My essay Reading the Real Housewives of New Jersey, Seasons 1-8 has been published by Litro!
This story was originally published in Issue 10 of the delinquent in 2009.
Monday, April 7, At last, Lev Nikolaevich has consented to installing a computer in the sitting room, though he insists it be used for educational purposes only. He has removed the games Scrabble and Solitaire, and refuses to order the Internet, which he considers a devilish influence. I daren’t push him. I wait for him to join me in bed; he makes endless spreadsheets concerning every aspect of life on the estate.
Thursday, April 10, Lev has not stopped using the computer. He no longer dines with the family. He prefers to eat tins of Mr. Peanut, which he has decided is the true food of the honest working man. Illya and Misha use the machines at the homes of their friends to type their essays for class. When I pointed this out to Lev he screamed at me that he was going to take all of the children out of school and teach them himself from home. To-day he placed a note on the computer forbidding everyone in the house from using it.
Monday, April 14, Lev has ordered the Internet. He was in such a state awaiting the arrival of the cable man that he prowled the halls all night. After it was installed, Lev and the cable man spent hours in the kitchen drinking vodka. Lev has proclaimed him to be one of the wisest men he has ever met.
Friday, April 18, I despair. He is on it day and night, bathed in a terrible glow. He peruses government documents, studies the Greek alphabet, and writes to counsel the miscreants and grotesques who have contacted him thanks to this dreadful machine. Why, I ask you, Lev Nikolaevich, who until this demoniac box destroyed our lives devotedly read my diary, why have you turned your back on your ever Loving and Faithful wife to preach the gospels of our Lord to the strangers at meet2cheat? Why?
-My dear, you are not sound. It astounds me how you love torture yourself, and I pray that if you do not find the peace you seek in this, our earthly world, that you will find it in the second. Lev Nikolaevich.
Tuesday, April 22, Another violent quarrel. Lev has become obsessed with a pile of garbage that floats in the Pacific Ocean which he says is as big as two Americas. He came into the kitchen raving that he is going to fill the grounds of the estate with rapeseeds, which will be used to make ethanol fuel to power cars. A man called Vladimir Grigorevich has moved in. He says that Lev Nikolaevich poured his heart out to him on meet2cheat and he is here to paint.
Monday, May 12, Lev has gotten involved with some Christians in Kansas. He has thrown himself into the organization of a father daughter dance, and insists that he will be flying to Wichita with Sasha and Masha to attend. They are calling it The Purity Ball. The oak trees Lev climbed as a boy have been cut down and the rapeseed fields have been planted. Our beautiful grounds are now a shocking yellow, as far as the eye can see. The new disciple Grigorevich has painted a ridiculous portrait of Lev inspecting his neon property dressed like Mr. Peanut, which Lev raves is as good as a work by Magritte.
Thursday, May 15, I have discovered that the dance is a ceremony where daughters stand before the room and pledge to remain virgins while their father’s slip rings on their fingers like they are husbands! I screamed at Lev Nikolaevich that he might have set a better example not having babies with the women who work on our estate! That his behavior disgusts me! Lev Nikolaevich pushed his chair back from the table and announced that he was moving to Argentina. My spies tell me that he’s staying in an Econo Lodge by the airport.
On June 23, 1987, a 15 year old singer named Tiffany Darwish played the first of ten concert dates at a plaza in Peramus, New Jersey. The Beautiful You: Celebrating The Good Life Shopping Mall Tour was sponsored by Adidas, Clairol, and Toyota.
Brad Schmidt, co-manager: We wanted to take her to where her peer group hangs out all summer long–shopping malls. If Tiff is going to make it, she’s going to do it first among 12- to 18-year-olds, and what better place to expose her than in America’s playgrounds, the malls.
Tiffany Darwish, singer: The label didn’t really know what to do with me. They put me in clubs and I was 16 and it wasn’t working because I wasn’t even old enough to be in a club. People liked the music, but it just wasn’t gelling. It was my A&R guy over at MCA Records who was at the mall with his kids one day and looked around and said, ‘What about singing in a mall?’
Tiffany performed three 20-minute sets a day, on stages set up in front of Cutlery World and Great Expectations. Her co-manager George Tobin shot the footage used in the video for I Think We’re Alone Now, capturing bygone temples to commodity fetishism the moment offshoring began its long, slow burn across the American economy. It was seven years before Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, a world of RadioShacks and Merry-Go-Rounds, conjured up by a Muzak version of One Note Samba and the aspartame aftertaste of Mrs. Fields’ homemade-style cookies. There were no waste containers for recycling.
Brad Schmidt: Kids buy kids. The record companies are starting to be open to the possibility of there being a youth market out there.
Tiffany: Looking at my idols, I want to be like them, dress like them and dye my hair like them. But the average teenager doesn’t have $200 to spend on a nice out outfit just to be like their role models. I look at people like Madonna–which is not my image–but when she started she had bows. You can get a bow for 25 cents and girls all over were wearing bows. So she started something kids could copy because it’s affordable and that’s very important. You can’t have something that’s real glitzy and glamorous because the kids are just going to say, ‘That’s beautiful but I can’t afford it.’ They want to copy the way you dress.
Larry Solters, MCA vice-president: We’re getting many more than the normal 16-to-25 age group. We’re hitting every demographic. This is grassroots promotion.
Tiffany: The first couple of weekends weren’t successful at all. We had like two people show up. We had people yelling at me because I was too loud, and business owners were not too happy with me being outside their stores. But as radio stations started to play the single and say that I was appearing at the local mall, it started to catch fire. We went from people sitting in the chairs just because they were there, to the point where you couldn’t move. It was overwhelming.
George Tobin, co-manager: She’s a trend setter, not a trend follower. She wears black in August and there’ll be 15,000 girls who decide: ‘You know what? Black ain’t so bad in August!’
Tiffany: I met Michael Jackson. Girls copied my earrings and my crimped hair
Janie Williams, mother (court documents): She has frequently travelled accompanied only by men, despite my request that she have a female chaperone.
Tiffany: I was singing to backing tracks, and when the guitar solo came on, I was left filling in that time. When you have a live band, people can look at the guitar player, but in that situation, all people had to look at was me.
heather A, YouTube comment: The first tapes I ever bought with my own money were ‘Tiffany’ and ‘Debbie Gibson’ I used to listen to Tiffany with my yellow and black Sony Walkman.
Tiffany: I still remember that middle period where we had between 200 and 300 people show up and I would sign autographs… I would get to meet some really cool people and we’d walk over to the food court and share pizza. It was a pretty innocent time and it felt normal to me. It got harder when the crowds got bigger and I would be mobbed. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere in the mall.
Sister Francom, Church of Latter Day Saints missionary at Woodfield Mall: She’s sincere and seems to have great love for the people. And it was very clean, not low-cut and trashy like Madonna.
YouTube comments under the ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ video:
Tinted Hourglass, September 2019: I miss the days when nothing in the world seemed cooler to me than a teenage girl in a jean jacket.
Will Moshe Carr, September 2019: teenage girls in jean jackets are still cool lmao
Ensad Miljkovic Psihoterapeut, October 2019: But also creepy and illegal if you are 40+ year old man:)
Dan Williams, former stepfather: There’s a little country-and-Western bar there in Norwalk, right by the American Legion hall. That’s where she had her first public performance. The band had this flatbed truck and they wouldn’t let Tiff up there. They made her sing down on the ground. But she sang the song so good they brought her up on the flatbed. And she sang three, four songs and they took up a collection: $235. We used it to buy an outfit for her the next year.
Tiffany: I have a stepfather who kind of looked at this as . . . ah . . . more than something to do at weekends. He saw it as something that could pay his rent.
Dan Williams: As soon as I saw Tiff sing I said, ‘Boy, I’m going to have the Rolls-Royce.’
George Tobin: When I first met Tiffany she was 12 years old and under contract to a manager whom she had met at a talent show. This man had no connection whatsoever to the music business, and I was later told that he turned out to be a con artist with a federal criminal record for selling guns and was under police surveillance for suspected drug dealing. He had persuaded Tiffany’s mother to let him manage her. As a bonus for Janie (Tiffany’s mom), he started paying her bills and even had Tiffany living with him part time. He brought her to my recording studio in Los Angeles and was interested in having me produce songs for his non-existent production company. I turned him down because I felt he had no business being in this business, and I don’t work for hire. However, when Tiffany sang for me I was really impressed.
In January of 1988, Tiffany’s eponymous debut album knocked George Michael’s Faith out of first place. In February, she filed for emancipation from her mother and she was classified as a runaway by the Norwalk Sheriff’s Station.
Captain Robert Pash, Norwalk Sheriff’s Station: It’s not something we put people in jail for, but we do try to locate them and return them to their homes.
Tiffany: Together, Brad and George managed me in the beginning of my career. Then one day, Brad disappeared. At the time, I was given no explanation. Only recently did I learn that Brad was basically kicked to the curb by George.
George Tobin: No one has ever allowed me to give an unedited account of the true facts regarding my history with Tiffany. After all these years I’m still amazed at how little the fans and the critics really understand about the music business, and the role of the manager, the record label, and the producer.
Janie Williams, mother (court declaration opposing her daughter’s emancipation): Tiffany is very devoted to Mr. Tobin. She relies completely on his advice and direction. Whenever she even begins to question him, he advises her that her success is due to him and that if she does not cooperate he will sell her contract to the highest bidder. This threat leaves her in tears. On other occasions, he attempts to induce guilt to secure compliance. By eliminating the people who Tiffany respects and trusts, Mr. Tobin prevents any challenges to his decisions concerning Tiffany. I believe the emancipation proceeding to be a disguised attempt for Mr. Tobin to obtain de facto custody of Tiffany, without proving that parental custody would be detrimental to her.
Tiffany: Tiffany is the voice. The songs are George Tobin and the arrangements are George Tobin. All the production values are George Tobin.
George Tobin: Tiffany is signed to me, 100 percent to me.
Anonymous music industry source: George is as capable as anyone in this business of creating a hit. His record-making process is to dissect the Top Ten and incorporate every hook he can find into his next record. And he’s good at it. I don’t care who the artist is: He delivers hits. That’s what he did with Tiffany. It’s just too bad that he’s a control maniac.
Tiffany: I don’t want anyone to think I’m controlled. I’m not. I’m the only one who can tell you when I can and can’t work, what I will and will not do. There’s not some drill sergeant ordering me around.
George Tobin: When Tiffany went through the process of emancipation from her mother, Janie hired lawyers and a ‘forensic accountant’ to see if I had cheated or misappropriated any monies due. Their team scoured though millions in revenue and couldn’t find one dollar unaccounted for or missing. Had they found something, the contract could have been broken immediately. She continued under the agreement, what does that tell you?
Janie Williams: Tiffany has never taken any responsibility for her own health care. I have always made all of her doctor’s appointments and obtained her prescriptions. She keeps irregular hours and is not accustomed to eating regular meals. I have found her vitamins in the trash. Tiffany’s homework has not been done for close to a year. She is seriously behind.
Tiffany: I have my best friend with me when I’m on the road and I think I benefit from being on the road also in having a tutor with me because I learn things. For instance, we visited Martin Van Buren’s house. We were going to Albany, so it’s kind of in the middle in nowhere land. Rather than looking at a history book and thinking about it, I’m actually doing it! Walking through. Taking a tour. It’s more interesting that way.
Tiffany reached a settlement with her mother, who had testified that her daughter’s tutor was also the drummer in her band. She replaced George Tobin with Maurice Starr and went on the road with the New Kids on the Block, where she was heckled by their enraged fans. Credited as co-headliners, Tiffany became the opening act of the Hangin’ Tough Tour. She reconnected with Tobin in 1990.
George Tobin: When Tiffany and I got back together in the early nineties radio taste had completely changed, and not one pop ‘teen act’ from the eighties survived though to the nineties. (I know this very well because I invested my money a little differently than Tiffany did, and at the time I owned a top rated Las Vegas pop/alternative radio station, which I sold ten years later for more money than I ever made with Tiffany).
Tiffany: George was back in my life as my manager, and unbeknownst to me, he had me record an album of remakes. But these weren’t just any remakes. They were songs that were currently available in Japan by another act that George was managing. I remember hearing ‘Can’t You See’ on Japanese radio and it wasn’t my version. It was the same track, the same key, but a different voice. I totally lost it. It was a complete rip-off. So George and I split yet again.
George Tobin: Sure, ILIB, Can’t You See, and Almost In Love were recorded previously, but it didn’t work out. They were never hits, and the act dissolved. And what about the writers who wrote great songs? Should I toss out the baby because the bath water went down the drain? As it turned out, ILIB was a hit song for Tiffany in Southeast Asia…remember?
The video for I Think We’re Alone Now remains the Gimme Shelter of Tiffany’s mall tour. The comments section on YouTube is a slow cooker of Generation X nostalgia and regret; a mixture of pride (‘The 80’s were literally the best’), poignancy (‘The reason why I’m listening this is because I’m alone now’), and intergenerational warfare (‘But if you were a teenager in the 80s it means you’re an old hag now’).
The most common theme is a longing for the time before the technology existed to summon up thirty year old videos at will. Celebrating the good life, in the decade before PCs, smart phones, tablets, and likes began their irrevocable re-arrangement of the human brain. ‘The mall was our social media back then.’ People use the technology they’re complaining about to complain to thousands of like-minded strangers, bemoaning the reduction of our capacity for boredom. ‘You actually went outside if you were bored. You met up in person with your friends.’
Tiffany: I still have ‘Children behave’–the first words of I Think We’re Alone Now–on my T-shirts. I love the song now and never tire of singing it.
Tiffany Darwish remains indomitable. She has released ten albums, most recently in 2018. She bears no grudges:
I’m kind of an old soul and I also think that real-life situations helped me avoid certain things. As much as I love my family, they suffered with a lot of addiction problems and drama, so I saw all of that firsthand. I think I always knew that when it comes to the music industry, people never want to rock the boat with a celebrity, so you can pretty much get whatever you want. I definitely had a time when I thought I was all that and a bag of chips. But that was short-lived because I really care about people. I want people to work with me and respect me, and I respect people who told me, ‘No, I don’t think that’s the best thing for you.’ I wasn’t insulted by that.
Not even against George Tobin:
Tiffany: I learned a lot about the business from George. He made me face, head-on, the realities of the music industry. He would drag me into meetings with radio program directors, retailers, and label executives. In the end, I just couldn’t operate the way he wanted me to.
George Tobin: Two things I’m grateful for: the day I decided to manage Tiffany, because I knew she would be huge even though nobody else could hear it–and I’m glad I went ahead and recorded I Think We’re Alone Now, even though she thought it was an awful idea. I sincerely wish Tiffany well.
Tiffany marked the thirty year anniversary of the Celebrating the Good Life tour in St. Louis, Missouri. Cutlery World is likely extinct; Tiffany performed in front of a Victoria’s Secret, whose time may be running out. Proctor and Gamble sold Clairol to Coty, which reigns alongside Adidas and Toyota on the Forbes list of the top public companies in the world, borderless nation states earning hundreds of billions a year. There are still no recycling receptacles at the Mid-Rivers Mall, and every single person in the audience was holding up a phone.
Compiled from reporting (and one note) by: Steven R. Churm (Los Angeles Times), Steve Dougherty (People Weekly), Erin Hill (Parade), David Lustig (People Weekly), Dennis McDougal (Los Angeles Times), Douglas McPherson (classicpopmag.com), Michael Paoletta (Billboard), Graham Reid (Elsewhere.co.nz), Lisa Russell (People Weekly), Dave Simpson (The Guardian), George Tobin (www.tiffany.org).
Talk magazine is best remembered for the fin de siècle glamour of its launch on Liberty Island, but I’ll never forget it for the profile where Vanessa Grigoriadis asked Gwyneth Paltrow if the rumour she’d been spotted eating pasta in a restaurant in East Hampton was true. This question had followed a painstaking delineation of her macrobiotic diet and punishing yoga regime. She’d conceded that it was, but said it was okay to eat pasta, as long as it was slightly undercooked and chewed slowly. The advice had burrowed into my mind like an earworm, a houseguest I couldn’t evict: Gwyneth Paltrow said if you chewed al dente pasta very slowly, you won’t gain weight.
I have always been susceptible to advice from celebrities. Most recently, my long-term memory has committed to retaining Gary Busey’s belief that our souls are housed in the columns of our spines. Long-term memories are anything we remember for longer than thirty seconds. We remember more than we realize — it’s just a matter of being able to locate it, like finding a single a receipt stored in a stack of shoeboxes. Knowing this makes me feel better about all the vacuous trivia cluttering up my mind; the kind of things people look at you in stunned disgust for remembering, like that Glenn Close wore a Canadian tuxedo while out with Woody Harrelson, or Jennifer Love Hewitt once sent Matt Damon an inflatable bed. It’s a hard truth that at some point my hippocampus prioritized these memories, which were either encoded in the synapses between brain cells or within the cells themselves (it’s contentious). Either way, Gwyneth Paltrow’s defensiveness about eating pasta, Woody Harrelson’s mauve and lavender pullover, and Glenn Close’s black velveteen gold embroidered baseball cap all exist as a physical presence in my brain.
It’s been almost twenty years since the profile was published. I occasionally discussed it with my friend Nic–he’d loved it as well. We referred to it whenever we mentioned having eaten pasta, our little folie à deux. “People give me a lot of shit and then they just follow along,” Gwyneth Paltrow told the Evening Standard, and you can’t say she’s wrong.
Talk launched as a monthly in 1999. The “Gwyneth Gets Heavy” issue was dated December 2001 and January 2002, presaging its demise a month later. If the current era is best exemplified by the fact that the last time I went to the movies, half of the pre-trailer commercials featured people looking at their phones, Talk is a capsule of the millennium. Its online presence is mostly limited to the paper copies for sale on Amazon and eBay, old issues shot against nylon carpets and vinyl floors with an oval circle from the flash in the center of their glossy covers, like a Calvin Klein ad from 1995. Eighteen years after I’d bought the second-last issue of Talk magazine, I bought it again.
There was so much I’d forgotten. The interview had been to promote Shallow Hal, and Gwyneth’s face was superimposed on the body of a plus-sized model in a black lace bodysuit recreating Christine Keeler’s chair pose. She said she’d eat poultry, but if it was from nature, not raised in a cage full of antibiotics the way they are now, all shitting on each other. She said she’d given up vodka tonics because they made her kidneys hard and prevented her liver from dropping down when she did her yoga back bends. The spokeswoman from the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance had told Talk that Shallow Hal was a completely inappropriate movie, and Paltrow had disagreed. “Actually the movie has a very pro-overweight message.”
She’d never said that pasta had to be undercooked, only that it had to be chewed carefully and ideally not served with tomato sauce, because tomato sauce is a nightshade, which you’re not supposed to do. A memory that connects to other memories in multiple ways is easier to retrieve. Re-reading the profile, I recovered a memory of an appearance by “American celebrity doctor” Andrew Weil on The Oprah Winfrey Show, when he had said that it was okay to eat pasta as long as it was al dente because it decreased the glycemic index. I had conflated Dr. Andrew Weil’s advice with Gwyneth Paltrow’s but the original memory had been there all along, lying dormant in a dusty folder marked “pasta” in the attic of my mind.
I phoned Nic to ask how well he remembered the interview. He said perfectly, then insisted that that at some point Gwyneth Paltrow had opened her purse and pulled out an Arcade Fire CD. In his confidence, he mirrored the posters on Reddit who believe that Sinbad has appeared in a non-existent movie about a genie called “Shazam.” Memory is a constructive process, spun with random pieces of information from different sources. It’s unnerving to see the gap between how wrong you’ve been and how right you thought you were. The ghost in the machine can’t be trusted. It’s alarming. Just try to remember that Gary Busey says “fear” is an acronym for “false evidence appearing real.”
The actor Tom Hanks has a charming Instagram presence. Of his 184 posts, over sixty are pictures of lost or discarded objects; a lone white glove on a rocky patch of land resembling the surface of the moon, a dirty jelly shoe held up against the backdrop of turquoise sky. “Found. At bottom of the sea.” he wrote, “1 girls (?) shoe. To claim call 1-NEptune.” He occasionally appears as a shadow in these shots, which he signs “Hanx.” They indicate a man who is present and alert in the spaces he catalogs for the digital world. It’s easy to imagine his glee when he spots a new object. Each photo poses endless questions, and every object is imbued with meaning beyond its original purpose. Who did this shoe belong to? How far has it been carried by the currents of the oceans? What the hell have we done to this planet? “Are all of these your gloves ? Or someone else’s?” asked Kaleb Rich Harris. “Is this just one huge ploy concerning how this whole life experience might be interactions with just other versions of ourselves or with completely different versions [of] everyone else and not at all ourselves?”
It’s a nice account. He promotes his wife’s music and supports veterans and Aston Villa Football Club–there are no pictures of an infinity pool or the bow of a yacht shot between his feet. But a subset of Instagram users see only the Devil. They believe Tom Hanks is taunting the world with pictures of trophies from the victims of the Illuminati’s blood-drenched sacrifices. “Pedofilo de mierda!” Jacquelin Sanchez Photographer exclaimed under a a bubble gum pink running shoe. “Is that what’s left of your illuminati parties?” wondered Sir Trashman. Many women express dismay that the Hanks they believed him to be (a mixture of Alan Bauer in Splash, Jim Lowell in Apollo 13, and Forrest Gump) was a cover. “Such a phony, you play this sweet and innocent giving and caring actor, meanwhile you’re hiding skeletons and gloves in your closet,” Ollie Mommy 87 posted under a picture of a discarded couch. They tell Hanks that he is a sick man and that everyone is on to him. That his time will soon be up and that hell awaits him. In their pathology they resemble the people who think they’re the victims of gang-stalking. Every time Tom Hanks comes across a discarded glove, he re-confirms their delusion. It’s like a mutant cyberspace strain of De Clérambault’s Syndrome. “I know the elite sacrifice for wealth and position and it’s not a fake it’s real people,” said Linda 14346 Northern Ireland. “We all know HANX,” wrote JuliAnn ScMurphy. “Also noticed you’ve been deleting comments with credible info, yet keep the ones that make us sound like we’re lunatics. TICK TOC.”
“I think all of the great stories in literature deal with loneliness,” Hanks told the writer Danny Leigh. “Sometimes it’s by way of heartbreak, sometimes it’s by way of injustice, sometimes it’s by way of fate. There’s an infinite number of ways to examine it. If there’s a reason it always seems to be there with me, it’s because it’s so palpable to all of us. You can turn everything into an aspect of that battle against quiet despair, because we all fight it at some point in order to feel we’re part of humanity.”
Hanks talked about loneliness when he was promoting Cast Away in 2001, three years before Facebook was founded. His quote encapsulates both the loneliness of the Hanx images and the paranoid hallucinations people who post under them. Truncated and superimposed over a mountainscape, it has become popular on Instagram.
The Jacuzzi was a cinematic trope once deployed as reliably as frantic Japanese tourists or a homeless man inadvertently witnessing the film’s entire plot. Playboys and villains toasted stiff-haired women in high-cut swimsuits, and good men climbed into the bubbles to be hoodwinked and lead astray. Mattel Inc. responded to the trend by manufacturing an unending stream of bathtubs, showers, and hot tubs for its Barbie Playsets range. There was Barbie Sweet Roses Beauty Bath, Barbie Living Pretty Beauty Bath, Barbie’s Bubbling Spa; endless variations on a single theme.
In 1982 the National Broadcasting Association had cast-off its children’s ad guidelines and discontinued the limits on the number of commercials that could air. At last, advertisers were no longer prevented from hammering a sales message or the use of the words “only,” and “just” before the price. The next year N. W. Ayer took over the Mattel account.
Barbie dolls reclined in a bubble bath or perched rigidly on the edge of a Jacuzzi in metallic bathing suits while the camera roamed over their plastic, foam-kissed legs. The salaciousness was in contrast to the girls in the playset commercials, who spoke in babyish tones as they manipulated their avatars.
There was never any suggestion that Barbie would be joined in her bubbly spa or glass shower by a Ken doll, but Mattel Inc. skirted a fine line in a time when the Moral Majority was leading I Love America rallies. The playset campaigns managed to be simultaneously wildly inappropriate and chaste. The excessively wholesome behavior of the little girls served as a silent rebuke to viewers: How dare you see something else in this ad: it is you who is the sicko.
Barbie Bubble Bath (1981)
“You girls ready?”
A hapless dad pushed open the bedroom door while his daughter held out her hand.
“Don’t come in Dad! Barbie’s taking a bubble bath!”
Thick bubbles protected Magic Curl Barbie’s modesty, a challenge crews would grapple with when shooting Barbie in the shower.
“This is the Barbie Bubble Bath!” the narrator said, in a voice so syrupy she could conduct a fake phone poll in a brutal South Carolina primary dirty tricks campaign. “You have to put it together!”
The presentation of the accessories occurs at the denouement of the ads. The 1981 playset came with a bottle of bubbles, a fingernail-sized comb and hairbrush, a plastic chair, and a vanity. Barbie was dressed in a yellow ballgown for the father’s return.
“Doesn’t Barbie look pretty Dad?”
“Maybe I should try a Barbie Bubble Bath!”
“Maybe you should stop being such a creep dad,” someone commented below the video.
It was not for nothing that James Michener called the 1980s the Ugly Decade.
Barbie’s Bubbling Spa (1983)
An arch commentary on systems of power and the cinematic gaze, this commercial upended the traditional structure of a Jacuzzi scene, whereby the women existed as nameless, swimsuited wallpaper to a good ol’ boy carrying a cowboy hat and a magnum of champagne.
“Oh Barbie what a beautiful spa! Do I hear… Bubbles?”
Two girls glided the dolls towards the octagon-shaped playset–Barbie legs could move back and forth but no one ever bothered, not even on the commercials. The dolls slid into the water, alone together. The camera lingered on the bubbles coursing across their stiff legs. A girl flicked a plastic beach ball into the Jacuzzi, her eyes wild with excitement. Barbie’s creator understood that little girls didn’t want to pretend to be mommies. They wanted to be bigger girls. The benign, babyish play in the commercials belied that children did not always play gently with their Barbies. The dolls hunted each other down in the Dream Car and judo kicked their rivals over pink staircases. They turned the Dream House into a bordello, where they vied ruthlessly for the attentions of the lone Ken.
Barbie Glamour Bath and Shower (1985)
“We girls are taking a bubble bath. Right Barbie?”
Briefly, a close-up of Barbie’s odd face filled the screen, her rictus grin and dilated pupils framed by bubbles. Large plastic diamond studs were jammed into holes in the side of the head. YouTube comments below the video point out that one of the child actors in the commercial is Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas, that the doll’s legs look huge, that water ruined the nylon hair and made the plastic stiff, that the girls in the commercial are giggling while they watch Barbie shower.
“Soaking up beauty by the hour/ Then with a flip, we can shampoo/ In the shower!”
Playsets embraced the era’s vulgar rococo Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous aesthetic. Bathtubs and spas became increasingly ornate as the eighties progressed. By mid-decade Barbie’s bath was perched on a platform, with a pink swan’s head faucet. The toys were manufactured in Taiwan until operations were moved to China in 1987.
Mattel says a Barbie is sold every three seconds, which is 10.5 million dolls a year. These polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene, and ethylene-vinyl acetate ladies and their accouterments are with us still. The Bubbling Spa, and the Fountain Pool, and the Tropical Splash Barbie Pool ‘n Spa. Workin’ Out Barbie, Medieval Lady Barbie, and teen Barbie Midge, pregnant with a little plastic fetus called Nikki. Shedding particles of cadmium and lead, festering in landfills and travelling the world in the Great Pacific garbage patch, velveteen rabbits who never became real.
 N. W Ayers came up with the slogans “Be all that you can be” for the Unites States Army and “Diamonds are forever” for De Beers.
 Toys from the 1970s and 80s are notoriously high in lead. Some more recent Mattel recall and safety alerts: “Barbie Dream Kitty Condo™ Playset Affected Part: Kitty,” “Barbie Dream Puppy House™ Playset, Affected Part: Puppy.”
 Not even the adult who three decades later who would post a six-minute long video of a Barbie pretending to drink a glass of champagne, play with a rubber duck, and take selfies in a bubble bath. The video has been viewed over 1. 2 million times on YouTube.
She shops for menswear. Black pants and dark sweaters, also black, or the grey of hot fresh asphalt. Fleece (“too casual”) is verboten. He is partial to fine cable knit sweaters with zip-necks. She found a black V-neck cardigan and paired it with a glazed grey shirt, which he loved. He is unafraid of turtlenecks. It’s a neutral style of dressing, like a mime’s, or a stagehand who rearranges the props in between the scenes of a play.
He rolls the sleeves up his forearms during tapings. The wardrobe assistant thinks it’s an unconscious gesture. He shows his flesh to his guests to reassure them, somehow. He wears eyeglasses to deliver the results of the paternity and lie detector tests. It adds a certain gravitas, but also– he’s seventy-four years old and he needs them. People forget because he’s so unbelievably spry.
He never knows the results of the tests beforehand. This ensures that his reactions are absolutely fresh. He pauses to savor the moment before he delivers his catchphrase. “You are the father!” or, “You are not the father!”, depending. He affects a southern accent of varying intensities.
The wardrobe assistant would like to see him take more chances with his eyewear. He prefers rimless glasses, with clear arms. She got him into some heavier black Yves Saint Laurent frames. He grimaced and said, “People used to wear glasses like this because they had to,” but put them on for the show.
He wears sensible shoes to mine primordial urges. He’s up and down the whole show to greet people. He has issued an edict against pointy-toed loafers. His black shoes have rubber soles and good support so he can chase the hysterical guests backstage. Man or woman, he cups their cheeks in his palms to cajole them with the Maury Treatment.
Beggin’ by Madcon blasts before he comes out to start taping. It’s always something lively; Sexy and I Know It; Don’t Stop the Party. The audience goes berserk when Maury walks onstage. The guests can hear the music in the green room. They’re so hyped up some of them start pumping their fists.
The shirts and sweaters go straight to the cleaners at the end of the day, because he sweats foundation onto the collars. The pants are usually fine, if someone goes over them with a garment steamer. This is one of the wardrobe assistant’s responsibilities.
Whenever her job comes up at social gatherings, it becomes a big topic of conversation. People can be so judgmental. There’s always someone who rather proudly informs her that the show she works on is trash.
Two months prior to the banquet, invitations are mailed to six hundred exceptional babies on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. As with all royal events, the guests are generally babies who have made valuable contributions to society or charitable organizations. The babies arrive privately at Heathrow Airport, where they are greeted by the Lord-in-Waiting on behalf of the Queen. The gold and red state landau, outfitted with car seats, is driven up the Mall, escorted by the Household Cavalry. Their arrival at Buckingham Palace is heralded by a 21-gun salute. Inside, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth will invite her guests to the picture gallery to view an exhibition from the Royal Collection of paintings featuring babies.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second loves babies. She appreciates their ineffable qualities, the remote mystery of their thoughts and dreams. The babies’ state banquet celebrates the Averyness of Avery; the divine sagacity of Jaden; the transcendent Thomasness of Thomas.
The babies will assemble in the White Drawing Room for a reception with the speaker of the House of Commons, who will deliver a short address, Babies Equipping the European Union for the 21st Century. Queen Elizabeth will circulate, giving guests an opportunity to meet personally with Her Majesty. Her Royal Highness’ questions might include: “Aren’t you a lovely baby?”, “How long have you been a baby?”, “Is this your first visit to Britain?” and “Do you enjoy being a baby?”
The Official Harpist to the Prince of Wales will play a selection including Old MacDonald Had A Farm, C is for Cookie, I Love Trash, One of These Things Is Not Like the Others and Johannes Brahms’ Op. 49, No. 4. Footmen will circulate, discreetly changing diapers as required.
Babies will be carried into the ballroom in pairs. The table will be set with 18th century porcelain, the 4,000 piece Grand Service tableware purchased by George IV, BPA-free Philips Avent bottles with anti-colic valves, and Medela Calma Breastmilk Bottles, with a choice of medium and slow flow teats. The menu will include savory Aptamil formula, lobster mousse, mashed cocotte potatoes, and roasted loin of Balmoral venison puree.
In a toast dating back to the reign of Queen Victoria, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth will begin the banquet by asking, “Are you going to show me your Big Mouth? Big Mouth!” Yeoman Warders dressed in red and gold Tudor uniforms will be on hand to burp guests in between courses. Her Majesty will indicate the meal is over by inserting her pinkie finger into the side of her Lord-in-Waiting’s mouth.
Diners will be attired in evening dress (white tie) with decorations, or national dress. Babies are advised to bring at least two identical changes of clothes. It is requested that they refrain from scratching, kicking, or head butting the footmen and Yeoman Warders. Gilt-edged cots are available for naps. Guests succumbing to bouts of unexplained hysteria will be escorted to the Green Drawing Room, where they will be invited to view an exhibition of presents given to His Royal Highness Prince George on the occasion of his christening.
At the end of the meal twelve pipers will process around the hall playing The People in Your Neighbourhood and guests will retire for handmade petits fours and coffee in the State Rooms, where the Queen will present the babies with silver-framed photographs of herself and the Duke of Edinburgh.
My historical fiction “Panegyre” has been published in Columbia Journal. Pictured above, the attendees of the 1990 G7 Summit: Jacques Delors, Guilio Andreotti, Helmut Kohl, Francois Metterand, George H.W. Bush, Margarety Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, and Toshiki Kaifu: http://columbiajournal.org/fiction-panegyre-by-louise-phillips/