“What we want to find are the indigenous underwear stores,” says actress Patricia Clarkson, from the backseat of her chauffeured BMW, as we crawl through mid-day traffic in downtown Doha, in search of pretty lingerie.
Clarkson wears four-inch Gucci sandals, a chic, black, off-the-rack Italian dress and red Hanky Panky underwear (so she says). The two-time Emmy winner is an absolute bra fiend, and after filming a movie in Egypt last year, is now convinced that the Middle East, despite all the outward sartorial modesty, is really the best place for a gal to stock up her boudoir. “I can’t believe we’ve come all the way to Doha to buy garter belts,” she says.
Click Image Below to See Patricia Clarkson Look at Nipple Covers and Boy Shorts.
In truth, of course, we haven’t. Clarkson is in the Qatari capital for the first-ever Doha Tribeca Film Festival. Her latest project, Cairo Time, a sultry, slow film in the model of Lost in Translation, closed out the festival Sunday night.
Clarkson got to town last week and has been having a swell time. “The Qataris are like Southerners to me,” she says, raving about the locals’ hospitality in the face of “an onslaught of ugly Americans.” She’s been running around like a maniac since she arrived. “I don’t think I’ve been to bed in four days,” she says. “This morning, they told me I was to be photographed by Brigitte [Lacombe]. Do you know Brigitte? This is like every woman’s dream. And here my face is in my feet.”
At a minimum, that face is her own. Having successfully made the perilous transition as an actor from hot young thing to mature woman (and, in some cases, as in her recent performance in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, to hot middle-aged thing), she dismisses plastic surgery as “not for me.” Clarkson’s career has spanned two decades, beginning with a breakout turn as Mrs. Eliot Ness in The Untouchables and growing quickly with roles in Neil Simon’s London Suite, The Green Mile, and as winning girlfriend Claire French on Frasier. She won two Emmys for guest roles on HBO’s Six Feet Under and was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Pieces of April. In two months, she’ll be 50. She shmoodges her cheeks to highlight the tiny wrinkles around her eyes, as proof. “It’s all still mine!”
The City Center is a teeming mega-mall less than a mile—though a good 30 minutes in Qatari traffic—from Clarkson’s suite at the W hotel. From the car windows, the city looks strangely post-apocalyptic, with towering Jetsons-style skyscrapers that have all sprung up in recent years, but few people visible in or around them. Driving down the smooth, brand-new highways, you have the feeling of being in a kind of reverse war zone, with buildings shooting up all around and furious landscaping as far as the eye can see. Everywhere, sprinkler systems and contract workers with hoses are fighting to tame the arid desert into lush submission.
City Center is anchored by a giant ice skating rink. Clarkson peers down onto it from the second floor and exclaims, “You’re shitting me!” Our first stop is a shop called Women’s Secret, which turns out to be a chintzy teeny-bopper boutique with cotton bloomers and T-shirts that say things like “Princess!” in pink sparkles. Clarkson grimaces and shakes her head. “There’s a real art to lingerie shopping in Cairo,” she explains. “There are these little shops out on the street, and you walk in, and a woman looks at you, sizes you up, figures out your measurements. It’s very much a part of the culture.”
It’s already clear no one’s getting the Cairo treatment here, but Clarkson persists—as much as she can, considering that every 10 paces or so, someone comes up and asks for an autograph. At last, we go into Debenhams, a department store and, after some searching, find ourselves staring up at a giant wall of girdles. “Spanx,” Clarkson says, pointing up at nude thigh-n-tummy-sucking bodysuit. “They’re universal.” Next to us, two women wearing headscarves and traditional full-length, flowing, black hijabs, comb through elegant push-up bras and steal glances at Clarkson. As strict and conservative as the dress code is here—visitors are told locals may be scandalized by a naked knee or shoulder—the Qataris seem to have a keen interest in fashion. An afternoon screening of R.J. Cutler’s Vogue documentary The September Issue drew an overflow, with women in hijabs and men in long white thobes squatting in the aisles to catch the film. “I think it translated,” Cutler said.
A lacy purple pair of skivvies on a mannequin catches Clarkson’s eye. “Wow, come on! Those are swingin’,” she says. “I wouldn’t wear them though.” She picks up a two-pack of heavy, modest, cotton bras: “These are like fortresses.” To her immediate right is a display of sexier offerings, including row after row of thigh-high stockings and “micro-net lace-ups,” and she wonders aloud whether those things ever actually stay put on the body. She confesses to not owning a garter belt. Reaching for a small plastic-wrapped package hanging on a hook, she shrugs her shoulders and says, “I guess you always need nipple covers.”
“Spanx,” Clarkson says, pointing at nude thigh-n-tummy-sucking bodysuit. “They’re universal.”
After a time, she leaves the store with no lingerie but with a fierce pair of suede, platform, cage pumps by a brand called “Shoe Love is True Love,” which cost around $50. “Come on!” she says. “Are you shitting me? We’re gonna meet up in a bar in New York, and I’ll be wearing these.” Clarkson loves couture, particularly gowns from Alberta Ferretti, which she says are the only things she’d save if her apartment caught fire. But she also has an eye for bargains. “I’ve been on red carpets in $100 dresses,” she says. “I do own very expensive jewelry, but I fool people all the time. I’m not someone who always has to be in the finest things.”
We wander to the less-trafficked back corridors of the mall, where shoppers come to be fitted for hijabs and where everyone looks a little more suspiciously at the friendly blonde. We stroll past curious window displays. In one shop, full of shimmering full-length dresses, a mannequin wears a sequin halter-gown embossed with an image of Lindsay Lohan. Next door, a store that sells modest dresses and nightgowns also features an electric orange apron, of the sort worn by personnel at American hardware stores, that reads “Home Wrecker.”
The contrasts between modernity and tradition, West and East, are glaring. We go into an innocent-looking store called Je T’Aime. Half the walls hold racks of provocative stockings and bondage costumes by a brand called “Leg Avenue.” The other half have cheerful greeting cards and tourist-baiting tchotchkes. In the corner, a simple board game-size cardboard box bears the title “A Hot Affair with Your Partner.”
We step on an inclined moving ramp and she sings the chorus from “Stairway to Heaven.” The ramp is wobbly, and Clarkson grasps the handrail to steady herself and laughs. “At least if I go down, I go down in Gucci,” she says.
Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.