In this environment it was normal for people to be working a persona, but no one quite got Braunstein’s—the Jheri-curl mullet, Huckapoo shirts, velvet blazers, an unironic briefcase (for shame!), and the daily parade of leather pants. “Studio 54 by way of the electronics shop,” says one co-worker; “as if he discovered mousse ten years too late”; “a hair trope like Robert Townsend in The Hollywood Shuffle”; “could’ve been the drummer from Boston circa 1971.”
To Braunstein, though, this was a carefully crafted exterior born of a deep engagement with sexual politics. Taken in graduate school with the concept of theatrical alter egos and “role play” as the defining social experience of the mod era—the wigs, the charadelike dances, the ever-changing looks of Twiggy and Brigitte Bardot—he saw his look as early disco era, and even sold a book to Routledge on the topic to publish in 2007. He was particularly interested in the unstable role of the straight white male in disco, which, he theorized, began as an interaction between black female divas and gay men. “Straight men were welcome to join the party, but only if they learned the lingo,” Braunstein wrote. “Some did, but for many, this new demand aroused a kind of castration anxiety. Disco symbolized a world where straight men were not only expected to engender the female orgasm, but to incorporate it . . . It wasn’t homosexuality that disco ushered in but a sustained exploration of the sexual self, including the femme side of the male persona.”
Braunstein got in touch with the femme side of his persona through Debra Michals, a woman he met in graduate school and dated for eight years. Michals, who moonlighted as a reporter at WWD, worked on early radical feminism. She wrote on groups such as the New York Radical Women, who famously protested the Miss America pageant in 1968 by crowning a sheep Miss America and demanding to speak only to female journalists. Michals also wrote articles on feminism for Ms. and other publications, writing a treatise on Internet chat rooms where users acted out virtual gangbangs. “Clearly, ‘virtual rape’ is not the same as the rape a woman experiences in the physical world,” she wrote. “But something as yet unnameable is going on in chat rooms where an erotic scenario can shift to a gangbang with a few keystrokes from an observing male who jumps in with, ‘Let’s skull-fuck the bitch.’ ”
Michals is stunning—“the most beautiful graduate student at NYU,” says a friend—with wavy raven hair, filmy sweaters, and slim trousers paired with chunky boots, an extreme faded beauty with the look of a present-day Carol Alt. In fact, Braunstein’s pet name for her was Beauty. The two lived in a shag-carpeted one-bedroom on Thompson Street, often with the television playing a sixties art film in the background. “They were a cool, cool couple,” says a friend.
“How could you not be there for me?” he ranted to a friend after he was sent to Bellevue. “You used to be so real. Now you’re just another one of those fashion bitches.”
Michals spent her savings throwing Braunstein a party at a Greenwich Village Italian restaurant for his first book, a compilation of countercultural essays whose cover lining was made from the same paper used for sheets of LSD; friends expecting meager hors d’oeuvre were surprised to find dinner waiting. Braunstein had interviewed Jane Fonda days before, and he rhapsodized about the interview—she represented a half-century of culture, a “libertine in the mid-sixties, radical by the decade’s end, progressive in the seventies, entrepreneurial in the eighties, and a corporate grande dame in the nineties,” he explained in an essay, concluding “Jane Fonda is America.” She was his celebrity fantasy hookup. “If she had slept with me, I would’ve done it,” he said and shot a look at Michals. “If I got her, could I have her?” Michals laughed and said that she was willing to make that bet.
A few weeks later, the couple broke it off. Of course, since this is Manhattan, they continued living in the same apartment. Fearful that Braunstein was spying, Michals used pay phones at the library to call friends to ask them to set her up on dates.
By enlisting at Fairchild, Braunstein had joined a world of women. There were the sallow, plump girls who wore designer samples that were a little too tight, and the no-nonsense women with motorcycle boots and thin pale shoulders who worked in production, and gaunt beauties from ruined aristocratic families, all of them dripping with trinkets like chandelier earrings or elaborate handbags, hair plaited with textured rose-colored barrettes and faces shining with daubs of $500 moisturizer. Braunstein would never comment on their bodies the way gay men in the office would—cooing to the market girls, “Girl, your rack looks so good in that dress!” Interviews were alluring too, like one with the teenage Frieda twins, the girls from the Sheer Blonde ad. The twins told Braunstein that they were cutting a demo and looking for a band name. “What do you think of Stiletto?” one asked.