Tale as Old as Time
By Drew Gallagher
BOOK REVIEW PREAMBLE
I have been a book reviewer for The Free Lance-Star newspaper for nearly 25 years. They bill themselves as a family newspaper which generally means I cannot swear in my book reviews without an asterisk interrupting the quoted profanity, and that I am encouraged to avoid politicizing anything, which could be off-putting to the readers of the Book Page. My Book Page editor is now the managing editor of the newspaper. She and her plucky skeleton crew of reporters and editors still manage to put out a daily newspaper that strives to be locally viable, though that has become increasingly difficult since the owners have all-but-stopped hiring actual journalists. I’m not convinced that my editor ever sleeps except for occasionally falling asleep over one of my book reviews. I love her for her cock-eyed optimism and because I worry that history books will remember her as the editor in charge when The Free Lance-Star ceased to exist. She deserves better.
I have never been paid for one of my book reviews for The Free Lance-Star. Once upon a time, when the paper’s motto was not “Do less with less,” they did pay for book reviews, but I never submitted an invoice for my work because I was buoyed by the notion of a local newspaper that still published book reviews written by local writers. The page seemed noble and worth contributing to without the need for a W-2. They stopped paying for book reviews a long time ago, so my initial altruism became forced, but the free books have remained a source of comfort.
The word count for a book review has decreased over time (from 1,000 words when I started to about 450 today), so any attempts at being clever can sometimes take up half of the review, and I am occasionally admonished by readers at our community pool who castigate me with some variation of “I enjoy your writing but I have no idea what the book was about. Can you simply tell me if it has a happy ending and not shoehorn Albert Camus into a review of a book on movie monsters?”
These are valid criticisms to consider as one reapplies sunscreen. Until recently, I also wrote my book reviews with the knowledge that my mother-in-law read the Sunday book page every week, and anything I wrote could become a source of embarrassment for her and for me. That is no longer a problem, because her house in Essex County is now considered too rural for at-home delivery. For the first time in nearly six decades, she no longer gets a daily newspaper. (Readers of the Charlottesville Daily Progress recently met the same fate with the only home delivery options now to get the paper mailed on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. That should warrant a name change.)
THE ACTUAL BOOK REVIEW
This is an incredibly roundabout way of saying how grateful I am to be writing about Paulina Porizkova’s recent memoir No Filter without the usual family newspaper restraints. I reviewed No Filter for The Free Lance-Star a few months ago and god help me I tried to couch the author’s relevance in something other than the facts that (1) she was incredibly hot when I was growing up in the 1980s and (2) she still feels comfortable posing topless as often as she can at age 58. (It is often said that you should never meet your heroes. I would add that it’s also very difficult to review books by people who you saw in videos when you were a teenager, because when Bangles lead singer Susanna Hoffs released her first novel this spring it was difficult to separate literary merit from my memory of watching her licking her lips at the end of “In Your Room.”)
My interest in Porizkova, however, was not solely based on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit photos that pervaded my adolescence. Porizkova was also famously married to Ric Ocasek, the lead singer of The Cars, which gave hope to teenage boys everywhere that good looks and a gym-sculpted body were not necessarily important as long as you were the front man of a pop band, and especially one that made a lot of money and was a staple on MTV.
Unfortunately, Ocasek passed away a few years ago and his death became tabloid fodder when it was revealed that a short time before his unexpected passing he had written Porizkova, his ex-wife, out of his will and left the entirety of his estate to their two sons. This development resulted in Porizkova having to sue the estate for what she deemed her rightful share, which basically meant suing her own sons. I believe that No Filter was written, in part, to give her side of the story, since the appearance of an ex-wife suing her sons was probably not the ideal look for a mom who was once one of the highest paid models in the world, or any mom for that matter. To Porizkova’s credit, she comes off as a sympathetic character in this regard. What is lacking, though, in her portrayal of this perfect life turned dumpster fire, is a counterpoint to her version of events because the offending party is dead, and she concedes as much in the preface. Porizkova shows a degree of self-awareness that is refreshing, but the stunning descriptions of her lifestyle as a millionaire super model runs as antithetical undercurrent.
One area where Porizkova seeks misplaced sympathy is by sharing the sad detail that Ocasek, her partner for more than three decades, stopped having sex with her toward the end of the marriage. I do not believe that this is an unusual complaint in relationships that have lasted for such a long time and it’s probably a popular topic in couples counselling. Porizkova doubles down on this complaint by stating that after she and Ocasek dissolved their relationship she was not able to get a date for quite awhile. Though I have not officially polled my single friends, I am guessing that 100 percent of them might have been willing to call her up or message her on Facebook and offer themselves up for companionship. I have not polled my married friends either, but I think the percentage of those willing to date Porizkova would also be greater than zero. So Porizkova as unlaid and undateable is a difficult concept for mere mortals, and anyway only lasts for about a chapter in the memoir before she starts gushing about finding a replacement soulmate and dating him while still living with Ocasek.
A repeated takeaway from No Filter is that Ric Ocasek was impossibly controlling of his wife and a very jealous man. A bit of a prick in Porizkova’s telling. He refused to let her participate in certain fashion shoots if he did not approve of the outfit (or the nudity), and he eventually forced her to give up her very lucrative career as a model so she could tend to his needs, whatever those might have been. Porizkova claims that she was stunned to learn that she was no longer in his will, but you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out why. The impossibly controlling ex-husband might not have appreciated his ex-wife dating someone else, and especially not while they were still living under the same roof. Just a hunch.
The next love of Porizkova’s life didn’t last either, though she doesn’t detail that relationship or breakup which I’m guessing is partly due to the fact that the partner in question is not dead and so would be able to offer up a simple explanation for why it didn’t work out—probably something akin to the teen angst of having to go to a girlfriend’s house to meet the parents, except instead of parents you have to meet the ex-husband who is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The soap opera with Ocasek is what is going to sell books, but what is truly noteworthy and remarkable about No Filter and Porizkova is that she seemingly did not have the help of a ghost writer and wrote the whole thing in English despite the fact that she was born in Czechoslovakia and didn’t come to the United States until she was in her late teens. Sure, she has been in the U.S. for nearly 40 years, but you could drop me in the Czech Republic for four decades and I’m confident I would not be able to write a memoir in Czech. Or date a rock star.
An aspect of Porizkova’s experience that is given small mention is the sexual harassment she endured as a young model. She recounts one fashion shoot where, while in the dressing room, the photographer came in to meet her and draped his flaccid penis on her shoulder. It took Porizkova a moment to realize what part of his anatomy was now touching her, and when she looked to another model in the room for support that model did an eye roll and they tried to laugh it off as that being the photographer’s way of loosening them up. (Because nothing says “relax” like an exposed penis.)
Still, internet trolls have been less than sympathetic and are often eager to pounce on her beauty and how ashamed she should feel for being nothing more than a combination of great genes–even as she has discussed her aging body in online posts. Early in her career, critics were also quick to point out that many of the jewels and furs she modeled came with a moral responsibility that she did not appreciate.
“I had become a model at fifteen and made a great deal of money because people thought I was beautiful,” she writes. “I was also an arrogant asshole. Give a teenager loads of money, no rules, and lavish praise for her ability to look stunning and fit into sample-size clothing, and moral responsibility probably isn’t what she spent most of her days thinking about.”
Therein lies the rub. Porizkova has lived a life that most would envy, so any reader coming to the memoir probably has pre-existing notions of her that might not be the most flattering. She was handed a gilded future at age 15 and lived out her dreams in front of the lens while married to a genuine rock star. But No Filter provides a deeper dive into this charmed life and reveals a woman more nuanced than simply tabloid copy. Her upbringing in communist Czechoslovakia was far from normal as her anti-Soviet dissident parents fled to Sweden to avoid government punishment when she was only seven. They could not take their young daughter with them and left her in the care of her maternal grandmother. The parents tried to unite the family for many years until finally her mother was able to sneak back into the country to “rescue” Paulina, only to be arrested when her presence was discovered.
The fact that Porizkova became a super model after all the childhood tumult, and a seemingly grounded one at that, is the type of story that should have already sold in Hollywood. Sure, there are aspects of her life that she complains about, and I had to wonder if her editor skipped over certain chapters because the complaints of having to fly coach with her kids will not generate much sympathy from most readers. The fact that Ocasek, however, refused to fly with them in coach while staying in first class is telling.
I reached out to Porizkova’s publisher to request an interview for Pie & Chai. I never expected to hear back and didn’t. I’m certain there are plenty of “book reviewers” or “free lancers” of a certain age who would love to talk to the supermodel who took up a lot of space in their formative years. Her publisher probably had many requests similar to my own—especially given the fact that she repeatedly bemoaned the fact that she couldn’t get laid. How many free-lancers would graciously fly coach with Porizkova in the next seat?
As much as I would love to claim writing this review with no filter of my own and complete lack of bias when it comes to reviewing books, especially memoirs written by super models, the fact remains that Porizkova was a super model appearing in MTV videos for bands I liked while I was a teenager sitting around with my buddies playing Dungeons and Dragons on a Friday night (and Saturday night) in Chris Malinowski’s kitchen. There is an apocryphal anecdote that Porizkova shares about seeing Ric Ocasek in a video and thinking to herself that she wanted to meet him and be with him for the rest of her life.
And that happened. Beauty, it seems, does have its perks. The happily ever after part just didn’t quite work out. But that’s probably the most difficult aspect of “No Filter” and all celebrity memoirs. Typically, their wishes do come true even if they don’t have storybook endings. There is a disconnect no matter how human and modest the author might seem since they are not really like us, because I assure you that my friends and I all hoped, between rolls of 20-sided dice, that one day we’d meet Paulina Porizkova and she’d fall madly in love with us. The reality, though, was it wasn’t going to happen no matter how many orcs we killed.
TOP 10 TAKEAWAYS
- At some point in 1982, MTV played a mediocre Ric Ocasek video from his solo album “Beatitude” and Paulina Porizkova fell in love with Ocasek from afar. Amazingly, I saw the same video at around the same time and fell in love with Marianne Gravatte, the girl in the video. (I had “Beatitude” on cassette.)
- Marianne Gravatte shares a birthday with my Aunt Janet and my ex-girlfriend Sara.
- Marianne Gravatte is never mentioned in No Filter, but when the memoir reminded me of the “Something to Grab For” video I went on YouTube and watched it and remembered that there was a woman named Marianne Gravatte who I once thought would really like me as a person if she just came and played Dungeons and Dragons with me and my buddies.
- Paulina Porizkova probably never played Dungeons and Dragons.
- If Ric Ocasek ever played Dungeons and Dragons he probably insisted on being the Dungeon Master and wouldn’t let any of the other players date or pose naked.
- A photographer once placed his flaccid penis on Paulina Porizkova’s shoulder. The fact that the Me Too movement wouldn’t emerge for another 40 years is absurd.
- Ric Ocasek obviously did not know of this story with the photographer because he would have pummeled the guy or drowned him in the pool during the shooting of the “Magic” video which would have been deserved and made for a far different viewing experience.
- Ric Ocasek was a bit of a prick. (For foreshadowing refer to: “Magic” video where he walks on water and everyone else falls in, although they do not drown which should have happened to Mr. Flaccid Penis Photographer.)
- I learned a lot more from No Filter but I just sent my dog-eared copy to Riverby Books because my wife says we already have too many books so I don’t have the dog-eared pages for current reference.
- It’s probably best that I was never granted that interview with Porizkova because I would have asked her if she ever played D&D and if she ever met Marianne Gravatte. Logistically, the Gravatte meeting seems unlikely since Porizkova didn’t even know Ocasek when that video was filmed, and I like to think that her disinterest in D&D was probably due more to poor marketing of the game to Czech super models than to any aversion she might have had for sitting with us in Chris Malinowski’s basement and listening to early Genesis albums which are much better than Ocasek’s solo stuff.
Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer who lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is the second most prolific book reviewer and first video book reviewer in the 136-year history of the Free Lance-Star Newspaper. You can find some of his video book reviews at Fredericksburg.com.