Confessions of Another Pretty Lady

By Lieberman, Rhonda | Artforum International, October 1993 | Go to article overview

Confessions of Another Pretty Lady


Lieberman, Rhonda, Artforum International


What do you have to do in a former life to come back as the sibling of Cher, Barbra, Dolly, and the inexorable Madonna. The host tried to frame them as objects of pity; permanently shaded by the greater light of their sisters, doomed to dwell, more obviously than the rest of us, with thwarted dreams, individious comparisons, and resentment. They refused to swallow the bait, buoyantly professing their pride and admiration of the dominant sibling's achievement. A nice Jewish chanteuse accomplished enough to get on The Ed Sullivan Show by herself, Barbra's sister was poised and apparently at peace with the freakish hand dealt her by fate; Dolly's sister Stella was sassy blues singer; Cher's looked cute in her old nose. As the least professionally validated among them, Madonna's rapper-wanna-be brother was the only one still obviously struggling with the spiritual challenge of his lot: "I don't tell people I'm Madonna's brother," he wanly jested, "I say she's my sister." The audience applauded.

While I want to know as many intimate things about the stars as possible, I am delighted to maintain a comfortable distance and contemplate a direct encounter with my favorite idols with a sense of danger and horror.

Fanhood thinly masks the antisocial urge to incorporate the star, to be them, to digest their traits into our own bodily fibers, and misuse them for our own purposes. These urges shift with no transition between love and hate. When we see others acting this out in public, we are terrified and humbled.

I'm fascinated with the plight of the active fan--and how horrible it is! A recent Jenny Jones displayed--to our schadenfreude--a selection of active fans who shamelessly externalized identificatory behavior the rest of us conduct only in the privacy of our own mental cavities. This show made a deep impression on me: there was a man covered in Cher tattoos, a big Cher face monopolized his whole back; there was the human Barbie lady (and Mensa member) who plastic-surgerized herself to look like her miniature orificeless role model. The most inspired was perhaps Queerdonna, a like 300-pound homosexual disporting himself in a faux Gaultier-cone-bra look, with obvious gusto, defiantly loving his bod, truly sharing the "provocative" Madonna credo of exposing oneself with attitude, and expert styling. By inhabiting Madonna's traits with such uncanny aplomb, the portly Queerdonna permanently altered our reception of the "original."

Our relation with the stars is constitutionally nonreciprocated; in King of Comedy--the ur text of the abject fan--we watch in horror as Rupert Pupkin and Sandra Bernhard insist that the Jerry Lewis character return their intimate feelings toward him, having insanely exchanged their mutilated egos for identification with him as their image of wholeness, their ego ideal. We shudder as they act upon the imaginary intimacy projected by the professional goodwill of the star. Out-of-control fans on a spree, they have their way with him: they take him hostage, and strap him to a chair. Rupert literally becomes him, blackmails his way onto his show; Sandra first fits him with a sweater she knitted herself--"I'd like to see him more casual for a change"--then she alarms him further with a candlelit tete-a-tete: "I feel impulsive tonite . . . I wanna be black. I wanna be Tina Turner--dancing through the room!" At the climax of her narcissistic field day, she still wants to be someone else.

No wonder a celebrity sighting fills me with conflicted feelings of awe and obscenity, rustling up primal love/hate feelings of identificatory ambivalence that I'd rather not deal with.

I am a petty, bilious girl.

--Sandra Bernhard

What's not to love about this outspoken Jewess who loves to expose herself? Permanently marked as Madonna's ex-gal-pal, every time you turn around she's doing something fabulous: performing her "smash hit one woman show;" being on the Arsenio Hall show, Playboy, Larry King Live; hanging out with Roseanne, friend and model for the strongest voices shaping the couture of today. …

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