Rachel Shukert’s Blissful ‘Starstruck’ Brings Back the Golden Age of Hollywood

I don’t read a lot of young adult fiction, but when I found out my friend Rachel Shukert was penning a trilogy of novels about young Hollywood starlets in the 1930s, I knew it was right up my alley. Known for her two hilarious memoirs, Have You No Shame and Everything Is Going to Be Great, as well as the fantastic recaps of the ill-fated Smash on Vulture, Shukert brings an astounding voice to her writing, one that is both irreverently raucous and sweetly endearing. Starstruck, Shukert’s first foray into fiction, embodies all of her traits, and it’s a fantastic look at the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Focusing on a trio of young women (Margo Sterling, Amanda Farraday, and Gabby Preston), Starstruck brings alive those now-mythical years of movie-making with a campy behind-the-scenes look at the stars that caught the attention of the average American as well as the studio heads who capitalized on them. Think of it as Valley of the Dolls starring Shirley Temple—it mixes the seediness of showbiz drama with the melodiousness chase of stardom.

This week, Rachel Shukert and I corresponded via email to talk about her obsession with old Hollywood, her ideal audience, and how the nature of celebrity has changed over the last century.

What about this time period inspired you to write about it?
Well, look, since I was a startlingly small child, I’ve been moderately to massively obsessed with old movies and the idea of Golden Age Hollywood, the stars, all of that stuff–the glamor of it, the secrets, and the incredible confluence of insanely talented people working in Hollywood at the time. I love stories about show biz back when it was show biz, you know, and people lived out these huge larger than life stories, and all this seamy stuff happened behind the scenes. It was something I always wanted to be a part of. 

But in a more general sense, I think the ’30s are my favorite era. You can kind of see most of the 20th century as series of reactions to various disasters. The frivolity and the decadence of the ’20s was a direct reaction to World War I and the Spanish flu and all this death and destruction; it was like, honey badgers no longer gave a shit. And then you can also look at the kind of proscribed suburbanism and conformity of the ’50s and early ’60s as this direct response to the horrors of World War II, where the world looked straight into the heart of darkness and responded by regressing into this weird, repressed, idealized kind of childhood where nothing bad could ever happen again as long as you had the right vacuum cleaner and Mother didn’t work and everybody forgot that sexual intercourse of any sort existed (or at least never acknowledged so verbally.) But in the ’30s, everyone was dealing with the Depression, and just didn’t have the time for self-delusion, so everything was very self-consciously sophisticated and witty and cynical and hard-boiled. There was a frankness in the culture that appeals to me. Unless, of course, you were one of the increasing number of people seeking refuge in one of the ascendant ‘isms’—you know, like fascism. Which is also one of my favorite things about this period, as you know, and as I’ve written about. I never get tired of Nazi stuff. Hollywood and Hitler were my two favorite things to read about/think about when I was a kid. They remain so to this day. I don’t think the fact that they were both ascendant at the same time is exactly incidental to my interest in either. 

Who were some of the real-life starlets you used as inspiration for your cast of characters? 
Well, the obvious one is Judy Garland, who is almost entirely the basis for Gabby Preston, and who is my favorite actress of all time. Margo Sterling has a little bit of Lana Turner in her, particularly in the way she is discovered [at Schwab’s Pharmacy in Hollywood], but she also has some of that classic society girl thing, like a Gene Tierney or a Dina Merrill. Amanda Farraday is a little bit Rita Hayworth, a little Hedy Lamarr, mixed with a lot of shadowy rumors that there were about a lot of stars at this time, that they had these kind of scandalous pasts the studios would try to cover up. But except for Gabby, none of them are really based on any one person, it’s sort of lots of little bits of things. And no matter how you try to base a character on someone, they take on a life of their own, and that life is almost always reflective of you in some way. So they’re all loosely based on the real-life starlet Rachel Shukert. 

I know you started acting in Omaha as a girl—did any of those experiences make their way into the novel? Did you base any of your characters on your young adult self?
Ha, see above! I mean, yes, of course they did. Not in a hugely literal way, but that feeling of desperately wanting more, of being sure you’re destined for great things, that has a lot to do with me as a young (or younger!) adult. And Margo’s fantasy life, the way she is constantly referencing these movies in her head, and how they inform her behavior, that has a lot to do with me as well. And obviously, I know the feeling of auditioning, of that incredible anxiety that I think actors—especially younger actors—have that they’re falling behind, that it’s not happening for them, that it’s never going to happen, that everybody else has what they want (and should rightfully be theirs): that’s all very personal. But for me, the most painful realization in my acting was getting out of drama school and realizing that I had zero interest in being an actual actress in New York in the 2000s, that all I had ever really wanted was to be a movie star in Hollywood in the 1930s. So the book was therapeutic in that way.  

Starstruck is the first part of a series—how far have you written, and can you give us any details for where these characters are headed?
I’ve finished the second book, and am working on the third now. I don’t know how much I can tell you without totally giving away the ending of Starstruck, but I will say, the overarching theme of the whole series is really about finding yourself as an artist. So all of the characters are going to go through a kind of a period of refining, of figuring out that what they’re good at isn’t necessarily what they thought they wanted—and that goes for love as well. Margo has had this dizzying rise—now what? Can she sustain it? And more importantly, does she want to? Gabby is going to push more boundaries, trying to prove to everyone that she’s a grown-up, and we’ll see how that conflicts with her talent and potential. Amanda is trying to pick up the pieces of her life and move forward with some dignity, but it’s not working that well. I’ll tell you this, it’s all very juicy. We’ve only peeled back the first few layers of the onion–there are still a lot of secrets to be revealed. There’s more sex, more drugs, more jazz. Things are about to get very "Hollywood Babylon" up in this shit. Minus the Black Dahlia murders and speculation about lesbian incest between the Gish sisters. You know what I mean. 

What was it like to write a novel, since your first two books were memoirs? Was it a challenge to write for a younger audience? 
Honestly, the biggest thing was having to continually remind myself that I could make stuff up. That sounds stupid, but when you’re writing a memoir, the challenge is that all the pieces are there, and it’s your job to figure out the most pleasing, most effective way to arrange them. If something doesn’t fit, you can leave it out, but you can’t change it, you know? And with this, sometimes I would get to a point in the story where I’d be like, this isn’t working, and I would actually have to say out loud: "Fine, so make them do something else!" The other thing, which I didn’t expect, is how protective I would become of these characters, in a way that I never was about myself when I was the main character. It’s weird, it’s very maternal, sort of helicopter-mom like. Are they getting enough attention? Do people love them enough? DON’T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT MY BABIES! If someone doesn’t like the book—and this, thankfully, hasn’t really happened much—I am furious on their behalf, not mine. It’s insane. 

As for a young audience, I mean yes. There are many fewer dick jokes in this book than there have been in my past works. There are, however, a lot more super-queeny Joan Crawford jokes, which I know are VERY relevant to this generation. Let’s just be honest: I wrote this book for members of the drama club and middle-aged gay men. Fin. 

Back to the Old Hollywood setting of Starstruck: do you see a lot of similarities in the way stars were manufactured in the past as they are now?
I think it’s totally different, actually, which is part of what I like about the old studio system. You would go into this sparkle-factory, and come out an entirely different person—new name, new look, whatever they needed you to be, that’s what they’d make you. There’s this inherent unreality to that culture, with these larger-than-life stars, that feels so foreign now to what the fame-industrial complex has become. Now, it’s all about "authenticity." We want stars to be "just like us." They have to be relatable, and if they’re not, they have to be punished. In a certain way (and a very tacky way) I actually think reality stars have become more like what old Hollywood stars were—these personalities that people gossip about, who are basically actors playing some bigger, more dramatic version of themselves. The whole Bravolebrity concept, where we obsess about these characters like they’re real, their relationships with each other–that has really replaced the daytime soap world, which I think was the closest corollary to the old Hollywood star system. But each iteration becomes somehow less than—it’s like Xeroxing a Xerox. You go from real stars to soap opera characters to like, Kyle Richards, and it’s all because of our obsession with the "real," which I think is really a kind of cultural sickness. We’ve become so unimaginative. 

If you were to cast actors to play these roles in a movie version of Starstruck, who would you pick?
Oooh, my favorite question!!! Who would you pick? 

Clever, lady! I could see a Taylor Swift-type (begrudgingly) as Margo, and part of me wanted to imagine Kirsten Dunst as Amanda Farraday (and a little bit with Diana Chesterfield). I could totally see Chloe Grace-Moretz as Gabby, too. 
I LOVE Chloe Grace Moretz for Gabby! She’s adorable and just very slightly evil, which is perfect. Can she sing? I demand to know if she can sing. I also like the idea of Kirsten Dunst as Diana Chesterfield, because she needs to be a bit older, and a little bit like, I’ve seen it, oh the things that I have seen. That’s perfect. For Margo, you know, you want this kind of lovely ingénue who can have a little bit of an edge and not be boring. I think Elle Fanning looks really right, but she’s still a few years too young. But by the time anyone makes this, she’ll be perfect. Or Saoirse Ronan, who has a kind of gawkiness that I like, and always seems smart. For Amanda, you need someone who is tough, but also vulnerable, sort of hard and soft at the same time. I like Emilia Clarke, Mother of Dragons. She’d be good, if she dyed her hair red. Or Juno Temple, who actually has red hair already! Budget saver!

Bravo Premiered A Reality Show This Week About the LOLCat Industry

Bravo is a strange network in terms of its reality programming, in that it can make some of the most elite people in their professions household names (Project Runway, Top Chef), and magically create careers for people who don’t actually have professions (e.g. The Real Housewives all suddenly getting cookbook deals, music deals, acting gigs, what have you). Its latest look into a profession, which you may have missed if you were still nursing an election hangover or bracing from the latest big storm or only tuned in for Top Chef: Seattle, is a look into the lucrative industry of… LOLCats.

LOLWork follows a group of employees at the Seattle-based Cheezburger Network, which began as LOLCat aggregator “I Can Haz Cheezburger” and has since become a rapidly-growing media empire, adding on sites like KnowYourMeme and FAILBlog to its many-armed operation. The protagonist of the series, as it were, is Ben Huh, the CEO of the Cheezburger Network, and includes a cast of his coworkers, including Content Supervisor Will, who “ensures every cat on the site receives the respect they deserve” and Huh’s wife Emily, who serves as Editor-In-Chief of the site, which we can assume involves editing cat captions for perfect grammatical incorrectness.

Watch the first episode, which premiered Wednesday night, below

Bravo Is Developing a ‘Heathers’ TV Series

Here’s some news from the Unnecessary Ideas file: Bravo is expanding their original scripted programming (because the Real Housewives franchise is "unscripted," you know), which would include a TV series based on the cult classic Heathers. How very, etc. 

According to The Hollywood Reporter:

The NBCUniversal-owned network, as part of its goal to have original scripted fare on the air next year, is redeveloping Heathers, the 1988 Winona Ryder and Christian Slater feature that The Big C‘s Jenny Bicks and Sony Pictures Television initially sold to Fox three years ago.

In the updated take, Heathers picks up 20 years later, with Veronica (Ryder’s character) returning home to Sherwood with her teenage daughter, who must contend with the next generation of mean girls: the Ashleys: the daughters of the surviving Heathers.

There’s been talk of a movie sequel to the classic for years—Winona Ryder herself "confirmed" that the film was in the works back in 2009 with the original creative team—but nothing much had moved forward since then. Could this be a good idea? Sure, maybe if Ryder was involved, but what are the chances that she’d stoop so low to be on a basic cable TV series? And, because it may be on Bravo and not, say, Showtime or HBO, how will the original movie’s dark treatment of sex and murder translate to a Bravo audience? I’ll believe it when I see it. 

Contact the author of this post at tcoates@bbook.com, and follow him on Twitter.

Los Angeles Opening: FigOly

Located in the swank Luxe City Center Hotel and near Figueroa Street and Olympic Boulevard (hence the name), Bravo Top Chef Alex Reznik’s new FigOly creates a tempting Northern Italian-influenced brand of California cuisine (with references to Bellgaio, Cinque Terre, and glorious Toscana).

And where else could one hope to order something as cross-continentally intriguing as warm buffalo mozzarella topped with macerated strawberries and black pepper nestled into a bed mâche? There’s even a Mamma Mia cocktail. A massive al fresco space and private cabanas offer epic views of the Downtown skyline. 

Art Basel Miami: Powering through NADA with Bravo’s Bill Powers

You may know him as the smile-cracking judge on Bravo’s Work of Art, but Bill Powers doesn’t merely do the show for shits and gigs. “My mission has always been to bring more people into the art world. I want to make everyone an elitist,” he explained, while touring the NADA show, one of Art Basel’s satellite fairs. Powers has set up shop at this visual carnival, which boasts an alternative assembly of galleries dealing with emerging contemporary art to showcase Exhibition A, his members-only website that sells exclusive editions of artwork by top contemporary artists.

“Though we did a pop-up shop with Colette this fall, Exhibition A has an online presence, so it is nice to let people see the prints in person,” Powers explained as he shook hands with just about everyone, while spreading the word he already sold out of Nate Lowman’s print. It’s no surprise that Powers seems like the most popular kid on campus. The former BlackBook editor morphed into an artsy tour de force of sorts, thanks largely to his Half Gallery, whose artist roster includes Leo Fitzpatrick, Duncan Hannah, and most recently, Terry Richardson.

Powers’ often snarky yet on-point judging style in Work of Art only adds to his appeal, but don’t be fooled: Even though he runs in the ‘holier then thou’ circles (Powers was one of few invited to Lowman’s installation at Alex Rodriguez’s McMansion last night), the gallerist still manages to project that populist, anti-establishment vibe he claims attracted him to NADA in the first place.

“People see some kind of an artificial barrier in the art world. But look at me. I have no formal training in the contemporary art world. I just became interested, I started going to galleries, and I started reading up on art. Anyone can do that.”

Andy Cohen on Whether Bravo Is a Gay Network

By day, Andy Cohen holds the coveted title of Bravo’s Senior VP of Original Programming and Development. By night, he’s in front of the camera, cocktail in hand, hosting his own late night talk show, Watch What Happens: Live. Once a week, Andy sits down with featured guests from across the world of pop culture—as well as your favorite Bravolebrities—to discuss everything from what’s making headlines that week to the latest Housewives drama. Recently named one of TV Guide’s “25 Most Influential People in Television,” Andy is elevating Bravo, and himself, to a whole new level of acclaim. On the morning after Top Chef won its first Emmy, which was, coincidentally, also the night of the big Real Housewives of New Jersey Reunion throw-down, we caught up with the pop culture icon to discuss the divas of Bravo, Watch What Happens’ rapid success, and whether Bravo is in fact a gay network.

What does a typical day in the life of Andy Cohen look like? There’s really not a typical day. I usually take a few pitches everyday, I watch cuts of shows and do notes on them, I meet with my team and with other Bravo teams to sort out what’s going on. We have so many shows in production and development at the same time, so typically it’s mainly about that. The on-air stuff usually takes me away from the day things.

How do you decide what will work for the network and what won’t? It’s typically whether it’s on-brand. We have the most upscale and educated audience, so it’s about that. Is it different, is it definitional, is it going to pull in over a million viewers? Is it fun? Does it fit in with food, fashion, beauty, design, and pop culture? Those are kind of the filters.

What’s the casting process like for these shows? Well, it depends on the show. In terms of Housewives we look for people that know each other, who have different relationships with each other, and people who represent different things to each other.

Since Bravo is so involved with social media, how much does audience feedback drive the plot lines of the shows? We don’t really drive the plot lines. I think in terms of audience feedback, it’s important for us to see what people want to know. I think they inform future seasons. I think Top Chef is a good example of a show that has evolved and changed as we’ve gone on. It’s evolved with an eye to what people like and what they want to see.

The network is filled with diva-esque, campy women. Have you always been a fan of these big, over the top characters? I have, yes, absolutely. I love a strong woman. I think they’re unpredictable, fun to watch, exciting, funny, and sometimes unintentionally funny.

How do you feel about people saying Bravo is just Andy Cohen’s interests and you’re just puppeteering these people’s lives? I didn’t know any of the housewives before the show went on. I can’t push them in any direction. They determine the story line by what’s going on with them. I couldn’t in a million years make up what is happening or what is going to possibly happen with the housewives. It’s beyond the scope of my capability.

So tell me about how Watch What Happens came to be and how you ended up in front of the camera? In college I studied Broadcast Journalism. I wanted to be on camera as an anchor or a reporter. My last internship was at CBS News in New York, and I wound up working there behind the scenes for ten years, and my career grew and I kind of gave up the on-air thing. That was until I was at Bravo and Lauren Zalaznick, my boss, said that she would love to do a show online that was complimentary to my blog which I was writing on BravoTV.com. So I stated doing an online show after Top Chef, and funnily enough, they came to me and asked if I wanted to do my online show on air! I would have never in a million years have had the hubris, gumption, stupidity, idiocy, lunacy to think that I could wind up doing what I am doing now.

Over the past season, you’ve gained over two million viewers. What do you think it is about the show that grabs so many people? I think because it’s live and unpredictable and it’s fun. It’s often really complimentary to whatever we just had on the air. On our season premiere, we’re going to have Teresa from the Jersey Housewives and Stacie Turner from the DC Housewives. So that’s something that anybody who loves the housewives will be interested in seeing. Conversely, when you have someone like Jerry Seinfeld come to the Bravo Clubhouse it’s like, What’s he doing there and what’s he going to say? There he is kind of railing against the Housewives in the face of me, who’s in charge of programming for the network. It’s certainly unpredictable and fun.

Can you tell me about the reunion? It looked very physical. It’s nuts. It goes back to your questions about me controlling storylines or things like that. I cannot predict what’s going to happen with these women and on these shows and that’s one of the reasons why I love the show so much. It was the first time the women had been under the same roof in a year. It’s very raw and volatile—like lighting a match around a tank of gas—and I was lighting the match.

I saw some behind-the-scenes footage you had recorded and you weren’t sure how it was all going to come together. Did it all turn out like you hoped? It came together great. When you’re sitting there and you’re in the midst of this, you can’t imagine how it’s going to play out in a TV show, because it’s so meandering. My job is to keep everything in order, and there is no order. I think the shocking thing is how the two hours ends.

Do you think the Jersey Housewives have veered off in a different direction than the rest of the Housewives? I think they all have their own personality. I think the Orange County Housewives, who are the originals, are the Knots Landing of the group, whereas New York is kind of the Dynasty. New York is like a drawing room comedy—fighting about invitations and friendships and protocol. I find that especially entertaining and humorous. I think Jersey is loaded in, even though it has nothing to do with it, a Sopranos-esque vibe. To me, DC is the most intellectual of all of them because they do start fighting about politics. There’s a big debate about gay marriage that comes up that’s really surprising. There are real questions of race and class that keep coming up in DC that haven’t been seen in any of our other series.

Bethenny Frankel from Real Housewives of New York now has her own show. Are there other housewives that have been trying to push for their own show? There are some, but I think that their is great strength is being in an ensemble cast. I always make the analogy that Friends was a great ensemble cast, and then Joey came on after that and it was an unsuccessful spin off.

Bethenny is also an exception because she’s so candid about her life. She is bulls-eye Bravo.

Bravo seems to be a gay network, but is not as explicit gay as, say, Logo. How do you define it? I always saying we’re bi, but I think it’s kind of how I view myself being gay—it’s just one of things that I am. So Bravo may or may not be gay, but I think there’s a lot of other things going on. I think for the gay people on Bravo, it’s one of the things that they are—they’re not on Bravo because they’re gay. The people that are gay on Bravo, like Brad on Rachel Zoe or Jeff on Flipping Out, they’re gay but they’re also great at what they do and that’s why they’re on Bravo and that’s important.

What are some of your favorite places to go out in the city? I love the Boom Boom Room. I think it’s the most beautiful room in the New York City. There’s a new bar that opened on 8th Avenue between Jane and 12th called Anfora that I really like. I also like going to The Cubbyhole. It’s in my neighborhood because it has a great vibe, it’s fun, and they have Bravo on the TV, so I know I’ll be entertained.

Did you see the pictures of Danielle’s daughter in the latest Blackbook? Gorgeous, she’s really beautiful.

Why Kelly Cutrone Is the New Lady Gaga

Just a few months ago I went out on a limb and anointed Lady Gaga as a more powerful a fashion figure than Anna Wintour, in some respects at least. Gaga has endorsed avant-garde designers in a manner never before seen with regard to pop culture. Take her video for Bad Romance, where Gaga schooled an audience far wider than that of Vogue’s monthly readership on one of the late Alexander McQueen’s most talked-about collections (for SS10). While she may be doing so on a significantly smaller scale, PR maven-turned-reality TV star Kelly Cutrone is following suit.

On the two most recent episodes of Kell on Earth, Cutrone and co. travel to London Fashion Week for SS10 shows. While much of the episodes revolves around inter-office drama, there’s a fair bit of coverage of shows from Jeremy Scott and Henry Holland. Neither is the kind of designer that typically gets prime time television coverage. Scott for one sent down a collection of Flintstones-appropriate styles and topped it all off with fluorescent, neon-streaked hair. Meanwhile, House of Holland showcased quite a few completely sheer lace ensembles (including separates for men). Not exactly mainstream.

What’s interesting is that while neither designer is near household name status beyond the fashion industry’s extended circle, coverage on Bravo is no doubt exposing their brands to an entirely new market. And the same goes for any one of People’s Revolution’s clients who garner face-time on the show. Cutrone may not be bringing House of Holland to the homes of tens of millions of people the way Gaga has for certain designers, but she’s definitely helping encourage a focus on lesser-known houses in a manner not seen before. Sadly, the exposure solely benefits those designers paying for Cutrone’s services. That said, it’s surely not a bad deal for her clients.

Kelly Cutrone Mouths Off

Kelly Cutrone is one of the most feared women working in fashion. She has notoriously banned people from shows for not following directions; I can’t imagine what words would come out of her mouth should you cross her. And, like all things high-drama, she makes great television, as has been proved on The Hills, The City and, soon, Bravo’s new series Kell on Earth. The publicist and founder of People’s Revolution, who also has a book called If You Have to Cry, Go Outside: And Other Things Your Mother Never Told You out next month, recently sat down for a conference call and The Awl, listened in.

(‘DiggThis’)Cutrone On her aversion to wearing make-up, even for the show: “You know, people have strong connotations of what women on television should say and what they should wear and how they should look. And I’m just not into it. The Bravo shot of me on the couch? It looks like I had sex with Heather Locklear and five margaritas.”

On her own brand of feminism: “I believe in the goddesses. I like that whole warrior tribal thing.”

On her book’s intended audience: “This is a book for the village girl and the gay boy.”

On The Hills vs. Kell On Earth: “Well, on The Hills, I’m on with a bunch of blonde girls. And on this one I’m on with a bunch of black-haired girls…. We’re not fluttering around here.”

On her preferred method of avoiding fashion week event crashers: “I also do my new favorite thing, the walk-away. When people are just trying to convince me and I just walk away…. Also the slide… where you just don’t say anything. And just slide away.”

On the Internet as terrifying: “My fear is that Twitter is the new American literature. Or I can only watch things on the Internet for 30 seconds, because that’s all the viewer’s going to watch on the Internet.”

From Reality TV To The Runway: Aspiring Designers By The Dozen

Bravo is launching a brand new fashion-based reality series with a not so new premise this Wednesday. Called Launch My Line, the show will follow a dozen aspiring designers trying to launch fashion lines. Their fate will be decided by a team of seasoned judges, including Dean and Dan Caten from DSQUARED2, SCOOP’s founder Stephanie Greenfield and Lisa Kline, the woman behind the boutiques of the same name. As for contestants, there are quite a few familiar faces: there’s Patrick McDonald, the former buyer and couture director best known for his idiosyncratic style; Roberto, a fashion designer and fine artist; David Applebaum, a SoCal architect; and Merle Ginsberg, a well-known journalist. It’s a bizarre mix of characters that should translate to something distinctive from Project Runway.

Also looking to launch a line, but not with Bravo’s help is model Coco Rocha. In the most recent blog post, Oh So Coco, the model puts out a call to her readers: “I have decided to start my own line… I need your suggestions on what the name of my line should be.” So far the suggestion pickings seem a bit slim (think: ‘Chinook’ in honor of Rocha’s Canadian heritage). Whether or not Rocha will take her reader’s advice remains to be seen. But, overall the message running throughout seems to be simple: these days, anyone can be a designer.