I first came across Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama in an art history graduate seminar at Yale. The course was on the ‘Ethics of Images,’ and the goal was to think about what images do, how they circulate and if, in fact, they have lives of their own. My final paper was called “Trademarks of the Runway,” and I was interested in whether or not the fashion runway and ad campaigns could be political spaces.
“Man, you have to read Glamorama!” the class shouted at me, practically in unison.
So I read it. And now, Glamorama is one of my favorite books of all time. I love it for the writing, for the glamour, and for the sex. One of the things that always stood out to me about Glamorama, as well as in other Ellis novels, is that the boys have sex with boys, who still have sex with girls and it’s all fine. They’re not, like, g-a-y. It’s just sex, which is how I think it should be.
Glamorama is a novel about the glamour, cool, and vapidity of the New York fashion industry. The thing may be nearly 600 pages long, but it’s written more like a movie script, so you can speed through it.
I think of it as an incredibly complex symphony with a couple pop songs sprinkled here and there, an effect of the running stream of consciousness narrative mixed with choppiness and vapidity of a Lady Gaga song. When fashion model Victor Ward, the novel’s main character, meets Baxter Priestly, a competing male model who Victor suspects is sleeping with his girlfriend, supermodel Chloe Byrnes, he’s described like this: “[an] NYU film grad, rich and twenty-five, part-time model (so far only group shots in Guess?, Banana Republic and Tommy Hilfiger ads), blond with a pageboy haircut, dated Elizabeth Saltzman like I did, wow.”
The “wow” that punctuates Baxter’s description may be a tiny word, but the placement is totally perfect. I’d translate it this way: “Wow” as in “so, like, the f-what?” or “wow” meaning “I’m like totally unimpressed, dude.” It’s not only literary, or maybe in fact purposefully not literary, but more of the street, of the moment, now. It sounds like something I would hear at one of my favorite coffee spots in Williamsburg. It’s stylistic genius – being able to translate the moment into words.
Glamorama appeared in 1998, following a roughly ten year explosion of fashion world glamour into the popular imagination. In that ten year period, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City comes out in 1984, and Brad Gooch’s Scary Kisses in 1988. Tom Wolfe described the vanity of 1980s New York in Bonfire of the Vanities. RuPaul becomes the first female impersonator to be the face of MAC cosmetics, and he also has a hit dance single, “Supermodel (You Better Work!).” Prada debuted its first “It” bag, and nearly every other luxury label followed. Claudia, Kate, Naomi, Cindy and Linda reached iconic status in homes all over America during the age of the supermodels. HBO’s Sex and the City dropped in 1998 and the series was on fire, with McInerney hitting the modeling world again with Model Behavior in 1998.
During this period – the age of glamour – fashion grabbed popular culture audiences by the neck, and we all became entranced by the velvet rope. “The better you look, the more you see” is repeated several times in Glamorama, and it is one of the most poignant soundbites I’ve heard. If you look deep, you can see what a person is really like, you can see their soul. Or if you look really fabulous, the more fabulous clubs you’ll be invited to or whatever.
Victor’s side project is opening a club of his own – what a hip thing to do! – and when he manages the guest list, we are treated to a who’s who of celebrity. Johnny Deep and Kate Moss are coming. So is Michael Douglass and Patrick Demarchelier. And as JD, Victor’s assistant, continues to read the names off the list like a grocer checking off brands at his store, Victor goes “More, more, more -” showing that he wants to be filled up as much as possible with fabulous people, like a dude who can’t get enough sex, or someone else who never does enough blow.
But despite all this fabulousness, true to Ellis’ style, there is a darker side to glamour. Midway through the novel, the way spookier half, Victor meets a certain Fred Palakon who gets him to leave New York to find his ex-girlfriend who hasn’t been seen in months. From there he gets involved with a ring of terrorists in Paris. The brilliant catch is that the terrorists are all fashion models who stash their bombs in CD players but also in Louis Vuitton or Prada bags, right at the moment when the “It” bag was starting to take off. For me, this was pretty scary and, in fact, it gave me nightmares for a long time. It’s satire, sure, but the critique of all this is about placing too much emphasis on the outside: “the better you look, the more you see.”
In our post 9/11 era, where people who “look” like terrorists are racially profiled whereas fashion models, who could be just as twisted, slide by unnoticed, the potential for danger is everywhere. This is the gross backside of glamour that nobody talks about. In that way, Glamorama plugs into contemporary art that deals with similar issues: I’m thinking especially of Marilyn Minter’s photorealistic paintings of high heels and bloody, bruised feet. Ellis loves glamour – so many of his novels are about glamour and excess, which is what makes him queer – but he thinks it’s as important to show the underside of glamour, too. Don’t get lost in the “surface, surface, surface.”
There is so much to love about Glamorama: if you’re, like, hip and cool, how can you not love it? This is a novel of excess, maybe too much cool, too much fantasy, too much sex. It’s totally okay to be plugged into the glamour as long as you keep a foot in reality. “The better you look, the more you see.”