07.10.10

Dead Cool: Florence Foster Jenkins

In the age of talentless nobodies becoming miraculously famous, still-talentless somebodies, it’s time to remember Florence Foster Jenkins, the genre’s patron saint.

We are living in a post-skill era--a hilarious famous-for-being-dreadful world where the likes of Snooki, Speidi, wards of Gloria Allred, and kamikaze reality-show hopefuls consistently monopolize the airwaves. The roster of lacking-accomplishment-but-famous-anyway names grows longer every day. So hilariously replete with spray-tanned, talentless scene-stealers is our contemporary culture that one is tempted to think of it as a contemporary phenomenon. But it’s totally not: it’s happened before. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Florence Foster Jenkins!

Back in the first half of the last century, when Kim Kardashian’s great-great-grandmother was still mesmerizing Armenian shepherds with her ass-tastic butt, Florence Foster Jenkins was rocking the Manhattan social scene-- with derisive laughter, that is. Her fame was based on the fact that she mistakenly thought she could sing, and not only that, but she thought she could sing things like Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria and Delibes’ “Lakme,” and she thought that she was so good that she should be singing them in public.

Florence Foster Jenkins had an unstoppable ability to take criticism and derision, and repackage it as “professional jealousy” or adoration for her own consumption. How gorgeous is that?

But she could not sing. Not at all. Flo was not just mediocre: she was catastrophically tragic, tone-deaf, screechy and, as Randy Jackson would say, “pitchy, dawg!” Simply put, when Florence Foster Jenkins sang, she sounded like a turkey being gang-raped.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1868, Florence was unconventional and fame-hungry from the get-go. Thwarted by straight-laced parents, vivacious Flo eventually eloped to Philly with a doctor and then divorced. In 1909 she inherited papa’s dosh and embarked on a me-me-me odyssey that would take her all the way to Carnegie Hall.

At first she bankrolled her own performances. ‘Ere long, word spread of her operatic antics and fans were more than happy to pay good money in order to witness her oblivious caterwauling. Inspired by notices from astonished critics she headed to the Big Apple where she became a star, and then a legend. A typical F.F.J. performance was a multi-sensory feast: ramparts of exotic blooms perfumed and enhanced the diva’s offerings. And oh, her look: with her mantillas, snapping fans and angel wings, Florence possessed a Gaga-esque love of costume.

The denouement of her career came on October 25, 1944, when she sold out Carnegie Hall. Wartime austerity did not prevent people coughing up as much as $20 for a scalped ticket. She warbled and wobbled through the recital and was greeted with thunderous applause. Her dreams achieved, she popped her clogs one month later, at age 77.

What was so cool about this compulsive chanteuse/narcissist/exhibitionist? Florence Foster Jenkins had an unstoppable ability to take criticism and derision, and repackage it as “professional jealousy” or adoration for her own consumption. How gorgeous is that? She privileged her own expression and enjoyment over that of her audience. As she herself said, “Some people said I couldn't sing, but no one could say I didn't sing." She wanted to sing, and sing she did. Very cool.

Florence Foster Jenkins represented the joy of the amateur. When Andy Warhol said, “I can only understand really amateur performers or really bad performers, because whatever they do never really comes off, so therefore it can't be phony,” you cannot help but think he was referring to good old un-phony Florence.

This July 19th, celebrate Diva Jenkins’s birthday by heading to your local karaoke bar and attempting something way out of your vocal league. Mariah Carey? How about a little Stevie Wonder? Experience the cathartic joy of making a complete idiot out of yourself, and remember Florence, the patron saint of happy-but-deluded amateurs.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Writer, fashion commentator and window-dresser, Simon Doonan, is known for his provocative "Simon Says" column in the New York Observer. He has written four books: Confessions of a Window Dresser, Wacky Chicks, a memoir entitled Nasty and a tongue-in-cheek style guide entitled Eccentric Glamour. Nasty is to be re-released as Beautiful People. A comedy TV series entitled Beautiful People, produced by Jon Plowman, will debut on LOGO in May.