‘I have the best job in the world,’ said the man who hanged himself in a hotel in Northeastern France on 8 June.
It is 2014. Two years since I swore off Australian poetry: a couple of years earlier, I’d wandered into an erotic poetry reading in Brunswick, where an older white man patted himself on the back for fucking a local sex worker in Bali. I was the only Asian-background person in the room. I walked out thinking Australian poetry was unsexy at best, creepy and racist at worst.
At the Emerging Writers Festival in 2014, I go to American performance poet Derrick Brown’s night-time workshop. I find out he is a former paratrooper. I did military reserve training as a teenager. I didn’t think I would ever find something in common with a living, published poet.
I read my poetry to the class. It is about a bus trip to Canberra. He receives it warmly. Not since high school English literature did I feel so deeply appreciated for my poetry. In his autograph on my copies of his books, he writes ‘Angela, you can do this.’ I can do this. I can get my words out into the world.
First published at forty-four, and without a degree in English or creative writing, Anthony Bourdain is a hero to the atypical emerging writer. His narrative nonfiction essay about New York kitchen culture, ‘Don’t Eat Before Reading This’, came out in the New Yorker in 1999, followed by his bestselling first book Kitchen Confidential.
Erudite and articulate, though sandpapery around the edges. He sounded like a bookish middle-class kid who’d gotten roughed around a bit, by life, and then by working in kitchens. It was a voice I could relate to, as a middle-class kid who’d ended up in the military national service. In his work, the kitchen sounded like military service – a meritocratic place that somehow comprised mostly men but let women and queer folk from other backgrounds through if they could prove they were street-smart enough, emotionally-tough-enough, for a hard life that forged tight bonds.
I know it is naive to think this way. To not consider the way a bootstrap mindset can so easily slip into bed with misogyny and toxic masculinity. But when I first read Bourdain, it was the first time I felt a writer understood the bonds I’d made, with my military mentors, with my military comrades, during some of the most turbulent years of my life.
Looking at the outpouring of love and grief after the news of his death spread, it seems the whole world felt the same way, though for their own reasons.
Then came the other books. (There were 13 in total)
Then came the TV shows, about culinary cultures worlds away from New York.
The worldwide fame. The awards.
I’m not famous. But when I google my name these days – my writing name – I’m the first person that comes up. The Colombian porn star is somewhere a bit further down. I’ve accumulated a decent following on my visual art and modelling Instagram. The number is not great, but a lot of them are highly respected in the art photography and figurative art scene. I’ve recently had my art regrammed by Ru Paul’s Drag Race Season 10 finalist Aquaria. It is easy to buy followers, but regrams and follows by people who do quality work, who do not follow just anyone, is not something that can be bought.
My inbox is part-red wine, part-cesspool. On the one hand, there are correspondences with photographers I’ve wanted to work with for years, now keen to collaborate. Then there are the messages I ignore. And the people I’ve blocked. One, a Sydney painter who wanted me to come to Sydney so he could tie me up. Photographers who send me portfolio images of nude women who look extremely uncomfortable, saying they want me to visit them in their home so they can take my photo. Men who message me paragraphs about what they like about every single photo of me I upload, and ignore my drawings, the art I’ve actually created with my own hands. Men who claim they love me even if we’ve never met. Dick pics.
Sometimes at cafes I run into people who say hello, who say that they’ve drawn me at a life-drawing class. There are so many. It is quite possible that I’ve walked past some people who’ve seen me naked and I wouldn’t remember.
My bus poem from the 2014 Emerging Writers Festival poetry workshop is now in a solo print poetry chapbook available from Vagabond Press.
I am in a meeting with a photographer. We talk about why there is a lot less visibility, and a lot less work, for curvier models. I reckon it’s because brands and photographers often go for very thin, rectangle-shaped models. He reckons it’s because curvy models, discouraged by the lack of immediately available work, are less likely to make the effort to find their audiences as well as grow their portfolio.
Later I think about the feedback I’ve gotten from photographers I’ve worked with in the past year. The honest truth is that in that no-one I’ve recently shot with has had a problem with my curves. I’ve been an hourglass Australian size 12 for most of the past year, and I’ve recently dieted down to an hourglass size 10. Hardly an extreme end in plus-sizes – and some of the most successful plus-size models in the world are at least two sizes bigger than me.
I often get told how lovely my skin is, by photographers and painters. It looks lush and warm in the studio, in natural light, in nature, in creating distinct tones in black and white. Most fine-art models are white. Following market logic, if I promote myself as the dark-skinned exotic model, I could generate more attention, get more shoots. Photos of Southeast Asian beaches and mountains. Hashtags I’ve never used like #exotic and #tan, #asianmodel and #asiangirl.
But shoots featuring Asian girls – especially by many white photographers – feel cheap. They’re not celebrating diversity, they’re celebrating what the Asian look means to them. I think that in Western societies Asian skin is seen as exotic because many white photographers grew up in classrooms where they did not have Asian classmates or teachers. Where it seems like they only noticed Asians in two-dollar shops or cheap take-away stores. Or brothels. Or mail-order catalogues.
Race is a brand. Racism pays.
I’m not missing out on gigs because I’m curvy. I’m missing out on gigs because I’m not leveraging on the opportunity to brand myself as an exotic model. My photo shoots are pretty much what white models do – artistic, sculptural, fashion. Except I’m not white, and don’t want to be an ‘Asian model’. And I’m curvy but I don’t do men’s magazine photo shoots that emphasise breasts and bums for male delight. And I block people who interact with my posts as though I should. Even if it costs me followers. I’m an anti-brand, not a brand.
Once branded, can anyone really rebrand? I think about the impossibility of escaping from what it means to wear my skin. The impossibility of freeing myself from history.
I’ve known women who’ve had stories like this for years and they’ve said nothing to me. What is wrong with me? What have I, how have I presented myself in such a way as to not give confidence, or why was I not the sort of person people would see as a natural ally here?
I’ve had to ask myself, and I have been for some time, ‘To what extent in that book did I provide validation to meatheads?’
I never wanted to be part of bro culture. I was always embarrassed. If I ever found myself, and I mean going way back, with a group of guys and they started leering at women or making, ‘Hey, look at her. Nice rack,’ I was uncomfortable. Ashamed to be a man.
But, look, I accepted when the book came out, that I was the bad boy. There I was in the leather jacket and the cigarette and I also happily played that role or went along with it. Shit was good.
– Anthony Bourdain, Slate, November 2017
The bad boy who tells it like it is. That was his brand. Life spent in kitchens is a hard life that could only be made better by becoming a harder breed of human being, fortified by drugs, alcohol and brotherhood, misunderstood by all except those who’ve survived it, and still choose it every day. Life in places completely different from America – and often damaged by relations with America – is difficult to understand, but worth learning to get to know beyond Western news and the tourism guides.
His gritty working-class masculinity became the brand that shot him from his roots in dirty kitchens to upper-middle-class respectability and world renown. It also became his undoing. Fame is a fate that cannot be undone, unlike taking a break from academia to teach in the countryside (Wittgenstein) or become a lens grinder (Spinoza). Short of total body surgery, one cannot resign from one’s face, or the words that catapulted one to stardom. Once you’ve become famous, you cannot cease to be so. You are condemned to be recognised. The isolated, authentic little places he featured in No Reservations and Parts Unknown became prime destinations for his millions of followers from all over the world.
While having always been progressive on the issue of immigrants and race, Bourdain took a while to become more reflective about the language he used to describe women. In his famous first book Kitchen Confidential, he referred to wait staff as untalented actresses who were inclined to have sex with unattractive older men if it could open doors for them. In a rather literary twist of fate, the final love of his life was Asia Argento, an actress who had been raped by one such door-opening unattractive older man.
In December 2017, several women hospitality professionals went public about experiencing sexual harassment and sexual misconduct at the hands of chefs Mario Batali and Ken Friedman. Bourdain wrote:
Any admiration I have expressed in the past for Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, whatever I might feel about them, however much I admired and respected them, is, in light of these charges, irrelevant. I will not waste anybody’s time with expressions of shock, surprise, or personal upset, beyond saying that I am ashamed that I was clearly not the kind of person that women friends who knew – and had stories to tell – felt comfortable confiding in.
In these current circumstances, one must pick a side. I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women. Not out of virtue, or integrity, or high moral outrage – as much as I’d like to say so – but because late in life, I met one extraordinary woman with a particularly awful story to tell, who introduced me to other extraordinary women with equally awful stories. I am grateful to them for their courage, and inspired by them. That doesn’t make me any more enlightened than any other man who has begun listening and paying attention. It does makes me, I hope, slightly less stupid.
Right now, nothing else matters but women’s stories of what it’s like in the industry I have loved and celebrated for nearly 30 years – and our willingness, as human beings, citizens, men and women alike, to hear them out, fully, and in a way that other women can feel secure enough, and have faith enough that they, too, can tell their stories.
To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviours we’re hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse.
Where do famous people find privacy?
Five days before Bourdain’s death, the paparazzi circulated photos of Argento pictured being physically close with Hugo Clement, a French journalist who, like Bourdain, had supported her fight against Weinstein. Argento demanded that the photos be deleted. They weren’t. Since Bourdain’s death, speculation has arisen that the suicide was a reaction to what appeared to be Argento’s infidelity.
Argento’s friend and fellow Weinstein accuser Rose McGowan shared a letter with The Hollywood Reporter:
Anthony and Asia had a free relationship, they loved without borders of traditional relationships, and they established the parameters of their relationship early on. Asia is a free bird, and so was Anthony. Was. Such a terrible word to write. I’ve heard from many that the past two years they were together were some of his happiest.
I’m not famous but being distinctive enough to catch attention, to have eyes on me, is a double-edged sword. The more well known you are, the more work you get. The more work you get, the more money you make. But also, the more trouble you can get into. The more likely your private life is treated like public property. The more likely your loved ones become unmissable targets, especially if you are speaking truth to entrenched and malicious power. One only need think of the way the press persisted in their quest for Elena Ferrante’s identity. It was not enough that she created brave and wonderful work. She had become property. An entitlement. Something to be conquered, possessed, and then destroyed.
I’d rather be an artist than a brand.
I want to work on learning how to own myself, rather than learn how I can be owned by the world.
My therapist told me many people would rather blame an external event for suicide, rather than considering that someone so successful could have been suffering in silence for so long.
I wonder if, for one of the most public faces in the world, suicide was the most private act. If it represented a freedom too tempting to resist.
Maybe the take away from his story wasn’t that his seemingly perfect life ended the way it did, but that he had stayed with us, and gave us so much, while holding all his pain in for so long.
25 June 2018. He could have been 62.
Image: Henrique Almeida / flickr