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Courtney Love didn’t get the Academy Award nomination she deserved in 1997 for her raw performance as the stripper wife of Hustler’s publisher in The People vs. Larry Flynt. But she made her presence felt at the Oscars that year regardless, shocking fashion correspondents and fans alike in a tastefully low-cut white Versace gown that clung to her newly lithe form. The queen of grunge had draped herself in diamonds, painted her lips a subdued coral, and cut her messy hair into a neat bob. It might’ve been the tamest look ever to make red-carpet history.
The public fascination with Love’s movie-star makeover didn’t end with Monday morning’s best-dressed roundups. “Last year she was still rock’s open wound,” Time’s Richard Lacayo wrote a few weeks later. “Last month the same woman who used to apply lipstick the way toddlers mash crayons was demurely turned out for the Oscars in a chiffon Versace gown. It was the most thorough transformation since Eliza Doolittle met Henry Higgins.” A.B.S. manufactured knockoffs of the dress that sold for $125. In the fall of 1998, when Love’s band, Hole, released Celebrity Skin, the name “Versace” appeared in dozens of reviews. Two decades later, the dress still holds a place of honor on various lists of the all-time best Oscar looks.
Although it’s that red-carpet moment that lingers in our collective pop-cultural memory, Love had gone public with her metamorphosis a few months earlier in a couture-clad photo spread for the January 1997 issue of Vogue. While reporters aggregated the news under condescending headlines like “Now She Is Learning How to Buy Clothes,” the rock press received it with predictable derision. “It’s hard not to chuckle at Love’s new spiffed-up image,” scoffed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s music critic, Gene Stout. On SNL, Molly Shannon played an apparently lobotomized Love, dressed in a pale blue pantsuit and sipping tea in a tidy kitchen. Courtney’s second act had just begun, and it was already clear she was going to take as much shit for conforming to Hollywood beauty standards as she ever did for resisting them.
I watched this disappointing narrative take shape as a 12-year-old Hole and Nirvana superfan who would buy any magazine that so much as mentioned Love or Kurt Cobain, and it’s been on my mind again as awards season coincides with the hype around FX’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. In particular, I’ve been wondering why I felt so personally betrayed by the new Courtney, even as I screamed her old lyrics in my rural upstate New York bedroom.
It wasn’t that I’d bought into the tabloid caricatures, which I loathed with my whole seething, “Violet”-blasting, proto-feminist heart. I believed I was angry she’d sold out. In the alt-rock ’90s, when Cobain wore a “corporate magazines still suck” T-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone, this was an accusation that even adults could make with a straight face. But bratty as I could be about my adolescent musical taste, I was not exactly the authenticity police. I purchased my first CD in seventh grade, and it was Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase, a weak play for indie cred from a band that many dismissed as an opportunistic Nirvana knockoff.
Like most things that upset us on a personal level at age 12, my disillusionment with Courtney Love was actually frustration about my own life. In the winter of 1997, I was an unpopular seventh grader with an idiosyncratic sense of style and a wild head of hair who wore jeans a few sizes bigger than the mean girls. (Full disclosure: In my adult life, I still fit this basic physical description.) Alongside fevered analyses of unrequited crushes, my journals contained step-by-step self-improvement regimens too harsh to stick to for more than a few days.
What I did have going for me, besides good parents, a few close friends, and a GPA that wasn’t winning me any more, was a rebellious streak nurtured by the music I loved. It was Hole and Nirvana, along with REM, Green Day, and the Smashing Pumpkins, that awakened me to ambitions beyond beauty, popularity, and that weak consolation prize, academic achievement. Love was the only idol I had who reminded me of myself: lumpy, angry, disheveled, disliked, female. And now she was going to get skinny, wear Versace, and pose for Vogue? As far as I was concerned, she might as well have changed her name to Heather.
I couldn’t have articulated it then, because that would’ve meant acknowledging how miserable I was in my own skin, but I felt betrayed. Unsurprisingly, at that point in my life, I wanted nothing more than to be a rock star when I grew up, if not sooner. Courtney’s success felt personal because it was all the proof I needed that I could put a guitar between my legs and my foot on an amp and use my imperfect body to exorcise all that self-loathing from my imperfect soul. (Too bad I turned out to be a terrible guitar player.) I was livid at the critics and comedians who jeered at her, to say nothing of the conspiracy theorists who derailed AOL chat rooms with conspiracy theories about how she killed Kurt. But I couldn’t see that the way I thought about her was just as selfish.
Certainly, I did not expend much empathy on the question of what had driven Love into the arms of Gianni Versace. For all the evenings I spent cutting up my T-shirts, painting my nails blue, and poring over YM, I considered fashion superficial. I wasn’t aware that Love had become friends with Versace and his younger sister, Donatella, or that Gianni was also an outsider of sorts: an out gay man and self-made mogul from Italy’s provincial south in a fashion industry that ran on northern cosmopolitanism and old money. I didn’t take the time to find out that his aesthetic championed powerful, sexually liberated women — or register how strong and defiant Courtney looked in that white chiffon gown, its straps splayed apart to reveal her broad chest with a brazenness that bordered on confrontational.
I had wept over Cobain’s death and Love’s loneliness. (I cried a lot as a kid about the ordeals of people I’d never met.) But it never occurred to me that Courtney 2.0 had anything to do with that loss. My heart had never been broken. No one I loved had ever died. I had not, and still haven’t, mourned the most important person in my life while millions of people laughed at my misery or blamed me for it. In a statement following Versace’s murder in July of 1997, Love said, “I credit [Gianni and Donatella] with helping me make a transition to a new period in my life without ever compromising who I am.”
That impulse for reinvention doesn’t make sense when we’re struggling to invent ourselves for the first time. Selfishly guarding the public images of artists whose identities we incorporate into our own — in other words, fandom — is an ugly but necessary part of that process.
I can’t say when I came to the realization that, as Caitlin Moran wrote in a glorious defense of the new Courtney for the January 1998 issue of Select magazine, the rage that had always defined Love’s public persona also explained her “new-found mainstream-sexuality-as-revenge.” There probably wasn’t one particular moment when I forgave her for leaving me and my baggy corduroys in the dust. But when Celebrity Skin came out, I made a special trip to the mall to buy it. Of course I did. I bought Velcro crystals to match the ones she’d started to wear in her hair but abandoned them when I had to cut one out of my tangled mane.
In high school, when love, death, and heartbreak finally became real to me, without even realizing it, I started investing less emotional energy in my heroes’s transformations and putting more into my own. One fall, I assuaged my anxieties about college applications by stocking up on pastel sweaters, frequenting the gym, and fixating on getting into Yale. The previous winter, I’d discovered how powerful you could feel in a dress that fit you perfectly. Since Versace wasn’t in my budget, I settled for a deeply discounted, slightly passé Betsey Johnson babydoll. I wore it to a birthday party, acquired a boyfriend, then went goth for a few weeks when we broke up. To my simultaneous frustration and relief, whether I was in black velvet or pink cotton, my personality remained essentially the same.