Portraits of America #6: The Girl Who Loved People As They Are

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This is a drawing of me by my just married friend ε.

We have the same age. 1983 was a good year for babies.

We met at Brighton University when we were 22. We both had more cheeks and less hair. She was studying painting and I remember her saying: “I think my painting needs hot pink. That’s what it needs.” I don’t know why this quote stayed in my head all these years. She had asked me to write on a little paper a line from the movie Amélie that she was obsessed with: “Je ne suis la belette de personne” (“I am no one’s little beaver”). Years after, she was still carrying it around in her wallet.

She generally is a multi-talented girl, like all my friends. But to me, her main skill in life is her propension to love people as they are. It threw me off in several occasions. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her talk bad about anyone, which certainly doesn’t mean she’s naive or candid. When someone would make me want to slap them in certain situations, she would simply say: “This is how he/she is.” She is the incarnation of acceptance.

I owe ε my last American autumn tour, as I traveled to Chicago for her wedding, shortly after some guy had tried to set the airport control tower on fire. It took ages to get there. I’ve been to very few weddings in my life, because the people in my circles don’t get married much. They are outsiders, single or broke. It was my first close friend’s wedding.

I therefore was a maid of honour for the first time, with the bunch of my fab American friends that goes by the name of “Whore House”. We are an army of strong women, thus spoke the bride.

We rehearsed a little bit before the ceremony. The bridesmaids had to walk two by two down the aisle. I was wearing my rainbow fake fur coat (the one all over this blog) above my maid of honour gown to keep me warm in the autumnal Illinois weather. A few moments before we were all going on “stage”, ε, in her vintage elegantly sober bridal dress, looked at me and my crazy outfit and told me: “I want you to keep your fur down the aisle.” -“Are you sure?” I asked with astonishment, because it was so anti-wedding and I was afraid of ruining the chic of her ceremony with my extravaganza. She was. This is you.” She wanted me to look like myself, even under solemn circumstances.

Who else on earth would have let me do this? It meant the world to me. This is NOT anecdotic.

Many contradictory thoughts crossed my mind at top speed. A series of flashbacks of many ordinary instances of my life where I was asked, advised or suggested to change something in my outfit or in myself unraveled in my head. Past memories were colliding with present gratefulness.

I grew up in France and I spent half my life hearing comments about what I wear – and implicitly, about what I am and how I live. Invariably, whatever adjective was picked, it would be preceded with “too” : too provocative, too casual, too mismatched, too ruined, too original. What could have been great compliments always turned into reproach.

Clothes and style are way deeper than the importance we want to grant it. It is the way you present yourself to the rest of the world. My appearance shows exactly who I am, I’m not putting any costumes or characters on. Surface can be deep. “Skin is the deepest” said Paul Valéry (“Le plus profond, c’est la peau”).

I’ve always lived with the feeling that people wanted to “fix” me. Anything “too much” is suspicious, problematic and has to be brought back to regularity. France is very much like that, at least. No wonder I left when I was 18 and 2 weeks. No wonder I still feel I can only blossom and explode in America. I am still much of a misfit in my homeland, but I’ve tamed it now.

ε & my American friends always encouraged me and helped me embrace my true nature. They made me feel comfortable with my originality. They laughed at my character instead of being annoyed or envious. They never thought that my differences had to be corrected because they were “wrong”, they made me believe that it was my beauty and my diamond. I’ve run for who I am a thousand times more since they’ve been in my life.

Oh man. It takes so long to feel accepted. It may be a lifetime battle. But some exceptional souls give you a little lift along the way. I certainly won’t forget what ε did for me.

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Portraits of America #5 : The Jazz Player of Chicago

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In my last 5 Rhythms dance workshop in Philadelphia, I met π, a man born in 1942. We paired up on an exercise where we had to tell each other our father’s life story.

π‘s father had the most extraordinary existence and he gave me the authorization to share it here.

His name was Harvey Brown. He was born in Chicago somewhere in the 1910s in a family where all the men were alcoholic. He therefore had to bring financial support to the household from an early age. This was the era of the birth of jazz. Harvey began to play music in the first jazz clubs of Chicago with his little brother who was going blind. He soon had to be his brother’s protector on top of being a family breadwinner.

To a background of Prohibition and Al Capone atmosphere, Harvey got involved in peripheral activities with the mafia, wiped floors in a printing shop where they were forging notes.

Harvey was a very charismatic man, handsome, clever, narcissistic, a womanizer. He could get whatever he wanted. He was also an entrepreneur who could make everything with his hands. He was some kind of self-taught prodigy. He wasn’t given the chance to study so he read all the volumes of the Encyclopædia Universalis to gain knowledge. He learned drawing and magic by himself and used to perform magic tricks during the intermission of his jazz concerts. His magic skills enhanced his charisma and hypnotic aura and helped him obtain what he was aiming for.

But the ghosts of alcoholism were chasing him. When π was about two years old, his mother threatened his father to divorce him if he didn’t stop drinking. Harvey remained sober till the early teenage of his son and was a good father.

He was caught by his lineage demons after that, and drinking led him to ruin. π didn’t get into detail when telling me how things ended. His admiration for his father still sounded intact despite the fall.

Harvey left three boxes of souvenirs to his children: one for his jazz player career, one for his magician career, and one for his business career.

Portraits of America #4: The Girl With A Thing For Napoleon

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This is my core friend α.

She is featured in many of my posts. She moved from Kansas City to New York four years ago, with the objective to stay for five years and reevaluate her love for the City then.

We’ve been on numerous adventures together and shared a considerable number of flats in various places. I legitimately thought I knew everything about her until the Napoleon breakout.

The conversation accidentally shifted to Napoleon at dinner tonight, and I described him as an imperialist dictator. α said that Napoleon was not French but Corsican, and that he managed to conquer the world despite his height. She has a “fascination by his brain, passion and physical body.” In her own words:  “I am intrigued by his obsession with Josephine, his complete narcissism, and his outfits. I also find him attractive in some of the paintings.”

She dressed as him for Halloween last year. She named herself “Napoleon Bones Apart” and added a collapsy skeleton part to her costume to justify the pun.

She piqued my curiosity. What was the reason behind that unusual passion?

α explained that it was a childhood thing. When she was a kid, her mother told her that one of her ancestors was serving in Napoleon’s army, or that he was close to Napoleon in some ways. The link is not clear.

Her child imagination made the shortcut to the belief that her ancestors were affiliated with Napoleon, and that she was therefore a descendant of Napoleon herself.

She used to walk around telling that story to whoever would listen because she was taking pride in having someone famous in her genetic background.

She grew up with that belief ingrained in her mental family constellation and developed a gentle obsession for him. Even as an adult.

That also makes me related to Napoleon in some way now. I am going to start walking around saying: “I am sharing a flat in Brooklyn with this descendant of Napoleon.”

Portraits of America #3 – The Lady Who Loved Cremation

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I went to Saint Louis Cemetery yesterday. It is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, inaugurated in 1789. Some of it looks brand new and a lot of it is crumbling down.

Most of the epitaphs were written in French so I came across a few good stories when the engraving was still visible. For some reason, a lot of the French immigrants buried there were originally from Bordeaux.

Saint Louis Cemetery is famous for housing the grave of Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen. She was a brilliant woman, black/white mixed, worked as a hairdresser for rich white people, picked up all the gossip and then launched a psychic and Catholic Voodoo business using the stories she had heard for her divinations.

Her grave doesn’t have her name on it but it is easily recognisable as it is covered with XXX and with shitty gifts left by random disciples: lip balm, Chanel concealer, Starbucks coffee sachet, even a tampon just in case.

I spotted a jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise filled with a funny powder. I asked α6 who was there with me if he thought it was ashes.

A lady in her 50s intervened from the other side of the grave: “Let me have a look. I work in a funeral home.”

She took the mayonnaise jar from my hands with authority and shook the powder. She observed it with an expert eye. Her diagnosis was that it wasn’t human ashes, because certain bones are too big to consume completely when being cremated. The thigh bone for instance is so thick that some little bone shards would remain in the ashes.

She was so intense about it that I got intrigued and started asking her questions.

Her name was λ and she was doing admin in a funeral home in Nebraska. She didn’t do cremations herself but she was often attending them because she felt “passionate about sciences.” It was clearly her hobby, which was odd cause she looked like an average Midwest grandmother.

She said how much she loved her job, also for the emotional support that she provides to the families.

Her dream was to be a funeral house director, but she didn’t like the free lance aspect of it. She didn’t want to be on call because there is too much competition in the death industry.

I felt a little creeped out when she hugged me good bye.

Portraits of America #2 – The Steam Punk of New Orleans

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I met V at a Steam Punk party at the House of Blues.

From what I could understand, Steam Punk is a mix of punk, Renaissance, Goth and vampire. The underground scene of New Orleans fell apart after Katrina, because the city lost more than a third of its population. People moved away after the hurricane and never came back. Six years after the disaster, the steam punk is on its way to be reborn from its ashes.

V is from New York City. Over the course of three years, between the age of 24 and 27, his father and his best friend died and his sister was murdered.

Simultaneously, the mother of his daughter was giving him a hard time to let him see the child.

He fell in love with a girl called Ellen Nicole Nigma, whom everyone was calling ‘Enigma’. Enigma had been to New Orleans before and really loved it, so she moved there first and V followed her for love and because his NYC life had grown to really suck bad.

The relationship with Enigma didn’t last but V fell in love with New Orleans where he’s been living for 20 years now.

Before settling there for good, he went road tripping around the country, joined some hippy Rainbow Gatherings in the woods, crashed the Goth scene in Colorado Springs. He landed back in New Orleans where he belongs and has been working in a cajun restaurant for fourteen years.

I suppose he found a way to overcome challenges and build a great relationship with his daughter, because she was at the party with him, dressed all fancy punk.

Portraits of America #1 – The Drag Queen of New Orleans

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βμ goes by the name of Eureeka Starfish* as a drag queen in the local clubs of New Orleans. His main job is at the Lucky Pierre on Bourbon Street.

He moved to New Orleans two months ago from his native South Carolina where he used to occasionally perform in small clubs. But that wasn’t taking him where he wanted and his ambitions were frustrated.

A few months ago, his dad manifested from Louisiana where he had moved. βμ hadn’t spoken with him for ten years because he disapproved of his homosexuality and queerness. βμ took it as a sign of destiny and made the move to New Orleans to live with his father on the other side of the river.

He’s quickly built a professional circle here and now spends most of his time in drag, working in average 6 nights a week. His skin can barely breathe, and as he “loves his porcelain skin”, he walks around the hot streets of New Orleans with a vintage sun umbrella.

About a month ago, his dad came to see him on stage. He finally understood. (There is hope for everyone!) Not only is he now supportive of his son’s life style and identity, he’s also super proud to have given birth to a diva with that many eccentric yet classy outfits.

βμ now lives with his boyfriend on the second floor of a gunshot house near the French Quarter, where most of his gigs are happening.

On his days off, βμ goes drag shopping in the vintagy extravaganza shops of the city: Fifi Mahony’s, Trashy Diva… he knows his wig and lingerie stuff.

He’s mixing all kind of influences in his numbers and outfits: Japanese pop culture, Pop Art Warholy icons, house wife from the 50s, vintage, mainstream. He also writes his own electro music and would like to bring more arty numbers to his drag club such as covers of the electro French singer Emilie Simon and other French divas who are unknow here. (I HAD to tell him about Mylène Farmer and he obviously instantly fell in love with her. If some Mylène Farmer covers are ever being performed in NoLA drag clubs, I might be the one responsible for it.) He’s finding his balance between paying mainstream gigs and his real artistic, more alternative vein.

One of his favorite part about drag is contributing to the cultural shift in mentalities, especially when working in more commercial venues. He’s very often confronted to audiences who have never seen drag before. They can even be afraid of queer and gay, because it is unknown to them. He takes time to make them feel comfortable about it, to talk to them with goodwill. In most cases, after the show, uptightness and fear have turned into enthusiasm and admiration. These are his routinely little victories.

βμ is changing the world on his own way.

*His facebook account as Eureeka Starfish was recently suspended by Facebook which censored many drag queen artists and arbitrarily closed their accounts under the pretext that they were using their stage name and not their legal name. Facebook has since then presented an apology to the Drag queens in question.

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