LA People 2009: Art-Tart Barbie Kari French
What do Barbie dolls, paint-drenched vaginas, mod-era frocks and the übereclectic Internet radio station Luxuria Music all have in common? Each is part of the kaleidoscopic world of Kari French, a.k.a. Kari Kaos, a.k.a. Agent Kari, a.k.a. the Pussy Print-cess. The actress/dancer/artist/DJ is one of L.A.’s most colorful inhabitants, a retro-obsessed art tart with a pad that makes the Austin Powers flicks look drab. Though her heyday as a performance artist throwing bodacious parties with names like Glitter Spasm might be behind her, for French, truly, every day is a performance.
“I’m basically a punk chick who’s obsessed with the ’60s,” she says. (She’s wearing one of her signature matching vintage get-ups: a green-and-blue-striped polyester mini, green knee-highs and Hush Puppies.) “Punk’s going to give you the attitude and the questioning authority and all that kind of stuff, but I’ve always loved the aesthetics of the ’60s.”
From her waitress days at Club Lingerie and her time as a dancer at strip joints such as Jumbo’s Clown Room and the Aladdin to fetish havens like Sin-a-matic, artsy hubs like the Onyx Café and the Dada-esque downtown undergrounds where local luminaries like Ron Athey and Carol “Perpetua” Cetrone (an early inspiration) first raised eyebrows with their skin-baring/flaring presentations, French’s wiles made waves.
In the early days, she had a gothy Bettie Page look going on (she was also part of the Velvet Hammer burlesque troupe), and her work, like the deceased pinup, maintained sweetness and charm even at its most scandalous. There were reverse stripteases and, of course, her infamous pussy-print setup, in which she discreetly planted herself — pantyless but skirted — in paint and “printed” it on paper.
Her Barbie-themed offerings (which included live performances, theme paintings and events) also played with innocence and sexuality. Her Dress Up bashes (in which invitees came with their favorite Mattel gals in custom-made matching garb) might have celebrated the doll, but her later art shows swung in quite the opposite direction, annihilating and deconstructing the plaything’s mystique with pieces titled Roadkill Barbie and Anal Bead Barbie. “Here’s this perfect thing and it’s just defective in some way,” explains French.
Surprisingly, her doll frenzy didn’t even start till the ’80s. “Barbie had the big hair and ugly, big, pouffy dresses then and it wasn’t so hip. They didn’t get hip ’til, like, after those Spice Girls dolls came out,” she remembers. “So my obsession became finding cool, punk-style clothes for Barbie. I traveled all over to find them, and then I’d find old outfits from the ’60s or from the ’70s in cheap stores, or stuff other people made.”
With Bratz seducing little girls to streak their hair purple and covet collagen lips, and every rock star/pop tart who’s ever donned a corset getting a mini-me figure these days, it’s not surprising she doesn’t buy new dolls much anymore. “Once I stopped doing performance art, the focus shifted just to dressing like a ’60s Barbie myself,” she says, and she’s done just that for 12 years now, essentially abandoning all contemporary clothing in the process. Frequent trips to Europe for dance performances and DJ gigs recently led her to the perfect mate, U.K. designer Michael Wolf, whom she married last year. His company, Velvet Illusion, makes — you guessed it — ’60s mod styles.
French’s penchant for Op Art eye candy, Twiggy-like eye makeup and go-go-girl style is a perfect fit with her current gig, spinning tunes on www.Luxuriamusic.com. If you don’t know about the all-volunteer Internet radio station, let Ms. French — whose ’60s-themed show, K.A.O.S Au-Go-Go, airs every Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. — turn you on. “Luxuria is an eclectic group of cool record-collector geeks, including musicians, authors, performers, veteran DJs, who each have a specialized interest in the many facets of pop-culture consciousness,” she says. “The DJs are very passionate about what they play, and most of us have creative lifestyles to match our musical tastes.”
Her fellow radio rebels include lounge king The Millionaire, N.Y. punk legend Howie Pyro and art-pop pioneer Kristian Hoffman, to name a few, none of whom play new music much. French’s own flashbacky set lists include soundtracks, foreign versions of American standards, and bits of garage and soul thrown in for good measure. As the Luxuria bio for “Agent Kari” states, it’s a merging of her psychedelic tunnel vision with the groove of a grown-up teen dance party. Or, as she sums it up, “a soundtrack for my crazy life.”
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