PRINT Summer 1993

Glamour Wounds

Dorothy's Daughter

EVERY DAY I HAVE THE CHOICE to be my most beautiful. So whenever I want to reinject some libido into my daily life I pick up a fashion magazine. As I turn the odorous pages, my body imaginarily libidinalizes, becomes smoother, sleeker, more airbrushed; my legs lengthen. I lower my gaze slightly, glance at the camera with a dewy coy look, or throw back my head wildly. I laugh wildly at some bit of fabulosity known only to myself.

I appreciate the inbuilt temporality of my glamour future. Glamour reminds us to enjoy life to the fullest and seize the moment through the perfect pose. Yet glamour is always already around the corner: there is always the lure of the new regime that will make you still worthier of being seen from the place where you appear likable to yourself, tomorrow. (Visual: me in crisp navy and white for spring, cavorting with Linda Evangelista. She’s telling me she’s always admired the Jewish people. . . .) As I read on I’m mentally planning to hydrate my system, work out regularly, honor the goddess within by buying things, and stave off festering self-esteem issues that will make me unwanted unloved and fit for the ladies’ shelter before I get a chance to emerge triumphant, transcending unlovely compulsions, cleansed as I will be by abstractions such as the New Young Spirit, Simplicity, and What Is Truly Modern. There is always hope.

These were some of my thoughts as I wandered uptown looking for drastic reductions at Galeries Lafayette. So I walk into Tiffany’s and who do I see but Liza Minnelli. I thought it would be filled with Japanese people but it wasn’t. A celebrity siting is like a zetz from beyond, an occasion for you to take stock of where you are in life and what significance this particular celebrity holds as a message from the universe meant for you to receive at this particular point in time. She was totally letting everyone ,stare at her, generously performing the role of Famous Person Shopping. She was in a big black parka, black slacks, kind of scuffed black high-heeled boots that I really wouldn’t want to wear. She generously exposed her famous signature face with no sunglasses, and apparently no makeup: it looked kind of puffy, but her hair looked like she just stepped out of a salon. She was completely lovey-dovey with a kind of swishy-looking companion, who looked like a nice pudgy accountant-type with wire-rimmed glasses. They lingered leisurely and everyone at Tiffany’s bonded for a moment, warmed by the disposable fellow-feeling that a celebrity was in our midst. All of a sudden Tiffany’s was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. A guard smiled at me benignly: “She comes in a lot.” I was fine, not perspiring or anything—even though I couldn’t afford anything at Tiffany’s and she could afford everything. The friend I was with, however, got super tense: he was terrified she wouldn’t like him. I was O.K. with it because I just knew she wouldn’t be mean.

As a semiotic mishmash between her film roles and her life, Liza emerges as an intertextual effect produced and circulated in the real. What does she mean? Jet-set butterfly, survivor of Studio 54, Hazeldon, and Betty Ford, Liza is known as a second-generation mascot of homosexuals and Legend. Since the ’70s, like a Halston-clad Rasputin with a pixie haircut, Liza has staggered forward with her fabulosity intact because it was always already dented. She’s like the Avis megastar, she always tries harder. Now that the waif imago is being unearthed as an operative fashion fantasy, Liza is the key to some of its Hollywood roots. Unlike the Audrey Hepburn waif, who is always already a supermodel waiting to be discovered, the Liza waif exposes the repressed underbelly of the gamine, when winsome vulnerability curdles into a needy bad object to be avoided at all cost. Perhaps because she was born with an extra celebrity-handicap as Dorothy’s daughter, the Liza persona is never content to be fabulous simply by existing; she always shows us how being Liza takes work. As a cheerful human dynamo of glitz, she appeals to the audience-inner-child, which craves conditional love, and will perform our brains out until we get it. The occult force of her loserliness protects her and preempts, in fact, her ritual abuse by tabloids; but with her totally unreconstructed esthetic of originality and Success, she opens herself up to a camp reception that she’s not quite in on.

Liza’s stuck in the time warp of the fabulous comeback, but she has never gone away. Odder still, rather than evolving with the times and winning over fresh supplies of fans, she seems to be always “coming back” for the same audience. In a recent interview she put down Harry Connick, Jr., as a “copyist,” but, as an “Original” youngish survivor of another era of showbiz, Liza is more perplexing. At a time when drag queens are penetrating mainstream households as excellent talk-show guests, Liza reminds us of the radical shift in late-20th-century esthetics and object relations, when the Real Thing begins to strike us as odder, more uncanny, than the pastiche.

When everything’s a little bit perfect I mean I get a little bit nervous. I mean it can’t last.
—Pookie Adams, 1969

An interesting bug subtext underlies Liza’s brilliant ingenue role in The Sterile Cuckoo. As a codependent nudge with no personal boundaries, her character Pookie Adams is a motherless coed eager to imprint on an object. She is more of a pest than a waif. She hones in on a mild-mannered WASP boy who is fascinated by bugs. She bugs him, gets in his face, ingratiating herself by giving him a gift bug. She drives a bug, too—a red VW. In a premonition of her future fabulousness, she confuses him by giving impromptu one-woman shows in an empty gym. Her good legs are shown to advantage in collegiate attire: short pleated plaid skirt, black tights, and brown Nubuck loafers. Her abject neediness is accompanied by a nasty defensive streak which erupts when she gets drunk at a dorm party, embarrassing herself and her date by outing all the normal people in the dorm as “phonies.” The movie ends when the boy puts her back on the bus where her father deposited her in the beginning of the film: apparently doomed to an eternal return between emotionally challenged men.

In her Oscar-winning role in Cabaret, 1972, Liza plays a Weimar version of Pookie Adams: a perky chanteuse with no eyebrows who cheerfully staggers from rejection to rejection (again, by emotionally challenged men). On a perpetual audition for love and validation, she waits for her big break with puppylike hope, undaunted by the creepy Weimar ambiance of brownshirts, the sausage-fed lady orchestra, and Joel Grey in drag.

Perhaps her role in Stepping Out, 1991, is the most uncanny dramatization of the later Liza function as a sort of Richard Simmons of glamour. Cast literally as the has-been with a shot at a fabulous comeback, she plays a former Broadway “star” exiled in Buffalo, who gets another chance if she can whip an amateur group of tap dancers into shape for a charity benefit. The very mediocrity of the film itself reinscribes Liza into her signifying star function as perky glam loser. It remains very Liza for her to slum in this like exalted TV movie, giving her all, like she expects it to be a Buffalo version of Cabaret—but with Americans fighting low self-esteem rather than Euros dealing with Nazis.

Even low-end stars enjoy a hot line to glamour. But Liza never takes her glamour for granted. The frame of her fantasy is shaky and her public must rally to support it. She is an ageless sequined moppet; we have to protect from the way she appears likable to us. At the Grammys, the Tonys, and the Oscars, she performs her ceremonial function as signifier of Success; as the high priestess of showbiz potency she ritualistically enacts her rise, fall, and comeback to fabulousness in a one-woman karmic cycle of destruction and rebirth into glitz. At her paradigmatic moment, she’s doing “New York, New York” in a tux jacket with no pants: the music slows down, we’re overwhelmed by this turgid buildup of hope and expectation, Liza smiles knowingly and starts the high kicks. She’s about to flash it, to whip out the absurd imaginary phallus of Success, the Oz-like organ that’s going to save us, spray us with Special Stuff . . . but the moment passes.

Liza always evokes the anxious temporality of fabulousness: the has-been, never-was, never-will-be, and the triumphant come back. She reminds us that glamour is always elsewhere, even if it’s your own. As a brand image based on never really having a grip on it, Liza didn’t make me feel bad in Tiffany’s, even though she can buy into their fantasy and I couldn’t. I hope she found something good there. Girlfriend deserved it.

Rhonda Lieberman teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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