Can a Thriller Capture the Feeling of Being Watched?

Can a Thriller Capture the Feeling of Being Watched?

Can a Thriller Capture the Feeling of Being Watched?

Calla Henkel’s Other People’s Clothes mines the gossip and sleaze of early 2000s culture to tell a story about celebrity obsession and spectacle.


Long before the advent of reality TV, the rise of social media influencers, and the first invasive rush of 24/7 paparazzi, Jenny Holzer somehow managed to predict all these developments in one of her provocative and spooky fine-art texts. “A real torture would be to build a sparkling cage with 2-way mirrors and steel bars,” the artist wrote in Inflammatory Essays (1979–1982). “In there would be good-looking and young girls who’ll think they’re in a regular motel room, so they’ll take their clothes off and do the delicate things that girls do when they’re sure they’re alone. Everyone who watches will go crazy because they [won’t believe] what they’re seeing but they’ll see the bars and know they can’t get in. And, they’ll be afraid to make a move because they don’t want to scare the girls away from doing the delicious things they’re doing.” Holzer cannily does not specify exactly who this set-up is a torture for—the audience, denied the opportunity to actually touch the objects of their voyeuristic desire, or the pretty prisoners who do “the delicate things that girls do” without realizing they are caged. The resulting image, halfway between a runway show and the premise of a stylized slasher film, suggests a balance between the observer and the observed that could explode into either eroticism or violence at even the slightest tipping of the scales.

I thought about Holzer’s piece when I read Calla Henkel’s Other People’s Clothes, a thriller about two beautiful young women who know that they’re being watched and who decide to act deliciously, indelicately, and dangerously regardless. Because it is set at the tail end of the 2000s, at the height of tabloid celebrity coverage and the peak of reality TV’s popularity, its protagonists, Zoe and Hailey, are the types to read that passage from Inflammatory Essays and see not a form of torture, but a perfect business model. Raised on MySpace and the Paris Hilton sex tape, up-skirt shots and America’s Next Top Model, they have come of age at a particularly strange time to be female—one in which the definition of “empowerment” has expanded to include, conveniently, the exchange of one form of exposure for another. By 2007, it had never been easier to be a woman who is famous for being famous, provided one can put up with being surveilled, bullied, and graffitied on by Perez Hilton.

Zoe, who begins and ends the novel in a mental institution and relates most of the narrative via flashback in a conversation with her psychotherapist, is less affluent, more intellectual, and a little obsessed with Hailey. Hailey, an arresting redhead and the heiress to a supermarket chain, is rich, obnoxious, and addicted to the exploits of celebrities. The two women, both Americans and both students, become roommates in Berlin after enrolling at an art school, renting an apartment from a writer of airport thrillers by the name of Beatrice Becks. Beatrice, who is prim and serious and resembles Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, is intrigued by a salacious detail that Hailey blurts out at their tenant interview: Zoe, who grew up in Florida, is dating the ex-boyfriend of her murdered childhood friend. “She had no filter,” Zoe thinks disgustedly. “No breaks.” Hailey, a former child model who became infected with the desire to be famous at a very early age, once smashed her nose with a lacrosse stick so that surgeons would replace it with one that was “perfect, like a children’s ski slope,” after failing to book “like, four Neutrogena ads”—a detail that is illustrative of her willingness to suffer, to disclose, and to debase herself in exchange for what she perceives as her true destiny. She longs to be seen, to be worshipped, and to turn herself into a glamorous, Warholian “art star.”

There is an element of sadomasochism in Hailey’s pursuit of the spotlight, and in this sense she is entirely in step with the requirements of the era. The recent relitigation of celebrity gossip coverage from the late 2000s has helped reaffirm its cruelty, with women in particular being hounded for slight, sometimes contradictory reasons. A previously unthinkable level of paparazzi coverage meant that starlets—not yet used to the idea that their every action would be documented—drank to excess, went out without underwear, fed their babies Cheetos, and crashed cars as if nobody would be watching. Hailey, insulated by her family money and her cocky, bratty attitude, seems to have been bred like a racehorse for this very particular brand of stardom, prizing strategic exposure over privacy or boundaries. When she and Zoe begin to suspect Beatrice of surveilling them in order to get material for her latest novel, Hailey argues that the most artistic thing for them to do would be to behave not as subjects, but as bona fide collaborators, giving the author something shocking to record. “We have to become spectacular,” she says, her eyes “glittering” with mania. “We could build a real spectacle.”

Other People’s Clothes is a very similar kind of book to the ones supposedly written by Beatrice, swift and pulpy and relatively straightforward in its prose. It employs two classic literary tropes: the wide-eyed, impoverished acolyte swept up in the excessive lifestyle of a hedonistic, wealthy extrovert, and the symbiotic and stifling female friendship that turns increasingly dark. Zoe and Hailey have the kind of love-hate bond that would, in a romantic couple, be described as “toxic,” the line between regular pals and what tabloids often euphemistically describe as “gal pals” blurring until what we’re seeing becomes as unclear and fuzzy as a photo taken by a paparazzo from the bushes.

“You get fixated, don’t you?” Hailey asks Zoe teasingly. “You’re fixated on me right now, aren’t you?” Zoe, who has recently spent an intoxicated evening dressed in Hailey’s clothes and posing as her at a nightclub, can’t deny it. What makes Henkel’s novel interesting is its acknowledgment of the parity between damaging and obsessive female friendships and the damaging and obsessive relationship many young girls had with the famous women of the naughts. When she isn’t busy trying to draw attention to herself, Hailey often theorizes about the societal function of both celebrities and celebrity gossip, seeing women who make “trainwrecks” of themselves, in tabloid parlance, as extreme performance artists. In doing so, she recontextualizes the worst moments of their lives as acts of radical empowerment, her thesis conveniently disavowing their humanity in favor of envisaging them as machines for entertainment. “You know she shaved her head on my birthday last year?” she says of Britney Spears. “It was a cosmic sign…. She deserves more credit. She’s just out there living her fiction.” Later she gushes about the media coverage of Amanda Knox, the American student wrongfully convicted in Italy of a woman’s murder in 2007: “By far my favorite piece of performance this year…. The thing is, Amanda looks like a sexed-up Joan of Arc.”

An international pop star publicly rebelling and a pretty woman suspected of murder, Hailey seems to say, are kin, both modes of being famous ultimately generating column inches and provoking conversation. We are left to wonder what kind of celebrity she hopes to be, exactly. To pique Beatrice’s interest, Hailey establishes a speakeasy inspired by Studio 54 and Max’s Kansas City in the flat; the resulting parties, in spite of having been dressed up as bohemian “happenings” for the glittering Berlin art scene, end up being animated by the same ill-advised hook-ups, catfights, and vomiting fits that characterize The Real World or Jersey Shore. Other People’s Clothes is, in effect, a period drama about an extremely recent time in cultural history, and its occasional seediness cleverly mirrors the pervasive grubbiness of the 2000s, the same air of threat and judgment that hung over many of the decade’s “bad girls” taking root as Zoe and Hailey begin watching and commenting on each other just as mercilessly as they presume Beatrice has been doing. (When Hailey uncovers an interview online in which Beatrice teases that her latest novel, The Dull and the Dead, will be about “two young girls who…see themselves as celebrities…but of course, they are not,” she is less unhappy about the confirmation that their landlord has been spying on them than she is about the fact that Beatrice thinks she’s boring.)

Every decent reality series needs a memorable bitch, and Henkel—like a good producer—spends most of the novel amplifying Hailey’s ugliest qualities, building her into the kind of monster that would make incredible TV. Still, Zoe, in spite of being outwardly less bitchy and obnoxious, is not only dating her dead friend’s ex-boyfriend, but admits that she first slept with him immediately after her friend’s funeral. By the time we reach the equivalent of the book’s season finale, which girl poses a greater danger to the other is unclear.

Ultimately, one’s enjoyment of this novel will depend on the degree to which one buys into the merging of pop culture and fine art that Hailey preaches. For my money, even if her approach to the subject borders on the sociopathic, she is not exactly wrong. Britney Spears’s removal of her hair, as many artists and scholars of popular culture conclude now, certainly was a novelistic reauthoring of her narrative, her awareness of her audience suddenly so acute that she could think of nothing more appropriate to do than make herself “a real spectacle,” with emphasis on the “real,” turning herself from Britney Spears the sexual symbol into Britney Spears the hairless punk. It was also the beginning of a very dark period of both literal and metaphorical confinement for the star, her conservatorship functioning more or less exactly like the mirrored cage Holzer describes in Inflammatory Essays, or like Zoe and Hailey’s mysteriously monitored apartment. Who would not begin to lose their mind at least a little under 24/7 surveillance?

For some years, I have remembered reading an especially scurrilous rumor on a message board about the reality series Newlyweds, which aired between 2003 and 2005—namely, that although we saw selected highlights of the marriage between the two Christian pop stars at its center, the house MTV had moved them into was in fact covered in hidden cameras, capturing shit and sickness, intimacy and extramarital affairs. While the rumor was presumably unfounded, in the climate of the 2000s, it did not feel that implausible. Stranger things, and crueler things, certainly happened to a number of female celebrities throughout that decade. I have always thought this particular bit of hearsay would make excellent material for fiction: two beautiful young Americans being secretly filmed for unknown purposes, maybe blackmail or perversion, doing the delicious things their audience always suspected them of doing while the show was off the air. Calla Henkel, in writing Other People’s Clothes, might have beaten me to the punch.

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