Plastic Fantastic Lover: Amanda Lepore’s “Doll Parts”

Amanda Lepore isn’t afraid of exposing herself. Whether showing up to chic events near or completely naked or purring over club hits like “Champagne” (“I drink champagne in the morning/I drink champagne in the afternoon”) and “My Pussy” (“My pussy is famous/My pussy is expensive”) with Larry Tee, Lepore puts herself (and her pussy) out there.

Naturally, her recently published coffee table book/memoir Doll Parts is no different. “The reasons I have such thick skin (figuratively, physically my skin is basically translucent) is that at the age of seventeen, I got my pussy. It was all I ever wanted out of life and everything since then has just been a maraschino cherry on top,” she writes in her introduction. And as a trans woman, this willingness to speak about her much-manipulated body cannot be understood as anything less than radical, particularly now.

Yesterday, I was all set to write up this review of Lepore’s book, which is filled with fabulous photos, club gossip, beauty tips, Marilyn Monroe idol worship and yes, lots and lots of plastic surgery tales. But then, our Tweeter in Chief decided to tweet out policy and strip the rights of trans people to serve in the military, jeopardizing the jobs of 15,000 plus trans people who currently serve. I’m not sure I can put into words the difficulty of writing in a time when the ground seemingly shifts on an hourly basis.

However, Trump’s bizarre attempts to rouse up his base and shore up a distraction worthy of both the Russia investigation and the Trumpcare circus inadvertently emphasized not only the importance of Lepore’s Doll Parts, but Lepore as a fearless trans figure. While more Jessica Rabbit than G.I. Jane, Lepore’s buoyant and infectious personality (Richie Rich described her to photographer David LaChapelle as “only having one mean bone in her body and she had that removed”) and her unwavering dedication to herself–her identity and the way she wants her body to look–certainly deserves to be celebrated. Lepore isn’t just a Downtown superstar; she’s a trans pioneer–one that paved the way through glamorous excess.

Amanda Lepore on Joan Rivers

Just think of the baby trans people and other gender fluid viewers who might have caught Lepore sitting with her fellow club kids on The Joan Rivers Show in the 1990s–a downright heroic appearance in which Lepore declared she didn’t have time to work since she spends so much time getting ready to go out at night. While the other club kids were dressed like clowns in a K-hole, Lepore looked like something out of an old Hollywood film, devastatingly beautiful and deeply transgressive. She resembled the second coming of Candy Darling, if Candy partied at Limelight rather than Max’s Kansas City.

Of course, Lepore is probably best known for, as she introduces herself in the first line in the book, having “the most expensive body on earth.” Even her publisher Judith Regan admits in Jacob Bernstein’s write-up in the New York Times that Lepore’s appearance is what sold her on the book. And Lepore’s elaborate look–one that has been snipped, tucked and tailored to match her idealized vision–is stunning and sometimes, startling. It always seemed as if Lepore was made out of plastic–more Barbie than Mattel could dream. With all that money spent on her body, of course, the book contains a staggering selection of images. She didn’t go through all that to just have you read!

Photographed by Vijat Mohindra

But, it would be a mistake to consider Doll Parts simply a picture book. I’ll admit, I never knew much about Lepore’s personal story–how she came out as trans, her transition, her move into clubland, etc. Therefore, Doll Parts importantly illuminates the experiences behind her doll-like form. Lepore’s wit and honesty pervades her memoir, giving her the ability to make even dark subjects like her abusive ex-husband to murder an enjoyable read. Beyond just the tough subjects, Lepore doesn’t hesitate to spill the tea, including a wink and a nod at a quickie with Kanye West. It’s not that big of a surprise–Lepore was perfecting the hourglass form before we even knew who the Kardashians were.

Lepore has always been a pro at setting the scene–there’s a reason she’s a nightlife mainstay. She does the same in Doll Parts, introducing the book lavishly:

“I wrote this entire manuscript longhand, with a feathered pen, on Chanel No. 5 scented paper, in a big pink mansion, just like the one Jayne Mansfield had. I worship Jayne Mansfield. Everything she owned was pink. Except for Mickey Hargitay; that beefcake was Hungarian.”

In first section of the book, Lepore delves into her childhood in Wayne, New Jersey. Even though she was then Armand Lepore, she knew early on she was a girl. In particular, Lepore’s mother, who also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, seems to have readily accepted her as trans early on. Amanda recounts a traumatic experience with a haircut when she wanted to grow her hair out long as a child. Rejecting this feminine presentation, her dad forced her into the barbers. “’Mom, you know I’m really a girl right? I don’t want a boy’s haircut.’ She glanced at me and said, ‘I know,’” recalls Lepore.

Most queer people have a moment of interpellation–a spark of recognition when seeing other queers–while watching a movie, television show or looking up “lesbian” in the dictionary like performer Reno admitted in a recent performance I caught at Dixon Place. For Amanda, this formative moment was watching a late-night talk show: “I heard a term I never knew existed, and yet it knew me: Sex change. My legs became still. My heart started to beat to a new rhythm. SEX-change-SEX-change-SEX-change. There were three women on stage, all in various states of transitioning. Two were still rather masculine, but the third one was beautiful. She had curly blonde hair and stunning cleavage that jiggled as she talked. The host asked about her breasts and she said they were natural: ‘I swear,” she said, “I took hormones and they grew.’ I wanted to be that woman.” Running to tell her parents, Lepore continues, “Proclaiming myself a girl was not new to them. Mom had come to an understanding about it long ago and Dad was sure it was just a phase I’d grow out of. But now everything was different to me. A sex change. Sex change. Such a thing existed! I had seen it with my very own big brown eyes, right there on the television.”

Amanda eventually did get her pussy, paid for by her abusive ex-husband Michael’s father, as well as her first breast enhancement. Before that, though, she began taking hormones courtesy of a stripper Bambi, who worked with her friend. Trading hormone pills, as well as tips about tucking and cinching her waist to look more feminine, Bambi became a source of both info and pills, but not exactly the trans mother Amanda dreamed of. It’s a testament to how far Amanda was willing to go to both seek other trans people and develop her desired body.

Amanda and the club kids

As the narrative continues, Lepore finally escapes her violent husband, running away to New York. Here, the content becomes more familiar–at least to most Filthy Dreams readers. This ranges from nights at Disco 2000 with Kenny Kenny, Armen Ra, Michael Alig, James St. James, Sophia Lamar and those other crazy club kids, photo shoots with David LaChapelle for whom she acts as a muse, and walking fashion shows covered in pink lipstick. Never one to shy away from a little gossip, Lepore has some interesting insight into many figures in the Downtown nightlife scene including the notorious “Party Monster” himself: “Michael Alig could have been the next Andy Warhol. He was bright, creative and he had something to prove. If only he hadn’t become a drug addict and murdered and dismembered someone…” Oh that little thing!

In between these chapters, Lepore adds some tidbits on her favorite hair products (bleach), her favorite non-blondes (Lana Del Rey-“’Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?’ I’ll be beautiful when I’m 100 and so will Lana. Oh, and she has great nails; we have the same nail technician.”), and advice for stage engagement (“Find your light. I had a homing beacon implanted during my last eye lift that automatically takes me to the best light in any room. I suggest you do the same”). Where else can you read a memoir and get some much-needed beauty tips. Thanks Amanda!

My Own Marilyn; 2002 Chromogenic Print © David LaChapelle

Of course, references to vintage Hollywood divas are peppered throughout the book from Jean Harlow to Zsa Zsa Gabor to the apotheosis of Lepore’s role model worship–Marilyn Monroe who she famously embodied in a photograph by LaChapelle. Speaking on Monroe, Lepore reflects, “She was self-made, like a transsexual in a lot of ways.” Naturally, Lepore resembles an even more exaggerated Marilyn, taking Marilyn’s beauty to its absolute limit. Like Marilyn, Lepore’s own self-fashioned identity and body is what makes her such an icon.

In Doll Parts, Lepore recalls a moment when she attended an Antony (now Anohni) and the Johnsons concert with X’s over her eyes, shielding recent surgery scars. After the show, Ahnoni got on the ground and gushed, “You’re an even more extreme performance artist than Marina Abramovic.” “It wasn’t on purpose,” Amanda quipped, “I just really needed to get out.”

Now throughout her career, Amanda has pushed back against the notion that she’s an elaborate, cartoonish persona (something Michael Alig would often mistakenly infer). I mean, her aesthetic does naturally lend itself to think pieces, but she has always insisted that this is just her own notion of beauty that she’s sought to attain at any cost–financial, physical or otherwise. “I have my own ideas of what beauty is. I look exactly the way I want to look,” she explains.

And yet, I’d argue that Lepore is truly a performance artist, but just one who subversively sees no division between art and life. She makes Orlan look like a light weight. So you got horns, yawn! Amanda went to Mexico to have two ribs removed in order to achieve her impossibly tiny waist, making it look like she’s perpetually wearing a corset. And it wasn’t without suffering. She describes entering the Mercer Hotel after her recovery: “I knew what Frankenstein’s monster must have felt like. Parents shielded their children, grown men fainted, women held up rosaries to ward me off.”

Photo: David Nguyen

Admittedly, some could see Lepore’s beauty obsession as just mere vanity, but Lepore seems to find some significant and sincere personal fulfillment through perfecting her image: “A lot of people think that I’m addicted to plastic surgery. But the truth is, if I’m addicted to anything, it’s beauty. I suppose plastic surgery is part of that. My first psychiatrist said I was ‘body conscious.’ The reality is the more work I put into my look, the more right I felt. The more loved I felt. Hormones, makeup, growing my nails, anything that increased my femininity. Even buying an eyelash curler gave me a sense of hope, happiness and acceptance.”

And as a trans woman, self-love and self-making is a glorious form of rebellion. “If you happen to be young and transgender, then you’re used to people being hateful towards you when all you want to do is exist,” she writes, “Through all the insanity in my life, there was only one thing I could control: myself.”

Which is why reading the New York Times’ Amanda Lepore, Transgender Club Diva, Tells All About Her Plastic Surgery was so infuriating as the writer Jacob Bernstein hints at Lepore as a troublesome figure for the trans community. He declares, “A person who parades around the global party scene in rhinestone encrusted outfits that show off her heavily augmented figure can seem like an inconvenient spokesmodel…” Oh please.

Bernstein found Debbie Downer Denise Norris–an activist and founder of the Association of Transgender Professionals to further question Lepore’s status as a role model: “Ms. Lepore deserves credit for ‘fearlessly expressing’ herself decades before the topic of gender diversity became a central cultural debate. At the same time, she added, Ms. Lepore can seem like a Dorian Gray figure who draws unwanted attention to the ‘pressure’ trans women face to ‘conform gender expression to societal norms’ without showing much regard for coming off as ‘intelligent and articulate.'”

Norris continues, “The only way we can judge Amanda is through the eyes of 1987…Doing that, she becomes a bookmark to how much we’ve changed in 30 years.” Um…please explain.

Particularly in the queer community, there is a cannibalistic drive to criticize people who, through their own actions, tacitly created space and possibility for the increased visibility of queer lives now. One of the reasons that organizations like the Association of Transgender Professionals can exist is for the bravery of people like Amanda. Sure, her form of radicality meant appearing on The Joan Rivers Show talking about getting kicked out of Disneyland, but, like Amanda’s description of watching the trans women on late night TV, these representations matter.

At the heart of it, Lepore is the exactly the role model we need–wholly unapologetic about being herself. And as Miley Cyrus is quoted in Doll Parts, “I hate everyone but Amanda Lepore.”

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