Q&A: novelist Porochista Khakpour on beauty

The first time I met Porochista Khakpour, I was a little bit in awe. She was smart, opinionated, funny — and she had a bad-ass asymmetrical haircut, too. Right away, I saw a woman who refused to step into the roles that some people expected her to play. My kind of lady.

Nearly 10 years later, I’m still constantly impressed and amazed by Porochista’s intelligence, candor, and imagination. You can get a glimpse of her talents in her just-published second novel, The Last Illusion, a coming-of-age story about a feral boy who grew up in a birdcage. That’s a simplistic description, but even so, aren’t you intrigued?

Shortly before The Last Illusion hit shelves, we caught up over drinks in Harlem, where Porochista lives and works. Our beauty chat is long, covering everything from purple hair to feminism, but — I hope you’ll agree — it’s a good one.

Years ago, someone said, “Annie, you’re ‘book hot.’ You’re pretty, but you’re not going to turn heads on the street. You are the kind of hot that would make someone buy a book if they saw your picture on the back.” Do you have any thoughts? I bet you do.
I almost love the idea of being book hot, but I’m also mortified by that concept. I remember that moment, especially around Marisha Pessl’s debut, which was this whole discussion about book hot versus hot. My book was coming out a year later, and I was so nervous about what my author photo projected. Now I just don’t care. What’s funny about that is that there’s this obvious, problematic sexism behind that, but there’s also this expectation of what authors or journalists should look like. That we’re some subset is just fascinating.

A friend once told me that I had so much courage for wearing a dress to my book party. I thought, “That’s not courage.”

And I see a lot of women really worry about this — the politics of wearing red lipstick or a short skirt or looking too girly. I see people hamming up their author photos in the opposite direction to look kinda shoddy. As an Iranian woman — more so than an American woman; I’ve got those two parts of my identity — in my household, we were encouraged to be feminine and to celebrate our appearance. I never saw that as odds with as my work as a writer. I’ve since realized that that’s a phenomenon I refuse to participate in. A friend once told me that I had so much courage for wearing a dress to my book party. I thought, “That’s not courage. What are you talking about?” I feel like it’s my duty to force people to understand that a woman can be interested in fashion or appearance and still be an intellectual or a scholar or a professor. Those things should not have to be incompatible. Right now I’m fascinated with all the press about George Clooney’s fiancée and how they’re framing all that. Obviously, she’s incredibly intelligent, and it’s throwing people off.

But I think that’s what happens. There’s this idea that a woman can be either beautiful or intelligent. But to be both, it’s perplexing for a lot of people.
I know. That’s why it’s fun to participate all the more. You have to antagonize those people who have a hard time with it. I think the rebelliousness of my character almost finds that as a fun challenge. I’m happy to have my pieces published that are very serious — intense book reviews, for instance. At the same time, I’m really happy to do a seemingly frivolous piece at a fashion magazine. I just don’t see those things as being incompatible. We should feel more than comfortable exploring those seeming dichotomies, and to shatter that myth that you have to be one or the other.

You talked about femininity with regard to being Iranian, and then you came to the United States. Growing up, how did you define beauty with these two cultural influences?
My mother was always that beauty-queen, debutante type. She was flawless. I’ve never seen her without makeup, I’ve never seen her without her natural hair color. She was just, like, the epitome of woman — in this very commercial Western sense, actually, in addition to the Eastern goddess sense.

To be a woman in the ’90s meant to be a little bit scruffy and sexy.

For me, what’s interesting is that when we came to the U.S. in the early ’80s, I was really inspired by punk rock. I still remember seeing those videos on MTV and really being aware of a thing called punk and thinking that was so cool. And then you think about when we came of age — we graduated from high school in 1996 — and all that grunge stuff and the riot grrrl was happening. It was so great. To be a woman then meant to be a little bit scruffy and sexy, but for me, it was in a tomboyish way. I was hanging out with guys and dressing like them, too — wearing torn jeans and flannel shirts. I still think of that as really sexy; I think that’s gorgeous. We were so lucky to come of age in a time where there was a feminist atmosphere. Then there was this moment that came right after that, with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, boy bands, girl bands, all that weird stuff. That took everything back. That was when I felt really alienated from culture.

You and I both have this interest in punk and feminism, and we’re both very independent with strong opinions. And yet we both have manicures right now. How do you feel about that? I don’t struggle with it, but I think it’s interesting.
I think the cool thing about certain alternative cultures or countercultures is that desire to absorb the mainstream. So, to me, seeing the work you’ve done in beauty, I’m always like, “I’m so happy Annie’s in that world.” It’s not like I have general respect for all the people in that world, but when I see the people who are from my “team” in that world, I feel a great sense of pride.

I’ve always felt like an outsider and I’m always attracted to people who are outsiders in some way.

And I also think the future’s going to be okay, because here’s a smart and responsible person with good values who can create a ripple. Historically, journalism that concerned itself with beauty was not always challenging, not always trying to achieve something more. But I’ve seen that in a lot of women in our age group who are trying to bring a new awareness to that. Also, to create an atmosphere where there shouldn’t be shame at, like, me getting a blowout or wearing lipstick. I wrote a piece for Elle about blond hair. One of the people I brought up in that piece was Kathy Acker, who was white blond and always wore lipstick. I think about all the icons of riot grrrl: all of them wore makeup, and all of them wore more dresses than I wear today.

All the icons of riot grrrl wore makeup, and all of them wore more dresses than I wear today.

Or I think about my favorite era of PJ Harvey, her To Bring You My Love era, where she was almost in female drag. One of the things that’s compelling about being a woman to me now is both engaging with [femininity] in this forward way, but also engaging with it in a slightly subversive way, which i don’t think men get to experience in their lives as much because the culture is more male-dominated in certain ways. So many of my identities have to do with being a minority. Okay, there are obvious disadvantages in those identities, but there’s also this way in which it gives you a lot of other options that are a little bit under the radar — as long as you’re okay with being outside. I’ve always felt like an outsider and I’m always attracted to people who are outsiders in some way.

When you’re writing characters in your fiction, how does beauty and appearance come into play?
I’m writing my third novel, which has an entirely female cast. There’s always been a Method-acting component to my writing. Dyeing my hair platinum blond came out of a section in my third novel that’s about blond hair and bottle blondes. I wanted to know how that would feel. My third novel is as close to Spring Breakers as I think a book can get.

People are always really scandalized by the fact that I own Uggs.

It deals with these Iranian-American Tehrangelenos in LA, and their whole culture. The other way is in terms of my own process as being a writer. I think it was Joyce Carol Oates who recommended that writers dress up when they do their writing. I can see where people are coming from with that, but for me, I’ve gotten into a whole world of comfort wear. I buy clothes that are just for writing. I started buying Uggs when I became really serious about my work.

I remember when we went to lunch, you were wearing Uggs and you apologized.
Oh yeah! People are always really scandalized by the fact that I own Uggs. Those are my second pair, and I only came to Uggs in 2010 for the first time. I resisted them my whole life. But you know what? They’re so comfortable.

You’re something of a hair chameleon. How does that affect the way you move in the world, or the way you see yourself?
Well, the hair thing really came out of in my twenties. I was a hair model several times. One time was when I was in my study abroad at Oxford; during that time, I was a Sarah Lawrence student. And the next time, when I was in Chicago, I was a hair model at Art + Science in Wicker Park. I was the weird model — they’d shave half my head. I had pretty crazy haircuts in Chicago. So I’ve had that thing of, “Oh well, it’s just hair, you can fuck with it, not a big deal.” Then, for about five years, I just had the same hair: long, wavy, black hair. I actually would look at photos of myself and see this conventional girl, and I would think, “Oh, I’m glad I’m fooling people.” But I’ve never been very conventional, and I started getting sick of that.

Someone even sent me a Facebook message the other day saying, “You don’t look as sexy with blond hair.” And I was like, “Yeah, I agree with that.”

So when the opportunity came to bleach my hair for research for this novel, meeting Aura [Friedman, a colorist at Sally Hershberger Downtown] was great because she understood that I wanted that punk-like blond, not bombshell blond. She got it and I got into it. Someone even sent me a Facebook message the other day saying, “You don’t look as sexy with blond hair.” And I was like, “Yeah, I agree with that. That’s good. I like that about blond.” I felt a lot more weird and oddball, and I felt like it matched my personality in a weird way. The purple has been even more helpful. The minute she gave me that purple, I was like, “This feels like my natural color.” I think sometimes if you’ve a little off visually, you have these other options, and if you embrace them, it can be really great. People are like, “How can you pull that off?” I don’t think of pulling it off; I’m heartened that I have a personality that allows me to not have qualms about that. I hope to be one of those crazy old ladies, too, that actually has purple hair or a shaved hair or a mohawk.

I was always more of a Ginger than a Mary Ann. Not because I thought Ginger was a bombshell — I thought Ginger was a drag queen.

There’s this beauty that’s “prime” in your twenties. That feeling of wanting to be sexy, healthy, wholesome, whatever that is, I just feel like it never felt me, exactly. I was always more of a Ginger than a Mary Ann. Not because I thought Ginger was a bombshell — I thought Ginger was a drag queen, and to me, that was fun. Whereas Mary Ann seemed like every guy’s fantasy. Here she is in short shorts and pigtails baking coconut cream pies. Ginger’s so impractical, slinking about in a sequined dress on a fucking island, and it was pretty amazing.

Was there any point when you were trying to fit in and be that kind of quote-unquote pretty?
That whole time in my twenties, actually. I wanted to conform to the guy or their family or friends, and there were moments when I was depressed and self-hating. I remember wanting to change. One big thing was relaxing my hair. I’ve always had extremely big. frizzy, hard-to-manage, coarse hair. A few times, I got my hair chemically relaxed. Then I became the girl who got French manicures and wore very “pretty” makeup. One time, I saw a photo of myself wearing a pencil skirt and pearls—

I can’t even imagine.
I know! It was the weirdest thing. Crazy! That seemed exotic to me — wearing pearls, not having dyed hair or torn clothes. I could never sustain that stuff. I’ll never forget the shock of seeing that photo of myself in pearls and a pencil skirt. It was terrifying, actually. Terrifying.

Well, we try on so many different ways of expressing ourselves, and it takes a long time to find what feels right. And for most of us, we continue to change and we change our appearance with that.
Yeah, and I think that’s the fun of being human. I love reinvention. I love fashion and beauty that has some humor to it. I don’t expect anybody looks at me and thinks, “Oh, is that her natural color?” I’m not so interested in that. Maybe because my mother was so conventionally beautiful, and I saw what that life could be like, but it wasn’t really me.

I don’t expect anybody looks at me and thinks, “Oh, is that her natural color?”

Maybe I’m interested in creativity being a part of everything I do. It’s just always a little fucked-up. It might not be perfect, but being a little different allows a home for my flaws, of which I have many. I have an asymmetrical face. I have a really horrible scar from a car accident, and it’s altered my smile permanently. I was always on the too-skinny side. So alternative expressions and non-mainstream looks have always given me a place I could go where I would not have to explain why I looked a certain way. I was so out of that dialogue that it gave me a way to be happy with myself. I always looked like a weirdo. Even going to school, I always wanted to dress myself. Were there times when I was sad that a boy didn’t have a crush on me or I didn’t get elected to be prom queen? Sure, I had those moments. But even then, I knew it wasn’t me. I’ve never been conventional that way.

The Last Illusion is available now. Go read it!

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  • kristinbooker

    Such a great piece, Annie!

    • http://www.theglowhow.com/ Annie

      Thank you! Don’t be surprised if you see Porochista out and about. Y’all live in the same neighborhood.

  • Philip LaRose

    Good interview! She sounds really interesting.

    • http://www.theglowhow.com/ Annie

      She is, and she’s fun to follow on Twitter as well. I almost bought a book because PK was reading it, but then she tweeted about its atrociousness, and I passed.