words: miss amp

Anais Nin

I study the photograph of Anais Nin on the cover of the Penguin Classic edition of her diary. Her head is tilted; her shoulder raised; a hand rests lightly on her hip.

Her carmined mouth lifts up at one corner: not quite a smile, not quite a yes: the pose of the coquette, without the pout of the coquette.

Her sharply pencilled brows rise, while her gaze drops, her eyes sinking under the weight of their own lids, tracing a path towards the floorboards as though following a falling object.

It’s mine: I'm in love; my heart's wriggled free of its oil-red moorings and dropped at her feet, among the thousand billows of her Spanish dancing dress, and the hem of the lace mantilla that flutters round her shoulders and reaches to the floor, and I don’t want it back. She can keep it, use it as a badge, fasten it among the paillettes of her gown with a long pin, or crush it with a roll of her castanets and use the juice as lipstain; anything she wants, for I am hers.

Since I was 13, I’ve been drawn to girls like her, stagy ladies, girls who pose and dress up and take themselves far, far too seriously. Jessica, with the inky bob and white lace Communion dresses and beautiful mouth that once didn’t stop talking for a day and a night, even in sleep. Keeley, with the green slanting eyes and the mean nature, watched in black and sparkling with jewellery, who taught me to smoke and kiss and got her kicks picking fights with strangers. Sonja, elfin and aquiline, pulling off moon boots and miniskirts and furs and bobble hats one January morning to swim in an almost frozen Scottish river. Suki with the waist-length hair and wiggly hips, who morphs from go-go dancer to cavegirl to Little Red Riding Hood with every new costume. Each time, the stagy lady moves among my regular friends as aloof and separate as a Siamese cat in a roomful of domestic kittens; with delicate tread and mean eyes and claws half-sheathed, half-sharp.

The stagy lady is all theatricality,
artifice, exaggerated postures and outlandish costumes. Often derided by other women as pretentious, narcissistic, false, even insane, she draws stares as a spoon of honey draws wasps, and wears mockery like a precious jewel.

Famous stagy ladies have included Anais Nin, Isadora Duncan, and Victorian opera singer Liliane Russell, who allegedly would ride through Central Park on a gold-plated bicycle with ruby, diamond and emerald-encrusted spokes. Yet most often, the stagy lady lacks fame, as too much of her energy is occupied with dressing to sing, write, paint or do anything else that might lead to it.


She is a star without a stage, an artist without an art form. Instead, high heels are her pedestals, and we – from the man on the fruit stall who whistles at her to the child that states at her outfit on the tube – are her public.

For the stagy lady, reality is insufficient, so she seeks refuge in dreams and fantasies. She will never admit to following fashion – instead, she claims to practice the art of dressing. Dressing, for her, is an outward manifestation of her inner visions. Her outfits are ‘costumes’ and she is wardrobe mistress, never hesitating to nip a jacket in at the waist, or trim a hat brim with feathers, to shorten a skirt, or lengthen it with a strip of lace.

Every public appearance is a performance; she seeks to charm all those around her, both males and females. The stagy lady will embellish and exaggerate and distort and misrepresent everything, for she prefers the beautiful lie over the bland, dull truth. She can be infuriating, unreliable, quixotic, temperamental, even downright cruel – but she is always intoxicating to be near. Life with a stagy lady is never dull, for she possesses the art of turning the drab into the fancy.

Isadora Duncan


The stagy lady is a stimulant: she stirs the imagination of those around her, drawing out creativity, awakening longings we didn’t know existed, inciting desire for the other lives evoked by her dress and manner. Through my friendships with stagy ladies I have seen Paris in the ‘30s; spent a night in India at the turn of the century, cavorted in the fountains of Rome: by reading of stagy ladies’ lives I have been roughly possessed by writers and Peruvian revolutionaries in an opium haze, and felt the soft fingers of death caress my neck as I tilt my face to the rushing wind.

The stagy lady holds the key to the dream, and should she befriend you – perhaps you both have blue-black hair, or share an addiction to striped over-the-knee socks, or have an 1830s face – she will take you with her, offering you her obsessions like gifts in a golden casket. The stagy lady’s friends are chosen for their looks, but on the assumption that the physical reflects the spiritual. If she is drawn to you, it is because she senses that you will enhance the art object that is her life. I choose to take this as a compliment, though it may not be.

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