k.d. lang’s “Sexuality” and Me

· Updated on May 28, 2018

When I decided to move to New York City, I was lured by its promise. I grew up in a part of Long Island where famous people never ventured or, to the best of my knowledge, originated. Exactly zero cinematographers thought it was a fine setting for a cosmopolitan film. Books, movies, and music were as mysteriously and remotely produced as cans of yellow cling peaches.

But only two hours away, there was no TV-screen membrane between regular people and household names. I walked into the corner bodega after feasting on cheap 6th Street Indian food just as Debbie Harry slapped down some sundries next to the register. My friend Frank saw Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick brunching alfresco all over Soho. I got turned around on the Upper West Side and asked a jogger for directionsand he turned out to be Peter Gallagher. Gabriel Byrne gave me the eye at a Details party. Willem Dafoe held the door open for me at the ATM machine on Broadway just north of Houston.

After my friend Jenny’s birthday party in Tribeca, she teased me for being tongue-tied around Harvey Keitel. It was only a few years after The Piano. As he diffidently picked at his salad, I couldn’t stop thinking about his character’s gnarly finger, slowly circling the skin revealed by the small round hole in Ada’s stocking, and the torrential, tragic, and un-regrettable lust it released. Or was it that I couldn’t stop thinking about the skin revealed by the hole?

In my early twenties, I supplemented my tiny administrative salary with side hustlescatering, babysitting, proofreading, and a handful of times, I worked as a wardrobe assistant for fashion shoots. My first was my most memorable: the video shoot for k.d. lang’s song “Sexuality.”

In my senior year of college, I fell in love with lang’s album Ingénue. In cold, icy, slushy Buffalo, in my drafty apartment with the knocking, feckless radiators, her velvety, supple voice filled me with an ineffable warmth. Back then, I could barely imagine that I’d pull off moving to New York City, let alone be in a room smaller than an auditorium with lang.

I woke up before dawn, dressed myself in a short knit dress, thick warm tights, brown Fluevog sample sale Mary Janes. I fussed with my curly hair, pushing the top pieces away from my face and into what I wanted to seem like a careless-looking bun, and then applied lipstick, blush, eyeliner, and mascara. I was too nervous to eat breakfast, but thought there’d be some food at the shoot.

The F train rattled me uptown from the East Village. My shoes’ thick wooden heels clopped on the frosty sidewalk like the hooves of ribboned horses that waited for carriage passengers at the bottom of Central Park. Whenever I saw the horses, I remembered a passage in Anaïs Nin’s diaries that electrified me when I came across it: she and a friend named Caresse, in a horse-drawn carriage, being driven through Central Park at night, Caresse’s hand inside Anaïs’s coat.

When I arrived at the address the stylist, Jackie, had scribbled on a piece of paper, I saw a looming, moldering, patina-stained mansion squatting on the corner, bookended by prim limestone edifices, like a wild aunt wrapped in dark feathers, stirring things up at a quilting circle. I gave my name to the young man with a walkie-talkie guarding the door, and he let me in.

Jackie looked at me, head cocked, amused.

“You look so nice,” she said, managing to intimate that looking so nice was a gaffe. “Do you have anything to change into?”

At the soigné magazine where we both worked (I was the striving office manager with an eye toward scoring bylines; she was the fashion editor), I never seemed to be well-dressed enough. I could not compete with the socialite staff, who banged around in cashmere sweaters, Joseph pants, and Gucci horsebit platform loafers. I was way too poor to pull that off. I was getting paid in two days. In the meantime, I was broke. And at this oddly wonderful gig, I was overdressed.

“No. I’ll be fine,” I managed. I wasn’t exactly there to help raise a barnI was there to help Jackie with clothes.

I later realized that I should have been wearing sneakers, trousers, a nondescript topthe tailored version of weekend chores-wear. And as a woman secretly, epically thrilled to be working on a k.d. lang video set, I later realized that I also missed the mark. My appearance was seamlessly straight-girl. I wore no rainbow jewelry, had no rakishly shaped hair, or edgy piercings. I cluelessly dressed up for k.d. lang the way I would prepare for a date with a man. And this made me invisible. My desire was not visible, nor was the Out magazine in my backpack with her on the cover. I hoped to ask her to sign it at some point, but didn’t know if I dared. The New York rule was to act like celebrities weren’t celebrities. Especially if one was hired to assist them in some capacity. And why did I even own an Out magazine? What did that make me?

I watched dry, papery leaves drift across my suddenly stupid shoes in the cavernous former ballroom. The floor beneath my feet was an old marble parquet of black and cream geometries. Grand, discolored chandeliers hovered high above us. In a far-off hallway, an exposed staircase edged with cast iron Art Nouveau patterns snaked upward in a spiral. Paint peeled. Moldings drooped. Against the palatial drear, the prop master’s objects seemed to glow from within: an undulating, red velvet chair that reminded me of a plush vulva, a large rococo mirror ensconced in a voluptuous frame.

I’d helped Jackie assemble clothes for k.d. earlier that week. When she received lang’s normal person measurements, she cast aside her women’s wardrobe binder and pulled out the men’s. We called in dark trousers and jackets, a handsome wool coat with bronzed military buttons. She had probably never before dressed a woman who wasn’t a model sample size, let alone one so masculine. So confusingly, deliciously masculine.

By 1996, lang had shed the aw-shucks “Big Boned Gal” image of Absolute Torch and Twang. The mainstream millions associated her with the sultry, accessible, cabaret timelessness of 1992’s Ingénue. Three years later, on All You Can Eat’s album cover, she showed up in a blazing, sherbety, Japanese anime iteration; still iconic, but less mythic.

But in the video for that album’s track “Sexuality,” director Marcus Nispel decided to navigate her back into Ingénue’s moody shadowsan apt place to sing about lesbian sexuality in 1996, three years after the iconic k.d. lang/Cindy Crawford lesbian chic Vanity Fair coverwhen lesbian chic couched an eternal constant craving in the raiments of a fad.

Now, 1996 felt post-lesbian chic. My lifelong lovemy dreamto make my living as a writer sparred with my quicksilver same-sex attractions. I believed, perhaps erroneously, that adding “gay” to my other misfit qualities at work would nudge me off track and toward the obscurity of my origins. But I hadn’t had to claim it one way or the other, anyway. People assumed I was straight.

After we assembled the metal racks, plugged in the steamer, and hung up the clothing, Jackie and the other assistant brought the first outfit over to k.d.’s trailer while I tidied up. Jackie had armed me with a plastic lint rollerthe kind with a swiveling roll of sticky tape.

For what seemed like hours, I clenched it on the sidelines, waiting to spring into action. I was awed by the dozens of people with tons of equipment dollying back and forth with their lenses and their lights, creating the kind of scenes that I’d consumed as a kid while watching MTV for hours. I was on the other side of the TV-screen membrane.

lang had a hairstylist and a makeup artist that were part of her posse, and the three of them clearly had great rapport, although they dripped with that oddball-suburbanite-refugee snarky clique-iness that is especially impenetrable. I noticed this because I was keeping an eye out for little openings in which to ingratiate myself, to break out of my bubble and into theirs, and there just weren’t any. They did not want to share, and k.d. seemed content in their buffer zone.

In the video, k.d. is absolutely shimmering with confident eroticism (except for those ridiculous and random super-sunny kilt-on-an-Alpine-scene interjectionsway to spoil the mood, Marcus.) But as soon as a take ended, she’d make a goofy face, crack a joke, dispel the drama. She slipped back and forth between smolder and silly so deftly, without losing a drop of allure.

Jackie tapped my arm, breaking me out of my reverie, and prompted me to lint-roll k.d. I darted over as she reclined on the ballroom floor, leaning back on her elbows, legs sprawled. I crouched before her, suddenly aware of the shortness of my skirt, understanding now why I looked too nice. A wardrobe assistant should be able to fulfill her duties without giving the crew or the talent an eyeful.

k.d. looked at me bemusedly. I ran the roller up and down her legs, across her shoulders, down her lapels, down her sleeves.

“Oh, yeah, baby,” she said, mock-undulating under my adhesive ministrations.
My heart began juddering in my chest. Stop it, I told myself. She was just being silly again. Or that, and she picked up on my nervous fangirl pheromones. Or because maybe, if I had done something besides act like a deer-in-headlights Merchant-Ivory lady’s maid, maybesomething could have happened. If I were brazen.

But a) I felt like a nobody beside her, like a bug-eyed Simpsons character who, when asked what they do, can only mumble, “Stuff, and junk, and stuff.” And b) I was too terrified of what I wanted, to embrace my wanting.

I remember being so hungry that day, especially after I learned that there would be no craft services. Jackie asked us if we wanted to order in lunch, and I said no, because I had no money and was too embarrassed to ask if she could spot me the cash. I watched her and the other assistant eating their sumptuous salads, studded with bits of Italian cured meat, black olives, ribbons of butter lettuce, crumbles of asiago. My salivary glands ached and released. I went outside into the cold and lit up a cigarette, to consume something, even if it was just nicotine, and the swirling smoke that left my body with my breath.

When I came back inside, the wardrobe room was empty. I saw Jackie’s half-eaten container of salad sitting upright in the trash pail by the window, on top of layers of wadded-up dry cleaner plastic. I walked over to it and started shoving forkfuls into my mouth. It was so good. Soggy, but good.

I looked up, and in the window’s reflection, I saw Jackie watching me from the hallway. I stilled my teeth, dropped the plastic fork as if it were white-hot metal, turned away, straightened something, pretending that she didn’t see me, and that I didn’t see her see me. My cheeks flushed hot with shame. We could not talk about it, but she knew. And I had no reason to believe that her knowing was laced through with empathy. Ew gross, she was eating food out of the garbage. With the glib censure of someone who had never been hungry.

At the end of the day, Jackie and I waited in the singer’s trailer as k.d. changed out of the suit in the tiny bathroom, handing the clothes to her hairdresser, who handed them to us. I smoothed and buttoned the clothes, put them on hangers and zipped them into whispery black garment bags. My Out magazine was burning a hole in my backpack.

k.d. emerged in her own clothes, jeans and a sweater. She put on her coat.

It was now or never.

In front of Jackie, and k.d.’s snarky posse, I unzipped my backpack, pulled out the magazine and a pen, and stood up in the cramped space. Everyone looked at me, except k.d., who was fiddling with her watch. I took two steps toward her.

“Would you sign this for me?” I asked in a voice that seemed more breath than anything.

She looked at me with a mirthful glint in her eyes. A surprised-not-surprised, mirthful glint. And everyone else, and their eyes, their kinds of stares, and the thoughts that shaped them, vanished.


She handed it back to me. I stashed it back in my backpack, too bashful to read the message I glimpsed above her signature. Later, on the subway, I looked. “Thanks for the excellent lint-rolling!” it read. She gave me proof, and perhaps, more.

I recently rewatched the “Sexuality” video on YouTube. My memory of it was blurred, mish-mashed with my memories of the shoot. I remembered that it was lush and moody, but wanted to peek into the past, and also hoped that it would jog my memory. It did.
I was struck by what is not there. The crew, of course, is not captured. There’s no flash of someone’s sleeve, or strand of hair, at the edge of the frame. I looked. We’re all invisible, as it should be.

k.d. lang sings while staring into her own eyes, lying on a mirror on the floor in that handsome coat, buttons glinting. k.d. lang straddles the red vulva chair. k.d. lang dances in one of Jackie’s expensive dark suits, in a giant subterranean swimming pool, swirling a red cape through the water, alone. k.d. kneels before the empty red chair.

k.d. lang sits in an empty bathtub, alone. In a giant, empty mansion. She is alone, inside alone.

In that great big abandoned house, k.d. sings about sexuality to her own reflection, and to the camera. The object of her desire is not just missing but conspicuously missing. Chris Isaacs sang to a luscious surfside Helena Christensen in wet men’s undies in “Wicked Game”and we were more than ready to see k.d. lang sing to a woman, instead of gamely working her way through red-colored female metaphors of all kinds: tired (cherries), weird (Jell-o), high in lycopene (tomato), and fairy-tale (roses whose thorns drew faux blood). But that was then.

When people talk about queer invisibility, I often think about that abandoned mansion, so full of grandeur and intention, but so unoccupied. The care is evident in every piece of parquet tile, and possibility is as delicate and dense as the cast-iron tendrils that race the eyes upward to floors unseen.

You might think that my day with k.d. lang might have served as a catalyst for me to figure out my own sexuality and come out. But instead, it reinforced my myopia when it came to seeing a place for myself in the world around me. And yet.

I am so grateful, because although the experience didn’t give me the instant gratification equivalent of a coming-out Happy Meal, the song and its intention are sacred. k.d. lang may not have been singing to a visible woman, but in my soul I feel that she was singing forth something greater. It’s an argument, a supplication, a hymnto the world, and to her audience, including me: “How bad would it be if you should fall in love with me? How bad would it be? Sexuality”

The magazine traveled with me from my single-girl apartment to the one I moved to with my new husband, at age 27, and to New Mexico, and the three houses we lived in before I left him because I was so in love with another woman that it rendered the life he and I built together invisible, unreachable. The magazine accompanied me to my three divorced-woman houses.

The other night, I rifled through my magazine racks, the closet that stores all of my wife’s and my precious documents, photographs, keepsakes. I confoundingly could not find the magazine. I looked more places, unlikely places, feeling increasing licks of desperation.

Then I stopped. The talisman might be in the wine crate on top of the foyer bookshelf, or it might be in the garage under the bin of baby clothes, or, like so many fairytale charms, it might have disappeared once its purpose was carried out. However farfetched, this last explanation feels the most true.

This is now, and we are no longer invisible. We are not the wane of a fad. I can write about my desire. We can sing to each other. We can marry each other.
My wife sleeps beside me. I am no longer hungry.

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