Flashbulb Diplomacy: Image, Fashion, and Politics in Persona and Icon

Every year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds a gala fundraiser for its Costume Institute with the fashion party of the year. Industry elite are invited to attend; in recent years, celebrity guests have increasingly joined them. It’s made the carpet a little more populist, for versions of “populist” that let the public gather behind barriers across the avenue to guess who’s in the giant silver ballgown. The evening is a crowning glory of the fashion world, the jewel of the Met crown—and an achievement for the Hollywood set who get invited. Being on the red carpet at the Met Gala is a power move. And Anna Wintour personally decides who goes, and when they’re allowed to arrive.

That seems vaguely ludicrous. But this party is a high-stakes event, and there’s a palpable hierarchy that’s understood—and being constantly negotiated—by everyone on the inside. Anna Wintour is just a visible figurehead of a process that’s usually refracted across dozens of event runners and publicists. The Best Actress ringers don’t show up in the opening hour of the Oscars carpet; the Hollywood inner circle shows up at the Met Gala after the models are gone. We’ve seen the patterns play out to the point we understand the rhythms. Show up too early and everyone knows you’re the opening act: your photos get buried in real-time slideshows. Show up later, and the burden’s on you to interpret the theme better than everyone around you—while hitting a red carpet grace note that has that Met edge. (The year the Met did its China Through the Looking Glass exhibit, Rihanna showed up in an embroidered Guo Pei coat it took three people to carry.)

Much is made of the frivolity of red carpet culture, not without reason; no matter the event, there’s a Late Roman Empire vibe to a parade of dresses that cost as much as a house. But it’s not quite a party, either. It’s a business, and every well-dressed starlet is a product. (In some photos you can even watch handlers—the first and last line of image-management defense—hovering in sensible black suits and flat shoes, eyes on the press or their phones as they hustle their celebrities away from any awkward questions.) It’s why there’s a sense of helplessness to some of the actresses who stand awkwardly in their dresses, turning the same unmoving face to camera after camera. If they’re bad at it, we’re reminded what hard work it is. If they’re good at it … well, then we’re suckers, aren’t we?

But that level of image fascinates me. One of the reasons I wrote Persona and Icon was to make the subtext of celebrity politics literal, and then use it to surround a character who recognizes exactly what the image machine asks of her. Everyone in the International Assembly is a product. It’s technically a diplomatic coalition, but there’s a reason so much of it overtly hinges on the internalized language of celebrity. Public image is a living thing. Hollywood current operates as a celebrity free market, largely without the control of the golden-age studio system (though actors in franchise movies might beg to differ). If every actress is her own studio, she has to plan accordingly. Technically the red carpet is a small part of the job, but it’s also an open audition—the right dress and a perfect sound byte will nudge her public image a crucial degree toward whatever part she’s aiming for next.

Plus, it lays groundwork for other momentum. In a moment so in line with Icon that it beggars comparison, Tom Hiddleson and Taylor Swift were recently “caught” in a “candid” beach date more staged than a Broadway production. Speculating about it is deeply satisfying—and they know it. Taken at its most cynical, this is a power move: he’s up for Bond and she’d like to decimate her ex. But even taking this date at face value, someone arranged this because news was going to leak eventually, and they gave the job to a photographer they liked and got shots like a Madewell catalog, cheating their shoulders to the camera to get their best light. Either way, they and their handlers win; now they’re out ahead of the story. And whatever PR goal has brought them together for this back-door announcement, public interest in a possible relationship started with a convenient danceoff at the Met Gala. Posing for the cameras sounds silly and calculated, but there’s a career at stake.

The flashbulb gauntlet is an uneven blend of the obvious and the invisible: an actress is always asked who she’s wearing, which both fulfills the contract that got them a loaner dress, and suggests they’re carrying some aspect of the brand with them—no pressure. The industry is an ecosystem of its own, with interwoven and sometimes conflicting loyalties, until it skips past ridiculous into surreal. Every photographer wants a candid so good it becomes the official shot of the whole event; every publicist wants their client to sail through the red carpet but will make a meme out of a fall if they have to; for every diamond bracelet casually pointed toward the cameras, there’s a security guard just out of frame whose job is to watch the jewelry, and who doesn’t give a damn who it’s attached to.

It will likely not surprise you that a decided influence on the political-celebrity system of Persona and Icon was the Miss Universe pageant—the ultimate pseudo-political red carpet. Contestants are sent to be “ambassadors” for their countries, though obviously powerless and generally under orders not to say anything potentially controversial; they’re paraded in national costume (or some David Lynch-ian interpretation thereof) and lined up in increasingly red-carpet-chic evening gowns while a country’s hopes hang on them. The governing rules are exhaustive; the budget differential between countries can be ludicrous; the beauty standards are punishing. And a year of preparation can hinge on the judges’ dressage critique of the bathing suit walks. (This year, Venezuela sometimes “skipped the details,” and Indonesia was “known to walk a bit too fast.”)

In Icon, which has a less compressed timeline than Persona, I had the chance to use that sense of performative acceptance to explore some of the creepy undertones of the International Assembly and the Faces beholden to it. (I might have taken more note of the clothes in Icon than the book in which twelve sisters constantly dressed up to party, but what Suyana’s wearing makes the difference between a romantic gesture and a battle cry.) Politics is as much an image game as acting, and uses so many of the same PR tricks—a woman endures scrutiny for what she wears, whether behind a podium or in front of a pap camera—that the two spheres map over one another maybe more easily than they should.

Everyone’s public image is on the line in Icon—besides the sanctioned national press that get the sort of candids Hiddleston and Swift would recognize, the unauthorized snaps that follow Faces around in hopes of catching something untoward find themselves halfway between paparazzi and the free press. The latter has potential; invading what little privacy Faces have is a slightly thornier topic, but such a common practice that the market is established, and magazines just balance their black-market photos with the official ones. But the worst betrayal a Face goes through isn’t a snap who gets them in a compromising position—they’re usually too handled to have any. It’s what they face within the IA: the stereotypes they’re asked to play into, the class system of the member nations, the intense symbiosis of Faces and their handlers, and a woman at the top whose influence seems almost supernatural.

If this sounds cynical, it is. If it sounds like a problem, it is. But on the other hand, if the cameras are always going to be on, you might as well make them witnesses. Smile, pose, capture. Icon opens with a movie premiere for a reason. The red carpet is a chess board; why not admit it?

Genevieve Valentine is the author of Persona, Icon, and the critically acclaimed novel Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which won the Crawford Award for Best novel, as well as a nomination for the Nebula Award and the Romantic Times Best Fantasy of the Year. Her short fiction has been nominated for a World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. She lives in New York City.

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