Who are the wacky chicks? And what makes this new breed of insurgent revolutionaries tick?
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.
I was raised by a wacky chick: my arch and hilariously contrarian mother.
At the age of eight I suddenly became aware that Betty Doonan was not like the other women on our street: in the 1950’s 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 10 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.
Susanne Bartsch gets paid by large corporations to squeeze her body into pancreas-mangling Folies Bergères corsets and paint her face like a Vegas Barbarella. This is the way she would dress anyway, but the men in gray suits don’t know that, so they happily pay her. And do they get their money’s worth or what? Susanne infuses and electrifies their otherwise dreary promotional affaires with her unprecedented, transcendent, transgender, Mardi Gras spirit. She pours her sequined grooviness and spangled exhibitionism-and that of her gang of trannies and freaks-onto people who have neither. She’s a trailblazing, glitter-throwing gang leader whose meticulously crafted personal style has paid her rent for more than 25 years.
Re gangs: Susanne was once arrested in a sting and accused of being the leader of a gang whose main aim in life was stealing sewing machines. One wet Saturday in the early 1970’s, Susanne had gone to the Peter Jones department store on Sloane Square to shop for a sewing machine. Like many style-obsessed chicks, she couldn’t always afford to buy the trendy duds she wanted, so she had taught herself to make clothes, thereby creating an original and provocative wardrobe for herself without breaking the bank. And, like many w.c.’s, she has always been a magnet for suspicion and drama.
Charming, chatty Ms. Bartsch had, as was her wont when dealing with any service person, engaged the saleslady in several minutes of enchanting persiflage.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned gangsters were shoving sewing machines up their coats and down their knickers, unobserved by the distracted saleslady. A police investigation followed: it was not long before the coppers put two and two together and concluded that the vivacious European girl with the penchant for home stitchery was not an enthusiastic potential customer. Au contraire! She was a wicked woman whose role was to distract the saleslady while the rest of the gang made off with the booty. A dramatic police raid followed: six uniformed men blasted into Susanne’s apartment and arrested her.
Zelig -like appearances at major and minor international dramas and tragedies are part of wacky-chickery. And Susanne is no exception: like so many w.c.’s, she really puts herself out there and reaps both the rewards and the dog poo. Also like her sisters-in-wacky-high-chickdom, Bartsch always manages to walk away in one piece-usually wearing metallic thigh-high boots with seven-inch heels. For examples, when Susanne bought a little shack on the island of Vieques, it was only a matter of time before the worst hurricane in recorded meteorological history would hit. Bartsch survived, but the shack was never seen again.
Her legions of fans know her as a kick-ass gossip columnist: a tough-talkin’ tattle-monger who loves the steamy, seamy side of Tinseltown. In her Martin Margiela, she haunts the Hollywood entertainment scene like a Rambo’d Louella Parsons, always on the lookout for hot, cheesy dish with which to fill her weekly column in the Star .
Her unrelenting quest for gossip is every bit as uncompromising as her radical personal style. To say she’s fascinated with the sleazy underbelly of celebrity is a total understatement. “I always have the best dirt: I had the scoop on the Madonna and Sean Penn break-up,” twinkles Janet gleefully as she unzips her jumpsuit. She sighs with satisfaction and recalls more of her tabloid triumphs. “I blew the whistle on Ricky Martin’s butt pads. He had a flat butt so he was wearing pads and then shaking his ass at the audience. My story went around the world.” Miss Charlton claims that Ricky read her story and he started working out like a maniac. “On his next tour he wore a thong to prove it was real.”
Janet finds the men of Hollywood to be just as skewer-worthy as the women and a good deal more sensitive. “I prefer to pick on men, especially obnoxious male movie stars. There is more to write about because they’re always cheating.” Stallone called Janet one day and implored her to stop writing about his trysts. “You’re breaking my girlfriend’s heart,” he said. To which an equally impassioned Janet replied, “No I’m not. You are!”
Does Janet have qualms about her muckraking métier? Au contraire! She feels she is doing a huge favor to the celebs she so often pillories. “I’m writing about them and keeping their name out there. It’s not my fault if they behave badly. If people misbehave they deserve to be written about. I’m an old-fashioned kind of a gal,” continues Janet with a cavalier toss of her yellow tresses. “Good manners are important to me.”
Janet’s joyful commitment to gossip-mongering has made her something of a Hollywood bête noire. “I envy my friends who go to parties and are not kicked out,” she said. Her height and her penchant for outré fashion have always made gossip-harvesting more of a challenge, one that she always meets with stylish enthusiasm. “I love transforming myself,” says Janet, who wore loads of wigs in the 1970’s for kicks but now wears them to disguise herself.
A bewigged Janet hit pay dirt one night when, undetected, she successfully crashed Shannen Doherty’s birthday party. According to Janet, the 90210 star was “out of her mind and screaming at everyone, ‘Who invited you to my party?’-very Neely O’Hara-but she never guessed who I was. She ran out into the street-I don’t know if she was plastered-but she started screaming, ‘I hate you!’ at everyone.” Janet’s photographer was hiding in bushes across the street. “We got some great shots. It was a fabulous story.”
“I’m always just a pussy hair from going over the edge. I walk a fine line,” says Lisa Eisner, whose raunchy, entertaining diatribes are often peppered with cheeky expressions involving pussy hair, or even salty bumper-sticker slogans like “If it’s got tires or tits it’s gonna give you trouble.” Despite her dainty, clotheshorsey femininity, Lisa often talks like a Cadillac-driving, toupee-wearing, secondhand car salesman, and she occasionally dresses like one too. To say she has multiple personality disorder is a bit harsh, but there is more than a pussy hair of truth to the accusation.
44-year-old Los Angeles–based book publisher and photographer Lisa is a raving fashion exhibitionist with a very special gift. Part Millicent Rogers, part Lucille Ball, with a dash of Tina Chow and lots of Sammy Davis Jr., Lisa has the unique ability to flirt with the grotesque while remaining unimpeachably chic. An Indian headdress; a Bob Mackie/Shirley Bassey frock; a cowboy hat with a tiara on top; a full-length, A-line, trapunto, floral kaftan found in a Palm Springs thrift store and resembling a giant oven mitt-these are a few of her favorite things and they just happen to look great on her.
“This is a totally L.A. wardrobe,” says Lisa, sporting the biggest silver fox hat I’ve ever seen and making a sweeping gesture across the racks in the massive closet of her szhooshy Bel Air hacienda. The overriding impression given by Mrs. Eisner’s extensive clothing and accessory collection is one of wildlife, as in Museum of Natural History, as in fur, hair, horns, and feathers, feathers, feathers. Total critter chic. “These shoes are made from the undersides of turtles,” says Mrs. Eisner, proffering a pair of fascinatingly butch, Miss Marple shoes.
As we chat La Eisner throws on various fur hats and makes endless moues in the mirror: after the oversized, two-foot-wide silver fox comes a series of fetching chinchilla berets, followed by a white fox hat that resembles an electrified afro. The entertaining Mrs. Eisner has a well-rehearsed series of hammy routines involving her fur hats: “Look! Michael Jackson. Wow! Carol Channing!” A fuchsia fur hat with matching boa becomes a giant, saucy French beret or a big 1950’s pompadour. Still wearing her fuchsia beret, Lisa models a series of vintage critter couture coats: ocelot, rabbit and a mink vest with python strips: “I sort of love the whole idea, like a python eating a mink. This is food-chain chic.
We move from fur to feathers: we’re talking grouse, pheasant, ostrich, even crow feathers. “I talk to birds in my head and I understand them. I know what they’re saying,” says Mrs. Eisner, looking like a total nut in a navy-feathered cloche. “Isn’t that the first sign that you’ve got to check yourself in? Anyway, I guess I’ve always been aware of birds and hawks because they’ve always sort of communicated to me.”
Amy’s childhood was happy, give or take a gnarly incident or two. At elementary school she slammed into one Bobby Marshall, “an unfortunate kid with a
Romance aside, a wholesome and almost Partridge Family –esque commitment to singing and performing enlivened the Raleigh, N.C., Sedaris family home. “I was a huge Streisand fan. I could imitate her and make myself look like her. It stopped after Butterfly ,” chirrups Amy, sounding a bit like an old-school faggot. “Whatever we did, we had to have an audience. When we baked cakes, [writer brother] David and I pretended we were on a cooking show. Counting pocket money? It’s more fun if you pretend you’re a busy accountant. I still do that.”
Other miscellaneous portents of the show-biz career to come included spontaneous entertaining at airports: “I used to sing country songs to entertain people as they came off planes.” She also played a rooster in a production of Charlotte’s Web , and, “when my yaya was in a convalescent home,” recalls Amy, using the Greek word for granny, “David and I used to put on shows to cheer everyone up. ‘Knock ’em dead,’ we would say before every show.”
A beneficent theatricality was emerging, but so was another more ominous side: a fascistic love of order and uniforms. “When I was a senior in high school I was still a Girl Scout. I loved the camping and baking Girl Scout cookies, and, of course, cheeseballs and muffins. I used to wear my Girl Scout uniform everywhere. I fell in love with uniforms.” From her Brownie uniform and her Winn-Dixie, Amy has accumulated a spectacular uniform collection, each reflecting a different period of her life. She is meticulous about the cleaning, ironing and accessorizing of these beloved garments. On first arriving in New York, she took a food-service job at Gourmet Garage: “They wanted me to wear a baseball cap and I wanted to wear a hair net. They said, ‘No way,’ so I gave two weeks’ notice.”
Uniform-lovin’ Amy showed no desire to go to college. The only subject that interested her was criminology. She toyed with getting a job at the local prison. “Just because you like crime doesn’t mean you have to go work at the prison-just read about crime,” said brother David, giving her a copy of what must surely be one of the most horrid crime books of all time, The Basement , by feminist writer Kate Millett. This grisly account of the actions of torturer/murderer Gertrude Baniszewski only served to fuel Amy’s dark fascinations.
Amy, it must be pointed out, is not unusual in this regard. Many w.c.’s with whom I spoke had watched and cringed their way through the Jeffrey Dahmer trial on Court TV, though most prefer lighter fare: an evening spent watching COPS or America’s Most Wanted , or a film noir classic with a malevolent heroine like Phyllis in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity . While generally law-abiding, w.c.’s enjoy the comforting frisson which comes from reading about gruesome crimes that didn’t happen to them, or about anybody who is clearly more appalling than they could ever be accused of being.
AUDREY “GOLIGHTLY” SMALTZ
“I was born, bred, toasted, buttered, jammed and honeyed in Harlem!” intones the gorgeously magnificent fashion diva and self-described “minor celebrity in the African-American community” known as Audrey Smaltz, adding, “I’m sick of that line, but it works.”
Audrey shows me some pictures of herself in her youth. To say she is beautiful is a ghastly understatement: she makes Naomi Campbell look like Buddy Hackett. Though clearly African-American, the young Miss Smaltz, with her heavy eyebrows, dark eyes and prominent cheekbones, recalls Miss Hepburn in her prime-and I don’t mean Katharine. Miss Smaltz is flattered by the comparison, and tells me that she once crossed paths with the late Miss Hepburn: “I told her, ‘Honey, I’m the Technicolor Audrey Hepburn’-she laughed.”
Her most triumphant gig-and the one for which she is best known-came along when she was in her 30’s. The concept was simple: Audrey and her entourage of models and camp followers, traveling by Greyhound bus, staged fashion shows for snappily dressed middle-class African-American style lovers. Attendees happily purchased tickets for these modish spectacles; cunningly included in the price of each ticket was an Ebony subscription.
Audrey’s raucously wacky charisma guaranteed that everybody got his or her money’s worth at her invariably sold-out appearances. Wearing a culotte, a riding boot, an oversized hoop earring and an afro, she habitually whipped her adoring audiences into such a fierce fashion frenzy that possessed audience members would often leap onto the stage and engage in bouts of impassioned, spontaneous modeling. If these attention junkies refused to leave the stage, M.C. Audrey would sternly stop the music and turn her back on them until they did, sending them on their way with a tough “Don’t you mess with my show, baby!”
After seven years on the bus, and approximately one thousand shows under her Elsa Peretti for Tiffany belt, Audrey turned 40 and decided to hang up her culottes. Like many a wacky chick, she had tired of the constraints of employment and was ready to start her own business. With w.c. vision and entrepreneurship, she kick-started fashion’s first professional backstage support organization, calling it The Ground Crew. Historically, fashion designers had relied on friends and family to perform the backstage functions, particularly dressing. Audrey brought her experience and savoir faire to this previously chaotic fashion moment. “We have tailors and seamstresses but it’s mostly dressing. I got that name-The Ground Crew-from Martin Luther King.”
One Sunday, back in 1965, Audrey had wandered into the Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem. Martin Luther King was the preacher. “It was just about the time they introduced the big jumbo 747 planes. He spoke about what it took to get this big machine up in the air-all the people who were behind the scenes but just as important as the pilot or the plane. He called them the ground crew.” This metaphor stuck in Audrey’s memory and gave her the name for the company, which she operates to this day.
I ask Audrey about her current status and am totally unprepared for her reply. “I have a partner now. Her name is Gail. She’s forty-seven years old-a financial manager at Merrill Lynch! All of my friends accepted her and my pastor accepted her.” Audrey has done something Holly Golightly never managed to do: she has snagged her Rusty Trawler.
Undaunted, even at 65, Audrey girds up her chi chi loins every day and hits the streets. If any overenthusiastic wackolytes or chick-chasers get out of hand, she puts them in their place with a strict but caring “Don’t you mess with my show, baby!”
Copyright © 2003 by Simon Doonan. From the forthcoming book Wacky Chicks by Simon Doonan, to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y. Printed by permission.