The Beatrice Interview

Cintra Wilson

"That's how fucked up fame is; look what it did to Michael Jackson."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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As Salon columnist Cintra Wilson and I chat over lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Brooklyn's fashionable Williamsburg district, she reveals under questioning that her favorite authors are people like Hunter Thompson and Lester Bangs, writers that she admires for their "funny, witty, nasty, canine writing." It's a style that's on ample display in her own debut collection of essays, A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined As a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations. The pursuit of celebritydom is "like a relationship with a dysfunctional boyfriend," she proposes as the waiter refills our iced teas. "First you get the fake tits, then you get the big hair, then the different clothes. You sacrifice everything that people fell in love with you for, and then you're not anything like the person he started out with, so he leaves you."

RH: How did you get the Salon column?

CW: I was a playwright in San Francisco, and I was doing a lot of acting in avant-garde theater. I was also writing articles for a stupid magazine called Frisko. When Gary Kamiya left there to go work for David Talbot at the San Francisco Examiner, they hired me to do some stuff, including the advice column, "Cintra Wilson Feels Your Pain," which is still running every Friday. And when they left to do Salon, they asked me if I wanted a column.

The column used to be about whatever I wanted to write about, and I'd do things like phone calls with my mom, but through the editorial process, we all discovered that my writing was better when it was focused on specific things, especially celebrity culture...since I was usually irked at that the most.

RH: So what is it about celebrity that pisses you off the most?

CW: The way people revere it as if it's something that it's not. The way they're so convinced that celebrities are the only people leading the life that everybody deserves. Everybody's got this feeling that they've been cheated because they aren't Gwyneth Paltrow or Mel Gibson, like that's the life everybody should have. They get everything, all the love in the world, the riches and the talent and the luxury... And the thing is, these people didn't just get all that. They did it by selling themselves utterly to the system, by compromising themselves in ways that are really atrocious, psychically atrocious.

RH: Even, in some cases, by surrendering their bodies and their features.

CW: Women have it really bad. It never stops amazing me...Renee Zellweger, to me she looks like she's about my size, we're about the same height. But she weighs 25 pounds less than I do. I'm happy with my weight, it's a good weight for me, but you know, "the camera adds ten pounds, it adds twenty pounds..." So you have stick people running around, and that becomes the norm.

RH: Look at the backlash against stars like Kate Winslet or Alicia Silverstone when they do so much as put on a few pounds. They're not fat!

CW: They're earthy. They're pretty. Kate Winslet's a babe. But, yeah, by Hollywood standards she's absolutely obese, and that's absurd--she's a beautiful woman.

I talk a lot in the book about things like Courtney Love's nose jobs. I think she's had maybe five of them at this point. Every year it's a new nose. It's Michael Jackson syndrome. P oor Michael Jackson. That's how fucked up fame is; look what it did to Michael Jackson. We took an innocent six year-old boy, pushed him through the hall of knives, and this is what came out. If that's not indicative of something really rotten, I don't know what is.You get people who transmogrify themselves into these creatures that don't remotely resemble themselves; they only resemble this ideal of immediate, right-this-second beauty. To me that's just nihilistic, it's self- abnegating. It's a disturbing annihilation of self.

But I'm very much a minority in this opinion. Most people I know will just say Courtney Love's a successful example of cosmetic surgery. Jesus, that's successful? To me, it's a successful suicide. It just shows how violently her own face has been subjugated to this ideal of beuaty and celebrity that's mostly in her own head at this point. I knew Courtney vaguely when she was in San Francisco, and she was desperate for fame because everybody hated her. It was an "I'll show you!" attitude. Being famous is a big "fuck you" to everybody she went to high school with. It's just a huge tantrum.

RH: As somebody who's worked in the entertainment industry, and worked towards some degree of recognition, at what point do you start getting pissed off enough about the negative aspects to make your stand?

CW: There was one critic in San Francisco--the one negative review I've seen for the book--by a woman who erroneously called me a "failed L.A. actress." That's totally not true; what really happened was that I'm an actor second and a writer first, and I really like writing my own stuff. I liked writing my plays, and I liked writing for Salon because they let me write what I wanted to write. And I realized after I moved to L.A. that I wasn't going to be able to write like that. They wouldn't let me write what I wanted to write, nobody would support what I was doing because it wasn't mainstream enough. And to be an actress is just the worst, most bottomsucking, torturous mess of a job you could want there. It's just so appalling, so abhorrent to me that I didn't even try to be an actress in L.A. Not for one moment.

You quickly realize that if you're in L.A. and you have anything original to say, run as far away as you can. That's not where that kind of thing gets done. They don't appreciate it, they don't want it... You may run into people who like you, who will tell you they think your stuff is great, but they'll never use it. I hit that wall a lot, and I just didn't want to hack down my mission statement to a point where I could accept being a staff writer for Dharma and Greg, you know?

There were points, even before I moved to L.A., at which I knew that if I did certain things, I could have become somewhat famous. I could have become a standup comic, and I didn't pursue it, even though I got a lot of attention and encouragement the few times I did it. It wasn't what I wanted. I could have focused more on acting, or I could have written specific types of things. But I didn't want to do the things that were required of me. There are some people who are like, "Where's the rabbithole? I want to go down the rabbithole?" They don't care what they have to cut off to fit in the hole. But my ambition was never big enough to do that. I'm happy to do the things I'm doing.

RH: So how did you end up in New York?

CW: It was a combination of things. I've always liked the city, the energy here. I like walking down the street, and I like being able to dissolve into total anonymity. In San Francisco, I was always too big, too weird, for my britches, and in Los Angeles, I was too iconoclastic. Here, there's a lot of other strange, interesting, creative people, so I'm almost a wallflower.

RH: When did the column turn into a book?

CW: It hadn't occurred to me that there was a book in this, really. David Talbot had been taking a bunch of meetings with publishers, and he kept telling them that I should have a book. Then I got picked up by an agent, and all of a sudden I had a book deal. It was all so quick and sudden and strange. I didn't know what I was going to be writing about at all; I thought I'd end up like Nietzsche and write a whole book full of aphorisms. Probably about a whole bunch of things I have no business talking about.

RH: Your advice to writers is pretty harsh: "If you want a trophy, go learn how to bowl. If you want to write, God help you."

CW: It's not fun. Writing's a terrible job. You really have to like writing, and I don't like it that much. The great thing about writing, I decided, is that it's not acting. When you're acting, you can't rewrite it. When you fuck up on stage, you can't take that performance away from the audience that witnessed it, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many great performances you have after that. At least with writing you can tinker with it enough that you can get pretty much what you meant down before you let other people see it.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
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