The stars didn’t sell out, the world sold out to them.
“How beautiful”, I thought the first time I saw Toulouse-Lautrec’s dramatic showgirls and Degas’ powdery ballerinas. “Poor thing”, I said the next time. I’d gotten older and someone had told me that the ladies with romantic skirts and painted faces were underage victims of pastime trafficking. Their leg-kicking stage presence was a storefront for syphilis-stained careers in prostitution. Poor, poor things, sold so cheaply.
Apparently, the connection between beauty and tragedy had to be taught, but the faith of those young, pretty dancers still echoes in culture. A century ago, to be pretty or charismatic meant being prey, to be eye-catching was a risk taken only by the desperate. The naked leg asked for attention – it was available for any mad dog to chew on. Showing off meant you had nothing to lose. Women with healthier prospects were kept safe and hidden, comfortable between thick fabric and heavy walls, far away from scenic performance.
“Pearl’s a singer”, Elkie Brooks sang, “She sings songs for the lost and the lonely, her job is entertaining folks”. It’s a sad song. Just like the women in the paintings of Toulouse, Pearl offered herself as entertainment for a living – a lifestyle still today marked by loneliness and exposure. Although all professions – or, lives, for that matter – depend on the ever-fading light of other people’s approval and attraction, this tendency is taken to its extreme in the life of the entertainer. It’s a destiny that can result in a blue Wikipedia link, but rarely a happy ending at the bottom of the page.
Although 20th-century stardom washed most of the dirt out of stage life, seeking ‘too much’ of a particular kind of attention comes off as cheap and whoreish, just like Degas’ ballet girls looked for his contemporary audience. In reverse, being unduly mysterious and publicly claiming to avoid the media is a way for performers to market themselves in the finer segments of the arts.
But since Skims got its multi-billion dollar valuation – many thanks to its founder’s constant ass-out, chest-up posing – sadness was perhaps finally removed from the showgirl equation. The world can’t avert its eyes from the sex-taped social climber, but now it’s her gain. As Kim Kardashian’s unprecedented success has become apparent, blowing her off as low class or bad taste becomes harder. Because the showgirls’ status has nothing to do with morale, it’s always been a question of power.
In “The Kardashians”, the rebranding of the reality show “Keeping up with the Kardashians” that made the family famous in the first place, scandalous stories are swapped for ones about ‘winning’. “We won!”, the ladies scream, sometimes for entire episodes. They win trials and cover stories, they win Paris Fashion Week and The Met. What makes the story somewhat relatable, even from the cashmere-covered inside of Kim’s private jet, is the sweet note of revenge. They didn’t sell out, the world sold out to them.
A few years ago, the only Hollywood girls picked by prestigious European fashion houses were the most private, tight-lipped of the bunch. Royalty-like and unattainable, clean verging on boring, was the female star that landed the big campaigns and got a seat at the grown-up table. Demnas’ Balenciaga and their collaboration with the Kardashians proved to even the most conservative that the showgirls’ vibe had finally shifted. This year, they even worked with Prada, although Kim herself confessed their clothes weren’t made for curvy women. Somehow, I suspect they’ll change their cuts before Kim accepts the more androgynous plea of high fashion.
There’re still a great many who want to renounce the current love story between media performance and hard power. Presidents should not have done reality TV, billionaires are not supposed to show their tits on the internet, why oh why is the world’s richest man on Twitter? An attitude that alludes to the most bizarre and unnatural stage of capitalism, where true strength was shown by hiding and covering, where stunning beauty was actually sad.