When Ingrid Sischy found out I was going to Nice this summer with my family, she had Elton John make us a reservation at a hot restaurant. On another occasion, when Ingrid and I were walking along talking about art and pop culture and I made a point that struck her as something she wanted to pursue, we rushed right over to Jeff Koons’s studio to talk about it with him. Then, a few weeks ago, she took me to all the fashion shows. One evening, I went to a screening Ingrid was hosting and brushed up against Uma Thurman. The other day, to make a point about Interview, the magazine she has edited for the past ten years, and the artistic and cultural worlds it covers, Ingrid called up the fashion designer Helmut Lang, the artist Francesco Clemente, the independent filmmakers Todd Solondz (Happiness) and Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), and the supermodel Veronica Webb, and they all came over to discuss these issues for a few hours. (“What a group,” said the celebrity photographer Patrick McMullan, who poked his head into the room briefly. “I’m so excited.”)
Thinking about the life Ingrid leads (and of myself dropped into it), I thought of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita; but that dwells too much on the emptiness of the glitzy life. Then I considered the Woody Allen movie Celebrity; but that’s a fairly vituperative vision of this world. Finally I thought of Almodóvar and his sentimental take on fame; he could possibly balance the workaday normalcy of Ingrid’s world with, at least for me, its vivid, surreal quality. Imagine having instant access to anybody famous and talented you might ever want to talk to, and, most surreally, finding that they are all very decent-, modest-, humble-seeming people (at least around Ingrid).
I first met Ingrid when Interview’s P.R. people were shopping around for a story to commemorate the magazine’s thirtieth anniversary. I was interested for two reasons: first, because any magazine that survives so long and in such a consistent form has accomplished something big; and second, because I had absolutely no idea who reads Interview. It thrived, but not necessarily by any obvious logic.
At our first talk, Ingrid and I had a college-dorm sort of conversation about our families, our aspirations, and various artistic and moral issues (Ingrid is a South African Jew who immigrated with her family at the age of 9 to Edinburgh and then as a teen to Rochester before going off to Sarah Lawrence ). This led to another talk and another and another. I was not unmindful that as the 34-year-old editor of Artforum in the mid-eighties, Ingrid was interviewed by The New Yorker’s Janet Malcolm; the interview, which became the basis for a two-part profile, stretched on for more than a year. I found I, too, was delighted to keep going. She’s warm (almost flat-footedly decent and earnest); she listens; she’s motherly; and then there’s the fact that she could be talking to someone incredibly famous, but instead she is talking to you. Which is why I am now a year late in taking note of Interview’s anniversary and accomplishments.
Ingrid and Interview’s place in the fame game is a curious one. Access to celebrities is a complex and expensive process of negotiation and courtship for most magazines, and often involves the exchange of various inducements. But inch for inch, Interview, with its fairly paltry 170,000 circulation, and with far less valuable inducements to offer, gets many more celebrities than any other magazine – the hottest ones, the hippest ones, the hardest-to-get, most furtive ones – which seems to piss many other editors off (I’m not the only one who asks: “Who reads Interview?”).
“Interview does for fame what socialist realist propaganda sheets in the early part of the century did for revolution.”
On the other hand, Ingrid, who resembles one of those normal-people sculptures, the kind that scare you in a museum, by the artist Duane Hansen, is not rich; she is not very famous (a usual perk of hanging around the famous) herself; and to the degree Interview has been a success, it’s been a quirky one (many non-Interview readers treat it as a faded flower).
Ingrid sets up a dialectic in the world of popular culture in which there are locals – the authentic, indigenous peoples – and then the great mass of tourists. Tina Brown is a tourist, a voyeur, an exploiter, a tour-guide operator, even (indeed, Tina would often ask Ingrid, a New Yorker contributor, to bring various hot people to events she was hosting). Whereas Ingrid runs the local paper here in fametown.
For instance, Sean Penn called Ingrid up one day and asked her to have a drink with a musician friend who had just released a record that wasn’t doing very well and that the label wasn’t supporting. Ingrid said she couldn’t because some friends were coming over for dinner, but, she told Penn, his friend could stop by. So that was the evening k. d. lang, Julian Schnabel, Valentino, and the photographer Steven Klein, all dining in Ingrid’s small place in the West Village, first heard Jewel sing (Schnabel had to run around the corner to his house and get a guitar). And that was how Jewel got her first magazine story, which Klein photographed for Interview. This is what happens in a small town.
Ingrid, who at 27 became the editor of Artforum and possibly the most influential voice in the rise of a generation of painters that included Schnabel, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf as well as Clemente and Koons, seldom discusses fame itself. She talks about the work, or “the work.” It’s old-fashioned; it’s European; it’s like when people took movies seriously – the celebrity as auteur. She can talk about Mark Wahlberg with interest. She decommodifies the famous (Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce complains, in our discussion, about other magazines’ “using your commodity to sell their commodity”).
In a way, Ingrid is the champion of people who you might not immediately think would need a champion. Interview is, she says, “where people who choose the life and the world of fame can feel safe.” In a sense, Interview functions as – and this starts to get at who exactly reads Interview – a trade magazine for the famous, or for those who would like to be part of the fame profession (from publicists to casting agents to actor-bartenders to, Ingrid notes, “pretty boys who’ve just hit town”). She invokes, too, that young person out there in Nowheresville, full of heart and imagination, quite likely gay, who in Interview will see his or her escape route and career possibilities.
Ingrid, who was The New Yorker’s long-time photography critic, describes fame (or the process of fame) as a visual thing. Among Interview’s readership, she says, are many photographers and art directors and fashion designers. So what happens, Ingrid believes, is an eye-to-eye thing, or a visual-eye to visual-eye thing. Photographers, because they are given wide latitude and a large palette at Interview (working for cheap), inspire other photographers to want to photograph the people they’ve seen photographed in Interview.
When Drew Barrymore was all but washed up in the early nineties, Interview did a nude series with her, which got the interest of other photographers (“big-league photographers,” notes Ingrid) and caused many other magazines to feature her, thereby reviving her career. Bruce Weber first photographed Marky Mark with his pants below his Calvin-labeled underpants in Interview, which became, after this, the emblematic Calvin ad campaign. Leonardo DiCaprio got his first cover photo in Interview. So did Lil’ Kim and Chloë Sevigny and Christina Ricci and Edward Norton and tons more.
Interview does for fame what socialist realist propaganda sheets in the early part of the century did for revolution.
It’s a visual viral thing. It is also, arguably, a visual viral gay thing (“pansexual,” says Ingrid), a message Interview sends better than other publications.
At my afternoon tea with Helmut, who ran his first advertisements in Interview, and Francesco, whose work often appears in the magazine, and Todd and Kimberly, both of whom credit Interview’s support in the not necessarily likely success of their films, and Veronica, whose post-supermodel life involves writing for Interview, I brought up what I find to be Interview’s resolute lack of irony.
A funny thing, I thought, had happened. Interview began 31 years ago as Andy Warhol’s flight of fancy; like his mock films, his mock magazine offered unfiltered conversations, which in no small way celebrated banality (“Hi.” “Hi, Andy.” “When did you get to town?” “Yesterday.” “Any jet lag?”). No irony was Warhol’s irony.
Now, while much of that affectlessness remains three decades later, it no longer functions as a comment on itself – not Woody Allen mockery or Felliniesque ennui or even Warholian drollery – but, rather, almost as a clubby thing. This is the way the talented, beautiful, hip, and celebrated talk among themselves. Interview, which had opened the doors to introduce celebrities into every aspect of American culture (Interview is certainly the godfather of People and every publication Tina Brown has had anything to do with), had, in a way, shut the doors. It’s the them (the locals) on one side and us (the tourists) on the other.
At tea, everyone sort of agreed that Interview represented a kind of club, although no one wanted to call it a club (“a community,” someone suggested; “a current,” said someone else).
But I didn’t get too far with the irony issue, because the conditions for irony presuppose that you’re on the outside looking in, or at least you’re ambivalent about being on the inside. But at the tea, nobody seemed to feel ambivalent enough about being included here to see the need for irony – or to see its absence. (“The judgment is implied by the context,” said Francesco, defending the magazine’s tone. “Why does everyone have to be labeled?” complained Helmut. “To allow something to be what it is is also an act of criticality,” said Kimberly.)
And then, too, there is Ingrid’s wholesomeness. Irony, ambivalence, and modern self-loathing of any sort are not Ingrid’s thing; she isn’t brittle. She occupies a pretty firmly contented space.
As I was saying to Elton John (after thanking him for my wonderful dinner in Nice), there is something really down-to-earth about Ingrid. “She isn’t a celebrity editor,” said Elton, who seemed, I thought, to know a lot about the magazine world (but then, celebrities would obviously know about celebrity magazines). “She isn’t a Graydon Carter or Tina Brown or Anna Wintour,” Elton noted positively.
In the myth of the celebrity editor, Tina and Graydon and Anna have easy access to the inside, and they use this access to bring a bit of what happens in this world to us. Partly out of their efforts to get the access they claim to have (which is much more difficult than they would like us to think) grows the culture of celebrity, the climbing, promoting, reputation-negotiating (who’s in, who’s out), and sucking up.
None of this (this “negativity,” as Elton says) is part of Ingrid’s M.O., or, in fact, her personality. There really is not a sense when you’re with Ingrid or even when you’re reading Interview of celebrities and noncelebrities, or, as they might say in art criticism, hierarchality. In a way, Ingrid and Interview occupy a much more generous world than the one in which we live. There are no celebrities in Ingrid’s world, because everyone is a celebrity; no talented people, because everyone is talented; no beautiful people, because everyone is beautiful.
But let me run; I have Miuccia Prada calling.