A few years ago, Vanity Fair ran their famous "It's Totally Raining Teens!" cover story, where they posed a myriad of up-and-coming young actresses - including, among others, the Olsen twins and Mandy Moore- on their slick pages. The cover girls were decked out in frilly, shiny, sparkly pink outfits, with lots of strappy metallic high heels and size-00 pants. The overall effect was one high-end cotton candy, sitting on our collective palate for a moment and then disappearing.
In July of 2003, I was 19, on the tail end of these girls, most of whom would have still been in high school had they not been professional working actresses. They were making me think weird, uncomfortable things about beauty and bodies: this was right around the time of Mary-Kate Olsen's extremely well-publicized eating disorder, and it was clear to the young women of North America that being "a girl," which was what this cover story was all about, was to be young, white, skinny, straight-haired, pretty, non-threatening, lightly comedic and highly conscious of one's image.
For the most part, the shoot inside carried the same visual aesthetic: Alexa Vega cavorted in bubbles; Kaley Cuoco, in a bikini, in a faux-tug-of-rope tableau; Solange - Beyonce's little sister - posed in a weird graffiti shot that makes it clear that VF thinks Black youth is composed primarily of hip-hop and scariness. It's all glossy and highly produced, and the colour scheme ranges from pink to magenta to fuchsia. Lots of bikinis and high heels, lots of movement and energy. The magazine highlighted a few entertainers with more serious shots: Alexis Bledel and Mandy Moore, both constructed in the accompanying interview to be more serious members of an otherwise forgettable cohort, got sultrier poses and actual dresses instead of mesh shirts and feather skirts.
Buried among the other actresses is a young Lindsay Lohan. She was redheaded, still seventeen and looking it, with a full body and a silly, endearing grin. This was before the terrific Mean Girls catapulted her into the upper echelon of young actresses, so Lohan was riding a goodwill wave from Disney remakes of The Parent Trap and the then-unreleased Freaky Friday. She doesn't even make the main cover; she's the last girl on the fold-out spread, tucked onto the very edge. Inside, she's in a flurry of feathers, casualties from a stylized pillow fight with Hilary Duff, and she's wearing a a demure tank top and PJ pants.
In the years since, she's nabbed two solo VF covers, one famously purporting an eating disorder that she vehemently denied, both styling her like a latter-day Monroe. One featured artful nudity.
For those who are unfamiliar, in the eight or so years Lohan's been on the scene, she dated Wilmer "Fez from That '70 Show" Valderrama and Samantha Ronson; she launched a line of leggings and almost killed the fashion house Ungaro; she's crashed her car more than once, been arrested more than once, been accused of doing drugs on film (!); been accused of stealing; been to rehab; been to AA; watched her divorced parents reconcile and then split again; had a much-discussed weight roller coaster ride; watched her younger sister do the same; and professionally gone from a well-respected young actress who could open a movie, to being stunt-cast as a stripper, a gun-toting vigilante nun, and a fake-pregnant administrative assistant. Lohan's ongoing legal troubles have meant that producers can't insure her, and her last starring role was in 2008. She's remained, through her probation violations, plastic surgery allegations and widely-accepted-as-true drug rumours, a tabloid fixture, but the complicated fallout from her years-long downward spiral has left us all flummoxed, and it's much easier to move on to Real Housewives, Teen Moms and other, newer, less depressing pop-culture narratives.
I still find her fascinating, because in an industry where image is everything, she's the alpha and omega of former child stars. For a while, it seemed like the Olsens were going to take that title, but MK's put on some weight and their fashion house is hella successful; meanwhile, Lohan has lost her touch. Her most recent cover story won't be for the genteel Vanity Fair, but for Playboy.
It's been a long time since Playboy represented anything more than T 'n' A, and although they have a history of running interesting journalism - "I read it for the articles, really!" - in the age of internet porn, their curated raunch is quaintly middle-America-goes-to-Vegas. In a way, Playboy represents a natural nadir for the nymphets profiled in VF so many years ago: they both utilize the same high-gloss brand of femininity, the same carefully edited image-making, the same emphasis on bodies rather than bodies of work, and the same understanding that there is precious little art involved in this star-machine.
Nudity isn't necessarily a roadblock to greatness, and actresses as diverse as Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman have bared it all for a role. But Lohan's foray into porn isn't artful, no matter how coyly it's shot - it's a strictly commercial transaction, one where she's selling one of the only things she has left to offer. Lohan is likely rationalizing the decision based on what her role model Marilyn has already done. Monroe, however, posed nude in her hungry days, and while she went onto become a star not fully in charge of her own image or her own mental health, Monroe's decision to pose for Playboy launched her as a sexy but bankable young ingenue. Lohan, eight long years into the game, is just trying to stay culturally relevant. Girlfriend doesn't need a cover shoot with anyone at this point - she needs a nap, a walk in the woods, time away from the pressures of a Hollywood lifestyle that, largely because of her excesses, is no longer seen as enviable by the tabloid-reading masses. Her decision to go nude exposes nothing but the naked desire to remain a star. That ship that sailed once this actress stopped being able to book acting parts; now, she's just going to show us her private parts. Lo