VenueThe Chateau Marmont
8221 West Sunset Boulevard
West Hollywood, C.A.
The Tab(1) herbal tea
(1) iced tea
$11.98 + tip
There’s nothing orthodox about Ruth Fowler, so it shouldn’t surprise me that having drinks together gets off to an unconventional start. Drinks, as in alcoholic beverages, will not be consumed at this engagement. Having done a little stint in AA, cocktails are no longer part of Ruth’s lexicon of leisure.
We take our seats in the wicker chairs in the courtyard of the Chateau Marmont. Aside from the palm trees, it feels like Europe with the stone columns, stained glass, and foreign languages streaming from every table. We order two stiff teas, herbal for her, iced for me. She’s not necessarily an addict, she informs me. Perhaps not, but what I already know is that Ruth is a woman of extremes. If she drinks alcohol, she probably drinks too much. If she stops, well…she just so happens, at the time of our meeting, to be in the midst of a “juice cleanse.”
What I know about Ruth I know from her blog, “Mimi in NY,” that she started in 2005 when she left the UK to move to New York to make it as a writer. Without a work visa, Ruth scraped together rent money from various odd jobs, most notably as a dancer in a strip club – now there’s an occupation that doesn’t usually come up in talk-radio rants against illegal aliens – and chronicled her exploits online. She gained a sizable Internet following, a book deal, a profile in The New York Times, and ultimately a journalist visa. Now in L.A., she has joined the ranks of those who take on freelance work and type away on their screenplays.
It sounds like a cliché, but Ruth aims to distinguish herself, and does. She majored in English Literature at Cambridge and graduated with the will to write, but without the requisite reservoir of life experience. She took off to fill up on adventure on someone else’s dime. She lived in Argentina, traveled through Nepal, and then landed a series of jobs on private yachts working as a chef. Without formal training, she lied on her resumé and would follow gourmet cookbooks to the tee, praying her meals turned out right. It was the captain of one such boat who bestowed her with the nickname Mimi, a tribute to her alleged narcissism. After visiting more than 40 countries, she knew once she got to New York, she would stay. She finally had some material worthy of putting on paper.
Ruth takes issue with writers who haven’t lived outside their dorms and have little to write about. You could say she has a chip on her shoulder about it, and she wouldn’t disagree. She published just such a rant in June on the Huffington Post. Fans of her blog have come to expect such outbursts from Ruth, who is strong on opinions and weak on tact. Her book (No Man’s Land in hardcover, Girl Undressed in paperback) serves as a companion to the blog and equally candid confessional. I find it ironic that the tastefully made up, introspective, and likable woman across the table from me, who’s writing is so ruth-less, has the given name Ruth.
She tells me that menial jobs–presumably she includes stripping in that category–teach you to “hide who you are.” And I realize that it is Mimi, and not Ruth, who has elephant-thick skin. It was Ruth who disabled the ability to write comments on her blog after one too many mean-spirited remarks. It is she who doesn’t read responses to her pieces currently at large in cyberspace. As a writer myself given to bouts of despair over criticism, Ruth’s vulnerability reminds me that there is a person behind the words, one who is an expert at portraying another, one who doesn’t, in fact, bare all. Her book is, after all, about stripping for money, about the commodification of Self. A book which she self-criticizes as a bit “adolescent” and without enough humor. As the conversation roves on, my impulse to call her Mimi, and not Ruth, wanes away.
I ask Ruth if getting her book published brought relief. Aspiring writers want to know! Is the book jacket that every writer in L.A. dreams of the golden ticket? Not so much, in Ruth’s view. She never intended to write memoir and put herself on such public display. It brought her money, but she’d prefer to be lucrative without selling herself.
Getting paid is an important motivator for Ruth, who was the first in her family to attend a prestigious university and never had a trust fund to keep her clothed. “I can’t wait to be a housewife,” she admits, not to stop writing, but to alleviate her mental burden as breadwinner. “People with money don’t understand that the world is not a meritocracy.” She’s described herself on her blog as “part poor, part posh.” We might have everyone fooled as we chat at the Chateau Marmont, dressed well enough, with even the appropriate mini dog, Ruth’s tiny Chihuahua Mr. Chips, on her lap.
Writers everywhere – and there are legions of poor-posh artists in this town – can relate to Ruth’s struggle to retain her creative integrity while getting checks made out to her name. There’s an appeal in physical labor, unskilled work, or recreating rote recipes for a wage rather than trying to entertain or engage audiences with your brain. Ruth is smart enough to assert that she knows happiness won’t come from external validation. But it seems sustaining happiness is a far-off goal for someone trying to reconcile artistic expression with monetary gain.
I look at the surrounding tables and wonder how many aspiring directors are among us, and how many actors with representation got work done to their figures, restructured themselves, literally, to become tradable commodities. The Chateau Marmont is more than just a serene hillside refuge. Artists, wannabes and has-beens who pass through L.A. pass through this hotel. It’s an iconic monument to debauchery, proud home to Lindsay Lohan for a spell, the heart of the Hollywood Scene. It’s a fitting metaphor in itself that such a picture perfect venue would provide the set to a series of Hollywood off-screen dramas. Did I mention this was Ruth’s choice? Or was it Mimi’s?
While evading crises is not Ruth’s strong suit, surviving them is. There are many who come to L.A. with Ruth’s aspirations, but not many with her strength, who can resist the erosion of their inner being that often comes from peddling one’s self too hard. You have to wonder which is preferable-keeping your name and selling your soul, or selling a lap dance under a fictitious name?
Ruth calls Los Angeles the “city of lost souls”, but she also considers it the place she found herself. “I got clean here,” she discloses. While she scorns the body dysmorphia and fake eyelash extensions that exist all around her, she relishes the lifestyle she has in L.A. which includes heavy doses of yoga and hiking. Still searching for prolonged happiness, she has a few go-to strategies for general contentment. These include not drinking, eating healthy, spending time with her dog, showing up for yoga five times per week, dating someone she likes (easier said than done), and staring loneliness in the face.
By all accounts, she is living the dream. Between her screenplays, her published book, her second book in progress, numerous articles, and of course her blog, Ruth is making it as a writer. But her descriptions of happiness are about being surrounded by people. An old boyfriend with a house in Venice and lots of family around. A time in New York when a group of her friends from yoga came to her strip club and cheered her on and threw dollar bills at her.
Ruth speaks of nostalgia for things she hasn’t yet lost. “You can see the pain ahead,” she says, an incontrovertible deduction from pain lived through before.
I ask Ruth about her artistic goals now. She says she’d like to see one of her films get made. I don’t ask which one. She amends her statement to “get made well”.
What is clear and compelling about Ruth, the poor-posh artist, is her basic need to write. The subject is less crucial than the act itself. The act itself, however, is vitally tied to her being, the words churned up in her gut.
Our conversation wraps up and we pay for our two measly teas. They’re not the cheapest in town, but the cheapest thing on the menu. We walk out past all the fancy people taking important meetings over stronger drinks. We walk out past the valet.
She’s parked at a meter and I took the bus.
Marissa Engel is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher living in Los Angeles.
*Photo by Marissa Engel.