If you’re a fainter, you know the signs: heat beneath your skin, sweat above your lip, a dull beating in your ears. The world becomes smaller; a quiet, shadowy place beckons. Waking up is always ugly. Your friends’ alarmed faces zoom at you as if hitched to the ends of long camera lenses. They’re worried, but also seem condescending. You wish everyone would just calm the hell down.
After my third fainting episode last summer, an amused friend suggested that my frail state was emblematic of a “swooning” syndrome afflicting women citywide. Is there a fainting frenzy gripping New York? I recently spoke to eight more fainters-it was startling how easy they were to find-and heard stories about many others, the types of women who, in the words of one fainter, “live their New York lives and run around all day and sometimes forget things like eating enough, drinking water and sleeping.”
All of the women I spoke to refused to have their names published. I understand; there’s shame in fainting. (“Should we start a support group?” one woman asked.) But calling our misfortune “swooning” casts the whole humiliating experience in a different light, as if we are actually glamorous throwbacks. Once upon a time, swooning was commonplace, even expected. In the Victorian era, women swooned because of their corsets, but also from those taboo thoughts and repressed emotions. Swooning was also an easy way to manipulate a sympathetic male.
Today, the motivation to swoon is a variation on the same theme. If the Victorians were hopelessly stymied, today we’re swimming in publicly shared feelings and complaints. “I’m so tired” or “I’m having a breakdown” don’t pack the punch they used to. Try passing out in a crowded café. It’ll turn some heads.
Fainting and swooning, however, are two very different things. Fainting is clumsy and accidental. Swooning is romantic and often intentional. Fainters are messy and weak. Swooners are wily and agile. The latter might be prone to emotional distress, but they’re graceful enough to fall into someone’s arms. Fainters are more likely to black out in a crowd and knock out a toddler. Swooners are sexy. Fainters are forlorn.
There’s no reason the swoon cannot be revived. We might not have corsets anymore, but we have the stench of the subway tunnel, the 14-hour workday, the Atkins diet. And we still have plenty of reasons to manipulate one another. But swooning needs more than tumbling women to come back into fashion: In the 19th century, they had fainting couches and gentlemen who would catch you. But fainting in New York circa 2004? For starters, the usual fainting experience is at a crowded bar, maybe the night you decide to try one of those big, stupid, sugary drinks. A 24-year-old petite but well-fed friend of mine was at the Hudson hotel one night, in heels. She went down.
“What was weird was waking up to all those huge security men, all dressed in black,” she said. “It was so official. Everyone freaked out, and they wanted me out of there ASAP.”
Indeed, a fainting spell in a bar is most often misunderstood by those nearby as the result of being blind drunk-hence, when a girl starts swaying, people clear the way so she can have a direct path to the floor. No sympathy.
Not much sympathy either for a jogger on a dirty bridge. A five-foot-tall 38-year-old-a veteran of fainting with six episodes under her belt-collapsed while jogging on the Queensborough Bridge. She told me, “I didn’t drink any water that morning. I got very hot, and I knew I had to faint. And I also knew I’d just lie down and faint and be O.K., even though the Queensboro Bridge is so gross and dirty …. I had no choice-I had to lie down, and the bikes whizzed by me. And then I revived, got up and took myself home.” No males-with or without smelling salts-came to her rescue.
Ignoring, or dodging, the fainter seems common. Another friend of mine passed out just before moving out of New York. She decided to see Les Misérables because it was closing. She went alone, dressed in pinstriped pants and her mom’s Burberry trench coat.
“I ate breakfast around 11 and went to the afternoon show,” she said. “It seemed like it was me and thousands of little kids at the show, and when I left, midtown was crazy and loud, and I felt the sidewalk coming up at me. My legs got wobbly and I started seeing black splotches. I sort of pivoted away from the street and fell face-first into a shop window. I was going to pull myself up, but I decided to just rest there, my forehead against the glass, no hands or anything …. I remember thinking, ‘If I fall to the ground, I will wake up without my coat. No. I will just stand here and pretend to be looking at the cameras.'”
My first time, a crowd of aspiring thespians stood by while I fell straight back onto my head after one glass of wine. Later, I heard from the bartender that I swayed so dramatically, the actors thought I was acting.
On the other hand, I have also heard of men jumping at the opportunity to take advantage of the unexpected gift of an unconscious woman. One 34-year-old university adjunct recalled keeling over in front of her co-worker, whom she had a small crush on. “We had started doing this thing where we’d stay longer than necessary and hang out with each other,” she said. “One of those days I was there, he was off teaching his class, and I got caught up in grading papers. He returned and decided to walk me out. I hadn’t eaten all day and got woozy in the elevator.” She swooned, and he ended up half-carrying her to the cafeteria, where he plied her with bananas.
“The funny thing was,” she said, “he loved it. He was beaming. He kept telling me it was ‘charming.'”
Whether the grad student intended to plotz in the elevator, the chivalrous reaction of her crush rendered the entire scenario a successful swoon. And with women hitting the floor all over town, New York men may even start doing their part and catching them-thereby transforming ungainly faints into balletic swoons.
A 26-year-old New York native recounted his two harrowing experiences with fainters. “The first time was at a Mets game, the dog days of summer,” he said. “My then girlfriend hadn’t eaten anything. We were on line for food, I was behind her, and she just dropped. I had no clue what was going on; I thought she was dying. But I caught her before her head hit the cement. All these families were looking at us, and children were pointing, saying, ‘What’s happening? Mom!’ It was extremely embarrassing. I freaked out.
“The other time was at a concert-another super-hot day,” he continued. “This friend of mine and I were on line to get in. Again, I was standing behind her, and all of a sudden she started backpedaling. And so I started backpedaling, and I was like, ‘Hey, what are we doing here?’ And then she just passed out. It was scary, but I’d been through the first one, so I was a little more trained.
“Ever since then,” he added, “every time I get light-headed, I think I’m gonna faint. And I’m a guy.”
The habitual fainter eventually gets used to her condition. A woman in her mid-30’s was in the middle of a presentation at her company when she felt her body start to go weak. “I just excused myself, walked outside into the hall and passed out on the carpet,” she said. “Nobody saw me. Nobody knew what happened. And then I just woke up, took myself back inside and finished the presentation.”
At some point, of course, the fainter goes to see a doctor. When I finally consulted mine, he was unsurprised. My “delicate constitution” was actually low blood pressure and a greater tendency toward vasovagal reactions (a reflex of the involuntary nervous system that causes the heart to slow down, blood pressure to drop and temporary deprivation of oxygen in the brain). Many people are sensitive to this vasovagal business, apparently. My doctor even had a patient who “fainted, without fail, every time she had an orgasm.”
I remember shaking my head, a bit disgruntled and more than a little awed. What my doctor had just described was the perfect swoon.
Ms. Brill Is Back!
Before Anna Nicole Smith, the public appetite for buxom blondes with outrageous personalities was sated by Dianne Brill: a fashion stylist before the term existed, a part-time model and actress and a big-time bon vivant . They called her Queen of the Night … and then she kind of dropped off the face of the earth. Which is to say, she moved to Munich with her second husband, an animation producer named Peter Voelkle, and bore him a son and two daughters.
Ms. Brill made a triumphant re-entrance into Lucky Strike on Grand Street the other night wearing a vintage black military coat, Prada shoes that raised her to a formidable 6-foot-2, and a sleek head scarf that accentuated a flashing resemblance to I Dream of Jeannie ‘s Barbara Eden.
“I’m feeling crappish,” she said, blaming dental work, and ordered a latte and a mixed-green salad with a side of spinach-her only addiction, she said. She said she’s been a vegetarian since 1979-she hates the “new pain-in-the-ass mega-vegans”-and was never one of those people doing coke in the bathroom of Studio 54.
“Drinking, drugs-not for me,” she said. “They scatter me so much.”
The author of the now-out-of-print Boobs, Boys, and High Heels (“$200 on eBay!”) was in town to promote a new line of lipsticks and lip glosses and lip pencils-“Lip Lingerie”-which she’s spent three years developing in Germany alongside bespectacled men in lab coats. She still keeps an apartment on 13th Street.
“This is my city, my home-my dirt ,” she said. Though passably polite about her adopted homeland, one sensed that Ms. Brill might have experienced more than a few “bored housewife” moments.
“In a place like Germany, you get zero feedback,” she said. “You look gorgeous, you go to a party, you rule -and no one says anything to you the whole night!”
She pulled out a little bottle, put five drops of the contents-some brown homeopathic elixir-on the back of her hand and licked it off. “I don’t know what it is, but it works,” she said. “If you take it, you eat like a European, O.K.? You don’t have to eat the whole pie.”
Just then, a big mess of greens arrived at the table. “Party time!” she said.
The previous night, she’d put in an appearance at that much-hyped Louis Vuitton 150th-anniversary megabash. “There were 10,000 people, and you didn’t know anybody. You knew like four people,” she said. “And there was no one that I really wanted to meet-which is very interesting. It’s very unusual for me, because I looove to meet people.”
Ms. Brill was born in 1959 in Racine, Wis., the eldest of four. “But I’m now the youngest,” she said, winking. Her dad worked in real estate, moved the family to Tampa, Fla., and died when she was 17. Her mother, a Brit who liked to cha-cha, got a job as a society columnist and features writer.
“She interviewed Gloria Swanson and all these far-out things,” said her bodacious daughter. “She was a superhero to all of us.”
Young Dianne worked in the “groovy” fashion boutiques that were popular at the time and then escaped Florida for London, where she fast-talked her way into an Avon-lady-type job for Estée Lauder, doing makeup demonstrations for tea-drinking ladies.
“Isn’t that psycho?” she said. “It was so cool.” When an uptight visa official kicked her out of the country, she decided that New York was the next big thing.
“I knew that there would probably be very good-looking men there,” she said. This was 1980.
The waiter arrived with the pepper grinder, which Ms. Brill promptly seized. “I’ll do it myself,” she said, giving a few expert twists.
Her first real place was a basement apartment on Commerce Street in the West Village; she covered the exposed brick in pink and snakeskin vinyl. “Within six months-the click ,” she said. “All of a sudden, people from my planet. People with advanced ideas. Smart people. O.K.?” Some of these people, of course, are now dead: Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring. “I was really enthusiastic, but not a dork,” Ms. Brill said. “I was into them and they knew it, which is always a good party plus.”
Her first husband was Rudolf Pieper, owner and creator of places like Danceteria and the Tunnel. “I never got paid for any party I did,” she said. Instead, she worked hard pulling together outfits for the pop stars of the day, like Prince, Duran Duran, Bruce Springsteen and Hall and Oates.
“Daryl Hall-loved that guy,” she said. “C-U-T-E. Like a basketball player. He had a very nice girth measurement, yes he did.”
She became something of a style avatar, in pre-Madonna corsets and rubber dresses (“Not scary-just pretty”), and eventually a muse for designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood and Thierry Mugler. This was not the anemic, half-hearted musedom of Sofia Coppola for Marc Jacobs.
“Jerry Hall-she’s my girlfriend, and I adore her. She is genuinely a muse,” Ms. Brill said. “When you’re around her, you feel better about yourself.”
The catwalk began to slow down for her in the late 1990’s. “I never was an assembly-line model,” she said. “I was like the commercial break.” And then a “skanky” gig in Germany led her to Mr. Voelkle and the bittersweet domestic idyll she inhabits today.
“The first time he ever saw me, I was onstage,” Ms. Brill said of her husband. “So if he starts getting all ‘Why aren’t you doing the dishes?’, I say, ‘The first time you ever saw me was onstage. In a black fishtail dress. O.K .? Don’t talk to me about the dishes.'”