From London. I'm Brooke Zafran and I'm a Reesha Skidmore Williams, and this is Even the Rich over the last four episodes we've been dressing to impress, OK, no we haven't.
OK, not literally, but we have been tourists in the world of high fashion.
As we followed the rise and fall and rise again of the Versace label, you taught me some new vocabulary like Atelier and Couture and do I smell Chanel?
Well, today, Brooke, I have the distinct pleasure of talking to someone who isn't a fashion world. Gatecrasher like us, she was actually invited. Wow. Her name is Molly Young. And in 2013, she wrote a story for GQ called The Excessive Vision of Donatella Versace. Let me just say it's the smartest, funniest, most insightful portrait that I've ever read these days.
Molly is the literary critic of New York magazine. She's also the author of A Zen about the sick and twisted hobbies of rich people called the things they fancied.
Oh, nice. That sounds amazing. You asked her about it, right?
Come on, Brooke. This isn't my first interview. Right? Right. It's your first.
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Hi, Molly, thanks so much for being here. Hi, glad to be here. Nice to meet you. And I'm so excited to talk with you. Me too.
So back in twenty eighteen, you went to Milan and actually interviewed Donatella at her label's headquarters. Now, I think this is probably the most important question. How do you dress when you're going to meet Donatella Versace?
Oh, wow. Great. Yes, a very important question. Very stressful for a writer. You know what? Ultimately, it doesn't matter, because no matter what I wear, I'm going to look like a peasant compared to her. So I think I wore I think I just wore an outfit of as little distinction as possible. And I made sure that it was not wrinkled and not stained and that it was as clean as as I could get it.
But I knew that the the point of of me showing up was not to make a fashionable impression. I was mostly just trying to be inconspicuous and not to immediately visibly embarrass myself.
I feel like that's a really good call. I mean, I literally could not even afford like a Versace trinket. There was never a question of me showing up in head to toe off the runway Versace, but it would be so wild.
I'm curious, can you just tell me the story of how you got this assignment?
Like many random assignments, it just kind of fell in my lap. I had been writing fashion stories for GQ for years. And so when my editor emailed me with the subject line, Donatella, questionmark, I clicked on that so fast and immediately agreed.
I mean, there's no I had never been to Italy. So the idea of the magazine sending me there was totally titillating. And yeah, I mean, I who can say why they gave me the assignment, but it's just a stroke of good fortune.
It's very cool. Can you take us on a little guided tour and describe the Versace headquarters for us?
Yeah. So Millet's in Milan and Milan itself is a very kind of interesting city in that there's quite a lot of fashion production that happens there, but it's also an ancient city. And so you'll be walking along and they'll be like a 15th century church right next to like falafel joint. There is this kind of smashing up of late capitalism and early kind of like Renaissance art history. And the headquarters is on a kind of quiet side street. It's enormous.
It's exactly what you would imagine a Versace headquarters would be. There's marble everywhere. There's stone, there's gold fixtures, and there's, of course, the little Medusa head insignia. Absolutely. Everywhere you look.
I remember in reading your article the description of even in the bathroom, just that there's literally Maddux's on everything, on everything.
And I have to apologize to the listeners ahead of time because this is information that nobody asked for. But of course, I had to see what the bathroom was like. A procedure headquarters, of course, not only was where they're like 50 mattresses in the bathroom, but the toilet paper was of a softness that I can only compare to like the finest suede.
Oh, my goodness. Of course it would be.
I mean, it stands to reason for its luxury.
So what's Donatella like upclose? So like many exceptionally wealthy people, she seems to be built at a different scale than your average human and with a different kind of color palette as well. So when I tell you that she's like a tiny, tiny little human, I don't mean that she's merely skinny. And when I say that she has blonde hair, I don't mean that her hair is like a golden or yellowish color. What I mean is that her physical properties are like totally off the spectrum of what we consider a normal human mass and color palette.
She was small enough that I could lift and carry her if for some reason that was necessary. And her hair is this kind of neon glow in the dark color and its lustrous and thick. She's like a natural in the way that an artificial watermelon flavor is unnatural or in the way that like gold lamé is unnatural, which is like the very point of its existence is to do is to demonstrate the spectacular potential of what we consider to be a natural.
And then her personality is really warm and kind of generous. And she's simultaneously very maternal and very girlish. She laughs a lot. She's kind of self-deprecating. She makes fun of herself for being obsessed with fitness. She was like, I am obsessed with my abdominals.
She. She makes fun of herself for drinking a million cups of espresso a day, and she has this crazy accent.
It's like if you took Italian and toasted it and spread a layer of butter on top, her words just kind of like melt together. And one of the ways I prepare to meet her was I was just watching like dozens and dozens of interviews of her speaking. And I would try to transcribe her speech in real time so that I could develop an ear for the kind of pronunciation and rhythms, because if I had just met her not knowing that, I don't think I would have been able to catch 50 percent of what she said.
Yeah. I'm wondering what sort of preconceived notions you had going into it, because Donatella is so often caricatured in pop culture, I feel like yeah.
I mean, so my original conception of her was kind of rooted in the 90s and early 2000s, which is when she was like the ultimate party girl. You see pictures of her drinking champagne with like Naomi Campbell and Madonna and Kate Moss and Courtney Love. And there's all these photos of of these glamorous ladies in the shortest, tightest glittery dresses. And they're clearly not one hundred percent sober.
Like you look at the photos and you're like, these women should not be operating heavy machinery or driving any sort of God at all.
But but they look like they're having so much fun.
And so my initial perception of her was held over from those from those snapshots of her as this kind of wild, glittery young thing, which, you know, clearly it's been quite some time since then. And so the woman that I met was not that person at all.
Hmm. It seems like she was a lot more approachable and conversational and willing to actually open up to you, which is not what I would expect from somebody like Donatella Versace.
Yeah, me either. And she really was she was really friendly and focused. And she didn't have her iPhone on the table and she wasn't texting while we were talking. And she was willing to really open up and talk about her life. And she's obviously fabulously wealthy and successful, but she's lived through a lot of tragedy. She's an emblem, I guess, of both privilege and suffering. Right. So, like on the one hand, she has manservants and arrives for a meeting wearing twenty five thousand dollars worth of jewelry or whatever, clothing, probably more.
But on the other hand, her life's been really marked by tragedy. Right. Obviously, her beloved brother was murdered. She also experienced the death of another sibling when she was young. And she's been public about struggling with addiction issues and insecurity and loneliness. So Zadie Smith, the the writer, has this new book of essays out, which is brilliant. It's called Intimations. And in one of the essays, she talks about what she calls the absolute nature of suffering, meaning that if if a billionaire experiences a personal tragedy, there's no reason to assume that the felt experience of that person's pain will be less acute than if, say, a working class person undergoes a similar event.
And and Zadie Smith points out that the concepts of privilege and suffering actually have a lot in common in that they both manifest as bubbles. And if you're if you're in the bubble, your perception of reality is heavily distorted. But privilege is a bubble that you can at least try to pop or learn to dismantle. And suffering is not something you can argue away or eradicate. So I think about Donatella, because if you're in deep pain over the death of a sibling, for example, whether or not you have a private jet to take you to their funeral is not going to make a difference.
So in that way, she's quite relatable as well as being aspirational. It's something that I hadn't really thought about, but it makes complete sense. We get support from Ring Ring, basically reinvented the doorbell, and they're on a mission to make neighborhoods safer. That's right. And their home security products are designed to give you peace of mind around the clock from video doorbells and security cameras to smart security lighting and alarm systems. Ring has everything you need to make sure your family and belongings are safe and secure any time anywhere.
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Slash Rich. Let's talk a little bit about that sibling relationship, they're sort of this yin yang between Don and tell Nanjiani you're right, that he was the intellectual, the guy who owned so many books that he had a personal librarian, which is crazy. But Donatella is different. She's more instinctual. What else can you tell me about their dynamic?
Yeah, I mean, I think it's funny when when I go back and read some of the pieces that talk about the relationship, they do kind of describe her as the muse and the creative spark, whereas John is more of the cerebral craftsman and there is something a little bit gendered about that break down. Even if it's true. You know, the idea that the man is like the brain and the woman is like the heart of the operation. So, you know, I imagine that it was a little bit more complex than that.
And the proof is kind of in the pudding because, you know, at the time of his death, it was announced shortly thereafter that she was going to take over the company. And there is this question of like, wait, what? Like this party girl is is going to be suddenly involved in logistics and operations and shipping. Delivering is like how on earth? But the way she describes that time to me was that she was the person who was kind of fluttering around inspiring her brother.
But at the same time, he was really training her in every aspect of the business. And he had actually had a cancer scare. It was a minor cancer scare. But the idea and this was shortly before he did die, but his idea was that he needed to prepare her to maintain the family business in case he wasn't going to be around much longer. So there was a kind of sad foresight there.
Yeah, from what I've heard, those early years with her taking over were really rough. Right? She was very much overshadowed by a Japanese ghost, would you say?
Totally. There aren't a lot of fashion visionaries that come along and sort of invent a whole vocabulary of style. And he was one of those people. And, you know, there was no question that she she was feeling really big shoes. She was also struggling with some substance issues, which probably didn't help. And she was struggling emotionally with the death of her brother. So I think anybody would have a hard time. But at the point the company was sold, at least in twenty eighteen, she'd been running it for more than four more than her brother had.
So yeah, ultimately she proved everyone wrong.
And as you write, Versace is the most Italian fashion brand. And something I was really intrigued by in your article is that you sort of think of Milan itself, like the actual built environment inspired Versace's designs.
Can you say more about that?
Yeah, I mean, it's always it's always hard because I don't want to generalize about, like, an entire nation of people. And yet, you know, the minute I touched down in Italy, it was in Milan. It was clear that this was a place where people took great care and their self presentation and not just women, not just men, not just young women, not just young men, but everybody. So this is a place where people went out in capital outfits and they had nice shoes and nice bags and beautiful leather.
And then I saw a lot of dry, clean only fabrics. And there's just something quite formal, like the idea that you would put yourself together to go outside and participate in civic life and and that you would kind of bring your own appearance up to the level of of this beautiful city around you.
Yeah, it makes me wonder what it's like now with well, I guess they're not necessarily locked out anymore, but at least here, while we're locked down, everyone's in pajamas all the time so far from these capital outfits.
I know it's like really funny to imagine what the Italian version of that would be. Are they wearing, like, silk loungewear or whoknows cashmere? I don't know.
I'd love to see some photos of. So for me, one of the most remarkable things about Donatella is her staying power. And Donatella herself has become this cultural icon. Like it's like she's figured out how to be perpetually relevant in this cutthroat business. How does she do it? That's a great question.
I mean, if I knew the secret sauce, I, I think part of it is that I think part of it is that she is clearly a woman who is so fully self actualized. She is so fully herself. I mean, when I met her, I was like, this is a woman whose skin exclusively comes into contact with, like the finest leather silk feathers and satin. And like a lot of really wealthy people, she has this incredible elevated level of grooming.
So like the most blow dried. Here are the most immaculate manicure is her skin is so moisturized, her teeth are so white, and she just really she carries herself with a kind of regal charisma that ends up being appealing to people from all walks of life.
It's a testament to that. She's so authentically herself, in spite of all of I mean, perhaps some of the, you know, fame and success contributes to who she is. But it seems like she's consistently who she is throughout, like she's not putting on all these different faces, depending on who she's with. Totally.
I think she's just really good at being rich. Like, you know, she'll sit down on a couch and within seconds, an underling will bring a crystal goblet of water that's been brought to a precise level of carbonation and maintained at a precise optimal temperature. And it's placed on top of a 17th century table. And I just like you, find yourself thinking like, OK, if you're going to blow money in a frivolous manner, you might as well do it with like this sheer amount of style and conviction.
Yeah, but do I want to live in a world where one minute of this person's life costs enough to feed a family of five for six months, like, no, I don't.
I certainly don't. And there are moments when the decadence of the lifestyle struck me as kind of morally barbaric. And yet yet this is the world that we live in. And she is undeniably glamorous. And and, yeah, if you're going to spend money, that's a really picturesque way to do it yourself.
Your piece is full of all sorts of amazing tidbits. I did not know about the Versace's, but I feel like the most mind blowing is that they're responsible for the creation of Google Images. How did that come about?
Oh, so wild. So I think we can all remember it was the Oscars when Jennifer Lopez showed up in this plunging kind of green dress. Jungle print dress looked incredible. And so many people ended up Googling for pictures of the dress that Eric Schmidt at Google took note. And and that was how they came up with the idea to do Google image search. So we have the collaboration of Jennifer Beautiful, Jennifer Lopez and Donatella Versace to thank for that.
Wow. It's a jaw dropping dress. It's a beautiful it is a great dress. Yeah.
OK, so you met Donatella shortly after the release of Ryan Murphy's TV series, The Assassination of Gianni Versace. The Versace family was not thrilled with the show. Do you know why?
You know, there are a couple of reasons. But the main the main issue is that the foundational text for that show was a book called Vulgar Favors by a journalist named Maureen Orth. And Maureen Orth is she's a veteran journalist. She started her career at Newsweek. She worked at Vogue. She's one National Magazine Awards. She's best known for her stories in Vanity Fair, which included the article that she extended into that book, which is mainly about Andrew Cunanan, the man who killed Gianni Versace.
But it's also about the Versace family. And the Versace family really did not like the book. They claimed that it was trashy and that it was filled with lies and gossip. And it's easy to understand why the family would not enjoy having having a kind of tabloid style book. But, you know, the fact is that Maureen Orth interviewed hundreds of people. It's it's quite well sourced. And I, of course, read it during the course of the article and checked it against contemporaneous news reports.
And even though the tone was a bit sensational, the facts of the book are quite credible. But at the same time, the family did not participate in the book. They did not authorize it. And so they were not happy with its publication. And the Ryan Murphy show was it was based largely on that book, although there were parts of the show that were kind of slightly fictionalized.
And in her book, Orth makes two claims in particular that ruffled the Versace's pristine feathers. Right.
So one of the claims she makes is that Gianni Versace was HIV positive at the time of his death. And I believe the source of this was a detective in Miami who has since died. And so it's really it's a fact that's not checkable and that's being HIV positive. Carried a lot of stigma in those days. And it's also a very personal part of somebody's medical history that, you know, the ethics of making that. Are kind of up in the air and, yeah, I understand why they would be unhappy about that.
The other issue is that, yes, Maureen Orth did claim that Andrew Cunanan and Gianni Versace had had some kind of encounter or had met each other. And I believe that that was depicted in the Ryan Murphy Show. And Versace family did not agree with that. They did not think that the two had encountered each other.
I mean, to have to deal with the death of a family member and then on top of it, have all of these stories written. And so many of them probably have just partial truth because the people that know the real truth aren't going to be talking.
I can only imagine how frustrating and just something you don't want to deal with in the moment.
That's got to suck. Yeah, yeah.
I mean, it's like that two traumas for the price of one, you have the death of a person and then you have the kind of massive public perception of it. Brooke, I've been doing a lot of traveling lately. Wait, really? Yup, Mexico, Italy, India.
OK, what am I missing here? OK, you're right.
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Well, they'll still be a demand for high fashion. That's a great question. I mean, the fashion industry is definitely in crisis and yeah, know I've written about different designers over the course of my career and there's always the thing they have in common is there's always a note of defensiveness in when they talk about when they talk about their industry.
Right. Why does that dress exist? What is the market for this? What is the purpose of this? And so there's always this kind of like a defensiveness about it. And I think that's become more acute now that there are even fewer opportunities for the tippity top of the one percent to wear these clothes. And yet there is there is an argument to make that haute couture is represents a kind of body of skills that are rarefied and beautiful. You know, that the embroiderers and the feather workers and the craftspeople who are trained in these arts, they shouldn't be allowed to disappear.
But as sales of sweat pants go through the roof and sales of gowns plummet, the future is really unknown. Yeah, that I'm truly not buying ballgowns. Not that I ever was before.
Well, I'm definitely not now. And now I want to talk a little bit about you. You spent the fifth and sixth weeks of the coronavirus pandemic writing a Zen called The Things They Fancied. Which sidebar? You're putting me to shame because I spent the fifth and sixth weeks of quarantine making bread and not very well. So you're making me look bad, but that's OK. So the things they fancy it's about, and I'm quoting here, the frivolous habits of the moneyed class.
It's hilarious and informative. How did it come about?
Well, first of all, I also made a lot of unsuccessful bread during quarantine.
And I have to say, the thing about unsuccessful bread is that it's still pretty good.
Like it's kind of your bread. Yeah, yeah. I couldn't agree more. I ate a lot of test bread, so I guess I shouldn't complain.
Test bread, the basketball. Yeah. So I should say I spent the first four weeks of Cornton going totally insane and I ultimately needed a distraction. I was cleaning out my wallet because I needed something to do and I was like, well I'll do this like getting rid of all my old receipts and and then bandaids and things that had accrued in there. And I found a library card from San Francisco where I'm from. So I logged in and I realized that I had access to a database called JSTOR through through the library.
And it's basically just every academic journal you can get access to the articles. And eventually I noticed after an afternoon of this that the articles I was reading, they were about crazy rich people from from decades past. And I was like, why am I interested in this now? And I think part of it was that it was at that point that it was becoming quite clear that the coronavirus was affecting people of different classes quite differently. Oh, yeah, my way of coping was a little perverse, but I ended up doing all this research and taking notes and writing a set of essays about the insane behavior of the equivalent of Kim Kardashian.
But in the 17th and 18th century, what's the most frivolous habit of the rich that you found out? I mean, I think the one that interested me the most, and it's the one that's that still happens today is the incredible amount of servant, you know, what used to be called servants. So butlers and maids and monks and and now celebrities have nannies and private chefs and house cleaners. They've been this you know, we don't call them servants, but that's exactly what they are.
They're people who are paid too little to do the work that the person who hires them doesn't want to do. I would read these accounts from like the eighteen hundreds where people were talking about, uh, you know, like the house maid. She doesn't get the temperature of my bath. Right. It's so hard to find somebody who can polish my brass buttons on my coat to the exact level of shine that I want. And it turned out that for all the work that that these people were hiring their servants to do, there is this accompanying kind of emotional stress that they experienced.
And I think probably that's partly because there is something undeniably exploitative and weird about hiring people to do your literal dirty work.
Yeah, it's just crazy to me to criticize somebody. For how they're drawing your bath, it's like drawing your own bath in exactly my all time favorite story was that some kind of English aristocrat who found himself in his house at night after all the servants had gone to bed, I think, and he was standing in front of his fireplace and he wanted some fresh air and he could not figure out how to open his own windows.
And so he ended up picking up a brick and throwing it through the window to get some fresh air because he couldn't frickin figure out how to do it without his manservant.
Oh, my. I just couldn't be mean. How do you get to that point? It's crazy.
So I did I found it somewhat therapeutic to poke a little fun at these people.
Well, I felt helpless about the state of the world that I was living in and still and still living.
There's a story I especially love about a fifth generation perfume maker. Can you tell me about your meeting with him and the extravagant services he provides? Yeah.
So that was actually another magazine assignment. And the assignment was to write about the most expensive perfume in the world. And this is a perfume that's made by the company is called Crigler. It's a family company that's been making perfume for, I think, over a century now. And the the man who's in charge of it is Ben Crigler, who's, you know, a. A relative of the person who started the company, and he's a trained nose, so he is able to identify a million different smells and how the process was.
I I was invited to the Plaza Hotel in New York to a penthouse, and I went up and sat on a velvet couch. And we first we talked for a while and the idea was that we would make a custom perfume that would be specified to my exact tastes and that nobody else in the world would have access to.
And my gosh, he you know, and so he asked me the wildest amount of questions. He asked me if I had siblings. He asked me where I grew up. He asked me whether I liked chocolate or vanilla. He asked me whether I liked tulips or roses. And the the point of all these questions was for him to kind of draw a mental sketch of of of who I was, I guess. And then he passed me dozens of strips of paper that had been doused in different notes.
So, you know, there'd be like a resin note or a tiny note or a musk note, and I would sniff the little strip and then tell him my reaction, you know, smells very personal. So there were some that I smelled and I was like, well, I don't like that, get that away from me. And then there were others I smelled and I was like, oh, my God, that's exactly the smell of my best friend's mom's garden.
And because she had some certain kind of, you know, species of lavender that is suddenly popping up in my memory. And now and the idea is that he then took all that information and he had recorded our interview and then had it transcribed and he went back to his laboratory in France and mixed up a concoction. And then it was sent to me in a big velvet box. There were a couple of different different formulas that that were proposed. And then I smelled the formulas and then get feedback.
And ultimately it ended up being, you know, a custom perfume shipped to me. And it was a scent that I alone was able to I was able to sniff. And, you know, there's something there's something ironic about it because, you know, here I am like a total novice. I don't know how to mix perfume. No idea what I'm doing. I'm a child like finger painting. And of course, I didn't actually pay the fifty thousand dollars.
He he offered the service for free in exchange for the magazine story. But there's something so funny about the fact that a person would pay fifty thousand dollars to basically do like an amateur perfume. When you go to when you could pay a whole lot less and buy a perfume that had been created by somebody who is actually trained to do that. Yeah.
So do you still wear it? You know, I, I don't really wear perfume, so it sits in my car. It sits in my medicine cabinet next to the Tylenol and the toothpaste. Does this like symbol of folly. But yeah, but I know that he his services are very popular with people who, for example, there was a couple that wanted a special perfume for their wedding that they could then turn into scented candles that their guests could take home while he talks about a lot of people.
This is kind of an interesting cultural fact. But he said that, you know, people wear perfume differently in different countries and, you know, in America, we tend to to spritz it on ourselves. But he said that a lot of his clients in the Middle East, for example, specifically buy perfume to spritz over their bed sheets so that they can slide into scented linens at night. Who knew?
Wow. Yeah, I it didn't even occur to me that it would be I mean, of course it would be. But I didn't think about how it would be different in different cultures.
Yeah. Yeah. So you have a fifty thousand dollar bottle of perfume in your in your place which makes you I guess you could be one of these the rich. Eventually you'll be throwing a brick through your own window.
Oh God. I hope it doesn't come to that. You know, the funny thing is that the funny thing about the fifty thousand dollar perfume is that it is in fact utterly worthless because nobody else would want that.
Thank you so much for giving me your time and chatting with me.
Yeah. Wow, what a wild ride that was. Thank you for having me on.
Thanks again to Molly Young. If you want to buy a copy of her Zeine and I don't know why you wouldn't go to Young Blancs Dotcom on our next season, we're bringing you two stories about the greatest political dynasty in modern American history. The Kennedy's first, I'll be telling you about the time JFK's little brother drove his car off a bridge and killed a young woman, it launched a scandal that threatened to tear down the entire Kennedy empire. And I'll be telling you about how JFK Jr.
got out from behind his father's shadow and became his own man.
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I'm Erica Skidmore Williams. And I'm Brooke Szifron.
This episode was produced by Caleb Asinger and Julia Shue, audio assistants by Sergio Enriquez.
Our executive producers are Stephanie Gen's, Marcia Lui and Hernan Lopez for Thundery.
After years of chronic back pain, Philip Mayfield discovered spinal surgeon Dr. Christopher Dunwich and his glowing reviews that promised to fix you words that Philip desperately wanted to hear. But after his surgery, he woke up in excruciating pain and couldn't feel his legs. He thought to himself, What did he do to me? And while he didn't know it yet, he'd never walk again. And Mayfield was one of the lucky ones. Dr. Death is a true story about our health care system, a system we trust with our lives.
But as you'll see, sometimes it isn't us that the system is built to protect. Listen to Dr. Death on Apple podcast, Spotify Stitcher or wherever you're listening right now.