In Conversation with madison moore
I first met madison moore at a film screening of Kiki in Berlin, 2016. We had been in phone contact about an article I was writing and his perspective really helped to shape the final piece. Our face-to-face meet was brief, but I remember it well. We were discussing racism, how it compares between different cities, and I said something unexceptional, to which he replied “honey, there’s racism everywhere”. He was straight to the point from the beginning.
The conversation below took place two years later, ahead of moore's European publication of Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric. We discussed fabulousness as a mode of survival, moore's famed Beyoncé lectures, and how he came to study what he loved.
RH: Fabulous is packed with cultural, literary and academic reference, but has a clear conversational feel. Did you have an audience in mind when writing it?
mm: I come from a solidly working-class background and am the first person in my family to go to college and get a PhD, so for me it's very important to make sure that I do work that is accessible to folks. I'm not interested necessarily in writing for the academic world - that's not my core audience. I want to talk to the girls who are going to the club and reading fashion magazines, as well as critical theory. When I was looking for books about fabulousness, they were all the same - Hollywood starlets from the 50s, and they always felt very empty. I wanted to do something that was taking fabulousness seriously and writing about it in a way that was totally accessible. I come from a strong journalism background and so for me, writing a book about fabulousness, it didn't make sense to write that for a, let’s just be real - a certain kind of gatekeeping, white academic audience. So yeah, my audience is the girls.
RH: Far from being trivial, you demonstrate how being fabulous is inherently political to the queer people of colour who decide to take this path. What about people of colour who prefer to remain invisible themselves? How are they lifted up?
mm: I'm not saying that everyone needs to be fabulous, but there is this subset of people everywhere who are doing this work. I’m part of a number of queer PoC Facebook groups and sometimes someone will say “hey guys I'm feeling really low, let's start a selfie thread”, and people just start posting selfies. Some of them are as they look in that moment, some of them are turning looks, and I think this is a space where, whether you're doing fabulousness or not, there's this sense of uplift, because you're circulating in a community. So I don't think everyone needs to be fabulous but I am saying that there are people doing fabulous and let's think about what they're doing. And for the rest of us, let's see how we can create community just by lifting each other.
RH: It's really interesting, this example you use of people sending selfies to one another. I wonder about the psychology of mirroring and how important it is to feel mirrored in your environment.
mm: It's super important to feel mirrored. I think that I can even see it in my own development over the years. I do not explain whiteness to people whereas I used to be about that. I used to want to be involved. I used to write those think-pieces. Now I don't have time for that. Instead, what I like to do is surround myself with folks who are critical already, who get it from the jump, who you don't have to explain any of this stuff to.
RH: That leads me to another question, this idea of not having space for people who don't get it, who don't have a deeper level of critique. Do you ever worry about being in an echo chamber?
mm: That's a good question. What I've been saying to people when they say “so explain fabulousness to me, why does it matter and what are the stakes?” I say “it's as simple as thinking about what bodies can go get a sandwich”. It's as simple as that. There are some bodies that can leave the house, go over to Mustafa’s, get a kebab and they're completely unbothered; they don't have to worry about their safety. There are other bodies for whom that journey is not as safe, and their return not a guarantee. That is how I punch at it when people wonder about the value or the validity of fabulousness as a real topic, or as a real aesthetic survival strategy. It's as simple as thinking about who gets to circulate.
RH: Not many people are active in both academia and nightlife. What is it like to manoeuvre between these two seemingly distinct world's?
mm: There's a whole category of thinker called a “scholar/artist” where you practice and bring that knowledge into the classroom, and it's a two way street. When I was in graduate school I met with my dissertation advisor and he asked me what I wanted to write my dissertation on. At that time I didn't really know, and he said “what do you like to do in your own spare time?” I said that I liked fashion, clubbing and watching television, and he was like “write about that”. That was 12 years ago now and part of my training has been, not only to learn how to bridge the gap, but to share it with other folks who might not realise that what they want to study is an actual topic. There is there a distrust of popular culture, which is an elitist distrust. It comes from working-class spaces, not high-end controlled art institutions. Some people think that popular culture is less important and my whole thing is, pop culture is where everything comes from. Pop culture is actually telling us the temperature of the now.
RH: Your ‘How to Be Beyoncé’ university lectures seemed to merge traditional oral-presentation with live curation and performance art. How did you arrive at this practice?
mm: My training and background is solidly in performance that is about closing the gap between theory and practice. Practice is just another way of knowing, another kind of expertise. My take on Beyoncé is: of course she's problematic, and there are so many ways to talk about her, but what interests me is the fact that she was able to excel as a black woman when her [early] peers don't exist anymore. She’s been able to carve out a space that’s so unique and now doesn’t give interviews, which totally adds to the allure. She also wouldn’t be the first person to do it. Lena Horne, when she was performing to a white audience in cabarets, had a practice of distance. She was there to give them what they wanted to see, but she was very veiled and distant. When Beyoncé is distant, perhaps it’s a survival strategy that black women have used to protect some form of agency.
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