Tag Archives: Vogue

Celebrity Profiles: Actress X

You get paid to be looked at. You get paid for looking away. The now infamous profile by Steve Marche, “Megan Fox Saves Herself”, embodies both ideas. It is an essay centered around looking, her moon pale skin, her divine symmetries; where another piece might note the sweater or unruly hair of the subject, here, the physical essence is its heart. This looking is not simply lexical, there are accompanying photos. The actress may not have been paid, or paid only a token fee, for this attention, but she gets the publicity of a magazine cover. There is also a looking away: the writer’s focus is only pm the extraordinary beauty of this person, the fame of these looks, and the evocation of mystic ritual to somehow capture the power of this woman’s symmetries. Though this entire transaction is financial (Fox gets her cover publicity, Esquire gets sales and clicks with their cover), the more direct, finance-based, question is never asked: is it possible that this beautiful woman, famous for her beauty, isn’t bankable at all?

The profile, almost always of female celebrities, where you get proximity and don’t get anything like proximity, did not begin and end with this piece, but is part of a long, painful tradition. The perspective of the essay reproduces the perspective of the accompanying photos: a beautiful woman, a more beautiful woman than we will ever know, is briefly made known to us, in her underwear or intimates, her being known to us, briefly, a moment of great significance to the humble man, because her looks are touched by the divine. For a small interval, a goddess walks among us. Such a profile enforces a relationship between an attractive woman and a writer, of object and adulator, and both parties hate it. It opens up both for mockery for playing these roles. “Esquire’s Interview with Megan Fox Is the Worst Thing Ever Written” wrote Jamie Lee Curtis Taete; five years prior, Ron Rosenbaum had asked1, of an essay on Angelina Jolie which accompanied a photo of her nude with a sheet, is this “The worst celebrity profile ever written?”. That the process is openly disliked by both is there in the profile itself, by Tom Chiarella of Halle Berry, “Halle Berry’s Date with a Perfect Stranger”: “I never like meeting celebrities. Worst part of the job, really. Invading someone’s life, if only for a moment — lousy. Everything you do is built upon a trust that is illusory at best, an utter lie at worst.” Chiarella describes throwing up all morning before these interviews, and of how one writer feels sickest right before the car arrives to take him to the meet: the sort of physical reaction one expects before a sitdown with a mafia chief or the head of a country’s secret police. They asked me, Chiarella has to repeat to himself, over and over again. They asked me.

That the writing is bad is not due to the writer, but the Procrustean bed in which he has been fitted: the woman will be photographed and positioned as an object of divine beauty, not simply as an attractive, charming, or incredibly eye-catching woman, but the most beautiful woman in the (United States/World/Universe) / of (the decade/century/history of earth) (Beyoncé, for example, has just been granted by GQ one such title). Tom Junod, the writer of the Jolie profile is a man of excellent skills with an enviable track record (there are many to choose from, but my favorite piece of his would be “Why Does Roger Ailes Hate America?”). The problem is the constraint of writing an ode to a building that is not a building, a garden that is not a garden, a statue that is not a statue.

The beauty is presented as something mystic, something without limit, something outside man, infinity. This is not a new idea, and is simply a modern extension of what can be found in Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex:

To be certain, each of the sexes embodies the Other in the eyes of the complementary sex; but to his man’s eyes it is, in spite of everything, the woman who is often regarded as an absolute other. There is a mystical surpassing insofar as “we know that in and of ourselves we are insufficient, hence the power of woman over us, like the power of Grace.” The “we” here represents only males and not the human species, and faced with their imperfection, woman is the appeal of infinity.

That the woman does not simply have gorgeous skin or hair, but must be written of to embody this infinity is what provokes the risible metaphors. This infinity calls to mind the mystic and the overwhelming, so images associated with these are cited, and the association is ridiculous. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, asked one scribbler; that he was writing of a boy doesn’t matter. Simple modest lust has found more than enough in a newfound day to convey the pleasure in seeing the woman who carries the nimbus of all our hopes and appetites. Infinity, however, demands something greater; the Jolie profile asks, shall I compare thee to 9/11? The Fox piece: shall I compare thee to an Aztec sacrifice? What about the search for bigfoot? Leprechauns?

Like nuclear war, which Angelina Jolie’s gorgeous looks may or may not have been compared to, the only way to win this game is not to play it. Even, however, when the game is exposed as a game in the first paragraph of such a profile, the game continues to be forced on others. Here is Bill Zehme, a biographer of Andy Kaufman, laying it all out in the opening of his feature, “The Heather Graham Story”:

Here in the new world of magazine making, it is a distinct pleasure to give you precisely what you want. It is a pleasure most distinct. For instance, the various persons who nowadays frequently appear on our covers without wearing very many clothes appear there for you and for people just like you. They know that you want them to appear there as much as we want them to, especially because you want them to. Often, these cover persons are photographed weeks before a writer is dispatched to divine their inner truths and tender secrets–that which becomes the nutmeat of the text (this) that accompanies photographs like the ones you may be noticing at present (those).

What follows is less a profile of Graham than an examination of the celebrity profile process itself:

Here in the new world of celebrity appraisal, this is how things have been working: A writer is first permitted to meet a famous subject someplace other than the subject’s home (intrusive, presumptuous), and then they Go Do Things together (or Create Events) so that the writer can observe the subject attempt to Approximate Reality, whereupon the writer can then write about these experiences as though they were, in fact, actual unchoreographed happenstance, so that the reader will gain visceral glimpses of revelatory behavioral traits, or candor, thus rich insight. If this sounds like fun, it is. Publicists and editors generally broker the details of such staged assignations between client and writer, so that the initial meeting will often feel like a blind date–albeit one set up by other people whose judgment (both parties pray) will be trustworthy. If this sounds exciting, it is.

This was one way to evade the usual indignities; the other is “Halle Berry’s Date with a Perfect Stranger”, where the profile is actually an interview of Tom Chiarella by Berry, with the writer, Tom Chiarella, appearing in the footnotes. It’s more entertaining than Zehme’s piece, and probably the best I’ve read in this cringeworthy genre: the hilarious buddy movie that the actress hasn’t made yet. Berry laughs at the fact that Chiarella is trying to lose weight and avoids the bread, but eats the pastrami. “Hey, genius, ever heard of the Atkins diet?”, quips a footnote. The essay does not feel like an escape to a gossamer world of breath-taking unearthly objects, but very much our own. Chiarella writes of an ex-wife delivering premature babies from crack addicts who quote scripture instead of taking birth sedatives. When Berry enters the restaurant, her name is sounded through the crowd of diners like a drum signal, and the sensation does not feel welcome or comforting, a sensation far more acute than the banality celebrity is hard stuff, guys!, but Berry takes no notice: “The woman could walk a steel wire through an ice storm”, Chiarella writes, admiringly. That the work of Zehme and Chiarella has not ended the genre is because movies still need advertising, celebrity profiles are free (or close to it) advertising, and what Zehme and Chiarella do is not safe. The Graham profile shifts the focus to the profile itself; in the Berry profile, Chiarella comes off better than Berry, simply because one is an experienced writer, and one isn’t: even a goddess has her limits.

The sole purpose of this exercise, after all, is to sell a movie and to sell mags. This is a profile designed around the photos of the woman, and its primary function is to pose this woman’s physique as something close to divine, and to present an intimacy that is not intimacy. The movies are a business, the magazines are a business, the woman is a business. This is made clear in the ways the article is made search engine friendly2. Zehme’s “The Heather Graham Story” gets the title “Heather Graham Hot Pics – Sexy Photos of Actress Heather Graham”; Chiarella’s “Halle Berry’s Date With A Perfect Stranger” has “Halle Berry Photos – Hot Pictures of Halle Berry in Lingerie”; Carla Gugino, an actress I’m greatly sympathetic to and whose talents are substantial, receives the aboveboard “Carla Gugino: A Woman We Love” and the belowboard “Carla Gugino Nude Pics – Carla Gugino Naked Pictures and Video”; Naomi Watts and Rosario Dawson are given nunly discretion with, Watts’ “Naomi Watts: The Storm Took Its Sweet Time Building” carrying “Naomi Watts Pictures – Naomi Watts Photos and Interview” while Dawson has the dignity of an article where the web page title matches that of the profile, “Breaking Commandments with Rosario Dawson”; Angelina Jolie “Dies For Our Sins”, and since she’s anyway dying, sin away with “Angelina Jolie Photos – Sexy Gallery and Profile of Angelina Jolie”; Megan Fox is offering herself up for sacrifice, as the article title implies, “Megan Fox is Saving Herself” but she’s offering herself up as well, as the web page title implies: “Megan Fox Cover Interview – Megan Fox Sexy Photos”. Fox may be a beauty that connects her to a long mystic tradition, but the essay’s accompanying photos carry the tags of the material world: “Megan Fox Lingerie”, “Megan Fox Sexy”, “Megan Fox Dress”, “Megan Fox Breasts”. It seems we campaign in poetry, govern in biology.

So, the potential reader, or more likely, potential viewer, is expected to be an impatiently sex hungry lowbrow, an inferior creature in supplicatory adoration of this greater object. Though I don’t think I’m a big fan of A.J. Jacobs’ work, his “Breaking Commandments with Rosario Dawson”, assumes the aptest pose for all this: because of a book he was writing that I don’t think I want to read, he must live biblically, spending some time with the gorgeous actress without besmirching himself with sinful thoughts. That he must be so close to this woman who will be presented as an erotic object, without any erotic possibility, where the very evasion of the erotic only emphasizes the erotic quality of the object, all these are the common traits of the writer’s role in these profiles, acting as the reader’s proxy; the dutiful schoolboy composing laudatory odes of this distant goddess, all while trying so very hard not to masturbate.

That this approach is not inevitable given its subject, even a female performer who defines herself by her sex, can be found in other profiles. There is the possibility that “Jenna Jameson’s Forbidden Desires”, about the porn star, and “The Dirtiest Girl In The World”, about Sasha Grey have a different tone because the writer is female than male, and certainly the talents of Vanessa Grigoriadis, the author of both, are formidable3, but a large part of the distinction is the simple choice to write of these women, not as objects of divine beauty briefly granted to humanity, but as one writes of any man or woman, the closely observed details forming a portrait, which, though not unsympathetic, does not create the amorphous pliant image of, to employ the Esquire style, hot sexy Sasha Grey acting hot and sexy! Jameson comes across as savvy, tough, with a growing disenthusiasm for porn, and a low simmering hostility towards the rest of the world. Do you remember me from that night in New York, asks a fan, I spent twenty thou on you. If you spent twenty thou on me, Jameson replies, I would have remembered you, before she turns away4. There’s a mention of how awful it is to get your period in Vegas, and only one mention, in the story’s middle of her looks: “Her body is really beautiful. Everything except for her breasts is utterly in proportion, her skin creamy, thighs and ass taut, no evident blemishes or cellulite.”

Grey comes across as a horny boy’s genie wish, the typical such wish gone awry, though it’s exactly what’s been wished for: a beautiful smart girl, who’s also into girls, with the sexual hunger and attitude of a man. Sometimes women are referred to by their genitalia, and some might refer to female genitalia as an abyss: Grey is an abyss that stares back. The overwhelming sense of her is someone smart, cold, dedicated, and intimidating, able to switch an erotic hunger on and off like a switch. She lives a carnal life on-screen, but an aesthete’s one off: she has only slept with six men, doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t drink. Again, there is only a brief, unpoetic mention of her looks: “At five feet six and 110 pounds, with straight black hair that shoots to her lumbar spine, Grey’s naked body is exquisite and natural, with taut skin free of blemishes and tattoos (she resembles Kate Beckinsale in physique, and her affect is a similar mix of languor and brutal hauteur).” In different circumstances, she might have been a hedge fund manager rumored to own a mansion with a well-equipped dungeon, or the notorious head of a revolutionary cell, known throughout tsarist russia for her discipline, endurance, and lack of mercy. “You’re like the wife!”, she yells at her sweet, liberal fiancé. As they say, this is what you want, this is what you get.

Another approach can be found in, “Leap of Faith” by Adam Green, last month’s Vogue profile of Anne Hathaway. It is actual life sculpted into fantasy, though a fantasy as active subject, rather than object, a fantasy that would appeal to some women: being very successful in a competitive and glamorous profession, getting the role of Fantime, being photographed by Mario Testino, ending up married to a solid, kind man, wedded in a wedding gown designed by Valentino. Though Steve Marche, in the Fox profile, turns up his nose at many attractive women, I think even he would concede the beauty of Hathaway, but this quality is only given a one sentence mention: “Hathaway is known for walking the red carpet in Valentino or Stella McCartney, but I can report that she also looks pretty swell in a T-shirt and jeans.” Her looks are obvious, and they must be considerable if she’s on the cover of Vogue, but the degree of such beauty goes unstressed. Dwelling on such a thing would imply less a gift, than an inconvenience – being a well-admired statue gets in the way of doing actual work. For this is the other striking difference from the other profiles, as it gives lengthy space to her surrounding workplace of Les Misérables, what the part involves, and what she did to prepare for it. It remains, I think, movie life portrayed as fantasy: there are no saccharine episodes, but we get only the good moments of film-making, a hard-working cast and crew getting along. That she is at work, actual difficult work, of which she is a part of a larger project, rather than a vanity piece seemingly designed around her, there is no question, and that this is part of the fantasy there is no question either; the active achieving life, rather than life as still object. At one point, on set and in costume, Hathaway, rail thin with two missing teeth, asks the Vogue writer, teasingly, aren’t you going to tell me how I look? It is followed with: “Welcome to my world.” One wonders, what world? The world of acting, or the world where it’s decided one’s chief role is as an object of desire and all else is a detriment to that?

Work is what all these women seek, and it is the search for work, the difficulty of finding good work in Hollywood, which is the undertone of many of the profiles. “We are supposed to be actors, aren’t we?”, asked Carla Gugino with exasperation over people being unable to link her to a specific part from the varied ones she’s played. In 2000, Heather Graham was declared to be the twenty-sixth sexiest woman in the world, but: “it’s still hard to get some jobs.” Adam Stein writes in “The Summer of Jessica Biel” of her role in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “there has got to be better material than this.” Or, perhaps not, he thinks, as he moves on to her work in Cellular and Blade: Trinity. Biel, in the profile: “I want choices. I want options. I want to lay out all the directions I could go and have the ability to choose.”

Doing publicity such as this, to be photographed in your underwear and for others to wax lyrical about, supposedly expands the choices available to you, demonstrating that you are co-operative and willing in the studio’s wishes, that you will do your part to generate publicity for a movie; of course, such publicity demands are all in your contract, but you are helpful enough to allow them to be in your contract. The humble demographic mass of men may have nothing like the powers of this exceptional woman, a goddess, but they have one: they can make her strip. In being given the gift of one infinity, another is taken away, because beauty fades. The woman defined as a divinity by her looks will discover soon that she is no longer divine, and she will be defined by what she used to be, what she is not now, a fallen goddess, and people will take pleasure in her taking this fall, at her arrogance for even assuming a title of divinity, even when it was given to her by others. In reply to a Slate article, “Porn and the media: How the pornography industry wants to be covered”, one commenter wrote: “‘Entourage’ in no way means that Sasha Grey has gone mainstream. She will be back doing the adult film stuff in no time, if she isn’t already. Because she’s good at it, and not very good at all at the mainstream stuff.” It was said, I think, not without glee, and even as cold-blooded an animal as Grey might feel heartbreak at this dismissal. Some glee might be felt over this heartbreak as well, as if some sword had finally managed to pierce the skin of some deadly beast.

Marche, in an infamous passage of “Megan Fox Saves Herself”, writes:

Megan Fox is a bombshell. To be a bombshell in 2013 is to be an antiquity, an old-world relic, like movie palaces or fountain pens or the muscle cars of the 1970s or the pinball machines in the basement. Bombshells once used to roam the cultural landscape like buffalo, and like buffalo they were edging toward extinction.

Liberation and degradation both played their part. If you want to see naked women, of virtually any kind, do virtually anything to their bodies, it’s a click away. And women no longer need to be beautiful in order to express their talent. Lena Dunham and Adele and Lady Gaga and Amy Adams are all perfectly plain, and they are all at the top of their field.

There’s no doubt that this transformation has been overwhelmingly excellent. But we’re losing something in this process. Because creativity is, was, and always will be sexual. Some of the very first works of art were figures of hugely fecund women dropped all over Europe tens of thousands of years ago. American movies expressed that great fusion of sex and art, too. They are magnificent pagan dreams, utterly profane and glorious. Such movies need bombshells. They need to consume beautiful flesh in their sacrifices.

De Beauvoir, in Second Sex, anticipates all this, and invokes the mystic tradition just as Marche does:

In any case, some will object that if such a world is possible, it is not desirable. When woman is “the same” as her male, life will lose “its spice.” This argument is not new either: those who have an interest in perpetuating the present always shed tears for the marvelous past about to disappear without casting a smile on the young future. It is true that by doing away with slave markets, we destroyed those great plantations lined with azaleas and camellias, we dismantled the whole delicate Southern civilization; old lace was put away in the attics of time along with the pure timbres of the Sistine castrati, and there is a certain “feminine charm” that risks turning to dust as well. I grant that only a barbarian would not appreciate rare flowers, lace, the crystal clear voice of a eunuch, or feminine charm. When shown in her splendor, the “charming woman” is a far more exalting object than “the idiotic paintings, over-doors, decors, circus backdrops, sideboards, or popular illuminations” that maddened Rimbaud; adorned with the most modern of artifices, worked on with the newest techniques, she comes from the remotest ages, from Thebes, Minos, Chichén Itzà; and she is also the totem planted in the heart of the African jungle; she is a helicopter and she is a bird; and here is the greatest wonder: beneath her painted hair, the rustling of leaves becomes a thought and words escape from her breasts. Men reach out their eager hands to the marvel; but as soon as they grasp it, it vanishes; the wife and the mistress speak like everyone else, with their mouths: their words are worth exactly what they are worth; their breasts as well. Does such a fleeting miracle — and one so rare — justify perpetuating a situation that is so damaging for both sexes? The beauty of flowers and women’s charms can be appreciated for what they are worth; if these treasures are paid for with blood or misery, one must be willing to sacrifice them.

The poses in the photos from the Fox piece, the whole purpose of the enterprise, glow not so much with sensuality, but boredom. One, of Fox lying on a couch in a white dress with a partly see through top, evokes despair. What perhaps helped Fox as much as her appearance in Transformers were some accompanying photos for a GQ story (“Megan Fox was a Teenage Lesbian!”, by Mark Kirby), shot by Terry Richardson, which emanate a raw, nasty sexiness5. The current Esquire pictures, especially the cover, suggest a hostage situation: the game is dull now, the game has been dull for quite a while. In “The Self-Manufacture of Megan Fox” by Lynn Hirschberg, she complained, “I do live in a glass box. And I am on display for men to pay to look at me. And that bothers me. I don’t want to live that character.” That was three years ago.

Occasionally, I copy the sentence of the book I’m reading so I can keep track of where I am. One, from my notes, is “We won’t be pinned down, either. We have no one law that governs us. For me there is only one law: I am I.” It’s from Lawrence’s Twilight of the Unconscious; but I was sure it was from The Second Sex.

(Originally, this piece was supposed to be part of something slightly longer, dealing with other themes – whether it ever assumes this other, native ideal, is an open question. On July 18th, 2014, footnote #5 was added.)

FOOTNOTES

1 Though I knew of this piece beforehand, and was planning on referencing it, I think I would be remiss if I did not mention that a Slate podcast which deals with, among other subjects, the Steve Marche profile, brings it up as well, along with the earlier Lynn Hirschberg piece on Fox. I would also be remiss if I didn’t note that Junod gave a reply to Rosenbaum’s piece: “Tom Junod Responds To 2,000-Word Slate Swipe”.

2 Again, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Choire Sicha, in his evisceration of the Marche piece, “Lena Dunham, Adele, Lady Gaga, Amy Adams All Very Ugly, Says ‘Esquire'”, also brings up the strange contrast between the titles written for swooning hearts, and the titles written for, well, let’s say more earthly purposes, and designed for search engines; the slate podcast makes the point as well.

3 Though just about every by Grigoriadis is worth reading, I’ll quote a section from her recent “Bret Easton Ellis’s Real Art Form Is the Tweet”:

And then we’re sauntering down the well-proportioned corridors of the mall at the same lugubrious tempo as everyone else, and he’s talking about the Microsoft swag event in Venice last week, and he’s saying “it’s crazy it’s so nice out—it’s the winter.” And he buys some noise-canceling Bose headphones that he selects from under a blue sign with white lettering that reads GIVE THEM WHAT THEY REALLY WANT and we go into the Mac store to get him an iPhone case and he looks at them but thinks they’re too expensive and he gets flustered and says “it’s so fucking annoying” but buys one anyway. And we’re back outside waiting for a coffee and people are buying Christmas cards and he’s talking about the Gus Van Sant premiere that he walked out of last night because he likes to sit in a particular place in the ­theater and he was nowhere near that place.

The next paragraph begins: “In a lot of ways, it’s more Ellis’s world than ever, as if he had invented it.” And, of course, the previous paragraph, done without explicit mention of its intent, is a pitch-perfect imitation of Ellis’s style.

4 This is a slight, unmalicious, juggling of the material. I give the original section from which this is taken from.

There’s a bodyguard and a rope blocking the banquette, but people keep leaning over. “Do you remember me from that night in New York?” asks a guy with a goatee. “I spent $20,000 on you.”

“Um, I think I would remember if you spent $20,000 on me,” says Jameson, turning away.

Another man grabs her hand.

“You give me pleasure,” he whispers.

“Ewww she shrieks, cowering. “I’m so over this.”

5 The mention of this infamous photographer in this context, and perhaps in any context, perhaps requires an explanatory caveat. The allegations against Richardson go beyond what is labeled “scandalous behavior”, and fall under the catergory of coerced sex. Some of these allegations can be found at “Why I’m Finally Speaking Up About What Terry Richardson Did to Me” by Anna Del Gaizo, “Terry Richardson Is Really Creepy: One Model’s Story” by Jamie Peck, “Another Model Comes Forward With Horrible Terry Richardson Allegations” by Callie Beusman (this model would turn out to be Charlotte Waters, as mentioned in “Anonymous Model Who Accused Terry Richardson of Assault Comes Forward”, also by Beusman), “Everything Wrong With New York Magazine’s Terry Richardson Cover Story” by Callie Beusman (commenting on the original profile, “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” by Benjamin Wallace), and “A Horrifying Timeline of Terry Richardson Allegations, From Trash Cans to Tampon Tea” by Hannah Ongley. I think Richardson is a talented photographer, someone whose photos are very effective at coveying youth and energy, though I also think his talents are narrow. They take all things and convey only these qualities, or nothing. Where the photographs of Herb Ritts focus on textual contrasts, such as taut skin and hard grains of sand, or Helmut Newton produces unsettling, unassuring nightmare scapes, Richardson’s photos take the Hugh Hefner aesthetic of turning sex into a harmless, friendly and unthreatening playground, then amps up the mass franchise sunniness. The essay that best captures the Richardson aesthetic isn’t about Richardson, but BuzzFeed: “794 Ways in Which BuzzFeed Reminds Us of Impending Death” by Heather Havrilesky. Richardson’s photo of Megan Fox is like his photo of Mila Kunis, which is like his photo of Sasha Grey, which is like his photos of the cast of Glee: youth and sexiness is conveyed in each, the “eternal, unnervingly upbeat present tense”, to use Havrilesky’s phrase, with nothing of the actual performer conveyed. There is something in BuzzFeed‘s quizes and lists which tends to banal anonymity, and despite their erotic vibrancy, there is something in Richardson’s pictures that is ultimately anonymous – the subjects are stripmined for this erotic vibrancy, and everything else is left behind. Absent the youthful sexy feeling, when Richardson photographs Angela Lansbury, Woody Allen, or Oprah Winfrey, there is just absence. There is an emptiness underneath the happy sexiness of Richardson’s happy sexy photos, and here there is just emptiness.

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Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert

(I post this here not out of any support of the Assad dictatorship, but its opposite – to give some insight into the good public relations a dictatorship can buy. I copy it in the belief that this example of supplicancy should get as wide an exposure as possible, and encourage those to copy and paste it. I hope that the Syrian revolution is successful, and that it ends in stability and a participatory democracy, rather than sectarianism or another tyranny that promises “stability”. I was informed of the article via Max Fisher at The Atlantic, The Only Remaining Online Copy of Vogue’s Asma al-Assad Profile and it is copied from here. I leave out pictures, for the time being, as I think they’re incidental to the content.)

Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert

by Joan Juliet Buck

Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” She is the first lady of Syria.

Syria is known as the safest country in the Middle East, possibly because, as the State Department’s Web site says, “the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.” It’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings, but its shadow zones are deep and dark. Asma’s husband, Bashar al-Assad, was elected president in 2000, after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, with a startling 97 percent of the vote. In Syria, power is hereditary. The country’s alliances are murky. How close are they to Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah? There are souvenir Hezbollah ashtrays in the souk, and you can spot the Hamas leadership racing through the bar of the Four Seasons. Its number-one enmity is clear: Israel. But that might not always be the case. The United States has just posted its first ambassador there since 2005, Robert Ford.

Iraq is next door, Iran not far away. Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, is 90 minutes by car from Damascus. Jordan is south, and next to it the region that Syrian maps label Palestine. There are nearly one million refugees from Iraq in Syria, and another half-million displaced Palestinians.

“It’s a tough neighborhood,” admits Asma al-Assad.

It’s also a neighborhood intoxicatingly close to the dawn of civilization, where agriculture began some 10,000 years ago, where the wheel, writing, and musical notation were invented. Out in the desert are the magical remains of Palmyra, Apamea, and Ebla. In the National Museum you see small 4,000-year-old panels inlaid with mother-of-pearl that is echoed in the new mother-of-pearl furniture for sale in the souk. Christian Louboutin comes to buy the damask silk brocade they’ve been making here since the Middle Ages for his shoes and bags, and has incidentally purchased a small palace in Aleppo, which, like Damascus, has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years.

The first lady works out of a small white building in a hilly, modern residential neighborhood called Muhajireen, where houses and apartments are crammed together and neighbors peer and wave from balconies. The first impression of Asma al-Assad is movement—a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles. Dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace. No watch, no jewelry apart from Chanel agates around her neck, not even a wedding ring, but fingernails lacquered a dark blue-green. She’s breezy, conspiratorial, and fun. Her accent is English but not plummy. Despite what must be a killer IQ, she sometimes uses urban shorthand: “I was, like. . . .”

Asma Akhras was born in London in 1975, the eldest child and only daughter of a Syrian Harley Street cardiologist and his diplomat wife, both Sunni Muslims. They spoke Arabic at home. She grew up in Ealing, went to Queen’s College, and spent holidays with family in Syria. “I’ve dealt with the sense that people don’t expect Syria to be normal. I’d show my London friends my holiday snaps and they’d be—‘Where did you say you went?’ ”

She studied computer science at university, then went into banking. “It wasn’t a typical path for women,” she says, “but I had it all mapped out.” By the spring of 2000, she was closing a big biotech deal at JP Morgan in London and about to take up an MBA at Harvard. She started dating a family friend: the second son of president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar, who’d cut short his ophthalmology studies in London in 1994 and returned to Syria after his older brother, Basil, heir apparent to power, died in a car crash. They had known each other forever, but a ten-year age difference meant that nothing registered—until it did.

“I was always very serious at work, and suddenly I started to take weekends, or disappear, and people just couldn’t figure it out,” explains the first lady. “What do you say—‘I’m dating the son of a president’? You just don’t say that. Then he became president, so I tried to keep it low-key. Suddenly I was turning up in Syria every month, saying, ‘Granny, I miss you so much!’ I quit in October because by then we knew that we were going to get married at some stage. I couldn’t say why I was leaving. My boss thought I was having a nervous breakdown because nobody quits two months before bonus after closing a really big deal. He wouldn’t accept my resignation. I was, like, ‘Please, really, I just want to get out, I’ve had enough,’ and he was ‘Don’t worry, take time off, it happens to the best of us.’ ” She left without her bonus in November and married Bashar al-Assad in December.

“What I’ve been able to take away from banking was the transferable skills—the analytical thinking, understanding the business side of running a company—to run an NGO or to try and oversee a project.” She runs her office like a business, chairs meeting after meeting, starts work many days at six, never breaks for lunch, and runs home to her children at four. “It’s my time with them, and I get them fresh, unedited—I love that. I really do.” Her staff are used to eating when they can. “I have a rechargeable battery,” she says.

The 35-year-old first lady’s central mission is to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen, encourage them to engage in what she calls “active citizenship.” “It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.”

In 2005 she founded Massar, built around a series of discovery centers where children and young adults from five to 21 engage in creative, informal approaches to civic responsibility. Massar’s mobile Green Team has touched 200,000 kids across Syria since 2005. The organization is privately funded through donations. The Syria Trust for Development, formed in 2007, oversees Massar as well as her first NGO, the rural micro-credit association FIRDOS, and SHABAB, which exists to give young people business skills they need for the future.

And then there’s her cultural mission: “People tend to see Syria as artifacts and history,” she says. “For us it’s about the accumulation of cultures, traditions, values, customs. It’s the difference between hardware and software: the artifacts are the hardware, but the software makes all the difference—the customs and the spirit of openness. We have to make sure that we don’t lose that. . . . ” Here she gives an apologetic grin. “You have to excuse me, but I’m a banker—that brand essence.”

That brand essence includes the distant past. There are 500,000 important ancient works of art hidden in storage; Asma al-Assad has brought in the Louvre to create a network of museums and cultural attractions across Syria, and asked Italian experts to help create a database of the 5,000 archaeological sites in the desert. “Culture,” she says, “is like a financial asset. We have an abundance of it, thousands of years of history, but we can’t afford to be complacent.”

In December, Asma al-Assad was in Paris to discuss her alliance with the Louvre. She dazzled a tough French audience at the International Diplomatic Institute, speaking without notes. “I’m not trying to disguise culture as anything more than it is,” she said, “and if I sound like I’m talking politics, it’s because we live in a politicized region, a politicized time, and we are affected by that.”

The French ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, was there: “She managed to get people to consider the possibilities of a country that’s modernizing itself, that stands for a tolerant secularism in a powder-keg region, with extremists and radicals pushing in from all sides—and the driving force for that rests largely on the shoulders of one couple. I hope they’ll make the right choices for their country and the region. ”

Damascus evokes a dusty version of a Mediterranean hill town in an Eastern-bloc country. The courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque at night looks exactly like St. Mark’s square in Venice. When I first arrive, I’m met on the tarmac by a minder, who gives me a bouquet of white roses and lends me a Syrian cell phone; the head minder, a high-profile American PR, joins us the next day. The first lady’s office has provided drivers, so I shop and see sights in a bubble of comfort and hospitality. On the rare occasions I am out alone, a random series of men in leather jackets seems to be keeping close tabs on what I am doing and where I am headed.

“I like things I can touch. I like to get out and meet people and do things,” the first lady says as we set off for a meeting in a museum and a visit to an orphanage. “As a banker, you have to be so focused on the job at hand that you lose the experience of the world around you. My husband gave me back something I had lost.”

She slips behind the wheel of a plain SUV, a walkie-talkie and her cell thrown between the front seats and a Syrian-silk Louboutin tote on top. She does what the locals do—swerves to avoid crazy men who run across busy freeways, misses her turn, checks your seat belt, points out sights, and then can’t find a parking space. When a traffic cop pulls her over at a roundabout, she lowers the tinted window and dips her head with a playful smile. The cop’s eyes go from slits to saucers.

Her younger brother Feras, a surgeon who moved to Syria to start a private health-care group, says, “Her intelligence is both intellectual and emotional, and she’s a master at harmonizing when, and how much, to use of each one.”

In the Saint Paul orphanage, maintained by the Melkite–Greek Catholic patriarchate and run by the Basilian sisters of Aleppo, Asma sits at a long table with the children. Two little boys in new glasses and thick sweaters are called Yussuf. She asks them what kind of music they like. “Sad music,” says one. In the room where she’s had some twelve computers installed, the first lady tells a nun, “I hope you’re letting the younger children in here go crazy on the computers.” The nun winces: “The children are afraid to learn in case they don’t have access to computers when they leave here,” she says.

In the courtyard by the wall down which Saint Paul escaped in a basket 2,000 years ago, an old tree bears gigantic yellow fruit I have never seen before. Citrons. Cédrats in French.

Back in the car, I ask what religion the orphans are. “It’s not relevant,” says Asma al-Assad. “Let me try to explain it to you. That church is a part of my heritage because it’s a Syrian church. The Umayyad Mosque is the third-most-important holy Muslim site, but within the mosque is the tomb of Saint John the Baptist. We all kneel in the mosque in front of the tomb of Saint John the Baptist. That’s how religions live together in Syria—a way that I have never seen anywhere else in the world. We live side by side, and have historically. All the religions and cultures that have passed through these lands—the Armenians, Islam, Christianity, the Umayyads, the Ottomans—make up who I am.”

“Does that include the Jews?” I ask.

“And the Jews,” she answers. “There is a very big Jewish quarter in old Damascus.”

The Jewish quarter of Damascus spans a few abandoned blocks in the old city that emptied out in 1992, when most of the Syrian Jews left. Their houses are sealed up and have not been touched, because, as people like to tell you, Syrians don’t touch the property of others. The broken glass and sagging upper floors tell a story you don’t understand—are the owners coming back to claim them one day?

The presidential family lives surrounded by neighbors in a modern apartment in Malki. On Friday, the Muslim day of rest, Asma al-Assad opens the door herself in jeans and old suede stiletto boots, hair in a ponytail, the word happiness spelled out across the back of her T-shirt. At the bottom of the stairs stands the off-duty president in jeans—tall, long-necked, blue-eyed. A precise man who takes photographs and talks lovingly about his first computer, he says he was attracted to studying eye surgery “because it’s very precise, it’s almost never an emergency, and there is very little blood.”

The old al-Assad family apartment was remade into a child-friendly triple-decker playroom loft surrounded by immense windows on three sides. With neither shades nor curtains, it’s a fishbowl. Asma al-Assad likes to say, “You’re safe because you are surrounded by people who will keep you safe.” Neighbors peer in, drop by, visit, comment on the furniture. The president doesn’t mind: “This curiosity is good: They come to see you, they learn more about you. You don’t isolate yourself.”

There’s a decorated Christmas tree. Seven-year-old Zein watches Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland on the president’s iMac; her brother Karim, six, builds a shark out of Legos; and nine-year-old Hafez tries out his new electric violin. All three go to a Montessori school.

Asma al-Assad empties a box of fondue mix into a saucepan for lunch. The household is run on wildly democratic principles. “We all vote on what we want, and where,” she says. The chandelier over the dining table is made of cut-up comic books. “They outvoted us three to two on that.”

A grid is drawn on a blackboard, with ticks for each member of the family. “We were having trouble with politeness, so we made a chart: ticks for when they spoke as they should, and a cross if they didn’t.” There’s a cross next to Asma’s name. “I shouted,” she confesses. “I can’t talk about empowering young people, encouraging them to be creative and take responsibility, if I’m not like that with my own children.”

“The first challenge for us was, Who’s going to define our lives, us or the position?” says the president. “We wanted to live our identity honestly.”

They announced their marriage in January 2001, after the ceremony, which they kept private. There was deliberately no photograph of Asma. “The British media picked that up as: Now she’s moved into the presidential palace, never to be seen again!” says Asma, laughing.

They had a reason: “She spent three months incognito,” says the president. “Before I had any official engagement,” says the first lady, “I went to 300 villages, every governorate, hospitals, farms, schools, factories, you name it—I saw everything to find out where I could be effective. A lot of the time I was somebody’s ‘assistant’ carrying the bag, doing this and that, taking notes. Nobody asked me if I was the first lady; they had no idea.”

“That way,” adds the president, “she started her NGO before she was ever seen in public as my wife. Then she started to teach people that an NGO is not a charity.”

Neither of them believes in charity for the sake of charity. “We have the Iraqi refugees,” says the president. “Everybody is talking about it as a political problem or as welfare, charity. I say it’s neither—it’s about cultural philosophy. We have to help them. That’s why the first thing I did is to allow the Iraqis to go into schools. If they don’t have an education, they will go back as a bomb, in every way: terrorism, extremism, drug dealers, crime. If I have a secular and balanced neighbor, I will be safe.”

When Angelina Jolie came with Brad Pitt for the United Nations in 2009, she was impressed by the first lady’s efforts to encourage empowerment among Iraqi and Palestinian refugees but alarmed by the Assads’ idea of safety.

“My husband was driving us all to lunch,” says Asma al-Assad, “and out of the corner of my eye I could see Brad Pitt was fidgeting. I turned around and asked, ‘Is anything wrong?’ ”

“Where’s your security?” asked Pitt.

“So I started teasing him—‘See that old woman on the street? That’s one of them! And that old guy crossing the road?

That’s the other one!’ ” They both laugh.

The president joins in the punch line: “Brad Pitt wanted to send his security guards here to come and get some training!”

After lunch, Asma al-Assad drives to the airport, where a Falcon 900 is waiting to take her to Massar in Latakia, on the coast. When she lands, she jumps behind the wheel of another SUV waiting on the tarmac. This is the kind of surprise visit she specializes in, but she has no idea how many kids will turn up at the community center on a rainy Friday.

As it turns out, it’s full. Since the first musical notation was discovered nearby, at Ugarit, the immaculate Massar center in Latakia is built around music. Local kids are jamming in a sound booth; a group of refugee Palestinian girls is playing instruments. Others play chess on wall-mounted computers. These kids have started online blood banks, run marathons to raise money for dialysis machines, and are working on ways to rid Latakia of plastic bags. Apart from a few girls in scarves, you can’t tell Muslims from Christians.

Asma al-Assad stands to watch a laborious debate about how—and whether—to standardize the Arabic spelling of the word Syria. Then she throws out a curve ball. “I’ve been advised that we have to close down this center so as to open another one somewhere else,” she says. Kids’ mouths drop open. Some repress tears. Others are furious. One boy chooses altruism: “That’s OK. We know how to do it now; we’ll help them.”

Then the first lady announces, “That wasn’t true. I just wanted to see how much you care about Massar.”

As the pilot expertly avoids sheet lightning above the snow-flecked desert on the way back, she explains, “There was a little bit of formality in what they were saying to me; it wasn’t real. Tricks like this help—they became alive, they became passionate. We need to get past formalities if we are going to get anything done.”

Two nights later it’s the annual Christmas concert by the children of Al-Farah Choir, run by the Syrian Catholic Father Elias Zahlawi. Just before it begins, Bashar and Asma al-Assad slip down the aisle and take the two empty seats in the front row. People clap, and some call out his nickname:

“Docteur! Docteur!”

Two hundred children dressed variously as elves, reindeers, or candy canes share the stage with members of the national orchestra, who are done up as elves. The show becomes a full-on songfest, with the elves and reindeer and candy canes giving their all to “Hallelujah” and “Joy to the World.” The carols slide into a more serpentine rhythm, an Arabic rap group takes over, and then it’s back to Broadway mode. The president whispers, “All of these styles belong to our culture. This is how you fight extremism—through art.”

Brass bells are handed out. Now we’re all singing “Jingle Bell Rock,” 1,331 audience members shaking their bells, singing, crying, and laughing.

“This is the diversity you want to see in the Middle East,” says the president, ringing his bell. “This is how you can have peace!”

February 25, 2011 9:03 a.m.

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