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Top Gun Turns Thirty – How Did It Get So Gay?

by Mark Simpson

(Originally published in the Daily Telegraph May 12, 2016)

30-years ago today, the stars of Top Gun were taxiing  the red carpet at the premiere in New York. The film, which features Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ and Val Kilmer’s ‘Iceman’ wrestling in the air for Alpha male supremacy, was abou t to ‘go ballistic’ and smash multiple box office records. In doing so, the Tony Scott piloted blockbuster would make A-listers out of its two preening male stars, and become perhaps the definitive 80s film.

But it has also become a shared joke these days. The subject of Saturday Night Live skits and a host of YouTube parodies.

Though it really doesn’t need much parodying. Or editing. There’s a plot which sees Tom Cruise as ‘Maverick’ and Val Kilmer as ‘Iceman’ wrestling in the air for ‘top’ – with Kelly McGillis trying, vainly, to come between them.

Then there’s those lingering locker-room scenes, in which the sweaty jocks stand around wearing only towels and perfectly gelled hair, apparently waiting for the cheesy porno muzak to start.

And that ‘ambiguous’ dialogue: ‘Giving me a hard-on!’ whispers one flyboy to another, watching videos of dogfights. ‘Don’t tease me!’ replies his buddy. ‘I want butts! Give me butts!’ shouts an angry air traffic control officer. And the final reel consummation between Iceman and Maverick on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, cheered on by the entire crew, after all that playing hard to get: ‘You can be my wingman any time!’ ‘Bullshit, you can be mine!’

And of course, the immortal volleyball scene, in which oiled guys in jean-shorts and shades flex and strut and jump to the sounds of ‘Playing with the Boys’.

All this plus Tom Cruise at his prettiest and poutiest, in leathers and on a motorbike. When not in his underwear.

So it’s difficult to believe it now, but when Top Gun was released in 1986, the vast majority of the people who flocked to see it did not think it ‘gay’. At all. They would likely have dropped their popcorn at the suggestion – and the movie wouldn’t have taken $177M internationally, making it one of the most successful movies of the decade. Instead Top Gun was seen as the story of airborne, aspirational male heterosexual virility. Nice-looking, worked-out male heterosexual virility.

Even nearly a decade on in 1994 when I wrote about the outrageous homoerotics of Top Gun in my book ‘Male Impersonators’, plenty of people still weren’t prepared to have Top Gun’s heterosexuality impugned. Later the same year the director Quentin Tarantino made a controversial cameo appearance in the movie ‘Sleep With Me’, arguing that Top Gun was about a gay man struggling with his homosexuality.

The journalist Toby Young, a Tarantino fanboy, was moved to write an essay in the Sunday Times defending his favourite movie’s heterosexuality from Simpson and Tarantino’s filthy calumnies. As I recall, his ‘clinching’ argument was that Top Gun couldn’t be a gay movie because he’d watched it twenty times – and he’s straight.

And in a queer way, he was right. Top Gun isn’t of course a gay movie. But it’s flagrantly not a very straight one either. Whatever the intentions of its makers, it’s basically ‘bi’ on afterburners. And this seems to be widely accepted now.

So how did attitudes towards Top Gun change so much? How did it’s virile heterosexuality so spectacularly ‘crash and burn’?

Well, partly because everyone is so much more knowing these days, or at least keen to seen to be. And we have tell-tale YouTube to collect all those ‘incriminating’ clips. It’s why we talk about ‘bromance’ now – instead of ‘innocent’ buddy movies. And partly it’s because Top Gun has come to be seen as the quintessential 80s movie – and the 80s are now seen as culturally ‘gay’. Or camp.

For instance, despite his apparently entirely heterosexual personal life, Simon Cowell is seen as screamingly ‘gay’ – culturally. And his whole personal style, the hair, the white t-shirts, the leather jackets, the Ray Bans is Top Gun. (Even his business model is Top Gun – the karaoke, and the struggle to ‘be the best’.)

All that said, the erotic ambiguity of Top Gun – which is what really powers it – is in the spectacular collision between the mostly sublimated homoerotics of traditional Hollywood war and buddy movies with the glossy ‘gayness’ and emergent male vanity and individualism of 1980s advertising. It’s somehow both innocent and explicit all at once. A proto-metro war movie.

In 1985, the year before TG was released, a new UK TV ad campaign for tired jeans brand Levis featuring Nick Kamen stripping in a launderette had caused a sensation – sending Levis sales into the stratosphere. Like Top Gun, the ad was set in a mythical 1940s, but with a 1950s soundtrack. Although we’re all familiar with it now, jaded even, back then the male body was just beginning to be sold to the mainstream – very often taking its cues from gay porn, because that was really the only reference point for the sexualized male body.

The late Tony Scott, like his older brother Ridley, had learned his craft in the UK ad business – and their father was a career soldier. Hence the glamorous, fetishizing presentation of the young men in the movie, alongside the more traditional homoerotic-homosocial banter that we now find so hilarious. Those infamous locker-room scenes were the Launderette ad all over again – only gayer.

What TG succeeded in doing was making the then new, consumerist, non-traditional male vanity of the 1980s look traditional and patriotic – and the military an attractive, sexy proposition for a new generation of young men with different expectations to their fathers’. Hence the loan to the film-makers by the USN of the USS Enterprise. (Reportedly USN recruiting went through the roof after the film’s release.)

After all, some years earlier the USN had loaned The Village People a destroyer to record the promo of their single ‘In The Navy’. Back then, most people who bought their records didn’t think The Village People were gay either. They just thought them fun archetypes of hetero American machismo.

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“I Don’t Inhabit My Own TV Series” – Victoria Wood On That Big Gay Following

In tribute to Victoria Wood who died today, I’m posting this interview I did with her in 1998, for Attitude magazine. An historically funny – and very smart – northern woman.

‘The Northern Woman,’ said Alan Bennett, who knows about these things, ‘is like the Galapagos Turtle—she’s an entirely different species.’ In the eighties, Victoria Wood’s As Seen on TV was the HMS Beadle of comedy, bringing us bizarre flora and fauna never seen before on telly. Creatures like Bossy Northern Woman: ‘Make way!  I’m a diabetic!’ Common Northern Woman: ‘Is it on trolley an’ can yer point to it?’. And Very Common Northern Woman: ‘I’ve got ‘ide and ‘eal on me lovebites—I were shit-faced on a pint of brandy and Babycham last night!’

Since then, these exotics have become naturalised to the British TV landscape and Victoria Wood has become a national institution. And like many national institutions, she hasn’t done so well in the Nineties, a decade which turned out to belong to the Southern Fash Mag Slag.

But now everyone’s bored with the Nineties and the Eighties are back and so is Ms Wood, with a square meal sit-com called ‘Dinner Ladies’ that makes you wonder why you ever bothered with insubstantial London tarts. Dinner Ladies is a perfect excuse for getting an eclectic bunch of Northern Women together to fill a lot of torpedo rolls and serve up a lot of classic Woodisms: ‘…don’t get me wrong,’ says one middle aged lady to another, ‘I’ve nothing against ‘Delilah’, it’s just Tom Jones squatting in his swimming trunks on the cover of TV Times that I have a problem with…’.

Did she consciously aim for a Beckettian standard of dialogue? ‘Well!’ laughs Wood, swallowing the last of her Welsh Rarebit, rubbing her fingers over her plate and looking away to the right, eyes raised, in that slightly shy but determined way she has. ‘I wanted them to have conversations which shot past one another and they’re never concluded.  People overhear the end of conversations that are left unexplained. I wanted a mixture of high comedy and naturalism.’

Wood in person is a mixture of friendly unpretentiousness—laughing loudly and generously—with a quietly confident smartness. She’s also of course northern, but in a mild, lower middle class Lancashire-bred and BBC-educated way.

Wood’s father was an insurance underwriter in Preston. She had one brother and two sisters, but they didn’t mix. It was a lonely childhood. ‘We lived in a very strange house on a hill with no neighbours and no visitors. I just stayed in my room and watched the TV and played the piano. Sometimes my father would come in and watch a bit of TV standing up, as if he were just about to leave, but my mother wouldn’t watch any telly at all. In fact, it used to go back to the shop in the Summer to encourage us to pick bluebells in the meadow, or something.’

Wood didn’t turn to that other staple of desperate youth: pop music. ‘It seemed to me to be about dressing up and going out and meeting boys, which scared me. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I had a boyfriend or any friends at all. I felt like I’d been accepted for membership of the human race.’

In addition to her own humanity, Wood discovered a passion for performing and studied drama at Birmingham University. Even before she graduated she was performing in folk clubs and appearing on Pebble Mill, followed by ‘a really awful talent programme on ITV with Lenny Henry’. Almost single-handedly, Wood invented the British female TV stand-up.

But it seems a bit extreme—to spend your youth as a bedroom recluse and your adulthood as a stand-up comedian? ‘Yes,’ she agrees, nodding, ‘but it’s very therapeutic,’ she explains. ‘You have to bond with the audience: this is my world, do you get it? When they say, “Yeah!” It’s great, especially when you feel that you live in a world that doesn’t really get you….’

Perhaps this is the reason why so many gay fans ‘get you’ to the point of obsession? I have several gay friends who can recite whole seasons of As Seen on TV

Wood nods. She’s heard about these cases. ‘Flattering as it is, it was never intended.  That would just be patronising and dire. Mind, I did wonder about the signals I was giving out: I had short hair and a big suit. These enormous lesbians used to come round the stage door and they’d be wearing the same suit and the same hair!’

Having gay fans can mean that you’re incredibly sophisticated and witty, or… ‘… it can mean that you’re just a really sad middle-aged woman,’ laughs Wood finishing my sentence. ‘But I’m not dependent on that relationship for my own self-esteem in the way that some gay icons who are very responsive to their gay fans are. I’m not in that world. I have my own life. I don’t inhabit my own TV series.’

‘What I tend to get are very intelligent creative gay boys of 15-16 who really like my sketches. I think part of the reason why gay men respond so well is because camp is partly about echoing, in exaggerated form, the way some women speak, which is what I do in my work.’

I ask about a famously intelligent and creative fan of Wood’s whose work also echoes the way extraordinary ordinary women speak. ‘Oh yes,’ she recalls, ‘Morrissey used to write to me a lot. He invited me to his house once. I didn’t go because, well, I don’t visit people’s houses if I don’t know them. It just doesn’t seem right.’

Of course, Bossy Northern Woman would have been round there in a flash, poking around in Moz’s cupboards and measuring the pile on his shag.

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Objectify Yourself

Mark Simpson on the (self) sexualisation of today’s male body & why straight young men crave gay adulation

(Originally appeared in Out Magazine, February 2015)

Male self-objectification is, as they like to say on social media, a “thing.”

There’s been a rash lately of so-called “gender flip” memes, in which people pretend to be impressed by male hipsters pretending to subvert sexism by ironically adopting the clichéd poses of sexualized women. Although sometimes funny and instructive, especially when it involves licking sledgehammers, the anti-sexism of many of these gender flip memes depends on a (hetero)sexist assumption that men just aren’t meant to be objectified — so it’s hilarious when they are.

Rather than, say, that the men adopting these cheesecake poses usually just aren’t very attractive.

It also relies on jamming your eyes shut in order not to notice how men who aren’t meme-generating hipsters prefer to stake their claim to our attention not on faux feminism but rather on sweat-soaked gym sessions, pricey supplements, plunging necklines, and general shamelessness. And as with sex itself, there’s nothing ironic about it. It’s a very serious, very profitable business.

At the multiplex, Chris Evans keeps blinding us with his all-American oiled bazookas. Channing Tatum and his bun chums keep whipping their pecs and asses out and — who knows? — may even finally deliver the man goods in this year’s sequel, Magic Mike XXL. Meanwhile, Guardians of the Galaxy recently wowed the world by proving that even previously pudgy Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation fame) can be a Men’s Health cover girl. And Chris Hemsworth was named “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine on account of his long lashes, big guns, and huge hammer.

There’s even an MTV Movie Award for “Best Shirtless Performance,” which in 2014 went to Zac Efron for That Awkward Moment — but only after he stripped again, onstage at the ceremony, without being awkward about it at all.

Zac Efron suddenly feeling very hot.
Zac Efron suddenly feeling very hot.

True, Hollywood too often still feels the need to justify big-screen male sluttiness with CGI heroics, a kind of muscular Christianity in spandex — insisting, in effect, that this is virile activity, not gay/girly passivity. And as if to keep that sluttiness further in check, it often limits the nude or topless male scenes to one per 100-minute movie.

Perhaps because it caters more to women, TV is a relatively unbuttoned medium when it comes to the male body. Even TV superheroes such as Stephen Amell’s Arrow are often costume-optional. Maybe because their male characters are already damned, gothic shows like True Blood, Teen Wolf, and The Vampire Diaries are positively pulsing with appetizing boy flesh. It’s enough to make anyone grow fangs. And the young, buff men of reality TV — the Jersey Shorettes — are everywhere, wearing very little, and doing even less. Except demanding we look at them.

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The “structure” of structured reality TV is usually unveiled male V-shapes. In the U.K., a voluptuously endowed, cheeky, straight(ish) guy in The Only Way Is Essex (the U.K. Jersey Shore equivalent) called Dan Osborne became a national hero in 2014 after wearing glittery Speedos on prime time on another reality show,Splash! — even upstaging his mentor, the perfectly formed Olympic diver Tom Daley.

The 23-year-old Osborne, like a lot of today’s self-objectifying straight men, loves The Gays. Really loves them. Last year he appeared in the U.K. gay magazine Attitude, very generously offering readers his shapely bubble butt across a double-page spread, with the strapline “Sex is fun. Be safe and enjoy it.” He told Attitude, “I’ve had a few bum pinches, and I don’t mind that at all. Maybe it’s because a guy knows how hard it is to train, so they appreciate it more.”

Underwear model and wounded Marine vet Minsky embraces the gaze
Underwear model and wounded Marine vet Minsky embraces the ga(y)ze

Here in the States, pumped underwear model Alex Minsky — the indelibly inked U.S. Marine Corps vet and amputee — is very happy to mercilessly titillate his many appreciative gay fans with naked naughtiness. And even a major film star like James Franco can’t seem to leave them alone, posting all those semi-naked selfies on his Instagram feed.

The way straight young men chase and hustle gay attention today represents a major, millennial shift in attitudes. Part of the reason that men offering themselves as sex objects were frowned upon in the past was that they could be objectified by anyone — including people with penises. They were queered by the penetrating queer gaze.

Now they beg and plead for it. They instinctively know that male objectification is about enjoying and celebrating male passivity, even — and especially — if you’re straight. So getting the gays proves not only your hotness, and coolness, but also your metaphysical versatility. It proves that you are a proper, fully fledged, all-singing, all-dancing sex object.

Blame the metrosexual, who was born two decades ago, outing male vanity and the masculine need to be noticed. In just a generation, the male desire to be desired, or “objectified,” to use that ugly word — which the metrosexual exemplified — has become mainstream: It’s regarded as a right by today’s selfie-admiring young men, regardless of sexual orientation. In a visual world, men want to be wanted too — otherwise, they might disappear. They also need to look a lot at other men in order to better understand how to stand out.

Second-generation metrosexuality is very obviously more body-centered and hardcore — or spornosexual. Young men today want to be wanted, not for their wardrobes, but for their bodies. Bodies they spend a great deal of time, effort, and money fashioning into hot commodities down at the gym, tanning salon, and designer tattoo parlor — and then uploading to the online marketplace of social media for “likes,” “shares,” and cutthroat comparisons with their pals.

It shouldn’t be so surprising. Today’s young men are growing up with a different idea of “normal,” in which European and Australian professional rugby players are happy to strip down and oil up. The highly homoerotic, highly provocative Dieux du Stade calendars of rugby players in the buff became only slightly less homoerotic when adapted by Dolce and Gabbana in their megabucks advertising campaigns starring the Italian World Cup soccer team. David Beckham and then Cristiano Ronaldo offered similar favors for Armani, followed by lithe Spanish tennis ace Rafael Nadal, who is currently filling out the Italian designer packet. And former Australian rugby league player Nick Youngquest is now the body and face — in that order — of Paco Rabanne.

Gays are no longer a despised or marginalized niche — they’re leverage. If you get the gays panting, you eventually get everyone else.

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David Gandy, possibly the world’s only male supermodel who isn’t a professional athlete, has a darkly handsome, model-perfect face. But his sensual, athletic, beautiful body is his calling card. So it is entirely apt that he was “made” by Mr. & Mr. D&G, who cast him in their famous 2007 “Light Blue” campaign, in a boat off Capri, wearing scandalously abbreviated D&G swim trunks, glistening in the sun and lying back, hands behind his head, awaiting our attention. He was accompanied by a foxy lady (Marija Vujovic), but he was the unquestioned object of the camera’s gaze.

Seven years on, it’s still his trademark. In a clip for Gandy’s recent Autograph underwear campaign, the camera, in extreme close-up, licks down his naked torso towards his naked, shaved groin — then fades out just in time.

It’s clear to anyone who wants to notice that in the spornosexual 21st century, the male body has been radically redesigned. With the help of some “objectifying” blueprints from Tom of Finland, it is no longer simply an instrumental thing for extracting coal, building ships, making babies, fighting wars, and taking the trash out. Instead it has become a much more sensual, playful thing for giving and especially receiving pleasure.

Or as the young men of the Warwick University rowing team put it in a promotional quote for the 2015 version of their now famous nude charity calendar, dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports and rammed with arty ass shots: “Regardless of gender or sexuality, we are inviting you into that moment with us.”

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The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood & Don Bachardy

Reviewed by Mark Simpson in The Independent (20/9/13)

Contrary to what the pop songs tell you, the language of love is not universal. It really isn’t the same the world over or even on the same street. Everyone’s love affair is utterly unintelligible to everyone else. It’s perhaps the whole point of having one.

Which can make reading other people’s love letters a baffling if not slightly pointless experience. Katherine Bucknell’s The Animals (Chatto & Windus), a collection of letters between the famous British-born novelist Christopher Isherwood and his lover the American portrait artist Don Bachardy, who lived together openly as a gay couple in Hollywood at a time when most were closeted, isn’t pointless. But love does speak in animal tongues. Cloying Beatrix Potter animal tongues.

Bachardy, who was just eighteen when a 48 year old Isherwood met him on a Santa Monica Beach in 1952, is ‘Kitty’, ‘Fluffcat’, ‘The Fur’, ‘Catkin’, ‘Sweetpaws’, ‘Dearest Darling Puss’, ‘Sweetcat’, ‘Snowpuss’, ‘Angel Lovecat’, ‘Velvetpaws’, ‘Sacred Pinkness’, ‘Sweet Longed-For Flufftail’, ‘Pink Paws’, ‘Beloved Fluffpuss’, ‘Whitewhiskers’, and ‘Claws’ (the latter epithet being perhaps the most salient to this reader of Bachardy’s waspish missives).

Isherwood for his part is ‘Horse’, ‘Drub’, ‘Drubbin’, ‘Rubbin’, ‘Dobbin’, ‘Old Pony’, ‘Dear Treasured Love-Dub’, ‘Slickmuzzle’, ‘Naggin’, ‘Drudgin’, ‘Drubchen’, and ‘Dearnag’. If this seems an unfair distribution of gushy epithets this is because it was meant to be. As Bachardy wrote in a letter dated 6 Feb 1961:

‘The horse Kitty loves has always been an old grey mare, so sweet and dear and never one of those greedy and faithless white stallions. And besides grey is more becoming to Kitty’s white fur. Two white animals would never do.’

The language of love may be unique to each couple, but one rule of sexual syntax everyone understands: there’s only room for one prima donna in one relationship.

Like many gay relationships, Bachardy and Isherwood’s was open though, perhaps understandably given the large age difference, more so on Bachardy’s side. ‘Dobbin’ often encourages ‘Kitty’ to enjoy strange saucers of cream, but is always anxious that Kitty return to his ‘basket’ and the primacy of their relationship not be threatened: ‘Dobbin is only happy if Kitty finds consolation – ONLY NOT TOO MUCH!’ Many of the letters resulted from separation caused by Bachardy’s prolonged dalliances with others abroad, such as the London theatre director Anthony Page.

Isherwood – who had a pronounced fear of the dark and hated being alone at night – attempts to explain and justify their campy, furry archetypes in a letter dated March 11, 1963:

‘I often feel that the Animals are far more than just a nursery joke or a cuteness. They exist. They are like Jung’s myths. They express a kind of freedom and truth which we otherwise wouldn’t have.’

The irony for the reader is that this is stated in a letter, written immediately after a face-to-face row, which dispenses with the Kitty-Dobbin shtick and stands out as perhaps the most direct, heartfelt and unmannered letter in the collection – and one that suggests that much of the time, like many couples, they are not so free or true after all. As Isherwood writes:

‘Oh – I am so saddened and depressed when I get a glimpse, as I do so clearly this morning, of the poker game we play so much of the time, watching each other’s faces and listening to each other’s voices for clues. I was so happy the other day when you said that about Dobbin having been a jailer and now being a convict…. Masochism? Oh, Mary – what do I care what it’s called.’

In her excellent introduction Bucknell does a skilful and brave job of trying to interpret the lovers’ talk for the reader. Apparently Bachardy reminded Isherwood of his younger self – and indeed there was a remarkably strong, possibly slightly disturbing physical similarity. The letters end in 1970, and Isherwood died in 1986, survived by Bachardy.

But thanks to The Animals Isherwood’s devotion lives on. As a typical sign-off from Dobbin put it:

‘Love from a devoted old horse who is waiting day and night with his saddle on, ready for his Kitty’s commands.’

MJ Pierre et Gilles

Living Doll: Marc Jacobs Talks to Mark Simpson

Marc Jacobs talks to Mark Simpson about his Brazilian (ex) porn star boyfriend, foreskins, gay fashion misogyny, turning 50 and being turned into a stuffed toy.

(Originally appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of Man About Town Magazine)

Marc Jacobs is many things. So many things that it would make a lesser Mary giddy.

He’s a fashion label. Three, in fact: The Marc Jacobs Collection, Marc by Marc Jacobs, and Little Marc. He’s a range of fragrances. He’s a retail store, with 239 outlets in 60 different countries. He’s the creative director of Louis Vuitton in Paris. He’s a three times winner of the Womenswear Designer of the Year Award and a four times winner of Accessory Designer of the Year.

He’s also a relaxed, 49-year-old American from New York City whose pretty much life-long openness about his sexuality – along with his sustained success – has made him a poster-boy for gay pride, ranked 14th in American gay magazine Out’s 2012 ’Power List’.

Furthermore, Marc Jacobs is, perhaps most importantly in our superficial age, a bona fide global celebrity. Snaps of him socialising with friends and boyfriends appear in newspapers, mags and on gossip sites around the world: even the pages of even the UK’s notoriously gay unfriendly Daily Mail. Instantly recognisable, Marc Jacobs the man and the brand is a familiar part of our visual culture.

In keeping with that culture Marc Jacobs is also, nowadays, a body. A few years back, with the help of ruthless diets and religiously regular gym routines – and, no doubt, some of the hunkiest personal fitness trainers in town – he transformed himself from a chubby, nerdy, pallid chap grazing on junk food into almost fat-free, pumped, tanned, tattooed beefcake.

And now – dwarfing all his other achievements – he’s also a stuffed toy.

Mark Simpson: Word is you’ve been turned into a ‘Muscle Man Marc’ doll.

Marc Jacobs: I have. By the makers of South Park.

It’s every gay man’s dream. How did that come about?

Well, I have quite a few tattoos and two of them are of toys that belong to the Cartman character in South Park. And I guess I’ve been photographed so many times with those tattoos that it came to the attention of Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] who created the series, so as a sort of homage they made me into a doll, a toy in Cartman’s room. And of course I found that to be the greatest honour I’ve ever received! I have such great respect for them and I think the show is so clever, so well-observed.

As is your doll. It’s a very fetching toy.

Thank you!

But do you ever worry that people might be sticking pins in those dolls? People can be very jealous. I know I am.

[Laughs] Y’know, I sometimes read comments by people online to things and think, well, I don’t know these people and they don’t know me and so everybody has a right to their opinion and if it makes them feel better about me by putting me down, then fine.

Did you find, when you transformed yourself a few years back, that there was hissing as well as applause?

Yeah, like with everything y’know, some people said we like the old, sort of geeky Marc. But I got tons of letters from people saying that I encouraged them to go on diets and encouraged them to go to the gym. I started it for health reasons—I have ulcerative colitis and my nutritionist encouraged me to change my diet. I started going to the gym and started to feel better and look better—and anything that makes me feel better I want more of! Lots of people wrote to me to say that my story gave them hope that they could change as well. That it was never too late to change one’s diet or one’s lifestyle or pick up a habit that’s nourishing and positive.

What’s your current body fat percentage? Trending up or down? It was an eye-popping four per cent last time I read about it.

It’s probably about eight per cent at the moment. I missed a few weeks at the gym because of preparing the [Louis Vuitton] show for Paris Fashion Week. When I go back to New York it will go down again, probably to about five per cent very soon.

That’s a great relief!

Yeah—I’m sure people all over the world will be thrilled to know that!

There should probably be a website where we can check up on your BF percentage in real time.

Oh God, I hope there’s never any such thing!

Oh, it will come, it will come. I hear there’s one bad habit you’ve not been able to ditch: smoking.

Yeah, that’s true, unfortunately.

If smoking made you fat do you think you’d stop tomorrow?

I don’t know… I don’t know. I mean, I tried to quit smoking before. I’ve had periods of success—the longest was seven months. I really do enjoy smoking and as bad as I know it is for me I just can’t seem to stay quit.

Everyone should have at least one vice.

Well, I guess…

Though you seem to have a weakness for tattoos also. Any recent ones?

I had the ‘Muscle Man Marc’ doll tattooed on my right forearm a few months ago. That was the last one.

What’s the current tally?

I think we’re up to 34.

Some people like to agonise over their choice of tattoos.

That’s not something I agonise over. I mean, I can agonise over whether we use black and white or red and white or both in a collection, but I certainly don’t agonise over my tattoo choices. They’re very spontaneous.

Is the doll anatomically correct?

Well, it’s in pants.

And the pants don’t come off?

No. So I guess the answer’s no.

Ah, but since the pants don’t come off we’ll never know for sure. Do you remember Billy the gay doll?

Yeah, I do.

Did you ever have one?

No, I didn’t.

He was very anatomically correct. Or incorrect.

Yes, I remember!

What would you say was your favourite part of the male body?

Lips. I love a full pair of lips.

They’re an oft-overlooked male attribute.

I don’t overlook them!

Are you a passionate snogger, Mr Jacobs?

Yeah, that’s what gets the rest of me going!

Still dating Harry Louis, the humpy Brazilian porn star you were snapped with on the beach in Rio recently?

Oh yeah! He’s my boyfriend.

Harry looks to have been blessed in the lip departmentand everywhere else.

Oh yeah! In all the right places—and it all works very well! He’s also a really lovely person. He’s nothing to complain about on any level, inside and out. He’s a total sweetheart. He’s a very sexy, hunky man.

I believe you. I can hear you getting turned on talking about him. Did you see him ‘in action’ before you met?

No. I met him through a friend of mine. I’d actually never seen him before.

And how did you feel about your boyfriend working as a porn star?

Oh, I thought he was very good at it! [Laughs] He’s given it up now though. It’s very disappointing for some of his fans, but I’m very happy about it. He told me that he wanted to give it up and have a monogamous relationship. So he’s been busy exploring what he wants to do with his life and has been working at a club called The Roof Gardens in London. He loves to cook and has been thinking about opening up a small café or restaurant. He’s also very good at cooking, by the way.

He has lips like those and is great in the kitchen as well?

Yeah!

Where did I put those pins?? Oh here they are: you once said “I always find beauty in things that are odd and imperfectthey are much more interesting.” Mr Louis doesn’t look terribly imperfect from where I’m panting.

That quote was in regard to fashion—me talking about things that inspire me to make clothes. And Harry, or Eddie as I call him, has his imperfections. I wouldn’t say they were physical—he has this quirky character, and what people see on the screen isn’t who he really is. It’s a persona.

People have trouble understanding that porn isn’t real life. I certainly do.

I’d say I hit the jackpot with Eddie. But I’ve also had skinny boyfriends. Shorter boyfriends. Darker skinned boyfriends. Lighter skinned boyfriends and boyfriends of all shapes and sizes—I don’t really have a type. Eddie is pretty much physically perfect and sexy but he has his own quirky personality and is super sweet and not at all what people perceive him to be on screen.

As an American dating a Brazilian, what’s best? Cut or uncut?

Um, I don’t really have a preference…

Speaking as an uncut Brit, Americans tend to either run for the hills shrieking or are maybe a bit too interested in that flap of skin.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love it! But I just don’t have a particular preference.

Okay. So you’ve got yourself a porn star body…

… I wouldn’t say that!

Well, I would. And you’ve got yourself an ex-porn star boyfriend. So… when is the Marc Jacobs sex tape coming out?

Well if there is one, it’ll just be for me—it will not be for public consumption!

How old fashioned! Am I right in thinking that your mother’s soft porn magazines turned you on to the male form?

Yeah, it was Playgirl and Viva. I found them in her room. I saw the naked men in them and thought ‘Wow! That looks good!’

What was the look back then?

Hairy chests, moustaches, that kind of thing.

And big hair?

Well, blow-dried.

The camp counsellor you’ve mentioned in the past you had your first crush on. Did he look like a Viva model?

Probably. A younger version.

So he was the first time you kind of transferred what you were feeling for the Viva models to an actual guy?

Yeah!

And nothing came of that?

No. I was quite young. I was nine.

Oh! Yes, that is quite young. How old were you when you did do something about it?

Thirteen, I think.

That’s still quite young. You must have had an adventurous spirit from an early age.

Oh, I did!

How did it go?

It was pretty awkward. It was with a friend who was staying over. But it was a first experience, I guess.

Would you say that things have changed a lot for gay people since you were a kid?

I think so. We can get married now.

Why are there so many gay men at the top of the fashion business?

I don’t know. There are plenty of straight men in fashion as well. There are also plenty of straight women in fashion. I wouldn’t really single gay men out. The people I admire most in fashion are straight women. Coco Chanel, Vivienne Westwood, Miuccia Prada, Elsa Schiaparelli. I consider them to be the most important designers in the history of fashion—the most inventive and creative, and they’re all women. So there you go.

What about the ‘misogynist’ brush that some people like to tar all gay designers with?

I don’t think we get accused of that so much with what we do. First of all there’s no real vulgarity and there isn’t that kind of misogynous approach. We don’t bind women or objectify them sexually. I don’t think the style of the clothes we make would put me in that category. More appropriate perhaps in other cases…

You’re not going to name any names?

No.

Damn! What’s your secret to surviving the queer curse of Paris fashion houses? Galliano and McQueen have come and gone at Dior and Givenchy, but you remain in command at Louis Vuitton, where you’ve been since 1997.

I think I’m just very passionate about making clothes and I guess if there is a secret it’s having a very good team of people who also share that passion and natural curiosity for taking on something new each season, which keeps it sort of fresh and surprising and challenging for us. As long as the will is there and you work with a group of creative and able people then you can continue to produce season after season.

Is being a fashion designer a lonely business? It can look that way sometimes, to us civilians.

No, I don’t feel that it is, not for me. Every day I spend a lot of time with people I admire and respect and actually really like—and hopefully like me as well. Both for Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton. So I’m not alone. I also have a great group of friends whom I’m inspired by, although I don’t get to see nearly as much of them as I’d like to. So I wouldn’t say my life is very lonely.

What do you think of the presidential candidates’ presentation? Any style tips for them?

I’m just going to say that I’m going to vote for Barack Obama. I think he did a great job as President and I’d love to see him serve again. That’s all I’ll say.

C’mon! I’m trying to get you to be shallow here!

I know people make a big deal about what they look like, but to me it really doesn’t matter. The qualities I look for in a President or a First Lady are an ability to run the country and be intelligent and honest. I really don’t give a toss about what they wear!

I however did give a toss or two over what you and Eddie were wearing to the beach in those Rio snapsSpeedos. The much-maligned anatomically-correct Ozzie beachwear looked spiffing on both of you.

I only get the chance to go to the beach once, maybe twice, a year and I love to catch the sun, so wearing knee-length board-shorts seems counterproductive. I like to lie on the beach and tan wearing as little as possible. I like to be as close to naked as I can be.

And God bless you for that. Do you have any plans for your half-century this April?

Currently I’m planning to go to Rio and spend a nice time with Eddie. I’m not having a big party or anything like that. I don’t like celebrating birthdays. I know everyone says 50 is a big deal but it’s just another year as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t want to make a fuss of it.

Either way, in or out of Speedos, we can be sure you won’t be looking 50 in April.

God, I hope not!

This interview was given at the end of last year. Here’s what Marc looked at hitting 50 and the beach last week with Harry in Rio.

 Special thanks to Philip Utz

David Bowie reading

David Bowie’s Bisensuality

Mark Simpson on how Bowie, the 1970s progenitor metrosexuality, shape-shifted masculinity 

(Originally appeared in High50 magazine, March 2013)

The video for David Bowie’s first single in a decade, the melancholic, low-key ‘Where Are We Now?’ – featuring the faces of Bowie and an unnamed woman superimposed on conjoined puppets – is striking for all sorts of reasons.

For those who can remember such things, it is also a striking reminder of his 1979 Saturday Night Live US performance of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, with Joey Arias and the late great Klaus Nomi on backing vocals, in which Bowie’s head was superimposed on a dancing puppet (this really happened).

‘Boys Keep Swinging’, released at the height of his own pomp, is a swaggeringly ironic mockery of machismo and male privilege: “Heaven loves ya/the clouds part for ya/Nothing stands in your way/When you’re a boy”. Slyly, he outed the homoerotics of masculine pride with the line “When you’re a boy/Other boys check you out”.

NBC stood in Bowie’s way: they censored the line. His lips moved but no sound came out. And much the same could be said for much of his pre-Let’s Dance career in the US. Bowie was way too gay for the God-fearing USA.

In the David Mallet promo video for the song (which RCA refused to release in the US) Bowie is backed by three bored women singers who turn out to be the singer in drag: Bowie as Katherine Hepburn; Bowie as Marlene Dietrich; Bowie as a brunette, gum-chewing Olivia Newton-John.

Like the videos for his new singles, ‘Where Are We Now?’ and ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’, Bowie was telling us he’s both masculine and feminine. And neither.

Of all male pop stars – of all pop stars – Bowie has been the most in control and controlling of his image. He was like a studio system Hollywood starlet – but he ran the studio. No star of vinyl or celluloid understood and exploited the power of fashion and aesthetics and sexual personae in selling himself better. Bowie set out to make the world fall for for the man who fell to Earth, and succeeded, over and over again.

Count the ways we loved David Robert Jones: Major Tom. Ziggy. Diamond Dogs. Aladdin Sane. The Thin White Duke. Scary Monster. Let’s Dance. (Later this month at the V&A David Bowie Exhibition you can pay homage to all Bowie’s historic costume changes).

Although he probably hates the term, Bowie, despite his wonky teeth and mis-matching eye colour, is the late 20th-century progenitor of metrosexuality – the 21st-century male desire to be desired, the masculine appropriation of ‘feminine’ beauty and style.

Wearing a ‘man dress’ on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World he anticipated by 40 years Andrej Pejic, the male model who models women’s clothes as well as men’s. Appropriately enough, Pejic appears in the video for Bowie’s latest release, ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’, along with his female doppelganger, Tilda Swinton.

That epoch-making performance on Top of the Pops of 1972’s ‘Starman’ – a song loosely based on Judy Garland’s ‘Over The Rainbow’ – in which Bowie, in a multi-coloured quilted two-piece suit, orange hair and white nail varnish, languorously draped his arm around his golden guitarist Mick Ronson, was a very calculated and inspiring gesture of defiance against masculine norms.

Only a few months previously, Bowie had told the world he was gay. (Angie, his wife at the time, famously quipped to him: “You could at least have said bisexual!”) The first UK gay pride march had been held just a few days earlier. Wind back another five years, and all sexual contact between males was illegal. As a million dads shouted at the TV “Get that bleedin’ poofter off my telly!”, a generation of kids decided Bowie was their star man.

Whatever the ‘truth’ of Bowie’s own sexuality, his TOTP intrusion into the living rooms of suburban England was the most powerful and provocative sexual liberation parade ever seen in the UK. He was later to beat a retreat from his androgyny and bisexuality in the Reaganite Eighties, perhaps in the hope that America would no longer censor him.

But the glamorous seeds he sowed back in the Seventies have borne strange and wonderful bisensual fruit, enjoyed by everyone, regardless of gender or orientation.

It was largely left to another working class DB from London who doesn’t sing and can barely speak to spread the high-street, off-the-peg version of his gospel: David Beckham, the footballer famously “in touch with my feminine side”. In a sense, Beckham has realised the massive, global fame that should have been Bowie’s, but which the world wasn’t quite ready for back then.

But thanks to Bowie’s swishy, bravura trail-blazing, even tongue-tied footballers today can be everything that they can be. While other boys, and girls, check them out.

The Anti-Christ Has All The Best Tunes

The P2P revolution is like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk all rolled into one highly compressed file, by Mark Simpson

Sean Fanning

 (Independent on Sunday, August 2001)

Perhaps the best thing about digital music is that it doesn’t only make listening to music more convenient and less irksome: it actually does part of the tiresome job of listening for you.

ISO-MPEG Audio-Layer-3 – mercifully shortened to MP3 – is the digital file format for music exchanged on the Internet and very possibly the acronym of doom for the record industry. It is a form of extreme algorithmic compression of sound files that uses “psychoacoustic” models that account for what listeners actually notice when they hear music or other sounds. “Unnecessary” data is stripped away to make the file as small as possible to facilitate easier storage or uploading and downloading. In other words, MP3 anticipates and interprets mu­sic for the listener before she or he actually hears it.

Of course, this job used to be performed by record companies, with their A&R men and marketing departments. But, like so many before them, they appear to have been automated out of a job—dis­pensed with by algorithms, the Internet, and a bunch of geeky kids in their bedrooms. A whole class of intermediaries and authorities have been liquidated.

The Internet has often been compared to Gutenberg in its im­portance. However, after reading John Alderman’s detailed account of the online music revolution, Sonic Boom: Napster, P2p and the Battle for The Future Of Music, John Alderman, I have a hunch it’s more like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk—all at once, in a highly ‘compressed’ form.

Thanks to the personal computer and the Internet, every man is now at home with his god—downloading The Sex Pistols’ EMI. The corrupt, uncool suits and cassocks who used to intercede have been swept aside and the Word can be enjoyed directly and free from distortion, com­pressed by pure, clean mathematics, not dogma. The free ex­change of information—which is all that digital music amounts to in cyberspace—is the credo of what one might call the Nettist Movement: the true believers in the web and everything it represents.

To many Nettists, anyone who attempts to stand in the way of this Reformation Superhighway is the Papist Antichrist, or the fascist re­gime. And of course this means anyone who doesn’t share their holy zeal—anyone who is non-Nettist. Record companies are about as non-Nettist as you can get. After all, they have most to lose from the free exchange of digital music. All their frightfully expensive CD printing presses, distribution deals and back catalogues melt at the press of a button in someone’s bedroom. If indulgences no longer have to be bought but can be plucked from the air instead, then where is the temporal wealth and power of the record business to come from?

For the record companies, the leaders of the MP3 revolution are seen as heretics who have to be made examples of; burnt at the legal stake so that others may not be tempted to stray. Against the cries for info freedom, their lawyers invoke the Mystery of copyright. Digitising music, just as printing the Bible in German did, puts it within the grasp—and control—of the laity. And like the leaders of the Counter-Reformation, they see themselves as acting in the interests of the people they burn.

You think I exaggerate? You think I take this Reformation, Counter-Reformation metaphor too far? Well, just listen to Edgar Bronfman Jr., heir to the mighty if not exactly holy Roman Seagram Empire, quoted here by Alderman: “I am warring against the culture of the Internet, threatening to depopulate Silicon Valley as I move a Roman legion or two of Wall Street lawyers to litigate. I have done so… not to at­tack the Internet and its culture but for its benefit and to protect it”.

Is Shawn Fanning, the boy who at nineteen founded Napster, the famous MP3 file-sharing “peer-2-peer” online service, a Luther for our times? And is Napster his Wittenberg Theses, nailed to the door of the music industry? For a while, in our accelerated culture, it looked that way. Twelve months after the launch of Napster in June 1999, there were over 200,000 souls praying in his church nightly. By the end of 2000 there were over 50 million registered users and Fanning was a very famous young man indeed; his criminally young, beatific face shining out from the cover of magazines.

But Fanning was no ideologue or evangelical; merely an American boy who saw a need which he believed his software could fill. From his time spent chatting on the Net, he knew that people were eager to trade music files, but find­ing good music was the problem. He joined with two online pals, only slightly older than himself, to solve this with smart code. To­gether they wrote the Napster program, which allowed users to share files by plugging their computers, in effect, into a giant, global network.

Because Napster hosted no music itself (the files were stored on user’s computers and traded), it was hoped by Fanning et al that they would be free from any taint of blasphemy and heresy in the form of copyright violations. They were very wrong. In the opening blast of what was to prove a merciless barrage, the fearsome Recording Industry Associa­tion of America filed a copyright lawsuit against Napster in Decem­ber 1999, just six months after it had launched.

And who could blame them? For the record industry Napster was a disaster of, well, biblical proportions. Practically a whole gen­eration of college kids who didn’t even have to pay for the college computers or the Internet connections they downloaded the MP3 files with, stopped buying CDs. Not only was Napster free, Napster was easier than going to a record store and it was even easier than ordering CDs online. Emusic.com, an e-tailer of digital music, was reduced to giving away MP3 players (worth $150) to anyone who bought just $25 worth of music.

A year and a half on, under the epic weight of various lawsuits and in­junctions brought by the record industry and Lars Ulrich of Metallica, who famously discovered that three unfinished versions of a song he had been working on had been traded on Napster (along with his entire back catalogue), the Church of Shawn Fanning is not what it was. Napster got into bed with record giant Bertlesmann— one of the few record companies to respond to the MP3 revolution with anything other than public burnings—in an attempt to turn Napster into a legal, mainstream, subscription-only service which, crucially, paid royalties to performers.

The issue of intellectual copyright and rewarding artists is a thorny one and not so easy to dismiss as “record company greed.” Ulrich is certainly not the only professional rock and roll rebel to take indig­nant offence at the “criminality” of online file trading. Ultimately though, the feelings of artists or even record companies may not count for very much. In a sense, file trading is what the Internet was designed for—and it was also designed to survive some­thing even more destructive than a music company lawyer: nuclear war.

There is perhaps a tad too much jargon in Sonic Boom for the IT agnostic, and the narration doesn’t always quite match the raciness of the title or the import of the revolution it docu­ments, but it’s a valuable, insightful book for anyone interested in where our cul­ture is headed.

The Nettist Movement itself continues its onward march undaunted. Napster and Fanning may have recanted, but most of his 50 million disciples that Bertlesmann hoped to convert into more orthodox customers have left and are now praying at lesser known online P2P sites. And there are always new, more convincing Luthers. Programmer Ian Clarke, for instance. He believes vehemently that information should be free. But he isn’t going to try too hard to convince you with words; he’s won the argument already with code by designing a system called Freenet which allows users to post and retrieve files with complete anonymity. Unlike Napster, there is no central server—this is a church which really has no walls and whose congregation is invisible.

Clarke likes to tell reporters that he couldn’t take Freenet down if someone put a gun to his head. Which is all very well, but Alderman doesn’t tell us what Clarke would do if Edgar Bronfman Jr. sent a Roman legion of Wall Street lawyers after him.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2001