August 11, 2016
Last year, I adopted the habit of asking myself “what would a star do?” when confronted with any given choice or situation. As a result, I dyed my hair and began to wear sequins and eyeliner on a daily basis. I bought a one-way ticket to Paris. I stopped “dating boys” and began to “take lovers”. I now make outrageous pronouncements in response to mundane questions. “What do you do?” “Pursue my destiny!” “What are your plans?” “Be a legend!”
My friends make fun of me for my grandiosity. Of course I’m being playful, yet the funniest things are truly serious. I am a visual artist working in the fashion industry. Being a full-time illustrator in the 21st century is a notoriously difficult endeavor. The most pressing challenge is to make a living from my work. Tied into that is the necessity of having my work recognized.
When you’re self-employed, your success or lack thereof is wholly your own responsibility. As I am attempting to raise my station in life, I closely observe the successful artists in my field. There is one thing they all have in common – they weren’t just artists, they were ‘personalities’.
That’s when I realized, although in retrospect it seems obvious, that I am in show business. I had initially believed that my job was to be good at drawing and deliver projects to my clients on time. That is only the half of it. The other half of my job, I realized, was to be a star. A wondrous self-creation who lives the kind of life others dream of living. That work – I call it famework – could be the difference between being a journeywoman illustrator and being a successful artist.
The exuberant pursuit of attention is not generally well regarded by our culture. Insert Kardashian reference *drops mic* excuse me. It’s 2016.
Introducing it into my job description has required adjusting my own attitudes. I had to get over a lifetime of being the shy homeschooled kid who likes to be left alone to read. To court an audience, build a legend, and be vulnerable to criticism all involve facing fears and sometimes faking confidence. It’s work, for sure. In practice, the difference it has made in my life is real.
I now spend more time and money on my appearance. I’m crafting my look as a 21st Century hipster Holly Golightly, borrowing a trick from Madonna when she copped Marilyn Monroe’s image. I deliberately put myself in intimidating performance situations – drawing in front of people, speaking to an audience. I started to take more glamorous risks with my life choices, as if I am banking on a memoir as a retirement plan. Now I’m living out of a suitcase, dividing my life between London, Paris, New York and Toronto. It’s a lifestyle I’ve wanted to try for a long time. And of course wherever I go I am still at the drawing board too.
Doing famework comes with excruciating public pitfalls, like when hair disasters are also professional disasters. I had a cheesy uptown blow-out for one of my most visible gigs, and even though the event was successful, looking at the video still makes me cringe. Still, the intangible benefits of famework are good, life has become a lot more eventful and aesthetic. Sometimes I feel like a character in a book. And the rewards are also real; since I started doing it I gave myself a big raise. I doubled my income. I signed a book deal.
In spite of the economic and social advantages of practicing famework, people who do it are often dismissed as self-obsessed, attention seeking narcissists. This cultural stigma makes smart, beautiful women like Amy Odell feel like putting their face out there is ‘gross’, even though not doing so limits their opportunities.
I internalized this social stigma as well. Throughout my 20s, I downplayed my looks and dressed to blend in. I worked hard on my artwork, hoping that I would be recognized on merit, and then I felt frustrated and envious when success went to more glamorous fashion illustrators, as if I deserved to be rewarded for talent alone. This received assumption, that doing good work was enough, sabotaged my early career.
Odell, author of Tales From The Back Row, now sits in the front row as editor of Cosmopolitan.com. She has also changed her attitude towards self-promotion. In an Op-Ed for Business of Fashion, Odell encourages women to get over their discomfort with self-promotion, stop judging other women for doing it, and embrace it as a way to demonstrate value and get paid for it. She told me in an interview, “I still feel self-conscious, but it’s part of my work. You have to make sure that you do it – it takes time but it pays off.”
When I approach famework, I ask myself “what would Andy Warhol do?” Andy Warhol was a fashion illustrator who became the most iconic artist of the second half of the 20th century, so he is a symbol of everything that is possible for me too.
“Andy was entrepreneurial,” says Geralyn Huxley, Film & Video Curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Not only was he obsessed with stars as a subject, he understood that building his own legend was key to his success as a fine artist, and he did that work consciously, even though he too found it to be hard work.
“Although he pursued fame his entire life, he was famously shy too,” Huxley tells me. “It wasn’t until the end of his life that he wholeheartedly embraced the spotlight. If you watch his television shows, at first he always has a co-host to conduct the interviews, but in later shows, he conducted interviews himself. The last performance he ever gave the night before he died was as a fashion model at a runway show.”
In spite of his own reticence, Warhol was incredibly famous and wealthy in his own lifetime. I believe there are three major strategies Warhol employed to use celebrity to his advantage.
One is proximity; fame is contagious. By aligning yourself with the already famous, some of that stardust will stick to you, too. Andy did this by using famous subjects, like Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe.
The second is iconography; by creating an impactful personal image – the human analog to a consumer brand – and repeating that image over and over, until it sticks in people’s minds. Andy did this, even though he wasn’t conventionally beautiful, by wearing an obviously fake wig.
The third, and most risky strategy, is scandal. Andy did this by choosing subjects with ‘problems’ for his films, which eventually led to the most defining scandal of his own life, when he got shot.
The payoff of such focused famework? Warhol’s legacy as the most important artist of his time is universally accepted. And he prefigured what fame would become in the next century.
Perhaps the reason so many people uphold humility and authenticity as ideals to measure celebrities against is because famework was, before the internet, more easily concealed. In old Hollywood, when the studios were media monoliths, the narrative of star creation was that stars were “discovered”. In this way, 20th century celebrities could avoid the odious acknowledgement that they sought fame and had calculated images. Stars could distance themselves from the shame of the casting couch, a subject Warhol often played with in his Factory films. By denying any intention or effort, stars could affect verisimilitude, as if their notoriety was bestowed upon them.
Now, famous or not, we are all mini-media moguls, and the work of manufacturing an image is completely demystified, as we all do it every time we update our Facebook profiles. The result is an uncomfortable realization that all media and every famous person is a construction and therefore, “fake”. The backlash against the visible work of persona creation is, to credit a phrase to Tavi Gevinson, “realness policing”. Artists that are candid about the work of fame are perceived as phony, while artists that successfully invoke the myth of the discovered artist are accepted as authentic. Who’s telling the truth?
Every artist you’ve ever heard of has worked just as hard for your recognition as they do on their craft. It’s necessary work, and the self-professed “only honest celebrity” Kanye Wast admits it. When Lou Stoppard of SHOWstudio interviewed him, they discussed the difficulties of fame. “Do you think it would be easier for you if you weren’t famous then?” Stoppard asked.
West answered: “No it wouldn’t be easier. The answer is absolutely no. You need fame in order to sell your shit.” In the 21st century, famework is finally honest work.