Photo by Bill Smith
“Mick, Mick,” Ashleigh Meyer, a 21-year-old blond shrieks as Mick Jagger takes the stage at the El Rey Theater. The guy in leather next to her grabs his face, hands jutting dramatically toward the ceiling, screaming, “Oh my God . . . Mick.”
As touching as I find this display of fidelity to one of rock’s most tenacious members, someone in the VIP lounge has tipped me off that some of the younger devotees at Jagger’s record-release party, including Meyer and Leather Boy, are not what they seem. What they are, he said, are fans for hire.
“Are you girls getting paid for this?” I ask two of the youngest and prettiest women in the audience. “Umm, I don’t know,” one responds. “Ask him?” the other says with a girly question-mark lilt, then points toward a dark and slender male.
“Him” turns out to be Scottie Lazarus, owner of Scottie’s Bodies, a casting agency. “Yes, they are talent,” admits Lazarus, who also casts music videos and commercials. “We try to keep it kinda quiet.” Lazarus looks around the crowded theater. Jack Nicholson, Meg Ryan and Sean Penn are in the audience, but 50 of the best-looking “fans,” mostly female, are his. He’s paid each of them $100 to attend the four-hour event, and attracted them by putting out a call for “Great Looking Sexy Fun Party People,” ages 18 to 25, on online job boards, including HollywoodOS.com.
“Is this a common thing?” I ask. “Do other rockers hire talent to fill the audience?”
“A lot of these guys do,” Lazarus says. “They want to believe they can still attract girls like Britney Spears.”
Lazarus explains that the event director was worried about the look of the audience since it was full of radio contest winners, who often turn out to be fans in their 40s. The show was being filmed for the ABC special called Being Mick, and, as Lazarus says, “They wanted good-looking people.”
“Is Jagger aware of it?” I ask.
“Mick was afraid people would know they were talent.”
Lazarus says he got into the fan-casting business when a Baywatch producer approached him as his girlfriend was trying on clothes at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. The man told him he would pay his girlfriend $500 to lie around on the beach.
“I said I would talk to her. She came out of the dressing room, and I told her that this guy would pay her $250 to be on Baywatch. It started then.”
“Did you tell her he offered $500?” I ask.
“Eventually,” he laughs.
Over in the VIP section, two very young-looking women in midriff- and butt-cleavage-baring jeans stand on top of their chairs, swaying to the beat. Two men seated among them egg them on. As if on cue, Jagger looks toward the group and winks. The girls respond by screaming and clapping.
“Do your hired fans even know who Mick Jagger is?” I ask.
“Not all of them,” Lazarus says.
As Jagger’s brief performance progresses, Meyer and her friend attempt to rub Jagger’s leg as he sashays by. “We love you, Mick,” she and Leather Boy shout as the diminutive rocker shakes them off.
“Of course, I know who he is,” Meyer says indignantly when I put the “Who’s Mick?” question to her after the show. “I’m from Kansas. Classic rock is what makes the country work.”
“Do you play a groupie often?” I ask.
“All the time,” she says, smiling to reveal her tongue pierce. “I played a groupie on Mick’s latest video.” She’s also been a body double for both Pink and Gwen Stefani, the lead girl “Shelby” on a Staind video, and made a raft of paid party appearances.
“It is a matter of looking fabulous,” the wannabe rock & roll singer says. And the job has its perks, including occasional dates with rock icons.
“Have you ever been asked to do the groupie thing?” I ask.
“No, it’s not like that,” she says. “Everyone is very professional.”
For this gig, Scotties Bodies asked her to dress like she was going to a Rolling Stones concert. Meyer obliged by wearing a black off-the-shoulder shirt and black leather pants.
“I am honored to be here,” she says.
Fashion Ethics: My Forever 21 Problem
I’m embarrassed to admit how many tank tops I have. More than 20, more than 30, more than, well, more than a 26-year-old girl who works at home should rightfully own. But this morning I’m going to picket Highland Park’s Fashion 21, the first store opened by multimillion-dollar retailer Forever 21, and I can’t find a thing to wear. Nearly every article of clothing in my closet is from Forever 21.
If you don’t hang out with cheap kids who love clothes you may have never heard of Forever 21. But the retailer of low-priced young women’s fashions, started in Los Angeles by a Korean couple, Do Won Chang and Jin Sook Chang, now has 92 stores across America. The problem: 19 garment workers from six different alleged sweatshops filed suit against Forever 21 and the factories, claiming unpaid wages and unsafe conditions. A friend who knows my love of Forever 21 forwarded me a notice about the protest.
I finally settle on a pair of Old Navy jeans and an Abercrombie & Fitch tank top, then dash over just in time to be issued a picket sign that says, “Living Wages = Equal Dignity!” There’s the usual protest mix of college students in Birkenstocks, community organizers, and people from other unions (restaurant workers, day laborers) out to show their solidarity. We march in a tight circle in front of the store as a bespectacled Asian girl starts up a call and response.
“Qué queremos?” she shouts.
“Justícia!” we reply.
“Cuando?” she asks.
“Ahora!” we say enthusiastically.
She follows with a high-pitched “Woo- hoo!” that meets with far less energy.
The second time around, I pause for a moment in front of the store window and look a little too longingly at a navy-blue and kelly-green striped polo with a cute white collar, nearly knocking off the hat of the man in front of me. He’s a portly Latino man in his late 40s, chummy with the members of the Day Laborer’s Union, wearing a maroon South Park cap with a picture of fat Eric and the words “Kick Ass.”
“Sorry. Umm . . . kick ass!” I say, pumping my sign and pointing at his hat by way of apology. He lets the misguided girl go, and we continue marching as passing drivers honk and a group of Korean drummers strike up a beat on the other side of the street.
Over the next 20 minutes, more picketers gather until we have a crowd of more than 100 and other signs join mine: “No Somos Esclavos” (“We are not Slaves”), “Do Won Chang Unfair!” “Si no nos pagan, no â oy paz” (“If we are not paid, there will be no peace”). A man with curly hair holds shirts up on wooden sticks, and they wave guiltily, like the heads of fallen dictators. I realize, with a pang, that I actually own one of the shirts — a red tank top with a British flag on the front and laces down the sides (it was only $8.99!). Then I remember that the Gap and its subsidiary, Old Navy, have been cited for running sweatshops. I furtively check the waistband of my pants — phew, no visible Old Navy labels. I haven’t heard anything about Abercrombie & Fitch, but I’m guessing that their workers probably aren’t treated any better than the Gap’s or Forever 21’s.
“You have to assume that anything you buy in a store is made in a sweatshop,” says Joann Lo, one of the organizers from L.A.’s Garment Workers Center, a group that formed in response to an El Monte slave-labor case involving more than 70 Thai garment workers.
I ask some of the other organizers where they get their clothes. They all say that they try to buy their clothes at thrift stores, but I definitely recognize a few articles of Urban Outfitters provenance, and several of the garment workers marching are wearing things that I could swear are from Forever 21. Which, I suppose, makes sense. I mean, if you’re going to sew the damn flowery shirt for $3 an hour and no water or bathroom breaks, you might as well wear it, right?
Inside the store there are more workers than shoppers, and I self-righteously avoid looking at anything on the racks as I talk to Susan Chae, a Forever 21 district manager who was outside earlier taking Polaroids of the protesters (who in turn, took pictures of her). “I don’t appreciate them taking pictures of me in front of the store,” she says.“I think it’s very rude. And I know you’re with them. I saw you.” I think about pleading journalistic impartiality (down with sweatshops, up with cheap clothes?) but decide not to bother. Later, I will try, and fail, to get the Changs’ side of the story, but today I simply head back outside as the picketers are wrapping up with a repeated “We’ll be back! We’ll be back!”
Artist Recognition: Musicians Wanted: Must Be Quirky, Quiet
Last Monday, a very odd lineup — Nikka Costa, Talib Kweli, the Dandy Warhols and Sigur Ros — took the stage at the Knitting Factory, each of them one of 10 finalists for a brand-new music award, the Virgin Megastore Shortlist Prize for Artistic Achievement. But the nominees had mixed feelings about being up for the prize. “Oh, cool,” said Dandy Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor, “the Shortlist of Bands That Don’t Sell Records.”
Co-founded earlier this year by industry veterans Tom Sarig and Greg Spotts, the Shortlist Prize was designed as an American answer to Britain’s Mercury Prize. Given to the best U.K. album of the year, the Mercury is meant to increase the overseas profile of the acts nominated. (Essentially, it’s the Mercury Prize for Bands That Don’t Sell Any Records in America.) The Shortlist, though, is an attempt to offer winners more than just a new doorstop and a pat on the back.
“You don’t get $10,000 for winning a Grammy,” Spotts said from the stage, pointing out one of the Shortlist’s advantages, “and some of these artists could really use the dough.” Albums were eligible provided they hadn’t been certified Gold (500,000 copies sold). Fifteen “tastemakers” — Beck, Lucinda Williams, Trent Reznor, Dave Grohl and producer Dan “the Automator” Nakemura, among them — nominated 49 records, the Longlist. Next they picked their five favorites among the 49. Records with the most votes made it onto the Shortlist of 10. Genre-agnostic and artist-driven, the process was designed to distance the prize from music-industry logrolling and ignorance (the Grammies), the vagaries of the unwashed masses (the People’s Choice Award) and the photogenic (MTV Video Music Awards). It’s a prize for quirky artists, the musical bohemian-class.
They need it. Because of the massive record-industry mergers of recent years, the music business has become even more obsessed with the bottom line. If nothing else, the Shortlist is a bit like a Christmas-gift crib sheet for those with broad tastes but no time to trawl magazine racks or the Internet for the next big thing, or even the next midsized thing. “I don’t know if I have any evidence to say this,” Spotts said, “but I will go to my grave believing that there is a percentage of the audience that wants something more flavorful and more individual and more personable than what they’re given.”
At the end of the night, Iceland’s Sigur Ros (U.S. record sales: 75,000) took the stage. Blending castratilike vocals in a made-up language, with layered guitar and keyboards that surfaced only to get swallowed up again, their music was both dramatic and without focal point.
“Shut up!” yelled one attendee.
“Shut the fuck up!” said a second.
“Keep it down back there,” said a third.
These were fans. The band was almost an inversion of Hendrix-style, I-fucked-God-and-learned-to-tell-the-tale type classic rock, but with all the invigorating characteristics of guitar rock intact.
“Ya’ll was right. I was wrong,” an impressed Amir “?uestlove” Thompson told singers/songwriters/married couple Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, up in the balcony. Thompson, drummer for the hip-hop group The Roots, was alluding to a heated last-minute debate among the judges as to whether they should split the prize with Sigur Ros and rapper Talib Kweli. Sigur Ros’s Agaetis Byrjun (translation “A Nice Beginning”) was the sole winner. “We’re not very good at speeches,” said bassist Georg Holm. “I guess we will say the two very important words — thank you.” The assembly of underground hip-hoppers, clever white folks and Icelandic aliens all in one room gave the night a feeling of a “We Are the World” super-session programmed by KCRW DJ Nic Harcourt, himself a certified Shortlist tastemaker.
It’s a good idea. When is the last time the mainstream awarded a band attention for being quiet?
—Alec Hanley Bemis