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Whitney Cummings

America’s filthy funny girl is having the last laugh.

Whitney Cummings

America’s filthy funny girl is having the last laugh.

Whitney
Cummings

Los Angeles

The comedy stylings of Whitney Cummings are not for the faint-hearted. A raconteur of disarming candour and eviscerating delivery, she gives incendiary stand-up performances that draw upon her own chequered personal relationships to pinpoint women’s experiences in the 21st century. The 33-year-old self-proclaimed “dirty comic” with the Ivy League education has turned her brand of risqué wit into TV gold: her sitcom 2 Broke Girls is currently in its fifth season, and she has a new show coming on HBO. Whitney’s success has been hard won — for every ratings winner, there’ve been several misfires. But her innate ability to capitalise on failure, pull herself up by the bra straps and bounce back again and again keeps the suits — and the suitors — coming back for more.

Text by Horacio Silva
Portraits by Milan Zrnic

A fearless American stand-up comedian and writer whose potty-mouthed shtick suggests a Joan Rivers for the kale generation, Whitney Cummings is a broad with a broad, broad mind. Her rapier wit – “It’s the 21st century. I don’t need a big strong man to fight off a tiger; I need some geek who can get my naked photos off the cloud” – and plucky stage persona quickly earned her a reputation in her mid-20s as a name to watch and to drop. At just 28 she hit pay dirt with Love You, Mean It with Whitney Cummings, a one-hour cable talk show of her own, and two sitcoms on network television: Whitney, on NBC, in which she starred as the titular character and served as executive producer; and 2 Broke Girls, a high-rating millennial Laverne & Shirley-like series now in its fifth season on CBS, about a couple of hapless waitresses, which Whitney co-created with Michael Patrick King, the rainmaker behind Sex and the City.

“In this golden era for American female comedians, Whitney is on the new front of what is coming down the line,” King says. “Her material is a unique balance of celebration of success and self-deprecation. It really announces where a lot of women really are in the world.”

Maybe so, but America was not altogether ready for the Whitney Cummings blitz four years ago. Her eponymous sitcom was dropped after two seasons, as was her talk show, and the critics lambasted her as though she had been a heckler at a live show. She was by turns considered too loud, too crass, too populist, too skinny, too castrating. But with the recent release of I’m Your Girlfriend, her new HBO comedy special (a significant career milestone for American comedians that has showcased such greats as Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and Tracey Ullman, to name a few), and a slew of interesting new projects on the horizon, Whitney may end up having the last laugh.

I meet Whitney Cummings in early January at her home in Studio City, California, a gold statuette’s throw from Jared Leto’s house (and not far from where Miley Cyrus and Shia LaBeouf live). Dressed in Ash high-heeled sneakers, Rag & Bone stovepipe jeans, a Rails flannel shirt and a faux-punk sweater of unknown provenance that “is very expensive and made to look like shit”, a smiling Whitney greets me at the door with her two rescue dogs – Ramona, a 2-year-old pit bull, and 1-year-old Frankie, a Great Dane mix. Whitney looks slender and healthy, but she has yet to unpack from a recent trip, and the place is suffering from a residual Christmas hangover: the yuletide-themed novelty cushions and oversized tree have overstayed their welcome, the flowers are long dead, and there is enough loose glitter around the place to decorate a drag queen’s dressing room. “I used to really want to impress journalists and be perfect and funny, but that was before I got into intensive therapy,” Whitney, 33, offers as her disarming gambit, while lighting one of the rose Diptyque candles without which she claims not to be able to write or do much of anything.

The raw but refined interior – all polished concrete floors and reclaimed wood – is certainly an elegant study in haute sustainability, if a little indebted to the Belgian designer Axel Vervoordt, but it serves merely as a support act to the towering floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on a dramatically landscaped, grotto-like backyard, complete with a swimming pool that Whitney claims never to use. The low-to-the-ground furniture, rendered in luxe textures, naturally aged woods and muted colours – all from Environment, the purveyors of fashionably weathered design favoured by eco-conscious A-listers such as Leonardo DiCaprio – is inviting and handsome, as far as it goes.

Reclining on a cylinder chaise longue by WAKA WAKA, comedian Whitney Cummings is wearing a white merino wool jumper by A.P.C. and white jeans by ACNE STUDIOS. In the next image, she wears a white wool T-shirt by CREATURES OF COMFORT.

“I bought this place from a gay architect with flawless taste, so I basically just had to turn on the TV when I moved in,” Whitney jokes. “As for art, I stopped buying it because I have such terrible instincts. About four years ago I purchased two giant works by James Georgopoulos, these gorgeous lacquered photos of guns from movies. But then a couple months later the massacre happened at the [Sandy Hook Elementary] school in Newtown, and I felt very uncomfortable having guns in my house as art. They just reminded me of innocent dead people, which was a bummer, obviously. So now I just put up stuff that makes me smile, like a dog in a wedding dress.”

The zen bungalow, with what Whitney refers to as “happy lights” strategically placed in every room to help mimic the serotonin-producing UV rays of sunlight, is certainly far removed from the dysfunctional house she grew up in Georgetown, Washington, DC, as the youngest of three children. Her mother, Patti, worked in public relations for Neiman Marcus, and her father, Eric, had a career in “venture capital” which is still a source of mystery to her.

“I stopped asking questions about that part of the family narrative a long time ago!” she says. “‘Venture capitalist’ is a bit like ‘Instagram model’, isn’t it? As for my childhood, my parents divorced when I was 5, and I later went to a private school but got sent home with a letter pinned to my sweater saying that the tuition fees were overdue. We lived in a lot of debt and spent money on all the wrong things, like impressing people we didn’t even like. It was a very co-dependent household. For example, we had a lot of nice stuff in the fridge, but it was only for guests. My mom always drank nice enough white wine, so I thought we were fine, but she really just had an expensive drinking problem. A lot of fam-ilies have that smoke-and-mirrors thing but there was just so much shadiness going on at home.”

Whitney addresses the scars from her turbulent childhood not only in her stand-up routines but also in an essay she recently wrote for the Lenny Letter, the biweekly feminist newsletter published by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. In it, Whitney writes about being in a 12-step programme for co-dependence – a condition she says has manifested itself in an inability to say no and an obsession with “solving other people’s problems while my own life was a scalding-hot mess” – and about attending Al-Anon meetings for friends and families of problem drinkers. When I mention the two programmes, she teases, with a raised eyebrow and a grin, “Sexy, huh?”

In the past she has also talked about experimenting with drugs in her youth and running away from home to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware with her older sister, whom years later she helped deal with a heroin addiction. (Whitney has scrapped a film script she was writing about the misadventures of trying to get her sister clean. “Too much of a shit show,” she says of the doomed comedy.) Whitney says she got the debauchery out of her system early. She moved in with an aunt in Roanoke, Virginia, in her early teens and became a model student at school in Potomac, Maryland, earning a place at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, one of America’s eight Ivy League institutions, in 2001. “I was not going to waste my opportunity,” Whitney says. “I was paying for part of the tuition” – her part-time work in her teens included modelling bridal and maternity wear at the local mall – “and when you actually see the bills you take your education a lot more seriously.”

Whitney graduated magna cum laude, taking three years instead of the usual four, with a degree in communications. “My plan was to become a journalist, or at the very least a muckraking documentary maker in the style of Michael Moore,” she says, laughing, “until I realised I had way too many opinions and couldn’t be objective.” She hightailed it to Los Angeles and landed a job on the Ashton Kutcher-produced MTV show Punk’d. It was there that the light bulb went off in her head. “It’s weird,” she says. “Someone suggested I try stand-up, and I said, ‘Sure.’ But it wasn’t like I really had a choice. I don’t think that anyone chooses to become a comedian. No one is like, Should I be a lawyer or a comedian? It’s more of a compulsion.”

Comedy also gave Whitney, who felt silenced as a child, a voice. “I think I always had a desperate need to be heard,” she says, “and I have always had an obsession with justice, which I think a lot of comedians do. A good comedian has to maintain a certain level of anger. You have to care enough to leave your house at 10pm and drive to some fucking comedy club, get your car dinged in the parking lot six times, and go onstage in front of 100 drunk people for 15 minutes for no money. You just have to really give a shit and maybe have an inflated sense of your effectiveness or reach to think that you are going to make any difference in the world.”

Whitney started off working two-bit comedy clubs, the odd sushi bar and bowling alley, and any venue with an open-mic night. Regular spots followed at the Comedy Store, the famous club in West Hollywood whose alumni include Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Roseanne Barr, and on popular late-night entertainment shows like Chelsea Lately with Chelsea Handler; so did a tour with Denis Leary.

And among the Comedy Central Roast comedians, Whitney ranks alongside legends such as Kathy Griffin and Seth MacFarlane. (Her skewering of Donald Trump, Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff is the stuff of YouTube lore.) She signed with one of Hollywood’s “big three” entertainment agencies, Creative Artists Agency. After seven years on the circuit, Whitney caught a break when her agent told her Michael Patrick King was looking for a writing partner for a new sitcom he had in mind about two scrappy girls living in New York. CAA sent in a script she had recently completed about a young woman who attends AA meetings to impress her alcoholic boyfriend and ends up becoming an alcoholic in the process.

“I did a Scarlett O’Hara search for playwrights, bloggers, actors and comics,” King says, “and the script that stood out the most was Whitney’s. There was a line in it where some guy is trying to hit on the female character at a bar, and she just looks at him and says, ‘Unsubscribe,’ like she was deleting some spam email. I loved it. These were really insanely funny and hard-hitting jokes in an engaging voice.” Despite his instant rapport with Whitney, King had reservations about working with someone who he felt was just about to strike it big. “I walked her out and thought, I don’t know, she’s really talented and special but with that comes a lot of ego,” he remembers. For her part, Whitney (who was wearing $800 suede Louboutin wedges she had bought for the occasion out of the last $900 she had in the bank and planned to return afterwards) told King she didn’t think it would work out but asked him to send her the script once it was done so she could help to punch up some of the lines – for free! King had found his Scarlett. “I thought, Great, she hates herself just enough for this to be workable! And I was right: it was the best collaboration I have ever had with a writer.”

2 Broke Girls was an instant success, garnering an impressive average of 11.29 million viewers per episode over its first season. (Although it is averaging about half that figure halfway through its fifth season, partly because of an overall loss in viewership for traditional TV, 2 Broke Girls continues to dominate in key demographics, particularly women aged 24–39.) As the co-creator of the show, which has now been licensed to multiple stations and local affiliates around the States (this, in effect, is how the serious money in American television is made), Whitney stands to become extremely wealthy over the next few years, much like the producers and cast members of perennially popular shows such as Seinfeld and Friends. According to one magazine report – which Whitney disputes – she could earn as much as $45 million from 2 Broke Girls.

“My plan was to become a journalist, or at least a muckraking documentary maker, until I realised I had way too many opinions.”

“Ha,” scoffs Whitney, who has a “Fuck Yoga, Make Money” sign on the desk of her home office. “My family saw that article, and now they treat me like an ATM!” But, she adds, with a serious note, “that figure is not true, and in any case, I have not gotten paid for the syndication rights, as that takes a long time. Money is still an ongoing problem because my family was financially irresponsible for so long, and I’m now paying for it. My parents had strokes without health insurance, for God’s sake!”

2 Broke Girls was a bona fide ratings winner, but Whitney, in which the comedian played a version of herself who was in a live-in relationship with a dot-com millionaire she had no plans of marrying, left audiences cold. Whitney, who like her contemporaries Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman portrays herself as being unapologetically promiscuous, became the target of rampant internet trolling (a lot of it by men, or at least users with men’s handles), and was blasted by the critics. One particularly acerbic review by Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker soon after the show first aired in October 2011 called it a “terrible” show, “startlingly retro and cruel”, and dismissed its battle-of-the-sexes conceit as “off, airless – self-loathing disguised as self-assertion”.

Whitney has mixed feelings about the show’s demise. “Obviously it was emotionally very paralysing and traumatising,” she says. “But I also felt like it had run its course. Don’t forget we shot and aired 40 episodes, which is no small feat. But because of the punishing schedule, after a while you end up producing what I call ‘pencils down’ comedy. There simply isn’t enough time to write brilliant shows over such a long season. Part of the reason that I think British comedy shows are often so good is because they make, like, eight episodes at a time. They know when to say, ‘That’s a wrap.’”

Whitney says she had also outgrown the character she played in the show, who was based on her 25-year-old self. “I had made so much progress mentally,” she says. “Then I would have to go in there every day and regress to this person I was five years earlier. But it’s hard to have a show canned, and unlike what people think, it’s not made any better by having another show that’s successful. It’s not whack-a-mole! A show is a really big deal. You give it your entire life, heart and soul, time – there is no personal life, you have no social life, your health takes a hit. It’s an incredibly all-consuming experience.”

As anyone who knows Whitney will attest, she is constantly working on improving herself. For the past two years she has been trying to forgive the sins of her father and mother, scars from past relationships, and the psychological drubbing she got for Whitney with the help of eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy. “In layman’s terms,” Whitney explains, “it’s essentially taking traumas from your childhood and reprogramming them so that similar circumstances don’t trigger distress. So if your parents, say, fought a lot over Christmas, and every time you are near a Christmas tree you get anxious, it’s because it’s been filed under ‘trauma’ in your brain. Neurology is kind of my little dorky hobby.”

Her clinical fixation now extends to her love life. “I’m dating a doctor and feel like I can no longer date anyone who isn’t in the medical field because of how obsessed I am,” she quips. Neurobiology is also feeding the myriad projects she currently has on the boil. (“Whitney has more career goals than anyone I’ve ever met,” says Michael Cox, the stand-up booker on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, who has hired her over the years. “Her drive is untouchable, yet her commitment to those around her is incredible.”)

I’m Your Girlfriend! – Whitney’s new hour-long HBO comedy special which debuted at the end of January and is now available on demand – is a hilarious remembrance of flings past in which she targets gender binaries and the essential neurological differences between women and men with the insight of a carnal, potty-mouthed Oliver Sacks. In one typical skit in the show, about birth control, sure, she takes a jab at the men she has brought home, but her knockout punches are saved for the cost of the pill and the ignominy of buying it in public. “Do you realise the morning-after pill is $49?” she asks the audience. “I have never had sex with a guy and the next day thought, Yeah, that was worth 50 bucks. And it’s not just 50 bucks because you can’t only buy the morning-after pill or the cashier is going to think you’re a slut. So you buy a bunch of other products to hide it – you have to crowd it with Q-Tips and floss and a lot of other shit that you’re never going to use.”

For all her levity Whitney is, as The Atlantic recently reported, doing “comedy with a moral purpose”. And it’s not just talk. Recently, she took part in WomanCare Global’s Then Who Will? campaign with Jessica Biel to promote the benefits of sex education for children, currently a very divisive issue in the United States. “If you don’t tell them, then who will?” asked Whitney during an appearance on The Rachael Ray Show. “Kim Kardashian? Some porn star? Do you want Paris Hilton’s sex tape being your kid’s education?”

Whitney is now working on a film adaptation of the book The Female Brain by the American neuropsychiatrist Louanne Brizendine, which she is co-writing with Emmy-nominated writer and director Neal Brennan and directing herself. “It’s essentially about how our primordial neurology sabotages our everyday relationships,” Whitney explains. “Our reptilian brain has not caught up with modern times, so our survival instincts are at odds with our need and desire to feel safe and to love and be loved. It also explores the idea of how what annoys us today about our partner probably would have saved our lives 2,000 years ago.”

Then there is the pilot she is completing for HBO based on Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide, a collection of essays by Maureen Dowd, the redoubtable New York Times columnist, who told me she likens comedians such as Whitney (and her contemporaries Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham) who take on gender issues to “the soldiers who marched in front of Patton’s tank to check for buried explosives”. In the book Dowd ruminates on the changing playing field between the sexes now that traditional “masculine” pursuits are disappearing or becoming more gender-neutral and women are becoming more independent. Whitney – whom Dowd also called “talented, hard-working, generous, beautiful, smart, sexy, original and loyal” – says she can definitely relate to the thesis that successful women have a hard time finding guys. “Something happened when I got successful, or at least when other people ostensibly started thinking that I got successful,” Whitney says. “Guys started to get weird on me. It coincided with my turning 30, so I don’t know if it was that but I found myself really proud of achieving all my goals and living my dream but guys weren’t attracted to that part of me.”

It is an attitude on the part of men which makes no sense to her and which she will no doubt tackle head-on in the HBO pilot. In truth it makes about as much sense as a person with self-esteem issues submitting herself to constant judgment every time she steps out on a stage. Then again, Whitney is perfectly aware that becoming a comedian involves an element of mental illness. “I don’t want to over-pathologise myself,” she offers, “but it’s not a healthy vocation. It’s not healthy to feel the need to get up on stage every night and make people like you, to ask every 15 seconds, ‘Do you like me now? Do you like me now?’ It’s very masochistic. When people ask why there are so few female comedians, my only answer is that perhaps there are fewer female masochists.”

Manuela Wirth

Great pastoral care makes for happy artists, believes the world’s most powerful dealer.

Manuela Wirth

Great pastoral care makes for happy artists, believes the world’s most powerful dealer.

Manuela
Wirth

Somerset

Manuela Wirth may co-own the world’s most powerful commercial gallery, Hauser & Wirth, but a life of wheeling and dealing is not for her. She leaves that to her husband, Iwan. The 52-year-old former teacher says their best investment might turn out to be a farm in south-west England, where she nurtures not only sheep, cattle and chickens but also her family and her artists. She’ll do anything to ensure their happy productivity – shelter, assistants, local gallery space are all on offer, and her home’s available as a canvas too. When the Wirths asked Martin Creed to create a work for their London pied-à-terre, he responded by designing nearly everything in it, right down to the floorboards. Each slat was painstakingly decorated with a different brightly coloured imitation-woodgrain pattern before being laid diagonally, Manuela says.

Text by Cristina Ruiz
Portraits by David Benjamin Sherry

As the clock ticks down to the opening of Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the pre-eminent art fairs in the calendar, dealers pace nervously on their stands, rehearsing their sales pitches and delivering motivational speeches to staff. Over at the booth of Hauser & Wirth, the Swiss powerhouse with spaces in Zurich, New York, London and south-west England and one opening this spring in Los Angeles, a senior director stands in front of a 1961 steel sculpture of concentric circles by the late abstract expressionist David Smith, explaining the piece’s importance to a group of gallery salespeople. Hovering at the back in a sharp suit and trainers is Iwan Wirth, Hauser & Wirth’s gregarious co-founder and co-president. His business partner and wife, Manuela, with whom he has run the gallery for more than 25 years, is nowhere to be seen. She is skipping this fair, as she skips every fair, and is instead ensconced some 4,000 miles away in rural Somerset. “I shouldn’t say it, but I don’t like art fairs,” she had told me two weeks earlier in her elegant London offices in Savile Row. “I’m the worst salesperson, and I’ve never sold a piece of art.”

It is a surprising admission from one of the most successful women in the art sales business, one who, with her husband, recently topped the Art Review’s annual rankings of the most powerful people in the art world. But it is Iwan – charming, loquacious and supremely at ease in the spotlight – who is the salesperson in this duo. Manuela, a far less public figure who rarely speaks to journalists, wields her influence behind the scenes. “I call her the force tranquille behind the gallery,” Iwan says.

Manuela has helped to build the business from a two-person operation into one of the most important art dealerships in the world; it represents some of the most significant artists of our time, such as Paul McCarthy, Louise Bourgeois, Mike Kelley and Philip Guston. The firm employs 150 people (including the Queen’s granddaughter Princess Eugenie, who works full-time as an associate director), and the business is expanding rapidly, increasing not only its real estate but also the number of artists in its stable. In the past two years alone, 10 new artists and estates – Mark Wallinger, Mark Bradford and Pierre Huyghe among them – have joined. Hauser & Wirth is one of the highest-revenue-generating galleries in the world. (In 2012, Forbes estimated the gallery’s annual sales at $225 million; Hauser & Wirth says the figure is inaccurate.) It is also one of the most highly capitalised, not least because Manuela’s family is heir to a retail fortune.

Despite its accelerated growth, the gallery has made its reputation as a business where the artists come first. Their projects, no matter how outlandish, are financed (“We like crazy projects on the edge, because no one else will do them,” Iwan says), and they are given administrative and logistical support and much more besides. “Iwan and Manuela are genuinely close to their artists,” Emily Tsingou, an art advisor and former gallerist, says. “They manage to run a multi-national gallery without stressing the entrepreneurial side of the art business. It’s a unique model based on historical versions of running an avant-garde gallery.”

The couple are now steering the company in innovative new directions. Take Somerset. In July 2014 Hauser & Wirth unveiled a new art centre in a renovated 18th-century farm complex on the outskirts of the small town of Bruton in south-west England, not far from where Manuela and Iwan have set up their family home on an 800-acre estate with their four children, two cats, three Labradors and a miniature dachshund named Yoko (named after the artist Yoko Ono at the suggestion of the artist Pipilotti Rist). The art complex, called Durslade Farm, encompasses gallery spaces; a restaurant, the Roth Bar & Grill, with a bar built by Björn and Oddur Roth (the sons of Dieter, whose estate is represented by Hauser & Wirth); and an award-winning garden by the Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, whose other projects include the High Line in New York. There is also a six-bedroom guesthouse that was renovated by the Argentinian architect Luis Laplace, who has exposed some of the original walls and combined original features with vintage furniture and contemporary art. Gallery artists have helped to decorate the place, including Guillermo Kuitca, who painted a theatrical abstract mural in the dining room, and Rist, the first artist-in-residence at Durslade, who made a film with images from nature that is projected onto the drawing-room wall through fragments of glass suspended from the ceiling, creating a beautiful interplay of dancing shadows and refracted light. (Some of the Victorian bottles used in the installation were part of a haul discovered in an ancient rubbish heap by the Wirths’ oldest son while metal-detecting.)

What makes Durslade unique among gallery outposts (and representative of Hauser & Wirth’s overall approach) is the way it has embedded itself in the surrounding community by providing free art teaching to nearby schools, hosting free family events and supporting numerous local charities working in areas such as education and countryside preservation. How many other galleries give away land for allotments to be cultivated by local residents? “To move to the country and connect deeply with the community is a very interesting, counterintuitive move for a gallery,” Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, says. “Most of our cultural conversation has been focused on cities, so this is blue-ocean thinking.” That thinking is working: some 175,000 visitors have come to Durslade since it opened – a huge number considering that Bruton has a population of 3,000. Those visitors include numerous international art buyers. The well-off don’t just want to be sold art; “they want to be sold a lifestyle,” Art Review wrote, explaining Iwan and Manuela’s rise to the top of its latest Power 100 list. “The Wirths’ success lies in the way that their operations are increasingly merging collecting with the tastes and social aspirations of their clientele.” The country lifestyle embraced by the Swiss duo has already seduced at least one collector, the property developer and gallerist David Roberts, who bought and renovated a farmhouse near Durslade after making several trips to Bruton to spend time with the Wirths. “My wife and I fell in love with the area and the way of life down there,” he says.

In March, Hauser & Wirth will take another major step when it inaugur-ates its Los Angeles art centre, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, in a 100,000ft2 converted flour-mill complex adapted by Annabelle Selldorf (who is also designing a new building for Hauser & Wirth in New York, planned to open in 2018). The Los Angeles space is located in the Downtown Arts District, a landscape that is part industrial wasteland, part gentrifying hotspot. There will be huge display spaces, a bookshop and a restaurant that will serve seasonal local food, like its counterpart in Somerset. The inaugural exhibition, Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016, will focus on how female artists have expanded the notion of what sculpture can be. Nearly 60 American institutions are lending works for the show, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, demonstrating the clout of both the gallery and its partner in the city, Paul Schimmel, formerly the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

There are relatively few important collectors in Los Angeles, but the city has always been popular with artists, and a younger generation there is achieving increasing recognition. Galleries open outposts in new places to keep their artists happy or to attract new ones (and to tap into local collecting scenes). Artists want to show their art, particularly in the cities where they live; if their own galleries can’t make that happen, they forge relationships with new ones. So the wave of East Coast and European galleries arriving in Los Angeles is part of a global race for talent.

Hauser & Wirth represents several artists from Los Angeles, including their long-term collaborator Paul McCarthy, the late Mike Kelley, Diana Thater and Mark Bradford, a rising star who defected from White Cube in 2014. They’re hoping to represent more, according to Brian Boyer, the dir-ector of operations at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, who says that about 30 per cent of the shows in the new space will be devoted to artists not on its roster.

Those artists won’t find a more impressive gallery showcase for their work anywhere in town. The Hauser Wirth & Schimmel complex preserves many of the site’s industrial features, including the original “manlift” (an open elevator shaft with a moving ladder that hoisted workers between floors), rusty hoppers and a “breezeway” that runs from north to south and follows the path workers would have taken as they filed through the gates. “When you have a building like this, you don’t have to do a lot. You just peel it back,” says the architect Evan A Raabe, who is working in association with Selldorf.

The inaugural exhibition will be the first of several historical, thematic shows with no commercial objective, Boyer says, and it focuses on a cause close to Manuela’s heart. Championing women artists is something she cares deeply about; it is a passion inherited from her mother, the Swiss retail magnate and collector Ursula Hauser (the Hauser in Hauser & Wirth). “Manuela has always been a great feminist; I remember very early conversations with her, and this concern was always there,” says Obrist, who grew up in a Swiss village near Manuela and Iwan and has known them both for more than 30 years. “The art market is still very male-dominated. There is a real necessity for this form of feminism.” This concern has guided Hauser & Wirth towards the representation of numerous female artists, many of them now well into their 70s or even 80s, such as Phyllida Barlow, Mary Heilmann and Ida Applebroog, as well as the estates of important women artists including Eva Hesse, Maria Lassnig and Louise Bourgeois.

“I don’t like art fairs. I’m the worst salesperson, and I’ve never sold  a piece of art.”

The first time I meet Manuela Wirth, in her London office, she is sporting a Vivienne Westwood green tartan skirt suit. “I am not English, but I love English fashion,” she tells me in her gentle voice. Manuela, 52, is petite, her smiling face framed by large glasses and tousled, flame-coloured hair which spills down to her shoulders.

She and her family have lived in England since 2005, when they moved from Zurich to oversee the running of the London gallery, which had opened in Piccadilly two years earlier and is today in Savile Row. They lived in west London for two years before deciding to look for another home in the country, eventually settling on Somerset. “We are a very outdoor family, so we decided we couldn’t spend every weekend in Richmond Park. In Somerset our kids go fishing and hiking, and they do all these other outdoor activities.” They were so charmed by rural life that they decided to stay and make their country estate their primary home. So they left their mansion in Holland Park, a house they would later sell to David and Victoria Beckham, reportedly for more than £30 million in cash, and moved into a camper van. Because, despite their wealth, there is an element of the Swiss Family Robinson to Manuela and Iwan, who are constantly searching for new adventures. While their farmhouse was being restored, they parked their mobile home in the garden and lived in it for a year with their three young children and new baby. “It was fun,” Manuela recalls.

“I’ve never heard Manuela complain about anything; she’s seemingly fearless and hardworking,” says Catherine Butler, a restaurateur who moved from Notting Hill to Bruton with her partner, Ahmed Sidki, seven years ago and opened At the Chapel, a high-quality restaurant, bar, bakery and boutique hotel. Decorated with art on loan from Hauser & Wirth, it in turn supplies bread to both the Roth Bar & Grill and the farmhouse B&B.

“We’ve met so many interesting people,” Manuela says. “We never had friends this close in London; we didn’t even know our neighbours there.” The new friends include the veteran war photographer Don McCullin, whose work was recently shown at Durslade and who lives nearby, as well as “the farmer next door”, the local cheesemaker, and the forager with whom they hunt for truffles on their estate.

Manuela and Iwan recently discovered a new passion: farming. “We’ve had to learn everything, but we’re both open-minded and curious,” Manuela says. Over the last few years, the couple has re-established a working farm on their estate and now have herds of cattle, sheep and pigs supplying the Roth Bar & Grill. They have also planted vegetables, herbs and fruit trees and set up a bee colony. “I wouldn’t buy or cook anything that wasn’t in season,” Manuela says. “The whole family is very much into food; we cook and bake together.”

The next agricultural challenge is the establishment of a vineyard, which has just been planted and which the Wirths hope will yield 10,000 bottles of wine every year by 2019. When Manuela first proposed launching a viniculture business, Iwan was unsure. “I was sceptical, but she really found the best people in the wine industry to help us,” he says. The farm is already self-sustaining, but to Manuela its value is far greater than the financial returns. “From the spiritual side,” she says, “our farm is hugely profitable and might be our best investment anywhere.” Manuela Wirth grew up in the town of Uzwil in the canton of St Gallen in eastern Switzerland as the oldest of three siblings. She remembers an idyllic childhood spent skiing and hiking in the nearby mountains and swimming in the sea in summer. But in 1973, when she was 10, her father died suddenly and her mother took over his position in the family firm, Fust AG, which runs a national chain of household appliance stores. So responsibility was thrust upon Manuela early. “After my father died, I looked after the household and took care of my siblings. We were a very closely knit family because we were without a father.” Her sister, Sandra, who is five years Manuela’s junior, remembers how well Manuela took care of her and their brother. “There were no iPads back then. We were always doing arts and crafts with Manuela. She took care of me. My room was always a mess, and she would come in and clean it up. She was always responsible, even though she was so, so young herself.”

Manuela eventually trained as a teacher and spent six years instructing Swiss schoolchildren aged 7 to 16 in home economics, arts, crafts and sport. By then, her mother, Ursula, a longtime collector of art by women, had started to work with a cocky teenager, Iwan, from the neighbouring town of Oberuzwil, who had set up his own gallery there in 1986 when he was just 16. Iwan had approached Ursula when he was looking for money to buy a Picasso and a Chagall. She agreed to finance him, then hired him to buy art for her, and eventually gave him the money to launch the first Hauser & Wirth gallery in Zurich in 1992. (Iwan continues to sell works by modern masters on the secondary market, helping to finance the gallery operations; at one point during my interview with Manuela he burst through her office door to show her a 1932 Miró painting on a wood panel “from when he was poor”, which Iwan had taken on consignment from a Swiss private collector.)

“I was fascinated by the way this young man started to do business, and I thought, ‘If my mother is so enthusiastic about him, there must be some substance there,’” Manuela says. In 1992 she started to work for Iwan part-time as his secretary while continuing to teach. Later that year he sent her to New York to take an English language course at Columbia University, and he visited her there numerous times. “When I returned to Zurich, where we launched the gallery [a few months later], we became a couple, and since then we have shared our business and our private lives.” Today Manuela runs the company with Iwan and two other partners, Marc Payot in New York and Paul Schimmel in Los Angeles. She supervises all the invoicing and is in constant communication with artists. “We care so much about the artists – how we treat them and how we support them,” she says. It’s the reason why, in its 24-year history, the gallery has only ever parted company with three artists (Sterling Ruby, David Claerbout and Martin Eder). Ask any young artist today which gallery they would most like to join and chances are the answer will be Hauser & Wirth. The gallery supports its artists through the peaks and troughs of creative careers, through bad press and poor sales. “We would never drop an artist because the work isn’t selling,” Iwan says.

“If Manuela and Iwan are behind you and you’re not an instant hit, it doesn’t matter,” says David Roberts, a client as well as a friend. “If it’s a slower game, if it takes five, 10 or 15 years, it will still happen. You won’t be let down. You’ll be supported. And that’s not the case in a lot of other galleries. Many of them can’t afford to do that. And some that could don’t.” But the relationship goes far beyond mere support. Manuela and her husband work hard to create, in her words, “a family atmosphere” with their artists. They go on holiday with them, they invite them to stay for extended periods, they loan them money when they need it, and Manuela puts together hampers full of Durslade products for them at Christmas (and knits outfits for any new babies). The American abstract painter and sculptor Mary Heilmann, who has been with the gallery for more than two decades, remembers how the couple once advanced her the money to purchase some land adjoining her property in the Hamptons, “no questions asked”, and describes her relationship with the Wirths as “very personal and friendly”, recalling with particular fondness a party in Somerset they hosted for all their artists. “They flew us all over there, and we spent three days having a party… it was wonderful.”

The Wirths are capitalising on their love of entertaining and turning it into yet another family business. In 2018 they will unveil a 45-bedroom hotel in Braemar, Scotland, not far from the estate they have rented long-term near the Queen’s castle at Balmoral. “We have this house in Scotland, and we had no way to entertain our guests,” Manuela says. “We love a big table full of guests and family, but there is no possibility to invite these people to Scotland because there is not a single good restaurant or hotel near us. So when we heard about this hotel in Braemar which was for sale we thought, Why not?”

The Fife Arms Hotel is a grand Highlands inn built in the 19th century as a hunting lodge, which Manuela says will be renovated “very traditionally”. The aim is to create a place that is “attractive for tourists from all over the world but also very lively and very welcoming for the locals,” she says. “There will be a bar where people can have drinks in the evening and also a great restaurant where they can come and have their Sunday roast.” They asked Paul Smith to design a tartan inspired by their love of Scotland. The resulting brown, grey, beige and dark green fabric with its distinctive yellow and red oversized topstitching, known as the Wirth family tartan, is used by Manuela to make scarves, blankets and other items for family and friends. (The Queen has the Balmoral family tartan, designed by Prince Albert; only members of the royal family are allowed to wear it.)

Photographed in Bruton, Somerset, Manuela is wearing a pink silk blouse and ecru silk-and-canvas wrap skirt, both by BALLY. In the previous image, Manuela wears a patterned crêpe georgette dress by JONATHAN SAUNDERS with a black leather by HERMÈS and in the opening image, she’s in her own checked coat by VIVIENNE WESTWOOD GOLD LABEL and a knitted red wool top and matching skirt by BY MALENE BIRGER. The boots, watch and necklace, worn throughout, are all Manuela’s own.

A few weeks after our meeting in Savile Row, I travel to Durslade to meet Manuela and Iwan again. It is a grey and rainy weekday but the place is buzzing with visitors of all ages. While I wait for the Wirths, I chat to a retired schoolteacher from a nearby village who describes the gallery as “wonderful”. Even though some of the art shown there is “dodgy”, the centre is to be commended for the extensive work it does with local schoolchildren, she says. This is especially important now that the funds available for the arts have been slashed, Manuela tells me later. “We feel very strongly that Somerset needs this kind of education for the children; it should not just be available in the big cities,” she says, adding that she sees this outreach programme as a continuation of her early teaching career. If you give children the opportunity to cultivate their creativity, she says, “they are so open and enthusiastic.”

She will soon extend the programme to encompass farming too. “Children will be able to come to the farm and visit the vineyard or go in the field during lambing season, or they can do a day with the beekeeper.” And for adults, the Roth Bar & Grill is already running butchery courses led by the Durslade estate manager, Paul Dovey. Manuela and Iwan signed up for the inaugural lamb butchery and cooking course last summer. “They were very keen students,” Dovey says.

Iwan joins us for lunch at the Roth Bar & Grill. Every inch of the walls is covered in food-themed paintings and photographs. Riotous neon chandeliers of sorts by the late Jason Rhoades hang from the ceiling, and a row of cactus sculptures in diminishing sizes by Martin Creed decorates one of the rafters. We sit on sturdy 1950s Swiss restaurant chairs produced by Möbelfabrik Horgenglarus, the oldest chair manufacturers in Switzerland. “They’re made for heavy mountain people,” Iwan says. “We haven’t found better chairs anywhere in the world” – though he says they have recently become obsessed with the furniture made in Yorkshire in the early 20th century by Robert Thompson, known as the Mouseman because he marked all his wooden creations with a tiny carving of a mouse. “We saw a piece of furniture in our children’s school with a little mouse on it, so we took a photo, and then we discovered the Mouseman,” Manuela says.

They buy from small auction houses and from groups of travellers and visit local market towns. Manuela loves 1940s glassware by the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto, as well as local and international ceramics and textiles; Iwan collects Stone Age axes (he has more than 30). And they are regulars at the Bath & West Showground in Shepton Mallet. “They do the weirdest fairs in the world there, we go all the time. We buy toys, cars and we buy chickens there too,” Iwan tells me. “We are obsessed with chickens,” Manuela says, adding that they are particularly proud of their Icelandic poultry, “a very rare and old breed. Our life is full of these passions and obsessions.” And in Durslade all Manuela’s passions come together: art, food, family, community. None can exist without the others, and they make no distinction about who benefits. I leave feeling that I too can learn to live off the land and be artistic. I can train my dog to find truffles in a London park (with enough patience, perseverance and truffle oil, this is possible, according to Manuela). I can grow roses in my tiny city garden and use their petals to make bath oils (also easy), and I can look for discarded bottles in rubbish dumps to turn into art. This is the magic of Manuela Wirth: although she is one of the most important gallerists in the world, she can make anyone believe that they can do anything. She is the great nurturer of young (and not-so-young) minds, the extraordinary teacher everyone wishes they had had, the kind who can change your life at a crucial age and who you remember forever. No wonder she skips art fairs: her talents would be wasted there.

Cynthia Breazeal

The robotics engineer whose new creation will bring a touch of humanity into your home.

Cynthia Breazeal

The robotics engineer whose new creation will bring a touch of humanity into your home.

Cynthia
Breazeal

Massachusetts

We’re all a bit terrified of the rise of the robot, so accepting one into the family is surely a big ask. Cynthia Breazeal, a superstar American robotics engineer, wants to make us think differently. Having hankered after a real-life R2-D2 since she was 10, she created Kismet, Leonardo, Aida, Autom, Huggable — one helped you stick to a diet, another offered companionship, but none was available to take home. Now Cynthia, 48, has built Jibo — white, shiny, swivelly, somehow happy, and yours for just over £500. He might remind you to call your grandmother on her birthday (and then put in the call). He encourages you to lift your eyes from your screen and engage with others — himself included.

Text by Ann Friedman
Photography by David Benjamin Sherry

“Trespassers are subject to experimental brain surgery,” warns a notice on the fourth floor of MIT’s Media Lab, the most innovative corner of the world-renowned research institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It seems plausible. This is the MIT Media Lab, after all, where an astonishing number of the inventions we use every day – from touchscreens to GPS – were born.

The sign marks the entrance to the Personal Robots Group, where artificially intelligent computers are designed to respond to the quirks, needs and emotions of human beings. Inside, it is warm and cluttered, the space full of electronics and fuzzy creatures. They look like puppets, but many have metal components in lieu of limbs, or eyes that are clearly designed to move back and forth on their own. The lighting is low – not the bright-white fluorescence you expect in a lab – and the floor is covered in dark grey carpeting and white foam flooring onto which things can be projected. It feels like a tinkerer’s basement or, perhaps more accurately, a prop cupboard at the Jim Henson Company. Most of the people working here today are women.

I am meeting Cynthia Breazeal, the founder and director of the Personal Robots Group. When you hear about all the things Cynthia does, it is easy to assume she is some sort of android superhuman herself. In addition to running this lab she is an associate professor at MIT. She is the co-founder of a buzzed-about tech startup called Jibo. She is a public figure in the world of science – you might have seen her TED talk about the rise of personal robots. Plus, she is happily married with three young sons. And she doesn’t come off as even slightly frazzled by juggling all this.

Cynthia, 48, looks a bit like a brunette Meryl Streep, with a long, elegant nose and prominent cheekbones. She is slim and of average height and carries herself with purpose. She was brought up in California but has lived in Boston for more than 20 years and has clearly mastered the art of dressing for frigid winters: she is wearing knee-high suede boots and, under her puffy, all-weather red coat, has layered a plum-coloured fur vest over a plum-coloured jumper. Large geometric earrings dangle from her ears. We retire to her office, a rather anonymous space except for a few photos of her sons on a shelf. Her area of expertise, she explains, is social robotics, machines that are designed to interact with humans. “So much technology today is just data, data, data, and graphs and information,” Cynthia says. “But there is a very different kind of help we get from people, which is social support, emotional support and just feeling like there’s someone who’s in your corner with you. And social robotics is magical, because it actually brings those two worlds together for the first time in a technology.”

This MIT lab, she tells me, is the place where she oversees work that looks 10 or 20 years into the future. But recently she has been more focused on the next 10 or 20 months. Two years ago she took a leave of absence from her role as a professor (she returned to her post in January) to focus on a single robot called Jibo. “If I’m in academia, I could change the world of ideas,” she explains, “but I can’t bring something physical to the world.” At least not right away. So in 2012 she cofounded a startup with Jeri Asher, an entrepreneur, to design and sell a robot that would make sense in kitchens and living rooms today. The company launched a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign in 2014 and expects to start selling the robot this summer in the US and across Europe for about $800 (£560). Jibo, Cynthia says, “is the next logical step in my own life story,” because it builds on decades of her research in making personal – and personable – robots. Cynthia is the company’s founder and chief scientist, and, she says, “very much the face of the company”.

Photographed at MIT’s Media Lab with Jibo, Dr Cynthia Breazeal is wearing a black jumper by PROENZA SCHOULER, black wool trousers by 3.1 PHILLIP LIM and her own jewellery and shoes. In the opening spread, she wears them with a white cotton shirt by MICHAEL KORS COLLECTION.

Jibo is Cynthia’s play at bringing social robots to the masses – and proving they can be warm and friendly. “If you took a really cool Pixar character and combined it with an iPad, that’s kind of what Jibo is,” she says. It has a round screen that sits on a pedestal. The screen can swivel around and tilt up and down but Jibo is meant to sit on a countertop or table – early users told Cynthia they liked the fact that Jibo remained stationary rather than following them around the house. Its abstract shape resembles a human head and shoulders and was inspired by the international symbols for men and women used on lavatories.

But Jibo’s voice is decidedly humanised: young, male and chipper – the opposite of Siri’s bossy schoolmarm tone. Cynthia wrote a long brief to her staff about who Jibo is as a character. “So, for instance, Jibo refers to people as, ‘Are you my person?’ He doesn’t say, ‘Are you my user? Are you my master?’” she says. “He’s trying to create this sense of, ‘I am this little critter coming into your home. I want to belong to this family, and I want to help out.’” The video that accompanied Jibo’s crowdfunding campaign shows the little robot filling half a dozen roles. It reads bedtime stories to the children. It speaks up to remind a family member of a forthcoming appointment. It swivels into the best position to snap photos on command. It suggests something to order for dinner.

Cynthia and her colleagues at Jibo are not the only ones hoping consumers will embrace personal robots. Autonomous – also available this summer, for $1,500, and also funded with an online campaign – is a robot with a mobile base, a long pole and an oval screen at the top displaying an animated character; it can switch on the coffee maker and navigate its way around the house. Then there’s Pepper, a robot with arms, hands and a smooth, white humanoid face that’s already available in Japan; considered a companion rather than a robot, it performs tasks and chores. And Furo, a “smart service robot” designed to provide customer service in places such as airports, has a mobile base, an animated face on a screen and a large flat screen underneath ($899). These robots target different types of consumers, but all offer similar features and employ AI technology like Jibo’s. And they are all designed to be used by average people rather than trained experts.

The thing that makes Jibo different is that it’s not just preprogrammed by the company. It is a developer platform, so third parties can create software to expand the possibilities for what Jibo can do. This makes the robot customisable and also presents a financial opportunity for the company. Jibo will have a store, similar to Apple’s App Store, which will allow users to download applications made by various developers. Cynthia and her team have created a small number to start with, she explains, “like when the Wii or when the iPhone was launched. You had to start it off with the core set of games or apps so that the world could understand why this is so different.”

Inspired by science fiction, many people have long dreamt about having robots at home. But as AI technology has evolved over the past decade it has mainly shown up on our smartphones. We have grown accustomed to saying “Hey Siri”, and most of us have stopped expecting that life in the 21st century should mean having a robot gliding into our bedroom to offer us coffee. For busy people juggling responsibilities, the smartphone has become the most essential tool – which is why it can be tough to imagine how a vaguely humanoid tabletop robot could wedge its way into the daily routine. After all, what most of these social robots promise to do – take photographs, order pizza, play games with the children – are things smartphones seem to do quite well already.

Cynthia argues that phones are individual devices, whereas Jibo is designed for the whole family to use. In addition, the team did focus-group tests with carers – often women looking after their own children as well as ageing parents. “They are the most stressed-out people on the planet,” Cynthia says. “They all had smartphones. They all used technology. They didn’t use it for any of this coordination stuff with their family.” Jibo is designed to respond to the chaos in the home. In Cynthia’s mind he’s like the family dog – if the dog made things easier for everyone. “I’m in the kitchen in the morning routine. I’m making lunches. I’m doing dishes. I’ve got kids Velcroed to my leg. I don’t have time to find my stupid computer or iPad and take it out and check the weather. But I could say, ‘Jibo, what’s the weather?’” Clearly this is not hypothetical – she has experienced it. One reason she wanted Jibo to be an excellent photographer was that she was sick of being behind the camera rather than in family photographs. Jibo was designed in response to her own struggles. “I joke that a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, these robots were called droids,” Cynthia says. “In our galaxy, at this time, they are called social robots.”

It all started with Star Wars. Cynthia saw the original film when she was 10, growing up in Livermore in northern California. The robots – R2-D2 in particular – were her favourite characters. At the time both her parents were working as computer scientists in government labs. The family was one of the first to have a personal computer, and her parents frequently took her to science events. Her brother, who is two years older, studied physics. It was, she says, “a very high-IQ kind of family.” And Cynthia fitted right in. “I was not the rebellious kid,” she says. “I was driven. Whatever it was, I just wanted to be great at it.” She excelled at school and was a serious athlete, competing in football, tennis and athletics. “I found that it created a common ground with a lot of the guys,” she says. Sport later proved to be excellent training for being the only woman in a research lab, she says. “Even if I was in a male-dominated field, I never felt like I didn’t belong there.”

Cynthia applied to the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1985, intending to become a doctor. Her parents convinced her to focus on engineering first and apply to medical school later; they told her a degree in electrical and computer engineering would keep more options open than pre-med. They were proved right. Cynthia’s undergraduate years at UC Santa Barbara coincided with the opening of a new robotics lab on campus. Engineering classes combined with her childhood Star Wars obsession led to new inspiration. “I decided what I wanted to do was be an astronaut,” she says. Cynthia focused on space robotics and was accepted on a postgraduate programme at MIT in 1992.

The course was led by the renowned roboticist Rodney Brooks, who would go on to become Cynthia’s mentor and one of her greatest champions. They focused on building small, light robots to work in the farthest reaches of space without direct human guidance. “When I first came into the lab, it was like that first Star Wars moment all over again,” she says. “I saw these little robots and thought, ‘My God, if we’re ever going to see robots like R2-D2 in the future, it’s going to start in a lab like this. In fact, it might start in this lab.’” She threw herself into building robots that could move over rough terrain and through other hostile conditions in space. She wrote her master’s thesis on the subject, and in 1993 she completed a fellowship at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Meanwhile, Brooks had taken a sabbatical to visit robotics labs around the world. By the time he returned to MIT, he was convinced the future was humanoid robots: machines that walked, talked and interacted as we do. The MIT lab shifted direction to make robots designed to move like humans – think of Rosie, the Jetsons’ robot maid, or C-3P0 from Star Wars. Cynthia, by then a senior postgraduate student, became one of the chief architects of Cog, an experimental attempt to design a robot which had the same physical capabilities as an infant.

At the time, researchers were scrambling to build robots that could pick things up and walk down stairs. “But no one was working on what it would actually mean to live with these technologies,” Cynthia recalls. In other words, researchers were focused on whether Cog could hand an item to a person, not how it could interpret whether the person wanted that item in the first place.

Cynthia began to re-evaluate her research more seriously in 1997 after Nasa landed a robot on Mars. “I thought, This is incredible, a huge success for all robots,” she tells me. “We can explore the oceans, we can send them down volcanoes, we’re even sending them to Mars. But they’re not in our living rooms yet. Why is that?” This was her epiphany.

The transformative power of robots wouldn’t come from their ability to explore uncharted territory or travel to space. The value of R2-D2 and C-3P0 lay in their relationship with humans. They were easy to use – not just by Nasa employees or highly skilled manufacturing workers but by everyone. That was because they knew how to respond to humans. It dawned on Cynthia that the final robotic frontier was not, in fact, space. It was the home.

“Robots are never going to be human; that’s not the point. The  magic of this technology is how it complements and empowers us.”

This was a fairly radical point of view. Most of her peers were still focused on movement, motor skills and navigation. “Our behaviour is governed by mind and emotions and thoughts and feelings. And now you’ve got to build a robot to respond to this, and no one was working on that,” she says. She went to Brooks and told him she was shifting her focus. “I’m like, ‘Rod, I have to stop everything I’m doing.’” That’s when she started work on Kismet, her first social robot. “I still have the video that was Cynthia’s turning point,” Brooks tells me via email. “We had Cog running with a left arm and hand, and just the beginnings of capabilities, and Cynthia and Cog were manipulating the same dry board eraser. Soon they were taking turns. Wondering how this could be, she started reading psychological literature about interactions between mothers and babies and discovered a phenomenon where mothers lead infants in an activity, not realising they are doing the new stuff but thinking the baby is. This allows the baby to learn what the mother thinks it already knows. Cynthia surmised this was what she had been doing with Cog. That led her to explore ‘social scaffolding’ in her PhD thesis.”

It was around that time that she met her husband, Robert Blumofe, who was also a postgraduate student at MIT – and the grandson of the comedian Jack Benny. A computer scientist, he is now an executive vice president at Akamai, a tech company that works with businesses to ensure fast, secure web browsing. “Having a husband who truly revels in the fact that I’m so successful is really key,” she says. This sentiment is echoed by other powerful women in tech – Sheryl Sandberg has written that who you marry is one of the most important career decisions women can make. Cynthia agrees. “I think if you marry the right person you can do anything.” Blumofe is a sounding board for her ideas, her biggest cheerleader, and an equal parent who is just as likely as Cynthia to pick up their boys, Ryan, Nathan and Caleb, from school. Also important is her right-hand woman and loyal assistant, Polly Guggenheim, an outgoing woman in her 60s who has been at the Media Lab almost as long as Cynthia. “Polly makes all of this possible for me at MIT, and she is a dear, wonderful friend,” Cynthia says. “Alfred to my Batman, Samwise Gamgee to my Frodo.”

In the years since Kismet, Cynthia has been involved in the development of several robots that are programmed to assist human beings as they go about their daily lives. “We see robots as a teammate,” Cynthia says. Kismet was a robotic head with visible metallic components but cartoonishly lifelike eyes, eyebrows and a mouth; Cynthia designed it to recognise and simulate emotions. Leonardo, a furry robot that resembled a Gremlin, was created in 2002 with Stan Winston, a Hollywood special-effects make-up expert. Leonardo was able to recognise faces, produce a range of expressions and respond to touch. These early robots were steps towards figuring out how to program a machine to engage easily with humans.

Later, Cynthia oversaw the creation of robots that had more specific purposes, such as Autom, which helps people stick to their diet and exercise regimes, and Aida, a driving assistant. Postgraduate students are currently refining others, such as Huggable, which looks like a teddy bear and enables doctors and nurses to communicate with children remotely and interact with them in hospital when no one else is around. None of these, though, was ever made commercially available by the lab.

When it came to Cynthia’s focus on social robots, the timing was right. “If I’d had this idea 10 years earlier, it wouldn’t have got any traction,” she says. But by the early 2000s, many countries were becoming worried about their ageing populations. Take Japan. In 1980, 9 per cent of its population was over 65; today that figure is 25 per cent.

By 2055, it will be nearly 40 per cent. Social robots were touted as one way to handle the predicted elderly-care crisis: they could be designed to remind people to take their pills, say, or to help them in the home.

Brooks started talking Cynthia up to others in their field. “Rod Brooks would talk, everyone would listen and he would credit me,” she says. “It was huge having someone of that rock-star status giving validity to this crazy work that I was doing.” With Kismet, he actively encouraged her to take on the establishment. “Our research group were crazy and irreverent, and individual students got to thumb their noses at the status quo and stodgy academics. Cynthia took up that mantle with great relish,” Brooks says. “I was never worried that Kismet would take years to build. I knew something interesting and profound would come of it.”

Yet Cynthia’s approach to artificially intelligent robotics drew a number of detractors. She was criticised by Joseph Engelberger, who invented the first industrial robot in the 1950s, and John McCarthy, who was a pioneer in the field of AI and coined the term. “They didn’t understand the value of social-emotional robots,” she says. “They thought it was just about task: tell the robot what to do, and it will do it for you.” They thought robots’ greatest promise was as automated slaves, not as helpers adapting to and supplementing humans. What good was a robot that could smile?

Much of the general public has other fears about AI. For all the theoretical excitement about the possibility of robot helpers, more advanced AI has been identified as an existential threat to the human race in the long term – and human jobs in the short. Martin Ford, the author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future – last year’s winner of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award – says, “Personally, I continue to believe technology is a positive force. However, we will need to adapt our economy and society to ensure that everyone benefits from future progress. If we don’t do that, there is a risk that technology will result in soaring inequality, with only the wealthy few really thriving and many other people struggling to make a living.” More entrenched technophobic criticism is evident in movies like Ex Machina and Her, which imagine a future in which artificially intelligent robots quickly outpace humans, usually with terrible consequences. Then there are more immediate concerns, such as the possibility of a nefarious outsider hacking into a home robot to spy on or steal from its unwitting owners.

Cynthia doesn’t fear a future full of AI-enabled robots, partly because she is not trying to engineer a machine with human-level intelligence. “They’re never going to be human; that’s not the point,” she says. “The magic of this technology is how they complement us and empower us.” Cynthia will probably have to continue stating her case until someone invents a robot that makes humans feel empowered rather than threatened. Jibo, she hopes, will do just that

Cynthia’s vision of robots as not only helpers but also friends, she thinks, has something to do with her gender.

“I don’t do social robots because I’m a woman, but I would certainly say because I’m a woman and a mother and a technologist and a designer, it’s why I do the work I do,” she says. And this is one reason why diversity in robotics labs is so important to her. “You create technology that speaks to you and your life experience and what matters to you,” she says, “and if you only have a very narrow subset of the population creating technology, you’re leaving huge opportunities out.”

Cynthia’s desire to turn her theoretical ideas into something concrete and marketable started to become a reality in 2012 when she was seated next to Jeri Asher at a gala fundraiser for the Boston Philharmonic. “Cynthia’s a beautiful woman and came dressed very exotically,” Asher tells me. Soon they were talking business. “She was reaching for bringing something into the world – into the home – that hadn’t existed before.” The initial crowdfunding campaign in 2014 raised $2.3 million, and the company has gone on to raise another $50 million in investment, including $27 million from venture capitalists interested in bringing Jibo to China, Korea and Japan. Today it has 60 employees.

Asher, who Cynthia describes as the “tactical, practical” half of the business, remembers observing Cynthia on one particularly busy day. “She had just driven to parents’ day or some kind of activity at school. Then she had to run to the office. She had leather pants on, Gucci platform mules and a great-looking sweater. She was in this series of meetings, then going to MIT to work with PhD students and teach class. She had done three things in a five-hour period that most people couldn’t balance in a week. She was unflappable.” Cynthia doesn’t exactly make it look easy. But she does make it look possible – especially with the help of a few emotionally intelligent robots. It’s important, she tells me, for younger women in tech fields to see women who are professionally successful and personally happy. “We’re past the idea of women having to dress and act like men,” she says. And, she hopes, past the point where we’re afraid to accept robots into our lives.

Kirsten Dunst

The ever-expanding toolkit of Kirsten Dunst — Tinseltown’s craftiest star.

Kirsten

The ever-expanding toolkit of Kirsten Dunst — Tinseltown’s craftiest star.

Kirsten
Dunst

Los Angeles

2016 is looking very promising for the beloved actress Kirsten Dunst. Now 33 and with many movie-star moments to her name, she’s taken to the small screen in Fargo. And it’s paying off. Her portrayal of Peggy Blumquist has brought accolades as well as catching the eye of cinema’s leading auteurs. Her role in Jeff Nichols’ forthcoming science-fiction drama Midnight Special is a long way from her days playing Peter Parker’s girlfriend in Spider-Man, and a new project with her old mucker Sofia Coppola promises to shake up Hollywood’s boys’ club once again. With a new set of acting tools and confidence in her abilities, Kirsten is fighting for the roles she deserves. Mr Tarantino, Ms Dunst will see you now.

Text by Sheryl Garratt
Portraits by Alasdair McLellan
Styling by Jonathan Kaye

Towards the end of last summer, Kirsten Dunst started to have bad dreams. In one of them she ordered a hot dog, but instead, the cook picked up a live piglet, dangled it over a vat of boiling water, then dipped it in; all the while, it squealed and squealed. She still shudders at the memory. This was near the conclusion of her five-month stint making Fargo, and Jesse Plemons, her husband in the 10-part TV series, was also having restless dreams. They play a hairdresser and a butcher from the small town of Luverne, Minnesota, who decide to cover up a brutal car accident; a choice that pushes their once-predictable life into chaos. Kirsten’s dream came around the time they were filming the part of the story when the couple are pursued by killers and end up trapped in a meat locker with nowhere left to run. “We were living with the anxiety of our characters having done something awful and lying about it for months.”

It was worth it, though. “More people have come up to me because of Fargo than anything!” Kirsten says when we meet in mid-January. “People actually watch TV” – much more than the independent films she has favoured in recent years. “It pays you, as well,” she says. “So you can play an interesting role and support your family. You can’t do that in independent film.” She’s keen to do more television now that it has lost its stigma and actors can move easily between quality TV drama and the big screen. The only difference, she says with a laugh, is at awards ceremonies, where there’s still a hierarchy. “They put you behind the movie people. But that’s great, because you get to leave early if you want to, because no one cares that you’re not sitting in your seat.”

We are in a cafe not far from her home in north-west Los Angeles. It is just a few days after the Golden Globes, where she was nominated for her outstanding performance in Fargo, and a couple of days before the Critics’ Choice Awards, where she will pick up a best-actress award for the same show. She wore couture for both events – by Valentino and Chanel – but today she looks like any other Valley girl starting her working day, dressed in skinny jeans, a black turtleneck and a soft leather flying jacket, her hair still wet from the shower. Certainly no one in the cafe gives her a second glance. Which is exactly how she likes it. It’s the work she loves, not the fame or the circus surrounding it.

Kirsten is only 33, and so fresh-faced she could easily claim to be younger. Yet it feels as if she has been around forever. She made her film debut at the age of 6 in Woody Allen’s segment of the 1989 portmanteau film New York Stories, and she was just 11 when she became internationally famous for Interview with the Vampire. Since then she has been in some 50 films, from small independents such as The Virgin Suicides and Melancholia to blockbusters like the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man movies. Sometimes it is easy to take her for granted as part of the cultural furniture. Fargo offered a timely nudge, reminding the world just how good she can be.

In this portfolio of portraits, Kirsten wears a selection of garments from GUCCI’s Pre-Fall 2016 collection. Here and in the opening image, she wears a light blue bleach-washed denim jacket with shearling collar and embroidered patches.

Kirsten appears in the second season of the series, and it is 10 hours of near-perfect television: a self-contained story that is beautifully shot, with razor-sharp writing and quality performances from the whole cast. But Kirsten steals the show as the deluded Peggy Blumquist, managing to be both comic and tragic and somehow keeping our sympathy despite becoming increasingly monstrous as the series progresses. “Kirsten is a character actor hiding inside a leading woman’s body,” Noah Hawley, the show’s creator and writer, tells me later. “To me, a star is defined by what they do in stillness. It’s how much you see in the eyes and the micro expressions of the face. Plus, Kirsten has a great sense of humour and a firm mastery over tone. On Fargo we live in a slightly heightened world, and that requires a specific approach to the performance, which Kirsten understood instinctually. The more desperate and tense the show became, the more Peggy seemed to come to life.”

“It was really hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Kirsten says. “But I also know it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s been so weird this past year, because after that, I did this movie Woodshock with my friends Laura and Kate [Mulleavy, the sisters behind the label Rodarte], and that then became the hardest thing I’d ever done. Afterwards, I was like a shell of a person for months! I had no personality. I’d just put it all into this other stuff.”

Fargo took a lot of energy but not a lot of takes, she adds. “They moved very quickly, with different directors every two episodes. That was the weirdest thing, because I usually pick my projects because of the director. With Fargo, it was Noah. And he wrote me one of the best female characters I’ve ever got to play. So I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I can’t play someone’s girlfriend! I just can’t do it.”

Before Fargo she hadn’t worked for nearly a year – there was just nothing that she liked, she says. “I get a lot of scripts, and most of them are crap.” So she took an extended break and spent time with her boyfriend of four years, the boyishly handsome actor Garrett Hedlund. “I was a nice girlfriend. I lived in London for a while and was with him while he was working [on Pan]. We lived in Primrose Hill, which was so nice. I love it there.”

But her breakthrough role was as Claudia, the child vampire in Interview with the Vampire, in which she more than held her own alongside Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. Her character is an abomination even to other vampires: an immortal soul forever trapped in the body of a child, her eyes somehow conveying a world-weary intelligence far older than her 11 years. The film received mixed reviews, but Kirsten’s performance was universally admired, with The New York Times lauding her as “a little vamp with a big future”. Getting that part was life-changing, she says now. “It was, like, 10 auditions and so many screen tests. But everyone wanted that role. They auditioned hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of girls.”

It led to parts in films including Little Women (as the scene stealing Amy) and Jumanji and a recurring role in the TV hospital drama ER as a child prostitute whom George Clooney’s doctor was determined to help. Then, in 1999, she starred in Sofia Coppola’s dreamy, sensual directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, playing the troubled adolescent Lux, the only one of five sisters able to express her blooming sexuality. “I liked how she looked like a blond cheerleader type but had a deep quality,” Coppola tells me. “She always seemed wise beyond her years, but not in an annoying way. Working with her, I don’t have to explain much. We’re on the same page: she gets what I like, and we have a similar sense of humour, so I trust her completely.”

Kirsten was 16 when the film was made and says she couldn’t have had a better mentor as she made the transition to more adult roles. “What Sofia liked about me then were things that I didn’t even know would give me confidence in later life. She loved my crooked teeth. So when I was on Spider-Man and a producer said, ‘We should fix your teeth,’ I was like, ‘I would never do that!’ She was a great influence in how to be a woman who loves herself. I know that can sound corny, but I was 16 and working with someone who I thought was one of the coolest women alive. Also, I was starting to feel my sexuality, but I wasn’t expressing those feelings because I was a kid. I was a very young 16, and my girlfriend Molly was too. We would put on plays in the backyard. We lived in our own little universe. We had crushes on boys, of course. We’d fantasise about it but we wouldn’t actually do anything about it.”

Doing The Virgin Suicides allowed Kirsten to be seen as sexy, she says. “And thank God it was with Sofia! I felt so safe, and I could laugh and be nervous about kissing boys or whatever. She would say, ‘If you’re not comfortable, we won’t do that, or we’ll try one and then we’ll figure it out. Maybe you can hide your face a little bit so you don’t actually have to put your mouth on his mouth.’ So I had a really good female role model in this industry at a very important age.”

She wasn’t always so fortunate. As Tobey Maguire’s red-haired girlfriend in the Spider-Man trilogy beginning in 2002, she was often referred to as “Girly-girl”, as if she had no name of her own. It could be lonely being the only woman, she says. When Bryce Dallas Howard briefly came into the action for Spider-Man 3 in 2007, they would hang out in the trailer together and mess with Howard’s tarot cards. I tell Kirsten that Howard told Natalie Portman – in a conversation I was mediating – that her role in Spider-Man was simply to scream a lot and be rescued. Kirsten laughs and says that pretty much sums it up for both of them. “But to be fair, I was so happy to get that role. Sam is such a great director, and Tobey was this interesting indie-film guy, and it was cool. I’m proud of those movies. And yes, I screamed a lot; I was a damsel in distress. But that enabled me to afford to do a lot of interesting films, and afterwards I didn’t have to become just the romantic-comedy girl – because even though I love those movies, it’s not who I am. I just can’t smile all day every day!”

Those interesting films included 2004’s weird and very wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which she played a nurse helping to wipe Jim Carrey’s memories, and a second film with Coppola, the much-maligned and actually rather brilliant Marie Antoinette, released in 2006. This time, Coppola says, it was Kirsten’s German roots that attracted her, since Marie Antoinette was Mitteleuropean. “Also, I knew she’d bring playfulness. She has a great fun side; she knows how to enjoy herself. And then I knew she could bring the emotional depth of this trapped, misunderstood girl.” At Cannes that year, the film was booed by a small section of the audience but received a standing ovation from others. The American film critic Roger Ebert described it as “centering on the loneliness of being female and surrounded by a world that knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you.”

“TV pays. You can play an interesting role and support your family. You can’t do that in independent film.”

In 2007 Kirsten came to a crossroads in her career. She was treated for depression and went through the kind of reassessment many of us experience when we’ve done the same job for a while: she was successful as an actress, she was good at it, but she was no longer enjoying it. She considered changing career completely. But instead, starting with the dark murder mystery All Good Things in 2010, she altered the way she approached the work, making it more satisfying. “I had to change it for myself, because the way I did it wasn’t working any more, and it wasn’t fulfilling me at all. I didn’t feel I had the tools to go deeper into a role. And that kind of acting where you just go with your instincts isn’t enough. So I took one script to every major acting teacher in New York and LA, and I worked with each one on the same material. And then I found my person through that, and I’ve worked with her ever since.” Her person turned out to be Greta Seacat, whose mother, Sandra, is also a famous acting teacher. “She’s such a wise woman,” Kirsten says warmly of Greta, “and also so intuitive and emotional.”

They now work together on every role, going over the script and really building the character, using dreams, memories – anything and everything that happens to be around. “You start to pick up on things, or things happen to you during that time, and if you’re open to it, they can really give you major clues to how to play a role. It’s always yourself giving it to you. It also makes it so much more fun. With Fargo I had so many different directors, and I felt – and I don’t mean this to sound cocky or anything – that I didn’t need anybody else; no notes or anything. I just needed to show up and be prepared.”

The shift in her acting style didn’t pay off immediately. But then she worked with the controversial Danish director Lars von Trier on Melancholia, a strange, haunting film that begins with Kirsten’s character having a meltdown at her own wedding and then falling into a deep depression, and ends with the destruction of the planet.

It premiered at Cannes in 2011, and Kirsten took the festival’s best-actress award for her performance. “Dunst is exceptional,” The Daily Telegraph’s critic wrote, “so utterly convincing in the lead role – troubled, serene, a fierce savant – that it feels like a career breakthrough.” Von Trier said at the time, “She’s one hell of an actress. She is much more nuanced than I thought, and she has the advantage of having had a depression of her own. All sensible people have.”

The director Jeff Nichols says it was Melancholia that made him look anew at Kirsten as an actress and eventually cast her in his entertaining sci-fi chase film Midnight Special, which will be released this spring and has been selected to compete for a Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. “She was very generous with us in that she actually came in and read for the part,” Nichols says, “which was extraordinarily impressive. Someone of Kirsten’s calibre doesn’t really need to do that. And she was amazing.” Kirsten had wanted to work with Nichols after seeing his 2012 coming-of-age thriller, Mud. “You have to fight for the things that you really want,” she says.

“What I think is so interesting about her is that she’s just not your typical beauty,” Nichols adds. “In fact, in my film, all that is downplayed considerably. She’s not supposed to wear any make-up, and we dressed her in terrible clothes. And Kirsten was completely comfortable with that. For her, it’s not just about not putting your face on in the morning. It’s about embodying a character and doing the real work. With those skills, I think she gets to do whatever she wants.”

For the past couple of years, Kirsten has been working on a film script of her own with a girlfriend. The production hasn’t been publicly announced yet, so she is unwilling to go into too much detail but it is an adaptation of a novel set in the 1950s that many women will have read, she says. “It’s a book that people care about at a certain age.”

She plans to direct it herself and she already has an impressive lead actress in place. The actress approached her, she adds, and she wells up just thinking about such a vote of confidence. “I’m nervous. There’s part of me that’s like, ‘What am I doing? Why would I ever put myself in the position to be ripped apart to direct this?’ I know I’m going to be out of my mind for however long it takes!”

Before that, she hopes to work with Sofia Coppola again, on a film set in the American South during the Civil War. “There are two other women in the movie, too, who are incredible,” Kirsten says. “So it’ll be nice to just watch actresses work together instead of them always working with men. That’s really exciting.”

When she wasn’t making films as a child, Kirsten went to a local state school in the San Fernando Valley area of greater Los Angeles; she has said it helped her to stay grounded. She met her friend Molly – one of a number of strong women around her – in sixth grade, when they were 11, and they have been close ever since. Kirsten is godmother to Molly’s 1-year-old daughter, Lily, and is totally besotted. She fishes out her phone, and after scraping something sticky off the screen – “What the hell is that? It’s, like, food. Gross!” – she shows me a picture of herself and Garrett all dressed up for the Golden Globes earlier that week, each holding one of Lily’s hands. Garrett’s looking fine in a tux, and Kirsten is gorgeous in her black gown, but it is Lily in her cute black-and-white romper suit who steals the show. “That’s us,” Kirsten says fondly, “pretending she’s our baby.”

The designers Laura and Kate Mulleavy have also been close friends of the actress for 10 years now. Kirsten was already wearing their clothes by the time they met her at a party. They got on immediately. “It just felt like, ‘Oh. We have another sister!’” Laura recalls. Woodshock is the Mulleavys’ directorial debut. “It’s a really interesting thing to get enmeshed in,” Laura says about the intense bond that tends to form around a team during the making of a film. “But after working on this, I also realised how difficult it must have been for Kirsten when she was a 6-year-old, to be around a group of people for a long time and then to suddenly not be with them.” Woodshock, which will come out later this year, involves a woman falling apart emotionally. “It’s something that we worked on for a very long time with Kirsten in mind,” Laura says. “Kate and I spent a lot of time with her, going deep into it.”

During the most intense part of the shoot, Garrett was away, so Kirsten stayed over with the Mulleavys rather than going home alone. “It was wonderful,” Laura recalls. “We still laugh about it, because she was like the wife in a 1950s sitcom. We would sometimes have to stay later than her, so she would go to our house and set the fire, get the food and wine ready, and do all these things like a traditional, TV-show wife!”

Kirsten lived in the Hollywood Hills for a while, in a house she completely refurbished. “But then I realised it was total crap!” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t have sidewalks; I couldn’t have an outdoor cat because they’re going to get eaten by coyotes… So I moved to New York.” Her compact SoHo apartment was featured in Architectural Digest in December 2013. “I did everything in that place,” she says proudly. “It was a disgusting, decrepit old warehouse space before.” Kirsten likes getting dirty, getting involved in the work at every stage, and when I bring out some pictures printed from the magazine’s website, she is happy to point out details. There’s a beaded ship she turned into a chandelier in the main room, a big vintage mirror that her mum bought in Paris when she was younger, plus some serious designer furniture. “It’s all vintage. That was when I had Spider-Man money! Some of it has tripled in price since then, so they were smart investments.”

In the end, though, the constant bustle of New York didn’t suit her, and she moved back to north-west Los Angeles, where she had bought a house for her mother. Kirsten and Garrett rent a place just six doors down, and they all get together on Sundays for big family lunches. People think it’s odd, she says, but they’ve always been a close group. After Kirsten’s grandfather died, her grandmother moved into her mother’s house, and at the moment her brother, Christian, is living there again, as is their cousin. “If I didn’t have a boyfriend right now, I’d probably live in the house too,” she says. “Why not?”

Kirsten met Garrett Hedlund when they were filming On the Road (he played the feckless Neal Cassady; she was one of his long-suffering girlfriends). It is often assumed they got together as a couple on set, but she says that isn’t so. They met up 18 months later; both of them were single, and it just clicked. “He’s such a generous man, and so gentle,” she says. “But very masculine, still. He has a good balance of everything.” She makes no secret of the fact that she would like to get married and to have children – preferably in that order, although she’s willing to compromise on the ring now and just get on with starting a family. “I’m pretty ready,” she says.

There is still a lot she’d like to do workwise, too. “Quentin Tarantino still hasn’t called me!” she says archly. Nor has Wim Wenders, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. She wants to play a villain, to do a Disney film, “and I’d love to do a movie in German with Michael Haneke – that’s one of my big dreams.” Her German is passable, she says. Kirsten took dual US-German nationality a few years back. “I did it for work, mostly, so I can work in Europe and be hired as a European,” she says, explaining that films with foreign financing often limit the number of Americans who can be employed. “I was hired as a German for Melancholia, On the Road, and The Two Faces of January.”

Here, Kirsten is wearing a red-and-black checked shirt with stud embellishments. In the previous images, she wears a black embroidered maxi-cardigan. All are by GUCCI.

Towards the end of our time together, we both get distracted by the table behind us in the coffee shop. It is festooned with garish birthday balloons, and at it, three older gentlemen, clearly friends who have long been comfortable in each other’s company, sit sedately over breakfast tea and cake. “They make me want to cry. They’re, like, bachelors forever!” Unable to resist the scene, Kirsten starts speculating about how long they’ve known each other, what their lives are like, and whether one of them is celebrating a birthday or they just happened to sit at that table. When her questions are partly answered by the waiter coming out with a cake and candles, she joins in the chorus of “Happy Birthday” with real gusto and applauds enthusiastically.

Kirsten has reached a point in her life, she says, when she doesn’t feel she has to panic if the right part doesn’t come her way. “Having time off used to make me anxious as a kid. I was like, ‘Why am I not working? I need to work!’ Now, I enjoy it so much. I don’t need to be a machine; I don’t want to live that life.” She laughs. “I could be a housewife – I’d be fine with it.” Maybe she will spend some time playing house. But Kirsten will always be telling stories, one way or another: writing, directing, producing, acting. It isn’t just what she does for a living. It is who she is.

The Show

The Show

Oral History: Maison Martin Margiela

The Show

Oral History
Maison Martin Margiela
Spring / Summer 1990

On 19 October 1989, Martin Margiela staged a radical presentation for Spring / Summer 1990 that broke from the conventional 1980s fashion show and established a bold new aesthetic for a new decade. And did Margiela know how to put on a show! Although we may never know what the man thought about it himself — his legendary refusal to be interviewed prevents that — here the show’s architects, contributors and eyewitnesses tell the story of this singular moment in the annals of fashion history. Text by Richard O’Mahony, photography by Jean-Claude Coutausse.

  • The Speakers
  • Pierre Rougier, publicist
  • Jenny Meirens, co-founder, Maison Martin Margiela
  • Inge Grognard, make-up artist
  • Kristina de Coninck, model
  • Ward Stegerhoek, hairstylist
  • Frédéric Sanchez, music director
  • Roger Tredre, journalist
  • Jean Paul Gaultier, fashion designer
  • Geert Bruloot, retailer
  • Linda Loppa, professor
  • Raf Simons, fashion designer
  • Nathalie Dufour, founder, ANDAM fashion award
  • Suzy Menkes, fashion editor
  • Laurence Benaïm, fashion editor

The Build-up

Pierre Rougier, press agent, Maison Martin Margiela, 1989–1992: I’d just started out on my own in 1988, and I met Martin and Jenny when I was trying to get some people to sign with me. I met Jenny first, and she asked me to meet Martin. A few days later they called and said, “We really like you but we’re not going to need a press office. If you want a job, you can come and work with us.” So I did, and, I mean, it was a very small set-up. I think it was Martin, Jenny, maybe Nina Nitsche 1. Everybody was doing a little bit of everything.

Jenny Meirens, co-founder, Maison Martin Margiela: Only three of us! People had been helping when needed, but it was an extremely small company.

Pierre Rougier: After the Autumn / Winter 1989 show in March, Martin wanted a location for a magazine shoot. An actress friend of mine directed me towards this derelict area in Paris’s 20th arrondissement. She’d done a shoot there and thought it might work for ours.

Jenny Meirens: We usually looked for places that people wouldn’t have ordinarily used. Pierre asked me if we would be interested in this wasteland, and we thought, “Why not?”

Pierre Rougier: It was a North African neighbourhood on the outskirts of Paris. Martin, Jenny and I walked around the area; then they went off together to discuss things. They would always have these types of conversations in Flemish. I didn’t speak the language, so they’d go off and have their little powwow in Flemish.

Jenny Meirens: There was never anything secretive. We spoke Flemish because it was easier for us. To be honest, it was more for me — Martin wanted us to speak in French, but I thought that was ridiculous, because we’re from the same country.

Pierre Rougier: They came back and said, “We want to do a show here.” I thought it was crazy. They were like, “No, no, we’re going to do a show here,” and that was that. If Martin and Jenny wanted to do something, then it was going to happen one way or another.

1

Nina Nitsche was Martin Margiela’s design assistant for 19 years.

Jenny Meirens: The only thing Martin and I thought might be a problem was the weather. There was no protection.

Pierre Rougier: The other major issue was that it was a playground. It was pretty derelict, but an association that looked after the local kids used it. There were rules and regulations that didn’t allow them to accept money for use of the area. So Jenny and Martin had the idea that we’d take the kids on a day trip to the countryside, where various activities would be laid on for them. It was important to Martin and Jenny that we were respectful of the fact that this was the kids’ space and they were lending it to us for a few days.

Jenny Meirens: We wanted the children to stay around the area. Pierre suggested that we ask them to make the invitation.

“I always thought fashion was a bit superficial, but this show changed everything for me.” — Raf Simons

Pierre Rougier: Martin hated pretty printed invitations with calligraphy. Since we were staging the show on a kids’ playground, we thought it would be an idea to have the invitations drawn by kids, so it was like they were inviting you to their place. The next thing, then, was where do we find 500 kids to draw all these invitations? So we cut rectangular pieces of cardboard, gave them to the local schools, and in their art classes they were given the theme of a fashion show, and they drew their interpretations.

Jenny Meirens: The locals were very receptive and enthusiastic.

Pierre Rougier: And then we had to build the tents for backstage. That was another nightmare!

Jenny Meirens: I remember Pierre was very stressed, but Martin was always calm in preparing for a show. We were based on rue Réaumur in the 3rd then, and on one side of the studio all the outfits were being prepared, there were castings, people deciding on the make-up; and on the other side we were organising meetings with commercial clients.

Inge Grognard, make-up artist for Maison Martin Margiela, 1988–2010: I had known Martin since we were fashion-crazed teenagers growing up in Belgium and worked with him from the very beginning, so we had a well-established working pattern by this point. I was based in Antwerp. So a few weeks before a show Martin would phone and say, “OK, this is the collection,” and we’d talk about the ideas behind it, the feelings, the colours. And then I’d give my input. I’d also travel to Paris because I was involved in casting the models too.

Kristina de Coninck, model for Maison Martin Margiela, 1989–2005: Martin had seen some pictures I’d shot with the photographer Ronald Stoops and Inge for BAM magazine. Apparently, Martin said, “Who’s this woman? I want her for my show.” I met him in Brussels in ’89, and that March I walked in his second show, which was for Autumn / Winter. The fittings for the show were such an enjoyable experience. Martin always asked the models’ opinion on the clothes he selected for us — he wanted to make sure we felt good in them. For this show, he instructed us not to cut our hair.

Ward Stegerhoek, hairstylist for Maison Martin Margiela, 1988–1989: Hair in the late 1980s was very proper: chignons; big, bouncy curls and waves — that sort of Claudia Schiffer look. Martin said for this show it should look like anything but a hairstyle. He never really told us what he wanted, just what he didn’t want. He liked it when it looked as if the women could have put it together themselves.

Frédéric Sanchez, music director for Maison Martin Margiela, 1988–1998: This was my third show for Martin Margiela. Martin and I started work on it about two months beforehand. We’d talk about the live recordings of bands like the Velvet Underground or the Rolling Stones from the ’60s — the crowd’s screaming in the background, and the music’s cutting in and out. We were also listening to experimental artists like Meredith Monk and Annette Peacock and obscure tracks from Factory Records. Martin was very into Bowie, too — I think the video for “Life on Mars” was a big influence on the make-up for this show. The idea was to cut all the tracks short abruptly, chop them up the way Warhol cut his movies, mess with the levels to make them sound distorted or dirty, then put it all together like a collage. It was about evoking a feeling to create something poetic. When I was told the show’s location, I just thought it was very Martin. We did the first one in an old theatre, the second in a nightclub, so it was continuing this idea of using public spaces and the most lively parts of the city to present a bourgeois thing like fashion.

The Buzz

Roger Tredre, fashion correspondent, The Independent, 1989–1993: The Spring / Summer 1990 season was actually my first experience of fashion shows. I’d been sent to cover the collections because Sarah Mower, the fashion editor of The Independent at the time, was pregnant. Before that, I’d been working in Brussels on an English-language publication called The Bulletin, so I was very much aware of the Antwerp Six 2 fashion phenomenon. I think I did one of the first interviews with two of them, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee. There was confusion that Margiela was one of the six, which he wasn’t — he’d actually graduated a few years before them and had been working for a Belgian coat manufacturer, Bartsons, then worked in Italy, and then with Jean Paul Gaultier. As the Antwerp Six’s profile grew through the Golden Spindle 3 awards and following their presentation at Olympia during London Fashion Week in 1986, there was talk about this other guy who’d studied at the Royal Academy, who worked for Gaultier, and who was just as good as, if not better than the Antwerp Six.

2

The group of fashion students who graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1980 and 1981 (Ann Demeulemeester, Marina Yee, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Dries Van Noten and Walter Van Beirendonck) was allegedly given the title by the British fashion press, who were unable to pronounce their names correctly.

3

Belgium’s once-thriving textile industry was foundering by the 1980s. Its government created the Golden Spindle prize in 1982 to promote new Belgian designers and textile manufacturers as part of a wider regeneration initiative

Pierre Rougier: This was the height of Jean Paul Gaultier’s fame, and M. Gaultier was very supportive of Martin and very vocal about how he considered him to be the best designer of his generation. A lot of the interest from journalists and fashion editors came because of Gaultier’s support.

Jean Paul Gaultier, fashion designer: He was my best assistant. When after a few years he wanted to leave and start his own collection, I could only be happy for him and wish him good luck. From Martin’s first show I saw immediately that he had his own voice and his own way.

Geert Bruloot, co-owner of Louis and Coccodrillo stores, Antwerp: We were one of the first boutiques to stock Martin Margiela. I think Linda Loppa was stocking him, too. Initially, it was just a shoe line. Martin came into Coccodrillo — the shoe store my partner, Eddy Michiels, and I opened in 1984 — a few months after we opened and presented his collection. Mainly shoes for women, and a lady’s shoe based on a bishop shoe.

Linda Loppa, owner of Loppa boutique, Antwerp, 1978–1991; head of fashion, Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, 1981–2006: It was like a traditional man’s shoe, but made on feminine lasts. The heel looked chunky when viewed from the side but narrow from the back. The insole was higher. That’s what made you taller. Already some of the classic Margiela tropes were there. They sold well.

Geert Bruloot: He stopped the line when he went to work for Gaultier. But we stayed in touch. Fashion then was bold colours, wide shoulders; everything was extravagant, very stylised — Montana, Mugler, Lacroix, Versace. Martin came along with ripped sleeves, frayed hems, clumpy shoes — we were still talking about stilettos! After seeing Martin’s first show in 1988 I didn’t know what to think. We watched it open-mouthed. It was like I had to erase what I thought and knew about fashion. There were production problems so the first collection was never made, and it wasn’t until the second collection that we actually had clothes to sell. They didn’t do very well at the beginning. But when it did start selling, it sold really well.

Raf Simons, fashion designer: There was so much buzz about Antwerp then. I was in my fourth year studying industrial design in Genk and had to go on work placement — I knew immediately that I wanted to do it in Antwerp. I ended up interning with Walter Van Beirendonck. It was such a fascinating period in Belgium. There were so many things going on — the Antwerp Six; Belgian New Beat 4 was taking off and bringing a new sound and dress code with it; and then there was Margiela. From the moment he did his first show in Paris, he was the one. Everyone was obsessed with Martin.

Nathalie Dufour, founder, ANDAM fashion prize: Martin Margiela was awarded the inaugural ANDAM prize in June 1989. I’d seen his first two shows in Paris and then invited him to present to our committee, which included Pierre Bergé. I remember Martin telling me that the recognition of M. Bergé, and his link with Yves Saint Laurent, was very important to him — Martin loved the work of Yves Saint Laurent. He had to provide a description of his next collection, how his company was organised, a press file and such. At that time the prize money wasn’t very much but it would go towards the production of the next collection and show. We weren’t entirely sure it would work, but we felt something was happening and didn’t want to miss it.

4

New Beat originated in Belgium during the late 1980s. Characterised by a sludgy, heavy dance sound pitched at 115bpm, it also incorporated elements of Chicago house music. Clubs such as Ancienne Belgique in Brussels and Boccaccio in Ghent were at the centre of the New Beat scene.

Pierre Rougier: There were a few influential people who got what Martin was doing and were incredibly supportive. Melka Tréanton from Elle — the grande dame of French fashion, who helped to make the careers of Mugler, Montana and Gaultier — she loved Martin. i-D and The Face in London were also supportive; Annie Flanders and Ronnie Cooke at Details in New York too. It was so different from everything else going on at that time, and people were trying to put a name to it.

Suzy Menkes, fashion editor, International Herald Tribune, 1988–2014: With half those Belgian designers it was a struggle just to find out how to spell their names! It was the end of the great explosion of extravagance of the 1980s when couture shows had become incredibly elaborate. The Belgian designers, along with the Japanese — Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto — were very much counterculture to the big Paris houses.

The Day

Pierre Rougier: We finally made it to the day of the show. It was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we’re making it happen!” But, of course, we didn’t have enough power, and we had to go around the neighbourhood knocking on doors asking to run cables and cords from the locals’ houses so that we could plug in the hairdryers, lighting and all that. It was fucking crazy, though it didn’t seem so at the time.

Inge Grognard: I had a small team of assistants. It’s not like now, where there’s 20 or 30. I didn’t have a big make-up room, just little places where we could put one or two assistants in with two models. There were so many models! And the spaces were really dark. It was chaotic.

Jenny Meirens: Backstage really was a mess. The children had been hanging out there all day, eating the food. But it was a very cheery and relaxed atmosphere.

Ward Stegerhoek: We did try to keep them out at first. In the end, we just gave up. The backstage area was this concrete, dusty space, which was a little cold, so we had some heaters in there. And a few plastic fold-up tables and some cheap chairs. We had music like Alice Bag playing quite loud to get everyone in this punky mood. There was a little red wine too.

Inge Grognard: I’d been thinking about when you have those little accidents when doing make-up, like when you pull a sweater over your head and it smears mascara across your eyelids. We put everything on a contrasting white base. The clothes had a lot of white and plastic involved, so we mixed in some roughness with the mascara. We liked it when it wasn’t totally perfect or finished.

Ward Stegerhoek: We used lots of hairspray to get the hair all matted and stiff, then started pinning it up and ended up with this rough texture.

Kristina de Coninck: Martin took one look at my wig — they used hairpieces on the models with shorter hair — and said, “It’s not wild enough.” So he took the hairpiece and ran it along the dusty ground.

Ward Stegerhoek: Martin was quite hands-on before the show, pulling at the straps on the clothes, adjusting the shoulder, fixing the hair before they went on the runway.

The Hour

Pierre Rougier: The idea that staging a show so far out of town might be an inconvenience never entered our minds.

Roger Tredre: I knew Paris well, and the location looked like a typical Paris street with terraced houses but with this space that looked like it might have been bombed in the war. The whole place was floodlit, with lots of people milling around.

Linda Loppa: There was a group of us from Antwerp — boutique owners, fashion students from the academy. We were like Margiela groupies! I should set the record straight, though: Martin was never a student of mine. But we did know each other from the Antwerp scene. Mary Prijot 5 was the head of the academy when he attended. Anyway, we weren’t surprised by the neighbourhood. Us Belgians were quite used to the rougher lifestyle — Antwerp wasn’t so luxurious and elegant then. I mean, sometimes the Royal Academy didn’t even have electricity. When we arrived in the 20th there was a bit of confusion about the precise venue — I’m not sure I even had an invitation. Of course, later on Martin’s invitations became highly collectible. So we just followed the other Belgians we recognised from their clothes — “Follow that one in black; that must be the way!” There was a cafe on the corner of a street nearby, and we gathered there drinking, talking. It was like a party.

5

Mary Prijot established the prestigious fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1963. Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela all studied under her tutelage.

Pierre Rougier: We never anticipated that all these people would turn up. Martin never let us hector people into coming. The attitude was, you can turn up, but if you don’t, that’s fine too. We were totally unprepared for the number that did.

Geert Bruloot: The narrow streets were filled with African people, Indian people, children, fashion editors, press and buyers. Martin and Jenny invited people from the neighbourhood too. They were a big part of the event.

Roger Tredre: There was no sense of trepidation. Maybe for someone like Suzy, chauffeur-driven, it was a bit strange. I recall being struck by the incongruity of these ladies in fur coats stepping over rough ground and slumming it a bit. It was quite amusing.

Suzy Menkes: I’m pretty certain I was taking the Métro in those days. I didn’t think we were going to the ends of the earth for this show, or that anything unpleasant might happen to us out in the 20th. Absolutely not.

Roger Tredre: It wasn’t clear where we were supposed to sit — were there even seats? Where were the models coming from? There were some children around, and locals began gathering to see what was happening.

The Scrum

Pierre Rougier: There was no seating plan. It was first come, first served. This was always the case; there was never a guest list like at other shows. But as all these people kept showing up, it became overwhelming.

Jenny Meirens: People were pushing and shouting that they weren’t being treated particularly well, didn’t have a seat… blah, blah. It was terrible. We didn’t have the budget for VIP treatment.

Geert Bruloot: Jenny was almost standing on the wall, shouting and directing people. It was quite hysterical.

Pierre Rougier: People were scaling the walls of the site to get in!

Raf Simons: I ended up gatecrashing with Walter Van Beirendonck, who was holding a presentation in Paris. Martin’s was the first fashion show I ever attended. I had the perception of them as big productions and quite glamorous — here, there wasn’t even a floor! It was like a trashy backyard.

Pierre Rougier: By the time the show started, we didn’t know who was an editor or who was a neighbour. We were like, “Let all the kids sit down!” and they did so along the runway, otherwise they wouldn’t have seen anything. They were so excited, screeching and laughing.

Roger Tredre: And then at some point the show just started.

17 Minutes

Frédéric Sanchez: There was a drumbeat on a loop from a live recording of the Buzzcocks that sounded very raw. I also had this recording of people playing music on the streets of different cities around the world — a tramp using some boxes as percussion and singing “Strangers in the Night”. I think “Roadrunner” by the Sex Pistols was in there too. There were concerns about rain in the lead-up to the show, so I used this moment from Woodstock where the audience are chanting, “No rain! No rain!” There were probably 20 tracks used on the soundtrack, cut, repeated — using 10 seconds of one, 20 of another, mashed up together.

Raf Simons: As soon as the models started to come out, you knew something special was going to happen. They looked so angelic and alien.

Roger Tredre: They didn’t move like regular models. They stumbled because they were picking their way across uneven ground.

Ward Stegerhoek: Martin didn’t want the models to walk like professional ones, with their hips swaying and all that, and he’d spend quite some time with the professional ones before a show, instructing them. He wanted them to walk more like boys.

Kristina de Coninck: Martin just wanted us to be ourselves.

Geert Bruloot: There was a lot of black and white around the eyes, and these dark lips. The clothes were a continuation of the ideas expressed in the previous two seasons — the elongated sleeves; the narrow, rolled piqué shoulders; wide, tailored trousers; frayed and unfinished seams and hems. They even reused the exact same Tabi boots 6 that had been used in the Autumn / Winter 1989 show. But then there was this burst of volume from the waist, with canvas coats and skirts belted around it, worn over wide canvas trousers, and large canvas bags worn like panniers. It had a bit of a Victorian look to it.

6

The Tabi boot is Margiela’s interpretation of the split Japanese tabi sock, which separates the big toe from the others and is worn with traditional thonged footwear.

Linda Loppa: The colours were mostly white and nude and looked so fresh in the midst of the graffitied and dilapidated surroundings. Tops were made from Franprix 7 plastic carrier bags — you know the French supermarket? I thought, Why a carrier bag? There were tops made from papier mâché, with metal breastplates… some models had bare breasts.

7

Franprix is a French grocery chain founded in 1958 by Jean Baud. It has 860 outlets throughout the country.

Kristina de Coninck: I was wearing a little white cotton vest top, a wide skirt, and underneath were large canvas saddlebags on either hip to create a hoop skirt. Each of the models wore the number 90 in some way — either sewn on to a piece of paper, stitched into the garment, drawn with a marker on the heel of a boot…

Suzy Menkes: It was a strange kind of bleak fairyland. The light cast an iridescent sheen on these plastic covers, and yet at the same time they were so banal — dry-cleaning bags.

Linda Loppa: The dry-cleaning bags were transformed into tailored coats, jackets, tunics and dresses, belted with ribbons, straps and metal fasteners. These were worn on top of oversized sheer slips with elegant drapery and pleating that looked quite disordered from a distance. But up close they were sublime. We loved it! I immediately bought one of those long canvas skirts.

“We always wanted to be free, to be spontaneous, and not respond to the impositions of the fashion world.” — Jenny Meirens

Suzy Menkes: The dresses were actually surprisingly pretty. They were very floaty, semi-sheer, chiffon, worn like a milkmaid’s but with no frills. They almost floated like a cloud on the body.

Jenny Meirens: There was never just one inspiration or precise idea in a Margiela collection. Martin would pull many different things together. Sometimes they would repeat over the different seasons.

Kristina de Coninck: The children couldn’t sit still. They were fascinated by what was happening. We would smile down at them as we walked by; they’d smile back. We were all laughing. And then at some point they joined in and paraded alongside the models.

Frédéric Sanchez: The music for the finale switched to classical music, harpsichord pieces by Rameau and Purcell.

Geert Bruloot: All the models and the backstage staff came out for the finale wearing the now-iconic blousons blanche atelier coats 8. The models had confetti in their pockets and threw it into the air.

8

The blouson blanche is a white work coat worn by the petites mains in the ateliers of haute couture houses. Margiela adopted it as a uniform for the company’s employees.

Jenny Meirens: One of the models’ boyfriends began to lift some of the children onto the models’ shoulders.

Raf Simons: I was so struck by everything I was seeing that I started to cry. I felt so embarrassed. I was like, Oh God, look at the ground, look at the ground, everyone’s going to see you’re crying — like, How stupid to be crying at a fashion show. Then I looked around, and half the audience was crying.

Geert Bruloot: It was all over in 17 minutes. We went backstage to see Martin and Jenny afterwards. It was in the days when Martin still stayed around after the show.

Pierre Rougier: Oh my God, it was such a happy, happy night. There was a huge sense of relief that we pulled it off. Martin was very happy.

Jenny Meirens: We felt very happy afterwards, enjoying the moment, drinking champagne from plastic cups.

Roger Tredre: I remember at the end thinking, This will be great copy!

The Reviews

Jenny Meirens: We were shocked that the press wasn’t very positive.

Pierre Rougier: Le Monde printed a scathing review.

Laurence Benaïm, fashion critic, Le Monde, 1986–2001: I thought it was like a parody of Comme des Garçons in the early 1980s. A little bit too postural. I don’t expect a fashion designer to give me a lesson about what life is or what it should be. The clothes were perfectly cut but I didn’t like the miserablist scenography. And I still hate drinking bad wine from cheap glasses!

Pierre Rougier: Libération was critical of how inappropriate it was to show designer fashion in a poor part of the city, saying it was exploitation of the neighbourhood and its residents. I read the article and thought, “Really? Is that what you got out of that show?”

Geert Bruloot: I think the industry loved it. We bought some pieces from it for Louis — the oversized slips with the plastic overlay, the canvas hip bags. For sure we bought the plastic hoods, as I still have one in my personal archive.

Roger Tredre: We trotted out of the 20th and felt we’d seen something that was special in ways we couldn’t immediately define. That a young designer staged his show in such an unusual location and a lot of high-powered fashion editors actually turned up made this show unique.

Suzy Menkes: I was definitely fascinated and intrigued, and I certainly thought it was something new.

Roger Tredre: Whether the choice of venue had anything to do with reflecting the disintegration of the Berlin Wall 9, as some publications alluded to, I’m not sure. But the timing…

9

Radical political change in East Germany in 1989 led to the removal of the blockade of West Germany on 9 November 1989. The wall’s official demolition didn’t begin until the summer of 1990 and wasn’t completed until 1992.

Jenny Meirens: Oh, no, no, no. That wasn’t in our minds at all. Honestly, I think that people perceive it differently than we meant it. It’s less heavy than people think.

The photojournalist Jean-Claude Coutausse shot these images for Libération, the French daily newspaper founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Serge July. The accompanying article, headlined “La mode il y a des endroits pour ça”, was highly critical of the show.

The Legacy

Pierre Rougier: Well, it definitely ignited the cult of Margiela. The subsequent shows were just as weird, complicated and stressful to pull off. The sense that we had to outdo the last show with the next was never discussed. I’m sure Martin probably felt it, but he never said if he did.

Jean Paul Gaultier: I think that his way of staging shows and keeping out of the public eye was a reaction to what he’d seen while working for me. I was part of the first generation of designers to be mediatised, and I think that Martin wanted the exact opposite.

Roger Tredre: Right from the beginning, his approach to fashion was in line with the very pressing issue of sustainability, the need to recycle and the urgency of rethinking the whole system. Where to do that? Anywhere but the heart of the system.

Suzy Menkes: He was the beginning of making over clothes, of using existing garments and transforming them into something else. He was very far ahead of this trend.

Linda Loppa: It also showed that you could create a beautiful collection and put on a spectacular show with very little money. You can make garments that are elegant but rough and instinctive. You can have your friends around you to help and support. Interesting models can be found on the street. A simple statement of intent: “Come on! Do it!”

Raf Simons: As a student I always thought that fashion was a bit superficial, all glitz and glamour, but this show changed everything for me. I walked out of it and I thought, That’s what I’m going to do. That show is the reason I became a fashion designer.

Jenny Meirens: We always wanted to be free, to be able to do what we wanted, to be spontaneous, to not respond to the impositions of the fashion world. We wanted to make a simple show, but for us this one was no more important than any other.

Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante

In a manner of speaking

ELENA
FERRANTE

in a
manner
of
speaking

Naples

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. Elena Ferrante does not exist. Which makes the acclaimed Italian novelist, whoever she may be, quite difficult to interview. For her fans, this is tantalising. Ferrante’s novels, particularly the quartet set in her hometown of Naples, have an autobiographical feel, and the author has done little to discourage that impression. One of the two women whose lives the books trace is called Elena, and is a writer, after all.

And given that the first of the four novels, 2013’s My Brilliant Friend, starts with the disappearance of Elena’s brilliant friend from childhood, Lila, and given that the only way to explain Lila’s disappearance is to describe their entire lives up to that point, there are plenty of questions to be asked.

The novels are an exploration not just of female friendship and rivalry, but a sociopolitical history of Italy in the second half of the 20th century. They take in the advance of girls’ education, feminism and political protest and also describe poverty, crime (organised and disorganised), the decline of industry and the rise of technology. Love, success, sex, family, ambition, creativity, genius and self-destruction – they’re all in there too.

These are rich stories, readable rather than didactic, and told very much from the narrator’s clearly subjective point of view. So, questions, questions, questions, and no one in sight who can answer them. Nevertheless, a limited form of interlocution can be undertaken, by email, with the writer who publishes her books as Elena Ferrante.

Text by Deborah Orr
Photography by Mathilde Agius

Deborah Orr: Usually, at this point in an interview, the writer sketches the subject and her surroundings. Under the circumstances, Elena, can I ask you to do this yourself, please?

Elena Ferrante: I can’t. I don’t know how.

D: Can we assume, then, that you see Elena Ferrante as a somewhat mysterious person, without a home, without a family, who exists inside your head?

E: No, Elena Ferrante is the author of several novels. There is nothing mysterious about her, given how she manifests herself – perhaps even too much – in her own writing, the place where her creative life transpires in absolute fullness. What I mean is that the author is the sum of the expressive strategies that shape an invented world, a concrete world that is populated with people and events. The rest is ordinary private life.

D: Do you think it’s harder for women – especially mothers – to keep their creative lives and their private lives separate?

E: Women, in all fields – whether mothers or not – still encounter an extraordinary number of obstacles. They have to hold too many things together and often sacrifice their aspirations in the name of affections. To give an outlet to their creativity is thus especially arduous. It requires a great deal of motivation, strict discipline and many compromises. Above all, it entails quite a few feelings of guilt. And in order not to cut out a large part of one’s private life, the creative work should not swallow up every other form of self-expression. But that is the most complicated thing.

D: Your novels are intimate, often domestic, but always with a strong sense of the socioeconomic forces under which your characters have been formed. Can you tell us a bit about the issues that have forged your own political consciousness?

E: I don’t have any special passion for politics, it being a never-ending merry-go-round of bosses big and small, all generally mediocre. I actually find it boring. I confuse names, minor events, their political positions. But I have always paid careful attention to social and economic conflicts, to the dialectic – if we can call it that – between high and low. Maybe it’s because I was not born or brought up in affluence. Climbing the economic ladder has been very hard for me, and I still feel a great deal of guilt towards those I left behind. I also had to discover very quickly that class origins cannot be erased, regardless of whether we climb up or down the sociocultural ladder. Even when our circumstances improve, it’s like the colour that inevitably rises to one’s cheeks after a strong emotion… I believe there is no story, however small, that can ignore that colouring.

The narrator of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet describes Naples, the writer’s hometown, as crouching at the foot of Mt Vesuvius, here pictured from the city’s port. An abortive journey to witness this sea view in the first book, My Brilliant Friend, acts as a portent of the lengths to which its central characters are prepared to go to fulfil their ambitions.

D: It’s widely assumed that you use a pseudonym not only to protect your own privacy but also that of a real Neapolitan community from which you draw your inspiration. Is that assumption correct?

E: Yes, it’s one of the factors that motivated me.

D: What were the other factors?

E: The wish to remove oneself from all forms of social pressure or obligation. Not to feel tied down to what could become one’s public image. To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies.

D: Do you have a sense of how people in the community feel about the books?

E: No. But it must be said that I no longer protect myself from the world I grew up in. Rather, today I try to protect the feelings I have for that world, the emotional space where my desire to write first took hold, and still grows.

D: Philip Roth says that “discretion is, unfortunately, not for novelists.” How far would you agree with him on this?

E: I prefer to call it illicit appropriation rather than indiscretion. Writing for me is a dragnet that carries everything away with it: expressions and figures of speech, postures, feelings, thoughts, troubles. In short, the lives of others. Not to mention the ransacking of the enormous warehouse that is literary tradition.

D: In My Brilliant Friend, the patronage of a schoolteacher helps the main character Elena from an early age. But the teacher rejects her best friend Lila. Was the schoolteacher unfair in favouring Elena, or did she understand that Lila was a person who would always want to rely only on herself and make her own way?

E: The school notices both Lila and Elena. But both feel constrained. Lila is the kind of person who cannot bring herself to accept boundaries if not to break them, but then gives up under the strain. Elena learns immediately to make use of the scholastic environment, as she will later learn to make use of the many other spaces she occupies over the course of her life, at the same time gathering and subterraneously putting into circulation some of her friend’s strength.

D: Staying with the protagonists of the Neapolitan quartet, Lila is a highly original thinker, and also susceptible to dissociative fugues. Would it be right to view Lila as a savant, gifted in a way that Elena isn’t?

E: No. The structure of the narrative is such that neither Lila nor Elena can ever be definitively locked within a formula that makes one the opposite of the other.

D: The contrasting characters of the two women make for narrative drama. But did you see them as archetypes you wanted to examine for particular reasons?

E: Maybe that’s true – it definitely happened with Olga in my second book, The Days of Abandonment, but in this case I didn’t feel that either Lila or Elena could be reduced to some sort of original model that would ensure their coherence.

D: From the start, Lila and Elena have very different attitudes to men and sex. Do you view Lila’s disinterest as the source of her power over men? Or does the contrast between the two women serve a different purpose?

E: I think our sexuality is all yet to be recounted and that, especially in this context, the rich male literary tradition constitutes a huge obstacle. The ways Elena and Lila behave are just two different aspects of the same arduous and almost always unhappy adjustment to men and their sexuality.

D: Is it fair to say that the world depicted in your work offers few respectable ways out of a quite narrow, quite compromised life other than academic and intellectual success, for the men as well as the women?

E: No. I care a lot for Enzo’s character; his journey is a hard one, but worthy of respect. And anyway, it’s above all the narrator, Elena, who considers culture, education, as a way to pull herself out of misery and ignorance. Her journey is seemingly successful. But profound changes take generations; they must involve everybody. At times Elena herself feels that individual lives, even the most fortunate, are ultimately unsatisfactory and in many ways at fault.

“The people who love us or hate us – or both – hold together the thousands of fragments we are made of.”

D: Has that changed since the 1950s, when the Neapolitan story cycle starts, or do you think it’s become more entrenched – the idea that only obvious exceptionality among the “lower classes” should be rewarded?

E: This is how it’s going to be as long as class disadvantage and privilege exist. I have met truly exceptional people in whom the stubborn urge to climb the social ladder is absent. And so the most serious problem is that in deceptively egalitarian societies such as ours, much intelligence – women’s especially – is squandered.

D: Would you describe the relationship between Lila and Elena as competitive? And is that something you see as important to women’s place in the world?

E: No, competition between women is good only if it does not prevail; that is to say if it coexists with affinity, affection, with a real sense of being mutually indispensable, with sudden peaks of solidarity in spite of envy, jealousy and the whole inevitable cohort of bad feelings. Of course, this makes for a very tangled yarn, but that’s fine. Our way of being is – for historical reasons – much more tangled than that of men, which is accustomed to using simplification as a quick way to solve problems.

D: Despite Elena’s material success, Lila emerges as the dominant character. The reader understands that this may be an aspect of Elena’s self-deprecating narration – she may simply feel dominated by Lila. Is it possible that you’d ever be tempted to let Lila tell her own story?

E: No. In the first draft there were long episodes written by Lila but I later excluded this path. Lila can only be Elena’s tale: outside that tale she would probably be unable to define herself. It’s the people who love us or hate us – or both – who hold together the thousands of fragments we are made of.

D: Which of the two women do you feel most affection for?

E: I have much love for Lila; that is, I have much love for the way in which Elena tells her story and the way in which Lila tells her own story through her friend.

D: Do you ever feel that your anonymity limits your ability to shape the debate inspired by the books?

E: No, my work stops at publication. If the books don’t contain in themselves their reasons for being – questions and answers – it means I was wrong to have them published. At most, I may write when I am disturbed by something. I have recently discovered the pleasure of finding written answers to written questions such as yours. Twenty years ago, it was more difficult for me; I’d try but eventually give up. Now I see it as a useful opportunity: your questions help me to reflect.

D: The choice of Elena as your pseudonym and also the name of your protagonist in the Neapolitan novels invites people to assume they are romans-à-clef. Is this a literary device or a genuine hint to your readers?

E: Using the name Elena helped only to reinforce the truth of the story I was telling. Even those who write need that “willing suspension of disbelief”, as Coleridge called it. The fictional treatment of biographical material – a treatment that for me is essential – is full of traps. Saying “Elena” has helped to tie myself down to the truth.

“Profound change will be possible only if we build a grand female tradition that men are forced to measure themselves against.”

D: One of the wonderful things about your novels is that they’re strongly and richly narrative, leaving the reader to come to her own conclusions, or at least feel that she’s coming to her own conclusions, about the mass of issues raised. Was it a conscious decision, to show rather than tell?

E: Yes. What is important in storytelling are the characters’ actions and reactions, the spaces in which they move, the way in which time flows over them. The narrator composes a score; readers perform and interpret it. A story is an anomalous kind of cage, one that traps you within its strategies and yet, conversely, makes you feel free.

D: What are the most important things you’d like to see readers learning or thinking about as a consequence of reading your books?

E: Allow me not to answer this question. Novels should never come with instructions for use, least of all when drawn up by those who write them.

D: Do you aim to speak primarily to women in your writing?

E: One writes for all human beings, always. But I am happy that my readers are first and foremost women.

D: Why?

E: We, all of us, need to build a genealogy of our own, one that will embolden us, define us, allow us to see ourselves outside the tradition through which men have viewed, represented, evaluated and catalogued us – for millennia. Theirs is a potent tradition, rich with splendid works, but one that has excluded much, too much, of what is ours. To narrate thoroughly, freely – even provocatively – our own “more than this” is important: it contributes to the drawing of a map of what we are or what we want to be. There’s a quote from Amelia Rosselli – one of the most innovative and unsettling Italian poets of the 20th century – that dates from the 1960s. Years ago I adopted it as a literary manifesto that is at once ironic and deadly serious. It’s an exclamation: “What black deep activism there is in my menstruation!”

D: Your female characters seem locked in a fight between past and future, traditional and modern, conventional and unconventional. It’s a fight familiar to most women of recent generations. Where do you think women are now, in Italy and globally?

E: I believe all of us, of whatever age, are still in the thick of the battle. The conflict will be long, and even if we think we have left behind the culture and language of patriarchal society once and for all, we just have to look at the world in its entirety to understand that the conflict is far from over and that everything we have gained can still be lost.

D: Ambivalence – about success, money, career, motherhood, marriage – suffuses your books. Women have made progress. But what are the battles that feminism still has to win? And does it have to change its tactics to do so?

E: First of all, we must never forget there are vast areas of the planet where women live in the most terrible conditions. But even in those areas where many of our rights are safe, it’s still hard to be a woman in a way that runs counter to how even the most cultured and forward-thinking men represent us. We are in the middle of a mire. We vacillate between rooted adhesion to male expectations and the new ways of being female. Although we are free and combative, we accept that our need for fulfilment in this or that field should be ratified by men in authority, who co-opt us only after having evaluated whether we have sufficiently absorbed the male tradition and are able to become its dignified interpreters, free of female issues and weaknesses. Instead, we must continue fighting to bring about profound change. This will be possible only if we build a grand female tradition that men are forced to measure themselves against. It’s going to be a long battle, centred on women’s industry in every field, on the excellence of female thought and action. Only when a man publicly recognises his debt to a woman’s work without the condescending kindliness typical of those who feel themselves superior will things really start to change.

D: What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

E: I never tell anyone the stories I have in my head. I would lose the desire to try and write them down.

D: Last question – will you accept the sincere thanks of this very grateful reader?

E: I must thank you, rather. When readers send me words such as yours, I am the first to marvel at My Brilliant Friend’s good fortune. What is actually inside a book is, above all, a mystery for its author.

Translation: Daniela Petracco.

Mica Levi

Mica Levi

The exceptional composer who obliterates boundaries with brilliance.

Mica
Levi

The exceptional composer who obliterates boundaries with brilliance.

Mica Levi is a rebel with a cause: to smash up the divisions between musical genres, from three-note punk to the finest classical score. This she does primarily around London, hopping in and out of other people’s studios and playing live with her band the Shapes, while rustling up compositions for the city’s most serious orchestras. A musician since the age of 4, she has a pure talent that her wayward hair and low-key attitude can’t disguise.

Now 28 and going by the name Micachu, she’s already a multi-award-winning composer thanks to her unnervingly beautiful soundtrack for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. When it comes to the brilliance of the Shapes – that’s Mica, Raisa Khan and Marc Pell – she insists it’s down to their completely conflicting musical tastes. Sounds good.

Text by Laura Barton
Portraits by Angelo Pennetta

“Don’t move anything except the cue,” advises Mica Levi. “Just keep your hand still. Don’t hit the ball too hard…” It’s a little after lunch on a hot midweek afternoon, and Mica has commandeered the pool table of an empty south London pub. Her slight frame circles the baize, her voice lifting over the roar of the television and the piped chart hits. “It’s a good game – a great game,” she says, eyeing the table. “I’m not especially good, but I’m very enthusiastic.” There are places nearer her current home, a five-person shared house near Loughborough Junction, a once-terrifying, now slowly gentrifying part of Brixton. “But at one the table’s always busy, and at the other it’s a bit dodgy – racist artefacts behind the bar.”

Mica is better known as Micachu, the classically trained composer, songwriter, singer and producer who for the best part of a decade has been mixing up everything from pop and indie to punk and electronica, and sometimes having it played by very prestigious orchestras. From the skewed blues of “Curly Teeth” – one of the standout tracks on her 2009 debut album – to Chopped & Screwed, her 2011 work with the London Sinfonietta, she creates beautiful jumbles of sounds punctuated with stabs of rebellion and irreverence – all squealing mechanics, shouts in the night, strings, keys, scrappy guitars, rumbling bass and punkish wit.

Since she came to public attention with the release of a mixtape, Filthy Friends, in 2009 and then went on to play and record with her band, Micachu and the Shapes – they’re about to release a new album, Good Sad Happy Bad – she’s been one of the brightest, most unexpected stars on London’s music scene. At 24, she was the youngest ever artist in residence at London’s Southbank Centre. Last year, she composed an award-winning score for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. She walked down the BAFTA red carpet this February in a massively outsized black patent coat. “I borrowed it,” laughs Mica. “My friends Caz and Bex told me to wear it. They said, ‘You’ve got to look smart.’” OK! Magazine, more attuned to slit-to-the-thigh strapless dresses, just didn’t know what to think. “The less said about this the better,” its reporter remarked of Mica’s look in the magazine’s Red Carpet Report.

Mica is as lo-fi and unconventional as her sound: slightly dishevelled, with scrawly hair, slouchy clothes and that distinctively wide gap between her front teeth. When I arrive at the pub, she’s sitting outside in the blazing sun, blinking, her arms running like pale roots from beneath her T-shirt and her hands resting on her knees. She orders a glass of tap water, as if it might appear grandiose to ask for anything more.

Her appearance, her demeanour, her understated drinks order ( I coax her into a slightly more exotic apple juice and soda) seem in keeping with her approach to life and to music: unassuming and steadfastly democratic. She’d not be the one to mention that Mark-Anthony Turnage, the controversial British composer of classical music, commissioned her to write a piece for the London Philharmonic Orchestra while she was still a student, or that her score for Under the Skin wasn’t just nominated for a BAFTA but won her best-composer prizes at both the European Film Awards and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards.

Mica’s manner would instead suggest that her achievements came about through a bit of ducking and diving and not exceptional talent. Her accent is the one preferred by the city’s cool teens and twentysomethings – London overlaid with a Caribbean inflection – and her delivery is drawly. But her talk is of violas and sinfoniettas and counterpoint lessons. “I was looking at Japanese circular philosophies,” she’ll say, in a tone that sits somewhere between sulky and fascinated, “as opposed to our three chords and then a big drop.” And her shoulders will shrug beneath the loose shoulders of her T-shirt, as if she’s just told you nothing more revelatory than what she ate for breakfast.

Twenty-eight now, she was born in Guildford and brought up in Watford, a commuter town 15 miles or so north of London. Raised in a musical household – her father is director of performance at Royal Holloway ( part of London University) and an expert on music and the Third Reich, and her mother teaches cello – Mica began learning the violin at 4. “My granddad played violin, so I think I thought there was prestige in it,” she explains. “He’s got this amazing story about how he escaped from prison with his violin in the Second World War. He was a German Jew, and he was arrested, but he escaped and hid out on a farm nearby. He decided the best time to ski across to neutral territory would be New Year’s Eve, because the guards would be drunk. But he left his violin at the farm, and years later he went back to get it. So I guess I thought it was…” she shrugs. “I think I had a certain amount of obsession with it as a child.”

At the age of 9, she won a scholarship place at the prestigious Purcell School for young musicians, where she was shocked by the emphasis on discipline and would bunk off class to play football. “I played midfield, although now I think I’d be a striker,” she says. “Then when I became a teenager, I stopped playing football and started smoking weed and making music on the computer.” Flicking through the pictures of alumni on the Purcell website, you pass a number of pretty girls with freshly washed hair and made-up smiles leaning on harps and daintily bowing violins, and serious white boys in glasses, before you come to Mica, grinning devilishly at night in a London street at the end. “I didn’t have straight blonde hair and blue eyes,” she says. “I had strong feelings of rebellion.”

When a couple of sixth-formers introduced the younger Mica to electronic music, she was struck by how intimate and personal it sounded. “That was the first time that I heard what bedroom electronic music can give you,” she says. “That moment of personal delight.” Simultaneously, she began listening to a garage station broadcasting out of Watford, and mixing what she heard there with the classical and jazz that had dominated her musical tastes until then. She started making music to meet her own needs, to match the jumble of electronica and hip-hop and garage that filled her head. “The Internet wasn’t like now, where you can just get it when you want it, wherever you are,” she explains. “So you’d hear something, and if you wanted more you’d just make more.”

At the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, one of the world’s leading conservatories, the world opened up. She studied composition there from 2006 to 2009. “I wanted that rigour, and to learn and to focus – and then not use it,” she says. And like any 18-year-old let loose in London, she found herself liberated by more than the possibilities of the course. “I was out!” she says, and her face lights up. “I was really excited. It was less stuffy than school, and right next to the Barbican [the performing arts centre famed for its classical and contemporary programming]. It felt like a place where new things happened. All downhill from then on! Ha-hah!”

She met the cellist Oliver Coates, who was struck by Mica’s fluent but unfamiliar way of expressing herself – “all these short punk gestures realised on single sheets of notation,” he recalls. Another friend gave her an acoustic guitar, and she began to write songs – straightforward, four-square, unabashed tunes. “Little punk songs, I suppose, but a bit more girlie,” she says. And then, in an Internet cafe down the road from the college, she noticed “these two guys making quite a lot of noise – big blokes being quite naughty.” They were influential London MCs Baker Trouble and Brother May, and they liked what she played them on her Myspace page.

“We just hung out every day making music after that,” she recalls. “They were really fast, living these really mad lives, just totally different to mine.” They’d answer the phone and tell callers they were busy “in the studio” when in fact they were recording in Mica’s bedroom in the halls of residence. “I learned loads from them, because the way they made music wasn’t about false modesty,” she says. “It was about, show your good side and your bad side, and they just went for it.”

They also gave her her nickname, Micachu. She started using it when she played open-mic gigs around the city, and in 2009 when she released Filthy Friends, which mixed up the work of her new musical comrades Brother May and Baker Trouble with that of art-rock trio Golden Silvers, solo artist Ghostpoet, indie singer-songwriter Jack Peñate, producer and songwriter Kwes, DJ and producer Toddla T, and jazz band Troyka. Its artists were largely London-based, and its restless, wriggling energy captured the emerging sound of the city at that time. It ends with Simon Callow reading aloud from Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography over electronic beats.

The multi talented Mica is an avid football fan. Here, she wears a black wool jacket by MARGARET HOWELL and a white sweatshirt from THE VINTAGE SHOWROOM. The T-shirt on page 212 is Mica’s own. On page 210, she is wearing a black sweatshirt from THE VINTAGE SHOWROOM and her own jewellery.

I’ve seen Mica play many times. Six years ago, at Field Day festival in east London, for instance, when the tent overflowed with young hipsters craning their necks to see the day’s most anticipated new act. At more recent shows, the hipsters have been joined by music industry mainstays and aficionados, as well as a smattering of the better-dressed clientele one might expect at a Barbican concert rather than a scrotty gig. But wherever she plays, there is always a sense hovering lightly above the crowd that everyone in the room is passionate about the music and not here for the sake of fashion.

She’s a nonchalant performer, physically at ease. At that early Field Day show, she was scrunched right down, seemingly oblivious to the crowd. Her body wears the same easy shrug as her singing voice, which tends to fade in and out and meander along its lines, half mumbled, half shouted, half directed at nothing. “When you see a rock star or a classical virtuoso using their body extravagantly, it can convince you of the importance of what they are doing or of how much they’ve practised,” says Oliver Coates. “It’s liberating to have neutral body language, where every muscle is applied to the simplicity of sound or rhythm.”

In 2008, Mica signed to Accidental Records, the label set up by the electronic musician and producer Matthew Herbert. “At that time I didn’t take it very seriously at all,” she says. “I thought everything happened by magic.” She formed the Shapes with fellow students Raisa Khan on keyboards and Marc Pell on drums, and the three recorded their debut, Jewellery. It’s a highly experimental album, full of non-standard tunings, unusual time signatures and a great deal of distortion, but still a pop record.

Geoff Travis, the founder of Rough Trade, remembers the first time he saw them play live. “It was at the Paradise at the top of Ladbroke Grove, in the small upstairs room. I was just hugely excited by everything about them. An original band! Something rare and seemingly getting rarer.” About Mica, he says, “She has a presence, a seriousness and a lightheartedness. She is so much her own person that it gives you hope for the human race.” He signed her and the Shapes in 2009.

The latest album, Good Sad Happy Bad, is their third. Mica looks almost startled at the mention of it now across the pub table. “It feels a long time ago that we made it,” she explains. “It was done really quickly. It took as long to make it as it took to play it, and it was done when it was done.” The band will be touring from now to the end of the year – mostly the UK and North America but also Europe and South America. “You’re just on this mad trip,” says Mica. “Every gig feels like part of one gig. You can never really remember each individual thing. Adrenaline’s very addictive.” The three wear white T-shirts to perform. “It keeps us together,” says Mica, “though that’s loosening up a bit. Marc’s the best dressed, definitely.” He’s also the one with the caravan by the coast, where the three sometimes escape.

Mica likes tours enough to go on other people’s. In fact, she was at a service station when she got her first call from Jonathan Glazer about Under the Skin. “I’d jumped on the road with Palma Violets and Savages,” she says. “The van door was open. I thought I’d go off, sit around and have a nice time.”

“I thought she was a cheeky fucker,” says Glazer of their first meeting. “She’d never written for a film before, so it was a crash course, but she picked it up fast.” The process began at the studio of the film’s music producer, Peter Raeburn, on Old Street in London’s east end. “His studio had a wood burner which we’d stare into, and a nice garden for a kickabout. Mica would write, then we’d try it on a scene, then we’d chat. More work, more chat, more football, tea and biscuits and so on – for about ten months. And a bit of pool.”

Eventually Glazer told her to untether herself from the scene-by-scene narrative of the movie. “He talked about the feelings. He said it’s got to be sexy. He said [Scarlett Johansson’s character] is supposed to be experiencing things for the first time. The only way I could relate to it after all these discussions was at that moment when she compromises her species for these human feelings she starts to have. And for me, that was like when I was a teenager, when you’re really feeling strong emotions uncontrollably that make you act in really extreme ways. I was just trying to tap into those feelings of anger and love.” Glazer describes the result as “exquisite melodies shivering away inside”.

Writing compositions is, she has realised, “more spiritual” than creating her other work. “I didn’t think about it like that before, but I’m more of a hippie now.” She talks about a recent work for the London Sinfonietta. “I called it ‘Greezy’ – a word that Brother May and Baker Trouble taught me. It’s about morality – a greezy person will do something bad without worrying about the consequences. If you live a greezy life, it means you have to do dirty work. And I was also thinking about mortality, because it’s quite like a funeral piece. It’s quite swervy and screwed; it’s quite wavy and viscous.”

If she’s disrupting the world of classical music by uniting the London Sinfonietta with the greezy life, then she’s glad, she says. The music world, after all, is ready for change. “Race and sex are an issue. We live in quite a conservative time.” Her work as an artist in residence at the Southbank has allowed her to see how simple changes can effect broader shifts in perspective. Six years ago Oliver Coates introduced Mica to its director Jude Kelly, who was immediately impressed. “To be so accepted, practised and involved in the contemporary music scene and at the same time have such a strong classical voice,” says Kelly, “I don’t know anyone else who spans that.” Mica is currently working on a festival project for the centre called Deep Minimalism. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Jude Kelly,” Mica says. “She’s a force. Her ambition for the Southbank is really admirable. Out of any art institution I’ve ever been to, its doors are open. And you know, political movements are getting started there. Things like women in conducting, where they’re actually getting together and working out why it is that there aren’t more female conductors and how to change it.”

It’s a strange feeling, she says as we head out of the pub and into the fierce sunshine, to see an orchestra reading your sheet music – to be part of change. “You want people to enjoy playing. But this one piece I wrote was a bit shit for the violas in terms of stamina. The violas had a bad time.” She laughs. She feels a duty to the viola, she tells me, because it was always her instrument. “I started playing it as a teenager because they’re the butt of every joke in every orchestra. Nobody expects anything from a viola. It’s not the cello. It’s like, ‘What’s the difference between a prostitute and a viola player? Prostitute’s got rhythm.’”

We walk down the hill towards the heart of Brixton. After years of shuttling around London, from Bow to Clapton in the east and then Kennington just south of the river, she’s happy to be here, near one of her favourite venues, the Windmill. “There’s lots of trees; there’s a park. A lot of my friends live down south. I guess this place feels like the right thing right now.”

A few weeks later, though, she tells me she’s “not in a permanent residence at the moment. Carefree,” she says. “But not careless.”

Susan Miller

Susan Miller

Your future is her business

Susan Miller

your
future is her business

The American astrologer Susan Miller doesn’t give private readings. But then why would she? The New York native, age undisclosed, has columns in eight international fashion magazines, and her Astrology Zone website boasts more than 6 million visitors. No fan of brevity, she posts an astonishing 45,000 or so words every month. But Susan’s charmed life – which mostly takes place between her Upper East Side three-bed and the swanky Carlyle hotel a stone’s throw away – was beset by an unforeseen problem last year. When illness made her late with her predictions, addicted fans set up an Abandoned by Susan Miller page on Facebook, accused of her of lying about her health, brought her stats crashing down and lost her all her App Store stars. Once rated a stellar 4.5, she only recently made it back up to 3. Still, with a new presenting venture bringing her prolix wisdom to Vimeo, Susan’s future is starting to look brighter than ever.

Text by Penny Martin
Portraits by Katja Rahlwes

Penny Martin: You’re a glamorous ambassador for what you do, Susan. Did you make a conscious decision to distance yourself from astrology’s hocus-pocus associations?

Susan Miller: I don’t wear tie-dye, no. I mean, there’s a man who attends the astrology conferences in a pointy hat. I’m more of a dress-up person. If I could vacuum in a ballgown, I would. I think that’s probably a New York thing – the opposite of going to the opera in jeans. That’s terrible. You want to dress up for the artist out of respect, and if you go to a great restaurant, for the chef. I’m Italian, and respect comes first.

P: Do you always meet press here in The Carlyle hotel?

S: I do. It’s in my neighbourhood – I was born two blocks away in Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side – and it’s quiet. They have a very nice tea from 3 o’clock until 6, and editors rarely have to return to their desks, since all my interviews are long.

P: I notice you’re a fan of long form in general. Your horoscope for my sign – I’m a Leo – ran to 3,385 words on Astrology Zone this month.

S: Oh, Leo, you’re having your good year. Yes, I’m averaging a total of 42,000 to 48,000 words per month, but I never know how long each sign will take until I get under the hood.

P: Do you find some signs more difficult to write than others?

S: It’s more that I don’t enjoy writing the hard aspects. It takes me twice as long to write difficult news, since I have to really check that I’m right. It’s a big responsibility. I can’t go on forever, though. I have to be done on the 20th of the month to get them edited and posted in time for the 1st. This month I wasn’t done until the 25th, which was terrifying. I have to stay up day and night to get them finished.

P: When I started editing a website in 2001, I was told nobody would read anything longer than 800 words.

S: Five hundred when we launched in 1995! But you know, that was a condition of my contract with Time Warner. When I went to meet the webmaster of their Pathfinder site, I was told, “We’d like something short for women, every day,” and my response was, “No, it should be for men and women, and it should be every month. And I’m going to give a lot of detail. The way I write, the readers will come back.” And of course, in five months I was up to a million page views.

P: How many readers do you have now?

S: Recently I’ve been wondering why my traffic hasn’t been building. We’re been hovering around 6 million uniques and 100 million clicks per month. But then I realised it’s because everyone’s started reading me on cell phones, and I don’t have those figures. I’ll have to call Phunware.

P: The technical nature of online stats and mobile platforms seems rather at odds with the mystery of the stars.

S: Astrology sites usually attract high-school dropouts, but my readers are very upscale. According to the Alexa web analytics site, 43 per cent have a college degree; a further 44 per cent have a master’s. And 40 per cent are male. People usually start reading me at 25, because that’s when you begin to encounter grown-up problems: you want to buy a house or have a baby; you have to get a good job or get married and are looking for guidance. There’s a lot of pressure in your 20s. That’s why the millennials are so upset – their expectations were through the roof, and now it’s their parents who are paying their rent.

Susan wears her own dress and jewellery.

P: How do you create your astrological charts?

S: The planetary information comes from NASA, but every astrologer uses this book, it’s called an ephemeris, which is a table of the path of the planets by accurate scientific degree. Look – these are the planets, and these values here represent their distance from the earth’s equator at a given time. If a planet is out of bounds in declination – that’s to say, above or below 23 degrees – then it’s acting a bit rogue. And if the angular distance between two planets is 90 degrees, that’s a square, which predicts obstacles. A trine of 120 is fabulous – divine harmony. A conjunction is the strongest of all astrological aspects.

P: What’s a conjunction?

S: Two planets at the same sign and degree. I also use this professional calendar of planetary aspects. My job is like having eight plates, plus the sun and the moon, on sticks, spinning. You need to keep an eye on all of them, looking out for lunar eclipses and any retrograde planets.

P: And retrograde is when a planet is being dragged back to the sun?

S: Yes – say when Mercury goes 27.5 degrees ahead, the sun yanks him back. About ten years back, when I used to write a column for the Daily News, they tried to make me sign a contract when Mercury was in retrograde, and of course I refused.

P: How easy is it to argue astrological logic with someone who doesn’t believe in your profession? You must face a fair degree of scepticism.

S: It can be hard. But this is an ancient science stretching back to Mesopotamia, 2,500 BC, and still it’s relevant. We have empirical evidence that astrology works, and there are theories as to why, like perhaps certain planetary activity imprints on a baby’s brain when it’s born. But ultimately, we just don’t know how it works. We have no idea.

P: Would you consider taking part in a blind test where you had no idea whose chart you were reading?

S: They do that at the conventions. They put up the chart of an anonymous criminal without revealing the outcome of the trial – it might turn out to be OJ or someone. It’s a good exercise, but still, I don’t think someone’s fate is predetermined. You can have Uranus conjunct Mars in the 12th house, like OJ, which means he has a lot of trouble handling rage, but most people find a way of dealing with that.

P: I believe you’re very sensitive about overgeneralising about a sign.

S: Yes. My friends say, “I’ll never date another Taurus,” and I’ll say, “That’s racial profiling.” Everyone has a unique chart that will never be duplicated again – not in the future, not in the past, not even if you’re a twin.

P: Where did your passion for astrology come from? Were you good at geometry as a child?

S: I’m very mathematical, but I learned how to do this more as a way of passing time while recovering in hospital as a teenager. I was born with a very hard chart, lots of squares, and woke up from surgery at the age of 14 with a drop foot and my leg in a very tight cast. You can still see now; it’s not like a polio leg, but it is thinner. I did wear heels eventually, but I have trouble with them now.

P: Did you teach yourself to read charts?

S: My mother had learned through a correspondence class. She and her sister enrolled as a way to stay in touch when my mother left home in the Catskills to move to New York. But no matter how much I pleaded with her, she wouldn’t teach me, in case I treated astrology as a parlour game. Eventually I wrote a letter to Dell Horoscope magazine enquiring whether I would get better, and she saw it and finally agreed. Even so, I had to study for 12 years, as she had, before she’d allow me to read a chart outside the family.

P: Is there an institution where you can study astrology?

S: Yes, the National Council for Geocosmic Research in the US. It’s perfect. I didn’t study it at college, though. I studied business at NYU, and it was years before I thought of astrology as a career. My first job was in the marketing department at Life magazine. I also worked in advertising sales and was a photographic agent for a number of years.

P: Who did you represent?

S: I had Richard Smith and John Cooper; Darran Rees and Chris Bailey for cars. But my biggest talents were David Zimmerman and, before him, David Pruitt. The photographers who shot on 10-by-8 were my bestsellers: it paid to specialise in things you couldn’t buy in stock libraries, like cars, which need to be shot every year. Stock imagery really hurt the industry in the late ’90s, and I had to give up my business in 2001, but by that time Astrology Zone had really taken off.

P: Had you been writing all that time?

S: No, my first column was for Beauty magazine in 1987, which Cosmopolitan saw and then approached me to write for them in 1988. I wasn’t sure about it, since I always like to be G-rated – you know, general, for families. Cosmo’s a little…well, I’m not a Cosmo girl.

P: In what way?

S: The magazine always seemed a little bordering on slutty. And in any case, Helen Gurley Brown hated astrology. Plus they were only offering $500, which I knew from working in market research was too little. I said, “All the advertisers like Max Factor want to be opposite the astrology column. The correct price is $1,500, but we can start with a monthly fee of $1,000 for the first six months. Save up the money.”

P: You’ve a reputation for driving a hard bargain.

S: I’m very good at it. I was an agent, remember; I dealt with Coca-Cola. The secret is to be willing to walk away if you don’t get the right offer. But I’m very honest in negotiations; I never hide behind my lawyer. And money’s never been my primary motivation. I always feel if I do a good job, the money will come.

P: Has that always been the case?

S: It was tough in the early days, covering my doctors’ fees and paying for my daughters’ private schools. I was married 17 years, but my ex-husband was like my third child. He always said, “Don’t look at me,” like in some country song.

Susan is wearing a purple silk crêpe de chine blouse by STELLA McCARTNEY, a gold pendant necklace by CHLOÉ and her own earrings.

P: How did your relationship with Apple come about? Is it true they own 30 per cent of Astrology Zone?

S: No one owns a penny of Astrology Zone! I have no idea how these rumours get started. In 1999 I had to leave Time Warner; AOL were coming in. I’d written to Apple the previous year. They were in trouble at that time; the press was making fun of them. I said, “I’m an astrologer, and I’m going to bring you back.” They called me saying Steve Jobs had told them to watch out for people like me, who were doing interesting things with the Mac, and they wrote a feature on their Hot News page about “the astrologer who believes in Apple”. I bought Apple stock when it was $25, and now they’re putting me on the Apple Watch.

P: Could astrological foresight be considered insider information, then? Have there been circumstances where you’ve had to refrain from passing on your knowledge?

S: Well, I’ve had to do that with individuals. A colleague’s brother asked me for a second opinion when his doctor was refusing to put him on the list for a liver transplant. I did a progress chart, and it was awful, so I decided not to tell him.

P: Do you have any reservations about using astrology to assist in matters of love?

S: Oh, no. I called my younger daughter, Diana, recently and said, “My God, I am practically giddy over your aspects this summer.” She’s a little Scorpio and just broke up with someone, so she put the significant dates up on her refrigerator. I have high hopes there.

P: Have you had better luck in romance since parting with your husband?

S: I’ve had two very long relationships, and in both cases, the man ran into financial problems and I ended up paying for everything. But I’m kind of happy on my own. If Prince Charming came to my door, I think I’d say, “Could you come back on alternate Thursdays?” I should get together with a journalist who also has to write all the time. I’m happiest when someone has their computer on too.

P: Where do you do all your writing?

S: Mostly at home on the Upper East Side.

P: I read that it’s very swish, on the 29th floor.

S: Well, my mother used to say, “You can’t be unlucky with everything, Susie!” When I got married – I was 24 – the decorator asked me, “What’s your style?” I could only tell her this: “It’s cookies in the oven.” And she said, “Country French.” But we’ve mixed in modern things over the years. My assistant, George, has his own office, where there’s a Xerox machine. But I actually write on the couch, with the TV on in the background. I need the TV on all the time.

P: For company?

S: I’m not really listening to it, but sometimes a word will break through and I’ll think, Oh, I haven’t used that in a while. I always start the ’scopes with Aries, but after I get done with Virgo, I go down to the cafe to write, like JK Rowling. Then I’ll go to Dunkin’ Donuts; their tables are the perfect height for me. I think restaurants make the tables high so you won’t stay for so long. I’m sure Starbucks turns off the air conditioning.

P: Do you ever write in bed, like Truman Capote?

S: I do, at times when I’m writing around the clock. I have eight white pillows on my bed; I feel you can never have enough pillows. I wash my face of make-up at around 7.30 or 8, because it could be 2 o’clock in the morning before I finally wire copy to Sherie, my editor in Maine, then collapse.

P: I can’t imagine you enjoy being edited.

S: Often I read an amended script and think, I would never use that word. Some really bruise; I want softness and poetry and prefer to talk directly to one reader at a time. Compare the two main American newscasters, for example. Whereas Katie Couric says, “Thank you, everybody, for joining me tonight,” which I bristle at, Brian Williams would say, “Thank you for coming to see me tonight.” Far better. I don’t think in the aggregate.

P: Who do you read for pleasure?

S: Right now I’m reading a Deepak Chopra. Actually, I’m going to meet him next week; he’s interviewing me in Washington, just across from the White House. He was talking to Oprah last week and I had to pinch myself. I just can’t believe I’m being invited into this rarefied atmosphere.

P: Is Oprah an idol of yours?

S: I love her, but I don’t like her magazine; it’s too instructional and serious. I mean, Dr Phil – he’s too hard on people. I don’t go in for tough love.

P: Do you read other astrologers?

S: Your Shelley von Strunckel is very intelligent. And I love Bob Marks. He’s an older gentleman, a Capricorn; he wrote a book on serial killers. We love to discuss the phenomenon of Pluto–Uranus squares and their connection with world events.

P: Gosh. When I was a teenager, my school friends and I were obsessed with Linda Goodman’s Love Signs.

S: She was an Aries. Her first book, Sun Signs, had excellent timing. She wrote it at the end of the ’60s, which coincided with the hippie culture that inspired Steve Jobs so much. If you read it now, it’s really dated: all don’t-tell-your-husband-this-and-that. She also had different advice for a Pisces woman and a Pisces man. Personally, I feel there’s no distinction.

P: You’ve always been very secretive about your own sun sign and your age. Why is that?

S: I want my readers to feel that I’m just like them – whatever age or sign they happen to be. I say to Warner Books, “Do you have to put my picture on the cover of my book?” They argue that it sells copies, but I want Indian people to think I’m Indian and people in China to think I’m Chinese. Wherever they are, I’m their best friend.

Susan consults a professional calendar of planetary aspects to write her meticulously detailed horoscopes. Here and on page 199, she wears a printed silk blouse by MAISON MARGIELA and an 18-karat pink-gold and morganite ring by DIOR. The skirt, belt and other jewellery are Susan’s own.

P: You lost a few online friends last year when you were too ill to post your monthly horoscopes on time. Was 2014 your annus horribilis?

S: Actually, the absolute worst was 1992, when I had 17 blood transfusions and was housebound for a year, but last year was tough, yes. Especially when the New York Post criticised me for being late in posting my horoscopes, though I was sick in bed with a nurse looking after me.

P: Was it hard to maintain your famous affection for your readers when they took to social media accusing you of lying about your health? You’re supplying most of them with a free service, after all.

S: There was one really low day that I was afraid I was going to lose everything I’d built up. A mob of angry readers went onto the App Store and took away all my stars. Astrology Zone had four and a half, and they brought it down to one. I’m only at three now, after six months, but I’m coming out with a 2.0 version shortly, and that will erase that whole nightmare.

P: 2015 seems to be turning out better in general, with your entrée into television. You launched your Glamourscopes videos with Condé Nast in January, and now there are your monthly streaming Astrology Zone TV shows.

S: Yes, I’m working with the director Paul Duddridge – he’s a Brit – and we’re having so much fun shaping the show. I’m enjoying the media training too. Things like how to avoid talking in an “elevator voice”. And did you know women shouldn’t wear sleeveless tops on screen since it distracts attention from the face?

P: I did not. You’re so chatty, Susan. Was it just a matter of time before you were lured from behind your computer to talk to your audience directly?

S: We’re going to record in front of a live audience, yes, and we’re going to do Twitter, and we’re going to do more Skype. I love new technology – it changes you more than anything else. But I could never give up the writing completely, because it calms me down. I need the touch of the keyboard. I need it.

Saoirse Ronan

Saoirse Ronan

The Irish film star who’s on her way to Broadway via Brooklyn.

Saoirse

The Irish film star who’s on her way to Broadway via Brooklyn.

Anyone passing through Dublin Airport this summer was greeted by a huge poster of Saoirse Ronan – fittingly for one of Ireland’s national treasures. That might seem a strange way to describe a 21-year-old. But Saoirse first lit up the screen eight years ago, as Briony Tallis in Atonement, and has continued to illuminate it ever since with parts ranging from a teen assassin in Hanna to an immortal vampire in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium.

Now she’s set to dazzle us in the adult role of Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn, the story of an Irish girl’s anguished immigration to America. As a super-successful actor, Saoirse knows only too well what it’s like to be away from home. But that can’t be as hard as being continually compared to Meryl Streep.

Text by Sophie Elmhirst
Portraits by Alasdair McLellan
Styling by Jonathan Kaye

One afternoon in midsummer, the actor Saoirse Ronan walked along a clifftop path above Howth, a small town outside Dublin. The cliffs are a short drive from the small house she bought a few years ago, where her mother, Monica, now lives and where Saoirse retreats between films. It was blustery and fierce up on the top, with a view out to Ireland’s Eye, an island just offshore. In the distance, rain hammered the sea. Saoirse got chatting to some tourists from Chicago – great pizza, she noted of their hometown – and then sat on a damp rock looking out to the water. “It’s so fricking beautiful here.”

Ronan loves her country. Not in a generically patriotic, home-loving way, but with the burn of history at her back. Her name, Saoirse ( pronounced “Seersha” ), means “freedom”; she admires figures such as James Connolly and Patrick Pearse for their struggle against English rule; she wants to play Mary, Queen of Scots ( in a film currently in development, to be directed by Susanne Bier ), because she can relate to the politics, to the history of Scotland and its struggle. She’s visibly moved every time she mentions Brooklyn – the adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel that set Sundance alight in March and is due for UK release in November – because it’s a genuine, unclichéd representation of Ireland and was adapted from an Irish book, made by an Irish director and performed by an Irish cast. It shows what her compatriots can do and the stories they can tell. “I’d like to show the great things about modern Ireland,” she said as she walked, sounding like an ambassador for the tourist board. “The forward-thinking people we have here.” Ireland is her home, but it’s also her passion.

After half an hour tramping over the cliffs, Saoirse looked a little frayed by the wind. As a child actor, she was famous for her otherworldliness – those haunting ice-blue eyes, pale blonde hair, a sort of ethereal delicacy to her movements. Today, wading through gorse in Doc Martens, black jeans and a Morrissey T-shirt, she seemed decidedly of this world. If you haven’t seen pictures of her recently, you might not even recognise her – she’s 5 foot 6, her hair’s darker, and though her eyes are still blue, their expression leans more towards wry than innocent. At 21, she’s lost the pure gleam of youth and replaced it with something more interesting: wit, experience, an ability to talk improbably fast in her strong Dublin accent about anything and everything. Gay marriage, Catholicism, the horrors of Beverly Hills, Three Men and a Baby: she storms through subjects as if they might run away from her. She’s the opposite of precious – content in the mud, a prodigious swearer, quick to poke fun at herself.

After the walk, Saoirse couldn’t find her way back to her car, a silver Toyota Yaris named Barbra “after the great Jewish goddess that is Streisand”. Eventually, after an elbows-out battle through the gorse, she worked out its location, but only after a few wrong turns: “I talk so passionately about Ireland, and I don’t know where the fuck I’m going.”

Throughout this series of portraits, Saoirse wears a selection of Shetland wool jumpers and printed cotton poplin shirts from the MIU MIU Autumn/Winter 2015 collection.

Home matters more when you’re away from it, and Saoirse’s been on the road since she was small, making films all over the world. She was born into the profession – her father, Paul Ronan, is an actor ( he played Cate Blanchett’s on-screen brother in Veronica Guerin and beside Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own ), and she got her first job aged 9 in an Irish television series called The Clinic, in which he made an appearance. Soon she moved on to feature films, playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s slang-conversant daughter in I Could Never Be Your Woman. And then came the life-changer: Atonement, the film of Ian McEwan’s family saga that spans 70 years, which won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in 2008.

Its director, Joe Wright, had spent months trawling smart English schools, looking for someone to play the part of the duplicitous young aristocrat Briony Tallis. Then he received a tape of Saoirse reading the lines and was struck by what appeared to be a crisp little upper-class girl with a spark. He invited her to audition, and “in walked this little Irish kid. And I thought, ‘She’s not right at all…there’s been a terrible mistake.’” Then she started reading the lines. “And out came this faultless accent and this intensity and total commitment to the character and every single line,” said Wright. “It was blatantly clear she was the only one for the job.”

On set, it quickly became obvious that she wasn’t your average child actor, overtrained and wound up like a toy to perform. She was captivating, rendering a rainbow of emotions we tend to assume only adults understand. “I remember Keira [Knightley] and James McAvoy on the first day, looking at her and saying to each other, ‘She’s going to give us a run for our money,’” Wright said. He recalled a rehearsal with Saoirse and Vanessa Redgrave, each playing Briony at one end of her life. Though they never shared a scene in the film, he wanted to establish consistency in their portrayals. The 12-year-old and the 71-year-old stood opposite each other and performed a sort of dance, copying each other’s gestures, finding a common language for their character, equally and totally immersed.

Talking about making Atonement still fills Saoirse with a kind of rapture. When the five-week shoot was over, she found it hard to cope. “Every day just felt like a dream. At the end of it you’re heartbroken. You’re completely heartbroken,” she said. It was, perhaps, like the last day of summer camp – if your summer camp is a big-budget period movie in a stately home packed with some of Britain’s most exceptional actors.

The film also served as training: Saoirse learned habits from Wright that she still abides by, such as not watching her own work. Every week, the team would watch the rushes, but he wouldn’t let her join them, not wanting her to lose the uninhibited freedom of her acting. “I’ve stuck to that ever since,” she said. “I’ve never felt the need to watch anything back.” Wright knew the responsibility he had – here was a child already serious about having a career as an actor but so new to the job that she was still unburdened by self-consciousness. She acted by instinct, and Wright saw it as his job to preserve that instinct, to protect it.

Her performance won her an Academy Award nomination ( of the ceremony, she principally remembers being very hungry ) and opened the door to the lead in The Lovely Bones, Peter’s Jackson’s 2009 adaption of Alice Sebold’s novel recounting how a family copes after a beloved daughter is raped and murdered by a neighbour. Saoirse spent much of the film wandering around a sort of CGI purgatory of psychedelic landscapes and communicating with her grieving screen family back on earth. While the critics universally dismissed the movie, they singled her out for praise. Kenneth Turan, in the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “An enormously gifted performer, Ronan is the only element of the film that is exactly as it should be, bringing naturalness, honesty and radiance to the part of a young woman just on the cusp of life.” In fact, there had been some debate about whether she should take the part at all – her parents were concerned about their daughter portraying a rape victim. But she was already making her own choices. “Always,” she said.

To understand Saoirse, you have to meet her mother. Partly because her daughter describes Monica as her “soulmate”, but also because when you meet her, you realise why Saoirse – a child star and thus almost inevitably a human catastrophe – turned out OK. They don’t look much alike – Monica is short, wiry and dark – but they finish each other’s sentences and make each other howl with laughter. When Saoirse was born in 1994, Monica and Paul were living in the New York borough of the Bronx. Monica was a nanny, and Paul, an aspiring actor, worked in a bar. At one point, they had “about 20 cents to their name or something stupid like that,” said Saoirse. Later, when her career began to take off, Monica was her chaperone on set. “She was the perfect movie mam, she wasn’t one of those crazy mothers who was living vicariously through me, or so crazy protective that she wouldn’t let anyone do anything. But she protected me and kept me away from all the grown-up stuff that can kind of ruin you a bit when you’re a kid.” Her mother became her human shield, ensuring she was schooled and well fed and didn’t grow up an entitled nightmare. The key? “Teaching them respect when they’re on set,” said Monica, standing in her kitchen. “They’re not queen bee. There are a lot of people running around after you, and when you’re a small child you can easily get used to it. You have to teach them.”

Monica was and is unfazed by the fireworks and absurdity of a Hollywood existence. In this family, normality is prized over extremity. You can see it in their house, which is modest, the walls covered in family photos and an image of a lighthouse. There’s a blue tartan tablecloth, bumper packs of 7Up on the side and a little sign on the wall: “It takes a special friend to make you smile.” Monica had tea made and chocolate biscuits arranged on a plate almost before we’d sat down.

“It doesn’t even feel like it’s enough to say that we’re close,” Saoirse said after Monica had left the room. “We’re just part of each other, y’know?” Then she called out: “Don’t start crying in there if you’re listening!” The way the pair interacts is somewhere between a cabaret double act and an old married couple’s banter. At the moment they’re both learning to drive, and they go for jaunts around the neighbourhood in Barbra Streisand, offering a running commentary on each other’s attempted manoeuvres. (In Ireland, it seems, you can drive around without a full licence and no one really minds.) On a trip into town, Saoirse admitted, “I need to get better at the parking,” then turned to Monica in the passenger seat and said, “And you need to get better at the driving.”

Other teenagers head to college; Saoirse’s bid for independence was to go off by herself and make films. Her first unaccompanied shoot was for The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which, playing the baker’s daughter, she stood out among a heavyweight cast including Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes. It was followed by the decidedly less jolly Lost River, directed by her friend Ryan Gosling (she met him when he almost played her father in The Lovely Bones, “before he became a superstar,” she said in a recent interview. “He’s the sweetest guy). Lost River was to be shot in Detroit, “aka the murder capital of the world,” said Saoirse, and the 19-year-old panicked at the thought of telling her mother. But Monica said cheerfully, “I knew I could trust her.” Soon after that, Saoirse left home for real, moving to London to live in a flat in Highgate on the recommendation of a friend. (“Too grown-up for me,” she said of the neighbourhood. “It’s really fancy. And I’m not posh.”) She spent much of her time there on the phone to Monica, weeping, homesick as hell. When Brooklyn came along, the synchrony seemed uncanny. Here was a story about a young Irish girl, Eilis, leaving her home in Ireland and moving to America, tormented by how much she misses her family.

“Even still, I can’t really talk about Brooklyn without welling up,” said Saoirse over lunch in a cafe in Howth ( where she animatedly discussed her cousin’s forthcoming trip to Vancouver with a waitress – “When Irish people talk to each other, they’re like, blah blah blah” ). The story of Brooklyn was simply too close to her own situation, too acute in its reflection of her reality. John Crowley, the director, known for his theatre work and the 2003 film Intermission, had been a fellow Irish émigré to London. On set, he said, he’d often talked to her about missing home and how to cope. “She said to me, ‘Does it ever get better?’”

Brooklyn had started life with a different director and a different lead actor. When they dropped out and Crowley got the gig, he knew immediately who he wanted for the lead: “It was straight to Saoirse for me.” Partly it was because she was Irish – he wanted the film to be as authentic as possible. (It was her first proper Irish part, though she didn’t use her own accent but took on a softer, more southern lilt. Adapting her accent has always been important in establishing a character, she told me: “I don’t ever want to use my own voice.”) Also, said Crowley, the timing was too good to miss: “I felt she was on the cusp of giving a performance where she shows herself moving from a girl to a woman. And that is the story of the film.”

Twenty-one is a tricky age, Saoirse said, because “you’re not yet a woman. I’m a young woman, yeah. But in producers’ eyes, and people who are making movies…they wouldn’t think of casting someone who they only know from films when she was 15.” Finding the right parts in the last couple of years has been difficult, she said – “just showing everyone, look, I’m not 12 any more.” So Brooklyn felt like a gift. Eilis leaves home, falls in love, has sex, gets married. It’s Saoirse’s announcement to the industry: I’ve grown up.

Filming was tough. Saoirse is in almost every scene, carrying the whole picture. Some mornings, she’d go into the hair and make-up truck and weep from the pressure and the resonance. She remembered shooting one scene in which her character is overcome by grief. Suddenly she was hit by the loss of an uncle years before, which hadn’t particularly affected her at the time. “I just sobbed and sobbed.” Her performance, perhaps as a consequence, has an uncanny truth to it, a brutal, raw emotion that launches itself from the screen. “It’s so good you don’t even notice she’s doing it,” said Eileen O’Higgins, who plays Nancy, Eilis’s best friend in the film.

People sometimes mention Meryl Streep when they’re discussing Saoirse’s acting ability. Joe Wright made the link, and Nina Gold, one of the UK’s leading casting agents, did too. “The nature of her talent seems to stand out in the way that Meryl Streep’s talent stands out among all her peers,” Gold said. In some ways, it’s just shorthand for “She’s really, really good.” But it makes another point too. Streep, Wright said, has it written into her movie contracts that she gets three months’ preparation time before filming begins. In other words, the performance looks effortless, but the breezy effect is born of slog. The same is true for Saoirse. She says she does her job on instinct, but according to Crowley, she turned up every day “impeccably prepared” – lines learned, character fully fledged – all the better to be open to the spontaneity of performance.

This is not typical. Both Wright and Crowley spoke of young actors – especially ones who’d had early success and been told a few too many times how special they were – pitching up with patchy lines and characters only half-explored. In such cases, the director has to handhold them into producing a performance that works for the film. Saoirse gives her directors something else. “Everything I’m doing, I’m doing for the director,” she said. “They’re the ones I want to satisfy with what I do. They’re the boss; it’s their vision. It’s their film.” The reward for the director is immeasurable. “With Saoirse, yeah, she can do what you want,” said Wright, “but she can do 20 other things too.”

After every film she makes, Saoirse said, she suffers a kind of comedown, adrift without the routine and community of a set. It was worse in her teens, when she’d return home to County Carlow, a rural part of Ireland where very little happens. It had been an idyllic place to grow up after the Bronx, with a house on an acre of land, a river where she learned to swim, and a dog, Sassy, who she still talks about with the adoration only a dead pet can inspire. ( Two years on from the loss, Monica is finally going to get another: every dog they see in the street, mother and daughter wistfully imagine stealing. ) Saoirse went to the local primary school, where there were so few students that they split the school in two – the first four years in one classroom, the next four in the other. There were only two children in her year.

But the romance of rural isolation wore off when Saoirse hit puberty and started making movies. She’d come home and her peers would be at school. “It was hard to have friends,” she said. Now she’s made some effort to build a social life in Ireland. There’s Amy, who she’s known since she was 2, and Christopher, whose father is best friends with her own. It’s a familial group, cosy. Nonetheless, last year, after Brooklyn was finished, Saoirse had a crisis. “I came back here and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was like, fuck, I’m so not able to handle my emotions. I felt like I was going through puberty again, but much worse.”

So she’s been working out how to manage her life between films, partly by eating well and exercising. She goes to the gym in Dublin three times a week and keeps regular sleeping hours. In the Howth cafe, she ordered a salad and green tea and immediately scoffed at herself in a faultless Valley Girl accent: “Can I just get a leaf? Just a leaf for lunch. Can I get some dry water?” The regimen is in part a reaction to her time in London – her version of the university blowout with a lot of late nights and too much take-away. She’d celebrated her 21st birthday in April not with a huge party but with a trip to California for Coachella and Disneyland. She insisted she’d got a tan, but her skin looked off-white at best. “White white sandy gold,” she conceded. “Shut uuuuup.”

“Producers wouldn’t think of casting someone they only know from films when she was 15. I’m just showing everyone, look, I’m not 12 anymore.”

Not long ago, Saoirse’s Irish agent sat her down and asked her what she wanted to do next – what kind of movies she wanted to make, who she wanted to work with. She was stumped. “They’re really quite stressful questions,” she said, still visibly perplexed. Defining yourself, playing the game – “I was like, ‘That’s so fucking industry.’ I don’t want to be that.” She’d always thought the right projects would find her or she’d somehow find them, that she wouldn’t have to go hunting them down or promoting herself. But that’s another part of growing up: realising you’re part of a business where power and money lurk behind every creative endeavour.

Now there are interviews and stylists. “It’s almost like a requirement,” she said. “I was uncomfortable doing photo shoots and things like that at first, but when you start to meet Grace Coddington and all these amazing people in fashion and art, it’s cool.” To her incalculable advantage, she’s incapable of taking herself seriously. One day she’d love to make a comedy ( her inspiration in life and art is Kristen Wiig ). It’s one of the few genres she hasn’t done, after vampires, period drama, romance, apocalypse and fantasy. And she should give it a try: Saoirse is naturally, exuberantly funny. At one point during tea, her phone rang. She looked down at the screen and saw it was her LA agent. “That’s Hollywood calling,” she said with a flourish, fake-grand. “Talk to you in a bit, Hollywood!”

In spite of the lead roles and the Streep reputation, Saoirse still auditions and screen-tests along with the rest. “Maybe if you’re Jennifer Lawrence…” she said, imagining a life where any part you wanted would be yours. “It’s so perilous for young actors now,” said John Crowley, “because people don’t really believe in developing careers somehow; they just want to shove them into massive superhero movies” – not Saoirse’s natural territory. “People don’t always value the kinds of things she’s pointing towards,” he said. In the long run, she’ll have to look harder for the interesting work, the good writing. But Crowley has every faith. “I think she’ll have a singular career.”

In spring, she’ll play the lead in The Crucible on Broadway opposite Ben Whishaw. “I can’t wait,” said Saoirse, gleeful. And then: “I’m terrified.” It will be her first theatre job apart from school plays. “I played a tree one year. A bumblebee. A rock. Those were some of my earlier roles,” she said. In reality, she’s thrilled at the prospect, and the chance to be in New York. America is part of her, instilled during those early years in the Bronx. “Just like J. Lo,” she laughed.

“I still need time to fuck up and make mistakes,” Saoirse said. She’s lucky: she’s got a job she’s good at. But she’s got her 20s to endure, a decade famous for its agonised self-questioning disguised as a great night out; she’ll have to negotiate where to live, how to live, who to love. She’s not with anyone at the moment, her first serious relationship, with fellow actor George MacKay, having come to an end. She met him while filming How I Live Now, directed by Kevin Macdonald. “He was Saoirse’s first proper boyfriend,” said Macdonald at the time, “and, in a way, I think she was living through the same thing that the character is going through.” As with Brooklyn, life and art synchronised. Now, she’s in a try-them-on-for-size moment. “I think it’s one of the learning curves for me, just different people I’ve had feelings for, and that’s changed with each person. It’s definitely something you can bring into your work.”

Up on the Howth cliffs, Saoirse talked about the upcoming referendum on gay marriage in Ireland. She’d been campaigning for a yes vote for months, tweeting assiduously, lending her face and voice to the cause. “Sound like a hippie all you want,” she said, “but it’s about whether two people love each other, and if they do, they should be allowed to celebrate it.” Her side won, much to her tweeted delight: “I LOVE YOU IRELAND!!!!! IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY!”

Pashon Murray

Pashon Murray

and she’s got plenty to say

Pashon Murray

has a grand plan, and it starts in Detroit’s dumpsters

Most people go to the zoo to look at the animals. But Pashon Murray, 37, visits the one in Detroit to collect the manure. Then she adds it to waste gathered from the city’s cafes, restaurants and big businesses to create high-quality compost that sells for $25 to $35 per yard. She established her company, Detroit Dirt, in 2011 and was a happy under-the-radar sustainability campaigner until Ford came knocking, asking her to star in an online ad. The conviction she brought to her performance came not from theatre training but from a genuine belief in making a better world and a commitment to rebuilding her adopted city.

A business major, a whizz on the basketball court and a fellow at the MIT Media Lab, she’s garnered such a reputation that she was one of a select few entrepreneurs invited to participate in the White House’s first ever Demo Day this summer.

Text by Ann Friedman
Portraits by Daniel Riera

“Why do I work so hard? For what? For this? For dirt?” asks the young African-American woman in an online ad for Ford’s C-Max hybrid car. She’s wearing jeans and a caramel-coloured Carhartt work jacket, her hair styled in a generous Afro. Her gaze is intense, but her delivery is friendly. The camera follows her as she walks between huge piles of dirt, through a greenhouse, and into a restaurant kitchen. “I collect food scraps from restaurants,” she continues. “Manure from zoos. Manure. Do you know why? To keep this stuff out of landfills and use it to make good rich dirt. That’s why.” And, she adds, to try to make the world a better place.

It’s a shot-by-shot parody of a Cadillac commercial that caused a scandal when it first aired in the US during the 2014 Winter Olympics. That one featured a balding white man in a suit walking through his suburban mansion and celebrating capitalist American virtues such as working hard and making money while denigrating those in “other countries” as lazy for taking holidays. Pashon Murray, the star of Ford’s sharp response, made the perfect counterpoint. But in spite of her seamless performance, Pashon is no actress. The 37-year-old Michigan native is the founder of Detroit Dirt, a business that – as she explains in the ad – takes food waste from restaurants and big businesses, merges it with manure from the city zoo, and turns it into mineral-rich compost, some of which goes to the community gardens that have begun to spring up in Detroit’s empty lots. Her commercial, which went live in March 2014, was an instant viral hit. It’s been viewed 1.4 million times.

I’d watched it a few times myself, so when Pashon pulls up in her extended- cab white Ford pickup truck, I recognise her immediately, this impeccable poster girl for the city’s much-touted renaissance. Detroit’s first wave of prosperity came after the First World War, courtesy of the “big three” American automakers – General Motors, Chrysler and Ford – and the people who flocked there to work on their assembly lines. It’s still known as the Motor City ( or, indeed, Motown ), although most of the jobs disappeared as the auto industry first moved its factories elsewhere and was later beleaguered by higher petrol prices and foreign competition. Since the early ’60s, Detroit has become more and more of a cautionary tale of what can happen to America’s post-industrial cities, and while many are rooting for its comeback, others are sceptical that it’s possible to truly rebuild a city that has lost its reason to exist.

Today, as on most days, Pashon is with her operations manager, Shannon Steel, a 31-year-old Detroit native who’s riding in the back part of the pickup’s cab. We drive to a loading dock at the back of a 22-floor beige concrete skyscraper. The building’s owner, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, is a health-insurance company that’s contracted Detroit Dirt to pick up its food waste. Its office is adjacent to downtown, the area the city has most successfully repopulated through bringing back big businesses, though at street level there’s little sign of life: almost no pedestrians, no city centre hustle-bustle. On this summer morning, things are quiet.

Pashon manoeuvres the pickup backward and throws it in park. She changes out of her ballet flats and into a pair of printed wellington boots. With the help of a guy working at the loading dock, they hoist three heavy barrels of food scraps into the bed of her truck. At 5 foot 6, Pashon isn’t particularly tall, and she’s not noticeably muscular, but she’s strong and confident. “Careful pulling out there,” the man shouts after her as she climbs back into the truck and expertly reverses it back up the ramp – she’s done this hundreds of times. “Men are just funny. ’Cause I do this every day, and he’s talking to me like, you know…” she trails off.

Pashon doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty, but she prefers to use a Ford 555D backhoe loader for big deliveries. On all photos, she wears a green cotton jacket by A.P.C., a cream cashmere top by THE ROW and indigo jeans by CARHARTT.

Five days a week, Pashon picks up six or seven barrels of food waste from businesses around Detroit and hauls them to her composting lot, a modest 2.5 acres of matted grass and packed dirt at the dead end of a road dotted with a few industrial buildings. In the shadow of a tall billboard advertising an upcoming ZZ Top performance at a local casino, Pashon has five piles of compost scattered around the property. We’re near Corktown, a neighbourhood at the southwest edge of downtown Detroit that’s become a fashionable hub of the city’s renaissance, its Federal-style houses and colourful buildings accommodating the city’s newest restaurants and bars. But in the distance, I can still see the heroic but abandoned Michigan train station and the graffiti-covered former Southwest Detroit Hospital, a favourite “ruin porn” subject of out-of-town photographers looking for icons of the decay of this once-booming metropolis.

Today Pashon isn’t just here to empty the containers of food waste. She’s meeting a producer from the Travel Channel, a cable-TV network that will feature her on an upcoming show, IExplore, next year. Until recently, she had a few more large compost piles here, she tells the producer. But much of the good stuff has been hauled away for summer planting. He looks a little disappointed but undeterred. The plan is to film some scenes of the American-football-player-turned actor Terry Crews hauling compost with Pashon, who will tell the audience about her plan to save the planet – and Detroit in the process. “It’s not as hard as people make it out to be,” she says matter-of-factly in her clipped, slightly nasal northern-Midwest accent. “It’s redirecting the destruction and turning it into something productive.”

Composting, like most change, starts small. Microscopic, actually. Bacteria get to work breaking down the muffin crumbs from the office cafeteria, the half-eaten sandwiches, and the clumps of excrement from the zoo giraffes. Then, as the temperature starts to rise, bigger creatures like worms start to chow down and do their own excreting. When the process is complete, the compost is so nutrient-rich it’s often called “black gold”. It’s in particular demand in post-industrial cities like Detroit, where lead and other chemicals have leached into the soil. While there are a few companies that take yard waste and food scraps from customers’ homes, haul it away and bring back compost, Detroit Dirt is the only one targeting the city’s biggest businesses and employers – and pushing them to change the ways they operate.

The remaining piles at Pashon’s site are as tall as she is, but even when she kicks one of them with the toe of her rubber boot, it doesn’t smell bad. ( This, she informs me, is a sign of quality. ) There’s no office here; Pashon spends most of her time in her white pickup truck and does her admin from an all-amenity downtown apartment. ( She used to live in the Grinnell building, a former piano showroom in Corktown, but by 2013 it had become “a little too hectic, too in-the-mix”. ) But Pashon has her eye on a new 20-acre plot of land where she’ll be able to install a trailer or modified shipping container to use as a base. In fact, she’s meeting with the owners later today.

Pashon founded Detroit Dirt in 2011 with Greg Willerer, an urban farmer who was already planting and cultivating community gardens around Detroit. She was working in environmental consulting at the time, so she was the one who brought the business connections. They formed Detroit Dirt as a model of a closed-loop system, in which food waste is composted and the compost is used to grow more food. In contrast to open-loop recycling, where eventually materials are retired to a landfill, the idea of a closed-loop system is to create a seamless circle where no resources are wasted and no trash is ever created. “Local compost used by local farmers growing local food eaten by local consumers building a local economy,” as Pashon puts it. But she and Greg didn’t see eye to eye on the future. “His focus was composting and urban farming, but my model was to expose the system and go to these corporations and hold them accountable for their waste,” she says. In 2013 she bought him out.

At the end of that same year, Detroit filed for bankruptcy. The city had lost 60 per cent of its population since 1950 – a decline that hastened rapidly between 2000 and 2010 – which meant low tax revenue. Unemployment was high, and the local government was notoriously corrupt – former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison for extortion and bribery. So Pashon didn’t even approach city officials to ask them to support or subsidise Detroit Dirt. Instead, she went to the largest employers still standing – companies like General Motors and Blue Cross Blue Shield – and to the Detroit Zoological Society and asked them to pay her to haul away their waste. “They move slow,” Pashon says of the businesses she now works with. “It took me almost three years to get them to say yes to the first contract.” Now powerful figures such as Dan Gilbert, a billionaire tech entrepreneur who owns more than 60 buildings in Detroit and employs more than 10,000 people, are thinking of signing up, and others already have.

Even though her first name rhymes with “passion” and Pashon considers herself an activist, Detroit Dirt isn’t a charity. Shannon Steel explains, “It’s between a business and a labour of love. It’s a for-profit company, but Pashon’s not really doing this for the money. That will come – and she knows it – but she’s really trying to do what she believes God wants her to do. She had a vision about composting waste and saving the earth by diverting waste from the landfill.” In the beginning, Pashon says it was personal – it was about what she as an individual could do to improve Detroit’s contaminated soil. But as her work began to attract attention, her perspective changed. “I saw it was bigger than me,” she says. “I had to make up my mind: was I just doing this as a community thing, or was I going to give my life to this?”

In the United States, biowaste recycling mainly falls to private entrepreneurs like Pashon. In the EU, member states are required by EC directives to reduce the amount of biowaste going to landfill, but the US Environmental Protection Agency has no equivalent federal legislation; only a small number of state laws enforce biowaste reduction and recycling. And so to get her business off the ground, Pashon has relied on her friends and a close network of like-minded locals – people like Audra Carson, the founder of De-tread, a company that recycles tires; David Landrum and Peter Bailey, who set up the Corktown distillery Two James Spirits ( one of Pashon’s after-work haunts ); and others, like Phillip Cooley of Ponyride, who are renovating crumbling warehouses to provide inexpensive spaces for artists and small businesses. They aren’t speculators who are buying up buildings in the hope that other people will do the work to raise property values but hardworking entrepreneurs who are proud to be part of Detroit’s comeback. “Let’s use the analogy of the vehicle,” Murray says. “I’m only one component here – the doors in the car, or the alternator, or whatever.”

“It’s not as hard as people make it out to be. I’m simply redirecting    the destruction and turning it into something productive.”

Pashon was brought up to care about waste. She was raised two hours west of Detroit in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by her mother and father ( though technically her stepfather, he’s been in her life since she was 5, and she calls him Dad ), along with two brothers and two stepsisters. Both of her parents have roots in Mississippi, and the family made regular summer trips to the farm there where her father had grown up. “My grandfather knew what was wrong with the cows when they got sick, he knew about the chickens, he could tell when rain was coming,” Pashon says fondly. “He was in tune with nature.”

Back home, her father owned a maintenance company, ploughing snow in the winter and mowing lawns in the summer. Pashon would ride along with him on the weekends, shuttling back and forth between landscaping gigs and the landfill. These days, her dad comes to Detroit to help her on the weekends. The poetry of it all is not lost on her: “If I hadn’t gone to my family’s land in Mississippi or spent that quality time being around my dad, I don’t think I’d be who I am today,” she says. Murray studied business marketing at Texas Southern University, where she was a point guard on the university’s basketball team. She was good enough to play in a semi-pro league after graduation and worked for the Houston Rockets NBA team briefly, but she rarely if ever plays these days. “Lately I haven’t even had time to really relax or do much of anything,” she confesses over a lunch of cold-pressed juice and burritos at a vegetarian cafe near Wayne State University in Detroit’s historic Midtown.

When she was 29, Pashon moved back to Grand Rapids to help out with her dad’s maintenance company and then found work as a consultant, locating minority contractors for green construction projects and lobbying for environmental groups. She’d launched her own construction-site clean-up company, Waste Trends, in 2005. Much of her work was in Detroit – a city she’d always loved – and after a year of commuting, she eventually moved there. In 2011, she formed Detroit Dirt.

It was Pashon’s friends at the local ad agency Team Detroit who suggested she’d be the perfect spokesperson for a Ford ad touting “real” American values like community improvement. “Pashon was in it all the way, right away,” says Toby Barlow, Team Detroit’s global chief creative officer. “She loved the main message of working hard to make the world a better place. It’s one she lives and breathes.” Working with automakers whose businesses depend on fossil fuels presented something of a challenge. “I had to turn the stigma into something positive,” she admits. But since the car industry was recovering from its own bankruptcy, it was also surprisingly open to Pashon’s ideas. “That was a window of opportunity for me. They’re rebuilding their industry, so they were looking at alternative approaches: electric cars, recycling, their waste stream.”

“I believe it was like an out-of-body experience for her, seeing that ad go live,” says De-tread’s Audra Carson, who was with Pashon on the night it premiered. “It took quite a few times for it to sink in. Then we laughed till we cried and then stayed up 48 hours straight just reading all of the media. The numbers were jumping by 10,000 views.”

The ad changed everything. Pashon received calls from the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, from the California governor’s office, from Time, from National Public Radio. She joined the MIT Media Lab, the highly respected interdisciplinary research centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as a fellow – she was introduced to its director, Joi Ito, through Toby Barlow. “We invited her out to give a talk at the Media Lab, and everyone fell in love with her spirit as well as the work she’s doing,” says Ito. “She’s become quite an inspiration for our students and our faculty. The tendency for kids in our lab is to make gadgets to try to fix things. What’s great about Pashon, for us, is she’s trying to do something. She’s not interested in gadgets unless they move her mission forward.” The lab is assisting her by developing technology that helps monitor temperature, bacteria activity and data for soil variations. “Not at MIT, but elsewhere, people still ask me if I’m building a landfill,” Pashon has said. “But to me it’s like a winery. I have different grades of dirt for different uses. I have variations for farmers, community gardens, private gardens; dirt that has been aged; straight manure.”

Her MIT connection has also helped her secure the lucrative speaking engagements all over the country, which have become key to her financial security. A TEDYouth talk at the Brooklyn Museum last year found her explaining the virtues of quality dirt to an audience of spellbound students. She’s on the road several times a month now. “You can’t be a prophet in your own city,” she says.

In 2014 she was a recipient of one of the Martha Stewart American Made awards, which spotlight artisans and entrepreneurs. “She has an infectious quality,” says Stewart warmly. “She absolutely does good for her community. But really, I admire her passion.” Stewart is even playing a part in Pashon’s upcoming book. “Martha’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met,” says Pashon. “She sent me a letter recently agreeing to do the foreword.” Scheduled for 2016, the book will be partly a practical guide to composting and partly a case for making the most of waste.

Meanwhile, this year she’s partnering with the Detroit retailer Shinola, which works closely with a number of small businesses in the area. Initially she approached the company for guidance on packaging and marketing, but now they’re planning a line of co-branded dirt and gardening products. “We didn’t want to do the cliché T-shirts and all that,” says Pashon. “We wanted a product we could actually sell and people could actually use.” For Shinola’s creative director, Daniel Caudill, she’s an inspiration – “one of the bright lights working towards bringing this city back on its feet,” he says. “Pashon embodies Detroit’s never-quit attitude.”

It takes a certain kind of thinker to see the value in waste, which, after all, is not a business built on instant gratification. And it takes a certain amount of humility to want to get your hands dirty in the mess we make as we go about our lives. But Pashon’s long plan is bigger than mere compost: it’s to create energy. When waste breaks down, it generates by-products – heat, liquid, gas – and she wants to find a way to capture the energy locked inside and use it to power the city. If Detroit is a test case for post-industrial America’s rebirth, then Pashon intends to use her research contacts, local network and entrepreneurial zeal to make renewable energy a part of its story. Her first step is getting more land for her compost piles – she’s hoping that 20-acre plot will come through. Beyond that, she says, it’s down to sheer force of will, “and how many clients I end up having. At this moment, I haven’t even captured a fraction of the market.”