Thursday, 11 August 2016

The lights are much brighter there

Here's the second interview for my Gentlemen Prefer Blondes update series. I'm catching up with the first people I ever painted from over a decade ago in order to update their original portraits based on their life experiences and individual stories. Find out why and how I intend to do this HERE.

Alex is someone I've known for about 20 years. She is my brother in law's niece and a few years younger than me. Although we never got to know each other really well we still both fell into the alternative scene of the early 2000's so had some shared memories. For instance we went to see Blur together at Manchester's G-mex, when it was still called the G-mex and I remember bumping into her regularly at The Ritz when it still had it's rock night on a Monday. She posed for me back in 2003 in a makeshift photo shoot at her then shared house, where we discussed boys, clothes and the film Girl Interrupted, the theme song of which she chose as inspiration for the quote for her portrait.

The Lights are Much Brighter There acrylic on canvas 2004

Now, Alex works as a Marketing & Communications Manager for the youth charity Mahdlo based in Oldham and her as her chief love, an actor. She is also a founding member of The Unnamed Theatre Company. Our interview began on a pleasant Sunday morning in Manchester city centre over steaming mugs of tea:

Tell me more about your theatre company

It's a group of stage managers, actors and directors working together. We couldn't agree on a name hence it's called The Unnamed Theatre Company. Our first show was in August, it was 'In Flame' by Charlotte Jones and ran at Joshua Brookes and Oldham Library.
 
How much does being an actor figure in your sense of self? What does it mean to you?

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. When I was 18 I wondered what I was going to do at Uni but the performing arts courses with their ‘jazz hands’ always put me off. So I studied philosophy instead.
 
In my mid 20’s I still wanted to do acting and performance. People assume you must be extroverted but I hate being the centre of attention in public. However I love performing


Why do you think that is? 

I’m really nosy and I like figuring out the psychology of things. Last year I was doing a play and thought ‘this is a really odd thing to do with your time!’ No matter how hard work is I go to classes and once there I always come out feeling great.

You've told me before about having anxiety and depression, how have you managed to deal with that? 

I’ve had depression on and off since my younger years but I never figured out why. A few years ago I was in a crappy relationship and I thought it was me that was the problem. Doctors just tried to give me drugs so I went on a course of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). I finally gave myself the time and space to tackle my anxiety. 

The CBT was really useful; it taught me small daft things like thinking, ‘I Could’ instead of ‘I should’. It took off some of the pressure I put on myself.

Six months after the course I got a new job,quit the Philosophy course which wasn’t working for me and got out of the horrible relationship.

I still get anxious but I can manage and the overwhelming sense of doom has gone. It takes time but I wasn’t afraid to tackle stuff anymore. After that I got into acting. I’m more comfortable. It’s true that in life you only get out what you put in.
   
When I look at your Gentlemen Prefer Blondes portrait I see the rock/grunge scene of the early 2000’s. It makes me think of dancing to Marilyn Manson, reading Kerrang magazine and trying out smudgy makeup looks.  Personally I find your portrait very evocative of that time and the sub cultures that defined it. Can you explain your look in your portrait and why you were drawn to the alternative scene? 



The alternative scene has always been incredibly important to me; it allows outsiders to have a sense of belonging, to meet like-minds and like-hearts, it encourages experimentation in self-expression. We used to go to the Star and Garter every Saturday, Rockworld on Thursdays, The Ritz on Mondays...

When I was younger I felt it was important to *look* different because I felt different. Clothes and aesthetics were hugely important to me in terms of exploring my own identity and that of other people. As I’ve got older, that exploration and sense of identity is still there but manifests itself in so many different ways – whether it’s embracing punk or DIY approaches to building communities or putting on events; discovering art, books, films, music, politics and philosophies that are tied to different subcultures; finding strength and inspiration in zines and the riot grrrl scene… I don’t dress wildly different to when I did then. Maybe fewer pairs of ripped fishnets, but still a lot of black and a lot of leopard print!

What things that inspire you now? 

Ru Paul’s Drag Race! I started watching it when I was such a crap place. It’s so fun and celebratory. Again it’s about pop culture and sub cultures.

I try to see as much live performance as I can as it reinvigorates me and I get inspiration from friends and my support network.
I watch films obsessively and my mum is a big inspiration too obviously.

You look very young and hopeful in your portrait yet the quote you chose implies a yearning for something more. Can you explain how you felt at the time, what you were doing and what your outlook on life was like? 

I always had a head full of ideas and dreams and hopes but didn’t have the confidence, knowledge or experience to know what to do with them. Having come from a working class background in a small town but close to a city, I always felt the world was full of possibilities but didn’t know if those possibilities were for me… I guess at the time, I was uncertain but hopeful that they might be.

Do you identify with that quote at all now?

Yeah I think so. It’s good to be happy but I don’t know if you should ever be fully content. It’s not so much a comparative thing, more an explorative thing. Back when I posed for the painting it was as if the lights were much brighter there...and they weren't here.

But now it’s more a case of yeah, I’d like to try that, like starting a theatre company and acting.

 
I'd also say that although the pose you strike is confident there is a certain amount of vulnerability that comes across, of untested youth and a feeling of invincibility. When you look at the picture now 13 years on how does it make you feel? 

I think that’s quite accurate of how I was at the time. Often on the surface, looking confident and feeling like I owned how I looked and how I felt, but with a lot of underlying insecurities – definitely posed rather than looking at the camera, and thinking about the future or a world outside of my experiences. 

If we were to do a photo shoot now, how do you think you’d react? 

Now I’m much more comfortable in my skin. I’ve got used to the fact that I can’t look ‘selfie hot’ all the time.

I did a performance just after my MA where I wanted to do something that took me out of my comfort zone so I came up with a piece called ‘Grapheme’. I stood completely naked for 24 hours in the foyer of East St Arts in Leeds and got written on by the public. I was blindfolded too. It was a chance to do something that terrified me but people wrote so many nice and positive things.


Before I did it I was like, I need to lose weight, get toned up! But I didn’t. It was weird because people assumed that as I was blindfolded I couldn’t hear them either. I heard one girl say ‘urgh, don’t write on her, she’s got stretch marks’. But the talking about me made me less concerned about what other people think. After doing that, I can tackle anything!

I was playing with the idea of the ideal woman for this work back in 2003/4. I was celebrating femininity. Can you tell me what your opinion of the ideal woman is or even if that phrase has any relevance to you now? 

Patti Smith. Bold, trailblazing, artistic, curious, compassionate, punk, unafraid to show vulnerability but capable of kicking arse… 

Feminism is obviously very important to you; what does it means to you? Everyone’s definitions seem to differ...

To me personally, it’s about inner strength, having a voice and community and creating a positive platform to tackle issues like under representation and fair representation.

I think there does need to be an attacking stance in some cases but it should always be personal to the individual. The tricky thing is the amount of infighting within feminism. There’s a superiority thing of ‘my philosophy being better than yours’. But you can’t embrace something about equality if you think like that. It drives me nuts!
 
Do you think Western societies ideas of the ideal woman have changed much since Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was produced?

I have been lucky to be surrounded by incredibly intelligent, brave, outspoken, creative women and to have had access to communities (online and offline) where a lot of progress has been made in terms of open dialogue, body positivity, feminism, LGBTQIA rights, etc… but working with young people, you can see that there are so many issues still permeating society’s view of women, from the media, selfie-culture, etc. 

Plus with the increase in trolling and online bullying (Men’s Rights Activists, victim shaming, rape culture), as well as ongoing global oppression of women, in-fighting amongst feminist / women’s groups, it feels like it’s becoming increasingly dangerous to speak out or at least that there are whole new ways for women to be attacked for doing so.

What would you tell/advise the person in the portrait if you could, knowing what you know now?  

Don’t panic. You want to have your shit together NOW. You want to know yourself NOW. You want to figure everything out NOW. Some time from now (OK, some time around 2015 – DON’T PANIC!), you’ll figure out a whole bunch of things and be happier than you’ve ever been. On the way to that point, you’ll do some amazing things and meet some amazing people, you’ll have some dark times, you’ll make some terrible decisions, you’ll doubt yourself, you’ll make some great decisions, you’ll get through it all, you will end up with the most ridiculous collections of anecdotes that you will be able to laugh about one day.
 
I’d tell her to value herself, look after herself and to trust her instincts more. And I’d use RuPaul’s words of advice...
 

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Thanks very much to Alex for talking to me and being so candid. She is someone who is living every facet of her life with a sense of purpose and I really admire that. I like the way Alex is political and faces issues through pro activism and the arts. I found her tackle with depression really uplifting and the thing which stood out most for me was her art piece she performed allowing people to write on her naked body. 

The idea of facing ones insecurities while being so vulnerable was obviously a huge part of what now makes Alex who she is. I really like the idea of writing upon the skin and changing a surface through this kind of interaction and this is something I am playing with in order to update her original portrait. I'm thinking about key words which Alex herself had mentioned and the idea of stripping something down and building it back together...I'll be posting more here as the project continues...