Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
Does dressing in angelic white help you deal with the devil?
From the start, it did not seem that Kaitlan Collins would be in full control, let alone reign in Donald Trump. Two days ago, at the CNN town hall for the former president to fume, gripe, and taunt, the surly septuagenarian was his usual I-don’t-effing-care self. CNN received immense flak for platforming the former president, who, as before and without fail, built his case upon insults and falsehoods. It was not clear, as we watched him complaining—again and again—on Thursday morning, what the news channel hoped to achieve other than a ratings high. Mr Trump came across as a vile pile vomiting contempt and scorn, like in a bad horror film (the final scene of Evil Dead Rise in which there was the spewing of bloody matter that passed through a crusher?), not caring that what came out of his mouth affronted not only those he attacked, but also those who watched or heard him, or read about his performance the next day. All the while, the CNN host’s purity of whiteness could not repel the putrid bile that was discharged in her direction.
Ms Collins, a former Fox News anchor, did not wear a beige pantsuit, she wore one that was stark white, a two-piece that reminded us of school uniforms. Or, nurses’ work wear. It is not known if she was trying to come across as brightly pure, to better contrast her interviewee’s sinister wretchedness. The man was in his signature dark suit under which was a white shirt and that pitiable red tie. When not talking, he brought his hands between his thighs, open palms placed together, allowing his fingers to come into contact. Ms Collins tried to look calm, but no matter how much her slim, snow-white, single-breasted suit—worn buttoned—may seemingly augment her composure, she did not shield herself from allowing Mr Trump to trample on her. But who was she really hoping to meet? A lapdog that she could pat? Or a beastly individual who did not desire to end the town hall amicably, however impossible that would be. He said to her, nearing the end of the broadcast, “you’re a nasty person, I’ll tell you.” Ms Collins did not say anything; she swallowed it whole. But his MAGA-base-as-audience cheered and clapped.
We wondered what went through her mind. Was the 31-year-old indifferent to the old fox’s stage antics, however disgusting or pernicious? Was she overwhelmed? Out of her depth? It could be understandable that she did not react when she asked Mr Trump about “a significant verdict that was reached yesterday” and he insisted repeatedly that he “doesn’t know” E. Jean Carroll, who won the civil case against him just a day earlier (the jury found the accused sexually abused her), and called her a “whack job” (accompanied by cheering and clapping) and described the sexual assault in a fitting room as “hanky-panky” (more cheering and clapping). Ms Collins could keep a straight face because he was not putting her down. Why did the news anchor even bother bringing up the court case? Did she expect him to croak a different tune from his deposition (he did call Ms Carroll a nut job then)? Or was the recent American banking crisis, for example, just too boring? Donald Trump, looking at Kaitlan Collins’s pristine turn-out, probably saw a clean sheet that was ready to be crapped on, and for the stains to show, and stay.
Who is the director pushing for a Black Cleopatra?
Not many people have heard of the name Tina Gharavi until now. In the wake of the questionable casting of the up-coming Netflix docu-series Queen Cleopatra, Ms Gharavi is thrust into the public eye, especially after she penned an “exclusive” for the Variety, doubling down on the producers’ decision to cast dark-skinned, bi-racial, British actress Adele James as the titular queen and what she sees as her (“melanated”?) truth. Perhaps Ms James playing the Macedonian-Greek queen would not have aroused this much controversy if the Neftlix show is not touted as a “docudrama featuring reenactments and expert interviews” that included an unidentified individual who does not “care what they tell you in school”. Many consider a documentary—even dramatised—to veer to the side of established truth, but Netflix prefers that it “shows a side of the infamous royal you haven’t seen before”—a queen that Ms Ghavari describes as Black. She rebukes those who do not agree, “what bothers you so much about a Black Cleopatra?” Strangely, Netflix would not allow the viewers of the trailer to answer that question. On YouTube, it had the comment option turned off.
The streaming platform has not responded to the casting controversy either, but Tina Gharavi was quick to hit back at those who do not concur with her position on her subject’s skin colour, insisting that “it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like our actor than Elizabeth Taylor ever did”. In a laughable introduction to her Variety piece, the British-American Iranian director, who is based on both sides of the Atlantic, in Newcastle and Los Angeles, claimed that a “fortune teller” told her—“ever the sceptic but game for a laugh”—that she shares Cleopatra’s story and both “are connected”. The connection was established, as the seer foretold, when, a month later, the production company behind Queen Cleopatra called, and she was offered the directing job. “The joke”, she wrote, was on her. Perhaps, more than that, by regaling the reader with her exposure to such colourful divination, she was possibly also illustrating the triumph of oracular utterance and wishful thinking.
There is another connection. Ms Ghavari helpfully establishes that, born in Iran, she is Persian. She asserts that Cleopatra’s “heritage has been attributed at one time or another to the Greeks, the Macedonians and the Persians.” There is clearly kinship here, and, therefore, “why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister?” Like she is? (She’d have you know “that Persians have a long, long history of female warriors,” as she once told Primetime.) Cultural and visual evidence, as cited by historians and Egyptologists (including Dr Zahi Hawass), be damned. Iwant her black! Ms Ghavari asked: “And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white?” Similarly, why does she need Cleopatra to be Black? Might she desire Joan of Arc, someone she’s “particularly inspired by” to be Black, too? She gleefully applies another wonky reasoning for her conclusion that the queen cannot be of a lighter skin colour: “Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely.” Can the obsession for a Black Cleopatra distance one from thinking with a rational basis? If she is right, are the hans (汉人), for example, many more generations later, less Chinese than their ancestors? Or, “somewhat unlikely”?
Of the choice of the lead, Ms Gharavi writes, “we found in Adele James an actor who could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty, but also her strength.” The Greek biographer Plutarch was less complementary when it came to how the ruler looked. Writing a century after the queen’s demise, he said: “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her”. Team Queen Cleopatra would probably call that misogynistic. To Ms Ghravari, it would be “misogynoir”—her preferred charge, assuming she is right about Cleopatra being discernibly Black. We try not to connect this forcefulness of her thought to wokeness (essentially an African-American alertness), but it is hard not to when she is adamant that “we need to liberate our imaginations, and boldly create a world in which we can explore our historical figures without fearing the complexity that comes with their depiction.” Create! Does that mean she can delineate those historical figures as she pleases, let them evolved from her impassioned imagination, independent of established scholarship?
Tina Gharavi was born in Tehran in 1972, a month after Nixon visited the capital—the first time in thirteen years that a U.S. president stepped on Iranian soil. At age 6, in the year of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, she left her homeland to join her father in Loughborough, England. Her parents were divorced then. She revealed to her mom in her second documentary Mother/Country (2002), “You don’t understand how hard it was for me to grow up without my mother.” It is not known if she still carries that baggage with her or if it shapes her approach to making documentaries or how she sees her subjects. She calls herself “a citizen of everywhere” (on Twitter she is “stateless”), and claims to carry “no less than four passports”. She has lived in the UK, New Zealand, France, and the US, where she attended high school in New Jersey. Trained as a painter at Rutgers University initially, she continued her studies in film at Le Fresnoy, a “post-graduate art and audio-visual research centre” (in Northern France), as the school describes itself. It was during this time, when she was offered a residency position in the institution in 2000 that her first documentary Closer—a script-less portrait of a 17-year-old lesbian from Newcastle—was made. The biggest acknowledgement of her work came when she was nominated for a BAFTA in 2014 for I am Nasrine, a docu-feature about a pair of brother-and-sister immigrants from, unsurprisingly, Iran, and their life in the UK.
In a 2013 interview with film festival organiser Birds Eye View, Tina Gharavi said that her early attempts with film work “slowly became documentary and then documentary with fiction and now it’s fiction with some documentary.” She reiterated that equation to Zanan TV two years later, saying, “I make documentaries and fiction films; I have actually managed to combine both.” It can be said that with Queen Cleopatra, she demonstrated that skill—described as “cross-platform”, as well as showed that “people have been thought to fear Blackness”. Additionally, Ms Gharavi said she could care less in appealing to the “intellectual documentary” audience. “I’m not interested in objectivity,” she stressed. “In fact, I’m more interested in making sure my subjectivity is clear, and really pronounced. I want to tell people who I am when I am making a film. From your privilege comes subjectivity. When I teach documentary film-making… I say to students, ‘You, know, it is all fiction’.” Now, we do. Queen Cleopatra isn’t revisionist; it’s just a tale.
In Netflix’s latest docu-series, the famous Egyptian queen is played by an actress with dark skin. History buffs are not amusedand Egyptologists are calling it “black-washing”
British actress Adele James plays Cleopatra in a soon-to-air Netflix series, Screen shot: Netflix/Youtube
The trailer of Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra from the new African Queens docu-series, despite being merely two-minute long, is ruffling more than a few feathers. The titular character, when she first appeared in a green usekh (neckwear), is visibly Black. For many scholars, historians, Egyptians, and Egyptian-royalty buffs, Cleopatra was not. The role of the queen who ruled the land of the pyramids from 51 to 31 B.C., but had eyes on Roman men is played by British actress Adele James. She looks not quite the Cleopatra of popular imagination, darker-skinned than most depicted on the big screen, which is not necessarily objectionable if the general consensus isn’t so skewed towards the belief that Queen Cleopatra of Egypt isn’t as Black as Queen Ramonda of Wakanda. So unacceptable the former’s presently depicted skin colour is that, in Egypt, a lawyer has taken legal action to prevent Netflix from screening the four-parter in his country. Famed Egyptologist and Egypt’s former minister of state for antiquities affairs Dr Zahi Hawass waded into the contentious flare-up, responding to the controversial Netflix casting in a Facebook post three days ago, “Cleopatra wasn’t brown… Cleopatra was not black.”
According to Dr Hawass, she “was originally Greek, and if we look at the statues and figures of her father and brother, we will not find any evidence to support this claim [that the queen was black]”. The last queen of Egypt’s ethnicity and skin colour has, for a very long time, been part of the discussion of her identity even if her acumen and achievement left more to history than the melanin in her skin. Most scholars concur that Cleopatra was of Greek-Macedonian stock. Or, southern European, simply out. She was legitimately part of the Macedonian-led Ptolemaic kingdom, an ancient Greek state based in Egypt. Her ancestor Ptolemy I was a general and a bodyguard (some even say “companion”) of Alexander the Great; he began his rule over Egypt after the former’s demise. Ptolemy I died in 282 BC and there was a 200-plus-year gap between then and the time Cleopatra was born. Anything could have happened in that time gap, the Netflix series seems to suggest—it’s hard to say for sure that the Ptolemaic line wasn’t diluted.
In fact, some scholars suggest that the family did not strictly adhere to the Greek-Macedonian pedigree. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, was not Black either, but it is not certain he didn’t beget offspring with women who did not share his ethnicity (even when inbreeding was the norm back then and before among the Ptolemaic clan). It is not conclusively known who Cleopatra’s mother or grandmother was (just speculation). Women were not much mentioned, alive or dead, until the rein of Cleopatra (by now VII; yes, there were another six before her—including her supposed mother—named Cleopatra, essentially a Greek moniker, meaning ‘glory of the father’), who was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. Supporters of the idea of an ethnically African queen speculated that there could be Black wives or concubines, and, therefore, the possibility of the ruler with Egyptian/African blood coursing through her. But there is nothing that would say conclusively that Cleopatra was a Black African. But, a guest on Queen Cleopatra (which Netflix describes as “the true story”) insists, “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.”
Adele James as Cleopatra without the royal diadem. Screen shotNetflix/Youtube
But, the producers of Queen Cleopatra, including the wife of an infamous he-who-slaps, Jada Pinkett Smith (who is also the narrator of the series), seem unconcerned that they could be walking on a minefield with their assertion and casting choice. Ms Pinkett Smith said of African Queens, “I really wanted to represent Black women”, as quoted in Tudum, “the companion site to Netflix”. But director Tina Gharavi was more vocal, writing—considerably miffed—in Variety, “the known facts are that her Macedonian Greek family—the Ptolemaic lineage—intermarried with West Asian’s Seleucid dynasty and had been in Egypt for 300 years. Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely.” She did not say who the “known facts” are acknowledged by or who married who that led to a Black Cleopatra, only that “what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a Black actress.” While she concurred that, with the skin colour of her subject, “we do not know for sure,” she was proud with “a reimagined Cleopatra”. Defiantly, she added, “Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister?”
It is almost impossible to portray historical figures accurately—Cleopatra included. No woman would come close to resembling her, even when it can’t be determined how she looked or what her true skin colour was. When Gal Gadot was cast as Cleopatra in 2020 in a still-to-be-titled film (it is still in the making), there was accusations of “white-washing”. She told the BBC at that time: “First of all if you want to be true to the facts then Cleopatra was Macedonian. We were looking for a Macedonian actress that could fit Cleopatra. She wasn’t there, and I was very passionate about Cleopatra.” And she wanted to bring the last of the Ptolemaic ruler in Egypt “to the big screen in a way she’s never been seen before. To tell her story for the first time through women’s eyes, both behind and in front of the camera”. Similarly, Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra is also a project put together by women, but only now, they believe their royal was “melanated”. Regrettably, there seems to be a defensive, take-it-or-leave-it response on the part of the participants of the docu-series to the casting of the titular role. Adele James, who, like Meghan Markle, is biracial, Tweeted in reaction to the disapproval (some hateful) of her lead role, “If you don’t like the casting don’t watch the show”—basically tell those who isn’t on her side to sod off.
Dr Zahi Hawass, careful to add that he was “not anti-black”, was emphatic on Facebook: “she was similar to the queens and princesses of Macedona,” he wrote, adding: “I am not against black people at all but here I am just listing the evidence that Cleopatra was not black at all.” Mr Hawass may have forgotten that we live in an era of a Black Anne Boleyn (Jodie Turner-Smith in the 2021 TV series of the same name). If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, why not history? Could that be the message of Queen Cleopatra? In an already complex world with different versions of a single truth, a revisionist take of characters of the past seems a consistent order of the day. Sure, we can understand the need for a Black designer at the White-owned Louis Vuitton with a considerably white history, but it is a tad tricky to comprehend Netflix’s commitment to an indisputably dark-skinned actress to take on the role of Cleopatra. In time, we should not be surprised if a Black actress gets to play the lead in the biography of, say, Jane Austin (why couldn’t she have more melanin than Ann Radcliffe, or Mary Shelly?)? And why stop there? Why not Angela Bassett as Wu Zetian (武则天)? We are also not anti-black, and can’t wait for a hei (Black) Yang Guifei (杨贵妃).
Fashion photographer, occasional actor, and “Instagram sensation” Tan Chuan Do is releasing his first book soon.How much more huge can he become?
We admit that while we were writing this, we were listening to The Smiths’ Some Girls are Bigger than Others. We do not use big in a small way, or how Morrissey employed it. Tan Chuan Do (陈传多), also known by his initials CD, may not have been massive (although he was known) as a model back in the day, but he is, as The Straits Time’s Sumiko Tan wrote in a lightweight 2022 profile of the fellow in her benign column ‘Lunch with Sumiko’, “the man whose youthful good looks and washboard abs have made him an Internet sensation.” It has been about his stature—physical, social, and professional. And now it looks like Mr Tan, 56, is going to get even bigger: He shall be releasing an autobiography this day, next week. The renowned photographer and just-one-movie-under-his-belt actor shared on Instagram two hours ago that the book, in (traditional) Chinese, 人生，不需要每一次都贏 (In life, one does not need to win every time), will “convey [his] philosophy of life and the secrets of fitness and taking care of oneself”. In addition, he wrote that he “hopes everyone is able to absorb [his idea of] the meaning of life.” Serious stuff.
It looks like the book will first only be available in Taiwan. It is published by the Taiwanese imprint of the Japanese manga publisher Kadokawa (台湾角川, taiwan jiaochuan), known in the capital for their inaugural magazine TaipeiWalker. Apart from periodicals, Kadokawa puts out mainly graphic novels, photo books (some are categorised “情欲”, [qingyu] or lust) and “轻小说” or light novels, including BL (boy love) comics. Where Mr Tan’s autobiographical debut fits in, it isn’t clear, yet. Kadokawa describes Mr Tan as a “冻龄男神 (male god frozen in age)”. His book, comprising 20 chapters with instructional titles, “analyses in detail his unknown inner world, philosophy of life, and his ways of keeping ageing at bay”, according to the publisher. The pages include photographs shot in Bali and the Maldives, presumably with beach scenes in which to better display his Herculean build. It seems that Mr Tan’s first printed work of non-fiction could be a photobook, not unlike those of Japanese aidoru (idols) or something akin to the numerous photobooks of Godfrey Gao (高以翔), published before his death in 2019.
On the admittedly striking black-and-white cover of 人生，不需要每一次都贏, Mr Tan is shot, eyes not meeting the viewer, emerging purposefully from the sea, with neoprene suit stripped to mere centimetres south of his bellybutton to deliberately reveal his hard, compact waist that spreads upwards to join what might be described as heaving chest. This could be the male version of Halle Berry in a similar appearance in the 2002 James Bond flick Die Another Day. In her ST interview, Sumiko Tan made sure to note her subject’s enviable specs: 1.85m in height and 78kg in weight (at the time of the story). In the books’s cover shot, Tan Chuan Do, who, in the introduction, describes himself as “害臊 (haisao)” or shy, looks self-assured, more than comfortable with his body, and possibly bigger. This could be more than what the cover blurb calls “养生之道” or the way of maintaining good health. Interestingly, chapter 16 of the book is titled, “由于我曾当过多年的专业模特儿，在镜头前展现身体并不会让我感到不自在”. As I had been a professional model for many years, I am not uncomfortable revealing my body in front of a camera. Show and tell: to his fans or the 1.2 million followers on Instagram he has garnered, this might be a book to buy and to cherish. But if it’s just the pictures they desire, would they pay when they could view to their heart’s content for free on social media?
We hope to get a copy of the book. If we do, a review won’t be far off. Photo: Kadokawa Taiwan
Under a new editor-in-chief, the local version of the American title stakes not quite everything, preferring a strong soulless digital touch
In Desmond Lim’s first Editor’s Page for Vogue SG, the EIC wrote, “I have co-designed a series of the three covers entirely created by artificial intelligence.” One senses a certain pride—and satisfaction—in that declaration (and the reduction of employable human models?). EICs, who are former fashion stylists who continue to style (or co-create) covers, are not new (British Vogue’s Edward Enninful and, before she left French Vogue, Carine Roitfeld, just to name two). Mr Lim, however, could be the first to put an AI-generated image on the venerated covers of Vogue. He has been behind the covers of past issues of the SG edition, and his desire to continue is not surprising. But what boggles the mind is the choice of the model, “Faye”, who could pass off as the bride of Yondu (Guardians of the Galaxy). The question on so many lips when the photos of the latest covers—there are three of them—were circulated: “Put out with Anna’s blessings?” One veteran fashion editor was bemused, “Seems like Vogue SG works independently. Or has gone rogue.”
It is not known what information or data was provided to spawn the alien with an Asian face (and her other exotic sisters). AI imaging tools are, of course, getting more sophisticated than what our eyes can discern as natural. However hard Mr Lim tries to convince readers that this is “guided closely by the words tradition and future”, the effect offered neither. This is essentially ‘deepfake’—synthetic media, matter of the metaverse, or what The Guardian called “the 21st century’s answer to Photoshopping”. It is not real, nor the tradition it purports to underscore. Even the names of the “avatars” (there are nine of them) are “fictional”, the magazine makes known. Correspondingly, the fashion isn’t real too, except one Ferragamo dress and one Prada top, even then, we know they are simulated. Deepfakes have a dark side too. They are largely associated with pornography. There is even a “network of deepfake bots” on Telegram that, according to a 2020 report by security firm Sensity, create, when requested, naked images of women. If not sexually explicit stuff, there are last week’s AI-created photos of a Donald Trump violently arrested or the now-gone-viral pictures of the Pope in a puffer! Even with the employment of specious species on the Vogue SG cover, we are told that the issue is about “roots” (we’re glad there is no more pretentious fonts such as the inaugural comeback issue’s ‘triptych’). Is that imaginary too?
We have been asked, “why the creepy blue make-up?” We wish we could say that it has anthropological links (out of the three cover outfits, two are blue!). This is not Mr Lim’s first cover with Na’vi skin. Last year’s May/June issue was graced by a pair of very blue (the theme of the month) hands. And if blue make-up is not applied, then there would be a patina of blue, as seen in the issue of the following month, when Cardi B was the cover girl. Or, as in this issue, blue eyes and blue dress of the other computer-generated South Asian-looking lass “Aadhya”. Mr Lim tells us that he “notice(s) a huge shift in the way the current generation is embracing culture and heritage.” How the young are accepting them, he does not say. But with his covers , does he suppose his readers do not interact with the substantive when it comes to what clothes are really saying about the world we live in? Or, has fashion become so immaterial for magazines now that so much can be gleaned from social media? Perhaps these days, as one designer pointed out, what Mr Lim refers to as the “current generation” no longer asks, “Can I see myself in it? Is it relevant?” Another designer asked, “Do they care?”
We concede that magazines serve different functions these days. Readers are not looking to periodicals for the same gratification they enjoyed before the great digital takeover. Gone are the days of the glossies. Heritage titles—such as Vogue—have mostly banked on their names than compelling content to propel themselves forward. The digital version is more important than a physical copy. And the better print appears to be shaped by digital hands, the more glorious. Vogue SG has always been proud of how they are so tethered to the digital world. Mr Lim proudly informs us of their future-tech initiative From Blockchain to Love Chain on Spatial.io., as well as how he’s “looking forward to engaging the Vogue Singapore community further through the Vogue Club Membership—which bridges lifestyle, fashion, Web 3,0 and technology”. In tandem with our nation’s determined Smart Nation push, harnessing technology in all aspects of our lives to make them better?
The three covers of this month’s Vogue SG available at Kinokuniya
One senses that as long as the masthead reads Vogue, the EICs can do whatever they desire and readers will still come forth to grab an issue. But a magazine isn’t just the masthead and what/who is positioned beneath it. As a read (and not just at the hairdressers’), the refreshed Vogue SG (with the curious double-registration nameplate), seems to us, a tad more local than it was under the watch of its previous EIC. While it is still leans obviously on its Asian positioning, it now accommodates more stories that we can call ours, or at least native. While some of the usual suspects are featured, ‘The Collectors’, for example, showed that there are serious, astute fashion consumers on our island even if you rarely see them on, say, Orchard Road. While the story is skimpy on the minutiae of collecting, it does put at least three faces to the fashion bought and worn, when brands would normally not divulge who their big spenders are. It is also noteworthy that interjected in the pages are the relatable and enjoyable essays by Roland Barthes-quoting Paralympian Toh Wei Soong and the kaku-in-speech writer Azrin Tan. By contrast, the fashion spreads—some 52 pages— are totally forgettable.
Last October, Vogue SGran into licensing trouble. The Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI) stated that the Singaporean edition of the global fashion title “had breached the content guidelines for local lifestyle magazines”. After initially revoking their license to operate, MCI gave Vogue SG six months to continue upon publisher Media Publishares’s reapplication. That the magazine could put out a March issue (although late), may mean that they were given the chance to endure. Vogue SG will live, for now. In fact, the magazine seems determined to avoid the previous breaches, egregious or not. Much of its content now could be deemed safe, devoid of alternative lifestyles (that got them into trouble) even when they advocate the “altiverse”, with the corresponding images to augment its alt-positioning. Did The One, Gabriel Yulaw, not say that the universes of the multiverse are “irrational, sloppy”? Vogue SG has leapt outside the circumscription of the frankly-quaint fashion magazine, and what it projects has minimal for the readers’ selves (what would Patsy Stone say?!). When it headlines with “a spectacular cover story that, needless to say, is ridiculously cool”, it sets itself, quite honestly, for heated ridicule.
Which one is not from this planet, not just this continent?
The covers of the March issues of all the Vogues in Asia. From top row, left: China, Hong Kong, India; Japan, Korea, Philippines; Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. Cover photos: Vogue of respective countries
Unique has often been used as convenient euphemism for ugly. But as we have repeatedly pointed out, ugly by definition has changed. What is ugly is not ugly. Similarly, what is unique may be different, but not necessarily exceptional. Existing as the sole example of, say, magazine-cover uniqueness may not be exemplar of creative distinction or courage, candour. In being unlike any other, there is the risk of being bound to conceit—nothing is better than the creator’s singular thinking since his thoughts, ideas, creative process are not like others’, contemporaneous or not. This kind of output can indeed be alienating. The lastest cover of Vogue SG, to us, is.
Photographs are key in the design of a magazine cover. Magazines, being image-driven, depend on good, communicative, aspirational photographs from cover to cover, especially fashion publications. Magazine covers have always been a reflection of the times, the mirror that reflects the aesthetical common, but presented with a point of view; an opinion, as Richard Avedon would have said. A magazine cover also tells the reader what to expect when the pages within are given a chance of perusal. Or to offer a fashion/trend pronouncement. It is usually conceived to draw the curiosity of the like-minded or those with similar taste. Despite the myriad ways of creating images that compel, the imperative is still to appeal to human emotions and desires.
Stefan Sagmeister, a designer who is no stranger to strange magazine covers, said in 2015 at a media event in Melbourne, “a lot of [modernist] designs now make no sense whatsoever… they’re unbelievably stupid and deeply, deeply inhuman.” That could perhaps describe the Vogue SG’s born-again cover (although Mr Sagmeister was referring to architecture, his thoughts are applicable to magazine cover design). When we compared that cover (and the masthead) to the other eight Asian editions of Vogue of this month, the stark difference is obvious and unsettling, so is it’s alien-ness (look at the oddly small, ghostly hands!). The absence of a fashion message aside, there is a clear lack of approachability. The cover is AI-generated, we know. Creativity sans emotional connection. It, therefore, begs the question, “Who on earth is this magazine for?”
Even with a new editor-in-chief, the ‘fashion bible’ continues its love affair with blue skinfortheircovers. Are they publishing in Pandora?
There is something about blue that editors-in-chief of Vogue SG love. And the ardour must be expressed on the top page of the magazine. For his debut issue, Desmond ‘Monkiepoo’ Lim, who shared the image on Instagram, put an alien on the cover. The humanoid being, named Faye, has not embraced earthly aesthetic conventions although she is ready to partake in one temporal joy: food. She has on make-up that Neytiri on the moon Pandora would call cultural appropriation. Jake Scully would be so peeved, he’d return to earth, thinking the Resources Development Administration was up to something here and that the Na’vi race—indigenous to Pandora—would, again, be under attack so that the RDA could subjugate the moon-dwellers. The blue face is somehow here on our island, at least one of them is. She is among us. And Vogue SG is happy to put her on their cover. The first creature from outer space to grace the magazine in its longer-than-a-century-old history—and among all 27 editions.
A fashion stylist asked us if this is STB’s doing, an early cover to promote next year’s Chingay parade. Why have we not thought of that? The main blurb reads “roots”. Could this be a look at a time when we were costumed. Or, is this tracing back to a genesis that we know not of? Were we a people dressed like the Sakaarans on the trash planet created by the un-aged Grandmaster? According to Marvel, Sakaar “is the collection point for all lost and unloved things”. Is Vogue SG positioning themselves as this assemblage spot? We looked at all the Asian Vogue covers this month—nine of them (we love Vogue Korea’s and Hong Kong’s). None had a model hued blue. We stand out! Are the other Asian EICs laughing at us? Or are they full of admiration, just as they might be with our city-state for being one of the richest countries in the world. This, however, isn’t the title’s first blue-skin cover. On the issue of last May/June, a woman with blue hands and nails partially covered her face. It looked like she was taking a break from working her hands in a vat of indigo dye all day. The fashion message missing then is still lost now.
Someone said to us that Vogue SG is reaching out to a new generation. And which might that be? Cerulean children? The latest cover does tell us that the issue is themed “fashion meets AI revolution”. The image is created by the intelligence that is artificial and cold. Vogue SG has been pro-technology and likes illustrating how digital means can be employed to manipulate the images it uses to communicate to the weary, the blasé, and the aloof, and to induce them to buy a copy of the magazine. In tandem with the rise of ChatGPT, the title and its EIC are, perhaps, showing the world that it is truly ahead of the digital curve. But, if there is one thing this cover proves, AI is yet to be better than human touch. Curiously, rather than make a boast of the talents we have here, Mr Lim chooses to work with a Mumbai-based AI artist. Perhaps this ties with his desire to “return to our ‘Roots’ and rediscover who we truly are as South East Asians” (India is not part of SEA), as he declared on IG. And discover we tried, but it has been futile. Besides, what are the chalk-green biscuits on the table? Are they part of our “roots”, too?
Yesterday afternoon, despite the heavy rain, we made a trip to Kinokuniya to get a copy of the magazine. We thought it deserved a quick perusal. Not a copy was seen on the rack. Instead, piles of the last issue, “Renewal”, were there, waiting to be removed and replaced. We returned to the bookstore again this afternoon, and once more, the cover of non-indigenous Faye’s blue visage couldn’t be seen (nor the other two that are part of a triumvirate of covers for this month). We asked a staff if the store was expecting a delivery. She told us she’d check. When she returned, she was extremely apologetic: “the only copy we have is this,” she pointed to the crumpled, stale issue. Do you know when the magazine will arrive? “Oh, I won’t know. We are not notified beforehand.” It is late for a March/April issue, isn’t it? “Yes, it is,” she replied sympathetically. “They are always like that.”
Update (5 March 2023): Vogue SG is still not available on the newsstands, five days after EIC Desmond Lim shared the photo of the cover on IG
And for the first time, the position goes to a Singaporean
Vogue SG’s new editor-in-chief Desmond ‘Monkiepoo’ Lim. Photo: monkiepoo/Instagram
The Singaporean edition of Vogue has just announced its new editor-in-chief, three months after it was reported that their publishing licence was revoked and then reissued, but valid for six months. It was then also said that the previous EIC Norman Tan resigned from his position to take up a new job in the Big Apple. Mr Tan wrote his farewell message in the November/December issue, comparing his tenure to baking. In a media release, Vogue SG said that Desmond ‘Monkiepoo’ Lim will be the magazine’s new editorial head. The appointment must have come as a 大红包 (big hongbao) for the magazine’s former fashion director. Mr Lim’s first issue would be in March. That indicates that the magazine’s publishing licence has been extended beyond the six months that was offered to them after an appeal was made. Mr Lim, as one former magazine editor told us, “has his job cut out for him.”
According to Mr Lim’s latest Instagram post, it took him “2.5 months and 5 rounds of interviews” before the job was his. As with his predecessor’s appointment, Media Publishares looked from within to hire the magazine’s next EIC. Some media observers believe this is a cheaper way since it is likely that existing senior staff would eagerly accept the coveted job with minimal or no adjustments to the salary. Until the current announcement, Mr Lim held the position of fashion director at Vogue SG, after leaving, in 2020, Singapore Tatler, where he held the same position for six years. He is Vogue SG’s first Singaporean for the top editorial post. Former EICs were connected to Australia: In the magazine’s first run (1994—1997), Nancy Pilcher was the editorial head. An American, she ran Vogue Australia (and the SG edition concurrently). When the magazine returned to our shores 23 years later, the EIC role was offered to Norman Tan, originally from Melbourne, who was the social media-crazy EIC of Esquire SG. But Desmond Lim is not entirely disconnected from Down Under. He went to school there, graduating with a BA from the University of South Australia.
It is not immediately apparent what Mr Lim will bring to Vogue SG. Will he continue in the footsteps of the one who came before him? Could those shoes be too large to fill? Or, will he speak directly to the readers here with a more authentic voice? Mr Lim is known to be comfortable with his native self, as sure of his love for bubor cha cha as his adoration of his late ah ma (paternal grandmother) to whom he was the endearing “ah boy” (once, he even did an Iris Apfel on her, and styled her in Prada). Vogue SG struggled to evoke affection before. Or, a discernible Singaporean-ness. It would serve the title well to rouse feelings and excitement that reflect the uniqueness of the name framed in the ‘O’ of the masthead. In the media release, Mr Lim shared that he will “continue to explore the integral connection between fashion, culture, and technology.” Continue, he said.
A PR consultant asked us what we thought of the appointment, “if he makes the cut”. It is hard to say. Going from a fashion director to an EIC is a big leap. Mr Lim, to us, has always been more of a visual person than textual. Putting together a whole magazine, with numerous constituent parts, isn’t the same as styling a fashion spread or creating the content for a social media account. Mr Lim started his career as a graphic designer and his visual language, fashion-wise, is based on gratuitous edginess, rather than clear communication through clothes. The curious May/June 2022 cover of the model covering her hands painted blue may have found kinship in Mystique, but for us, it was hard to ascertain what it really meant, and why it would be a draw or inspiration. But these days, as editors are less the gatekeepers of the fashion industry, Desmond Lim may need more than edginess to be persuasive and compelling.
So, Prince Harry gabs with ITV and CBS ahead of the launch of his memoir. Yawn?
Prince Harry talking quite happily to Anderson Cooper. Screen shot: 60 Minutes/CBS
And you thought you could start the new year without a word from the Sussexes. But it was never in doubt that the December 2022 Netflix docu-series Harry and Meghan (part one and part two, both three episodes each) was not going to be the last of their “whinge-fest”, as some British media watchers called it. The whining continued the past couple of days when Prince Harry appeared in two different interviews, each targeting different audiences across the Atlantic. There was CBC’s 60 Minutes presented by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ITV’s Harry: The Interview by Tom Bradby. Both seasoned journalists were, surprisingly, rather gentle on the pity-seeking duke, and the interlocutions went on rather amiably. Mr Bradby, to us, scored better on the aggressive scale, and, hence, offered a better session. To be certain, we weren’t expecting Stephen Sackur on Hard Talk (BBC), but we were hoping for far more bite. Mr Cooper and Mr Bradby did ask some “tough” questions (the latter, more), but were they tough enough? And did we get answers that we have not already heard, or were they mere variations of the same theme? Was that why Prince Harry was not given the full hour (just slightly more than half) for a show called 60 Minutes? He was luckier with ITV—they gave him an hour, and a generous forty minutes more.
Both shows were aired, presumably, to preface the launch of his upcoming book, Spare. That he had agreed to be interviewed by Anderson Cooper is not surprising as the CNN journalist is not part of the nasty British press corp that Prince Harry loathes and is not known to be that hard on any of his interviewees, including one Donald J Trump. Mr Cooper was generally nice in front of the royal, even when saying that the comment in the book about the Prince of Wales (“his familiar scowl, which had always been his default in dealings with me, his alarming baldness, more advanced than my own, his famous resemblance to Mummy which was fading with time, with age”) “is cutting”. Frankly, it’s bordering on the bitchy. Even the Prince smirked at the description—or was he delighted at how good or clever that criticism sounded? The interviewer sometimes seemed sympathetic. Even his subject agreed with the news anchor’s observation: “You’re absolutely right; you hit the nail on the head.” They were like chums (even walking in a garden) agreeing on the beauty of a lass. This rather affable exchange befits a book launch. And if you won’t be bothered to read Spare, this is good enough to know that Prince Harry, for whom “silence is betrayal”, is still a troubled and aggrieved chap, who considers his mother’s death the work of the collective devil known as the paparazzi and his step-mother’s rise the diabolical plotting of a “villain”.
The sit-down with ITV was not much more different in terms of the questions posed, but Tom Bradby was more willing to grill, to incur the potential wrath of the new Californian resident. Mr Bradby, if you are not aware (or can’t recall), is the journalist who asked Meghan Markle if she was doing okay (and how she ardently appreciated that and brought it up in Harry and Meghan) during the Sussexes’s tour of South Africa in September 2019 (earlier, he attended their wedding). It is possible that Prince Harry had thought that since Mr Bradby was nice, even showing concern, to his wife, the news veteran would be just as affable to him. Mr Bradby came as a journalist, not the Prince’s PR vehicle, or a sympathiser. He did not ask his interviewee if he was okay. He was, in fact, willing to counter some of the latter’s accusations, even saying, in response to the “sibling rivalry”, as was described to Mr Cooper and My Bradby, “I think he (Prince William) would say he found you emotional, defensive, he couldn’t get through to you…” The spare was not amused. “It’s quite a list—list of things, assumptions you’re making,” he hit back. He was, for all to see—and note, not okay.
This irritability, this displeasure, this WTF expression on his face culminated to palpable anger when Mr Bradby brought up the Oprah Winfrey interview some two years ago, and spoke of the racism levelled against the royal family that was broached then. We could sense the Duke bristling. He challenged the journalist, “did Meghan ever mention that we were racists?” Mr Bradby, not expecting the change of narrative, fumbled in his follow-up, searching for better words. The interviewee would not let the other guy finish his line of questioning, interrupting Mr Bradby repeatedly. Either Prince Harry has been well trained in the course of putting together the Netflix show about he and his wife’s truths, or he has a natural flair for gaslighting. Again, as with everything else, the British press were to be blamed; they painted the racism picture, not the Sussexes. The two of them were only concerned with “unconscious bias”, which, in the prince’s “own experience”, we are are now informed, is not the same as racism: “the two things are different”, he said with needed emphasis. And, once you are made aware that you have unconscious bias, “you have the opportunity to learn and grow from that in order so that you can be a part of the solution rather than the problem. Otherwise, unconscious bias then moves into the category of racism”. And we now know, too, that the one-time cocaine/marijuana/magic mushroom user—as admitted in both interviews—is a profound thinker!
On ITV, deeply displeased. Screen shot: ITV News
Curiously, for both interviews, Prince Harry put on identical sweaters—a dark green one for CBS and a navy for ITV, and the two were worn over similar shirts with straight collars, tucked under the ribbed neckline of the plain knitwear. And coincidentally, Anderson Cooper, not known to be a fashionable dresser, was similarly attired. In the shot of the two of them walking in a garden, both men were seen in identical silhouettes: neat and trim, accentuated by their slim, tailored, Raffles-Place-at-lunchtime trousers. Even the belts seemed alike. This could be a dad look that suggested serious business was at hand. Even a cable-knit sweater could be considered frivolous, and likely, a pair of jeans—the American staple. In contrast, Tom Bradby wore a dark blazer under a dark, rather than contrast-coloured shirt, clearly setting himself apart from a need-to-look-royal interview subject. Sure, the prince was not interviewed by Graham Norton or Naomi Campbell. He need not appear interesting or trendy. Still, something-to-look-at clothes might have made his dull, repetitive replies less tedious.
Without his wife in tow on both shows, Prince Harry looked sad, an approaching-middle-age man unable to let go of his past or the wrongs he perceived was waged against him. Even without the missus by his side, he was in his accusatory best, and was quickly incensed and readily defensive, and constantly reminding us that his relationship with his famous family is fraught, and all of them are to be blamed for his misery, a life “put through… a blender as such”. You’d think that now, with the life he has always wanted, in marvelous Montecito (presently under a storm/flash flood warning. Residents have been told to evacuate, but it is not known if the Sussexes’s home is affected), he’s closer to attaining contentment, even just a vestige of it. But, far from that, he is still mad, still disgruntled, and still playing up the I-grew-up-without-a-mother disadvantage to gain by-now-limited sympathy. He told Tom Bradby: “I do not want history to repeat itself. I do not want to be a single dad. I certainly do not want my children to have a life without a mother or a father.” For all the talk of unconscious bias, Prince Harry should, perhaps, seriously consider self-fulfilling prophecies too.
The title published its final issue last month. We read it
The Esquire SG swansong: December 2022, with Bollywood star Panveer Singh on the cover
Nineteen days before Christmas, Esquire SG announced on Facebook: “Welcome to the last issue…”, but that we-shall-be-no-more announcement was barely discernible in the page, A Letter from the Editor of the physical magazine that we finally picked up. The EIC, Rahat Kapur, barely mentioned that the title will wrap for good with the said issue. She wrote that she has “never been great at goodbyes”. That, it appears, is the farewell message. Curiously, she did not say outright that Esquire SG will cease publishing or that licensee Media Publishares will not have the brand under its stable of international names, such as Vogue SG. She expressed heartache at having to “bid adieu to something that has truly mattered to [her], well after its time has concluded”. She did not call that something by name. And when she had to say that the magazine will come to a close, she wrote of the “final issue for 2022”, not the final. Even when she informed the cover subject, Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh, that he would be the magazine’s “first Bollywood celebrity on the cover”, she did not say (she would have known by then) that it would be the last.
It could be discerned that she was not willing to let go. Understandable when ten months was all you had on the job. Ms Kapur came onboard in February last year. She said she “gasped in disbelief when [she] found out [she’d] be taking over the helm of this esteemed publication”. Two paragraphs down, she still won’t call the title she regarded so highly by what everyone else called it. Perhaps she thought that readers were already aware of Esquire SG’s impending closure. Since former EIC Norman Tan decamped to Vogue SG in 2020, speculation was rife about the fate of Esquire SG. Would the Hearst Magazine Media magazine be left languishing in the shadow of the more glamorous Condé Nast title? When Ms Kapur was appointed the EIC, cynics wondered how long she would get to edit the magazine. They got their answer.
One can’t be faulted for wondering if local editions of international titles just don’t stand a chance to last on this island. To be sure, the media business has been tough and rough, made less tenable by unceasingly dwindling readership. With Esquire SG’s closure, only two men’s magazines here—Men’s Folio and August Men, both local titles—are left. The heat of competition is turned down for the pair of survivors. But competition is not the only challenge magazines, whether online or print, faces. There are two other Cs: consumption, which has largely changed, and, for print in particular, cost, which, like almost everything else, has skyrocketed. And there is the third C—content. With so many snazzy “content creators”, magazines have it tough speaking a voice that could pull in readers.
Ms Kapur’s Esquire SG is a predictable blend of lifestyle/culture snippets, catalogue-style pages, fashion spreads, trend reports (strangely, often all credited to the fashion editor Gordon Ng), luxury watch features, and celebrity interviews. Add to those, fan-girl vim. For her swansong, Ms Kapur “jets to Mumbai”, she informed her readers, to interview “Bollywood’s ‘It’ leading man today”, Ranveer Singh. Yet, she wrote “I hate Bollywood”. And explained, repeating her aversion, “I hate Bollywood for enveloping me in the likes of icons such as Shah Ruk Khan, who to this day, remains the one person I’d donate a kidney to”, even when she confessed that she detests the India film industry “for making [her] feel like dream men could exist in the realms of reality, and with one dance number, they could end up becoming the greatest and most passionate loves of our lives”. And then just a paragraph later, “I wanted to go where we’ve never been before: to Bollywood—and just like that, it happened.”
It is not certain who among the Esquire readers would love the gushing and fawning, and heating up—she wrote, with relish, “much repositioning of my legs and 20 sips of my water later, in enters Ranveer” (seriously! It was even used in a pull-quote). What would past contributors of Esquire (US), such as Norman Mailer, had he been alive, say? Or, perhaps, therein lies the charm? Or, the fast track to the magazine’s exit? Interestingly, there is practically no editorial that could “encourage hetero readers to ogle”, one former editor of a men’s magazine noted (the feature of K-pop girl group (G)I-dle is, at best, placid). Or, stories on health and wellness, even grooming. There is much crammed into the pages, but the content is far from compelling, or better than others found on the dizzy, content-laden web.
Esquire SG debuted in our city on September 2012. At that time, it came under the stewardship of Kuala Lumpur-based Mongoose Publishing (once behind Time Out SG). Five years ago, the license was granted to Media Publishares, then operating as Indochine Media Ventures, and synonymous with Buro SG and Robb Report SG. Vogue SG was added to the trio of titles in 2020. With Rahat Kapur saying that the current edition is the “final issue for 2022”, some media professionals were wondering if Esquire SG, like Vogue SG might return. Industry watchers speculated that Media Publishares are now consolidating their resources to keep Vogue SG afloat after it was issued a six-months permit to publish by the Ministry of Communication and Information (after initially revoking it) because the magazine “had breached the content guidelines for local lifestyle magazines”. There are reports, too, that Ms Kapur has been reassigned to another role within the media firm. Would she, we wonder, be the second former-Esquire SG EIC to take up the much coveted editorial position to keep our born-again Vogue going? Like in the old days, sometimes, you have to kill a child to keep another alive.
With the second package of the six-part docu-series now streaming, it is clear that the Sussexes want sympathy more than understanding. From the comfort of their Montecito hideaway. The end
Six episodes of who did what to them is, frankly, too much even if they expose alleged royal misdeeds. In total, Harry and Meghan is a 6-hour-plus series full of discontentment and fault-finding. The three episodes that make the second half of the docu-series have the enthusiasm of revenge-themed K-dramas, but without the latter’s suspenseful pacing. You wait for the hit-back at the British royal family and you get it. Meghan Markle even said that she was not merely “thrown to the wolves”—she “was being fed to the wolves.” The proverbial kid gloves are off. The Queen is dead. So she and all on her side no longer need to stick to discretion. She may have wanted to escape England for a quiet life, but there is not any kind of hush the minute she left, especially not when she returned to the free-speech familiarity of California. In the private jet, after their escape from Vancouver Island, Canada, on what Prince Harry calls the “freedom flight”, Ms Markle tells her son, Archie, “we’re about to go to where mommy’s from”. Whoever said she had planned to call the UK home?
In this part of the world, this kind of talk or reveal is largely contemptible. However disgraceful a family is, no one from within shames their own kin. The Chinese has an oft-heard expression 家丑不可外扬 (jia chou but ke wai yang) or family scandal is not to be publicised, and that we must never 大义灭亲 (da yi mie qin) or place righteousness before family. In fact, many of us in Asia grew up with the belief that problems within the family—and there always are—need to be solved or resolved internally. If outsiders are told of domestic shame, the family in dispute will be ridiculed or laughed at. As SOTD contributor Mao Shan Wang told us, “my nother would say sia suay (泻衰 or Hokkien for shamefully embarrassing)”. There is another Chinese saying, 隐恶扬善 (yin e yang shan) or extol a person’s (or family’s) virtue, but conceal his faults. That to Westerners might sound like sweeping familial failings and flaws under the carpet, but to the Chinese, it isn’t so. If you speak ill of your family, there is a good chance that others will despise you and laugh at your family. They won’t look up to you for exposing your family’s shortcomings. On the contrary, they will look down on you even more. Is this not what’s happening to the Sussexes?
According to recent news reports, the Netflix special Harry and Meghan enjoyed the most viewing time than any other documentary on the streaming service that week the show came on. And the figures are not unimpressive. Reuters stated that it “recorded 81.55 million viewing hours after its debut” the Thursday before last. Some “28 million household watched at least part of the series”. And in the UK, it was the most-watched series that week. (The final global numbers are yet to be tallied.) That the docu-series is this well-viewed is not surprising. Last year’s Oprah Winfrey interview of the Sussexes, as AP reported, drew about 50 million viewers worldwide. But are people watching H&M because they desire new or additional information to feel sorry for the prince and his wife, both, while desperately desiring privacy, are sharing—and dissing—more than what those wanting freedom or immunity from undue intrusion would reveal. And should they (or their supporters) be surprised that the reactions to the show the titular characters co-produced have been mostly unfavorable, even harsh?
We tried to be sympathetic, to see their side of the story, to appreciate that their first official residence in Kensington Palace grounds, Nottingham Cottage, was “so small” (how tiny could it be, as tight-spaced as a HDB flat? Or is that the best insider gossip they could offer?). But watching the show is no walk in a royal park, especially when what they do as catharsis is contradictory to what they claim they abhor. As much as they do not like their photos used by the media, they have no qualms of sharing more of their own (such as the one of M in despair amid unfinished packing) in the series. Harry and Meghan opens with the two’s own self-taped video footages from back in 2020—the first hint that they likely never really intended to keep their private life from public enjoyment, or derision. The more desperate the rehabilitation of their image is, the more irritating their case becomes. While M decries those who do not know her write about her, she has no objections to pouring her heart out to strangers, such as the billionaire American actor/producer Tyler Perry (Gone Girl, 2014), whom, by her own admission, she “has never met before”. Could it be because he is a fellow celebrity, lives in California, and wealthy to boot?
It was Mr Tyler (top right) who reached out to her and after some time, she called him while she was in Canada. “Finally—after years at that point—first time we ever spoke,” she says. “And I was just a wreck; I was just crying and crying, like sometimes, it’s easier to just open up to someone who knows nothing at all.” Amazingly, he who knew next to naught, was willing to offer the Sussexes abode in the Beverly Hills property that he lived in, reported to worth USD18 million. H&M “hadn’t seen the house, just video of it”, Mr Tyler points out. Yet, with a baby in tow, the Sussexes were willing to move in. H admits that “we only saw you filming from a gate up to your door, and seeing the big fountain there and we were like, that’ll do.” When Mr Tyler asks, “what if I had horrible taste and had big round beds, striper poles and everything?” Shouldn’t the question be, what if the man turned out to be another Harvey Weinstein?! H is unfazed: “it wouldn’t have mattered. We were desperate to find somewhere, desperate to be somewhere… to settle.” Desperate, as it were, to be housed by a stranger, with a fountain (shown in the show!) as epitome of good taste.
Desperation is, of course, central to their message. It is also easy to sense that M is desperately in need of people appearing to care about her, so much so that just three words would suffice: ”Are you okay?” In a 2021 New York Times opinion piece, she wrote that when those three words are uttered, “the path to healing begins”. She recounted, as she does in the series, an interview with the ITV reporter Tom Brady—who is said to be a friend of the couple and had attended their wedding—during a tour in South Africa: he had asked the simple “are you okay?” She was grateful that he put that question to her. “Thank you for asking,” she had said. “Because not many people have asked if I’m okay.” We sensed self-pity or the reluctance to be on a “rigorous tour” and be away from what was then home, shortly after she gave birth to Archie. She added, “it’s a very real thing to go through behind the scenes.” And is it because of her race again—as her American audience likely believes—that people weren’t asking if she was alright? Or, is she practicing what she believes in: that “most people need to find someone to blame, to try to like reconcile how you’re feeling”.
Once again, in all the interviews that are not the “never-before-seen personal archive (as per Netflix)”, M appears in that white blouse or grey sweater again, suggesting that the six-parter is based on just two interview sessions. In her attempt to underscore her pain, she probably thought it best to look worthy of pity. Stylists are not required for that. This is, of course, not a story of how her fashion sense influenced the world. She may, according to her husband, be like the late Princess Diana, but the actress-turned-podcaster is no fashion natural. After avoiding colour for most of her sojourn in England, she decided that she will show the world what sartorial strength she had, prior to leaving. How about an Emilia Wickstead dress the colour of Kermit the Frog, given a jewelled gloss? “Until that last week in the UK, I rarely wore colour,” M says. “And I never want to upstage or ruffle any feathers, so I just try to blend in, but I wore a lot of colour that week. Just felt like, well let’s just look like a rainbow.” Any discerning fashion consumer would say that that could never be a good look.
In episode four (or the first of the second release), former Givenchy designer Clare Waight Keller speaks about the surprisingly underwhelming wedding dress she was tasked to come up with for Ms Markle’s 2018 wedding. She says, “it has to be flawless; it has to be perfect”. But, as we noted before, it was not flawless, nor perfect. The fit was lacking—the bodice was roomy enough to conceal a chicken, as nonyas of the past would say of a loose kebaya. American writer Dana Thomas was quick to Tweet after the series was streamed, “The dress didn’t fit MM, and, as you can see in pix, the sleeve seams pucker—absolutely unforgivable for a couture house. One buys couture because it IS flawless.” Perhaps, to Meghan Markle—not a couture customer prior—that didn’t matter because she was to marry a prince. She probably didn’t care about the poor fit, just the wealthy groom. Even back then, during the morning of her wedding, when she felt “calm” and had wanted a “cresohn” (croissant), she could be hoping to hear not the two words, I do, but three: Are you okay?
Rating: 0.5 out of 5.
Harry and Meghan is streaming now on Netflix.Screen shots: Harry and Meghan/Netflix
Is the Sussexes’ “full truth” the real truth? And do we even care?
You know what is the truth? When Prince Harry of Harry and Meghan said on the toothsome twosome’s eponymous Netflix docu-series that “we know the full truth”, he is really referring to their truth, which is not necessarily the truth. Or the truth of the others spotlighted by this two disgruntled individuals. He said that “the institution knows the full truth and the media knows the full truth because they’ve been in on it”. This full truth of the ex-royals could also be what one Kelly Ann Conway once famously called “alternative facts”, or whatever existed in their seemingly troubled universe. And the truth of the very wealthy H&M is worth a lot of money, but not necessarily the truth that that many of us wish to hear without being inevitably irritated. The truth that is nothing to do with economic disadvantage may not be the reality we can understand, let alone connect with.
The truth of the Sussexes is also boring truth, startlingly devoid of anything truthfully new or the minutiae of married life that might make them more compelling man and wife, and parents. This is self-aggrandising fluff that goes not beyond their ken. Don’t expect deep analysis of what troubles them. Or evidence of the hate against them. The first three of the six-parter are essentially about a fairy tale gone awry and a retelling that might, they had probably hoped, put them in better light. They repeatedly want us not just to listen to “their truth”, but also what they call “our story” and, as Prince Harry enthused, their “great love story”. As the international press had rightly pointed out, they had this all planned before even decamping for America. How do they explain the footages of their lovey-dovey selves leading up to their globally-covered departure from the royal cesspit? How did they have that well-documented video library (or what Netflix calls “never before seen personal archive), with the right words to slip between the “truth-be-told (as Ms Markle stresses)” docu-narrative? Who films themselves crying so that the footages could be used later to tell a story of personal pain and then gain?
H&M are a more-public-than-most millennial couple. H, as Ms Markle—and her friends—refer to him in the series, saw a digital photo of her, which was superimposed with facial parts of some cartoon canine to mimic juvenile cuteness; he was intrigued, as such filters intended, and wanted to uncover the countenance behind the graphic trickery—“whoisthat?”. M, as she is also known, checked him out through Instagram; she thinks she could better know the person through what he posts. But, strangely they were paired in a rather old-fashioned manner, through a friend—no swiping left or right. And their growing up, their royal-meet-the-commoner, love-trumps-racism story is retold in Harry and Meghan through a video montage that is not unlike those that many us here have to watch between the serving of the soup and the roast chicken at a conventional hotel ballroom wedding.
Prince Harry spoke of wanting to go to shield mode to keep his family from so much harm that threatened him and his clan of (now) four. “I knew that I had to do everything I could to protect my family,” he says. He also describes his dedication as a “job… to keep my family safe”. What dangers are before them, other than the peskiness that was to do with the paparazzi? Could he and his wife and brood be somewhere in Ukraine? He has a rather narrow definition of family, as we learned. It no longer includes even his father and elder brother (there is only mention of his mother), nor his cousins Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, two of his childhood playmates, who are shown in news footages to have gone skiing with both his elder brother and he. When it comes to protecting, he can, as it appears, be selective. Doria Raglan, Ms Markle’s mother (who, like her daughter, “is ready to have my voice heard—that’s for sure”), says that Prince Harry has “really great manners”. Could she be referring to his wanting to trash his family, the one he does not see the need to protect?
“I realised they’re never gonna to protect you,” M declared conclusively, but she doesn’t explain why she; a grown, worldly individual; needed the protection or if such preservation from harm was just as desperately required before she met H, or while she was married to Trevor Engelson, and if so, who provided it. The need for protection is a constant refrain, as if that was what she required more than anything else from her relationship with a royal. Yet, the series tries to portray her as an extremely strong woman (even as a “big geek” kid), ”very outgoing, super social”, according to friend and producer of Suits, Silver Tree. M was also determined to make the initially long-distance relationship work. And later willing to challenge the more-than-a-thousand-year-old British monarchy and, as many believe, to draw her Prince away from where he was born to her California—that side of trashy. That the leaving of the royal family was dubbed Megxit, after her name, is telling enough of her influence in the decision. Does she need less protection, now that she is no longer a palace resident? Or are the US$15 million Montecito, Santa Barbara mansion and the reported payout of US$100 million by Netflix for the spill-all protection enough?
“There’s a hierarchy in the family,” H says. “Yeah, there’s leaking, there’s also planting of stories.” In the first three episodes, the gripes—as they sounded to us—are largely directed at the media. For H&M, the overwhelming press attention was oppressive. M informs, “my face was everywhere, my life was everywhere, tabloids had taken over everything,” Ms Markle says of her early encounters with the British press. Even getting dressed for a walkabout (she claims she didn’t know what that is) was an ordeal. Are we to believe that she had not expected any of that? Did she choose her prince for placid royal life? We found ourselves shouting: She married the most watched royal family in the world! Yet, she has no qualms in painting herself as some babe in the woods. H says that what the media put his wife through is “feeding frenzy”. But he acknowledges that what she went through with the British press was “a rite of passage” and that “some of the members of the family was like, ‘right, my wife had to go through that, so why should your girlfriend be treated any differently? Why should you get special treatment, why should she be protected?” And he said, “the difference here is the race element.”
The race card, we knew would be played. And it was. Harry and Meghan made sure to let you know that the latter’s mixed race worked against her. And that the British tabloid press is “a white industry”. That M was a target of racism was already broached in last year’s “bombshell” Oprah Winfrey interview. But they’re really racist in the UK, apparently—so much so that it bears repeating. And harping on. To make sure, that you are aware of how Ms Markle was targeted because of her race, they curiously show a photo of her, with what appears to be a rolled-up yoga mat under her right arm, while she passed a place with the sign that read “garbage area for New Balance Toronto” during a segment about the disadvantages she had to endure because of her race. Her H says, “it is amazing what people would do to when offered a huge sum of money… to hand over photographs, to create a story.” So why was that image submitted? And what was the Netflix deal all about if not about the earnings?
And in case you do not believe that racism exists in Britain, a history class is presented in the third episode, elucidating the empire’s slave trade. If you do not know, “Britain had a deep south,” Journalist Afua Hirsch tells you, “that was just as brutal, that actually enslaved more Africans than the United States of America did, but that deep south was the Carribbean”. And slavery was “fueling this early British empire”. And, to lend more heft to what is otherwise a repeated love story, there is the retelling of the Stephen Lawrence case. Mr Lawrence was an 18 year-old Black man who was killed unprovoked back in 1993 (Ms Markle was then about 11 and had appeared on a Nickelodeon program on which she spoke of writing to Procter and Gamble to suggest that they change an ad copy from “women are fighting greasy pots and pans” to “people”). The Sussexes attended a Stephen Lawrence memorial service in 2018, and they became instant heroes for the Black cause at that time.
Despite the social good that they attempted to do, the Sussexes were still ardently in need of media approval. But, the British media, as they see it, was out to “destroy” them. The press was never on the side of the Sussexes until they crossed the Atlantic, where the Americans were far more interested in their story and were sympathetic to their plight. Ms Markle calls a BBC—yes, even the BBC “was on it”—“engagement interview” an “orchestrated reality show” because they “weren’t allowed to tell [their] story.” It was “all rehearsed”, she asserted. It is hard to know for certain (the BBC has denied Ms Markle’s claim), but could such news—even those not generated by tabloids—be part of what Prince Harry calls his “duty to uncover this exploitation and bribery that happens within our media”? And to lay bare became even more exigent because, for poor Ms Markle, “no matter how hard I tried, no matter how good I was, no matter what I did, they were still going to find a way to destroy me.”
Meghan Markle is delineated as her H’s ideal woman and perfect wife. Prince Harry says that in the royal family, “especially the men, there can be a temptation or an urge to marry someone who would fit the mold.” It’s clear Ms Markle could not be the desired fit, even after learning to sing the national anthem of the United Kingdom from Google. “This is the woman who’s turning Britain’s most traditional brand on its head,” one news report went. “Meghan Markle isn’t British, she’s been married before, she’s mixed race, and she doesn’t shy away from politics.” And she wants to play all that up now to better underscore the suffering she had to endure (interestingly, so far, there is no mention of mental illness). The institution needed a new mold for her, but they did not cast it. And it’s time it pays.
Prince Harry saw not only the woman of his dreams, but also someone quite like his mother! Women generally dislike being compared to their mother-in-law, dead or alive, but Ms Markle appears not to have any issue with that, even seemingly enjoying the comparison. Video footages show Princess Diana with Prince Harry and then similar shots of Ms Markle and her eldest, Archie (one, with the little boy looking at a photograph of his grandmother). H says, “So much of what Meghan is and how she is, is so similar to my mom. She has the same compassion, the same empathy, she has the same confidence, she has this warmth about her.” But not the same reverence for the institution of monarchy. Is M playing a Di stand-in for H’s unexplained needs?
For the interview segments conducted by an unidentified woman and largely unseen, Ms Markle is dressed to playdown any fashion statement or to discourage any criticism. She wears a white shirt and a matching pair of slacks when she answers questions with her H and a grey jumper and similarly coloured skirt (sometimes also revealing nut-brown nearly knee-high boots) that could be school-mom proper when she is interviewed alone. Ms Markle is not the fashion plate that her sister-in-law, the Princess of Wales is. In fact, her sense of style veers towards the excruciatingly unexciting. And she has the justification for it. “Most of the time in the UK,” she says, “I rarely wore colour. There was thought in that. To my understanding, can’t ever wear the same colour as Her Majesty, if there’s a group event. But then you also shouldn’t be wearing the same colour as one of the other more senior members of the family. So I wore a lot of muted tones so that I could just blend in. I am not trying to stand out here.” But now she is—in a red Carolina Herrera—through her own docu-series, which, unfortunately, is a deeply dull dud.
Rating: 0.5 out of 5.
Harry & Meghan is streaming now on Netflix. Screen shots: Harry and Meghan/Netflix/YouTube