Philippa Snow is a writer based in Norwich, UK. She was shortlisted for the 2020 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, and her writing has appeared in publications including Artforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, ArtReview, The White Review and Frieze. Her first book, Which As You Know Means Violence: On Self-Injury as Art and Entertainment, was published in 2022
Owing to something in the air – climate change perhaps, or some undulation of astrology that I refuse to believe in – I have found myself having numerous conversations lately about reinvention. Friends have joked, or not joked, about getting a new name and a new passport; about changing their career or their location or their partner, or some combination of all three at once. Nearly all of these friends are female. Fair enough: it is easy to imagine that the truism “wherever you go, there you are” might not apply if the version of “you” who went “there” went in deep disguise, and I am certainly far from immune. When Instagram offered me an ad (for what I believe was a meditation app) comprised simply of text, black-on-white, suggesting that I “Disappear for One Month, then come back fully rebranded ”, I took a screenshot at lightning speed for future use. When one afternoon I suddenly felt moved to look up the passage from Speedboat by Renata Adler about the grenade (“I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray”), I was pleased to find that it was her most-liked quote on Goodreads, and even more pleased to learn that the number of likes currently stood at 69.
Throwing a grenade at your own feet, of course, is far less likely to result in bodily propulsion than it is in death, and the killing of the old self is not something to take lightly. Those who do it are therefore presumably quite serious about their pursuit of new lives, new names, new loves. Also very recently, a critic whose work I usually regard as close to flawless recorded a podcast about the late writer Anna Kavan, who began her life as Helen Emily Woods, and then became Helen Ferguson by marriage before eventually adopting her more famous name. He – for the critic is, I must admit, a he, though I do not hold it against him in this instance – railed against a tendency in criticism about Kavan’s work to lean on the significance of her persona, and her status as a heroin addict. On one hand, I can understand the idea that we ought not to discuss the looks and clothes and hair and drug habits of women writers more than we discuss their texts. Still, I think Helen Ferguson’s vanishing and the sudden appearance in her place of Anna Kavan (“Disappear for One Month, then come back fully rebranded”) is so orchestrated and deliberate that it should be seen in some ways as a logical extension of the author’s oeuvre. Kavan adopted her new name from a character who appeared in her own writing, as if to emphasise her close attachment to her own material, and to underscore the fact this new persona was entirely of her own devising. She dyed her hair ice blonde and began to dress more elegantly; she lost copious amounts of weight, and mainlined heroin. To say that interest in her public-facing self is at risk of overshadowing the work itself is not quite right, since it appears to be the case that, rather than reinventing herself in order to sell her books, she transformed so that she herself could more closely resemble them: jagged and striking and glamorous and mad.
Do we owe it to Kavan to see her only as she wished us to, and to respect the thoroughness and the ingenuity of her reinvention? Perhaps. Considering this question, in parallel with the unusual flurry of conversations I’d been having about the desire for a new life, I was left wondering about my own ongoing preoccupation with personas, and more specifically with the deconstruction of the public selves of female celebrities. (True, Anna Kavan is not what one would technically describe as a “celebrity”, but it is arguable that she stage-managed her appearance and her public profile as cleverly and as stringently as if she had been one, and the result was a woman who was singular, singularly gifted, and immediately visible as being unlike other people, which does not sound totally unlike a star.) For a number of years, as a writer I have circled more or less continually around the subject of the things that women do to themselves – physically, psychologically, conceptually – in order to better adapt themselves to fame. I believe, or have come to believe recently, that my interest in the subject has been spurred on by the fact that these personal transformations for success in some ways mirror the more mundane transformations that often characterise the feminine experience in general, making the female celebrity a kind of metonym for womanhood itself.
Female celebrities who thrive, albeit in the sense of being high-profile and successful rather than necessarily healthy or happy, tend to be those who have undergone some kind of evolution, like animals adjusting to a new climate, in order to suit the job. When one reinvents herself, becoming an entirely new character, the media often react as though she is trying to get away with something – but if she is being pilloried for it, and the differences between the new and old selves are being raked over in the public eye, then how can she be? It is easy to forget, now that the character of Lana Del Rey is so widely loved and critically respected, the opprobrium that met Lizzie Grant, a fairly anonymous-looking bleached-blonde singer-songwiter, when she elected to reinvent herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” with an alleged nose-job and alleged lip-injections and a make-up job worthy of Priscilla Presley for her second studio album Born to Die in 2012. There was a sense that in her adoption of a wildly feminine exterior, she had somehow drawn too much attention to the work required for a woman to sell records, and that being “real” was somehow incompatible with cosmetic tweaks. (One wonders if the critics, mostly male, who rolled their eyes would feel as strongly about David Bowie’s alteration of his teeth, to say nothing of his own penchant for being made up.) Time has shown that, as with Kavan’s reinvention, what Del Rey was doing was creating a reflection of her work made flesh – and as with Kavan, too, acting as an image of hetero-sex exploded outwards in order to riff on, to both beckon and dissect, male cruelty. In its way, her persona has turned out to be as rich and complex as her records. Sometimes the splitting of the self, with its attendant redesigning of both physical and psychic architecture, can involve a kind of compartmentalisation, and can be about self-preservation. Acknowledging the falseness of these public selves allows us to tease out the things they say about the industry and/or society that they have been created to placate, or please, or deflect; it also means being invasive, shattering an illusion that has been constructed for a reason, often at great expense and effort. In an essay praising Lana Del Rey’s fakeness written in 2014, the critic Sarah Nicole Prickett asked, “What if the most radical – fuck it, feminist – thing you can do is believe everything a girl says about her life, whether or not you like it?” When my female friends talk about becoming new people lately, they are picturing it like a moment in a spy film, a dye job in a public bathroom and a plane to somewhere new, but they are also, I think, picturing the way that famous people get to reinvent themselves in ways that are bigger, more interesting, less human – the connection between reinvention and excitement, reinvention and glamour. This idea – that we might make others believe the most beautiful lies we tell about ourselves – is undeniably seductive.
We are all becoming wonderfully adept at self-design, and I realise now that I probably know more women – smart, interesting women – who use FaceTune than those who do not. It takes a real expert, though, to mount a reinvention of oneself on the level at which female celebrities manage it, and once everyone is looking, that new self must be maintained. Maybe the best way to see the image they have offered us is as a kind of long-term performance art, allowing for both appreciation and analysis, for the separation of the creator and the work. When Anna Kavan fell into a crowd of hedonistic race-car drivers, she observed that not one of them “ever told that life was worth living”, and her repetition of this is quite often seen as evidence of her powerful death drive, or as justification for her most unruly and unsafe behaviour. It might also be the case, though, that the realisation that her life was not worth living was the very thing that motivated her to adopt someone else’s life instead, and to construct it with such perfect care that we cannot stop talking about it even now. Expecting a notable woman to be “authentic” when society also expects her to be a hundred other things at once is, it’s clear, not the right way to approach her public image – it would be far better for us to allow for some duplicity, to be impressed by the mystery, and to take a certain pleasure in being deceived. The root of “glamour”, after all, is in the old Scottish “glamer”, which referred to a particular kind of witchcraft that deceived those who were spellbound into seeing things that were not really there.
This article is taken from Port issue 33. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here