Blonde Ambition
The Face
May 1991
by Cynthia Rose
[submitted by Spectral Cyfre]
[images from Tricks]




Wendy James is a woman everybody loves to hate. She's blonde, ambitious and back after an 18-month absence, and by the end of the year she could be the biggest pop star Britain's got.

It's the first week of December 1990. I'm sitting in the Dunkin' Donuts lounge at Los Angeles' international airport. Six feet above my head hangs a monitor blaring MTV. And as I crane my neck to see it I catch Wendy James in action. It's the video of Transvision Vamp performing "Baby I Don't Care", with Wendy in a sequinned scanty cabaret bodice. Looking around I notice every eye in the premises glued to that set, including two nuns, a black executive, a middle-aged man with parcels, and a mum who is minding twins. Even the worn-out counter staff are pausing for a glance.

Fifteen hours later and 9,000 miles away, I disembark from a taxi in Ladbroke Grove. I pick up my bag from the pavement and peer into it in search of my keys. Just as I raise my eyes, Wendy James walks by, a sack of dirty clothes slung over her shoulder. Presumably she's on her way to the local launderette. It's a tiny if rather eerie coincidence - but the kind of thing fraught with ramifications for James, who has just turned 25. As it has with movies, beauty like hers has always played a role in marketing pop. But this decade has transformed the music biz itself: video has changed sound from an aural into a visual entity. Where beauty was once useful, it now confers incredible power. This year, Transvision Vamp intend to use it to conquer the biggest market in pop.

Which, of course, is America - where Wendy James might provide the perfect heartland sell. In that vast sprawl of malls, adolescence pours itself into any emotional vehicle: movies, records, drugs. It's a land of hormones and anxieties, a terrain where the term 'punk' still commands currency, where MTV dictates the iconography of romance, where import bins are a measure of sophistication.

From the thrust
of their punk-based power pop to the tips of Wendy's satin stilettos, Transvision Vamp are a perfect candidate for its worship. A blonde backed by three boys (five when live onstage), the band have released two best-selling albums, the second of which "Velveteen", became a number one. Their matrix is late-Seventies maverick rock - Iggy, the Velvets, punk - a raw material they approach like excitable Japanese teens confronting the English language. Which is to say they are all exclamations, juxtapositions and buzzwords. Warhol! Glitter! Sex! Leather Trousers! WOW-WOW-WOW!

Where they really hit paydirt, of course, is with Wendy James. Petite and possessing perfect features, James in person is prettier than her videos allow: in these, she looks a bit washed-out, like a Xerox of blondes who came before. But in the flesh she impresses, with personality, looks and wit. The pop papers and the tabloids combine their attentions to give her a bad-girl image: mouthy, 'controversial' and keen to discuss a politics she hasn't the brains to grasp. But that does not stop Wendy. Like Madonna before her, she equates emancipation with Getting What You Want.

Her band are now manoeuvering into position to do just that "(I Just Wanna) B With U", their first UK single for 18 months, has recently charted, in May there will be an album and in June a world tour. It will coincide with a five-track CD released across America, and, if airplay and MTV follow, the band will tour the States this autumn. Their comeback is a gamble that has America as its celebrity jackpot.

"Attacking America will be good for us," Wendy tells me firmly as she stirs a glass of café au lait. In the corner of a downbeat, dusty west London patisserie, her slight blonde self is the covert focus of every eye. But Wendy's thoughts are miles away, wrestling with multinational markets. "I feel relaxed about it," she says. 'There's no such thing as a deadline in life. The deadline is when you've got something right." She tilts her head and twirls her cigarette. 'But there is such a thing as timing in pop. It's part of a social moment and something you cannot control."

James is right. The relentlessness of pop marketing means its image can be deceptive. Madonna, whose face would seem to command the field, has endured declining sales for almost five years now - since the high point of her "Like A Virgin" LP. And the "social moment" has not come up trumps for British bands of late. Sure, David Geffen wooed the Stone Roses to sign for four million bucks. But their US record sales are hovering round 50,000. Happy Mondays have sold twice that; the Charlatans, who look like becoming our first real US success, 250,000. But these are hardly major sales figures. Perhaps the failure of the recent crop of British pop stars to repeat their success on the other side of the Atlantic conceals an important lesson - that, Stateside, British bands can make a lot of noise, but glamour still sells.

Wendy James, by contrast, is blonde as well as British. And not just blonde in fact, she is also blonde in spirit. James may be clear about glamour's illusions, but she knows how well they work. She even goes a step further, suggesting that feminine beauty is nothing to be ashamed of. Au contraire, says Wendy, it is central to feminism's inheritance.

"Women - all women - are more health-conscious, more body-conscious, than men. Men would have you believe that we dress entirely for them. But that's what they have to say to make themselves feel they're still the masters. And sure, go to any nightclub and there'll be girls there who dress to get laid. But a lot of women, myself included, buy clothes and wear them because they're beautiful. What I wear has little to do with whether I want to attract men or not." She laughs and shuffles her cigarettes. "As women get older they realize that when men are in the mood for it, they'll sleep with anything. You don't have to be beautiful and wear a wonderful dress. Glamour is something much more complex, glamour is an aesthetic thing. For me, glamour is the idea of being free and beautiful, escaping all the rules."

If Transvision Vamp's
music is a pastiche of pop's last ten years, Wendy's version of glamour and sex is half a childhood dream and half second-hand attitude. "As a youngster, I believed that glamour was absolutely reality. And I wasn't besotted with any man. Most girls had Donny Osmond on their wall, but all my pin-ups were women." Superwomen at that. "I fell for the blonde with the jewels, the whole image of the Sixties. But not the stupid Carnaby Street dolly bird thing which happened here. My Sixties was beatniks and Bardot, Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi, La Dolce Vita. Subconsciously, I think I sensed a certain liberation in all those things. Because here were these beautiful women - getting what they were after."

When she was 13, her Euro goddesses met an unlikely match in Joe Strummer. "Film fantasies, they were one thing. The first time I thought I could do it was when the punk scene arrived. Most of those glamour figures were men, but Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde were very important to me." To the teenage Wendy, however, punk was largely an image, a concept. "Mostly it was hearing the records, absorbing it as an idea."

It gave the schoolgirl a model for pop's function in British life. A year ago, that model would have been seriously out of synch with a post-rave pop world characterized by attitude and little else. The fact that that attitude was predominantly male didn't help either - glamour never stood a chance. But as the indie/dance ethos continues to fragment, a door is being eased open, and anything and everything is being let in. Even The Clash have topped the charts. Both she and her record company realize that Wendy's inspirations are no longer hers alone.

"They never went away! Because they were answering back. The punks complained about everything. When you've lived up to that point with your parents saying you're not good enough, and your teachers urging you to be an utter conformist, to have a pop star saying, Fuck teachers! Fuck parents! Join a band! Play guitar! Find yourself! - it's utterly romantic."

So 'glamour' became an amalgam of Patti Smith and Breakfast At Tiffany's . Joe Strummer's lyrics and Sam Shepard's plays - a fashion stylist's scrambled-yet-also-functional closet. Then, in 1988, she became her own pop star, with heads turning on pavements and tabloids at the door. Fame swept Wendy into an orbit where she was dining with Robert De Niro. "And that's another thing. When you see someone's got all of that on their plate, you think to yourself, 'Ummm, I'd like a bit.' You also think, 'Well, it must be real after all.'"

Which is the thing to watch, says James - not even engineers of glamour remain immune to its tricks. "Being in the media eye, you know exactly how much they exaggerate your so-called glamorous lifestyle. But certain other illusions you probably never lose. I can't speak for Madonna, but I'm still a little girl! There's still a part of me that just wants to dress up like the real stars. That's the whole thing about glamour. It's never really there. It's just a process of reaching for something else."

Many critics would claim that all Wendy does is "dress up like the real stars". And when it comes to blonde ambition, there is an undeniable debt. For without Debbie Harry, the real and original blondie, the stardom of Wendy James - just like that of Madonna - would be unthinkable.

But Debbie Harry says she would be the last to cast aspersions on those who followed her: "It takes a lot of experience to learn how to live with the media, especially for a woman. The psychological weight of it all - those expectations, those misunderstandings - can be really staggering. That's why I always tried to approach all those things through humour." Humour both sharpened and softened Harry's image, but humour has little place in an age of widespread anxiety. Whether it's pop or politics, the era of Transvision Vamp is one of tabloid wars, barely repressed panic and pervasive image crises: of hollow, worried personae prepared to shift with the prevailing winds.

And a tiny thread of worry bobs and weaves through Wendy's conversation. Part of it is her real concern over things going wrong in the world - issues like homelessness, animal rights and environmental issues. But a subtler part is the price of stardom, it's her reaction to fame's strict dictum: keep on keeping on. "The more famous you get," sighs James, "the more demands are made on your time. And at a certain point you have to delegate to other people. Invariably, you later find those jobs are not done correctly. So you constantly end up saying, 'All right, we'll write out all the lyrics. OK, we'll check the stuff on the sleeve.' If you want to control the quality, you have to control it all."

And the passage of time adds its own weight. For, like all teen queens, James is often looking over her shoulder. Phrases like "When I was a youngster" recur again and again when she speaks. And, at one point, she expresses doubt that rebellion can be bought from elder stateswomen like herself. "To a kid of 15, you know, 25 is incredibly old. Maybe they're just gonna say, 'What's the old bag on about?'"

Wendy's 1991
was meant to start with a bang. Transvision Vamp were to steam straight from touring into a third LP - then set off on a second world tour. But half-way into recording, James called a halt. "I went on holiday, went to France and sat in the sun for a month. Just took a little time out to sit and nurture my memories. Because when you're 80 years old you want to be able to look back, you want to really remember. If you do nothing but work, your creative spark goes out."

Real fame, as James knows, is a complex trans-national business, one which requires smart maneuvering beyond Britain's basic training. Transvision Vamp tested the waters Stateside on the back of their first album, but they suffered import lag - a fate peculiar to trendy UK bands. A UK hit will come out in the States, make it on college radio, and top the indie charts. But all that happens on the strength of import sales. By the time their tune gets a domestic release, it will be 'too independent' for radio's Top 40 formats.

Transvision Vamp had additional problems. Their number-one album languished, like its predecessor, on MCA America's Uni label. A vanity label created for Briton David Simone - a reward, perhaps, for his successes at MCA UK - Uni is now being dissolved. Instead, the quartet's third LP will appear on MCA proper - a label with 260 acts and a reputation for breaking soul stars and country balladeers.

The head of promotions at MCA in Los Angeles doesn't own a passport. And the label's last UK-based number one came from Kim Wilde (the mid-Eighties hit "Kids In America"). Eight hours behind the UK, MCA is doubly hard for a British band to police. "When they hang up the phone," says Transvision Vamp's manager. Simon Watson, "they know you're not gonna be in their face a few hours later."

MCA would, however, like to own the first British Blondie - and it's making personnel changes to try and achieve that aim. The Transvision Vamp camp are taking no chances. Watson is a veteran who has managed 23 US tours and visited every state except Montana, Hawaii and South Dakota. But he recently took on a partner: West Coast-based Briton Richard Bishop, who manages Pete Murphy. "Bishop," he says, "understands a UK act." He will also be able to get in MCA's face.

Thus the big machinery is being wheeled into place. But can this band - as product - succeed in playing the big leagues? Can their records cross from college radio on to CHR (contemporary hits radio - the current favoured term for Top 40 formats)? And will they cut a deal with MTV for heavy rotation? It's hard for Britons to comprehend the massive organization you need to prevail in the States. That's because, says East Coast critic Dave Marsh, "It's something which is missing inside the UK industry. They've never developed the kind of support systems artists know they can call on here." Still, everyone agrees on one thing: Transvision Vamp have a more-than-fighting chance. Berkeley-based critic Greil Marcus: "Can they make it? Sure. They're very packaged and packageable. They're simple and direct, and kids can relate right to them."

For 12 years, Texas retailer Neal Caldwell has sold records to America's second biggest radio market, and he agrees with Marcus. "Transvision Vamp? They've done well already. They got a lot of exposure because of the female singer. Other comparable bands have done well because the woman went for sex with absolutely no holds barred."

And 'no holds barred' sums up the Wendy James approach. It may not sit too well with the privileged sons of the British pop press ("In serious interviews," sniffed NME, "she's a concerned thinking woman. In the colour photos, a veritable nudist"). But James knows they need faces and bodies like hers to flog their critiques.

"In the beginning," she says, "I used to think, 'You bastard journalists, why don't you just use what I said?' But I'm a pop performer, not a politician. Even Paddy Ashdown and Neil Kinnock are watered down and misquoted - that's the nature of the game. It's all headlines and sound-bites. So they'll make you as simple and plain and cut-and-dried and frivolous as they can."

Of course, they get some help from the band. "(I Just Wanna) B With U" is a candy-coloured whisper of a pop record - but the video is a calculated paean to oral sex. As with Madonna's "Justify My Love", it looks a little like everyone involved is working too hard, like it can't really be fun. But then for Wendy James on-screen sex is a serious thing. And she prefers the traditional approach. "OK, I'm really old. But if I was a girl again what would be sexy to me is some cheekbones and a good guitar and some skinny legs and a tight little bum. Not Rick Astley wearing a suit from Joseph."

Part of her objection to more acceptable role models for teens is their hypocrisy. "So much of this game is condescending and cynical. Most of the songs and the videos today are really clean-cut. But, behind the scenes, everyone is gay or into drugs or whatever. Nothing is ever what it's made out to be." Including those teen pop mags who helped shape the Wendy James pop-star profile. "Each time something new comes along, those journalists - who are 35 - are telling kids of 16: 'They might be new and they might look exciting. But really someone was just like them 20 years ago.' What the fuck is a 15-year-old going to care about that?"

Indeed. Walk into any chainstore anywhere in the world, the one thing you won't find is pop's aural history. The pop moment was never concerned with what happened yesterday. And pop image? Even less. As Marcello Mastroianni asserts in Wendy James' favourite film La Dolce Vita, "It's usually the public who want the exaggeration."

Wendy James is convinced there is an enduring place for her with that public. And she doesn't think it matters if she conquers them through hormones before attacking their hearts and minds. She could be on to a winner, especially in America, where glam-rock has always kept its adolescent constituency. "The Americans are glamour-crazed she says. 'They just have to exploit it from everywhere they can."

But, as Wendy knows, exploitation can work both ways. "Having a visual, conceptual side is not such a terrible thing. After all, punk rock was based on three chords, a look and an attitude. It wasn't just the things they said; it was how over the top they looked walking down the street."

Wendy can be over the top herself, n'est-ce pas? She grins, her image mirrored by the table's marble top. "You should always strive for something more! If I dress to say there is something more, that must be a positive thing. Don't you think?"

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