I've written before about Background Fatties, they're the people who don't have a starring role, but are memorable in their own right. I think of them as metaphors for the ways that fat folks are marginalised in real life. One day I'd like to see a film in which those background figures move to the front and tell their own stories.
I think of Brigid Berlin as both a background fatty and a star, though one who often seems to be nudged out of the frame by people who are prettier and skinnier than she. But she's there, undeniably, and I want to know more about her.
Like many young queers, I was drawn to accounts of The Factory as I was growing up. From A to B and Back Again was one of my favourite books as a teenager and it's no surprise that Berlin contributed significantly to that work. I also loved the pictures of her and the testimony of her then-amazingly-butch sister Richie in Jean Stein and George Plimpton's great oral history about Edie Sedgwick. Since then I get a charge whenever I see Berlin in a film, or mentioned elsewhere.
I got given some gift vouchers recently for some fat-related work I did. It seemed appropriate to spend them on books by wild-living women. I also got a copy of Vincent and Shelly Dunn Fremont's 2000 documentary Pie In The Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story. I wasn't disappointed.
I'll deal with the complicated things first. In 1999 the Fremonts show Berlin at 60 years old, relatively skinny, and living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There's a lot of anguish and suffering, it's very difficult to watch. You wish that she was better, well, but at the same time it's hard to distinguish Berlin from her OCD, it defines her work and personality. I wonder what she would be without OCD, if that would be possible, or even desirable. What she produces because of her mental health is phenomenal, it's like a total universe of her, in which obsessive art, dieting and eating disorders, and wild living all make perfect sense. Like Daniel Johnston or Roky Erickson, her mental health is an integral part of her life as a creative person, though it's a difficult life. So there's that.
Now onto the better stuff, here's what makes her heroic to me:
2. Berlin's weight has been up and down like crazy, and is a big part of her public identity. When it's up, she fully embodies her fatness. She's often naked in photographs and footage, and appears not to give a shit. She covers her breasts in paint in front of an audience and makes tit prints. She's cock-obsessed. Again, her fatness is a disruptive presence in a scene where skinny is prized. She also looks fucking great in clothes, the Fremonts show her prowling the streets with big bouffant hair, a grubby suede coat, and cigarettes. There's footage of her shooting up speed through her jeans, it's so lawless and punk! She looks like a big fat dyke in many photographs and she's down with that. You wonder if she even really cares about being fat, or if she's parroting those around her who make it seem as though it should matter.
3. Part of her art is telling amazing stories, and this is something that makes me fall in love with anyone. In the documentary she recalls a typical day in her young and rich life, where she'd get the flying boat to Manhattan, check her apartment there to see that everything had been cleaned nicely, go and buy some sapphire cufflinks, fly home again whilst throwing the cufflinks out the plane's window into her swimming pool for her gay ex-window-dresser husband to find later on.
4. The desire to clean up fat people, fix us, and make us perfect, functional citizens/pod people is really strong, even in alternative paradigms such as Health At Every Size (HAES). There is a lot of pressure on outspoken fat people to become poster folk for the movement, to refute fat hatred by embodying virtue. Berlin is someone who might benefit from a bit of HAES, but I wouldn't count on it. Instead, her complexity and – I hesitate to use the word – 'dysfunction' are integral to who she is, they are qualities, or just characteristics, they're not necessarily flaws. I really like people like this, they are good to bear in mind.