My Icon Hates Me
by Fiona Helmsley
My icon hates me. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Men we’ve had in common told me that one day this might be the case. Not because of any inherent belief they had in me, or my talents, but because of what they’d seen from her before. They described her disdain for other women like recognition, commendation. I’d gotten involved with most of them because of her. I’d taken the words I’d heard in 7th grade health class dead-seriously: you have sex with all the partners your partners had sex with. I had sex with them to have sex with her. Also, they were cute. She always had sex with the cutest guys.
By what they’d said, I could chart my ascension in our interactions. The first time I’d met her was at one of her shows, in the mid-1990s. I was wearing a ripped up, ragged dress, like the ripped up, ragged dresses she used to wear in the late 1970s. I had her haircut from then, too: a big, messy, mullet, blue-black, it’s mulletness obscured by its messiness. There weren’t many people at the show. My icon never had a huge following. We really didn’t want to share her much, anyway.
A friend and I were outside when she breezed past. “(NAME REDACTED)!” I said. It just came out. I’m a tactful person, though I did learn a degree of boldness approaching her ex- flames. “Hey,” she said. Her pale skin glowed. Her lips were red, red, red, like blood on snow. She was in her late 30s then, my friend and I, barely legal, costumed versions of her. “I have to go,” she said, gesturing towards the entrance. “These two,” she said to the man collecting money nearby, “They don’t pay.” She smelled like highly realized patchouli. Patchouli that had turned its back on non-violence.
Inside, my friend and I stood near the side of the stage. I noticed my friend Paul by the bar, and waved. At the time, female- led bands would ask that the women at their shows move to the front, to form a shield against the men in the crowd dancing wildly and copping feels. The men at my icon’s show were way too cool for such shenanigans, but between songs, she asked that my friend and I move from our spot to the front of the stage. Looking back, I think she wanted us to stand there so she could sing down on us.
When the show ended, my icon left. I looked around for Paul, but he was also gone. They’d left together.
Paul was around my age, and like me, he’d sought out the people who had made up her circle at different times. Her associates were a who’s who of grimy art world cool. Besides music, she’d starred in 8 MM films. She’d written books, with blood-red book marks attached. While I had sex with the men she’d collaborated with, Paul brown-nosed them, and wrote about them for xeroxed periodicals.
He moved in with her. They co-wrote a book about subway station sexual encounters, made a film about a stringy-haired co-ed killer. They began working on an anthology, and Paul asked me to contribute a story. I did and he said my icon loved what I wrote.
Her writing was always about the uglier aspects of life. Bad things happened. People reacted worse. It was presented as thinly veiled fiction: for me, confirmation (by the context clues) as to the identities of all the cute guys she’d had sex with. She presented herself as the one who was always in control, unable to be exploited, because she was the ultimate exploiter. ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER was the title of one of her books. It was general knowledge that it’s title referred to her vagina.
I’d been writing since I was a child, and had first discovered my icon via a book called PISSED BITCHES. Her writing was explicit. Blunt. I would later incorporate these stylistic qualities into my own writing, especially a willingness to go into minute detail about my sex life.
It didn’t work out with her and Paul. Despite their break-up, they remained friendly. Paul contacted me about the anthology’s release, and invited me to the book party. My icon would be there. He’d make a formal introduction.
Coincidentally, I’d always had a slight interest in Paul, free of the aphrodisiac-like stigmata he now presented as her former conquest. The party would be the first time I’d seen him since their split. It had been almost five years.
Paul was drunk, but looked the same. My icon was heavier. She looked voluptuous; her basket of breasts overflowed. The crowd was mostly her male friends from her various projects: a few I knew intimately, others I hoped to become more familiar with in the future. I mingled, but stuck mostly by Paul. My icon passed us as we were talking, and Paul said:
“(NAME REDACTED), this is (NAME REDACTED). She wrote the (NAME REDACTED) story in the book. I told you she considers you to be a big influence.”
My icon’s body stiffened. It was as if a small woodland creature had burrowed its way into her asshole. She made Richard Gere face, a face I’ve never actually seen, but imagine as being like the one the actor made when the rodent entered his rectum. She turned from Paul to me. It was at that moment, I believe, she decided I was a disease: maybe tuberculosis, at the time of the Brontes, maybe AIDS, circa 1985.
“What story?” she spat.
I wasn’t sure if she was asking me the name of the story I’d written, or a story of her’s that had influenced mine. Either way, it felt like a test. Trying to cover both interpretations of the question, I stammered, “(NAME REDACTED), and I loved (NAME REDACTED).” I felt like a pageant contestant.
She pulled Paul by the arm out of my earshot. I tried not to look over at them, and stared at the back of Michael Musto’s head.
Paul returned. “Sorry,” he said. “She’s just stressed, because of Dordie Coment.”
Dordie Coment was an underground actress and musician who had just found mainstream success with her band, THE GAPING WOUNDS. Dordie’s icon had been my icon, and she had spoke about our icon’s influence in interviews.
“ Oh (NAME REDACTED) paved the way. She was so fucking angry, and I was angry, too. PISSED BITCHES was like a call to marching orders. I mean a call to arms. I mean, marching orders. ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER? Fuck. After I read that, I embraced my inner wench, and ran with her. Soon after, I formed THE GAPING WOUNDS.”
I suppose praise from Dordie was open to interpretation depending on how you felt about Dordie. I liked Dordie, and liked seeing her on TV. Our icon didn’t, and let it be known, when she was asked her opinion about Dordie for a magazine article about her.
“Don’t fucking blame me,” my icon said. “I may have provided the egg, but I didn’t baste her.”
When Dordie was read what our icon had said by the writer doing the article, she lowered the boom on her praise significantly. “Well, please let (NAME REDACTED) know, if there is anything she needs, any tax-deductible thing, she can always contact my accountant, but he’s Jewish, so she should be mindful of the Sabbath.”
My icon had more to say after hearing Dordie’s cheeky retort, but her response was relegated to a xeroxed periodical, done by Paul.
“Actually, I never said anything about that woman,” my icon said. “How could I? I have no fucking idea who she is.”
“Does she know Dordie?” I asked Paul.
“I mean, yeah, but it’s not like they’re friends or anything.”
“Then why start that?” I asked. “Why say, “I didn’t baste her?”
“I don’t know. She can be weird with women sometimes. Dordie should take it as a compliment.”
“I’ve heard that,” I said. “Did she really tell you she liked my story, Paul?”
“I don’t remember,” he said. “It seems like a long time ago. She really didn’t have that much to do with the book. Can I have a sip of your beer?”
As it turned out, Paul was the last sex partner my icon and I had in common.
Years went by. The Spice Girls arrived. My icon became more robust. She still performed and wrote, but her name wasn’t mentioned that often as an influence on cross-over culture. This surprised me, as I saw one-off versions of things she’d done first in the ‘70s and ‘80s all the time. I knew there were other people like Dordie, Paul, and myself, who had considered her to be an important influence. Had those people just not done enough with their lives to warrant speaking about who had influenced them? Had my icon been the icon of choice for a generation of do-nothings?
Was she an… anti-icon?
Maybe she wasn’t an anti-icon so much as her fans remained largely digitally illiterate, cut off from sharing their feelings about how inspirational she’d been. I wondered if the answer to her invisibility laid, to an extent, with the internet. The generation who had most actively felt her influence had also been the last to grow up without it. If we wanted to use this new communication tool, we had to learn how to ourselves. Web-surfing wasn’t a hard thing to figure out, but people are often resistant to new technology. Whatever the reason, at the dawn of the new millennium, my icon still seemed relegated to the world of xeroxed periodicals.
I kept writing, and in the early 2000s, I was asked to contribute an essay about the American Female Experience for a book by a European press. I wrote about my brief foray into teen prostitution– a foray no doubt inspired in some small part by my icon’s role as a teen prostitute named Bambi in a series of underground films. The story after mine in the book was written by my icon. It was about her voracious appetite for sex and food, more food than sex, she wrote, as she got older.
Soon after, she got a website.
I took inspiration from her story in the book, and decided to write an article about her and all the cute guys she’d had sex with. The inspiration was, I would compare each guy to a different kind of food. For example, (NAME REDACTED) would be compared to steak, because he was into weight lifting. Paul, who had made a name for himself as a Pete Doherty type hot mess would be compared to barley, because he drank a lot. But something happened as I was doing research for the article. I reread the books and stories by my icon that had been so important to me when I was younger and realized I no longer thought they were all that good. The writing seemed amateurish. Stunted. The perspective in the stories read to me as almost…macho? I’d had this happen before with other artists I’d considered formative: I had to admit I’d outgrown whatever it was about their work that had resonated so much with me. But you invest time in making your icons your icons. It can be hard to let go. I wrote the article, and it was published online. The editor of the European press who had put out the book we’d both been in told me he’d sent my icon the article, and that she loved it. I told him about a project I had started about artists and their favorite sweaters. I asked him if he thought she might contribute. He gave me her email address, and told me to contact her. The name she was using for her email address sounded like it should have belonged to a Hot Topic Goth.
I composed this message:
Hey (NAME REDACTED),
I don’t know if you remember me, but I hope you do. Your writing, music, and life has influenced me so much. I’m doing this project called SWEATERS OF COOL PEOPLE. It’s pictures of artist’s sweaters, with a few lines they’ve written about a memory they associate with the sweater. I’ve gotten some really great people to contribute. I’d be so honored if you would.
If you don’t remember me, we’ve had stories in a few of the same books throughout the years. I also wrote an article about your ex-partners and their various “food signs.”
Thank you for all the years of inspiration.
I still talked to the friend I’d seen my icon perform with that first time, all those years ago. To give you an idea of the amount of time that had passed since then, we could both wear mom jeans. Could, but didn’t. We stayed stylish.
I messaged her as the days passed without a response from my icon. My friend worked a lot, and often wouldn’t get back to me right away. Sometimes, it seemed like I was having a conversation with myself.
It’s not so much that I even want her to contribute to the sweater project. I mean, I do, I do– but it’s like I want some kind of confirmation from her acknowledging my existence.
Not that her not acknowledging my existence would mean that I didn’t exist. Nor would her acknowledgement mean I had some greater validity.
At one point does one stop being a fan and become a peer?
Does one have to stop acting like a fan to be a peer?
Can I be a fan and a peer??
Dordie fucking Coment will message with me. She steals my Facebook statuses! Who does (NAME REDACTED) think she is??
Lest you think I’m not being considerate of (NAME REDACTED)’s ‘agency’, let me remind you, have you reviewed her body of work recently? She abuses and exploits other women all the time. She’s worse than Bret Easton Ellis. Remember that anti-drug commercial that was on tv around the time we were obsessed with her? With the kid who smokes pot, and the dad who finds it, and is all “Who taught you this?” and the kid is all, “I learned by watching you dad, I learned by watching you!” That’s her and me. I learned by watching you (NAME REDACTED)! I learned by watching you!!!!
Do you think maybe she’s in Europe?
No, my friend responded later that night. I just saw online she’s doing spoken word around here. I hate spoken word, and have a hard time staying up past ten, but do you wanna go?
My first book of stories was coming out on small press, and I brought an advanced copy of the book with me to give to my icon. I had actually thanked her in the book’s acknowledgements. Despite my change of opinion when it came to the quality of her writing, it has never been just her writing that appealed to me. Like I’d written in the email I’d sent her (which she’d yet to respond to): it was the whole package of her–well, except the recent addition of the spoken word– but I understood. We all had bills to pay. Whatever it was I felt I’d outgrown about her writing, she was still a formative person in my life.
It was a small club, fairly crowded for a weeknight. My friend and I were sitting at the bar when my icon came in with the two men who made up her musical accompaniment.
“She’s hereeeeee,” my friend said, in the voice from the little girl from Poltergeist. We both turned towards the door.
“(NAME REDACTED)!” a very young, handsome, arty-looking guy said, approaching her as she came in. They embraced, then he opened a door by the bar, that led to a backroom.
There were two bands performing before her, and waiting for her to emerge from the back, I began to get impatient. And bored. And a bit drunk. My friend got tired, then crabby.
“We’re too old for this,” I said as a generic noise band comprised of found metallic objects began it’s ear-splitting cacophony .
“And she’s older than we are!” my friend said. “How does she take it? That’s probably why she’s hiding out in the back. She looks good, don’t you think?”
She did. In the quick glimpse that I’d gotten of her, she looked great. She was almost 60. Twenty minutes later, my icon still hadn’t come out, but I noticed one of her music men ferrying drinks back and forth between the bar and the backroom.
“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” my friend said. “I have to work early in the morning.”
I decided that was my cue, and approached him.
“Hey,” I said. “I don’t want to be annoying, but do you think (NAME REDACTED) is going to come out before she performs?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“My friend and I are feeling a bit out of our element, but we’ve been fans of (NAME REDACTED) for awhile, and would like to say hi.”
“Uh, I can ask her,” he said. “But she’s kind of anti-social.”
“Maybe that’s it,” I said starting to feel the alcohol I’d been drinking. “Maybe that’s the answer to the big riddle. Something so simple. Maybe it’s not that she hates other women specifically, maybe it’s just that she’s anti-social…”
“The big riddle?” the man said.
“Well, throughout the years, that’s always been my experience with her. When I’ve met her, she’s never been particularly nice. Not that she has to be. I wrote this article about the men she’s had sex with, and now I’m trying to get her to do this other project about sweaters…”
“Oh the list that compared her boyfriends to food?”
“Yes!” I said.
“Oh, yeah, yeah! She loved that!”
“I had sex with some of those dudes because of her!”
“You know, you’re not the first person I’ve heard say that,” he said. “But she can be kind of weird about meeting people.”
“I’ve met her before. Here,” I said, deciding to hedge my bets. “Can you give her this?” I handed him the copy of my book. “I don’t want to risk not getting it to her. I thank her in it. I don’t know if my friend is going to make it much longer here.”
“Okay,” he said. “Give me a minute. I’ll try to get her to come out.”
“I don’t think she’s coming out,” my friend said, at the ten minute mark. “I think there are strippers and blow back there, and I don’t think her music guy is coming back, either.”
“I do,” I said. “I believe.”
A few minutes later I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I knew it was her.
“Here,” her music man said. “I tried. She asked me to ask you what you have against spoken word.”
“Huh?” I said. “I never said that to you. Did you tell her I said that? No! No!”
“She signed the book,” he said.
“Signed the book?” I said, taking the copy of my book back into my hands. “I wrote this book! I was giving it to her! Look,” I said, pointing to my name on the cover. “That’s me!”
“Well, she signed it,” he said, “Usually she’s resistant to doing even that.”
I opened the cover. She’d crossed out my name on the title page, and in big red letters she’d written her own: (NAME REDACTED).
If there was a message in it, I got it. And maybe she was right.
One person’s “influence” is another person’s “rip off.”
The cliche is kill your idols. But maybe, if she’s really worth your veneration, your icon finds a way to rub you out first.
Fiona Helmsley’s writing can be found in various anthologies like Ladyland and The Best Sex Writing of the Year and online at websites like The Weeklings, The Hairpin, PANK and The Rumpus. A multiple Pushcart nominee, her book of essays and stories, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers was released in 2015. She is an MFA candidate at L’École de Merde.
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