The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Category: interview (page 1 of 2)

Mark Mothersbaugh’s Mutation

Mark Simpson meets Mr Devo turned Mutato

(Details magazine, 1998)

Before the First World War, a bunch of Italian avant-gardistes called the Futurists, who didn’t get out much and got turned on by steam trains, thought technology offered the possibility of a revolution in human consciousness and believed that artists should produce propaganda which encouraged people to break with the past, abandon traditional forms and syntax and wear silly hats. 

Before the Third World War, a bunch of Ohion avant-gardistes called Devo, who didn’t get out much and who got turned on by pocket calculators, thought that technology offered the possibility of a de-evolution in human consciousness and believed artists should produce propaganda which encouraged people to break with the past and abandon traditional forms and syntax and wear silly hats. 

Apart from proving that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy the second time as pastiche, especially if you attend art history classes at Kent State University, the nerdy, cynical ’70s New Wave band Devo’s greatest achievement was to, quite simply, change the world. We are all Devo now. The ‘kooky’ blend of performance art, film, choreography, and music they pioneered mutated into MTV: nerds have come out of their bedrooms and knocked IBM into a cocked hat. Techno is everywhere, cynicism is a way of life and New Wave is back in vogue – verily the geeks have inherited the world. 

However, Devo proved to be the embodiment of their own belief in the second law of thermodynamics – that everything is unravelling and cooling down. After the debut singles, the sublime ‘Mongoloid’ (1978) and the robotoid, sexless, ‘Satisfaction’ (1976), possibly the smartest, funniest, most blasphemous cover version in rock history – a kind of Mick Jagger for lab assistants – and two great albums, Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are Devo! (1978) and Freedom of Choice (1980), which attracted the attentions of Brian Eno and David Bowie, Devo petered out. Hastened by the huge and terrifying world-wide success of ‘Whip It!’ (1980). However, they went on to record another thirteen albums and toured up until the end of the eighties.

As so often happens when you change the world, the world turns out not to be so grateful or interested. Having accepted their fate back in 1990, Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale, the core members of Devo, are now Mutato Muzika, a factory producing music for TV shows, films and adverts, housed in an electric green flying saucer shaped building on Sunset Blvd where I am today, that used to be, appropriately enough, a plastic surgery hospital. Credits include Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Beakman’s World, Liquid Television and ads for Coke, Nike, Microsoft and scores for films such as Johnny Mnemonic

Nice work if you can get it, I’m sure, but isn’t this all a bit of a come-down for pop stars – let alone avant-garde ones?

‘Not at all,’ counters Mark Mothersbaugh, his face, which was always strangely middle-aged, now actually middle-aged, but contradicted by his stainless steel thick-rimmed glasses, sneakers, jeans and slightly intense, slightly shy, slightly adolescent demeanour. ‘We’re very lucky. What’s a better gig than being paid to write music and do artwork every day?’

In a way you’ve mutated yourselves into… ‘…what we always wanted to be,’ interrupts fast-talking Mark, who has a habit of finishing sentences for you, in an impatient but friendly way. ‘And we influence more people than we ever did before. People don’t hear the name Devo or Mark Mothersbaugh, but you know that our music is being heard by millions and millions of people every day – of all ages. There’s a whole generation of people who know Bob and I as the composers of Rugrats and Adventures in Wonderland. Sometimes they say, “My dad used to listen to you twenty years ago when he was at college”.’

But after being regarded as the wave of the future, isn’t it all a bit disappointing? ‘No,’ reasserts Mark, politely. ‘I mean we called ourselves Spuds, we knew we weren’t Royalty. You know, we came from working class households and none of us went to clairvoyants and found out that we were Egyptian kings in some other lifetime.’

But, frankly, some people will look at Mutato Musika and just think: oh, has-been pop stars looking for something to do. ‘Yeah,’ agrees Mark with disarming honesty. ‘Everybody does! And it could be bar-tending. But somehow I was lucky enough that people liked my stuff enough for me to become a composer.’

The problem of growing old disgracefully as an ex pop-star, or for any of us nowadays really, is how to grow up but not ‘grow up’ – how to mature but not become your dad. Devo, like a whole post-sixties generation, appear to have achieved this by immersing themselves in juvenile pop culture – TV, film, ads, jingles – the pop culture that their music, in fact, de-evolved out of. Maybe this is why the offices of Mutato Musika, with their curved walls, Day-Glo colours, strange sounds, and proliferation of TV and computer monitors resemble a cross between a Dutch crèche and an American teenager’s bedroom. The de-evolution that Devo represented was ironically partly the traditional rock message of not growing up into what you were supposed to be – a refusal of manhood: ‘Are we not men? We are Devo!’ 

‘It was about choosing your mutation consciously – mutate don’t stagnate,’ explains Mark, still animated by his ideas after all these years. ‘Rather than letting things be thrown on you that culture and the world wants you to buy into, wants you to become a part of, wants you to get skin cancer and die – but which kills you long before that spiritually.’

‘This was what ‘Mongoloid’, our first single was about – kind of “breeders v. readers” 

The difference between the people that just kind of bought into the rap and were able to sleep their way through life – the wad. Versus those that would consciously make a choice to go somewhere different. You’re probably too young to remember but in the early seventies your choice of music was disco, a beautiful woman with no brain, or hard rock, a big pompous over-inflated, you know, thing that went out and wobbled around on a stage. 

‘And we were watching things fall apart all around the world. We were seeing things devolve. We were saying: wait a minute, things are not getting better, things are getting crazier! But we ended up being promoted by Warner Bros and Virgin as you know, like wacky, kooky clowns because instead of figuring out what we were about it was easier to market clown versions of what was going on.’

While Mark acknowledges the influence of the Futurists, he traces the inspiration for the title and motto of the band from a 1930s movie called Island of Lost Souls with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi he caught on late night TV. 

‘Laughton is this scientist on a tropical island and he’s trying to turn these animals into humans in a laboratory called the House of Pain, but they never quite become humans, so they become subhumans, kind of zombie-like, running around the jungle and generally unhappy and depraved. But when they began to get restless Laughton would stand on this rock and he would crack his whip and they’d all cower in fear. And he’d go “What is the law?” and crack his whip again, and they’d recite “Not to walk on all fours. Are we not men?” 

And I’m watching this in 1972 on a little crappy 13 inch black and white TV in my bedsit and go oh my God! I know all those people! They all live in this town! All these hunched over subhuman characters looked like they were just falling out of the rubber factory after a hard day of work.’

Growing up in a town like Akron Ohio in the seventies can make you very weird. In its ‘heyday’ the Rubber Capital of the World, by then Akron was just a corporate, post-industrial, depressed, overcast dump full of overweight people who spent their spare time reproducing, listening to Foreigner and bouncing up and down on the heads of artistic people with ideas above their station – i.e. any ideas at all – like Mark Mothersbaugh. In other words, Akron Ohio was much like any other place in the seventies. Devo was Mothersbaugh’s revenge on ‘breeders’ everywhere. ‘We didn’t drive a van, we didn’t like hard rock and we couldn’t afford drugs so we had to form a band.’

Not surprisingly nobody wanted to hear their music in Akron. ‘We’d only get to play shows by lying and telling people we were a top forty band, but by the second or third song they’d know something was up, because we’d have like these janitor outfits on and there’d be all these hippies out in the audience. Then we’d say, OK, here’s another song by Aerosmith and we’d play “Mongoloid” and then the police would have to be called.’

Mothersbaugh’s mischievousness and anti-Akron sentiment lives on in Mutato Musika. Mark confesses that they are putting subliminal messages in their TV commercial sound-tracks. 

‘The first was in an ad for Coke – I think it was “Biology, Destiny”. Then there was that candy commercial for kids and we put in the message “Question Authority”. The funny things is, we’d be a bit scared but then we’d go to meetings with ad agency people and they’d be sitting there snapping their fingers and bobbing their heads to the music going “Yeah, Yeah” and then I’d come in and say “Be like your ancestors or be different, so shall your species survive.” And I’d blush and Bob Casale would break out in a sweat and they wouldn’t hear it. Not once has anyone told us “take that out”.

Mark’s ambition is that Mutato Musika will become a world-wide franchise. But then the band of self-described ‘suburban robots here to entertain corporate life-forms’ will become a corporate life-form themselves. Which may have a bearing on a dream Mark tells me he had recently. 

‘I was octopus-fishing on a boat out on Santa Monica Bay with about seven other people and we pulled in the net, but there were too many octopi, and too big – they chased us around. I woke up just as this one old guy that kind of looked like Popeye had an octopus wrapped around him which pulled his false teeth right out of his mouth.’

Maybe Mutato Musika is the octopus? ‘Maybe,’ shrugs Mark. ‘That would, I guess, make me the old guy having his false teeth sucked out.’

Mutato Muzika HQ, Los Angeles

How I Killed Father Ted

This year is the 25th anniversary of the launch of the much-loved UK sitcom Father Ted. This unpublished interview with writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews – in which I pointed out how many priests drop dead in their hit sitcom – was commissioned by Deluxe magazine in February 1998. The day after I handed my copy in, Father Ted, alias Dermot Morgan, 45,dropped dead of a heart attack. The interview was spiked and the series cancelled.

‘Nobody comes. Nobody goes. Nothing happens. It’s awful!’

Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett

Every decade has its sitcom. In the Sixties it was Steptoe and Son – generational conflict between two junk men left behind by Progress. In the Seventies it was Are You Being Served? – class war, campery and skiving in a department store going to the dogs. In the Eighties it was Blackadder – doomed get-rich-quick schemes of an ambitious, selfish, spineless loser. 

And in the Nineties it is Father Ted – crap priest exiled to a crap house on a crap island by the crap Italian-based multinational he works for, which forces him to mouth a crap corporate dogma which, try as he might, he can’t quite sound convinced by.

But Ted, now about to air its third series, is not just the best sitcom in years. It’s High Art. This is Beckett, but with better gags. Ted (Dermot Morgan) and his Holy Fool sidekick Dougal (Ardal O’Hanlon) are waiting for a Godot that will never come in a wasteland of frustration, bereft of any certainties, any values, any purpose or any decent night-clubs. A place where the only consolation is an endless supply of hot tea from Mrs Doyle which you didn’t ask for. 

Father Ted is so inspired that even Ted’s hair, with its enigmatic greyness and mysterious, shifting voluminousness, is a character in itself. Naturally my first question to the writer-creators Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan is, was it scripted?

Arthur: ‘It came with Dermot’.

Graham: ‘Dermot suggested it’.

Arthur: ‘Dermot suggested his own head’.

Time passes. 

Graham: ‘And it was just as well, because we were going to go for someone else’s head.’ 

Despite their occasionally Beckettian conversation, they seem like nice if slightly naughty Irish boys. They look the approximately the same age – thirty going on fourteen – but Arthur is actually ten years older than Graham who is 29. Graham talks more than Arthur, and seems more confident, but it’s not clear who wears the trousers in this relationship. Arthur grew up in Drogheda, a country town; Graham in Dublin. ‘I’m the City Slicker and Arthur’s the country boy,’ explains Graham. ‘I provide the hip cultural references and Arthur provides the authenticity.’

‘Thanks,’ says Arthur sarcastically. ‘I think that what Graham is saying is that it’s helpful for me to be from the country.’

‘And it’s helpful for me not to be,’ adds Graham.

They met when working on the Dublin listings mag Hot Press; Graham as a writer, Arthur as art director. After experimenting with a U2 pastiche band called The Joshua Trio they moved to London and wrote some sketches for Alas Smith & Jones before writing a very surreal series called Paris for Alexei Sayle in 1994. It wasn’t a hit.

Says Graham: ‘If you’d put it next to Ted and asked me which one was going to be a hit, I don’t know I’d have given you the right answer. I think perhaps it didn’t work because it didn’t have as many rules as Ted, and we didn’t realise that the central character is never as funny as all the satellite characters.’

Like Mrs Doyle, for instance, who is a seer and a prophet and deserves to be worshipped. Why don’t they give her more lines? There’s so much more that needs to be said about tea and sandwiches.

‘It’s funny you should say that,’ responds Graham, ‘because in this series we’ve tried to work a plot around each character and you get to meet Mrs Doyle’s friends. Who are, of course, exactly the same as she is. I’m sure you recognise some of your mother in Mrs Doyle…’

You know my mother??

Graham: ‘Well, you know the sort of thing I mean – you go round to your friend’s house and their mother….’

Arthur: ‘…will almost kill themselves if you ask them to nicely. “Would you mind killing yourself?” [Putting on a Mrs Doyle voice]: “Well, I don’t know…. Okay, I will.’

What do our dynamic comedy-writing duo like about one another? 

Arthur: ‘Graham’s a perfectionist. To a fault. He knows what works – he has really good instincts.’

Graham: ‘What do I like about Arthur? Er, well, it’s kind of like an imaginative haemorrhaging. He’ll sit down at a typewriter and millions of ideas will come out. That is so useful when you’re trying to get started. Arthur also has a lovely feeling for the way that priests talk.’ 

Where did the idea for Ted come from?

Arthur: ‘Growing up in Ireland we were surrounded by priests, of course, and so we didn’t have to look very far. The other day I saw a TV documentary from 1964 about Mods and there was a clip where we saw priests blessing their scooters. Now that’s pure Ted.’

Graham: ‘Arthur also used to do Ted as a stand-up character, so that makes writing for Ted very easy, because Arthur just has to start putting on his Ted voice and we’re away.’

It seems that the Irishness of Ted is the key to its success. Croft-Perry classic shows like Are You Being Served? and Dad’s Army, which Ted is very much in the tradition of, depended upon a repression which no one would really believe in if it were set in ‘classless’, individualistic Nineties Britain.

Graham: ‘I think that British repression is kind of dull now because it’s been done. But no one knew what a repressed Irish person would do.’

Arthur: ‘And in Ireland, of course, Catholicism takes on the role of class. Everyone’s very deferential to the priests.’

The lads claim Ted isn’t anti-clerical, and certainly Ted’s bungling, agnostic vanity (i.e. his human-ness) is probably a PR victory next to newspaper headlines of be-cassocked kiddie-fiddling. But I put it to them that priests do tend to die on the show like flies. Every time Ted calls a dog-collared mate on his mobile another one bites the dust. 

Graham: ‘S’funny, no one’s pointed that out before. But… people dropping dead is funny. In a comedy.’

Arthur: ‘As opposed to a drama. Where it’s not.’

Come on, you don’t see many people dying in comedies. It isn’t that funny. But dead priests are for some reason. [At this, Arthur laughs very loudly]. Maybe it’s because they wear black and talk about death all the time. Or maybe it’s because they’re just not very real people….

Graham: ‘Well, we certainly trade on unreality in the programme. We’ve constructed a kind of mythology around the priesthood. Because being a priest is a closed book to most people you can make up stuff…’.

Or as Ted put it: ‘That’s the wonderful thing about Catholicism, Dougal. It’s so vague that no-one really knows what it’s about.’ If Catholicism were a movie, it would have to be a cartoon. And there is a very strong cartoon, ‘surreal’ element to Ted. 

Arthur: ‘We’re big cartoon fans. Especially of The Simpsons.’

I can see there’s some Homer Simpson in Ted, but isn’t there more Daffy Duck?

Graham: I’d say it was Rain Man and Daffy Duck. We had a joke which we never used where Ted drops some toothpicks on the floor and Dougal instantly says, ’4,777’ and then cut-to an hour later and Ted, whose been counting them, says: ‘4,777 indeed. It’s 4,776, actually.’

Catholicism also provides a useful reason why Ted and Dougal are stuck together and why they share the same bedroom in such a big house – like Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise. 

‘Yes, there’s something that connects them all,’ admits Graham. ‘It’s as if they were non-sexual lovers, as if they were co-dependent brothers.’

Or just married – most marriages are non-sexual and co-dependent.

‘Maybe,’ laughs Graham. ‘I always hoped we’d get a gay following for Ted, in the same way as The Golden Girls did. But it didn’t happen.’

Probably because you don’t have enough drag-queen female characters. Will you be having a fourth series, now, boys?

‘You have to be careful not to outstay your welcome,’ hedges Graham. ‘We have to make each series better than the last. And that gets harder each time. At the moment we’re not sure.’

Go on. Go on. Go on, go on, go on. Just in yer hand. You will. Go on. 

“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 sitcom 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.

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

Camp For Beginners: David Halperin’s ‘How To Be Gay’

Mark Simpson interviews David Halperin about his controversial new book How To Be Gay  

(Originally appeared on Out.com 20/08/2012)

I’ve always been a big fan of Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Doris Day. But it was a secret, shameful love – until, that is, David Halperin’s new book, How to Be Gay (Harvard University Press), finally gave me the strength to come out about it. Talking about gay culture can make people of all persuasions very angry indeed. When Halperin began teaching a course on it at the University of Michigan called “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation” back in 2000, it caused a national scandal. He was inundated with outraged, abusive emails, politicians tried to axe funding for his university, and his course was denounced on Fox News, as well as in some corners of the gay press.

SIMPSON: How on earth did your charming—entirely chaste—course on gay initiation manage to upset so many people, straight and gay?

HALPERIN: It was the title. Conservatives in the United States had long suspected that college professors aim to convert straight teenagers to homosexuality; now they had the proof. And gay people in the United States get very upset at the slightest implication that any aspect of homosexuality might not be inborn. Of course, I was neither trying to convert straight students nor suggest that people become gay because they are recruited into the homosexual lifestyle. But in order to understand that, you would have had to read the entire course description, not just the title. It’s interesting, though, that gay culture should be more scandalous nowadays than gay sex.

If you’re doing it right… Do you expect your book to cause a similar outcry? Do you want it to?
I never like to upset people, and I don’t aspire to be polemical, but I have a point of view to defend and I think the book is going to be controversial because it celebrates the fact that gay men are not exactly like everybody else. In an era of gay assimilation, the notion of gay difference arouses a lot of doubt and suspicion.

Is it true to say that the gay culture you are writing about is mostly the “gay sensibility” – the subcultural appropriation and subversion of mainstream straight culture that characterized pre-Stonewall gay life? Judy! Joan! Oklahoma!
Yes, I’m interested in the persistence of that subcultural appropriation at a time when gay people have now created their own culture. I love that new, post-Stonewall gay culture, but it has trouble competing with the appeal of those traditional icons or their contemporary descendants, like Lady Gaga, and I wanted to find out why. I wanted to know why gay men in particular still thrill to divas and train wrecks when they have original works of gay fiction, movies, and pop culture that feature gay men instead.

Why has the out-and-proud gay identity failed to kill off the self-loathing, closeted gay sensibility?
Because gay identity can’t contain the full play of gay desire. I discovered this when I taught a class on contemporary gay male literature a dozen years ago — I expected gay male students to like such a class. But they got bored with the reading and amused themselves instead by drawing cartoons on the attendance sheet, portraying the members of the class — including me — as characters from The Golden Girls or Steel Magnolias. That’s when I realized I was doing something wrong and decided to teach “How to Be Gay.”

Does the fact that you’re in many ways an outsider on gay culture make you the right or the wrong person to write this book?
Both. I spend a lot of time reconstructing laboriously and imprecisely what many gay men already know. I’m sure they could do it better, but they aren’t talking, except in one-liners. It takes someone who doesn’t get it on the first take to work out the logic. I wish someone else would do the explaining, but it looks like I have to.

How bad at being gay are you? Embarrassing examples, please.
Terrible, truly terrible. I’m not a very camp person; I’m very serious. I spent the first several decades of my life absorbing high culture — studying Greek tragedy, German music, American politics. I thought the appeal of Judy Garland to gay men was a profound enigma. I hated disco and loved rock music. I was a junkie for meaning.

Tell me about your “mother” — or rather, the fact that you didn’t have one. Do you wish you’d had an older gay male confidante who taught you about gay culture?
Well, from time to time in my youth I would meet a wise old queen — that is, someone in their early thirties — who would explain to me why my idiotic notions about gay romance were wrong. But in some respects, my “mother” turns out to have been an Australian boyfriend half my age who made me watchThe Women about 20 years after I came out.

To my undying shame, I only saw that film myself a year ago. So many great, instructive lines: “Cheer up Mary, living alone has its compensations. Heaven knows it’s marvelous being able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”
Golly, I’d forgotten those. How about “Pride’s a luxury a woman in love can’t afford”?

Back in the ’70s, when I came out, I saw no need for a mother. Like many gay people of my generation, I thought homosexuality was just a sexual orientation — I resisted being initiated into a separate culture. I just wanted to know how to find guys who would sleep with me, how to be sexually fulfilled, how to have a successful love affair.

Of course, it turns out that gay culture was full of information about that topic, but the information it offered seemed mostly useless or homophobic; it implied that the object of gay desire did not exist. Now, after decades of disillusionment, we may be coming round to some of those radical insights. But that will be the subject of my next book!

What will it be called? There Is No Great Dark Man?
Perhaps After Sexuality, Love.

A cherished line of mine in your book is ‘Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people.’ Why are gays these days so keen to out-straight the straights?
They’ve been bought off with promises of normality, and their social worlds have been destroyed, so they lack the context and the courage to claim their cultural heritage, to the genius of being queer. They still produce cultural breakthroughs of brilliance, but they aren’t comfortable taking credit for them.

Is it a paradox that the resurgence of biological explanations of homosexuality has coincided with the dominance of the line “gays are just like everyone else,” except even more boring?
It’s kind of weird that so much of the gay movement embraces that bogus gay science, because that’s the one area in which claims of gay difference are triumphing in a kind of return to Victorian notions about congenital abnormality. You would think gay people would prefer to think of themselves as culturally different rather than biologically different. But here you can measure the effect in the United States of religiously inspired homophobia: In order to dodge the implication that homosexuality is a sinful choice, gay people are willing to accept biological determinism.

Believing that you only suck cock because God made you do it is kinda kinky, though. Are you a bit of a gay chauvinist? Do you believe that being gay is better than being straight?
Yes, I am and I do. At least, I can’t imagine living any other way, or wanting to. I certainly think being gay is better than being a straight man. But then nobody really likes straight men, except for some misguided gay guys.

I know I’m hopelessly misguided, but I do think straight men make the best bottoms. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether you might not have too much faith in heterosexuality. After all, how straight is straight these days?
Straight people these days may often be highly perverse, but that doesn’t make them gay. They would like to think they’re queer — the category “queer” is the greatest gift gay people ever gave straight people, because it allows straight people to claim an edgy, transgressive identity without having to do anything icky — but that’s just their usual insistence on being the everyman.

But you admit that some of your best “How to Be Gay” students were straight…
Yes, they were. There are lots of straight people who understand gay male culture better and who enjoy it more than gay men. There are numbers of straight people who are culturally gay, but gayness also involves that extra little sexual thing… It’s not a lot, but it adds something.

After teaching this course for a while and writing this book, are you any campier? Do you watch Glee? Desperate Housewives? Even Joan Crawford movies, when you’re not using them in class?
No, I still hate popular culture. I did love Desperate Housewives, even if it declined after the first season. But then, its producer was a great comic gay writer. I loved it for the same reason I loved Serial Mom: It produced such a demented version of normal life. I do think working on this book made me a lot gayer; I’m much more willing to claim my cultural birthright as a gay man in everything, from the kind of music I like to the kind of food I eat. But I’m still a desperate case, and I have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of you.