11, No. 1, December 2009
Heroin Chic, Poor Chic, and Beyond Deconstructionist
by Karen Bettez Halnon
Pennsylvania State University
While scattered examples of Poor Chic can be found historically
in North America and Europe, the controversy of it, but never
named generally as such, did not surface in any major way in
public consciousness until the early 1990s. Even during the 1970s,
with the Sex Pistols' frontman Johnny Rotten (named for his decaying
teeth) singing about privileged people taking a "holiday
in other people's misery" and the ironic subsequent fashion
of torn up and tattered punk clothes (worn by Rotten originally
as necessity), poverty chic was still in a relative state of
immaturity. It was not until the 1990s that public awareness
increased, with moral and aesthetic critics condemning Seattle’s “grunge” music,
with its “dirty” guitar sound and angst-filled lyrics,
most notable in the mainstream by Kurt Cobain’s band Nirvana
that climbed the charts in 1991, and by Pearl Jam, shortly thereafter.
The disheveled Cobain look, that matched his apathetic and defeated
view of life in general, soon caught on as trendy grunge style:
ripped jeans, flannels, Doc Martens, an affinity for loud guitars
and teen angst, and at least a voyeuristic familiarity with heroin.
Grunge fans learned of the more intimate lethal realities associated
with the drug, as they mourned the tragic suicide that claimed
the life of Cobain in 1994, a suicide that some say was a choice
Cobain made over facing the brutal truth of selling out, going
mainstream, and thus losing subcultural "authenticity” (Heath
and Potter 2004).
A year later, heroin—a drug shortly before strictly associated
with street junkies—would surface in Hollywood as a style
in its own right, or as “heroin chic” (Scheerer 1996).
A "good reading" article in Playboy explained
the fashionable and economical use of heroin among what it labeled
as "Ph.D. heroin snorters:"
You can get high now without going the more dangerous IV route
by smoking or snorting the drug. Until you get your habit up,
there are no messy rigs, needle tracks, blood or threat of AIDS.
All the pleasure and mystique of heroin ingestion, and less of
the risk. A kind of Naked Lunch lite (Ehrman 1995).
One informant explained of similar celebrity use,
The young actors and musicians have the money to have parties
in their own home or hotel suite, so they have a secure environment…Basically,
everyone gets together and starts doing junk. You play music
and you watch Drugstore Cowboy over and over. Some
times some chick throws up and that's that (Ibid).
Mark Ehrman explained further that at the end of their weekly
gatherings the 'chipping' professionals returned to their high
status jobs, and socially distanced themselves from ‘real’ addicts.
Beyond its glamorization in film and carefully guided use among
high status professionals, heroin gained further cultural legitimacy
through "mother of heroin chic" photographer Nan Goldin’s
work that was featured in 1996 at the Whitney Museum of American
Art. The same year singer Fiona Apple gave greater exposure and
respectability to heroin through her music video "Criminal." Harold
(1999) claimed that this video was the epitome of heroin chic.
While academic, fashion, and/or art worlds were more accepting
of the aestheticization of heroin addiction, many in the mainstream
media during the mid-1990s criticized films such as Trainspotting (1996)
and Basquiat (1996) that provided unflinching insider
perspectives. The gist of the complaints was that such films
transformed addictive heroin use into fascinating and voyeuristic ‘other’ world
adventure and exotica.
More controversy emerged in September 1996 when Calvin Klein
introduced its infamous “heroin chic” advertising
campaign, where supermodels posed as emaciated, strung-out junkies.
The cK Be cologne campaign featured photos of supermodel Kate
Moss and Felix DeN’Yeurt, Vincent Gallo, and several other
unknown models, that appeared in wide-readership magazines such
as Vogue, Elle, and Arena, and Marie
Claire. The original twelve-page advertisement in Details advertised
with the slogan: “to be. or not to be. just be.” Subsequent
ads promoted with the slogans: “be good. be bad. just be.” and “be
hot. be cool. just be.” The photos depicted being pale,
disheveled, dirty, tired, strung out, starved, scratched, pierced,
While these explicit images provoked critique, what was more
disturbing (at least to this author) was the placement of Moss
(or in other cK ads, another straight-looking male model) at
the end of pictorial sequences of junkie-looking models,
and under the slogan “just be.” Moss and other end-positioned
models appeared anorexic thin, but otherwise strikingly normal/straight
looking compared with the other models. The end-models’ difference,
their conventionality in the midst of a series of vivid ‘junkies’,
had the effect, as the critics, including President Bill Clinton,
rightly charged, of glamorizing the lifestyle, or at least a
very superficial pretense of it. Placing straight/normal-looking
models at the end of pictorial sequences promised predictability when
playing with or upon one of the tragic material realities traditionally
associated with poverty. Playing at the “hotness,” the “coolness” or
the “hipness” of being a “bad” junkie—the
dangerous exotic other—was thus produced and consumed as
safe and familiar consumer play. Calvin Klein’s commodified
promise was that one could emerge unscathed when traveling
to and through radical superficial otherness, emerging with conventional
identity intact. The latter would become one of the most
basic themes of Poor Chic in the years to follow, in numerous
forms, from socially distanced and culturally upgraded HMMWVs
(into Hummers) to ‘shit-kicker’ work boots (into
Calvin Klein's notorious advertising was short-lived. But the
fashion world has since offered a number of trendy equivalents,
such as Dior’s "Addict" cologne, with the slogan "Admit
It." Washington Post writer Robin Givhan (2002)
described the “Addict” Internet trailer film that
featured "a sweaty and anxious model who appear(ed) to be
craving a fix…of Dior Addict lipstick." Givhan concluded
sardonically that the model's "jones (was) satisfied by
the film's end when she smear(ed) bright red gloss on her pouting
lips." Gaining less attention or criticism was competitor
designer Yves Saint Laurent's perfume, Opium.
Around the same time, Americana: The Institute for the Study
of American Popular Culture (2001) was also commenting on the
endurance of heroin chic. Its “Style” section argued
that heroin chic was not subsiding but becoming even more pervasive
and severe. The article read as follows:
Not only is heroin chic again appearing in print advertising,
as if to seek revenge on those who forced those images off of
pages and billboards, as if to prove Susan Faludi's backlash
thesis, the new heroin chic knocks women on their backs and spreads
their legs in a pose that either reveals a recent rape or invites
one--as the drug-induced femme is in no state to say no. These
unprotected positions are compounded in that these ads often
place the women in public, unprotected spaces; we see them draped
down staircases in an inner city apartment house or across busy,
flowery carpeting, the kind we most often see in hotels. And
each time, the underside of her arm is exposed as if waiting
for the next shot. The eyes show us that indeed it would not
be the first…
While Heroin Chic and related fads and fashions have been condemned
for glamorizing addiction, some postmodernist-spirited writers,
such as Harold (1999) (referenced rather innocuously above),
interpreted high fashion models posing as anorexic junkies as
a way of teaching the public how to be deconstructionists. In
other words, the assertion was that heroin chic promoted the
realization that standards of beauty, fashion, death, and the
body are arbitrary constructions, or that there is no intrinsic
meaning in them. More specifically, she suggested, against allegedly
conservative critics, that heroin chic offered to “broaden
and reshape the public sphere” by letting in the “abject,” or
what she said is “radically excluded and draws me to the
place where meaning collapses” (Julia Kristeva quoted in
Harold 1999). Still another way of expressing this lofty idea
is that lifestyle shopping, such as heroin chic, promotes a more
open, inclusive, and fluid notion of identity, one aimed at shattering
the inherently meaningless boundaries between normal and stigmatized.
What is apparently missed or dismissed in such arguments is the
sociologically understood point that arbitrary constructions
are frequently lived as compelling and consequential ‘realities’.
In sum, the critical view expressed here is provocatively suggested
in Anselmi and Gouliamos’ (1998) critique of Canadian media
representations in Elusive Margins: Consuming Media, Ethnicity,
and Culture. There the authors explain how media representations
fragment and fetishize the materiality of subjects and their
lived experiences. Their critique focuses on “technologies
of exclusion” in representational forms. The authors seek
to decode Canadian media structures that obscure the lived
inequalities of the present through representations of an
imaginary “nostalgia for the future,” or a deceptive
image of “pluralistic equality.”
This short note, culled from a much broader study of fads, fashions,
and media that make stylish, recreational, and often expensive ‘fun’ of
an array of symbols of lower class statuses, aims at critical
interrogation of the exclusionary features of popular consumer
culture’s representational forms and of often untenable
assertions of the (“medium is the message”) breakdown
of status categories through so-called “lifestyle” consumption.
Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture
(2001). “The Return of Heroin Chic.” Style Section.
Retrieved 9/1/06 at http://www.americanpopularculture.com/archive/style/heroin_chic.htm.
Anselmi, William and Kosta Gouliamos (1998). Elusive Margins:
Consuming Media, Ethnicity, and Culture. Toronto, Canada:
Heath, Joseph and Andrew Potter (2004). Nation of Rebels:
Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. NY, New York:
Ehrman, Mark (1995). “Heroin Chic.” Playboy,
Givhan, Robin (2002). "Christian Dior's Addict: 'Admit'
a Problem?' Friday, October 25; Page C02. Washington Post.
Retrieved on line 9/1/06 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A14425-2002Oct24¬Found=true
Harold, Christine. (1999) “Tracking Heroin Chic: The Abject
Body Reconfigures the Rational Argument.” Argumentation & Advocacy.
Fall 36, 2 (part 2): pp. 65-76.
Scheerer, Mark (1996). “Is ‘Heroin Chic’ Sweeping
Hollywood?” CNN.com. Retrieved 7/2/05 at http://www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/9608/02/heroin.chic/.
>>> back to Consumers,
Commodities & Consumption, Vol. 11(1) December 2009.