Thursday, July 18, 2013

My Interview with Leon Bing

Leon Bing is a family friend I used to deeply idolize when I was a kid.  I was too young to know her biography or to have read any of her books, but what I admired about her was her artistic lifestyle, her cool house with the pretty knickknacks and her devil may care personality and beautiful clothes.  I managed to figure out Twitter well enough to get back in touch with her recently, and to ask for this great and enlightening interview, which includes the best beauty tip I’ve ever heard, a must-do for renegade girls! 

Ms. Bing is a model turned writer who worked with iconic fashion designer and gay activist Rudi Gernreich in the 1960’s, and later became a journalist for L.A. Weekly, before writing several critically acclaimed non-fiction books.  Much of her personal history is covered in her memoir, Swans and Pistols: Modeling, Motherhood, and Making It in the Me Generation, so our interview focuses more on preferences and inspirations.  


What were your favorite and least favorite things about modeling? 

Favorite thing about modeling:  getting the clothes I showed at a discounted price.  Oh – and my hourly rate, which was pretty damn good.  And, of course: being paid to show off.
Least favorite things:  Not very many.  I had a good career and I knew that was a lucky break.  Modeling, contrary to what many people think, is a fairly easy gig.  Show up on time.  Hope for a great dresser who will get you out on the runway on time and looking good.  Keep your hair well trimmed and clean and don’t gossip in the dressing room.

What were your favorite and least favorite things about the social scene of the 1960s?

I liked the fact that I could pretty much pick and choose socially, and since I’m not an avid party-goer, I mostly just hung with my friends.  I didn’t like when guys asked me out only because I was a model.  Those jerks never scored.

You are a strong, smart and successful woman – I am unsure if you’d consider yourself a feminist, now or in the 60’s, so instead of that term I’ll use “empowered,” and ask you this – what was it like to be an empowered woman in the 60’s in the fashion world? 

I don’t know if I was “empowered”, but I was treated very, very well when I was working in fashion in the 60’s.  I always felt respected both as a woman and as a model.

Do you have any story from your modeling and/or social career that you’d like to share that you think was just a perfect, crazy and typifying moment in time? 

No single moment.  But a couple of doozies show up in the memoir.  Well, more like shockers.

How do you feel about contemporary culture?  What are your favorite recent films, writers, bands, fashion designer? 

I’m okay with contemporary culture, even though I bitch a lot.  But then, I always did.  About my favorite films and writers, et al:  I have rather catholic tastes:  I very much like Hilary Mantel, Joan Didion, Antonia Fraser, Scott Turow, and David Sedaris.  I re-read Henry James often.  For films?  That’s a little tougher.  Lot of dreck out there lately.  The last movie I liked was The Iron Lady; Meryl Streep was great as Margaret Thatcher (whose ultra conservatism drove me nuts).  Just ordered the series House of Cards on Netflix. Saw the PBS version years ago and loved it.  For TV, although you didn’t ask:  I’ve seen every episode of The Sopranos more than twice, and  wept when James Gandolfini died.  I also like Breaking Bad.  Favorite bands:  Florence and the Machine, and everything Van Morrison has ever sung.  Fashion designer?  Three: the late, great Gernreich,  Armani and Donna Karan.  Great tailoring is as important as design.  But I pretty much live in beat-up 501’s, t-shirts, and boys’ pajama bottoms and wife-beaters when the weather is too damn hot.

What is your favorite book you’ve written and why?

Favorite book I’ve written is Do or Die.  Probably because A: it was the first book about the L.A. gangs, B: it’s never been out of print, and C: because it’s still relevant.

When you were interviewing members of the rival Los Angeles-based gangs the Bloods and the Crips, for your 1992 book Do or Die, did you ever come to feel completely at ease with those you spent time with on a regular basis?  Could you say you grew to genuinely like any of the gang members, and vice versa?  And did getting to know them have any impact on your ethical stances; for instance, were you 100% anti-violence until you saw how it can be a necessity for some people, or any ethical changes like that?

Yeah, I was at ease with the gang members (both Crips and Bloods) I interviewed and got to know.  I made some good friends and am still in touch with some of the guys. One just got married to the sweetest girl; he’s been in prison for nearly twenty years (sentenced at 18) and I love him like a son.  He’s up for parole soon, and we’re hoping...

What gave you the idea for your book Smoked:  About the Kids Next Door?  Did it start with a sociological interest in the lives of affluent youth, or did an interest in them grow from hearing their story in the news?

Smoked started out as an assignment from my editor (Bob Love) at Rolling Stone.  But then HarperCollins wanted it as a book.  I wish I’d done more research on that one; it could and should have been a better book.

Does your book Wrongful Death, A: One Child's Fatal Encounter with Public Health and Private Greed, about a young teen who commits suicide while supposedly being closely watched in a psychiatric facility, feel like an extension of the themes in Do or Die and Smoked?  I see a motif of youth in distress in all 3 books, for instance, and I wonder if this is a particular instance of yours?

I guess there is a theme of youth in distress in my first three books, but the real reason for writing A Wrongful Death was my outrage at corporate greed.  Christy Scheck’s tragic death while on a suicide watch in one of those for-profit psychiatric units was the heart of the story, and I extrapolated from there.

Did you enjoy working as a journalist for L.A. Weekly?  Do you read that publication, and if so, any thoughts?  (Personally, I’m really disappointed in the sloppiness of a lot of their blog journalists’ writing.  I used to love reading it when I was a teenager, but ever since a shockingly blas√© treatment of journalist Lara Logan’s sexual assault at the hands of several Egyptian protesters during the time of Mubarak’s overthrow, I haven’t respected it as a paper anymore.)

I truly enjoyed (and was very lucky) to do my first pieces of journalism for the L.A. Weekly.  I had a brilliant editor --  Eric Mankin – and I worked with a great photographer,
Howard Rosenberg, who remains one of my closest friends.  There’s a whole chapter about breaking in as a writer in Swans and Pistols.

What are you working on these days?

I’m currently at work on a long piece about an ex-bullshark of a gangbanger who has turned his life around in a nearly unbelievable way. 

You’ve stayed so, so beautiful and glamorous.  Any fashion or beauty tips to pass along?

I don’t know about “beautiful and glamorous” (I’ll have to remember that the next time Gareth Seigel (my Mister for nearly 11 years: smart, gorgeous, and an extraordinary photographer and person who makes me pee my pants laughing) but my biggest beauty tip is NEVER use soap on your face and/or neck.  Just Lubriderm and a warm washcloth.  Filth would seem to be the answer here.  Filth, and a great sex life.

Any thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

I guess my parting shot would have to be this:  If you want something badly enough, then go after it with everything you’ve got.  Just make sure you can deliver the goods.

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