by James Killough

CHAPTER ONE (cont.) - SHOOTING RACHEL  (For the previous portion of this chapter, please read here.)

London was as handsome as usual.  Despite how girly the men can be, the city itself is pleasingly masculine, feels as safe as a bank vault.  Paris is very femme fatale, a husky voiced former kept woman who now takes in strays and orphans like Brigitte Bardot.  New York is all guy, of course, all butch wise-guy swagger, Ayn Rand dressed as a concrete-and-glass leather daddy.  But New York is also the apotheosis of that American performance of masculinity: booming aggressiveness that is intimidating if you take it seriously, cartoonish if you don’t.


My hotel room in Mayfair wasn’t at all handsome, despite the façade of the building having given me tremendous hope when the cab pulled up to it.  The magazine had already paid for all five nights via money transfer, which took considerable badgering of Annette in accounts to arrange.  She seemed to delight in leaving everything until the last minute and inducing a panic attack in me.  Like when she didn’t pay a studio where I needed to shoot ninety days past the due date of their last bill, which meant they wouldn’t honor my booking, but I’d already informed everyone where we were shooting.  I had to sit there in her little cubbyhole papered with bills and invoices and pretend to be interested in her personal life until I’d wrangled an agreement that she would go and get the fucking invoice signed by Attilo, the magazine’s so-called editor-in-chief.  

I could never understand how the editor-in-chief of an ostensibly American magazine, which had already far outstripped its European parent in terms of circulation in its first six months of publication, could barely speak a lick of English.  Our editorial meetings weren’t so much meetings as they were impassioned, screaming pleas for justice before the capricious, chain-smoking magistrate of an imperial colony, who needed a translator to speak to the locals.  It was like working for a miserly sweatshop owner.  Annette, the keeper of the privy purse as well as this Grand Pooh-Bah’s translator, spoke Italian with a heavy southern accent that was soothing compared to Attilio’s sing-song, Germanic-sounding Milanese dialect.  My saccharine nemesis, Paula the copy editor, spoke a rigidly fluent version she’d perfected while studying for two years in Perugia, which made me grit my teeth listening to its utter lack of idiomatic inflection.  Paula’s Italian reminded me of that computer reading software, which pronounces every little syllable, rolls every R, and tries to fake breaths and vocal cadence.  But it’s still the voice of a soulless robot.

Bitch Paula was after my job, too, which made my tolerance of her Italian in these meetings even weaker.  And I was sure she was banging Attilio, even though he was supposed to be engaged to that ‘former’ hooker, Gisela Ansberger, whom Natascha was forced to use in a fashion spread once.  I had no proof that Attilio was screwing Paula other than my paranoia, but that was enough, and I made sure the whole office thought it was a fact.

So there I was in that dank London hotel room, which reminded me of a chintzy dollhouse that had been left molding for decades in the back of a leaking garage.  The corners of the mattress dipped upwards when you sat on it; I was sure to have a backache when I woke up in the morning.  The wallpaper had to have been the choice of a manic-depressive contract decorator, who was asked to come up with “subtle luxury” at three dollars a yard, and that triggered prolonged down cycle, which hopefully led to a change in career.  There was a damp spot the shape of Poland a foot in diameter near the electric teakettle, which made me feel nauseous, as if I my whole life was boxed into a central European totalitarian state ruled by a mad Milanese, and that led me to snort the last of the smack tucked away in my Filofax.

Feeling like I should at least pretend to be a professional creative, I switched on the news and unzipped the dresses for the next day’s shoot from the canvas garment bags.  Laying them out on the bed, I tried to imitate Natascha when she was styling.  I put a pair of shoes under the hem of the De La Renta lace gown, a paste diamante necklace around where a neck might be if Rachel Haymaker were lying comatose on the flopsy British bed. Then I stood back, put one hand palm-down on my hip like Natascha did, cocked my head to the side and went, Hmmmm.  The ornate necklace and the lace dress were too much together.  I felt like I was looking at a black version of one of those doily, overly decorated wedding cakes in Chinatown.  This was not what became a legend most. 

Natascha would make up a story to go with a look, which would then become the fashion story itself.  How did I envision Rachel Haymaker wearing this confection?  What was the tale that surrounded her on this occasion?  I got a flash in my mind of a New York society matron beaming for the cameras as she ascended the steps of the Met on her way to an opening.  The necklace covered her wrinkled neck, her smile pulled back the sagging flesh on her face and made her ten years younger: sixty-five.  Diamonds distract from wrinkles.  But I didn’t want Rachel Haymaker to be a tottering dowager in lace.  I wanted her to be sleek and cool and lashing executive, like she had been in Plexus fifteen years earlier.

If this were a model or a younger actress, I would have ditched the necklace, but Rachel was forty-seven.  What sort of a neck did a forty-seven-year-old two-time Oscar-winner have?  I suddenly wished we had a proper budget like Condé Nast and we could just pay some wonk to retouch the picture just in case her neck was a disaster.  Now I really hated the necklace, and Natascha hadn’t given me any backups.  Or I’d been so sure this would work that I hadn’t asked for any backups.  You know you’ve got a styling disaster on your hands when even heroin doesn’t make it look feasible.

I gave up and called my friend — okay, good acquaintance — Kiki Blake and whined and hinted and whined some more until she invited me to come stay with her.  But by then it was too late, and I was too stoned to pack everything up and move, so I kicked the De La Renta off the bed and passed out.  I dreamed that Jodie Foster was chasing me through the streets of Paris demanding in flawless French invective that I retract photos I’d published of her kissing a woman.

I slept badly, of course, and slept in because of the dope and the time difference, so I catapulted out of bed propelled by panic adrenaline, and staggered around wondering where I was and what that scratchy stuff was wrapped around my feet, which turned out to be the De La Renta dress.  I extricated myself and stuffed it back in the garment bag, like I was trying to hide the corpse of a debutante who had ODed.  At least I hadn’t thrown up on it.

They’d started hair and makeup by the time I got to Hemdale Studios.  I entered blaring excuses about how hard it was to get a cab in Mayfair, and despairing over the traffic; there’s nothing the English love more than a good complaint about their country, so I was off the hook instantly.  Lord Hemdale was nice enough, way hot for his age, with a gruff voice from too much smoking, one of those upper class Brits who affects sounding mildly cockney.  It worked for Hemdale.  He also had this perpetually puzzled look on his face that made you think you were his only concern in the world, and that was instantly seductive.

You could tell from the first handshake what had propelled his career to where it was; his pictures weren’t that great.  He stuck out his hand to shake mine, and my gaze dropped from the rugged smile down to the bulge in the crotch of his jeans.  It was impossible not to.  That would be like trying not to look at the tits of some really stacked chick wearing a Hooters t-shirt when that’s exactly what she wants you to look at.  All of those lusty art directors and dowdy fashion editors and Oscar-winning legends must have been drawn like mice to Brie over that package; ergo Hemdale’s unwarranted, sensational career. 

It’s not hard to take a good photograph once you’ve got the lighting down and have developed your ‘own style,’ which should be somewhat distinctive but so distinctive that the art director has to justify you to an editor-in-chief who is hovering over the light box with her face scrunched up like she’s not sure if she’s smelling a powerful new cologne or a run-over skunk.  Aside from being pleasantly competent and “a joy to work with,” the rest is convincing the decision-makers that you’re the dog’s bollocks, as the Brits say.  Being well endowed and having a face like Hemdale’s, plus his title, goes a long way to making you a superstar celebrity photographer and husband.

Me, I’m not into big dicks.  Don’t know what to do with them.  I didn’t like sex that much, anyway, back in ‘95.  I’ve certainly made up for it since, but when I was twenty-three it made me queasy.  It was all in my mind and I hated myself for it being all in my mind, for not being more relaxed.  I was angry at being a pseudo-bisexual heading in slow motion towards full gayhood.  My disgust for the culture was becoming exponentially more pronounced as the loudness of the culture itself increased.  The annual Wigstock festival seemed to be the ground zero from which the unrelenting shrillness of the New Gay was emanating.  Being homosexual was no longer furtive encounters in the dark of park bushes, a ‘vice’ to be hushed away during the day.  Now it was loud and ‘proud,’ big and frosty, but worst of all —shamefully, libido-shrinkingly — it kept reminding me of AIDS, and there was nothing I could do to stop my mind from being pickled with fear and disgust.

Natascha’s husband, Pascal, had a big dick, too.  Natascha delighted in making lascivious jokes about it, which she punctuated with a naughty giggle and a lusty bite of her lower lip like Bizet’s Carmen.  I imagine that the slight twitch of a grimace on my face when she made those comments must have amused her and egged her on.  We were closer to each other than we were to our respective siblings; we’d known each other for well over half of our lives — our parents had been friends — so we delighted in causing each other discomfort more often than not.  Natascha was convinced my occasional dalliances with men were “just a passing phase,” which contributed to my own hopes and beliefs she was right; her opinions all too often informed mine.  However, all that happened is the force of my will, bolstered by my best friend’s opinion, collided with my true nature with such force that it caused me to be celibate.

Hemdale wanted me to call him George, but he just wasn’t a George.  He was very much Hemdale.  Upper class English girls always seemed to have somewhat interesting names, like Camilla and Olympia, but the men were generally stuck with dull saints’ names, never with diminutives. 

“Madame’s upstairs,” Hemdale said, indicating the way to the make-up room with his eyes. 

Madame?  Uh oh.  There is no such thing as a completely amicable divorce, and from what I’d gathered from Rachel’s publicist, she and Hemdale were still waiting for the final decree.  And from what I now gathered from Hemdale’s dismissive eyelift and low growl, this was going to be one of the longest days of my life.

I felt oddly calm walking up those stairs to the pokey make-up room.  The only reason I’d chosen to do this shoot over one with Cher is because I was a huge fan of Rachel’s, although not necessarily of this “comeback” film she was doing this interview in the magazine to promote.  I had already seen an early version of it, and we were going to give it a lukewarm, if not indifferent review, which I’d already commissioned from a freelancer, having heavily suggested to him what to think.  The reason I didn’t scribble movie reviews myself is couldn’t tell which I hated more, Hollywood blockbusters or morose film festival dreck like this latest Rachel Haymaker comeback vehicle; at least Hollywood crap was honest and you got value for your buck in terms of production.

There she was in that wee room at the top of the stairs: Rachel Haymaker, legend, two-time Oscar-winner, perched before the vanity mirror with a terrified make-up gal behind her, her face plastered a dull uniform beige with foundation, wearing a scowl like Miss Haversham getting ready to sit at her rotting wedding banquet.  My own inner Hollywood switched on as I bounded into the room like this was the one of the more exciting moments of my life, which it was.

“Wow!” I said after I introduced myself, admiring Rachel in the mirror.

“What?” she asked.

“You are so much more stunning in real life than I imagined,” the sincerity of which melted Rachel enough to allow me to guide the trembling make-up troll with my impressionistic garble about how I saw her look for the first set-up in the De La Renta dead debutante lace gown.

Two hours later, after a mild tussle over the hair — I had wanted it up, but Rachel knew her neck wouldn’t stand the glare and correctly wanted it down — we were ready to try on the dress.  Rachel came out of the dressing room wearing that Miss Haversham frown I had worked so hard to dispel.

“I’m not sure…” she muttered, clutching the front of the dress to hold it up.

“Let me help you,” I said, and slipped behind her to zip it up. 

Oh, boy.  It looked bad back there.  As usual with all female film stars we photographed for the magazine, Rachel was not the dress size her publicist had assured us she was.  Folds of middle-aged back fat were sneering at me: “No fucking way!”

“Deep breath!” I ordered cheerfully, and tried to zip her up.  The zipper held for three seconds while Rachel gasped like a hefty Jane Austen character being strapped into a corset.  Then the whole back of the dress split open along the sides of the zipper, shredding the poor, much-abused lace all the way down to the base of the bodice around the side to the front, a couture dress-quake.

In that moment, I saw Oscar De La Renta smacking his bald pate and yelling at me: “¡Por dios!  Thirteen thousand dollars!  Ruined!”  But it was far worse than just a single destroyed couture gown I had disliked from the start.  If Rachel didn’t fit into this even with safety pins and duct tape, she wouldn’t fit into anything I’d schlepped from New York, which meant I was stuck in London not knowing anyone in the styling or magazine racket.  Natascha was an ocean away.

I had no shoot.


Proposed by diane pernet on Thursday 28 April 2011 at 09:44 PM

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