting—not alarming at all—even though I could only see them through the two tiny eyeholes. Still, I plugged the tubes into the round mouth ‘socket’ as soon as they were free—I didn’t want to be worrying about a little one flying into the dark space between the mask and my face (my fingers only reach up as far as my nose, remember).
At last, Anna gave me the two-minute cue. I see and hear a model press and swish her blood red, feathered dress against my wall. It’s like being in a car wash. Fab. It’s nearly time.
“OK, Michelle, the walls are coming down now.” I can hear the prop guys counting it down. The heartbeat sound is back and the lights are now pulsing to its beat (or maybe I’m imagining it).
It falls. I’m bathed in light. Not a sound from the audience. I’m thinking of nothing but the last thing Lee said to me before the walls went up—my stage directions—“Head down, tubes forward, left arm grips the cow horns” (the horns are the sofa’s back). Still thoughts. No flinching. The glass falls fat and heavy; none bounces back from the white tiles. The moths are free. The wall behind goes a couple of seconds later, causing a collective gasp from the audience that echoes ’round the former bus depot. All I can see through my piggy eyes is the empty moth net on the ground. I can hear the applause now though, spreading through the venue like a wave of thunder. The lights go down again, the models trot on for the final applause; the clapping becomes more intense and delighted. They’re cheering now. Lee must be taking his bow I guess (I’m still looking at the floor, still being a statue). Lights go down and I’m still head down. After a minute or two I look up and realise that I’m alone. No one has come to get me. Not sure if I should be moving or not I raise my hot, heavy head a little. I spot some guests through the mirror, cupping their hands to the glass to see in. I wave and they wave back! OK. No one can really see through into the set without cheating, so I grab my robe and trainers (hidden under the couch under some tea-stained lace I saw a work-experience fashion student diligently cutting to shape the previous week—no detail goes unmissed on a McQueen show), and crunch my way to freedom.
Stephen is waiting for me at the end of the white tunnel. He takes me straight into a chair and removes the mask and bandages and—hallelujah!—earpieces. Sidonie’s also there to hold my hand. Momentarily I burst into tears. I think it was the physical release that caused it. I’d been cooped up in that headpiece for over four hours; I’d been confined and cramped for over three. I couldn’t let my emotions get the better of me for that time. It was flooding in now. Sidonie hugged me and got a bit teary too. Then—guess another wave of adrenaline kicked in—I was OK. Elated, even. Then I wanted my knickers back on, pronto. I had to squeeze past a bunch of grumpy film crews to get to the production office where my things were. Lee was in there with his mum and dad and George’s parents. He threw his arms around me and gave me a big, honest hug that almost set me off crying again. “Here’s the star of the show!” he said, and introduced me to his parents. His mum and dad really reminded me of my family—especially his dad, who looked a bit like my granddad did when I was younger. Suddenly I came over all northern. “Ee,” I said to them. “The things your son gets up to. The things he’s just made me do! Still, he is brilliant though, isn’t he?” They were smiling and nodding. Pleased and proud parents. I got out of there sharpish, as the TV crews were desperate to do their post-match postmortems in front of the sponsor’s board (Amex). On the way to the quiet corner between the nice caterers and the lovely ironing ladies—who were actually fashion students doing BAs and MAs at Central St Martins—I bumped into fashion high priestesses Isabella Blow and Hilary Alexander. Blow congratulated me on a job well done and gently waved her fingers at me, saying “I loved the way your hand just moved slightly.” I don’t actually remember doing that, but it’s on film, so clearly I did. She also said something about me being Poseidon, the fish god—the beardy trident-carrying half-man, half-fish god, which puzzled me.12 I told her I thought I was more in the paganistic, full-moon Celtic style “Venus of Willendorf” mould—those lumpy female figures that keep popping up on Palaeolithic burial sites. I guess I must have looked more fishy from the audience…
Then I was busy getting changed, on the mobile, trying to sort out what happened next. The lovely Jo, who had been giving everyone massages all day, did me a quick back and neck and head rub. She said my head was boiling. Of course, by the time I was ready to put a bit of makeup on, all the mirrors were packed up, so I had no chance to make myself a bit more presentable. In a pub across the road, I met up with my friends who were there—Paul Hunwick from showstudio.com (who I knew back from when he used to commission me at i-D Magazine), art writer Rebekah Wood and Caroline Roux from the Guardian. I spent five minutes upstairs in the toilets throwing on a face, hairpiece (my own hair was, as predicted, feral), mushroom hair decorations and big heels. We grabbed a rare cab, sharing it with a very chic lady from French Elle who said, to her the centrepiece represented “Ze mozzer of all Fashionne!”
The after-party, off some square Mayfair way, was rammed—the usual fashion scrum on the door and free booze long gone by the time I got there, but it was jumping. Sadie Frost and Jude Law were upstairs, dancing in the disco bit. And at the front of the club an elegant group, including Grace Jones, Isabella Blow and Phillip Treacy were having dinner—looking for all the world like a top table at a Salvador Dalí–inspired wedding. Fabulous.
I lost my mates almost immediately, but found Stephen Metcalf, and we blagged our way onto the table of the guy who had made all those beautiful shoes. You can guess the rest. I got pretty juiced on vodka cranberry, talked to everyone—especially in the loos where I met Tracey Emin, who enjoyed the show. Embarrassingly, I remember showing her the glue marks on my arms to “prove” I was indeed the moth lady—and telling her not to stop doing what she was doing because it was important. Oh dear. I stayed until the bitter end—3:00 a.m. to be precise—and got kicked out with the rest of the ne’er-do-wells. I was amazed to see Katie England still there. She told me that she never sleeps the night before a show—and that she’s just in a daze at the drink-up after. I thought she was looking pretty good considering all that. Not like me. Ahem.
Wednesday, September 27, 2000—The Aftermoth
Ugh. Got up late. Hungover. Feeling a bit coldy and achy. Did bugger all, all day, except get the papers, go for noodles and a yoga class. All the broadsheets were raving about the show—apparently rumours about McQueen’s overwork/stress/mental health have been resoundly trashed by this collection. Some of them are calling it his most spectacular show to date. And they love the clothes, of course. Beyond all the Strum und Drang, McQueen is a bloody excellent tailor, with a stickler’s eye for detail/finishing. I’m described as an artist’s model, which I feel strangely ambivalent about. Why? There’s no shame in that. Perhaps because I’m not one, so not used to staying still for hours.
No, it’s the art thing again. I want people to know what I just went through wasn’t a breeze and I did it for art. Yes, art. Because I believe it’s worth going through that much palaver if it creates a strong image that conveys an important idea. And I believe that the idea that we are trapped by our “civilised,” socially approved identities is massively important. It causes women so much suffering. Fear of ageing, fear of not being thin enough. Fear of not having the right clothes. Fear of our animal natures that we carry in our DNA—fish, bird, lizard, insect, mammal. We’ve never had it more techno, we’ve never needed it more human. We humans living now still cannot turn ourselves into perfect beings, no matter how long we spend at the gym, beauty parlour, shops, etc.
When I get back from yoga, a MASSIVE bouquet of flowers has arrived, with a note saying, “Thank you for everything – you were beautiful! – Lee xxx”
You know what? At the end of it all, I think that’s what I take away from this. I’ll never be ashamed of my body again. I’ve pushed my belly out to meet the world. And the world (well, a journalist from French Elle) wanted to bite it. The vicious old queen of beauty is dead. Long live McQueen!
Michelle Olley is a London-based writer and magazine editor who specializes in alternative culture, fashion, and comedy. During the late 1980s and 1990s, she was a key figure in London’s burgeoning fetish fashion scene, both as a director of Skin Two Magazine and instigator/host of the Rubber Ball, the largest fetish fashion event in the world. She was the features editor for the gay men’s lifestyle title Attitude under the stewardship of i-D Magazine‘s Paul Hunwick, as well as the editor of P.U.R.E Magazine and the writer/editor of a series of art and photography books for Carlton Publishing. Olley was also the lead singer in the gay disco group Salon Kitty, and she can be found, disguised as a portly Nico from the Velvet Underground, in the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” video. She now has a proper job working for Turner Broadcasting’s Adult Swim as the content manager for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Read Michelle Olley’s Wikipedia profile.
1. I was writing my first novel at the time—something to do with a London shop girl and an alchemist—and one day I still might finish it. At present it sits in a drawer half-finished, un-electronic and in the alchemical state of “fermentation.” Ahem…
2. During my twenties, as a fetish fashion journalist, club promoter, and lead singer in the gay disco ensemble called Salon Kitty, it was my job to go out. Ahem.
3. London fetish club now, incredibly, in its fifteenth year
4. Acupuncture Footwear—90s trainer brand mostly based around the anarchy symbol and thirty- and forty-somethings’ unbending belief that punk iconography never looks naff
5. Young gay men’s magazine I was feature editor for during the late 90s
6. As Skin Two’s associate features editor I’d seen many, many “tributes” to Witkin’s famous Sanitarium image from aspiring fetish photographers. Usually it involved an inky black-and-white print of their leggy girlfriend in a rubber basque and a flea-bitten gas mask, leaning back on a futon…
7. Ewww. Please accept my apologies for this passage. It doesn’t get any less icky with age…
8. Glastonbury Music Festival—used to be full of moon-attuned hippies back in the days before festivals were full on corporate sponsorship jamborees…
9. Cheesy chips
10. British “Girl Scout troop leader” term
11. Fledgling Internet start-up that was basically Groupon without the technology having been invented yet to make it work—in September 2000, most people are still in the days of dial-up.
12. I reckon she was talking about the statuary in the fountains in Rome—it was a similar pose…