A New Sort of Celebr-ity
by Zach Donovan
I have been following the career of Brigette Lundy-Paine, Netflix’s latest it-girl, since she first stepped onto the scene in MTV’s short-lived episodic One Bad Choice - where Lundy-Paine played a fourteen-year-old high school basketball player whose eye chooses an older girl for its apple. After appearances in V Magazine, Dazed, and Interview Magazine, and following her stunning look on the red carpet at the New York premiere of last summer’s The Glass Castle, her career seems clear-cut - Brigette Lundy-Paine is the next Hollywood starlet: young, couture, careless.
Brigette FaceTimes me in New York from the backyard of her Los Angeles AirBnb, where she is staying while she films season two of her Netflix hit, Atypical. She is painting a portrait of a yellow-ish androgyne with a long string of pearly whites beaming up at me from the canvas. She shows me around her place, which reminds me of a Mondrian painting, with its polychromatic blocks of color reminiscent of the minimalist architecture of Istanbul.
I catch her in a moment of frustration: “My publicist just killed a bunch of pictures from my Interview Magazine photoshoot because I didn’t shave my armpits.” Celebrity publicists are granted a certain number of ‘kills’ after a photoshoot - photos that will never reach the public eye. Brigette is not known for her shame. Her Instagram feed features film photos of her and Action Point co-star Conner McVicker posing nude in a gym, as well as a ‘woke up like this’ photo of Brigette with her hair curled and mouth guards still in place to keep her from grinding her teeth in her sleep, or one of my favorites - a two-photo collection of Brigette with either neon green slime or green goddess salad dressing on her fingers captioned, “Sliiiiiiiimedogs.” Brigette continues, enumerating several instances of photos killed: “Photos I staged with the photographer on set [of Johnny Knoxville’s Action Point], like where I’m eating a hot dog but we made it look like I’m sucking a dick.” We share a laugh. “I think [my publicist] has a different idea of what my ‘image’ should be.”
I can’t help but feel for Lundy-Paine, because after all, she is right. I never see her in real life wearing anything as traditionally couture as the clothes she appears in on Getty Images. In fact, most days, she doesn’t even wear makeup. But Hollywood sets up celebrities for public consumption based on how they discern power - clean cut, well-groomed, stylish, unattainable. My time with her recently paints a different picture of Lundy-Paine, and a new portrait of what it means to be young, feminine, and famous.
A week prior to this phone conversation, I find myself at Brigette’s Brooklyn apartment. It’s a Tuesday and we’re getting ready for a night out. Brigette enters the room carrying a couple of glasses with ice and a bottle of Bulleit Rye. She pours us drinks and we share a toast to, I can’t remember, maybe youth. We drink.
Brigette reveals a tube of pink lipstick. “This is not mine,” she says as she begins to put it on her eyelids in thick, stark lines of makeshift eyeshadow. She shows me a picture on her phone of a model with the same makeup: “This was my inspiration.” She sips her whiskey, not the vodka soda or cosmopolitan oft associated with young Manhattan socialites; she has no interest in the palatable.
Just a few days earlier, I accompanied Brigette to a party at her mom’s friend’s house on the Upper West Side. Her mom requested that Brigette help to get all of the adult guests to dance, and so Brigette became the DJ of the evening, requesting several times to use someone else’s phone to play music. She plays Bruno Mars and presumably breaks one set of speakers with Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” but either way, she has set herself up to please the crowd.
After connecting to new, more capable speakers, the adults begin making requests. “Madonna!” they say, “ABBA!” they say. She abides for a bit, then puts on Princess Nokia’s “Tomboy.” Nokia raps about, “My li’l titties and my fat belly/ my li’l titties and my fat belly/ my li’l titties and my fat belly/(that girl is a tomboy),” over which Brigette sings along with different words: “My big titties and my flat abs/ my big titties and my flat abs/ my big titties and my flat abs…” She is more a tomboy than the girly girl image that dominates her profession, but there is also something distinctly un-tomboy about Brigette’s demeanor. She sees it too, willing to play along with mainstream convention, but daring to alter it slightly, knowing that her loyal fans, friends, and family, will stand with her, advocating for something different. The adults from ten minutes prior have disappeared into the kitchen for another drink.
Fast forward a few months and Brigette is on the red carpet for the Marie Claire Fresh Faces event in LA. She attends in a nice black outfit, nothing too flashy, she has to keep it simple since she is also wearing heavy eye makeup and a goatee. She looks like Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction. I think this comes across as a big Fuck You to the event hosts more than anything, but it is a funny stunt, and a great challenge to the tried and true beauty brands hosting the event: why can’t a woman be hairy and beautiful without also adopting the label of tomboy?
“Clothing should hang from your body, like skin dripping off bone.” Back in her Brooklyn bedroom, Brigette wears a giant black sweatshirt that cuts off mid-thigh. It’s either some designer piece or her latest thrift store purchase. I don’t ask because it would be impossible to know if she’s telling the truth, and, frankly, Brigette does everything in such earnest that the truth doesn’t matter. She tells me about another event she attended in LA - some fashion event that she tried really hard to get into. Trans icon Hari Nef was in attendance, along with some other young queer celebrities. Brigette tells me that she tried to get a picture with Nef and some other Netflix series actors including the guy who plays the main gay character from 13 Reasons Why, but for whatever reason, every time they tried to take the picture he would look away. And it’s these earnest attempts to assimilate into her own culture without sacrificing her personal interests that set Brigette apart from the crowd.
In this era of political activism, we expect celebrity involvement, and in some cases we vilify those celebrities who choose to remain silent in these issues. This is also true of the twentysomething liberals demographic - if you’re not using your platform to raise awareness of the most recently exposed injustice, you are taking the side of the oppressor. Brigette, I imagine, feels double the pressure to engage in this conversation, being both a celebrity and twenty-three-year-old. Last August, the day after a highly attended, highly publicized protest outside a certain tower in Midtown NYC, Brigette texts me in the morning, asking if I want to go protest with her. I agree, but offer the stipulation that I have to be at work at 1. We meet in Brooklyn and take the L train into Manhattan.
“Are there protests happening today?” I ask.
“I think so, why wouldn’t there be?” Brigette responds. “I wish we had brought signs.”
We are empty handed, we realize. But maybe our voices will be strong enough. As we continue on towards the tower, we see a dead bird in the road. We joke that we could protest with the wing of a dead bird instead of a sign. Brigette chants: “This sym-bolizes what you do to America: tearing off our wings, so we can’t fly!” It’s a bit more Ozzy Osbourne than we’re cut out for, but a funny idea nonetheless.
Of course, when we arrive, there are no protesters, but the building is open to the public. With no plan, we head inside and make our way through security. We go upstairs to the Starbucks and make small signs with notebook paper and ballpoint pen. We head back downstairs to a velvet curtain backdrop we spotted on our way in - a perfect place for whatever demonstration we will make.
We set up our stage - we've been in front of a velvet curtain before. We reveal our signs, each displaying text from the recent demonstrations in Charlottesville, NC including a quote from Heather Heyer, one of the civilian women slain in the protests: "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." Within five seconds, we are approached by a few security guards who tell us signs are prohibited and we must put them away. We honor their request, but Brigette starts chanting: "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." This only angers security more. Through a series of negotiations, they decide it's not a disturbance if Brigette chants at a conversational volume. We're standing our ground pretty well; they have painted the picture that I am Brigette's boyfriend, and I don't deny it - I figure it will make for a better story in the long run.
Now, as the middleman and rational pawn in this hostage negotiation, the policemen talk to me about the options: either I take my girlfriend, Brigette, and leave the property or risk being sent to Riker's Island for six weeks. I turn to Brigette and suggest that actually our demonstration was not having the intended effect, disregarding the fact that we had not planned any part of this stunt. Unrelenting, she says to me, "If you're not outraged you're not paying attention." It's the strangest case of Stockholm Syndrome; I feel like the young Natalie Portman's Matilda in Leon The Professional, except, not only am I the young girl in love with a hitman, I'm the hitman in love with this young wonder, wise beyond her years.
At this point, the whole ordeal has escalated as high as it can escalate. Brigette turns sharply to the security guard and delivers one final remark, before grabbing my arm and storming out through the atrium café just outside the tower, security in tow to make sure we were really finished. Once we get outside, Brigette shouts: "FUCK! I'm so mad. It's a public place, and I kept thinking that, if Shailene Woodley got arrested at Standing Rock, I can get arrested." She's right of course - Shailene Woodley did get arrested during the 2016 #NoDAPL protests at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, but I assure her that it's okay that we left; there will be another bigger, better opportunity to get arrested for a cause another day. We part ways (I have to get to work).
What Brigette says about Shailene Woodley has really stuck with me. Woodley is not dissimilar from Brigette. She's been playing the game a bit longer, sure, but by and large, it seems to me that they're playing the same game. I think about how Shailene Woodley was probably not the only person to get arrested at Standing Rock, and I wonder whether Brigette sees Woodley as role model or peer. And the more time I spend with her, the more I wonder whether I see Brigette as role model or peer, and whether it's possible, especially in this situation, for both options to be true. Celebrities are people first, after all.
Celebrity coverage in America is confusing, in that consumers value authenticity and accessibility more than ever. Take Kim Kardashian for example. Her entire brand has been built around this idea that celebrity role models are as in touch with their fans as they are untouchable. We argue with and eat salad with our siblings. We are embarrassed by our moms who are only trying to help us. The Kim Kardashian the world fell in love with is not the airbrushed model from the magazine covers - it’s the living, breathing, funny, flawed, human Kim that we can’t get enough of. Any issue of Us Weekly is riddled with features about how the stars are just like us - and they are! Like Brigette, I too live in an apartment in Brooklyn. The only difference is that I am not the subject of a magazine article. As consumers, we've begun to idealize the very lifestyle we already live. The celebrity/civilian landscape has been molded into this strange dystopia where everything is true and everyone is his own self, but we all aspire to be a version of ourselves that we have already achieved.
I think about one other night I spent with Brigette, two summers ago. We get duped into going to this literally gay party on the west side of Manhattan. You know, like 47th street between 11th and 12th avenue - crazy out of the way.“Didn’t I send you a discount code?” the promoter asked me as we each handed a twenty to the door person. I did not receive a discount code.
I have a backpack on in this club, what I consider to be the cardinal sin of any social scene. In the whole 90 minutes we’re there, we run into several people we know. I remember a drag queen dressed in trash, and I remember Brigette and I talking with a friend and commenting how the dance floor looked like it was full with several sets of twins - “Everyone is dancing with someone who looks exactly like themselves.” A sea of shirtless gay boys writhes on the dance floor. I remember wanting to be them, but being glad that we weren’t.
We leave the party early, even though we had to pay to get in. We turn the corner to head downtown and catch our train home, but maybe a block and a half from the party, we see a girl, probably a couple years younger than we were, passed out on the sidewalk in a nice cocktail dress, covered in vomit, phone in hand. Brigette stops and tries to wake her up. “It’s not safe out here, we just want to help you,” Brigette assures the girl, though this girl is so intoxicated that I’m not sure she is hearing what Brigette is saying at all.
We ask, “Where are you coming from? Where are you trying to go? Who were you with? Where are they now? What’s your phone passcode? Where do you live?” These last two questions are crucial. The girl somehow gets us these two pieces of information before she becomes completely incoherent. I suggest we call the last person she texted - in her phone as something like “Cocaine mama.” I remember because the girl also tried to assure us that there was no relation to any drugs, it was just a nickname she gave this particular friend.
We try a few times to get Cocaine mama on the line before she calls us back. Brigette swipes her own finger through a layer of vomit on the phone’s screen to take the call. Cocaine mama is upset because she and the rest of their group realized they had lost their friend and searched for her for some amount of time before giving up and going to Staten Island. That’s where they are now - Staten Island. I can’t think of someplace further from where we are now, or more difficult to get to, than Staten Island. Cocaine mama hangs up and we cannot get ahold of her again.
We decide that we need to get her home. We hail a cab and give the driver her address, but he refuses to drive our unconscious friend unless we ride with her. In hindsight, this makes perfect sense, but in the moment, it was only frustrating. After realizing our only option is to ride with her, we get in the cab and we’re off.
Brigette sits in the front seat and somehow gets ahold of the girl’s mother to let her know we’re on our way, but it’s an hour cab ride to the address in Ozone Park, Brooklyn. Brigette and I have lived in New York for 5 years at this point and neither of us have been to Ozone Park before, and in the years since this night, we haven’t been back. It is far. We expect to get to her house by 2am.
The drive I remember as the most beautiful drive I’ve been on. Once you get off the West Side Highway, you hit the Carey tunnel under the East River and you emerge near Carroll Gardens, weave through Gowanus and past the Green-wood Cemetery, through Sunset Park and around Bay Ridge, and you can see the Verrazano bridge, and that’s already pretty far. We keep driving and pass Coney Island, where Brigette and I went to celebrate my 21st birthday. I point, but Brigette is asleep in the front seat by now. Beyond Coney Island, I don’t remember what there is. It really seems like we could have driven forever, just the four of us, and I would have been content.
We arrive at the girl’s house and are greeted by her mother, worried but grateful. She pays the cab fare, and the driver finally understands the dynamic of the situation. He drives us back to Brigette’s apartment in Williamsburg. Brigette and I share an exhausted laugh on the street and embrace. “Come in, have a drink, sleep over,” Brigette offers. It’s basically 3am at this point, so I politely decline and walk home - I have to be at work at 8.
Maybe my relationship to Brigette Lundy-Paine seems more personal than professional, but I think this more individualized, independent experience of celebrity is crucial to how we consume pop culture these days. We all want to feel cared for, even by people we will likely never meet. I think about this when I think about Brigette, especially as she has begun to carve out a place for herself in an incredibly competitive workforce.
Earlier this summer, Brigette and I briefly meet in the backyard of a Brooklyn coffeeshop. We both order the iced tea. Brigette orders the egg salad sandwich on a croissant. She offers me half, but I decline - I’m not sure if I like egg salad, but I appreciate the gesture. We talk about work and relationships and travel and spend just as much of the conversation laughing as we do sitting silently. What sets Brigette apart from the crowd, for me, are these moments where she employs her own individuality to make us feel important, whether we’re friends, colleagues, or fans. How I experience Brigette, personally, is not all that different from how we collectively experience Brigette; my moments may be longer, more tangible, and more contextualized, but by and large these are landmarks of our time together --picture perfect reminders of a shared experience.
Long before any of this - the fame, the parties, the fashion, the protests - Brigette and I are in class together: the Suzuki method, an acting training based in strength, stamina, adaptability. Part of this class involves running in a small studio space with about twenty other people, diving into and through empty spaces without hurting the people running with us. Brigette tells me often about how she has internalized this exercise, how ‘they’ always say that nothing sets you apart from your competition, but there is literally nothing left to set someone apart from the crowd: “everyone has already been weird, so the threshold for what makes [a public figure] weird is so much higher.” This past spring, Brigette posts Instagram stories from the set of Atypical, of her climbing into small cabinets in her trailer and closing the door behind her. I don't have the video to show you, due to the fleeting nature of the Instagram story, but I think the platform serves this performance. The images are strange, but it's in these elusive moments that we get to know Brigette best. ♦