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Advice From a Diva

Photo by Anne Fishbein

I’ve moved every two years of my adult life. Before bringing a single box into each new space, I paint the walls an inimitable color scheme that excludes beige or white. Then I appease the spirits by flicking from my fingers whiskey or tequila into every corner, and then I throw the festive ritual housewarming.

As a true birthday-celebrating diva, an author with book events and an artist with openings, I’ve had parties in all of my homes, no matter how tight the space or unfriendly the hood. Working the square footage, furniture and personality of the block to my advantage, I try to create a cozy or lavish party to stand in stark contrast to whatever the guests left at the curb with their cars.

I’ve rung in the reveling from the Korean district on St. Andrews Place to Spaulding Square, before it was pricey and historic, when it was two blocks from the Sunset Boulevard prostitutes. New Year’s Eve gatherings, Harvest Moon feasts and orphan Thanksgivings have traveled from Redondo Boulevard a half-block from the Washington Boulevard corner liquor store and crack-house strawberries to the New York West Village tub-in-the-kitchen walkup. I’ve hosted summer blowouts in the cherry loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where people ventured to the roof for a perfect view of the East River. (I stayed there until a dealer was macheted to death at the building’s front door.) There were glamour dinner parties at the huge loft on Sixth and Spring in posh SoHo and fiestas upon my return to L.A. to live in Old Town Pasadena’s little sister, Larchmont. Now that I’m in Laurel Canyon, and have long ago passed my two-year itch, I imagine myself staying here a Lady. With an enchanted backyard forest for Easter egg and scavenger hunts for my daughter, Imogen, my own birthday celebrations extend from the two sides of a glass tree house to the outdoor living-room deck. Complete with couch-bed, love seat and TV, we watch movies under the sky for our own Hollywood Forever vibe.

Invitations being the party’s first mood maker — I’m a believer in the handmade — I’ll spend a week painting and sewing 20 silver bawdy sheela-na-gigs on black velvet, pasting 50 keyed Polaroids on cut-out shiny wallpaper, or glittering a hundred computer-enhanced titties glued on cardboard. Handwritten envelopes, only. The smaller the party, the more thought goes into the guest list. Intimacy is a trick for alchemists. In whose honor is the party? That person must be flanked and framed by kindred souls, with provoking opposites thrown in for spirit. If the party is large, then the motto is, the more the merrier. Rather than worry over clashes, I delight in watching new acquaintances and post-school good friends mix with those dating back as far as junior high. I am the keeping kind. Besides, the vivid colors of the walls, the garden’s blooms, the candles, a careful choice of music (planned and stacked the night before), and occasionally even balloons, all take care of random awkward encounters, leaving plenty of nuance for escape and indulgence.

But what I consider more important than the aesthetic of the mood, invitations or cutoff for the guest list is food. You’ve got to feed people, and feed them well, for a great party, so I spend the most time weighing whether it’ll be my man and I cooking an African meal, scraping the budget together for Soul Food catering or, best yet, if I can sweet-talk my mother into making smothered ‰ chicken, coconut rice and plantain, Panamanian style. I’ll only entertain in bars or restaurants if I don’t have much choice due to distance. If people are making the trek to a reading or an opening far from my house, then I’ll host them within blocks of the event. If it’s my birthday, however, I could never let anyone pay for a meal or a drink, which is definitely a Panamanian thing.

As the date closes in, my outfit becomes of highest concern. After the guest list, invitations and food have been decided upon, a theme (however subtle) has emerged, and so my clothes should complement that. Whether it’s a backless, red-vinyl, floor-length ball gown, a silver-sequined mini, or thigh-high 5-inch stiletto-heel boots and white-leather vest, I dress for drama. Being the daughter and sister of the glitz team Maud Designs, I can’t help tendencies toward the bold. One of my closest friends since the age of 13 is Beverly Klein, who is one-half of Tree, so when I’m not doing flash and flesh, I’m living in their starlet-lush femme silks.

I’ve never had a party disaster, knock on wood. And the closest thing to embarrassment occurred while wearing a pink beaded, chainlink dress over a slip, which fell to my waist due to the delicate suede straps. I greeted guests with an exposed stomach and turquoise bra, wondering why I felt the extra breeze, and kept eliciting the extra once-over. Unaware of my exhibitionism for hours, until the designer of the slip walked in, I heard, while being whisked downstairs for pinning, “And all this time I thought she was paying homage to Cher.”

The obvious way to get guests comfortable as they enter is to offer them the drink of the evening. Even if they don’t want or can’t have what you’re featuring, they can find their own preference at the full bar, take care of themselves, and so goes the first step in their finding their own fun. I don’t necessarily make the effort for a quality moment with each guest — as they are there expecting to mingle among strangers, acquaintances and, hopefully, friends, not to bond with me one on one. Nor do I always make copious introductions, though I could boast of matchmaking two marriages (it was all about the party atmosphere) and hooking up folks with good work connections. The parties that most easily go to the wee hours are those when even a few dance. With the right music (such as house, funk, Cuban and French), flirtation and infectious moves, you can get those up on the floor who swear they never do or can.

That’s why the very beginning of a party — when most of the guests have already arrived — is when I consider my work done. It’s really all in the prep, in those details that matter: like the degree of lighting, the placement of chairs, the cleanliness of the bathroom, the established area for purses, jackets or gifts, the hors d’oeuvres ready and on the table. With the guests arrived, and my checklist gone over, the worries stop here, as it’s time to enjoy.

Lisa Teasley is the author of the story collection Glow in Dark, a winner of the Gold Pen award and Pacificus Foundation award. Her novel Dive is forthcoming in March 2004.

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