A few weeks back, a friend handed me model Janice Dickinson’s autobiography and said it was a juicy tell-all, but under that was a cold understanding of the currency of fashion: the drooling agents and clients, the callous celebrities, the routine personal abuse, the blurred line between prostitution and modeling, etc.
I read No Lifeguard on Duty at once and wasn’t disappointed. Janice Dickinson is a funny and fluid narrator. And while her book got peed on in The New York Times for its unwholesome descriptions of former lovers (Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Liam Neeson), what makes it interesting is her scathing inventory-from age 47, in Los Angeles-of everyone’s desperate behavior, including her own. Young Janice would break down doors to make it, dress like a French whore, do almost anything to get what she wanted. And so would the men she ran into. “You really can sing,” Muddy Waters told her, and she believed him, and believed Bill Cosby when he told her the same lie-that is, until she didn’t want to go to bed with him and he blew her off.
I called ReganBooks and learned that Janice Dickinson was coming to New York. I could meet her at the Omni Berkshire Place on East 52nd Street.
I’d been in the Guggenheim room on the second floor all of 10 seconds when I understood Janice Dickinson’s true nature: She’s a viper.
She was coiled in a corner on the floor saying loudly into a phone, “I danced with Justin Timberlake-it was dope,” then unfolded her otherworldly legs to introduce herself with crisply condescending formality-“Hello, I’m Janice”-and a fine, long-boned handshake, promptly forgetting my name before stretching out on a window sill to have her makeup done by a guy in faux-lizard pants.
Finding the sun, she swept aside a tabloid with Hillary Clinton on the cover.
“Hillary needs to drop some weight,” she said. “She needs better designer clothes.”
“She could gain a lot of votes,” Ms. Dickinson said.
“Gay makeup artists.”
“I don’t think we should talk about politics.”
She finally noticed me, with a poisonous look.
“O.K., what do you want to talk about? Plastic surgery? Astronomy? Shoes?”
“Whose shoes are you wearing?”
“Christian Lacroix. They’re Fakkame shoes. That’s Japanese for ‘fuck-me’ shoes.”
Too quick and slightly out of control, with a raw edge of need, ribs showing under a slithery dress, the viper was also hungry. She slid off the window sill and sat down to room-service mozzarella and tomato with prosciutto. I sat across from her. The dress was Dolce & Gabbana and low-cut. A heavy green Art Deco amulet teetered over the billowing split of her cleavage. In addition to that-or them-you could see the spirit that it had taken for a young ethnic model to make it, dismissed by stupid people, she said with unsoftened anger, as a “Polish-mutt niggerlips in the era of Dairy Queen Cheryl Tiegs.” She was angry today and had been calm yesterday, she filled in candidly, because she was PMS-ing big time, and I felt that she was taunting me with her sexuality.
(“When did you come to New York-do you come often?” I said witlessly. “I try to come every day,” she replied.)
I pushed her to reflect on how the industry works.
“You made it because you were so tough and driven,” I said.
“No, because I was drop-dead gorgeous. I was lusted after walking down the streets of New York. It wasn’t the kind of appreciation I was getting from the agents. It wasn’t till I got to Europe that people started kissing my ass.”
“Janice, there are lots of beautiful girls. Very few make it.”
Suddenly some tone: “I grew up studying ballet; I grew up honing my craft. I looked at every Vogue that came out every month. I’m able to move like no one else you’ve ever seen in front of a camera. I find the light and work it, work it, work it.”
“Sure, but your abusive childhood made you so desperate that you did things other people would never have done.”
Jaw muscles tensed, ready to strike: “What’s your name? O.K., look, Phil-what was I supposed to do? I weighed out my options. Do I hook? Do I model?”
I thought of the time in the book when young Janice needs cash and Wilhelmina, her agent, says “I know just what you can do,” and the next thing Janice is a waitress at an after-hours club where models are offering their sexual services.
“Was Wilhelmina sending you a signal when she told you to be a waitress there?”
Janice was quiet for once.
“I have to think about it. The answer is no. I’m trying to remember. Other agents do sell their models out to Arabs. She wasn’t inferring that to me. But yes, it’s a horrific, horrible business and abuses girls.”
The book suggests that there’s a lot of sexual trade in the business. I brought up the Cosby story. Sweet and nice and Mr. American Television, till she says she’s too exhausted to come into his room.
From the book:
“‘Exhausted?’ he asked, and it was clear he was trying hard to keep his temper in check. ‘After all I’ve done for you, that’s what I get? I’m exhausted …. ‘”
“‘Well gee Bill, if I had known it was going to be like this-‘
“He waved both hands in front of my face, silencing me. Then he gave me the dirtiest, meanest look in the world, stepped into his suite, and slammed the door in my face.”
“Oh, he’s so sad,” Janice Dickinson said. “He dangled a TV role. And he called me in rehab to come to Tahoe. In rehab! I was shell-shocked, and I’m getting bushels of fruit from Jagger. No one gave a rat’s ass about my sobriety. But you see, that’s the gilded prison of fashion. We’re riding in private jets, and meantime I was so incredibly, painfully sad and lonely. And trying to fill up the vapid hole with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”
It reminded me of what an angry player on the Knicks had said a few years back: We’re paid millions of dollars but we can’t open our mouths. It’s just slavery, but for a lot of money. I told Janice Dickinson that story, but couldn’t remember the player’s name.
“Spencer Haywood, I think,” she said.
“No, no. This is long after Spencer Haywood. I think it was Larry Johnson.”
“Well, Spencer Haywood said the same thing. I used to go to games with his wife, Imam.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about basketball.”
In a far window, the young blond publicist in a suit was making wind-it-up motions. Janice Dickinson hung in there, with a menacing, nervous high energy.
“That guy in The Times called me a fucking has-been, so I called that motherfucker up,” she said. “I led him down the road. I said, ‘I really liked your style of writing.’ ‘You did?’ ‘Yes. I really think you write with aplomb . O.K., now you’ve heard all my superlatives-how can you call me a has-been? I’m a mother of two-the mere fact that I’m not on the society pages, going to crass, dumb, boring-ass parties! I’m a soccer mom in the American microcosm of Bel Air.'”
“What did he do?”
“He apologized. He said he was really sorry. What’s his name?”
“Yeah. Well, Guy Trebay can eat my ass.”
“Were you always this ballsy?”
“Always. God granted me this gruff exterior. But basically, inside, I’m a piece of fluff.”
I haven’t conveyed the soul of Janice Dickinson’s book. She was able to write such an honest account because she has been in a 12-step program for alcoholics and survivors of abuse, and was therefore able, she says, to cut off fibers of her being and put them in a book. Janice Dickinson’s childhood was a true horror show. Her father, a Merchant Marine whom she describes as a shit-kicker from West Texas, had three beautiful daughters and abused the eldest sexually. He demanded the same of No. 2, but No. 2 refused to roll. Janice got beaten up for that, but she learned to scare her father back (and seems in the end to have actually killed her father by throwing out a heart prescription he needed). By 14, she was drinking like a Mardis Gras pineappled drunk, she says, and ready to spit venom whenever anyone tried to take advantage of her, all the while dressing like a French whore to make sure that people tried.
The best scenes in the book involve John Belushi. She and Belushi hung out for a while, their manic self-destructive sides calling to one another, and the brilliant Belushi took her to an Atlantic City casino, shouting out across the floor, “Does anyone have any pot?”
When people crowded Belushi for autographs, he showed Janice Dickinson off.
They’ve got the best hookers in the world here, he said. Look at this girl. Where else in the world can you get a girl like this for a hundred bucks?
Between binges, Belushi explained his psychological theories of talent.
“This shit with your father, Janice. What a fucking monster. Telling you you’d never amount to anything. Don’t you see what it’s doing to you? … You keep falling for guys who make you feel like you don’t amount to anything. … It isn’t about any of those assholes. It’s about you ; it’s about what happened to you. They’re just assholes. Unfortunately, they’re the assholes you happen to be attracted to, because they remind you of your father. That’s why I’m here …. To tell you that your life would be a lot easier if you were attracted to nice homely fat guys-guys like me.”
Belushi was dead a few months later, in spring 1982. Apparently they never had sex, though here the story gets uncharacteristically fuzzy. (“Because he has a widow,” Ms. Dickinson explained. “I’m careful about hurting people. Did I fuck John? No. Did I find him attractive? No.”)
I was somewhat disappointed by meeting Janice Dickinson because she’s so manic. The book prepares you to meet someone who has stepped out of the fashion world, then calmly sold it out, when the truth is more complex: Janice Dickinson is still in it, still trying. Dancing with Justin Timberlake, showing off her breasts. And not really that interested in another person. In the end, she’s like all forces of nature-you take them on their own terms.
“I suppose I’m being turfy because I’m a writer,” I said, “but I wonder how you got down all that great dialogue.”
“I have a very vivid imagination,” Janice Dickinson said. “And let’s put it this way-” She bent forward with a conspiratorial friendliness. “Everyone steals from something or someone. The great directors do it all the time. I borrow bits from everyone. In all parts of my life. What toothpaste I use. How I fuck.”
I looked for a comeback, but had nothing. I was like the mouse after the snake is done, an empty mouse suit with the meat gone. “Why did you write this book?”
“To enable a young child to come out and tell her secrets. I want to give a shout-out to incest survivors and people who might be abused, to get into a program. The secrets almost killed me. I kept the secret of incest. I got hit so hard that I saw stars. It took ‘ludes to give me the courage to tell my mother.”
“But Janice, without that psychic wound, you’d just be some suburban mom-it gave you fire.”
“No, it didn’t! I was born with that fire. I have to wake up and drink chamomile tea to slow down. I have incredible fucking energy!” One last forward lunge of the carnivorous cleavage: “I should bottle it and call it ‘Sexy Bitch.'”
“Thank you,” I said, and she was gone.