Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

We need to take back the future

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It’s become clear during this summer of discontent that 2016 is a terrible year. Climate change continues apace with June temperatures again breaking records, and the most shocking thing is how little we’re shocked. Far Right nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise in Europe and North America, creating an uneasy early 1930’s mood. Gun deaths continue unabated in the United States, as a carnival buffoon hijacks the party of Lincoln with racism and conspiracy theories. And high profile cases of people of colour killed by those in authority are almost-weekly reminders that systematic racism is alive and well.

The internet, while giving platforms for those who couldn’t previously get their voices heard, has also splintered the media. Different sections of the population literally believe different ‘facts’. Public distrust of everything from newspapers to governments is high. As the institutions that supported our parents and grandparents’ generations dissolve, social media further segregates Millennials, allowing us to share photos but not genuinely connect with one another.

And yet, 2016 may also prove to be one of the best years of my life. Going back to school for PR paid off and I have a new job at a company I can see myself staying at for awhile – for the first time in my life I have health coverage! I have a wonderful boyfriend with whom I’ve started looking for apartments. I have supportive and loving family and friends. I live in a city that, not without its problems, has events to go to every weekend, new restaurants and different neighbourhoods to check out, and in which my boyfriend and I can publicly hold hands with comfort.

The future is bleak. The future is bright. It really depends on the day.

Only a handful of months ago I wasn’t doing so well. I was stressed at work and developed an ulcer. I first had an ulcer in undergrad during a bad break up. It’s one of the only times of my university years I’m not nostalgic for. A lot of my anxiety came from entering a new career at age 30. Sure, I had journalistic skills that helped me advance, along with plenty of life experience, but I wasn’t easy on myself. I agonized about making mistakes. I felt like things should come more quickly than they did. I worried that, after so many years working at cafes in my twenties, I wasn’t cut out for a more grown up job.

When I wasn’t at work, I craved comfort. I had dinner with my parents a lot. I curled up in my room watching old TV shows on Netflix. I read books mostly about the past – histories of Druids and Celts, Barbara Pym novels, Old Hollywood biographies.

I have always been retro with a keen interest in the past, but in 2015/2016 my nostalgia changed, tinged with a bit of sadness. It became wrapped up in my memories of my childhood and missing my grandmother, who passed away in 2014. I listen to my iPod at work and whenever the theme song to ‘Pleasantville’ would come on, my eyes would mist up with tears. I have a collection of John Williams soundtracks, and the right combination of his movie tunes (for instance, the theme from ‘Jurassic Park’ followed by ‘Home Alone’) did it as well. And don’t even get me started on the Vera Lynn/White Cliffs of Dover songs I have, which remind me not so much of WWII, but of my grandmother, of course, ands summer nights of my childhood listening to the radio on the porch of my cottage.

As you get older, tears start to symbolize a different kind of sadness from when you were a kid – a sentimental emotion, happy memories tinted blue.

As a history person as well as a progressive, I’m not naïve about the past. I don’t actually want to live there. My life, as a gay man in an interracial relationship who enjoys all the benefits of a multicultural 21st century city (heck, Kirk and I met online!), I realize my life as it is would not be possible 15 years ago, let alone during the era of the American Songbook songs of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen.

What I really miss is a feeling, a sense of comfort and safety. I wish I had appreciated the years before university and digital disruption more, but when you’re a kid who’s had a charmed life you never really think things will change. I guess that’s what the quote ‘You can never go home again’ means. It’s not rational or logical, but that doesn’t make the feeling any less real.

It may be different eras and different outlets, but judging by such nostalgic travesties as ‘Fuller House’ I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. The past is cozy.

As much as I fundamentally disagree with their positions, perhaps that’s what’s fuelling supporters of Donald Trump or the Brexit in Great Britain – an unshakeable sensation that their world has changed, that things are getting worse, and a desire to turn back the clock. Their opinions are uninformed, their xenophobia about immigration dangerous, and their embrace of demagogic nationalism chilling, but perhaps that’s a root of their fiery passion.

One weekend a few months ago, when I was at my last job and had kicked out my boyfriend to do some work on a sunny Saturday, my best friend phoned me to invite me to Kensington Market. I told her that I was staying indoors pitching journalists and she proceeded to give me what amounted to an intervention over the phone.

“Yes, work can be stressful,” she said. “Yes, there’s not enough hours in the day. But you can’t close yourself off from your friends, or from the world. People miss you. I miss you. You won’t be happy spending all your time either working or cocooning at home.”

She was right. I closed my computer, called my boyfriend back and spent the rest of the day out in Kensington Market.

It’s not just your social life you have to keep up with. You have to engage with the wider world as well. In 2016, every week has brought upsetting headlines – ISIS, Orlando, guns, Trump. It would be comforting to tune them all out, and instead live in the world of books and Hercule Poirot mysteries. Perhaps I could drown out the great unravelling with the soothing songs of Tin Pan Alley.

But, like Prior at the end of ‘Angels in America’, I chose not to watch the terrifying beauty of the apocalypse from a safe distance. Rejecting the offer to stay in Heaven and embrace the serenity of death, Prior insists to the angels, despite it all, “I want more life.”

But if the last couple weeks of tragedy and strife have taught me anything, it’s that we need to do better. Things have to change. Systemic racism must be challenged and dismantled, and sometimes that will entail protests that inconvenience people. The Left needs to not descend into social media disputes and splinter along identity lines – the threat from the ultra Right is just too dangerous.

We need to mitigate climate change before it wrecks even more havoc. If people are worried about refugees now, wait until entire island nations disappear. We need to bring back the bees. We need to get rid of the guns. We need to combat rape and support survivors. We must stop the disproportionate murdering of indigenous women, and trans women of colour (which, once again, does not mean we don’t also want to stop the killing of white people). We need to use the internet to educate and emphasize, not dehumanize, divide and attack.

These changes won’t happen on their own. Change for the better never does. But we’re smart, and have access to more information than any other generation in history. We have to be committed. We have to step up. Our parents aren’t going to save the world. It’s ours now. And the very first step is to stay engaged and informed and invested. We can’t own the future by hiding in the past.

I’ll end with a quote from Dr. Seuss: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.”

Ten things I learned as a drag queen

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  1. Trying on dresses is less fun than in the movies

My boyfriend Kirk and I planned to do drag together for Pride weekend and the first thing we needed were dresses. Although we had some inspirations in mind, the makeup, wigs, accessories and overall personalities of our queens would come easier once we purchased our outfits.

“Why are you doing this again?” my mother asked over dinner. I couldn’t simply answer that we’d been binge watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, although the transformation of the show’s contestants from regular guys to Amazonian goddesses preyed on my mind.

“I want to look in the mirror and not recognize myself,” I explained. “And, for once in my life, I would like to feel the power of glamour.”

“The power of glamour…” my feminist mother repeated to herself, sceptically.

Kirk had never worn a dress before. While I had never performed in drag, I did wear women’s clothes for every Halloween of my undergraduate years, so compared to him I was a veteran. Our first stop was a vintage clothing store in Kensington Market. With a Janet Jackson video in mind, Kirk was on the lookout for a sleek green gown. I was open to whatever fit.

I swiftly learned the changing room mirror was not my friend. Maybe because I kept reaching for structured, sequined dresses from the 1960s and 1970s, there was always some problem—the waist was too tight, the length was all wrong, the straps wouldn’t fit over my suddenly-gigantic shoulders.

Rationally, I knew the dresses weren’t designed for my body, but you inevitably feel insecure when nothing fits properly. I even snapped at my sweet boyfriend when he pulled back the curtain and stepped in to help.

“Okay, we need to set up some changing room rules!” I exclaimed, like I was a teenager and he was my mom.

Kirk wisely asked for help from the woman who worked at the store. I’ll call her Hazel. She found him a shiny, pale green gown, half way between an Oscar gown and a prom dress. He called me into the changing room to see it on. It fit perfectly, hugging his frame in just the way to suggest female curves.

It was the very first dress he tried on. He bought it.

  1. Bearded drag queens are a thing

After that, Kirk became Hazel’s favourite. She pulled him over to the mirror and picked out different styles of wigs for him, cooing about his elegant bone structure. He chose a wavy auburn wig, styled in a Rita Hayworth, Old Hollywood way. After one stop, Kirk already had most of his ensemble.

To her credit, Hazel did find some dresses for me, delicately suggesting that I needed stretchy fabric. She found me a black, sequined shift with long sleeves. It fit perfectly, but lacked a certain pizzazz. If I were doing drag, I wanted to go all out.

So we took a break from dresses while Hazel found me some wigs. I particularly liked a short, 1920s-style bob that made me look like Velma Kelly from Chicago (if Catherine Zeta-Jones had dark facial hair).

“Oh, are you keeping your beard?” Hazel asked.

“No, I’m going to shave it off.”

“Oh! But you should keep it!”

“It’s just, not the look I’m going for…”

“But the drag queens are doing it now,”

“Yeah…”

“…like that Eurovision star. What’s her name?”

“I know, but if I keep the beard, I’ll still look like myself.”

“She looks amazing. Here, I’ll Google search her…”

“It’s fine.”

“Okay. Are you keeping your eyebrows?”

“I was going to cover them.”

“Oh, but you shouldn’t…”

After not finding the perfect wig, I tried on the black dress again and the zipper broke. I took it as a sign from the goddesses.

  1. With the right dress, you’ll know

As always happens, in the very last store we tried I found three dresses I liked.

One was a boxy, short dress with pink and white stripes. One was red, with a flapper-style drop waist. The last was short, with long sleeves, and a dramatic pattern of tropical flowers. The first one made me look like a circus tent, the second, Miss Hannigan from Annie. But the third—well, let’s just say that as soon as it was on, I called Kirk into the changing room.

“Is this the dress?” he asked, with a smile.

  1. Pick your name with care

Afterwards, we discussed our names over iced coffees. Our drag names would have to match our dresses. Kirk was playing with the word “kiki”, which is not only a name but a drag expression describing a party at which you indulge in bitchy gossip.

My dress had me thinking about California. The dress, I decided, was the kind of thing a Hollywood housewife would wear around the patio, pretending to be casual, but really trying to seduce the pool boy. Very Real Housewives of LA. I began to list Hollywood-type names.

“Lana…Lorelei…Lorna…”

“I like Lorna,” Kirk said.

“Yeah, it’s very Rodeo Drive,” I agreed.

“Fits with my dress.”

“Wait—I meant Lorna for me.”

“Did you? Weren’t you suggesting names for me?”

Before it became a full-fledged thing, we settled it. I would be Lorna Lamont, inspired by Judy Garland’s other daughter and the squeaky-voiced character from Singin’ in the Rain. Kirk would be Kiki Sapphire, because it’s simply a killer drag queen name.

  1. When it comes to wigs, blondes have more fun

 The next weekend, we bought high heeled shoes at the local Goodwill. You never realize how big and masculine your feet are until you try shoving them into pumps, as perturbed female customers watch you with furrowed brow. Heels were essential to both our looks, but we wisely chose chunky heels over stilettos.

For my hair, we took a suggestion from a drag queen I have on Facebook and went to a serious outlet—not a costume store but a one stop shop for wigs, weaves and extensions, where black women made a day of trying on different looks while their kids played in the aisles.

At first, I felt a bit inhibited. We were the only men there and I didn’t want the women to think I was treating the shop like some sort of joke. But when I tried on different wigs, and no one batted an eyelash at us, I began to have fun.

Due to my colouring, the first wigs I tried on were dark. But I became more and more interested in lighter shades. I realized it made no sense to talk of colouring—with the makeup I’d have a completely new skin tone, not to mention a completely new face.

We grabbed a long, straight wig with blonde tresses but dark roots. The ombre nature of it made it look like real hair. After a couple of looks in the mirror, I knew Lorna was meant to be blonde.

  1. Drag is cathartic

That evening, for practice, Kirk and I donned our whole ensembles and clomped around the house, I’m sure to the annoyance of the tenant downstairs. Despite the lack of makeup and the presence of facial hair, for the first time we inhabited our characters.

As we got drunk watching Sex and the City, we sassed each other. Something about being in the outfits gave us the freedom to make bitchy comments back and forth, and laugh them off. It led me to a new business venture idea: Drag queen couples therapy, in which both people get dressed up in wigs and heels, blow off steam and go back to normal ones the outfits come off. Patent pending.

  1. Don’t skimp on makeup

I consulted both drag queens and makeup artists. Nobody offered to do our makeup for free. I booked an appointment at MAC Makeup.

“I believe you have an hour-long option for $55,” I said to the woman on the phone.

“For drag makeup, it’s an hour and a half, and it costs $110,” she replied.

In my head I said, ‘Girl, you don’t know how pretty we are!’

It was more money than we planned on but, after talking it over with Kirk, we decided it was a once in a lifetime experience we’d remember forever.

It poured rain the day of our appointment. Our plan was to go to an outside drag event featuring Bianca del Rio, among other famous queens, and we didn’t know whether it’d be cancelled. I considered calling off the whole thing off, but we’d invested too much time and money to drop out now.

We brought our friend Dervla to MAC to take pictures of the metamorphosis. Kirk had a young female makeup artist with dark lipstick and the wide-set blue eyes of a 60s model. I had a male makeup artist who had done drag himself and was an expert at covering up eyebrows.

My eyebrows took the longest amount of time. He covered them with some kind of sticky paste, then blanketed them with foundation. Although we sat facing the same direction, I continually glanced at Kirk, who was always one step ahead of me. While his makeup artist gave him glamorous eyes that made him resemble Lieutenant Uhura from the original Star Trek, with my big forehead and invisible eyebrows I resembled Uncle Fester from the Addams Family.

Eventually my makeup artist drew me new eyebrows, highly arched and Hollywood. His expert contouring he gave me cheekbones.

“Can you contour my nose as well?” I asked. “I want a new nose.” Just as with my beard and eyebrows, if I kept the same nose I worried I’d still look like myself.

It felt real when the makeup artists referred to our faces as “her”, as in, “I’m going to give her pink eye shadow.” They did a thorough job and enjoyed themselves. At least, I hope they did, because the session that was meant to take an hour and a half lasted almost three.

  1. Not recognizing yourself in the mirror is the strangest thing

At some point, Kirk decided to not look at himself in the mirror until the look was finished. When he did, he exclaimed, “Wow, I’m beautiful!” And he was, pretty enough to pass but, remarkably, still looked like himself.

Being of a less patient nature, I glanced sideways at the mirror the whole time, as I transformed from Uncle Fester to someone a lot prettier. So it came as a shock when I put the wig on, looked in the mirror and everything snapped into focus—‘Who is that?’

Starring back at me wasn’t Max, but a blonde woman approaching middle age, with pouty lips and aggressive brows. I turned to the others.

“Whoa!” Dervla exclaimed. “Even though I know it’s you, it sounds like you and I saw the makeup going on, I don’t actually know who this person is. It’s freaking me out a bit.” She seemed poised to take a step back, as though actually afraid.

I couldn’t stop looking at it in the mirror. I was like Narcissus, in danger of losing myself in the reflection.

  1. Drag queens are both celebrities and anonymous

Despite the pouring rain, we put on our dresses and hustled down to the show, held at a converted parking lot in the gay village. I’m not going to lie to you—the constant rain was a pain in the ass. And it was freezing cold, which was tough on our bare legs. But our umbrellas made fabulous props.

During the performances, random people would come up, tell us how beautiful we looked and ask for pictures with us. Kirk in particular was good at responded gracefully, like a professional drag queen: “Oh, that’s very kind of you. Of course!”

But, at the same time, people we knew didn’t recognize us. A friend walked right by and didn’t make the connection until Kirk chased her down and explained who we were.

There’s a certain odd and intimidating power to losing yourself in a beautiful façade.

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  1. It’s easy to forget how you look

After I traded my heels for flip flops (“You’ll never get the shoes back on,” Dervla warned), after we left the event, wet and shivering, and even after picked up fried chicken, I still wasn’t ready to take off the makeup. Although it had been a long day, I didn’t want to stop being Lorna. As the time for the cold cream approached, I took a flotilla of selfies to capture her in the best light.

I realized what the problem was—everyone else spent the evening looking at my new face, but I hadn’t! It sounds nuts, but I didn’t realize I wouldn’t see myself the whole time. It didn’t occur to me that, when the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race look like goddesses, they can’t actually see themselves as they perform. They have to remember what they look like in order to summon the matching attitude.

It wasn’t enough to get a radical makeover. I had to believe the makeup was there to be a drag queen. Perhaps that’s why we’re so enamoured with selfies: they’re pieces of evidence of who we are and how people see us. I was Lorna on the outside, but it will take more practice for me to embrace the drag queen within.

You decide Canada’s future

You decide Canada’s future

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When Canadians go to the polls on October 19, they will not only vote for a political party or local candidate. They will vote on Canada’s future, on what kind of country they want us to be. Every election has long-term effects, but this time the issues are particularly crucial. Among other decisions, Canada’s next government must radically reform the Senate, take action on a changing environment and balance privacy rights with protecting Canadians from violence and terror.

Since the Senate expenses scandal first came to light in 2012, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the governing Conservatives have sought to create distance between themselves and Senators Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy, along with Nigel Wright’s infamous cheque.

Although not directly implicated, Senator Nancy Ruth unintentionally gave the Senate scandal its Marie Antoinette moment with her dismissive comments about airlines’ ice-cold Camembert and broken crackers. An Angus Reid poll in April found 45 per cent of Canadians want the upper house reformed, while 41 per cent would like to see it abolished all together.

Where do the federal party leaders stand? Reflective of his Western Canada background, Prime Minister Harper came into power with talk of Senate reform, only to appoint 59 Conservative Senators since 2006 (although none since the expense scandal broke). The Liberal party, despite its long history with the Senate, has, under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, recently expelled Liberal-appointed Senators from party membership. Only the New Democratic Party has been consistent on abolishing the Senate, although everyone, including NDP leader Tom Mulcair, knows how difficult it will be to revisit the Constitution.

The world’s climate is changing. Canada, with its energy sector and natural resources, has a role to play limiting the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. Despite claims this week from a spokesperson for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq that the Conservatives are the first Canadian government ever to achieve a net reduction of greenhouse emissions, Canada faces increasing international criticism for taking a back seat on environmental action.

Trudeau has pledged to expand carbon reproduction programs simultaneously with growing the oil industry, while Mulcair, a long-time critic of the Keystone Pipeline, seeks to kick-start clean energy production. Canada’s next prime minister must walk a delicate tightrope between nurturing our energy industries while protecting the environment.

With the Internet and the rise of massive data collection, the parameters of privacy will be one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. The federal Tories may have passed the controversial Bill-C51, which eases the exchange of federal security information, broadens no-fly list powers and creates a new criminal offence of encouraging someone to carry out a terrorist attack, but in doing so they have shifted the dynamics of the political moment.

Trudeau’s decision to support the Bill, while pledging to reform it if elected, allowed Mulcair to become the lead voice of opposition. Were the New Democrats to form the next parliament, amendments would strip Bill-C-51 of its most contentious measures. No matter what happens to the bill, the conflict between civil liberties and law and order is not going away.

These differences between parties don’t simply represent policy decisions. Rather, they represent fundamental visions of the function of government, the importance of issues and the future of Canada.

None of these issues are simple. Democratic choices rarely are. That is why it’s imperative that voters are informed, up to date and ready to cast their votes on election day. It is not just about political leaders and party proposals. It’s about Canada. It’s about the future. It’s up to you.

Black and blue and red all over

Frustrated male working on laptop at desk

In general, I keep the inanities of the 21st century at arm’s length. But even I fell down the rabbit hole when it came to That Dress. You know the one I mean. It must be the first time a dress worn by the mother of the bride made international news. (And I thought you weren’t supposed to upstage your daughter.)

A young Scottish woman uploaded the polarizing photograph after a debate with her friends and family. Is the dress white and gold, or black and blue? The argument went global, so social media experts and viral marketers will debate the poorly lit photograph of a nondescript dress for years to come.

As a fan of optical illusions and M.C. Escher, I wanted the mystery solved. My theory: the over-exposed background convinced some the dress was in shadows, so we saw it as darkened white, while in reality the blue and black dress was illuminated from in front. A New York Times article eventually agreed.

Graphic showing how different people saw the dress from the New York Times

Graphic illustrating how different people saw the dress from the New York Times

I never got the chance to crow about my discovery. By the next day, everybody had already had enough. Frustrated Twitter users told their followers to get a life.

I get it. Being on Twitter all day is as stressful as flipping channels—you see the same things, over and over again, but never in-depth. (Tumblr is similar, but the TV’s on mute.) People who use it the most are the first ones to develop Twitter Rage. If you’re on it, you need a way to accept popular memes without going crazy. It’s the nature of the beast, no matter how you dress it.

Holla for Hollett!

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Sometimes a loss isn’t an ending but a step towards a new end. I realized that at the nomination meeting for Jennifer Hollett, running as a New Democrat in the newly created federal riding of University Rosedale.

Last summer, desperate to help end our long municipal nightmare, I emailed everyone on the Olivia Chow mayoral campaign. Jenn, the campaign’s digital director, was the first to respond. Soon I was on the digital team and editing the campaign’s Tumblr. Previously, I used Tumblr for animated gifs of drag queens. Now it had a slightly more practical purpose.

Jenn kept me in the loop and made me feel I was a valued member of the campaign. The election may not have ended the way we wanted, but I’ll always be proud of what the digital team created.

Arriving at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre for Jenn’s nomination, it struck me how much I missed the campaign. We had so much work still to do. Judging by the familiar faces I recognized from the Chow campaign, I wasn’t the only one to feel that way.

Accepting the nomination, Jenn described her background as a CBC reporter and producer who asked tough questions on important issues.

“I had to move from asking questions to finding answers,” she explained. “So I left the media and joined the NDP.”

She acknowledged many feel cynical and disconnected from politics, but maintained it didn’t have to be that way. Surveying the crowded room, she declared, “We are politics. Politics is about people.”

Jenn said she didn’t know exactly when the election would be called, “but I do know the work starts tonight.” As a digital veteran, I’m poised and ready to tweet, link and tumble as soon as she needs me.

World Mastercard Fashion Week Day 3: Christopher Bates and Brunch

ImageGeorge Pimentel / Getty Images

The keyword in my invitation for the ‘Toronto Fashion Incubator Press and Buyers Brunch’ on Wednesday was ‘brunch’. As per usual, I had had only a cup of coffee and a banana when I got up so I was starving. I arrived at David Pecaut Square at noon—too early even for the street style photographers outside the tent waiting to not take my picture. Inside it was so dead as well I thought I had the wrong location. But the studio space where the brunch was held was brightly lit and buzzing with activity. About ten to fifteen vendors were set up with their clothing, accessories, and jewelry, but my eyes went straight to the back of the room where I spied tables of steaming breakfast goodies.

“No, Max,” I warned myself. “You cannot go straight to the food. Remember society. Mingle. Schmooze.”

I did a once around, stopping to talk to designers who piqued my interest. I complimented Muhammad Alamgir (for L’Momo) on a gorgeous aquamarine dress and Jon De Porter on his pearl concoctions, which turns out I had just seen in the VAWK presentation. I stand out was the Sappho line by Kim Smiley—bracelets made from lace that appear like intricate henna-designs on the arms and wrists.

“Okay, now I’m ready for food,” I thought. “I’ve earned it.” But all of the three little tables were occupied with brunchers. I could have grabbed a plate and stood with it, but as I am not the type to eat something without spilling on myself I decided against this course of action. Fortunately, I spotted Laura-Jean Bernhdardson of Clothing Collective with her distinctive red hair and cat eye glasses. I introduced myself. At the Standard I conducted a phone interview with her, but never met her in person.

“This sounds a bit high school, but…can I sit with you?” She said yes.

Pancakes, bacon, potatoes, sausage, fruit (of course)—they had quite the breakfast spread for us, but I couldn’t immediately get to it as the tables were blocked by reporters and cameramen following a little fancy suited middle-aged man.

“Who is he?” I asked Laura-Jean. “He looks very important. He’s blocking the food.”

It turns out the man in the suit was Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, who had a few kind words to say about the industry. “The designers I’ve talked to are living their dream,” he said. “And I think that’s wonderful.”

Speaking of suits, my only show that afternoon was Christopher Bates menswear. Bates always seems like he’s casting a particularly elegant James Bond film and this collection was no exception. He showed slim-fitting suits in black and grey, and sexy beige sweaters that highlighted the models pectorals. As for the models, the audience responded to a man with gleaming white hair and matching beard. (“Sexy Santa” I wrote in my notebook). My friend Dervla and I couldn’t decide whether he was an older man with incredibly good skin, or a younger man who’d gone prematurely white. Another mature model, squinty eyed and beard of salt and pepper, broke the fourth wall by making eye contact with members of the audience. He appeared to be flirting with the whole room.

“That got lady bits excited,” I said.

“Christopher Bates chooses models that look like him,” Dervla observed afterwards. “Just, in different incarnations of his life.”

She may be right. 

World Mastercard Fashion Week Day 2: Mercedes-Benz Start Up

ImageGeorge Pimentel / Getty Images

When my friend Jess Bartram and I entered the cavernous presentation space for the Mercedes-Benz Start Up presentation models were already standing on platforms on the runway, still like mannequins. On their boxes were little triangular spikes.

“I like their wee mountains,” Jess said.

It felt more like a performance art piece than a runway show and, as with every performance art piece, attendees looked a bit uncomfortable walking by the performers. Of course, it took about five minutes before people started taking selfies with the models, implacable as British guards.

“They are human beings!” I protested to Jess. “Well, they’re models, at the very least.”

The Mercedes-Benz Start Up awards up-and-coming designers and this year they chose two: Cécile Raizonville of Matière Noire (who showed first) and Malorie Urbanovitch. I suppose Raizonville saved some time by having the first models already on the runway because she played an extended intro of electric music and, projected on the screen, flashing satanic symbols—orbs, vertical lines, and triangles.

“It’s the Eye of Sauron,” Jess whispered.

“She’s trying to hypnotize the fashion critics,” I replied.

Considering the creepy, pagan atmosphere, Raizonville’s collection was fittingly “Noire”. She showed wide-necked square sweaters with asymmetrical, two part skirts—black wrapped around vibrant royal blue. Black and white abstract patterns on belts and sleeves called to mind African prints, while large shapeless coats referenced the late-1950’s silhouette. The designer demonstrated how subversive a baby doll dress can look when, in lieu of white or pale pink, you colour it black. On their heads the models wore small, helmet-like caps as though they were horse jockeys. A recurring full-moon motif on a handful of tops reminded me immediately of ‘Twilight’ series book covers.

In between the collections a group of white and pink t-shirted Fashion Week volunteers came out. There were scattered applause from people who may have been confused. The volunteers were there to remove the platforms with the little spikes, like stagehands during intermission. Maybe the applause weren’t accidental—WMCFW’s hardworking volunteers literally move mountains.

The difference between Matière Noire and Malorie Urbanovitch was the difference between night and day. The lights turned up bright and suddenly it was a sunny morning in California. A model with blonde, bouncy hair walked out in an oatmeal sweater, black skirt, and Doc Martin-esque boots. The nineties are back, my friend. Urbanovitch also showed wrap skirts, but in soft grey and acid yellow. I practically gasped at a baby blue sleeveless turtleneck.

“Yup,” Jess whispered. “Pretty sure I had that in grade 7.”

Shift dresses looked very soft and comfortable, as though they were made from shaneel. And a loose-fitting yellow coat looked ripped from the cover of Vogue circa 1997.

“It was very 1990’s TV,” I remarked as we got up to leave.

“Yeah,” Jess replied. “First were the vampires, then there was Buffy.” 

ImageGeorge Pimentel / Getty Images

A Fan Reacts to Sex and the City 3

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In one of the final episodes of ‘Sex and the City’ red-haired Miranda Hobbes, played by blonde-haired Cynthia Nixon, has proposed to her on-again-off-again boyfriend Steve “over three dollar beers.” She hates everything to do with romance and phoniness but, after she tells her friends of the engagement, Carrie, Charlotte and Samantha get misty-eyed verklempt. Getting up from the table because they’re “freaking her out,” Miranda says, “Samantha, I expected more from you.”

The line works because, of the four lead characters, Carrie and Charlotte were the optimist/idealists, while Miranda and Samantha the cynical/realists, although their personal philosophies came from opposite directions. Miranda was the show’s feminist voice while Samantha was a de-political hedonist—a male sexual ego trapped in a woman’s body. Just how inescapable that female body was becomes clear later in the same episode when Samantha discovers she has breast cancer, a risky and brave story line for the writers to insert in the final episodes. When she accidently lets slip her condition at the end of Miranda’s wedding, she reminds her: “No tears. Miranda, I expected more from you.”

While ‘Sex and the City’ will always be associated with Carrie and her musings (but look, I wrote two paragraphs and didn’t even mention Big!) the trajectory of the show more resembled the development of Miranda and Samantha, who both had to let go of some cynicism and independence to accept that love was possible. It’s why, after Steve cheats on her in the first movie, Miranda’s line “I changed who I was for you,” cuts so deep.

Although Carrie had to get over her sarcastic reaction to Petrovsky’s romantic gestures, that didn’t work out too well for her. She ended up with Big, the man who had constantly let her down but she loved regardless. The series started as a tribute to chain-smoking, mid-thirties negativity (“Welcome to the age of Uninnocence,” Carrie voice overs in the first episode) but eventually became one of the most unabashedly romantic shows on TV.

Funnily enough, I think personally I’ve gone in the other direction. I started out with Carrie’s idealism, tested Samantha’s joie de vivre (the polite way to say it), and have settled somewhat on Miranda’s snarky skepticism. It’s maybe what happens in your twenties. But as both a first and second generational fan (I watched it when it first aired, sneaking downstairs late at night to watch it on the family TV as a teenager, and then shared every episode on DVD with my university friends) I will always stand by the show, even as the cultural cacophony has moved against it. After the economy crashed, Carrie’s shopping and trendy restaurant name-dropping instantly looked dated. Entire series have been created as rebukes to the fictional world of dating in New York that ‘SATC’ espoused. But it will continue to irritate me that in an era of philandering, drug-dealing, serial killing, male ‘anti-heroes’ Carrie Bradshaw is the one routinely described as a ‘bad person’.

The movies didn’t help. And I say this as a fan who watched both in the theatre and owns both on DVD. (Even the second one, yes.) There are scenes from both films I enjoy and, if I had any digital editing skills I would put them together into a passable thirty minute long episode, as I heard someone did with ‘Star Wars’. But the final three episodes, in which Carrie gives up her column and moves to Paris, were so perfectly conclusive there was no reason for a first film, let alone a sequel. I will say this for the much-maligned ‘Sex and the City 2’: I appreciated the theme, which was something about it being okay for women to speak their minds, much more than that of the first one, which was ‘forgive the one who love no matter what they do to you’.

I believe screenwriter Michael Patrick King deserves a lot of the blame. From what I’ve learned, the writers’ room for the series was a chattering place where the writers’ bad dates and misadventures in love were worked into episodes. Those different experiences and perspectives became the different voices of the characters and were essential to the chatty spirit of the show. The movies, in contrast, are subdued and quiet, the silence becoming all the more obvious with feature length runtime. He also deserves the blame for completely misreading the zeitgeist and sending the girls on a frothy vacation to Abu Dhabi, a sojourn that pleased no one.

What I’m saying is I can’t handle another movie. Which is why I was glad to see Miranda’s alter ego, Cynthia Nixon, holding out on signing up for a third film. Nixon, New York City’s most famous activist lesbian mom, has always come across as the most down to earth of the actors, and her non-involvement would make it impossible for the show to go on. (For the record, Chris Noth was also as noncommittal as Mr. Big.)

Sarah Jessica Parker, an actor I admire and will always have a deep affection for, seems unable or unwilling now let the character of Carrie go. When she came up to Toronto to open a Target store she wore a big season 3-style flower pin. She’s a professional Carrie now. It was only a matter of time before she started a show company.

Meanwhile, Nixon appears happy with doing the odd bit of theatre, the odd bit of TV. She told the press it would be okay if they let the series end. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, Nixon told the ‘Today Show’ she’d “absolutely” be on board for a third movie. (My question: who got to her? Was it Kim Cattrall?) I understand that working actors need money and movie studio pay cheques allow them to continue to pursue the life style they’ve become accustomed to, but there are bigger issues at stake. ‘Sex and the City’ is what the four lead actors will be remembered for, unless ‘Failure to Launch’, ‘Rampart’, ‘Cross Roads’ or ‘The Shaggy Dog’ become cult favourites. (Actually, ‘Cross Roads’ might be already.) They should let the beautiful series finale speak for itself. They should hang up their Manolos and call it a day. Lastly, they should consider how I feel, the lifelong fan who defend ‘SATC’ till his dying day, but wants to talk about Paris and Petrovsky and not camel toe sight gags. I hope one of the actors comes to her senses.

Miranda, I expected more from you.

World Mastercard Fashion Week Day 1: VAWK

ImagePhoto: George Pimentel / Getty Images

I keep saying I’ve retired from fashion writing but, like Cher with her unending farewell tours, it never seems to stick. Through WORN, the Toronto Standard, and befriending the right PR women I ended up on several media contact lists and consequently was invited to a handful of shows during Toronto’s World Mastercard Fashion Week. I decided to attend because I do enjoy runway shows, and playing ‘spot Stacey McKenzie’, but this year I didn’t want to go on my own. While I never did this when I covered the shows for the Standard this time around I asked for plus-ones for every presentation I was invited to. Remarkably, the PR women indulged me. I wanted to bring my friends to fashion week to give them a peek into this glamorous, crazy world, and they’re useful for snagging extra Peroni drink tickets.

First up was Sunny Fong for VAWK. Sunny and I go way back (and by that I mean I rooted for him when he was on ‘Project Runway Canada’). Also one time I approached him at Starbucks and said I was a fan. His whole face turned into a bashful smile. He’s just the cutest of elfin men.

His collections are also reliably excellent, often inserting some cheeky fun and much-needed model diversity. His Autumn/Winter 2014 collection promised to be interesting. It was officially touted as a collision of classical and modern, blended with the luxury of Dubai and the organic style of ‘90s street fashion.” I couldn’t really picture that (Salt-N-Pepa mixed with Abu Dhabi via ‘Sex and the City 2’?) but couldn’t wait to see it.

The resulting concoction was quite different than what I expected. It could have been subtitled ‘Fifty Shades of Black’. While I get a bit exhausted with the fashion industry’s obsession with monochrome, the collection demonstrated what a talented designer can do with limited colour. My favourite piece was early on—a black leather jacket with silver snakeskin sleeves which, under the glaring lights, shone like a suit of armor. Underneath the model wore a long diaphanous cape that flowed out the back like a train. The jewelry was restricted to large silver pedant necklaces, as you might see in a Renaissance portrait. Whether pants, skirts, or floor-length dresses, most of the pieces clung to the body tightly. When combined with the models’ straightened hair and dark eye makeup, they gave the show a ‘Morticia Addams goes to the Oscars’ air. 

And just when I was worried about diversity (while the models were multi-ethnic they were all of the same body type, with a couple looking dangerously skeletor) ultra marathon runner Amy Winters headed down the runway with a beautiful, intricate metallic prosthetic leg, designed by the Alberta-based Alleles Design Studio. There were whispers, then scattered applause, as the attendees noticed the reason for her distinctive gait.  After the show I spotted Winters, having switched back to her everyday prosthetic, carrying the unique one around in a complimentary tote bag. Hopefully she’ll have another excuse to wear it soon. 

ImagePhoto: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

The Harvey Girls, Judy and the Limits of Camp

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Illustration found here

Every Millennial at one point or another will have to answer the inevitable question, “Are you a hipster?” (Every Millennial who wears glasses and has some sort of interest in the arts, at least.) I faced the question at a wine party last year and replied in the negative. I admitted some of my fashion choices may fall in with the cliché of the hipster (though I never succumbed to skinny jeans, aviators or wolf sweaters), but my music taste is much too ‘top forty’ and my personality too earnest.

“Oh, come on, Max!” my friend Amy shot back. “You’re such a hipster! You read the New Yorker.”

“Since when is that a hipster publication?” I cried. “It’s not VICE.”

“The hipster thing wouldn’t be VICE anymore,” someone else chimed in. “It’d be the New Yorker.”

Obviously, we settled nothing that night. I bring this up to illustrate that identities are complicated and how others see you is often vastly different from how you see yourself. While I will continue to shriek in protest against the label ‘hipster’ until my dying breath, there is one label I’m totally at ease with.

I’m gay.

And I use that word purposefully. I’m not a ‘man who sleeps with men’. I’m not ‘attracted to masculine performance’, as one guy I met convolutely defined himself.

Every generation has to redefine sexual identities for themselves and it’s a wonderful development the struggle for equal rights has expanded to include lesbian, bisexuals, transgender, two-spirited and intersex individuals, among others. (Lesbians were a part of the gay rights movement from the very beginning, but men managed to hog the spotlight. It’s what men do.) A scan of news headlines, from Russia to Uganda to Toronto’s City Hall, demonstrates the fight has only begun.

But speaking personally, I like the word ‘gay’ and I’m proud of gay culture and history. All sorts of pieces have claimed the death of that word or identity, from Foucaultian academic treatises to blog posts. But I’m not done with it yet. If anything, like the child of immigrant parents, learning about gay history and culture helps me feel connected to my past forebears. It helps me understand who I am.

For example, learning about gay history put my camp humour into perspective. I can’t tell you if I was born with it or it was somehow learned (these are debates too big for WordPress) but I do know from a young age I acted with a little camp performance. By ‘camp’ I don’t necessarily mean effeminate, although that’s part of it. Rather, it’s living life as though you were on stage, doing things as though they were in quotation marks. There’s a home movie of my little brother and me sitting on the kitchen floor, banging on coffee tins with wooden spoons as if they were drums. When my mom asks me what I’d like to play, 6-year old Max taps his fingers on his chin and looks off dreamily.

“Let’s see,” he says, overacting the process of thinking. “What should I play?”

In contrast, when it’s my brother’s turn he immediately starts banging the wooden spoons like he’s Animal from the ‘Muppet Show’.

Performativity is a part of how I speak to this very day. Every third sentence that comes out of my mouth is in quotation marks. Sometimes they’re direct quotes from movies or TV, but mostly they’re the type of thing you’d hear in fiction. I’m asking the listener, with exaggerated language and tone of voice, to understand I mean them as clichés.

On occasion, this habit gets me in trouble or someone fails to understand the joke. It’s probably more difficult when English isn’t your first language. When I lived in Dublin I worked with a girl named Daria who was from Mongolia. She spoke English very directly. Once she told me, “I didn’t like you at first, but now I like you.”

When I got a minor promotion at work (I don’t even think a raise was part of it), I turned to her and, waving my head around flamboyantly, said, “Now that I’m the ‘coffee master’ for the café I don’t want you to treat me any differently. I’ll never forget where I came from. I want you to know that, truly.”

She stared at me blankly. “Why are you saying this?”

Camp is very complex to define, but one of the most succinct summaries comes from Steven Cohan, author of ‘Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical’: “Camp can be defined as the ensemble of strategies used to enact queer recognition of the incongruities arising from the cultural regulation of gender and sexuality.” In an era of deep oppression, camp allowed gay men to both engage with the discriminatory dominant culture while mocking it in a manner invisible to outsiders. Sociologist Esther Newton, who interviewed drag queens in Chicago and Kansas City in the 1960’s, said the main tenets of camp are incongruity, “its subject matter”; theatricality, “its style”; and humour, “its strategy.”

By treating a minor promotion at Starbucks as a Broadway star would talk about landing the lead role, her name emblazoned in glittering lights, I gently mocked the absurdities of being a minimum-wage-earning barista. Camp also might explain why, when I have to be assertive, I imagine myself as Joan Crawford, Margaret Thatcher or Elizabeth I (as played by Cate Blanchet), rather than any of the aggressive male personalities available. I’m playing at being angry so I can float above it.

Which leads me to Judy. In first year university I read Gerald Clarke’s biography of Ms. Garland, ‘Get Happy’. I became a bit obsessed with her and I couldn’t figure out why. I grew up on MGM musicals it’s true, but I watched ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘American in Paris’ far more than ‘The Wizard of Oz’. (Gene Kelly’s ass is just as likely to turn you gay as anything Garland ever did.) Perhaps, I thought at the time, I related to Judy’s personal struggles, often the explanation people give as to why gay men appreciate her. At the time I was a popular undergrad with many friends but no boyfriend, which sometimes plunged me into feelings of loneliness and unattractiveness. Judy Garland was loved by countless fans but never felt intimately loved enough. It’s a human tragedy with no solution.

Lastly, as a cultural history buff, I liked the era that Judy’s career spanned and the change you can see in American pop culture from Rooseveltian patriotism to 1960’s cynicism. (It’s probably a good thing that near the end of her life Garland was fired from ‘Valley of the Dolls’ in which she had been cast as Helen Lawson, a cruel caricature of herself. It may have damaged her reputation in the manner Joan Crawford’s was bludgeoned by Faye Dunaway’s wire hanger.)

But ten years on, after watching ‘A Star is Born’ every year and reading everything I could get my hands on camp and gay history, I think I have a better explanation. Judy Garland performed with a camp attitude, including her over the top singing style and her delivery of lines as though they were in quotation marks (which of course as scripted lines they were). Her singing voice gave more emotion than her films usually called for, while her awkward, fidgety acting suggested discomfort with the Ohioan girls-next-door she was often asked to play. Unlike Joan Crawford, who is appreciated as camp but not a camp performer herself (her caramel voice always oozed sincerity), Garland wins out with gay audiences because she seemed in on the joke.

Why Judy performed this way is up to debate, although I think Roger Edens, musical arranger, gay man and longtime friend of Judy who taught her how to sing for the camera, along with Kaye Thompson, another music arranger and author of the Eloise books, who taught her how to move, have a good deal to do with it. Garland was a mimic who entertained her friends by impersonating people they knew. Not hard to imagine, given all the gay men surrounding her (including a couple husbands) that she would start acting camp.

I like the Garland-as-camp-performer theory better than the Garland-as-sad-sack-and-gays-are-also-sad explanation because it gives Judy agency. As well, it explains why gay men who grew up long after the Stonewall riots, when camp was supposed to disappear with the smashing of closet doors, might still be interested in her. (I know I’m not the only one.) As David M. Halperin wrote in ‘How to be Gay’, times have changed but little gay boys still need strategies to cope with and find a place within a dominant heterosexual culture.

Re-watching films I’d grown up with I saw Garland’s campiness over and over again. I also saw myself. In ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ Judy’s character is a lovesick teenager and the part would have been dull if played by another musical actress. Director Vincente Minnelli got mad at Judy when they started filming for mocking the lines. The story goes that Judy eventually came to trust Minnelli, turned in a sincere performance and the pair ended up married. But watching the movie now I see traces of Garland’s tongue-in-cheek attitude, as though she’s whispering to the audience, “Oh, as though I’m supposed to be silly teenager from Missouri!”

Before a dance, while Judy’s character Esther and her sister are getting ready, she folds her hands and says in a matter of fact voice: “I’ve decided I’m going to let John Truett kiss me tonight.” Her sister is scandalized and says you’re not supposed to kiss until after you get engaged. (It’s supposed to be 1904.)

“Men don’t want the bloom rubbed off,” she claims.

“Personally, I think I have too much bloom,” Esther says as her sister walks away. “Maybe that’s the trouble with me…” She then pinches her cheeks (turn of the century rouge) and flutters her eyelashes at herself in the mirror in a mock pretty-girl flirtation. She then drops the mask, sighs at herself and gets up from the desk. It’s the type of thing I’d do.

 

But there are limits to my fandom. Judy couldn’t single handedly rescue every picture. I finally made it through ‘The Harvey Girls’ (1946), a movie which I tried to watch years ago but gave up after it completely lost steam after its big “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” musical number. Set in the 1890’s, and oh you should see the size of their puffy sleeves, what little story there is centres on a group of waitresses for the Fred Harvey restaurant company, the first chain restaurants in America. (Sadly, unrelated to the hamburger joint Harvey’s.)

According to the film’s introduction, “When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants farther and farther west along the lengthening tracks of the Sante Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had know… the Harvey Girls…these winsome waitresses conquered the West as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons…Not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee.”

‘It’s a good thing the land was empty for all these white people to come and serve beefsteak,’ I thought. Then in the big “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” number, when all the “winsome waitresses” arrive at the sleepy cowboy town of Sandrock to bring civilization and coffee, the filmmakers dare to include Native Americans as extras, or at least actors meant to be Native Americans.

‘Oh,’ I said to myself. ‘There’s the civilization that white people eradicated by way of railroads and chain restaurants!’ As the Native American extras bob around merrily to the song, the women sing about all the different states they’ve come from. They’re in the Old West to be waitresses but really to be wives, and the cowboys of the town leer at them approvingly while tightening their brightly coloured handkerchiefs.

‘But wait,’ you ask. ‘Weren’t there women in the town before?’ Not really, unless you count sex workers as women. The movie is from the 1940’s so it doesn’t call them sex workers. But at the end of musical number the waitresses look up to see a group of feather headdress-wearing, corseted showgirls glaring down at them like vultures from the balcony of the saloon. These are the ‘bad girls’ who entertain the single men with booze, gambling, and whatever else. They’re threatened by the arrival the Harvey Girls, who may marry their customers and straighten out the town. The extinction of their way of life, and not that of the Native Americans, is the subject of the film.

The most fun casting is that of the head bad girl. She’s played by Angela Lansbury, who puts on a tough, world-weary accent. (Sadly, they dubbed her singing voice. It would have been fabulous if she had performed her songs like Mrs. Potts!) She gets the best outfits, though—sequined monstrosities that make her resemble a Christmas tree. MGM let the gay men in the costume department go a little far. 

As Judy becomes a Harvey Girl and their schoolmarmish boss instructs them on always having a clean apron (they look like freakin’ nuns) and the rules of costumer service, I rolled my eyes and shouted at the screen, ‘Oh, shut up!’ When Garland and Lansbury start competing for the same man you can’t help but route for Lansbury. Who decided that a movie about goody two shoe waitresses was more interesting than one about showgirls?

Most disappointing, Judy doesn’t subvert any of her characters lines, nor does the film undermine any of its sexist and racist themes. In real life, Fred Harvey chose the prettiest girls as waitresses (something the film implies), which doesn’t seem that far off from pimping. He also hired actors to play Native Americans to provide ‘local colour’ for tourists. While it was still going on, the Old West had to be faked for white audiences. Even for MGM of the 1940’s, this is an insanely conservative Americana movie, managing to combine Manifest Destiny, fast food, and the post-WWII move to shove women back into the home.  

I would love to remake ‘The Harvey Girls’ as a stage play/drag show, using the same songs and basic plot but with the opposite point of view—the ‘bad girls’ as the protagonists and the priggish waitresses as the villains who ruin all the fun. Although there may be some movies, Judy or no Judy, that are beyond rescue. 

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