I didn’t know who David LaChapelle was when I heard about an opportunity to work as an archive assistant in his LA studio, so I had to google him. What I found were bold, colorful portraits of different celebrities, usually naked, or in a sexually suggestive pose. My favorite was one of Carmen Electra and Dave Navarro lying on separate autopsy tables holding hands. This opportunity now seemed like the chance of a lifetime, so I emailed my resume to a woman named Nina who I had been advised to contact, and got a phone call from her shortly after. On the phone she was vague, unfriendly and told me to come in the next day for an interview. I imagined her to be a tall, well dressed, intimidating woman living the ultra fab life in Hollywood as an archivist for such an interesting photographer.
The next day, as I turned onto Mango Street, I had to double check the address Nina had given me. The chic art gallery I had imagined was actually a dumpy brick building next to an alley that smelled very strongly of human urine. Printed on the rusty, concrete door was “LaChapelle Paper Factory.” As I knocked, I wondered if the silky rose colored tank top tucked into high wasted office pants was the wrong choice, and when the door was opened by a guy with long blonde scraggly hair and wearing a striped tank top, ripped capris and combat boots, I knew it was. “Are you here to see Nina?” he asked happily and when I shook my head yes, a very tiny boy appeared behind him. “Hi I’m Nina,” the little boy reached out his hand to me. Confused, I shook Nina’s hand. Nina was no taller than four feet with short black hair, unruly eyebrows and blemished skin. She was wearing a white shirt, jeans and sneakers. “So like, let me show you the studio.” Her voice was quiet, low and sounded almost exactly like the 90’s cartoon character Daria. I followed Nina into a big empty room where a tall guy with an outrageous beard and long hair pulled back by an American flag bandana was painting a life size fake horse pink, and dancing to the music playing overhead. “It’s dance party Friday!” he exclaimed as Nina and I walked by him. Nina turned to me, “He’s turning that horse into a unicorn” she explained.
After Nina had showed me around the studio, which looked like a large warehouse with provocative art everywhere, we went into Nina’s office for my interview. It went like this:
Nina: “Have you ever archived art before?”
Nina: “Do you have any experience archiving editorials or publications?”
Me: “Um, no not really”
Nina: “Have you ever worked with artwork before?”
Nina: “Are you familiar with photography?”
Me: “Um, I mean, no, not really”
Nina: “So like, can you start today?”
I stared at her blankly. “Um, no not today,” I said uncomfortably. “Ok, so like Monday?” she said while looking down into her lap. “Sure,” I tried to smile. She looked up from her lap and we stared at each other for a moment. I got up, “Well thank you so much, I’ll see you Monday.” “Yeah, at nine o’clock, ok?” I walked very briskly, just short of a run, out of the office, and then out of the studio and finally down the street and to my car. Once inside my car I sat for a few seconds staring out the window, I couldn’t really think of anything else except: what the fuck.
On Monday, I showed up to the studio completely unsure of little Nina boy. As the weeks progressed things I would learn about Nina included:
She would train me and a team of other interns to archive artwork, editorials, photos and essentially do her job while she would leave mysteriously for hours, only to return at the end of the day and ask, “So like, how much did you get done?”
Although she was gone most of the day, she always seemed to be around when lunchtime rolled around. Nina boy, a paid employee, who did not get a free lunch provided, would mooch off the other unpaid interns who worked essentially for their free lunch each day. “So like, Jenn, you should order some chicken balls from that Chinese place, for us to like, share.”
She was a lesbian and a poorly trained fire breather. “So like, one time I was at this party and there was this really hot girl there who I wanted to impress, so I tried to breathe fire and ended up scorching my face, like I had really bad burns and singed my eyebrows off. I had to go to the hospital. The girl like, felt really bad for me, so it worked.”
She would send me halfway across the city at rush hour every week to pick up different types of herbs from a spooky natural health store run by what I think was a witch doctor.
She somehow would trick me into helping her write an essay about being a gay, Jewish female for a grant that she would win and that would enable her to proceed with a project she titled “The Mobile Pinhole Project.” The Mobile Pinhole project in lamens terms was essentially Nina, driving a large mini van that she had “converted” into a “camera” around Los Angeles and inviting children to use the van to take pictures.
She was always up to no good. One day I found myself outside talking to one of the retouchers, Garret, when Nina came out of the studio with large sacks full of what looked like cotton balls. A car pulled up to the sidewalk and Nina started loading the sacks into the backseat. I looked at Garret, “What is she doing?” Garret exhaled smoke from his cigarette and said nonchalantly, “Pilfering contents of the archive probably..”
Nina eventually got fired. I was there when she packed up her office and drove away in her pinhole van. No one really missed her. A few months ago I saw her at a Venice liquor store. She was wandering the aisles with another little boy who was probably just another tiny lesbian like Nina, which made me happy. There really is a soul mate out there for everyone. I, terrified that we would make eye contact, immediately left the store. Once outside I let the memory of Nina wash over me. I shuddered.