Big interviews / Global
Provoking the ire of authority, reversing a decade of nationalism, taking the sting out of the news and the evolution of a pop persona. These matters – and more – are discussed by people of influence.
Christine and the Queens
The French singer on exploring the boundary of gender.
Fresh off the Eurostar, holed up in the wood-panelled recording studio of King’s Cross music venue Spiritland, Christine and the Queens looks very different from the version of herself that exploded on the international scene three years ago. Back in 2015, the pop star’s first album Chaleur Humaine topped the charts in her native France and beyond (for more on the nation’s charms, see page 54). Fans around the world fell for a suited-up Christine dancing over electropop. Now, the singer has ramped up the fierceness: her new release, Chris, is a funk-filled, muscular record full of sexual references and captivating plays on androgyny. A more assiduous use of cotton singlets and a shorter haircut are perhaps the most obvious signs that something has evolved. But for Christine this exploration of gender is nothing new. “I was just amazed at how just a haircut makes people listen to you differently,” she says, laughing. “I should have been aware – we are in pop music.”
The shape-shifting pop stars who previously carved this gender-bending path are where much of the inspiration for her own performance comes from. “I love people who used the pop weapon to mutate, like Perfume Genius, David Bowie and St Vincent,” she says. The moniker Christine and the Queens is a persona: the 30-year-old singer’s real name is Héloïse Letissier. The Queens of her name is an homage to a group of drag queens she met in London’s famous nightclub Madame Jojo’s, who encouraged her to start her music career. “That’s where it all started,” says the former theatre student. “It was the place where it made sense and clicked.” Since then she has travelled the world, performed with Elton John and famously got spanked on stage by Madonna in Paris – but London remains a special place to her.
MONOCLE: Body politics play a huge role in what you do. What’s your relationship with the body – and your body?
CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS: Ongoing! This second record is invested with a physicality that I discovered while touring Chaleur Humaine. When you’re on stage you use senses, muscles and guts – the record is infused with a newfound eroticism because of that. The show became interesting to work on because it’s not the classic routine: not the singer surrounded by dancers decorating her.
M: The new album does feel different. Are we getting closer to you or is ‘Chris’ a new persona?
CATQ: It’s complicated, this concept of a persona. I don’t think it’s a character at all; it’s me trying to find a good iteration of who I am, getting closer to who I could possibly be. I call it a persona because it’s an unfiltered version of myself that can only exist on stage – in life, with social interaction, anxiety and filters I can’t be the purest version of Chris all the time.
Sometimes it raises questions about sincerity and honesty: where does the character stop and the real human begin? This is so intricate, even for me. Identity is a construction – every one of us uses theatricality in a way. I’m just emphasising it.
M: Are you looking for more contact with the audience when you write your songs?
CATQ: My relationship to the audience is related to what I did in theatre before I started with music. I say that because sometimes I notice that in the entertainment industry, people don’t really trust the audience. There is a sense that we have to tell them what to feel and when. It’s the opposite in theatre: you allow the audience to come and finish the work with you.
M: And did French music shape you at all?
CATQ: Serge Gainsbourg was a huge inspiration. A late record he made called Love on the Beat is surprisingly overlooked and I don’t know why. It’s really sexual, lustful and really queer.
M: People now talk about the queerness of your performances – but was it always there?
CATQ: By cutting my hair, people were hearing way more what I had to say. Which made me feel like: ‘Wait a second, what were they hearing before?’ The new record is more blatantly sexual. When you try and sexualise yourself on your own terms, people sometimes get really infuriated.
I was never inspired by the chanteuse, the idea of a woman behind the mic standing on her own and delivering lines. It never really moved me. I was really inspired by Laurie Anderson, for example, because she was portraying a femininity that I could relate to: she was just clever, you could focus on that and the rest didn’t really matter. The idea of wearing a suit at the beginning of my project was a way to have a uniform so people could focus on something else. But then the great discovery of the first record was that I could not escape the male gaze. And I was like, ‘Dang it!’
The global affairs host on troubled times for journalists.
Christiane Amanpour has been busy. The award-winning journalist, who made her name covering the Bosnian war and who has interviewed scores of state leaders and power brokers, has hosted her own show on CNN for years. But in the wake of Charlie Rose’s firing from PBS following allegations of sexual harassment, she’s also taken over his coveted time slot with a new show, Amanpour & Company. We sit down in her London studio to talk about the dangers journalists face and where TV news is headed.
MONOCLE: You’re in Charlie Rose’s slot now. Were you surprised when the ‘Me Too’ movement moved from Hollywood to the media?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: I wasn’t necessarily surprised. Sexual harassment of women is across all classes, all religions, all political divides and all professions. Women have been considered unequal for millennia and the most pernicious but easiest way to attack women is sexually. Everybody knows the line between complimenting a colleague and harassing a colleague. I’m extremely pleased that as a strong and competent woman, proven in this business, I have taken over that slot. It is absolutely the right message.
M: It’s a dangerous time to be a journalist. We have the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul and the assassinations of investigative journalists in Malta and Slovakia...
CA: And in Bulgaria. We’ve had an enormous spike in attacks on journalists, and not just in the usual areas, but in the democratic world. The worst thing we’re dealing with right now is the brutal murder of our colleague Jamal Khashoggi. So what we’re seeing now: Kim Jong Un, who reached out to have his half-brother killed in Malaysia with some kind of nerve agent; Vladimir Putin, who’s been accused of doing the same to former spies here in Britain; and then you have the Saudi royal family reaching into a consulate on foreign territory to kill a columnist writing about reform. What you’re seeing is journalists who are not being caught in the crossfire but who are being deliberately targeted.
M: What’s prompted this change?
CA: It didn’t start with President Trump but to have him enable leaders and other malevolent actors by what he says… As we’re going through this horrendous hit job [on Khashoggi], Trump talks about admiring a candidate running in Montana who body-slammed a reporter. That amounts to giving permission for that kind of behaviour.
M: In many ways, we’re witnessing the upending of the liberal order. Is this an inevitable shift or are we seeing something extraordinary?
CA: We’re seeing something extraordinary. I’ve learned in the two and a half years since the Brexit referendum, which opened the floodgates to this nationalist wave, that history is made up of cycles. But I’m shocked at the ease with which xenophobia and anti-foreign populism have grabbed hold of the mainstream. It’s a call to arms for those of us who believe in defending what has been the most successful experiment in peace and progress. But for years, opportunistic politicians have taken real challenges for people and turned them into fearmongering and divisive trivialised politics.
M: Do you think Trump’s rise is partially the media’s fault?
CA: Not at all. You can always say he had too much coverage. It was an unlevel playing field when it came to reporting his campaign. Most of the mainstream media thought he never had a chance and they treated his opponent as if she was already president. She got all this scrutiny; he got novelty coverage. The media reported that he hadn’t handed over his tax returns. It reported the ugly Pussygate tapes. But what he did was reach out to his base that felt that it had been forgotten and promised to end their suffering. They believed him.
M: Do you have any critique of the way the media covers Trump now?
CA: The press must stand up for truth so we must fact-check. On the other hand, by responding to every tweet, I worry about missing the issues. What’s very damaging is this rapid-fire news cycle, which can’t even last five minutes. It’s pathetic. But that’s where we can hold the line. We’re the ones who determine what goes out. On my programme, I’m very clear about delving into the issues and not getting waylaid by every diversionary tactic that comes out of a tweet.
M: Where is TV news headed?
CA: News of the demise of television and mainstream media has been overexaggerated. The problem is it’s getting more polarised and more political. Whether it’s here, America or Egypt, authoritarian governments and democracies are increasingly demanding that voices echo their own politics. Voices that are meant to be objective are being dragged [to extremes].
M: What do you think is the biggest story that’s not being covered?
CA: Yemen gets little coverage, though cnn, to its credit, covers it as much as it can. Our international operation is robust in its coverage. I believe in storytelling and not just standing in front of a live camera. We have a job that involves holding the powerful to account but also to encourage people by showing them the 360-degree aspect of life and that includes solutions. One of the things that’s given me hope is the way journalism has rallied. The way that women have rallied, the marches, “Me Too” and Black Lives Matter. All those elements of society are standing up for their rights and that’s really huge.
Fashion’s rising star on seizing opportunities.
At Hedi Slimane’s debut Celine show this September, models on the runway were dressed to party, but for many women the event felt more like a wake. They were mourning the end of Phoebe Philo’s tenure as creative director of Celine and her retirement from fashion (at least for now). They were also distressed by what her departure says about the state of the industry. Philo embodied a philosophy that may be getting rarer in high fashion: that of a designer who clearly likes sophisticated women, and views them as people with needs that should be considered, rather than imperfect, inconveniently shaped canvases for one’s art.
When Philo’s customers decide where to shop next, they’re likely to consider Gabriela Hearst, a New York brand whose Uruguayan designer traffics in quiet luxury. The label has a few things in common with Hermès, including subtle equestrian inspiration – Hearst grew up on, and now owns, a ranch in Uruguay – and a focus on hyper-luxurious materials. What looks like a denim dress turns out to be made from an improbably soft linen treated with aloe vera; an off-the-shoulder evening gown that feels like cashmere only far lighter is a silk-wool blend.
Hearst’s witty bags provide plenty of surprises: many, such as the Mitchell, can be taken apart and reconfigured, going from quirky day bag to elegant evening clutch. “It’s not so much ‘Look at me,’” says Hearst, gesturing from her sun-filled corner office to the clothes in her showroom next door. “It’s more, ‘Look at me – but slowly.’”
Hearst is about to open her first shop, on Madison Avenue next to the Carlyle Hotel. The fact that she’s doing it when many physical retailers are in trouble is no coincidence. “In my family, when there was a drought or an economic crisis, they would buy land, or sheep or cattle, because people panic. That’s where the opportunity is,” she says. “We couldn’t have afforded rent on Madison Avenue three years ago but now the contracts are looser.”
Hearst (whose business partner and husband John is a grandson of US publisher William Randolph Hearst) hopes to open six more shops, starting with London and Hong Kong, because “you can’t tell the story of the brand without experiencing it physically”.
Her handbags are hard to obtain: they’re sold directly from her website in limited quantities so she can retain a high margin. But why restrict quantities? “There are handbags that become a hit for two years and then they disappear, and that affects growth. In ranching, we have a saying: ‘Slowly through the stones’. These are stony times. The label became profitable last year but I believe in sustainable everything, including growth: we want to do this for a long time.”
The Egyptian exile who is pushing the power of humour.
“The worst thing you can ask a comedian is to explain what a joke means,” says Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian satirist, seated in the shade of Hahn Park in Los Angeles. Youssef became a symbol of the upheaval in Egypt following 2011’s Arab Spring thanks to his popular satirical TV show, El-Bernameg. That success made him a target for the Muslim Brotherhood government, which came to power in 2012 after president Hosni Mubarak stood down in the face of the uprising.
“Under the Muslim Brotherhood I was accused of insulting Islam, insulting the president and spreading false rumours,” says Youssef, describing his interrogation by Egypt’s military police in 2014. “They read me transcripts of my jokes and asked, ‘Did you mean to insult the president with this joke?’ When I said, ‘No,’ they’d say, ‘Well, why are the people laughing?’ It was a cyclical way of questioning me.”
Youssef’s ascent to fame in Egypt was unusual. A heart surgeon, he was waiting for a US work permit for a fellowship at a hospital in Ohio when the first protesters took to the streets. In 2011, two weeks or so after Mubarak stood aside, Youssef withdrew his application to move to the US. In the laundry room of his Cairo apartment building, he and a few friends filmed the first episodes of the show. “Egypt has a long history of comedy but not really political satire. So when the revolution happened, everything became fluid, and there was an opportunity to do something new.”
The initial subject of Youssef’s satire was Egypt’s state-run media, which effectively characterised the protests as a foreign-backed spectacle. The show attracted about 40 million viewers each week, earning him the nickname “Egypt’s Jon Stewart”. Each show poked fun at the news stories of the day with jokes, skits and song-and-dance routines. “This was the thing people were watching, whether you liked the show or not. You’d have cafés and sports bars showing it on big screens,” he says. “It was strange becoming the focus of attention.” An episode in which Youssef took aim at Egypt’s military leaders proved the final straw: he was charged with inciting public unrest and found guilty in November 2014. A court slapped him with a fine of €10m and within hours he boarded a flight to Dubai. He hasn’t been back to Egypt since.
In the US, Youssef was fêted – including appearances on The Daily Show itself – but his transition to life in Los Angeles was tough. “I’m a fish out of water. This is not my country, this is not my language, it’s not my audience.”
Youssef has embraced the outsider angle: an ongoing stand-up tour, segments for a US cable news channel and a podcast all unpick notions of being a stranger. “I think everyone feels like an outsider in some different way.”Being a stranger somewhere new is one thing, says Youssef, but being an observer of Egypt’s plight is a delicate role. “I’m a little disconnected from what’s happening. But [Egypt] is a military dictatorship,” he says. “And I see the populism in America, the right-wing rhetoric, and I see the similarities. It makes me feel sad for the world.”
He still believes in the power of satire. “It’s a way to bring more people to the table to discuss important matters. But I think satire’s most important role is that it takes away the sanctity of the government, or whatever the establishment is: it could be the military or a religious order. Satire makes you view these figures as people who are accountable for their actions.”
Cartoon editor, The New Yorker
The journalist who’s taking the edge off bad news.
The diminutive, single-frame cartoons that sprinkle humour around the journalism of The New Yorker have been the purview of Emma Allen since 2017. The 30-year-old Manhattan-born editor – who has been at the publication for nearly seven years, first assisting on the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” and “Shouts & Murmurs” sections – had big shoes to fill when she replaced Bob Mankoff as cartoon editor. For two decades Mankoff marshalled the Tuesday meetings with cartoonists, which could either make or break careers. While Allen has continued the tradition, she says its purpose is now “whatever people need”, whether offering feedback or fostering community. Allen has also looked to drive digital content – all of which helps solve what she calls the magazine’s “real-estate problem”.
MONOCLE: Why do cartoons work?
EMMA ALLEN: They are the most concise way to tell a joke because you have so little space. You are forced to make every inch of the square of art count and every single word in the caption count. To the point where editing them sometimes feels absurd: especially in the first year, I was constantly apologising for being like, “Can you move this a little to the left?” Or, “I think we need to get rid of this one item on the table in the background because it’s distracting.” Going from editing or writing longer pieces to suddenly becoming obsessed about one of seven words in a caption is strange but fun.
M: Is it advantageous to be an outsider – as in not a cartoonist – as a cartoon editor?
EA: There are probably pros and cons. Of the four cartoon editors [in the magazine’s history], I am the second non-cartoonist. But I think so much of editing is being able to be incredibly empathetic because you’re delivering mostly bad news: you’re trying to gently help people change a thing for the better that they have agonised over – and poured a lot of themselves into – and nakedly presented to you.
M: ‘The New Yorker’ has a strong voice. Were you aware of trying to keep that?
EA: The imperative here is to get the funniest cartoons – the most interesting, innovative work. The worst submissions I get are from people who are trying to imitate what they think that New Yorker voice is: fusty, wry, old-fashioned. For a lot of people, their first submissions are this middle-of-the-road attempt to do that when, in reality, the magazine was founded as a humour magazine. [American cartoonist] Gahan Wilson is not making fusty, drawing-room, snide, all-white-men-at-a-boardroom-table cartoons. A lot of cartoonists draw from their experience and there are some masters of the Upper West Side cocktail party cartoon, and then there are some who don’t exist in that world at all. Hopefully part of bringing in new voices is to gain access to those different perspectives and worlds.
M: Is what’s happening now in Washington affecting cartoons?
EA: We’re living in a garbage hellfire of a situation. It’s been interesting seeing the waves of how people choose to satirically and comedically respond. We had a handful of cartoons that featured Trump, which was unprecedented. But I feel like we’ve backed off from that because people are finding different, less explicit ways to talk about it. It feels imperative to never stop talking about it or making or publishing work about it but I think people are coming through different waves of how to do that.
M: Are you surprised people happily consume the humorous parts of ‘The New Yorker’, given all its reporting and long-form chops?
EA: That doesn’t surprise me at all. That’s what the cartoons have always functioned as: you’re sliding through this long piece about the toll that big coal has taken on the environment and you think you can’t take any more and you’re about to throw the magazine out the window and go on Instagram. And then you hit the cartoon and it’s a breath of relief, that moment of pause and that reset, so you can continue looking at the depressing stuff.
Prime Minister of Macedonia
The leader pinning his hopes on a rebranded country.
Clichés about political life being a bruising experience are not to be uttered lightly in Macedonia. The country’s prime minister Zoran Zaev still carries the wounds of a drawn-out ideological battle that suddenly took a violent physical turn in April 2017.
“I have my scars here, here, everywhere,” says Zaev, pointing to the lines that cross his features. “That was the day when we were choosing the speaker of parliament. Members of the existing government, which was waiting to be changed, opened the doors from inside the building and the so-called ‘patriotic association’ came in with a plan to kill. Every second of the two hours without police intervention, we were waiting to lose our lives.”
Hundreds of thugs set about Zaev and his Social Democrat colleagues, using camera tripods as improvised weapons, before police finally arrived to disperse the mob. Once they had recovered from their injuries, the Social Democrats went on to form a governing coalition, after at last pushing the nationalist vmro-dpmne party from power. This did not come a moment too soon for the Macedonians, who had suffered for a decade under the increasingly authoritarian and corrupt government of Nikola Gruevski. His obsession with recasting the country as the “cradle of civilisation” came amid an orgy of neoclassical construction and statue-erecting in Skopje. Most notable is a huge representation of Alexander the Great on horseback, marooned in a musical fountain in the city’s main square. This also exacerbated a dispute with Greece, which has always insisted that its own Macedonia region is the only place with the right to that name.
When Zaev took office, he bet everything on reaching a deal with Athens to end the name dispute. Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras agreed that the former Yugoslav republic would become known as North Macedonia. In return, Greece would recognise its neighbours as Macedonians and lift its objections to Skopje’s membership of Nato and the EU.
“We got new friends: our neighbours, finally, after 30 years,” says Zaev. The prime minister, who is championing a move towards the West, lists the benefits of joining Nato and the EU. “Without stability, without guarantees of security and prosperity in the economy, every day brings damage to the country through migration – the youth goes out.”
But resolving the issue isn’t straightforward. More than 90 per cent of voters in a referendum in September approved the name change. But Zaev’s political opponents organised a boycott that kept turnout below 50 per cent. That meant the constitutional threshold that would have made a subsequent parliamentary vote a formality wasn’t reached; as such, critics have denounced the result as invalid.
Zaev is determined to press ahead with the deal, even if it means the end of his political career. “[Tsipras and I] know that we can ensure the futures of our countries.”
The name change would offer a rare opportunity: a relaunch. Given the chance to present itself anew to the world, Zaev says that North Macedonia would become synonymous with resolutions to seemingly intractable problems. The name change is not guaranteed but if he can navigate through the required parliamentary votes and constitutional changes, the newly named nation can begin its next chapter.
Why artists and governments will always clash.
In 2005 Ai Weiwei wrote his first blog post: “To express yourself needs a reason; expressing yourself is the reason.” It marked a new chapter in the already storied career of the artist, whose personal musings on freedom of expression and social injustice have attracted millions of fans. It also drew sharp rebukes from the Chinese government, including being detained for nearly three months in 2011.
Ai has the uncanny ability to dovetail his art with scathing critiques of government wrongdoing, such as stringing 9,000 backpacks across the facade of Munich’s Haus der Kunst to call out China for its complicity in the deaths of thousands of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake because of shoddily constructed schools. This combination has elevated his profile far beyond the rarefied art world.
Since 2015, when he moved to Berlin for a three-year guest professorship with the Berlin University of the Arts, Ai has continued to find ways to fuse his personal politics with global issues, most notably the migrant crisis. In 2017 he made Human Flow, a feature-length documentary that follows individuals in 23 countries who, pummelled by war or climate change, have embarked on life-threatening journeys to find sanctuary. In one scene, Ai is wrapping a man in a blanket, offering him tea and praising his bravery in crossing the Aegean Sea on an inflatable boat.
In person, Ai is soft-spoken and unfazed by the demands of three major shows opening in Los Angeles just days apart at the uta Artist Space, the Marciano Art Foundation and the new Jeffrey Deitch gallery. Although he still maintains a Chinese passport, the peripatetic Ai is planning to move to the US in the near future.
MONOCLE: Is confrontation a strategy in your work?
AI WEIWEI: No, it is not a strategy but rather the essence of my being as an individual. I would never choose confrontation. Maybe confrontation chose me. One life fights for its own existence, to get its voice out.
M: For your documentary ‘Human Flow’, how were you able to connect to the people you visited?
AW: From my earliest understanding of my family as refugees, of myself as a dissident, as someone being pushed away and discriminated against, insulted in every aspect of my life in a communist society, I have managed to relate to people who have seen the struggle, who have been misunderstood, who have been treated unfairly.
M: Do you find yourself engaged by the US political situation?
AW: It certainly affects our future. When you talk about “America First”, then I think about who comes second, third and the rest. Inevitably, America’s future relates to the world’s future. It will continuously have a strong impact.
M: Chinese authorities recently demolished one of your Beijing studios. Do you have plans to recreate a space that embodies the inspiration that you had in China?
AW: I am over 60 years old and I never think of any place as having a feeling to relate to. There is no single tree or road I can remember that has significance over another tree or street corner. I move from here to there with uncertainty, not necessarily with a purpose. But it is surprising that people, especially governments, have to behave that way.
M: What are your thoughts on the general relationship between governments and their artists?
AW: Individual artists have to question the government’s power. That is why we need freedom of speech. Government is supposed to be a collective effort but often the bureaucracy, the special interests and the political manipulation dominates the behaviour of officials. We see almost every government not reflecting the notion of the individual, but rather special interests.
M: When people think of the relationship between art and politics they often look to you as a prism through which to see the world. Does that feel overwhelming?
AW: No. [But] being an artist, you are never satisfied. You always see the problem. You always say, “You can do better.” But, of course, there is no such thing as perfection.
M: What is next for you?
AW: With my schedule, it’s the next, and the next, and the next after that. In reality, I do one thing, just one. All the exhibitions, interviews and films relate to this: to act out a life and then to understand it. Tomorrow can be different. It’s the most important characteristic of life: you can be different, you can change, you don’t have to be what others think you are or what you think you are.