Thursday, May 6, 2010

Book Review: Janice Dickinson, No Lifeguard On Duty

Publisher/Year: Regan Books, 2002

No one can accuse Janice Dickinson of being shy and reserved. She is as brash and sassy as they come, traits that have served her well during the many life trials she has endured through the years. Dickinson claims to be the world’s first supermodel, a statement that has propelled numerous investigations to disprove her arrogance. But the bestowing of this title is only one minor story composing Dickinson’s tell-all biography, aptly titled No Lifeguard on Duty: The Accidental Life of the World’s First Supermodel.

It is no secret these days that the life of a model is not all glitz and glamour. On the surface, it seems like an endless party of fame and attention and free stuff; underneath it all though, there are numerous destructive and seductive strings attached to each. Dickinson certainly got tangled up in these strings throughout the majority of her modeling career. Sex. Drugs. Rock ‘n Roll. It was all there, to varying degrees, consuming and abusing her at every turn.

No Lifeguard on Duty: The Accidental Life of the World's First SupermodelAnd yet, Dickinson rarely positions herself as a victim. She is always, always the victor. This approach in itself makes the biography a riveting read. But it is the attitude and swagger Dickinson infuses in her prose that separates her story from most sympathetic tales of a young girl searching for meaning and acceptance by haphazardly running from her demons.

At the start of the book, we are introduced to Dickinson’s father, an unsympathetic and cruel individual who returns time and time again as the principal demon from whom she is running. Dickinson witnesses her father sexually abusing her older sister, a discovery that propels her to vehemently resist his attempts to pursue the same course of action with her. Her refusal to ‘service’ him leads to years of physical and emotional abuse at home, and even more years of lingering psychological abuse.

Dickinson goes into detail about how she came to focus on becoming a supermodel (encouraged tremendously by her mother), and the external and internal struggles she endured in achieving the level of notoriety and contentment she enjoys today. Like most models then (and still today), Dickinson traveled to New York and began plying her wares. There were numerous false starts but she was desperately determined. She eventually made her way to Paris where her ‘look’ (considered too ethnic in New York, largely in part to her huge lips) was eagerly embraced. It was when she returned to the U.S. as a much in demand model that she infamously coined the term ‘supermodel” to justify her diva antics.

Along the way there were the oblligatory sexual encounters (Nicholson, Neeson, Jagger, to name but a few), drug abuse, marriage (three in all), abortion, and a whole lot of emotional baggage. Pulling her through it all were her strong feelings of family, within the modeling world and within her blood family. It is abundantly clear throughout the book just how much she loves her sisters, even when they were estranged. But this devotion to family is most especially evident in her discussions of her two adored children, Nathan and Savannah.

Reading No Lifeguard on Duty is just the tiniest of guilty pleasures. We all want to learn about the escapades of celebrities; our voyeuristic impulses are too difficult to contain when it comes to famous people. And with Dickinson, who most people likely know from her stint as a judge on America’s Next Top Model or her frequent escapades covered in the tabloids, this impulse is on high alert. But after reading her story, you come away with much more than a collection of entertaining snippets about famous people and parties; you get a very real sense of her strength and confidence.

Dickinson is definitely a role model--a strong, confident and deliberate female who takes no shit and no prisoners. And working in a world built on exploiting idealized femininity and female sexuality, she most certainly must have scared people silly (and quite frankly, probably still does to this day) with her abrupt, sometimes brutal attitude and business tactics. There is definitely much to learn from Dickinson about being a strong female presence in the world.

What makes No Lifeguard On Duty a rewarding reading experience overall is that Dickinson has everything to hide and does not. Sure, there are moments when she is talking about taking pictures at Studio 54 that you wish she would just publish them already to satiate your intense curiosity. But for the most part she is as revealing as she is cocky (which is a most apt description for anyone who knows anything about Dickinson), a lethal combination that makes you love her and hate her and admire her all in the same moment.

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