Marchi-grrrl: Michelle Tea
Issue 1 / November 30, 2020
Michelle Tea will always be as the girl who didn’t go went to Paris…
Marchioness Magazine talks PARIS FASHION WEEK, BETH DITTO and FENDI FREEBIES with American writer and co-founder of queer collective Sister Spit, Michelle Tea.
Interview by Jessica Ann Richardson
Edited by Izzy Yon
MICHELLE TEA FUCKING LOVES FASHION. In her latest memoir, How to Grow Up, she confesses: “If I have one regret in my life, it is not that I didn’t go to college or live in New York City; it is that I didn’t somehow claw my way into the fashion industry.” Her fashion obsession saw years of forgelant mag subscriptions under the pseudonym Angelica Ford (genius), as well as the wildy glamourous decision to quit her job in favour of Paris Fashion Week spent in Beth Ditto’s hotel suite whilst bagging a free Fendi purse (the dream). It's the latter decision that's secured Michelle’s place as Marchioness fashion royalty. All hail Michelle Tea, for Marchioness crowns her as ‘the girl who went to Paris’…
‘THE GIRL WHO DIDN’T GO TO PARIS’ trope was originally coined by Lisa Love, LA Teen Vogue editor-in-chief, to name and shame The Hills golden girl, Lauren Conrad. There's an unforgettable storyline in season one of Adam Divello’s hit 2000s reality TV show, when Lauren and her blonde-barbie coworker, Whitney Port, are both given the opportunity to go to Paris Fashion Week. The chance to go to Paris was dressed up as a pivotal moment and career game-changer for the reality stars. Whitney takes up the opportunity, and has the summer of a lifetime in Paris. Lauren, however, in a last-ditch attempt to salvage her relationship, turns down the offer and instead spends the summer at her boyfriend's Malibu beach house. On her return to the office, Lauren is sad, single and boyfriendless — branded by Lisa Love forevermore as ‘THE GIRL WHO DIDN’T GO TO PARIS’.
That same year (2006) ‘THE GIRL WHO DIDN’T GO TO PARIS’ theme played out in another cult 00’s film, The Devil Wears Prada. From the get-go, attending Paris Fashion Week is seen as the ultimate perk for time spent slaving at Runway Magazine: “I get to go with her to Paris for Fashion Week in the fall. I get to wear couture. I go to all the shows and all the parties. I meet all of the designers. It's divine.” boasts first assistant Emily Charlton. Next, the film cuts to a shot of her screensaver with a photograph of the Arc de Triomphe. Emily’s goal is clear: to get to Paris Fashion Week by any means possible.
‘THE GIRL WHO DIDN’T GO TO PARIS’ trope is a metaphor for the age-old truth of the industry: you have to sacrifice to succeed in fashion. Michelle Tea’s decision to go to Paris wasn’t without sacrifice and it came at the expense of her job and financial security — no easy feat for a writer. I wondered if, given the same opportunity, I would drop it all and flee for Paris Fashion Week?
Jessica Ann Richardson: Why do you love fashion?
Michelle Tea: Fashion is art, and it's also self-care. It's aspirational. I feel like I am charming myself when I get dressed every day; that morning routine is something I look forward to the same way I look forward to my coffee. It always feels like playing dress-up.
Jessica: What was the highlight of your time at Paris Fashion Week?
Michelle: The affair I had with a beautiful French queer called Killer, as well as getting to hang out with my really good friend Tara, who was managing The Gossip and is definetly the funniest person I know. Getting to listen to her and Beth Ditto be so hilarious like a TV show that never got switched off. The Nina Ricci show made me cry, and I stole a Longchamp bag from the Jeremy Scott show – they were placed on the seats of the people who sat in the front row and I snuck up there. And of course watching The Gossip play the Fendi party and crying at how incredible Beth Ditto is.
Jessica: If you had followed a career in fashion, how do you think it would have played out?
Michelle: I really have no idea. Probably badly: I don't have an eye for detail, I'm bad at math, nor am I a perfectionist or a workaholic! But most importantly, I have no family money to support such a thing. I know there are designers who fight their way in without family cash, and they are amazing. But I can’t sew. I took an adult education class to learn how to use my sewing machine right out of high school but only went to one class because it was so intimidating. Patterns! Bobbins! I guess I'd be good at PR and marketing, actually, and magazines, of course. I wouldn't say it's really a regret, but it's a pity you can only live one life because I would really enjoy spending my days getting to think about clothes.
Jessica: What’s your relationship to style and fashion now?
Michelle: I took my kid to the park today and was wearing these trousers I thrifted that were sort of whatever, with loafers, and I was like: OMG I look like a total mom. Then I ran into this really hot guy I've gotten tattoos from and was somewhat embarrassed! I still thrift a lot and always wish I could justify spending more money on clothes, but that is hard as a single mom with a pretty shabby income. I don't even have as much time as I used to to look at fashion magazines. I just thrifted all these giant fetish-y shoes right before covid and I hadn't had a chance to wear them anywhere!
Jessica: It’s interesting that you were dressing in a way that linked you to the queer community before you yourself identified as queer. Is there a link between your queerness and fashion?
Michelle: Yes, I think so. I think having a dramatic fashion sense has always been tied to queer culture, especially with gay male culture, with camp and drag, and not being able to 'pass.' It became obvious to me early on that if you visibly transgress in any way you are presumed to be socially transgressing. Fashion is used to enforce fascism in that, if you visibly don't care what people think about you in fashion, you probably also don't care what people think about your behaviour either —so who knows what you might be up to?! Sometimes when people hasseled me for how I look there would be an edge of homophobic violence to it; I was called a dyke and a fag (!!!) before I was ever queer, just for looking visibly fabulous! Most of my male friends as a teenager were closeted fags and I had the same interests in camp and drama and wildness, however I didn't really connect it to queerness at the time. We were just all obsessed with John Waters films and Rocky Horror, and we knew that the world was shit so anyone standing outside the mainstream – which queers were – were heroes.
Jessica: What's the most extreme look you've ever rocked?
Michelle: In my early 20s I had a friend who refashioned vintage bras and girdles. Her line is called Mode Mere. I had a set from her, a satin half-slip, very tight, with garters, dyed hot pink, and a matching bra festooned with rhinestones, fake pearls, sequins, and tassels. I wore the slip once to my day job and got sent home. I sold it during my lesbian feminist nervous breakdown: a time when I liked to wear overalls with no shirt and my tits out because... why not?! I lived my life in vintage full slips throughout the eighties and I was essentially half nude most of the time. When I was super pregnant I loved wearing a Peggy Noland tank dress, white, skin-tight, with a giant green monster hand clutching my belly! Also when I went to fashion week, I splurged on a Philip Lim dress that was pink chiffon covered in a million swirling pink zippers. Someone called me Punkberry because I looked like frozen yoghurt lolz.
Jessica: What drove you to dress outside the norm even though you received criticism and sometimes abuse for how you dressed?
Michelle: I think I just knew what I wanted to look like. I knew what felt right to me, and what I thought looked good. There wasn't any other way I could look, really, and not feel terrible. Even though the punishment for being different was frequent and physical (New England in the 80s), I would have felt dead inside if I dressed the way I was expected to. It feels so weird that I was expected to look any particular way. But I guess if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have found my people.. In the 80s there was no way to find people except IRL, and I met most of my friends during that time because we were dressed in a way that conveyed that we were interested in the same things, and that we were safe people in an unsafe landscape.
Jessica: Did Andy’s Warhol’s commitment to style inspire your early forays into fashion?
Michelle: I was already on my way when I discovered Andy Warhol, but obviously his wigs were the nazz. I would have liked such hair, all piecey and clumpy. It has always been my favourite, and you can never go wrong in all black.
Jessica: In your essay HAGS In Your Face, you write about the 90s San Francisco dyke girl gang. What role did fashion play for the HAGS?
Michelle: Fashion in our culture works as gender signifiers, and as a gang of butch/masc/trans queers, it was everything in that regard. It was how they could present themselves as the masculine people they were. And they were punks, and so that is a subcultural affiliation you broadcast with fashion as well. You glanced at them and in an instant, you knew they were queer, you knew what bands they liked, you knew how they cared about the world, more or less.
Jessica: How did the touring lifestyle of Sister Spit influence the way you dressed at the time?
Michelle Tea: Well, knowing I would be on stage every night made it so that I had to bring things I really wanted to be seen in —so that meant it was super fun. But I also could only bring so much with me, and I have a thrifting problem, and the funnest thing about travelling across the US is thrifting...so I always came back with more! It was always hardest to figure out what shoes to bring, because I'd need something whatever for the van but I wanted really great shoes for the stage. Wearing nothing but slips in the 90s did make packing really light!
Jessica: If social media had been present in your youth, how do you think your style and experimentation with fashion would have been affected?
Michelle: That's a great question. I'm not sure! Well, I guess I would have been more exposed to different underground designers and known more of the history of subcultural looks. There sure would have been a lot more visual inspiration. I was pretty limited to Propaganda Magazine, and then Details, back when it was a downtown NYC club magazine.
Jessica: You mentioned you like thrifting a lot, what's your relationship with second-hand clothing?
Michelle: Um... it's my life! I'm a cheapskate. And a treasure hunter. If I go into a place like Nordstrom Rack it's like, OK, I want like fifteen things here and can only have 1, which one do I pick? It makes me sweaty. But at a thrift shop, it's like, OK I want these 15 pieces, only 7 are going to look right on me, and I can probably get them all. Plus I love the thrill of finding a good designer piece that snuck in unnoticed.
Jessica: What's your most "Madame" moment?
Michelle: The Lanvin pumps I got married in. They barely fit, to begin with, but when you're pregnant your feet get bigger from carrying the extra weight! I wonder if I can get them stretched?
I’m thankful Michelle didn’t attempt to claw her way into the industry, for it's her outsider gaze that makes her work such an entertaining read. As someone who did attempt to claw my way in— my once talons whittled down to stumps — it's not a path I recommend. Yet, the question remains: would I drop everything for the chance to attend Paris Fashion Week and party with Beth Ditto? Hell yes. The unpredictable and extreme nature of the industry is part of why we fall for it in the first place. Us fashion-lovers are romantics, and all reason must be thrown to the wind to bag a Fendi freebie...
As for anyone wondering if Michelle ever regretted the decision to go to Paris...
'When the band took the stage at the Fendi party, tears sprang to my eyes, and I turned around to see that Annie was crying too. Like me and like Annie, the band commanding Fashion Week’s attention had been raised poor, in broken families, and there we all were, together in Paris. It was weird and amazing, nothing short of a miracle. For a flash moment of brilliance, I understood and believed in destiny. We were all exactly where we were supposed to be, and an incomprehensible chain of choice and happenstance had brought us here, together. Then, Kate Moss rudely shoved me so that her friend could pass by, breaking me from my reverie. This is what I was living for.'