Styled Out: A conversation with Michelle Tea


Last Friday, awesome authoress Michelle Tea had a moment while riding in the van on the way to Pittsburgh for that evening’s "Sister Spit: The Next Generation" performance to talk with me about her teenage goth days, the Valencia film project and why you shouldn’t shave your head. Who had the biggest influence on your style as a teenager?

Michelle Tea:
Well, I was a goth teenager in the ’80s so I really liked sort of like, goth new wave, goth punk sort of stuff.  I was really into Siouxsie, honestly was probably my top style influence as a teenager.  I was also really influenced by Nina Hagen‘s style, I really loved her hair and I really loved her big crazy eyebrows and I would paint my eyebrows on really insane and like connect my eyebrows with my eyeliner and have all this insane face makeup on; and wear clown white (face paint) as foundation to get super deathly pale.  

I had really big black hair, so she was probably my top style influence. I was also really influenced — I mean I had previously when I was a little younger — been really influenced by Madonna, and I think that Madonna at that era when she first broke, when she was wearing ratty black clothes and had black rags in her hair and her hair was kind of f–ked up. I think that kind of stayed as an influence.

I think about goth — I mean there’s so many different kinds of ways to be goth, and in the ’80s there was one way that was really pristine and kind of high goth and it was kind of perfect and Victorian. I thought that looked really beautiful but I was always too sloppy to pull that off, so I was more of a shabby goth.  I must’ve looked more like a street urchin wearing like torn strapless dresses, like I always happened to be a little more messed up. 

When I was 12, I had seen the film Times Square on USA [network] at 2 in the morning when I was supposed to be sleeping and that really changed my life. The style and the fashion and the costumes in that movie were totally great. Right from the very beginning to the very end; the make up, the weird fur shrugs, the vests and hats and the crazy make up that all the girls wear and the trash bag dresses.

AE: Has the style that you loved when you were that age transitioned into where you’re at right now?  Do you still see those people as style icons or has it changed?

Well, I don’t dress goth anymore … I feel like there are elements of every sort of style I was invested in, it was like I kind — I think that you carry that with you a little bit, you know?  And maybe nobody knows that but me, but I don’t have big Robert Smith hair but I really love big hair and I really love my hair to be as big as possible all the time. And I don’t wear clown or white or make my face look really dead, but I do put very black eye make up on my eyes when I do wear eye make up. It’s pretty much still like that.  

I think that it would be weird to still be wearing the sort of subcultural look that you had in high school when you’re 39. Fashion is really vast and exciting and it would just suggest that there was no growth happening kind of in your life and I’m a lot of the same person that I was in high school but I’m also really different. 

AE: What is your point of fashion for spring/summer?  [Note: "Point of Fashion" means the focal point of one ensemble’s and is a reference originated by the Japanese fashion magazine Fruits.]

Oh my God, my point of fashion changes every day! I really don’t know what it will be, that’s so hard to answer. I think that the whole idea of "point of fashion" is that it’s really costume-y, like what is your point that day.

I think that my main point of fashion will continue to be my thigh high boots but then you know, especially for summer, I’m going to be in Mexico at the Radar Lab. It’s a queer writer’s retreat that I started, so my point of fashion during that part of the summer will be bathing suits. I basically sit at my computer all day writing in a bathing suit.

I went on a shopping moratorium so I haven’t been buying anything, because I’ve just been like, "OK, time to reign it in." I’m going to be in New York for this tour. My more recent point of fashion has been bodysuits, I’ve been really into bodysuits. I have all these like, baggy jeans and kind of high waisted and interestingly waisted skirts and stuff that looks really great with a bodysuit. I love them, I’m so into them right now.  My favorite one is like this pink one; it’s a sleeveless, floral bodysuit that I got at Topshop — the color of all the florals are light tones and it’s really great because you can wear it under sheer things or skirts.  

And just because I’m little a lot of clothes don’t fit me tightly so if you’re wearing baggy pants or a poofy, baggy skirt and you have a shirt that you keep trying to tuck in and just keeps poofing out it kind of looks dumb, so I’m really into bodysuits right now. 

AE: Do you have any shops or places that you can suggest to those who are more like you, smaller in stature where they would be able to buy clothes easily that do fit well?

I do a lot of my shopping on the sale rack at Urban Outfitters when they mark down all of their clothes to like $9.99 and you finally get the chance to pay what they’re actually worth and there are a lot of lines that they carry that make extra small which is actually fine for me, so I usually just get extra small stuff from there.  But, I don’t know, it’s just knowing what lines run big and what lines run small.  

I really am a big dork of all the "go international" Target lines, like when they do designer lines. I get really excited about it and will go at eight in the morning the day that they open. I got a really cute (Jean Paul Gauthier) black mini-dress with a big bold zipper going up the back and this weird kind of criss-cross detailing on the skirt but their line runs big, so even like an extra small might be too big on me at Target, so it’s kind of just knowing that.

Some things look good big but some things don’t. It sucks when they build tits and hips into the dress because I just don’t have them. I like to find flannels and preppy button-up shirts in the little boy’s department when I’m thrifting. 

AE: What’s the best piece of fashion that you can give to a baby dyke who’s trying to find her sense of self through her sense of style?

I would say first of all, first and foremost you don’t have to shave your head. Just don’t do it. Everyone regrets shaving their head. A shaven head looks good on very few people and chances are it doesn’t look very good on you; don’t shave your head.  

But I think that the best thing that anybody can probably do for themselves is get a good haircut. I just didn’t cut my hair for like a million years and it just didn’t occur to me to ever get a haircut and I just kind of let it grow and grow and grow and then I had this weird triangular shaped long hair and then I don’t know what happened, I just kind of like had a revelation and got a professional haircut and it just makes you look so rad when you have a good haircut. Especially if you’re butch or you have a masculine gender, get a good haircut, go the extra mile. Make friends with a cool fag hair cutter who will give you free haircuts or something.

I think that one thing to be aware of is like, rocking a really trendy style will look really good in the moment but for some people it stays for the rest of their life — I just think it’s really important to pay attention to what’s happening in fashion. It’s like art, like anything, there’s movement and new things happen all the time and it’s really exciting; you can follow fashion just like you can follow literature or music or film or any other thing where there’s people actively trying to create and innovate. I think it’s good to pay attention to what’s happening and not get stuck in some sort of weird rut where you’re like, "Oh, I can see that person came of age in 1997 and probably would like to have this person in town in… 1997."  You totally have to watch out for that. 

AE: Valencia the movie.  What can you tell us about it?

The Valencia film project is that I am inviting twenty one film makers to each take a chapter of the book and make a seven minute short film from it and then they will all be screened together at some giant, crazy art ouster. It’s really exciting and there are some awesome people that have signed on to do it, Margaret Cho has signed on to do one, Jamie Babbit, Rose Troche, Cheryl Dunye, all those awesome people who are established filmmakers are all doing some and also Amos Mac, who is one of the original folks from The Original Plumbing who is also a really amazing photographer.  

Peter Pizzi, who’s a really great independent film maker is making one and Michelle Lawler, it’s really great.  I basically asked everyone I know who makes films and then people who have been really cool, like Anna Albelo, a documentary filmmaker who has been really helpful as far as bringing in folks like Jamie Babbit and those sort of like, established queer filmmakers, so I’m really excited about it.  

No one has started shooting their pieces yet, people are starting to plan what they’re going to shoot and getting their crews together, casting who the people are going to be, but we’re aiming to be done by 2012 and start submitting it to festivals and hopefully if we stay on track and are finding the support. It needs a lot of support, it needs producers, it needs some fronting, it needs a lot of technical support in order to bring in 21 short films and kind of like, put them all together.

Michelle Tea is on tour with Sister Spit: The Next Generation in North America through May 6th. For more information, check out her website.