“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.”
John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice
Don’t feel bad about indulging in Janice Dickinson’s tell-all biography No Lifeguard on Duty: The Accidental Life of the World’s First Supermodel. It’s compelling, it’s about beauty, and about a life that few, if any of us, will ever be a part of.
What to say about Janice Dickinson? In her four pages of acknowledgements, she thanks the fathers to her children, Dr. John Joseph “for incredible Botox,” L.A. Cellular phone, “Manolo Blahnik for my entire life’s shoe fetish,” Warren Beatty and Mick Jagger, among others. Dickinson’s book then starts out in an expectedly self-centered and light way, as she attends a Doors concert, claiming “I want to be adored the way Jim Morrison is adored.”
Dickinson, however, quickly hits readers deeply and darkly with tales of her sadistic, sexually abusive father and emotionally unavailable mother. While it is not uncommon for celebrities to claim victimization in their lives, Dickinson paints a horrific, yet compelling, picture of her childhood pain. She cleverly bookends her opening by revealing that her Jim Morrison experience was the evening the singer got arrested for indecent exposure. “It was so fucking confusing. This was my hero? This crazy hostile mother-fucker represented hope?”
She then goes on to detail her arduous ride to supermodel-hood, which is a guiltily fun glimpse inside the profession full of groveling and personal rejection. Dickinson could have put in even more information about modeling, because she tends to skimp on the details of what happens when you become an actually famous model, opting instead to reveal the perks and lifestyle instead.
While one would hardly think of modeling as a representative of the majority of women in the world, in the ‘70s, when Dickinson began her rise, it was an even more limited array. Dickinson, a self-described “Polish mutt,” describes her hardships in trying to break through the blonde, blue-eyed “American ideal” of the Christie Brinkleys of the modeling world. “Blond? Blue-eyed? That’s not American, you idiots. It’s Scandinavian” Looking at the many photos of an alternately innocent and slutty-looking Dickinson, it’s difficult to imagine her being turned away as looking “too different,” but in her way she forged a path for more unique-looking models.
Dickinson has an entertaining, breezy style that lets a real voice show through. She throws in such nuggets of advice as “Take your kids to the movies once in a while, especially on Saturdays. Most girls lose their virginity on a Saturday,” and “Getting your cherry popped while peaking on acid is definitely not the ticket, girls.” She’s also not afraid to show herself as a rather uneducated, crass woman, which is entertaining as well. “Some day,” she says, talking about her struggling days, “I’d have an air-conditioned limo of my own. So I’m shallow. Fuck you.” It reveals a refreshing honesty, though, as Dickinson seems not to care about posturing as more than she is. For instance, she talks about Paris, saying that everyone looked like something out of a 19th century novel—“Not that I’d ever read a nineteenth-century novel, but you get the idea.” She even seems delighted with the podium of her book, as she throws in asides such as “I love that word: alacrity. Go look it up in the dictionary.”
Unlike other model/groupie biographies, Dickinson, for all her screwed-up-ness, gives the impression of having a fairly realistic view of herself and her life. In contrast, for instance, is Bebe Buell’s delusional Rebel Heart, where she listed the many rock stars who fell in love with her and whom she influenced. Dickinson, on the other hand, with partners such as Beatty, Jagger, John Cusack and Sylvester Stallone, is refreshingly candid on what she meant to her conquests (not much.)
Even as a model, she seems to know where she stands. Her take on her famous image is: “Who knew how many adolescent boys across the country were locked in their parents’ bathrooms at that very moment, their little cocks in their hands, trying to will the picture of me to leap off the page and into their laps.” Dickinson, while not out to make a name by tearing down her famous partners, reveals some interesting and ultimately pathetic scenes of Beatty’s vanity, Jack Nicholson’s cockiness, Bruce Willis’s sweetness and John Belushi’s kindness.
Sometimes life is less interesting than fiction, even that of a star-screwing supermodel, and readers may tire a bit of the mood swings that punctuate Dickinson’s memoir. It seems that every few pages Dickinson jumps from self-loathing to “I couldn’t believe this was happening to me!” so that the book somewhat loses its elasticity. Only so many times can you empathize with “I felt like Mary Tyler Moore again, only happier and much better-looking, and without that stupid fucking beret,” followed by “I needed a man to tell me I was great and good and wonderful and beautiful and amazing.” However, it’s really not that much different than, say, Bridget Jones’ Diary in terms of female self-loathing, and the readers of Dickinson receive the benefit of real-life trauma plus encounters with many, many more celebrities.
Of course, for readers who consider themselves literary and intellectual, it’s hard to take a book by a model seriously, especially with phrases such as “They went beyond the surface shit—beyond lips, legs, and crotch to my energy.” But for a fun read, an unexpected humanity in what one might consider a living Barbie doll, and a glimpse into the world of fashion and celebrity, as Dickinson says, “The Polish mutt is on fire!”