in conversation with
51 or 52
Statistically speaking, percentage of people who are not famous:
I met Cintra Wilson one evening in May 2010 at the West Village restaurant called Pasita, where she hosts a regular monthly salon. She greeted me under the mistaken impression that I had come from a local television station to conduct a brief and frivolous interview on some topic that now escapes me. It was to her considerable relief that I came only with sound-recording equipment, and that the state of her attire and makeup were therefore not at issue. And it was to my own considerable relief that the person with whom I found myself conversing was warm, generous, and eager to please: in short, that she shared with her authorial persona only the sharp critical intelligence and the intense colloquial wittiness, not the somewhat terrifying edge often brandished in the columns for which Wilson is perhaps best known.
These include “The Dregulator” and “The C-Word,” and, until recently, her regular contributions to the New York Times under the rubric “Critical Shopper.” It was in the “Critical Shopper” column on JCPenney’s new Manhattan outpost that Wilson leveled a cheerful sarcasm at the company’s strategy of drawing customers from Macy’s by offering clothing for people of all sizes. (Penney’s, she observed, “has the most obese mannequins I have ever seen. They probably need special insulin-based epoxy injections just to make their limbs stay on. It’s like a headless wax museum devoted entirely to the cast of ‘Roseanne.’”) This remark drew down upon the author the ire of what seemed at the time like the whole of the internet. Subsequent apologies posted by Wilson on her website were taken to be sarcastic rather than genuine, and the episode spiraled into a nightmare of public scourging that Wilson herself has likened to Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Wilson is also the author of a remarkable and underrated satirical novel, Colors Insulting to Nature (2004), and several indescribable but undoubtedly brilliant works of nonfiction, A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations (2000) and Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny (2008). She is a cultural critic and political commentator of Swiftian inventiveness and force; her next book is Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America’s Fashion Destiny (forthcoming from Norton).
CINTRA WILSON: You have got to figure that, statistically, 100 percent of people in the world are not famous. That’s a real statistic, because the sliver of people who are actually famous is so small that statistically it doesn’t exist. So for everyone to believe that they’re going to be one of these people—I believe that if you scratched everybody that I knew, even people who got their master’s degrees, even people who are really, really smart in my generation… they all sort of believed.
JENNY DAVIDSON: There’s this aphorism by Wittgenstein where he says something along the lines of, When I was a little boy I strongly believed that I was special, and it was before any talent in myself had emerged that gave me grounds to believe that I was special. He’s just observing this very neutrally. But it seems to me really true. And maybe in particular when you’re ten or eleven, this prepubescent thing, before the age when you have full fantasies of sexual transformation, you have fantasies of this incredible desire for attention that you feel will only be satisfied by…
CW: I think that in America, the libido never gets actually fully separated from the desire for fame. And I think it gets confused with the desire for fame. So you get this sexual awakening, but sexual awakening for us is movies. It’s this rush of first love, and here’s how it’s supposed to be, and it’s supposed to be this golden moment, and aaaahh! It’s all part of being famous somehow.
JD: And it’s so mediated through TV and movies and stuff like that.
CW: It’s informed by that. And it’s that faulty mythology which I think makes everyone miserable. That was the point of that book, that we have this really faulty mythology.
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