by James Killough
“I used to think I had narcissistic personality disorder,” James Tuttle once commented to a post of mine on the subject. “Then I discovered I just enjoyed being good-looking.” Tuttle is not just good-looking. In online parlance he is “VGL,” or Very Good-Looking, which from the early years of hooking up online I have been calling “viggle.” This is because invariably some total tool who would refer to himself as VGL in his profile is not that at all, and is therefore worthy of ridicule.
Indeed, one of the first rules of online dating is that a guy is rarely the adjectives he uses to describe himself. “Hot,” “sexy,” “hung” are common enough delusions/mendacious cacas, but my alarm bells sound loudest when some dude describes himself as “sane,” “normal,” “fun,” “smart,” or, worst of all, “cool.” No truly cool person would describe himself that way; it wouldn’t even dawn on him that his behavior or demeanor needed any sort of descriptor.
LA has been plastered for weeks with banners touting the Beauty Culture exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography, which is a particularly pertinent subject for Los Angeles, for obvious reasons: this town is not just obsessed with physical appearance, it is also a natural geo-magnet for people with narcissism personality disorder in the true sense of the term, as well as schizophrenia. But I’ve already covered that.
Having worked for as long as I have on the publishing and production end of the fashion and beauty business, I’m not terribly excited about seeing exhibitions about it. It’s rather like seeing your life represented behind a glass diorama at the Museum of Natural History: it’s never going to be adequate, at best spottily representational, not something you can quite grasp in its entirety with just a few samples behind a glass wall.
I went with Tuttle to see the show because excursions like this are always best consumed with a crunchy side order of caustic banter, like popcorn with movies. Should the exhibit on view fail to live up to expectations, we can work out the scathing review together, as Samuel Beckett might write dialogue between a pair of incongruous gay aesthetes.
I’d never been to the Annenberg Center before, but for someone in the entertainment business, that’s the first slightly post-modern part of visiting the gallery: it is located in the courtyard of the building in Century City that houses Creative Artists Agency, the most powerful talent agency in the galaxy, if not the universe itself. The building is known in industry quippage as “The Death Star”; it is imposing, cold, frighteningly stark, and very glamorous.
I long ago stopped taking Hollywood power brokers seriously, especially when they take themselves too seriously, and the best don’t. The typical CAA agent is the smartest shark in the tank, the slickest, the hardest working, the best dressed. He or she likely went to my alma mater, Wesleyan—one of the founders, Rick Nicita, is a noted alum—or Harvard, or Brown. If he isn’t a viggle himself, then he has a certain insouciant arrogance that makes him sexy.
As my mother said about the other Wesleyan students when she dropped me off there for the start of my freshman year, “Good looks certainly aren’t a prerequisite for admission here, are they?”
When Tuttle and I were walking through the corridors that are shared between the Annenberg and CAA, a viggle agent straight out of Central Casting was coming the other way. His strut was jaunty, his suit Armani. As he passed us, first he looked Tuttle up and down as if scanning him for weapons at security, with zero subtly or humility, and then he did the same to me. I know from experience that this is because CAA agents and staff must greet all visitors as if they were their own clients, and of course the Jameses Tuttle and Killough look like we’ve got “Entertainment Folk” hanging over our heads in blinking neon with flickering arrows. He was trying to place us in The Pecking Order.
However, I’m not just entertainment, I’m also large, bouncer-ish and likewise preternaturally bold, so regardless of whether you are straight or gay, of whether you have made eye contact with me—much less looked me up and down—if you are a viggle, especially if you are a young, jock-ish, dirty blond viggle, you’re asking for it. I treat straight male viggles the way straight men treat female viggles in Italy or Queens, NY: you’re going to get a low-level grumble-hoot of appreciation and a comment about your, um, suit and what I would like to do with it.
The Beauty Culture exhibit itself is adequately curated; it’s just so difficult to cull and edit what should be centuries of images about beauty or the lack thereof, which is a subject this show also attempts to tackle by asking if the beautiful/the beauty industry don’t victimize the unbeautiful by setting unrealistic expectations.
For me, the answer is emphatically “no, and get over it, quickly.” The argument that image makers are somehow responsible for a person’s low self-esteem or poor self-image is like the family blaming me for someone’s drug habit after he’s been carted off to rehab just because he didn’t respect drugs and went overboard after I turned him on for the first time. (Hate it when that happens.) Your problem is not the dealer’s, certainly not mine. It’s yours.
Same thing goes with purveyors of beauty. You don’t need to buy what they are selling. You have the option to stop waxing, never to look at Vogue or Allure again, to shop at an Army & Navy, not to wear makeup, to let gravity drag your skin to the center of the earth naturally, and to move to a rain forest outside Portland. And if everyone mistakes you for a Lesbotron, own that too.
The biggest challenge facing this worthy show is the Annenberg itself. The exhibit is so important—again, especially for this town—and the ambition behind it so vast and theme-encompassing that the physical space isn’t up to the task. This is a show that should have filled all of MOCA Downtown, or a large swath of LACMA. As it is, it is jammed into this wee building so that it gives you the feeling of being in the cramped editorial offices of a mid-level fashion magazine—framed images stacked side by side and on top of each other—which might be sort of interesting if you’ve never actually worked at one. But I felt claustrophobic and kept having sense-memory flashbacks to the persistent whining anxiety I carried around with me that was missing some deadline or other, or that Alicia in Circulation would dart at me from her office as I passed like an attacking moray eel, admonishing me because yet another piece I had written had made some disgruntled cow in a flyover state, who has nothing better to do than actually read the text in a fashion magazine, cancel her subscription.
The happy accident of the exhibit, and presumably what is forcing the Annenberg to stay open later to accommodate popular demand, is the documentary based on the images on display, directed by Lauren Greenfield. I am guessing that the cinematography is deliberately harsh and unflinching. Unless you treat it properly with filters, lenses and lighting, HD these days will capture far more detail than the human eye, which is jarring, especially for a documentary about beauty; basically, everyone looks hideous no matter how beautiful they are. Had I made this film, I would have ramped the glamour through the roof. I would have made an absolutely unapologetic, balls-out paean to beauty from the Renaissance through the modern era, which is surely not what the Annenberg would have wanted.
In order to present the pros and cons of the effects of beauty as a cultural phenomenon, the documentary heavily favors the cons, as if by way of apology for the fact most people aren’t beautiful and therefore victims of this. No matter. The film is funny and deftly edited, and should be expanded into a series for PBS/BBC, or at least a full hour. Unfortunately, due to some human rights copy violation ho-hum or other, the full piece isn’t available online, but a sort-of trailer is here.
Having Jamie Lee Curtis as the main spokeswoman for the cons of beauty culture is a little rich. Yes, she is articulate, yes, she has valid points, but there is a moment when she basically says, “Look at me. I’m over fifty. I’m barely wearing any makeup. My hair is the same as when I rolled out of bed this morning. This is how I look when I pick up my kids from school.”
Yes, but, Jamie, that’s because you’re basically a man. You’ve been plagued for years by rumors you’re really a hermaphrodite; when I was Googling for the above image, I barely got past the first and middle names and the search bar showed me “Jamie Lee Curtis hermaphrodite.” It doesn’t matter to me if the rumor is true or not—actually, it does; I think you’re much more interesting if it is true—because like certain tall, in-shape, lean men, you are looking better as you age. So don’t rub your special physicality in; you are making the middle-aged female viewer as insecure as the industry you are decrying.
However, my biggest issue with the show was basic and so obvious it was hiding in plain sight: Where are the men?
True, we don’t have nearly the same preoccupations with beauty as women do, and don’t suffer as much when we fall short, but we have been held up to this “VGL masc musc HUNG bro,” as he might call himself on Manhunt.net—”hung” is usually all-capped like an hysterical imperative—as our benchmark for centuries:
So this is sort of an open letter to the Annenberg: You need to have a follow-up exhibit about male beauty next year. It’ll be as big as hit as this one. You should have me make the documentary—it might even be more compassionately irreverent than Greenfield’s—and Tuttle and our partners Alek and Steph over at Ohlalamag.com will guest curate and do a few special events. They know where all the hotties are buried.
I just want the chance to visualize the philosophy of narcissism. Yum.