How to Stay Sane in the City of No Shame

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Is it Me?

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I’ve been a bit blue.

And I haven’t been very nice.

The agent of our house texted me this – you aren’t being very nice – after I asked him whether he leaves his car running in his driveway overnight. He had just told me that the AC is like my car and if I don’t keep it running all the time it breaks. (The AC had broken.)

Then a friend asked in an e-mail if I was OK, because I wasn’t usually like this. This was after I got upset that a book launch party for the latest book I’d created had been planned when I’m elsewhere (she’d also described me to the party planner as “the … wife”).  I answered that, yes, I am usually like this – Barbara de Vries, the designer and producer, who would like to attend the book’s party. She wrote back that she didn’t need my resume. Then she asked me if I was OK.

There were two other friends in the last month who didn’t like my reaction to, what I perceived as, their unsupportive behavior.

When it adds up to four in four weeks, that’s one a week, maybe I need to take a look at myself. Maybe I’m really not usually like this. Maybe I’m usually like whatever. Like happy. Like smiling. Like loving. Maybe I’m becoming different from how I’m perceived or maybe I’m really not very nice. Maybe I have just been pretending that I’m nice. Maybe I just want to be liked, but in the end I’m not likable at all. And so it goes in my head. And thus I’m a bit blue.

 I think I’m blue because, by thinking all those thoughts, I’m not being supportive of myself. And then my Dutch Calvinist voice says, who gives a fuck what you think of yourself, stop being indulgent.

 I’m gonna ignore him for a minute. Because I’m on to something. As a mother and a wife and a partner in our studio, I expect from myself that I’m 100% supportive in all those roles. I support my daughters and my husband emotionally, physically and nutrionally. I support the company creatively and intellectually. I expect from myself that I can solve everyone’s problems as well as make the oceans free from plastic pollution.

But I’ve forgotten about leaving just a tiny bit of support for myself. And maybe thats where it all starts. But what does this support look like? There are women who go shopping, have their hair and nails done, have massages and meditate as part of their inner support system. I actually get irritable doing these things. Some take vacations or go running. I like swimming, but not really yoga, although I should do it. It would be very supportive if I could get into yoga and also self -hypnotizing. Like just an hour a day. I love being with a bestie girlfriend, talking women’s stuff, hanging in the knowledge that I’m not so unique in trying to do it all and getting pissy in the process. Sometimes we bitch about the women in our lives who are not supportive of other women. Even the press picked up on that concept after Hillary lost.

 “It’s all because white women do not support each other.”

 I can go there…

 But maybe I should support myself first.

 Maybe we should all support ourselves first.

 And we’d all be a bit nicer…

… to each other.

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Here is an excerpt from Stupid Model when at age 17, I first came across a misconception and the surprise of the unsupportive female:

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STUPID MODEL – Chapter 18

He led me to a softly lit room that smelled of baby powder, diapers, and milk. The windows were open and gauze curtains blew gently in the warm evening air. The drone of steady traffic drifted up from the boulevard below. Collin’s wife sat on a narrow bed next to a sleeping boy. She held out her hand and whispered, “I’m Heather, how do you do? Collin told me so much about you.”

She was not at all as I’d imagined. She was pale with small features and her dark, almost black hair was cut in a Vidal Sassoon bob that made her look a bit intimidating. She gave me a quick smile before she turned to Collin and asked if he could bring her a glass of that delicious-looking Champagne we were both drinking. Her eyes flashed brightly with something I couldn’t quite place. Was it defiance? Sarcasm? Or some inside joke she shared with her husband?

“I heard a lot about you too.” I reached to shake her hand.

I was a bit afraid of Heather and I didn’t say much over dinner. Instead I ate my chicken, mashers and green beans, drank Champagne and red wine, and listened to them chat about his work and her day with the kids. When she told him that she’d been approached by the Herald Tribune to produce a reportage piece with photographer Martine Franck, I took the opportunity to tell them that I’d been booked for my first couture show.

“It’s kinda why I brought the Champagne.”

“Well, cheers to us,” Heather said raising her empty glass at Collin, showing him that she needed another drink.

It didn’t dawn on me till later that Heather’s job offer may have been a really big deal, and that maybe I’d stolen her thunder, especially when Collin reacted by bringing a second bottle of Champagne from the kitchen and I was left at the table with Heather. After an awkward silence she said, “So, do you enjoy this business of fashion?”

It was an odd question. I hadn’t expected her to be so, well, I’d hoped for another kind of conversation, like where are you from, oh, I love Amsterdam, what does your father do? Do you have brothers and sisters? Instead I felt that she’d put me on the spot and I’d better have the right answer.

“I like the travel,” I said, “and the freedom, and it pays good money when I finally get to work…”

“Sure, but that’s not what I meant.” She sounded annoyed. ”Do you feel that it’s a good industry to be part of?”

I didn’t get what she was driving at, and sensed that she was ready to be mad at me. Luckily, Collin returned with the Champagne and three bowls of chocolate mousse.

“Never mind her,” he said, “she’s into women’s lib nowadays, and gets quite passionate.”

I wished he hadn’t said this. It was nice of him to put her question in perspective, but I just knew that it would piss her off.

“Wow,” she said. “What a put down! I just want to find out if Bee is aware that she’s being exploited by a system that objectifies women into sex symbols.”

“I know what you mean,” I blurted out, as if I finally understood the right answer. “And I agree, modeling is shitty that way, like today we all had to strip for a creep. But I’m going to study design as soon as I’ve earned enough money for college… in London.”

Heather glared at me like I’d made things worse, which made my head swim, or maybe that was the entire glass of Champagne I’d nervously finished in one big gulp.

“I don’t mean that YOU are the victim!” she said, now fuming. “I mean that you’re responsible, in the same way that if men didn’t volunteer to be soldiers there’d be no war! Without models women could be happier with themselves—their looks, their bodies—gettit?!”

“I make women unhappy?” I was stunned. How could she accuse me like that? She didn’t even know me.

“Heather, STOP!” Collin said. ”Skinny girls have feelings too!”

“You shut up,” she shouted back. She filled her glass with the remaining Champagne and drank it all.

“You and your fucking ads that are designed to manipulate and make us insecure. This bra for sexier tits, that cream for younger skin, this diet margarine to get thin… you make me sick.”

Shit, she really was drunk! I knew what she was trying to say. My mother was becoming a feminist, and I totally wanted to be an independent woman, but Heather was so mad at Collin, the only person in all of Paris who’d been kind to me. I wanted to defend him, but Collin spoke first.

“My job pays for this nice apartment, and your principles don’t seem to stop you from living here.”

“If I could work, instead of being the unpaid nanny, I wouldn’t be living here.”

I got up and took our dishes to the kitchen. This wasn’t my fight and maybe if I left them alone they’d stop. But Heather wasn’t finished. Once I was out of the room, she ripped into Collin loud enough for me to hear.

“ What the fuck did you bring her here for? Do you fancy her? Are you screwing her?”

“Please,” he begged. ”Don’t you get it? I thought you two could be friends. You seem lonely and blame me. Bee is lonely too. You need some friends here, Heather.”

“With her?” she screamed, like I was Linda Lovelace herself. “That self-centered, dumb creature? Don’t you know me at all?”

What the fuck now? Ever since I’d left home, ever since I’d been here, women had become the enemy; no, I had become the enemy to other women, and I didn’t have to do a thing to deserve it. Just being a model and tall and skinny seemed to be all it took to receive blanket coverage for abuse. Had I missed some critical clues growing up? Like my mother’s best friend who had no problem screwing and stealing my mom’s husband? Had that been a warning sign? And was advertising really so different in Holland? I couldn’t remember ever feeling offended or unhappy with myself because of some ad. The popular girls in school were the only thing that made me miserable and I always thought that was my own fault, because I wasn’t cool enough. But now they hated me for seeming too cool. Or whatever it was. When did this change? I needed my mother. She’d help me out. She was so attractive herself and I’d never heard her bitch about any of her friends, she was even grateful to her friend for taking her difficult husband off her hands and getting her independence back. Perhaps Dutch women were just different.

I finished cleaning the dishes and left them by the sink to dry. It was quiet and I wondered if Collin had split and Heather had gone to bed. The door to the dining room was ajar and I peeked inside. It was empty, one of the chairs had fallen over and our napkins were scattered on the floor. As I withdrew I heard muffled giggling and I pushed the door open just a bit further. I wasn’t exactly planning to say goodbye and thank you for a lovely evening, but maybe I expected a friendly word from them, like thanks for bringing Champagne and doing the dishes, or sorry for being such assholes.

What I hadn’t expected was seeing the two of them on the floor, screwing. Collin was on top with his pants halfway down his legs, his dimply ass staring me right in the face like a final farewell.

On my way out I noticed the bunch of lavender and my two prettily wrapped presents, still lying where Collin had left them on the hallway counter. I scooped them up and carefully placed them on the antique chair by the door, where the kids were bound to see them in the morning. The dried flowers I kept for myself as a souvenir of Heather and her belief that girls like me made her unhappy. Whenever I got a whiff of lavender after that memorable night, I felt grateful that, soon after, my time in Paris had come to an abrupt end.

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At our candy-land bachelor pad in Miami Beach we have TV. I did not have  TV for years.  So I wanna know; WTF is up with all those shows that pitch women against each other, like portray us all as super bitches, dumb and out to get each other?  Like we’re always, always ready for the kill…

I have been shaped by women. My womentors. First my mother. I am who I am because of my mother. And then several of her coolest friends. I always have women crushes on women who inspire me, women who are so cool that their influence somehow changes me, makes me bigger and better and more fearless…

I don’t see women as my competition and I’m always taken aback when I’m seen as a nemesis. In the past nine months I’ve made great new women friends. All awesome in their own way, like Esther, Jody, Francesca, Sheila, Ineke, Iran, Sam, Suzy, Zaha, Petra, Lily, Victoria, Nancy, Astrid, Heather – all fabulous women.

My editor friend (and #1 writing mentor) Amy Ferris recently asked me to write a piece about an important woman-mentor in my life. The first person who came to mind was, of course, my mother. Gail came into my mind next. Gail is my NYC mentor. So this is what I wrote:

Gail Bruce at her Ramscale Loft

“When I was in my thirties I did not see myself as a mentor, I just saw you as a lifetime friend.” Gail Bruce says twenty-seven years after we met.

I was mesmerized when I first saw Gail. She was awesome, like perfect, fifteen years older than me, tall and elegant . A successful painter then, but she’d also been a top model who worked with Dianna Vreeland ( one of her mentors) and an actress, after being discovered by Howard Hawks. But what touched me most was her kindness, her sweetness. She immediately made anyone feel loved and seen. I wanted to be  bigger just to fit the way she treated me.

My mother never perceived other women as a threat and she was the first to teach me that women could be role models. Maybe she should’ve been a bit more careful since one of her best friends took off with her husband, but my mother even saw this as a blessing in disguise. Growing up as a teenager during the Second World War she became strong  in the face of adversity.  Her husband, my father, died five years after they met and even then she  taught me  that change, however painful, eventually leads to growth.

In the late sixties my mother got into American feminism through writers like Erica Jong and Marilyn French and had an epiphany when she realized that she was part of something larger – the cultural changes that allowed women to see that they were not alone, that the expectations and traditional roles they played all lead to the same question: Who are we beyond mothers, wives, and caregivers? With this realization she impressed on me the importance of independence and  a career that I loved.

By seventeen I had my own apartment in Amsterdam. I studied art and made money as a fashion model. Next I moved to Paris, then Australia, and I ended up at the Royal College of Art in London. I talked to my mother every day and her endless praise  propelled me into becoming a successful fashion designer.

When I lived and modeled In Paris I looked for role models but only found fierce competition.  I was too naïve to realize that the beauty business operated on the principle of divide and conquer  to sell endless products into the female void of insecurity. How could I find a mentor if most women did not trust models? I had to find someone who was bigger than all that. Meanwhile I had crushes. There was Zandra Rhodes, the outrageous designer. I tried to be her acolyte but she just needed a body to fit her collections. There was Mick Lindberg, an ex-model who had crafted a life so exquisitely perfect that I both crumpled in her shadow and aspired to be like just like her and there was Jenny, the ex-wife of my boyfriend, who left behind a trail of such enormous accomplishment that I was jealous and inspired all at once.

Then I met Gail. Gail was from New York. She came to stay in our tiny cottage in Dorset. My boyfriend Michael had known Gail (and her husband Murray ) for  years. We had an intimate weekend of cooking, drinking, games and long walks and when she left Gail said to me:

“I love you.”

I felt embarrassed. After all we were in England and in England nobody ever said I love you, not even my boyfriend.

Two years later  I stayed with Gail and Murray in New York. They had more friends than I thought  I’d ever have in my entire lifetime and their huge loft, the entire top floor of Westbeth, was its own universe.

My room overlooked the Hudson River on one side and the World Trade Center on the other. Every day another crew of photographers, models, editors and hairdressers used the white open spaces as a shoot-location. At night the cast changed into friends who stopped by for drinks and others who stayed for dinner. No one ever went to bed before three in the morning. Artists, writers, actors, directors, and singers from all over the world came and read their latest stories, showed their latest movies, played their latest songs, unveiled their latest canvasses. Gail introduced me as her amazing designer-friend from London.

My collection of  brightly colored washed silk clothes sat on a rack in the screening-room, Gail brought in her girl friends, I took orders,and she floated around ethereally, with a love and peace smile on her lovely face , while Dakota, her four year old daughter, toddled around, was passed from lap to lap, already with more friends and aunts and uncles than she could fit into her head.

That’s when I first learned that there didn’t need to be any  boundaries between work and home, careers and friends, eating and dinner-parties.

Everything was all just life.

I felt lucky to be included, lucky to know them and when I returned to London I tried to emulate their life. It wasn’t easy. The Brits were too reserved and private.  London now looked dull  to me. I wanted to be in New York with Gail, my soul sister

So when I moved to Manhattan in 1986 I stayed in the Loft while I looked for an apartment in the Village.

Gail had just become involved in a new venture, that was going shape the next twenty years of her life. Every night she met with her friend Anne Sward Hansen in the space under my mezzanine bedroom. I couldn’t help but be drawn in. Annie had recently visited the Rosebud Indian reservation in South Dakota and had learned that of all the American Indians who left to go to college very few returned to their native homes. This created a brain drain to the reservation which was in desperate need of its own doctors, lawyers, teachers, business men etc. Gail, who is part American Indian, and Annie decided to create The American Indian College Fund. The plan was to raise scholarship funds for American Indian students at tribal colleges and also help these colleges grow from trailers into more sophisticated learning environments. What started as a dream is now an organization with assets of more than 28 million and annual scholarships for over 5,000 Native American students.

Over the years Gail has introduced me to many teachers – artists, medicine men, psychics, writers – caretakers of the mind, body and soul. I became design director for CK at Calvin Klein and married an American Scot. I had my daughter Iona shortly after Gail had a grand daughter, Tyler. Now our two daughters are best friends. Gail became my family in this country; she gave me a home and a sense of destiny and threw me a huge  30th birthday party,  two baby showers and she’s (fairy) godmother to Iona.

Gail has been a mentor and role model for many young women, like Ann Edinger, a young student who became Gail’s assistant on the Cultural Learning Centers Initiative. Together they instigated the construction of cultural buildings at the reservation colleges – homes for the newly repatriated cultural items that had been away from the tribe for a long, long time. Ann is now a successful lawyer with a firm that represents not-for-profit organizations.

One of Gail’s own teachers was an Indian elder called “Grandfather”- a Chumash Indian Medicine Man who taught her that compassion is the most important human asset, the ability to put yourself in some else’s shoes and open your heart.

“The most important thing to learn is to be kind to everyone,” Gail says. “You can kill just about anyone with kindness.”