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Details: a first fandom, a lost world, & discovering that fame has an architecture

11 Jan

In the 1980s, before it was what it is now, Details magazine was a style bible for New York’s downtown party scene, and it covered the social life of night clubs in dozens and dozens of pages of gossip columns about people with funny names most people had never heard of.

My mother read it religiously, sending my father out to check the newsstands for it regularly. We lived uptown, but my parents had owned an art gallery once and my mother had worn Norma Kamali before anyone had ever heard of her. And so, instead of Vogue, this was what was in our house, and as my mother read it, so did I.

I loved it. I loved its gorgeous over-saturated black and white photos, and the hint of danger and fantasia there was in scurrilous stories about people with names like Kenny Kenny and James St. James and Magenta. I was ten-, twelve-, fourteen-years-old, and I wanted to be a club kid too.

I wasn’t, not really, not ever, but it was New York in the 80s and people my age often got to do things it never should have been reasonable for us to do. I went to Area, to MARS, to the Limelight and Tunnel, the Palladium before it was an NYU dorm; I remember squirming out of the grasp of some 25-year-old med student in the bathrooms at MARS late one night when I was 13; he’d grabbed my wrist and tried to get me to touch his dick, and I ran back out into the crowd and then danced until dawn.

But mostly… mostly I just read Details in my parents’ living room, my mother insisting I just liked it for the clothes, and my father approving because it was so beautifully art directed.

After my junior year in high school, I decided I didn’t want to be in school anymore. Freshman year had been spent at the private school that had dwindled down to a class of eight, and I’d been at Stuyvesant for the following two years.

A selective, hard-to-get into public school focused on science education, Stuy had an intense party culture that overlapped with the world of Details more than any of our parents would have liked. But I was bored, felt at sea in the circle of friends I had managed to develop, and had humiliated myself epically over a boy, and I wanted out.

So I applied to an internship program through another high school. Once accepted, it meant I would work full time and write essays about the experience and then graduate, on-time, with my Stuyvesant class, without having to deal with actually being in school. It seemed perfect.

And so, I set out to become who I had always wanted to be, alternately laying on my living room floor and dancing (when I could find an excuse to be out) alone in clubs, and I called up Details magazine, and said, “I want to work for you.”

Somehow, I secured an interview. I wore this gorgeous suit I had — brown, high-waisted sailor pants with a cropped, black, asymmetrical jacket with bronze buttons. I put a flower in my lapel and geta on my feet and decided I was Oscar Wilde as I took myself off to that interview. I was 16.

And it went well! It really did. It was everything I’d ever wanted, although, to appease my parents and my internship coordinator, I also talked to the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, for which I did a ton of volunteer work in high school and college (that, by the way, is its own set of amazing and bizarre stories), as a backup plan.

And then I heard nothing.

Nothing and nothing and nothing.

And my parents said, “Well, you know, they are all gay boys over there, they probably don’t like you because you are a girl.”

“No,” I said. “It’s not like that. Same tribe. I wore the best outfit.”

Late the next night our phone rang, and I, against house rules (we screened all our calls because of the harassment and prank phone calls I would receive from peers), answered it. It was the man I had interviewed with.

Details was being sold to Conde Nast. I couldn’t tell anyone. It wasn’t public yet. He thought they all might be fired any day. He certainly couldn’t bring me into the middle of that.

And then we talked. For thirty minutes, me on the plastic Garfield phone my parents had bought me for my 13th birthday, sitting on the floor of my room in the dark, as this stranger told me to be beautiful and fabulous and fierce and just as sharp as I clearly was, and to remember that in the homes outcasts make for themselves it’s normal to still feel like an outcast.

Details announced its sale a few days later, and continued as what it had been, briefly. Eventually it was moved to Conde Nast’s Fairchild unit and publication was ceased, before it was relaunched as what it is today: a men’s magazine that anticipated the metrosexual craze and created itself by gutting its original content that was queer in both senses of the word and also ridiculously provincial to this one small corner of my beautiful New York.

I wound up working for the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation for a woman who is younger than I am now, who once sent out a letter to 400 people that accidentally listed her title as “Director of Pubic Relations” (lesson: why spellcheck is not enough). She took me under her wing and showed and told me things about adult life she probably shouldn’t have, and, while grateful, in retrospect I am also embarrassed for us both.

Snippets of what Details once was can be found with some effort on the Internet. WFMU managed to preserve this random sample album of behind-the-scenes celebrity wackiness. The stunning photography of its Hidden Identities series also, thankfully, still exists. And, if you search hard enough, some of the old cover images and table of contents can also be found.

All in all, it was a lovely dream that it was probably for the best that I never achieved in any particularly concrete way. I got into quite enough trouble as a teenager in New York without ever being able to say I worked at Details. But in many ways, Details was my first fandom, my first keen media interest, the first time I sat down and said, “Fame is this constructed thing, how is it made? and what is it about beyond the things it claims to be about?”

From time to time, that magazine and the world it covered pops back to mind for me: like when the Michael Alig murder case happened (a story later made into the film Party Animal) or when the Limelight got turned into a high-end mall. I hate that it is a lost world, a queer one, that was erased by mainstream culture, but I also recognize that it met its end in poetic fashion, as narrative in the mists, and that’s satisfying, not only to who I am today, but to who I was at 16 sitting in the dark of my bedroom, listening to a journalist who, scared about his job, for thirty minutes treated some kid he didn’t know as if she was his friend.

This bit of history no one really cares about anymore brought to you by members of one of my current fandoms cooing over an article in Details as it is today.

But, oh, the things it once was.

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3 Responses to “Details: a first fandom, a lost world, & discovering that fame has an architecture”

  1. Mariah January 11, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

    It was an LJ entry on Details that got me reading your journal in the first place. I’m off to buy some old copies to replace the ones I carelessly tossed years ago.

  2. adelheid_p January 17, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    I love this: “And then we talked. For thirty minutes, me on the plastic Garfield phone my parents had bought me for my 13th birthday, sitting on the floor of my room in the dark, as this stranger told me to be beautiful and fabulous and fierce and just as sharp as I clearly was, and to remember that in the homes outcasts make for themselves it’s normal to still feel like an outcast.”

    I wish I had someone tell me that at the same age. This is a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing.

  3. A. Non January 17, 2012 at 11:04 pm #

    Wow, I remember getting hold of a few copies of “Details” back when it was a club mag and not a men’s mag. I saved those copies forever, out in the Atlanta ‘burbs it just looked so glamorous!

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