ON: THE WONDER WOMEN IN MY LIFE
Political debates with Joan Rivers, Scrabble with Cindy Crawford, and the power of punk-rock heroines, SIMON MILLS recalls the strong, unapologetic women who have made him the man he is
The women who have made Simon Mills the man he is today
My father, a pilot and a keen aviator, once showed me a photo of one of his boyhood heroes. I was used to Dad telling me stories of second world war dam-busters and derring-do dogfighters called Harry and Binkie, but Amelia Earhart was different.
A genuine one off and a courageous, feminist maverick, she was the first woman pilot to fly solo over the Atlantic and across the American continent. Earhart was a glamorous, fearless and determined woman who railed against convention, climbing into the cockpits of Stearmans and Lockheeds to beat the boys at their own vertiginous game. She was dashing and bright-eyed, with a short, choppy haircut and elegant, aquiline features. Earhart wore trench coats, shearling jackets, horse-hide bombers, goggles, leather bonnets, mannish jodhpurs, chinos, sheepskin boots and baggy jumpsuits with an effortless, airborne dash. I was fascinated. I’ve had a thing for tomboy women, especially ones that know their way around an altimeter, ever since.
Back down on earth, it was TV that provided a young man with his earliest encounters with women. In a pre-internet age, variety shows were part of every British family’s weekly schedule, and weekend evenings would be spent watching an endless parade of perky, cheaply dressed, middleaged males with sideburns hosting lewd marathons of light entertainment. But among the grimly parochial banter and bad menswear would be a female guest star of such sophistication, stillness and intensity that our little sitting room would be rendered completely silent for the performance.
Singers like Dusty Springfield would stare down the camera and burn the song into the living room of your soul. Her tone mournful, soaring, brittle and dynamic. Her hair heroic and immovable.
Dusty took this Hull boy on a trip to Vegas. Shirley Bassey, gorgeously aloof and untouchable, made me feel like I was in a James Bond movie, but it was Bobbie Gentry’s Ode To Bobby Joe that really changed everything. I had no idea where in America one would find Choctaw Ridge, but the apparently glib lyrics of the Southern Gothic classic (written by Gentry herself) seemed to suggest a darkness and depth of understanding that was going way over the head of the doofus telly host in the frilly-fronted shirt and hitting my eight-year-old self right in the gut.
My mother, who allowed herself a menthol filter tip or two at the weekend, lit up a triumphant Consulate at the end of the song and something occurred to me: women like Bobbie are powerful, complicated, hardy, mysterious, fragile, unknowable. Maybe my mum, with her blonde, Dusty Springfield bob and her faded denim suit, was a bit like that, too.
Of course, Dusty and Shirley were emotionally out of my league and way too old for me. The Abba girls? They were all showbiz clothes, teeth and soft focus, and I remember finding the media’s obsession with blonde Agnetha’s bum objectifying and distasteful (I know – get me and my maverick feminist viewpoint), but punk rock came along and changed everything.
Siouxsie and the Banshees were the anti-Abba. Singer Siouxsie Sioux was flat-chested, had hair like a tar-dipped gonk and dressed like Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter. Her songs were about voodoo and voyeurism. Like Amelia Earhart, Siouxsie was piloting the plane herself. She was a dark, exotic, intelligent individual who sang like she was out for revenge. I’m not anti-sex or anti-sexuality, she’d tell you, ‘just anti-hypocrisy’.
An obsession with music took me to pop journalism and into magazines – a world where women were very often in charge. A man who might feel threatened by a female boss simply couldn’t get along in newspapers and magazines in the Eighties. Over the next few decades, I worked with (and for) dozens of bold, clever, funny, sexy women who seemed to have taken their lead from the freewheeling, feminist spirit of punk rockers like Chrissie Hynde and The Slits: Sally Brampton (founding editor of this magazine), Janet Street-Porter, Katharine Viner, Caryn Franklin et al. I think I am probably a better man and more reasonable work colleague for doing so.
In my twenties, I was writing for women and also reading them with increasing interest. I’d never got along with Jane Austen, but the discovery of Patricia Highsmith proved to be a revelation. After a young lifetime of devouring LA noir pulp literature – mostly by Raymond Chandler – where women are routinely patronised, slapped and demeaned, I binged on Highsmith, who could portray the male sociopath with more depth and insight than any male novelist before her.
Now, I don’t want to come off as some sort of annoyingly right on, thinking man’s crumpeteerist here, because in between making admiring and approving noises about, say, Joan Didion, I also served my time as a lascivious, drooling, aspirant (i.e. failed) modeliser.
An hour spent in the company of Christy Turlington – smart, engaging and beautiful in her mid-forties – reduced me to a gibbering fool. (Sadly, not a date but an interview.) A game of Scrabble with Cindy Crawford had me reaching for triple-word-scoring superlatives. But it was a (then) 75-year-old woman with a plastic surgery addiction and a tongue like a caustic lightsaber that left the most lasting impression. Ten years ago, I went to The Ritz to meet Joan Rivers for lunch and stayed until teatime. She ate nothing – partly because she didn’t seem to like food, but mainly because she didn’t want to stop talking. Everything Joan said was either fascinating, hilarious, poignant or unrepeatable. Or all the above. I loved her.
Joan was indiscreet, contemptible and outrageous, politically informed and connected, but had no respect for the establishment, and no time for chauvinism. A showbusiness veteran of more than 50 years, she had experienced soaring highs and career-suicide lows and always came back kicking, swearing, laughing, deriding authority and convention. And even in her seventies, even when the work was drying up and she was losing out to women who were younger, more dumbed down, more lip-glossed, tame and asinine, our brave, stubborn, smart, expletive-happy, repeatoffending Joanie would just not give up. And that’s what I call the ultimate wonder woman.