The book tunnels down the bottomless pit of celebrity, exploring how self-commodification diminishes star power by making stars of us all
Natasha Stagg is a fan of nothing in particular, but she is a fan nonetheless. Her career as a writer, cultural critic, and fashion consultant has allowed her to inhabit spaces that most can only dream of. Artless—her latest book from independent publisher Semiotext(e)—chronicles her time spent traversing New York’s media landscape. In the collection, she dines with famous writers, drifts between glitzy afterparties, and documents designer runway shows.
Artless is united by Stagg’s voracious interest in celebrity. Her work covers fame in the traditional sense: Elizabeth Wurtzel and Sarah Jessica Parker both make appearances in the book, as well as many who have tapped into what the writer calls “fringe celebrity.” Throughout, Stagg explores how social media’s relentless self-commodification has changed our relationship to publicity—diminishing star power by making stars of us all.
Over drinks in the East Village, Document sat down with the writer to discuss celebrity crushes, Louis C.K.’s comeback tour, and the parallels between fandom and religion.
Yasmeen Khan: The book has everything, from traditionally-reported profiles to pieces that feel like fiction. Could you talk about your decision to collage different genres together?
Natasha Stagg: The more I write for myself—and I guess I’m always writing for other people, too—the more I realized that all of this stuff is pretty similar. It shouldn’t really be separated into genres.
I’m fascinated by the way somebody can monetize a personality or a narrative, or something that happened to them. That’s not some tangible thing. I get paid to write things that I don’t want to write. And then I get paid to write things that I do want to write. It’s interesting to see what comes out of each thing, to push those together, to see where they stop and start.
Yasmeen: I noticed you talk about social media in that way, too—how it’s turned the self into a commodity.
Natasha: It feels like I’ve been writing about that subject for so long that I almost want to move past it. But it’s still happening. It seems like it’s going to reach its limit, but it ends up being limitless—the way you can commodify anything at all.
Yasmeen: How do you think social media has altered celebrity culture?
Natasha: I think we are all, as a society, more interested in what the inner workings of celebrity are, because we all have more access to this process of becoming a celebrity. It used to be more of a secret path—you go out to Hollywood, and then suddenly, you’re a star. But now, a lot more people have a lot more thoughts about what counts as a celebrity, what celebrity does to someone’s mind, and what celebrities should or shouldn’t do.
I’ve always been interested in the fringe celebrity, and what that looks like, because I think it ends up showing more of the seams—the How It’s Made celebrity where you’re like, Oh, she’s calling the press. This is really obvious. It ends up teaching the world a little bit more about desires [generally], and where they can take a person. Even though I think most people don’t want to associate themselves with what they see as ‘seeking attention,’ it is helpful to see a version of it, to know that it exists within everybody.
Yasmeen: Could you talk a bit more about what celebrities give to people? You really go into it in your last essay, about the Uber driver who takes the wrong turn because he’s reading a piece of celebrity gossip. It was almost like you were writing about observing a religious experience.
Natasha: I’ve always felt that I’m writing as a fan, even though I don’t know if I could name what I’m a fan of right now. I’ve always had big, unmanageable feelings about the celebrities I’m interested in.
When you have a really big crush, you kind of have the thought that it should end in getting together with that person. But when you have an obsession with a celebrity, it’s interesting how it’s endless—it’s like a pit. That, maybe, is like religion in a way.
Yasmeen: I feel like journalism is one of those few outlets where you actually get to meet your idol.
Natasha: It’s almost like when you get together with your crush—there’s like a sadness to that, because you ended the process of longing and idealization. Obviously, they’re never gonna live up to what you expected.
You always get told, ‘Don’t meet your idols.’ But maybe there’s something about having that story. Everybody likes to tell a story—if someone’s met a celebrity, they keep on [speaking about] it. I think that’s an interesting human trait, because sometimes the stories aren’t stories at all—but you still have this desire to let people know that you have interacted with them. To me, it seems like one version of getting together with your crush. You have to figure out a way to subvert this longing somehow. So maybe you narrativize it, and you put it in this packaged story that you tell your friends. Otherwise, it just keeps going and going and it feels unmanageable.
“When you have an obsession with a celebrity, it’s interesting how it’s endless—it’s like a pit. That, maybe, is like religion in a way.”
Yasmeen: Some portions of the collection have something of an autofictional quality. Was that intentional?
Natasha: I’m drawn to what a lot of people call autofiction. I really like when writers go for it and say, like, ‘This is my life.’
Yasmeen: You call it masochistic in the book, at least in the case of Catherine Breillat, because she was showing herself to be an almost sadistic person in the way she directed Roxane Mesquida in Fat Girl. Did you ever feel that sort of vulnerability when you were writing?
Natasha: I think I’m guarded in a way that I wish I wasn’t. I admire people who can be more vulnerable—who can not just admit fault, but really interrogate themselves. That’s what I love about Catherine Breillat’s work, and I want to get to that point someday.
A lot of the reactions that I’ve gotten have been surprising to me, where people are like, ‘Well, the narrator is awful, she seems like a bad person.’ I mean, clearly, it’s me—so whatever. I could take that as some kind of comment in a workshop. But it’s also really funny. I’m like, Oh, okay, so you think I’m a bad person? It’s dishonest to not represent that, even if it’s me that I’m representing.
Yasmeen: You wrote about how Louis C.K.’s comeback tour was so self-flagellating, when it could have been genuinely introspective on the harm that he committed. Is that the sort of reaction or response you would want to see from people in his position—from canceled men?
Natasha: It’s an interesting opportunity. When artists are canceled—I don’t know what the word was before that—when they’re past their prime, and everybody sees them as this kind of loaded nobody… Why do we care what he thinks?
People are considered a voice of their generation, and then the generation changes. So what happens to them? When we are no longer relevant, what do we do with that? Can we make it into a topic that then becomes relevant? Can we discuss our failings, or the way we feel growing out of something? Some people work really well with it. Some people don’t.