Performance Art on the Red Carpet

Joan Rivers grew her presence on the red carpet from an oddity to an institution, changing its very essence along the way.
Joan Rivers grew her presence on the red carpet from an oddity to an institution, changing its very essence along the way.

“Who are you wearing?”

Joan and Melissa Rivers turned those four simple words into an entertainment empire and heralded a change in celebrity culture. Revered, feared, career-making and popularity-dashing, awards shows and premiere-night red carpets have become a performance unto themselves. We all know the script: Artists spend months, years even, creating movies for the masses and are then assessed on their abilities to style the perfect outfit and not eat for weeks at a time. The red carpet is now the site of a bizarre ritualistic performance in which celebrities and their commentators vie for relevance, popularity and that magical moment that will enshrine them in memory.

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Where does this red carpet obsession even come from? Before the incarnation created by the Rivers’, there were pre-shows, such as Regis Philbin’s, in 1979, that was only televised in L.A. But there nothing that rose to become an event in its own right. In 1994, E! needed someone to work the red carpet for the Golden Globes, which at the time was considered a loathsome job. In a Vanity Fair interview, Joan Rivers revealed how they chose her:

[E! asked Melissa] ‘Who should we put out on the red carpet?’ It is a horrible job and no one was doing it then. And Melissa said, ‘My mother.’

She added: “It was a very low time for me [in my career].”

Through wit, humor and pure strength of will, Rivers and Rivers forced the chaotic and at times nauseating pre-show coverage of awards ceremonies into a codified, sane and enjoyable program. As you can see in the clip from the 1995 Academy Awards red carpet, there was no standard set-up. Camera shots were akimbo and poorly coordinated, and celebrities still behaved as if the red carpet were just so many steps between them and their seat inside the venue. It had performative qualities. to be sure, but it was not yet a performance in its own right:

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As the Rivers’ cast about for some kind of guide or structure, “Who are you wearing?” became an anchor for interactions on the red carpet. It provided an entrée to discuss the nominated artists or, what viewers really wanted, personal and fashion-related details. Despite derision by the elite and popular press, such as The New York Times, the phrase forms the basis for red carpet interaction in a way that now appears inescapable. In that Vanity Fair story, Melissa Rivers recalled the 1999 Academy Awards pre-show hosted by Geena Davis, and her attempt to break from the phrase:

She gave all of these interviews beforehand and a press conference and guaranteed everyone that she would not ask actresses who they are wearing. ‘It is about the actors.’ And then, literally, 10 seconds into her first interview with Helen Hunt, which I still remember, and [Geena] was clearly out of questions, she asked, ‘And…who are you wearing?’

The red carpet remains a symbol of royal privilege.

Despite these foibles, and the continuing misogyny and even racial insensitivity that artists face on it, the red carpet remains a mark of distinction connoting royalty and political power. For centuries a red (or mostly red) carpet has adorned the halls of coronations and the daises of thrones. The legend goes that this tradition began with Aeschylus’ 458 B.C. play Agamemnon. The eponymous king returns home from the Trojan Wars to find a crimson carpet greeting him, a thinly veiled insult from his wife. In Ancient Greece, such a lavish walkway was considered fit only for the gods, and to step upon it would have been an act of hubris, the greatest sin of their culture.

Today’s rulers and celebrities have no such trepidation. Considering that the tradition comes to us from a play, it is little surprise that the contemporary interpretation has emulated its roots and become a performance, replete with script, costumes, and an audience both around the world and in specially designed seating at the venue. It has morphed into an unsettling meta-realistic space where celebrities don’t play a character but rather an idealized version of themselves. Due in large part not only to the Rivers’ work but also our increasing obsession with the famous, artists must appear absolutely fabulous and unrealistically put together. This, along with ever more powerful publicists and career advisors, has led to the banal, unexceptional interactions and dialogue that mark most red carpet events. As Joan, before her death last year, explained to Vanity Fair:

They’re nervous. They haven’t eaten for three days. They’re trying to remember who the damn designer [who made their dress] is. Their hair is held together with extensions.

Under such constraining circumstances, it is no wonder that artists coming down the red carpet appear as stilted, unreal versions of themselves.

This emulates the often-remarked-upon performative quality of social media. Often, people craft idealized images on these platforms, select the best photos — heavily edited, of course — and post inspirational details of their lives. Though this is less a reflection on celebrity culture or social media than on human social interaction, how do you respond to the constant streams of “How are you?” from friends, families and co-workers? On even our worst days, social decorum dictates that we usually respond with a chipper “Good, how are you?” The red carpet is a curious performative space, one that reflects and magnifies the performance we all participate in when under society’s gaze.

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Dillon Slagle
Dillon Slagle works in New York as a dramaturg and biological anthropologist. His experiences range from dramaturgy for puppet performances exploring the nature and formation of mono-theism with Kevin Augustine, to excavating pre-Greek burial sites in Menorca, Spain. In both anthropology and dramaturgy, Dillon believes in rigorous research, cultural awareness, and creative approaches to the process. Dillon is constantly searching for new, engaging, and relevant work. He is a member of LMDA, Dramaturg for the Carroll Simmons Performance Collective, and the Literary Manager for the Creation & Completion Project. Check out his Web site, Dramaturgy Tea, and find him on Twitter and Facebook.