ALAN IN WONDERLAND
By Alan Bennett Ilagan
Let him entertain you.
~ Coaxed from her Nest, a Diva takes Flight ~
Get on board the Bi-Polar Express as Alan Bennett Ilagan presents his Divine Diva Tour: A Fairy's Tale. Back on the road with his fifth tour, and promoting Version 3.0 of his popular web-site, Ilagan is poised on the verge of another artistic triumph. But in the eye of the impending hurricane, all is not as calm as it should be.
The house is near the top of the hill, nestled into a slight slope. It winks at you, a sleepy smile. Nothing gives away its owners' secrets. A 1972 Country Squire station wagon is parked in front of the house; the notorious "eye-sore" in Alan's estimation is actually kind of cool. It strikes me as odd that the magisterial hoopla physically originates in such plain, albeit pretty, surroundings. Accompanied by a tinge of apprehension and nervous excitement, I stride up to the entrance, past some overgrown evergreen bushes and pots of winter-ravaged ivy.
One never knows what to expect when Alan is involved. I've heard that he is a difficult interview. Not in a personal or petulant way, but more in his tendency to hide and disguise himself in the mask of the moment, saying things merely for effect and image. Fascinating but flighty; confessional but cagey. More often than not these varying personas coincide with whatever project he is working on at the moment. This being his Divine Diva Tour, I expect the Diva herself to sweep haughtily into the room after making me wait some fashionably interminable amount of time, but Alan greets me humbly and punctually at the door, wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. Aside from a little bitchiness, The Diva is not in evidence today. In fact, anything slightly glamorous or diva-like seems far, far away. I am a little disappointed, but relieved too.
The voice is reedy, but imperious. The bearing is laid-back, but regal. The setting is lived-in, but elegant. This is Alan at home, or at least how he wants to be portrayed at home (though one does get the feeling that the fabulousness continues even when he's left alone). Given his love of clothes, I begin by commenting on his ensemble. Today's casual attire is a far cry from the suit-&-tie combo he wore to our preliminary meeting.
"That was work-wear," he says impatiently, waving me off. "I do maintain a real nine-to-five job where feathers and sequins are not de rigeur," and his defensiveness is both comical and a little scary.
One gets the feeling that he can turn on a dime, that he's the kind of person who wouldn't hesitate to embarrass you in a public place. It's somewhat jarring, but exhilarating and thrilling at the same time. A lot of people show up at his parties just to see what he'll do, if not just for what he'll wear.
He dismisses the notion immediately. "If you look at my last few parties, there was no bad behavior or memorable acting out. Yes, there were costumes and stuff that most people don't wear, but nothing dramatic or out of the ordinary happened. I think it's a reputation and the talk of other people that has created this outrageous expectation. In the past I definitely tried to live up to it." And on a few select occasions he has surpassed it.
Though most people want to know about the drinking, the drunk driving, his relationship with Andy, the rumored wedding band, the bi-polar diagnosis and medication, the controversial exit from his former job, etc., all Alan wants to discuss is the new tour. A glittering, glitzy diamond of a distraction, the ploy works and he is off and running, doing what he does best: self-promotion. Though it begins objectively enough, talk can't help but turn personal, and Alan's evasiveness is as telling as any outright confessional.
Sitting cross-legged in the lotus position, he looks very peaceful, but what comes out of his mouth is rather tumultuous. "The themes to this tour are glamour and fantasy and appearance," he begins earnestly, setting a cup of green tea down on the hardwood floor. "It's like a party ~ outside everyone puts on a smile when inside they're raging over so and so and such and such. Pretending everything is okay when it's clearly not, but giving it a pretty face no matter what, and what that does to a person.
It's also about escapism. So many of my projects deal with serious stuff, or at least not celebratory fun things, and this was, initially, going to be pure fun and dance. Of course it turned out a little differently. After the last year especially, in the wake of the Presidential election, the war, the gay marriage issue ~ I really awoke to so many things I had always ignored or pretended didn't matter to me. And then after working towards the goal of gay marriage and defeating Bush and ending the war, it all seemed so futile. I'm not saying I did enormous acts, but in my own small way I tried to contribute. Once it was done and over I wanted to escape, to get away. I was drinking to dull the pain, I was pretending everything was okay, I was losing myself in frivolous stuff again," and then suddenly he goes quiet. A smile makes its way across his face, a playful moment to punctuate the serious diatribe. He might be wondering if he has said too much, but at my prodding he continues.
"Where is the balance? How do you reconcile being a thinking, feeling, intelligent human being when so much is wrong with the world and very little seems to tangibly produce change or results? I would think everyone with half a brain would feel depressed and upset by the state of the world."
This may be as close to talking politics as Alan gets. He will not comment on the gay-marriage amendment talk. "Read my letter-to-the-editor," he says icily. "It's all over the internet." He will not delve into any specifics, but when pressed he does open up.
"The whole idea of marriage is that it is an idea. Aside from the hundreds of legal rights that go with it, there is this mental bond that unites two people, and with it the blessing and support of all their friends and family. That's what we as gay couples lack, and it does take a toll. A married couple can fight and argue and hate each other for a day, then wake up the next morning and still be married. It takes much more than a fight to get divorced. With gay couples, every fight could be the big end-all fight. We don't have the idea of a marriage to back us up, the strength and stability and support that often sees married couples through rough times. That notion of marriage is underestimated and rarely referenced. I'm not saying that this is the reason so many gay couples break up. And I know that we can have just as sacred and meaningful a bond as any married couple. It's just that not being married and missing that abstract idea makes our tough times that much more difficult. And that's all I'm going to say about that."
Leaning back against the couch, he stretches and cracks his knuckles. His hair is longer than he usually keeps it. "Not an image change so much as laziness," he drawls. A wavy lock of it falls forward. Brushing it back, he changes topics.
"I'm quite done with the seriousness of our situation," he says. "The world needs escapism right now, but it's difficult to provide because so many of us are jaded and dumbed down by television and the Internet and having entertainment so readily available. We're losing our ability to fantasize, to imagine, to read a book from start to finish. How many people even read today? We're raising children with no need for imagination, who can log onto a computer and find all the information they could ever use without doing any of the research or thinking processes that used to go along with learning. And these kids are growing into adults who no longer have the need to search or investigate or discover or even talk to people in person."
He has retained a Thoreau-like aversion to the advance of technology. The Internet is viewed with a weary and suspicious eye. He is probably the last person anyone knows who does not have a cel-phone. ("I abhor the cel-phone. Such rudeness is unacceptable. We managed to survive centuries without them, why are they ubiquitous now? I will never be important enough to need one. Besides, I'm one of those rare birds who enjoys time alone, time in quiet with my thoughts, and I don't want to be easily reachable all the time. If it's that important, people usually call back.")
Along those same lines, he vigorously decries the desensitization of art and entertainment and the lost art of subtlety.
"No one reads anymore. It takes too much effort to conjure our own images from imagination. Why bother when you can click on the television and computer and find superficially fascinating stuff at every stop? Look at all of the reality shows on television today. That's all we seem to want. And in place of this we are giving up the fantasy of make-believe, the magic that comes when we suspend our disbelief. We'd rather watch Survivor than see a Broadway musical because most of us can't enter a realm of magic and music that's unrealistic. We can't access the emotion and magic of that moment when someone bursts with such feeling that they break into song or express themselves in dance. It's laughable today. So what I wanted to do with this tour book is offer something that is entirely fantasy, entirely make-believe, and see if I could entice the masses to sit down, open a book, and go through it page by page. I probably won't succeed, but I'll die trying."
Defending the arts may be a noble quest for some, but under the present political powers-that-be it may be a lost cause. Still, Alan is not quite ready to throw in the towel completely. "Just by surviving and doing what I do, for my own creative fulfillment and for anyone else who wants to join in - that is as subversive and defiant as any outright protest. In some ways I think even more-so."
He has had enough of the weighty talk and hops onto his feet. "Okay, I have to work on the tour book right now and then I need to go to bed early." It is abrupt, and leaves no room for extending the discussion. His fame for being blunt has been justly earned. He is polite with his good-bye, curt in his dismissal, and diva-like in the utter belief of his bearing. One can't help but be carried away by this river of unyielding power, a force of nature in every sense. He will contact me, he declares, but doesn't give any definite time frame. The door closes after a smile and wave, and I am outside in the brisk evening air of Spring.
A few days later I receive an e-mail message from him, sent at 5:32 AM. He has responded to several questions I had, including what consists of a typical day for him and what constitutes his writing process.
He wakes up surprisingly early - by 5:15 AM most days. Sometimes he allows himself a few hits of the Snooze button; on rare days he sleeps right through everything. For the most part he is up before the birds, typing away at the computer and shaking off the stupor. He mostly responds to e-mail messages and updates his blog. "That's why I never have anything interesting to write. What the hell could have happened before six in the morning?"
He works on whatever project is current, and does a little bit of writing.
"I read somewhere that a certain writer likes to write early in the day before he gets a chance to read anything, in an effort not to be influenced by other writers. I'm sort of the opposite. I like to be influenced. Partly because I don't trust the quality of my own work, and partly because I usually find inspiration and influence from great writers. You can't go terribly wrong if you follow the style and grace of Edith Wharton or Fitzgerald. The setting and time may be different, and the dialogue is arcane today, but the voice and the tone is something I always try to capture and emulate. That is timeless."
His other influences are more sporadic. "If I have to write a magazine or newspaper article, I'll try to read the New York Times, preferably the Sunday Arts section. The writing is usually crisp, succinct, yet entertaining. And for my own silly promotional stuff I'll take inspiration from Vanity Fair or Entertainment Weekly! Over-the-top, dramatic, hold-your-bad-taste-interest type of writing." He knows not to attribute his work solely to himself, and he views his own writing with a critically discerning eye.
"My own voice has definitely evolved over the years. It started out as very mannered and frilly, lots of endless sentences and flourishes, and pretty histrionic. Lately I find I like things to be more stark, more minimalist. The notion that less is more is a big part of my writing now. I like saying a lot with a few select words. And I like the idea of myriad interpretations of a single phrase or sentence, particularly in poetry."
It's one of the few areas he hasn't explored, and it's not that he doesn't respect the genre.
"It is too difficult to write decent poetry. I took a few poetry courses and they opened my eyes to the breadth of a good poem. It's so much harder to read a poem of ten words than it is to read a novel of ten thousand. And ten times harder to actually write one."
Though it's never wise to buy into any overt depiction of humility, Alan seems genuine in his responses. Carefully thought out they may be, there is still truth to them. He ends his missive with a teenager's sign-off: "Okay, I have to go to work now. Toodles!" It simultaneously negates the thoughtful earnestness of everything that came before it, while lending an innocent authenticity to the proceedings.
Ten years ago he embarked upon his very first tour, "The Friendship Tour: Chameleon in Motion". On this, his fifth tour, Alan is not the same kid he was when he started touring. It is apparent when he sweeps into our appointed lunch meeting wearing a shirt and tie and a tan overcoat and carrying a leather briefcase.
"I was nineteen then. Jesus, has that much time passed?" he asks over a Caesar salad. Though touring is old-hat for him, most people who are new to the experience don't quite get it. The genesis is simple enough.
"I had no clue what I was doing, but I found myself traveling a lot and going on all these trips, so I just grouped them together and called it a tour. At first it was just a Madonna-homage type of thing, but it's become my own reality in a way. And I always have some project or written work that I can promote. So yeah, that's the basic origin of my tours."
The memories of his first tour are fond ones, but bittersweet nonetheless. Though he rarely looks back on what he has done, when he does remember those days he is wistful. "There was an innocent magic to that time of my life. I was so young, and on the verge of adulthood, really naïve and kind of foolish about a lot of things. It wasn't the happiest time of my life by any means, but there was comfort in visiting friends and family and going to all these different places. There was an adventurous aspect to being on the road, and all I wanted at that point in my life was excitement and thrills."
That he got, and in the ensuing tumultuous years the excitement and thrills were well-documented, much discussed, and, eventually, became the stuff of legend. The tours also constituted a timeline of important events, definitive markers on his journey, and Alan often references milestones in relation to the time of a certain tour. He readily admits that these tours are "highly delusional", but that seems especially fitting this time out, where the major themes are fantasy and escapism. He returns to this notion again and again when describing this latest artistic endeavor.
"First and foremost the goal is to entertain. The last few projects have been very serious, very dark, and didn't offer much in the way of entertainment. This time I wanted to bring back the glitz and glamour on the surface, while still presenting a deeper meaning for those who bother to look. As for that deeper meaning, ideally the tour book will lead people to the realization that what seemed at first like a party and a lot of fun is really a sort of hellish existence, disguised with glamour and fashion and superficial stuff. I love the idea of entertainment that draws you in with wit and charm and just slays you at the end - the sort of thing where the walls are so pretty you don't notice that they're closing in around you, and if you do realize it, it's too late. But that's only if you go deep. If people just want to skim the surface they'll hopefully have fun looking at the pictures and getting a kick out of my outfits once again!"
The Divine Diva Tour: A Fairy's Tale marks his first trek since 2003's Talented Trickster Tour, and is structured a bit differently from previous outings. For starters, there is no set end-date. Though tentatively scheduled to conclude sometime in the summer of 2006, there is speculation that he may extend it as he did the last tour. One of the reasons for the extended, open-ended, and loosely-plotted duration of this tour is the fact that the last one was not what Alan expected.
"It took a few weeks to get my "touring legs" again and find my footing. I hadn't toured for about six years and it was all new to me because I was in such a different place."
He knows what to expect this time, and how to juggle the demands of a full-time job, a partner, and a home. "It's about spreading the trips out and just enjoying the moment," he says. Enjoyment and fun are integral parts of this tour, and though he knows one can't always plan a good time, he intends to give it a shot.
"The last tour was such a downer," he admits. "The themes were so serious, and it was so dark. There are some darker themes to this tour, but they're hidden, and you don't have to dig deep to enjoy it. That's entertainment!"
As if to underscore his point, his countenance switches on a dime. He is all smiles and giddy banter when the waitress returns with the check, and he bounces up from his chair with a child-like energy. Yet there are tiny creases surrounding his eyes, and laugh lines that don't disappear as readily as I remember.
Following the 2003 tour, Ilagan laid pretty low, writing and working on his home and gardens, and getting a new job promotion. By Fall he was back in full-effect, for the moment, releasing the written work shades of gray. Easily one of his best pieces of writing, it was a stark contrast to what he had been putting out, and a powerful rebuttal to those who were about to write him off as a superficial dandy. Once that and the 2004 Holiday Dandy party were over, he went into hibernation. Though he has remained uncharacteristically quiet for the past few months, extensive stories and rumors have swirled tirelessly in his wake. Tales of rehab, word of a wedding engagement (fueled by a ring spotted on his finger), gossip of relationship troubles, messy talk of misdiagnosed medication, and recent rumblings of a job change have kept tongues wagging, and as the world waits breathlessly for some sign of truth or explanation, none is particularly forthcoming. Throughout it all, he has remained mum on details, steering clear of overexposure.
Even the classy photographic collection, titled simply "Alan Ilagan by Steven Underhill" - which normally would have announced itself in a barrage of promotional items and a celebratory release party - let the photos speak for themselves, and its low-key delivery managed to make its impact even greater. Like his "Man-Boy" project of 2001, less has succeeded in making others want more. As always, Alan knows how to manipulate for maximum effect.
Despite stories to the contrary, his personal life has calmed and quieted since his crazy hey-day in the late 90's. Today his creative work serves to stabilize a real life existence. It keeps him energized and busy, while allowing an outlet for pent-up emotion and hidden feelings. It is also a journey he takes, and the labor involved is undeniably one of love and enjoyment.
The creation of a "tour" is a grand undertaking, and it shows. As of this writing, almost 6,000 photos have been taken ~ granted it's much easier (and cheaper) now that he has a digital camera, but 6,000 pictures are still a lot, especially in the span of a few short months. Considering that only a small handful of that number will ever be actually used, it does seem a little excessive.
"Hey, it's my hobby. Some people have cars or horses or sports, I have tours and photo shoots."
The tour book itself is a work of pop art, visually stimulating and an assault on almost all of the senses, the result of long hours and an arduous work ethic. Creatively he can focus with an alarming alacrity, putting all else aside and working intently towards a goal. He warns friends not to call or disturb him during such periods of creative conception. The birth of a new project or tour is not an easy process. The Divine Diva Tour, with all of its glamorous trappings and elaborate photo shoots and detailed execution, was made more difficult by a distinct shifting of plot.
It is a departure from the usual style of his recent work, where the journeys have been Dante-esque ~ starting from a low, hellish plane and moving higher towards happiness and contentment. This time the trajectory is the exact opposite, beginning with a heady world of apparent happiness and glamour and descending to a dark place where the superficial is seen as deceptive and insidious, and nothing is what it seems.
"It's different from my recent work, yes, but also a return to where I began. When I first started writing and creating projects they all ended badly, with death and suicide and horrific events. Then my work took a turn for the hopeful, with endings that, though ambivalent, at the very least offered some sliver of goodness and hope. This tour book goes back to the beginning, ending once again with something apparently bad. I'd been doing the upward storyline arc for a long time and it was time for a change."
It was also an exorcism of sorts. After the tumultuous months ending 2004 and opening 2005, the tour book was a creative outlet for all the pent-up sorrow and frustration and anger that Alan felt at the time. It also appears that this interview is a way to get over the events of the past year, as he reconciles those events, and the people involved, into a contented peace. He sees this about half-way through our interviews. When it comes to self-awareness, there is no higher priestess than La Divina. He offers his writing in an effort "to share what I can't put into words in person".
In November of 2004, Alan's grandmother was taken to the hospital after what initially looked like a stroke turned out to be acute kidney failure. The situation was serious, and for a few desperate days it looked like they were going to lose her. Her kidneys were not working at all, and the grandmother he remembered and loved was nowhere in evidence.
Though he hadn't kept a journal for years, he began again when his grandmother got sick. Unable to outwardly convey what he was going through, he turned once again to writing:
November 2004 - Gram is in hospital. Mom found her sitting on her bed, half-dressed, stopped still in the motions of morning. The ambulance people arrived and she did not flinch - something was immediately wrong. Mom called me and I drove to straight to Amsterdam and rushed into the hospital.
My grandmother is in the emergency room, scared and childlike beneath the harsh lights and sterile sheets. There is no blood in her veins - they are pale echoes of what they once were. She is anemic. Bruises, dark blue and purple, betray failed IV attempts ~ her arms are weak, brittle, and battle-scarred, and her skin is so thin.
She cannot speak, but moans and screams instead ~ the wails more horrifying than the actual pain. Or maybe not. I do not want to know. Like an animal, her eyes are wide and she is struggling against us - against the IV and the needles and the catheter, which must now go through her stomach.
I hold her hand and say that it's okay, that she's all right, and I force myself to smile, even though she can only focus on my face for a moment.
A tiny drop of blood - my grandmother's blood - has dried on my finger.
I am the only one who can calm her and set her at ease. Not the doctors, not the nurses, not even her own daughter. She smiles at my smile - the familiar Gram I know and remember.
She looks at objects for a moment, then glances away, lost again. She grips my hand tightly. If nothing else, I have done some good in this world, by holding my grandmother's hand and allowing her to believe that, for this one moment, I am here and everything is all right. She kicks, but somehow I remain a calming presence. When no one else can get her to be still, I ask her to lie back and relax and for some reason she listens.
This is what comes of old age. This is where we are all headed, and this if we are lucky. She will likely not be able to live alone again. Her fiercely cherished independence will take a mighty blow. But all that is too far ahead. The doctor has re-affirmed that it is still one-day-at-a-time. As the sedation takes effect she is wheeled into the Intensive Care unit.
I drive to her apartment to retrieve her rosary, her glasses, and a stuffed animal ~ a dachshund. On entering it I immediately start to cry. A hard, stale donut sits on the kitchen table. A sad moment stalled in progress. I wrap it quickly in foil and take it out with me to dispose of later.
The writing is far from stellar, and offers an un-edited version of what may be Alan's true voice. No one knows what went on behind the closed curtains of the emergency room, not even Alan's own parents. They waited outside when it became clear that he was the only one who could get her to lie still and stay calm. Regardless of what it was, it certainly couldn't have been easy. Alan, normally squeamish and unable to deal with sickness and death, somehow made it through, and was surprisingly helpful throughout the whole ordeal.
For a few days following that night, his grandmother was in serious condition. Her kidneys completely failed and would never work again. On a couple of occasions it looked like they were going to lose her. On one such night, Alan's mother turned to him and hugged him, sobbing into his arms. At that moment he was the strong one ~ a role-reversal that had been hinted-at for years.
Alan drove over to Amsterdam every day to sit with his grandmother for a few hours, just holding her hand and remembering. Only when she improved and it was clear that she was going to get better did he relax. Exhausted and emotionally drained from a grueling few weeks, he found himself drinking to relax.
"Not problematically so, but I did recognize the tendency to do so, and I was completely cognizant of it." He stops and switches to a sterner tone. "Look, does anyone actually believe that I am not aware of anything I do? I don't know anyone as self-aware as me. Call it ego, call it vanity, but let's face it, I know my shit. And for people to say I can't see what was happening… it makes no sense."
His defensiveness turns to agitation and anger, before subsiding to a resigned exasperation as he recounts the day of "the intervention", as he calls it with rolled eyes and sarcastic glee.
Immediately following his grandmother's illness, Alan was blindsided by his mother and his partner Andy, who were concerned about his drinking. Falling only slightly short of an actual full-out intervention, he felt betrayed and cornered by the two people he arguably trusted the most. He arrived home from work on a rainy afternoon and saw his mother's car in the driveway.
"I knew immediately that something was wrong, but I had no idea what I was walking into," he says, still upset at the memory.
The ambush was swift and left no room for discussion: Alan would be driven to the doctor in Amsterdam and be put on medication for depression immediately. He fought against the whole idea of such unnecessary actions, particularly in light of the fact that he and his psychologist had been discussing the likelihood of medication. Alan fully intended to take her advice and start in the next week, but as Andy and his mother grilled him, he understandably did not feel like sharing. They were unyielding. Finally, Alan relented and got into the car.
Driving through heavy rain and the descending darkness of evening, the ride to the hospital was silent. Too angry even to speak or defend himself, Alan fumed. By the time they arrived at the doctor's office, he was enraged. His entrance immediately caused a stir.
"You brought me here, you talk to these people," he said loudly to his mother as she waited for him to speak to the front desk. "This is ridiculous." The diatribe continued down the hallway as nurses turned to witness the commotion. As he describes the scene there is no sense of humor or lightness to his tale. He speaks with bitterness, shaking his head a lot and taking deep breaths.
"You have to understand - this is a small town. I grew up surrounded by medical people, and this doctor was my godfather. Everyone at that office knew who I was, and most likely why I was there, and I just felt humiliated. It's why I made such a production to embarrass my mother and Andy. If I was going to look the fool, they were going to be just as ashamed."
He knows it was childish, but he shrugs it off. He has almost gotten to the point where he can laugh about it, but not quite being there makes our discussion a bit uncomfortable. To this day, he has not yet gotten beyond the suspicion that everyone around him played an accomplice role in the interrogation. Even close friends were contacted for their opinion; some conspired and agreed that there was a problem, some deferred and downplayed the issue.
"I am still hearing from people who were involved in it in some way, but at this point I don't care. When it's coming from your own family and friends, what can you do? Where do you go? I felt incredibly alone, and, ironically, that feeling is one of the major reasons I drank so much. So really, the people who most wanted me to stop were doing the very things that made me want to drink." He looks down, averting his eyes from my concerned expression. I am about to break the silence when he continues in a softer voice, "They should have known better. I appreciate the concern, and I know they did it out of love, but it was just executed poorly."
The ordeal did not end when the doctor brought out the literature on what constituted a drinking problem, and Alan was well under the daily intake for an alcoholic. He was ordered to have blood drawn to see if he was lying about how much he was drinking. "One more moment of humiliation," he mutters. The results showed no damage to his liver, but exoneration proved small consolation. At the request of his mother and Andy, Alan agreed to stop drinking completely for a while.
His sessions with the psychologist continued, though Alan was decidedly more guarded and wary. In addition, it seemed that the doctor had listened more to his mother and Andy than she did to Alan himself, and, prompted by what Alan considered "their misleading amateur theories", the doctor went on to diagnose Alan as bi-polar. Uncharacteristically passive, he did not argue, and began a steadily-increasing dosage of Lamictal.
"I was sick of fighting them and just let it all play out." He maintains that his diagnosis as bi-polar was way off track. "To say that I start things and don't finish them, to portray my mood swings as abnormal or extreme, to bend facts to fit some armchair psychologist's view from people who should know better - well, that's just complete bullshit. But I'm no longer averse to giving it a chance and seeing if it works. Maybe I am wrong and one day soon the medication will kick in and all will be well with the world. When and if it doesn't, I expect a few apologies and some major gifts. That's the way it's always worked. It's probably not the right medication, but in the end we'll see."
In dealing with the drinking and depression issues he allowed others to think for him for the first time, and while the results may vindicate him, what will be the cost? Was he really willing to go so far as to risk his own physical health and mental well-being to prove people wrong? To take an unfit prescription and gamble with his life just to make a point? He pauses to contemplate the question for a moment before looking straight into my eyes and saying calmly, "Fuck yeah." His composure remains uncomfortably serene.
Friends say it has always been that way, and though people continue to doubt and underestimate him, history has been on his side since he was a child. When he was younger, people thought he was crazy for dropping out of the elite Empire State Youth Orchestra, but then he started getting paying gigs with adult orchestras, playing alongside his own instructor. When his parents and friends strongly advised him against sending a coming-out Letter-to-the-Editor to the local paper, he went ahead with it and received nothing but praise and support, and more than a few letters of thanks from other gay people in the same situation. When local publications rudely dismissed his queries, he went above them and got published in national magazines. The list is long, and encompasses both significant and minor matters, and it goes partly towards explaining his drive and ambition.>"A lot of what I've done throughout my life is due to this need to prove people wrong, especially people who have tried to suppress me for my own good or in my best interest. When anyone says something was done out of love, I get a little suspicious. Every time I've heard that, I ended up getting hurt ~ all in the name of love."
It's the stance of a petulant little boy, and though in the past Alan has exhibited a penchant to whine, in this case it seems to ring true.
He ends the evening's interview with a succinct sound-bite: "Anything I've ever done out of love has not ended up hurting people," he says with finality. The tumultuous tale concluded, he appears and sounds tired. Sinking into the couch, Alan looks out the window. The room has gotten dark and he says he should probably switch on a light, but he doesn't make motions to get up.
I do not hear from him for a few days. Whether it's moodiness or something personal, I cannot tell. It does go partly towards explaining his appeal. After being with him for a while, he makes an indelible impression. Once he's gone, it's somewhat missed. He's one of those magnetic personalities who attracts people, as well as attention, and when neither is particularly wanted it makes the allure that much stronger.
He also has a nifty knack for melting into whatever role is lacking. If there are outgoing, boisterous attention-getters in the room, he doesn't compete, but happily recedes into the background ~ a pretty ornament to the atmosphere. If the scene is low-key and quiet, he enlivens it with crackling wit and outspoken bravado. It's this chameleonic quality that makes him popular in some circles and viewed with suspicion on others. It also makes getting to know him rather difficult. When at last I hear from him the message is cryptic: "We need to talk. Preparations for the new tour continue. In dire need of a nice relaxing interview, but I'll meet with you anyway. Don't go dark on me."
He requests a "clandestine rendezvous" later in the week. At the appointed time and meeting place - a dim, low-key coffee-house - Alan arrives without fanfare or dramatic entrance. Though unassuming, he carries with him a tightly-coiled energy and charisma, as if ready to spring or explode without warning. Except for a pair of bright orange sneakers, the outfit is down-to-earth ~ a pair of jeans and a long-sleeve heather shirt. He eyes my cel-phone on the table as he sits down.
"Turn it off," he commands with domineering authority. A smile breaks across his face, but it's not a friendly one. "No, just kidding. But if it rings, I'll answer it." I turn it off and slide it into my pocket; I've heard horror stories of Alan wreaking havoc when he is put on a cel phone or speaker phone, mostly ones of embarrassment and humiliation. "I hate being on a speaker phone, so if it happens you better be damn sure you're ready for whatever comes out of my mouth. You and whatever company you have."
He is testy this evening, and his oft-disputed reputation as moody seems justly deserved. Observing him as he checks his watch frequently, I get the feeling he'd rather be somewhere else, that he had bigger, better, more important things on his mind. Others have shared this view.
"He is always thinking, always planning ahead," says one. "If he seems flighty or ditzy or distracted, it's because he is working on something ~ a new project, a tour, an article, a story. It also works to his advantage - by appearing that way he is generally left alone, and others take care of technical matters like finances and cooking and, yes, work."
Alan admits he gets lost in his art. "I'm the fiery, creative type who can't be bothered to balance my checkbook or put gas in the car. I'm lucky that Andy is a lot more practical - without him I'd be without house or home, starving in the gutter." Sensing a segue into personal matters, he quickly puts a halt to it, steering the conversation back to his work.
"For purposes of promotion, my personal romantic life is no longer up for discussion. Haven't you seen The Women?" he asks, reciting a favorite quote: "Don't confide in your girlfriends. If you let them advise you they'll see to it that you'll lose your husband and your home."
On that note, he concludes the evening's interview. "Andy and I are meeting my parents for dinner. We'll talk," he promises, tossing a wad of bills on the table. "My treat, since I was such a bitch."
At our next meeting he is decidedly more amiable. Considerable progress has been made on the tour book, and the first few promotional teasers have been sent out. Thus far it looks to be his most visually arresting project; the promos alone have already eclipsed some his previous projects in their entirety. The tour title reveal will happen in a few weeks, and the excitement and anticipation are building. As he prepares for the extensive jaunt, he pauses to reflect on his work process, and how important his artistic output has become.
It is thrilling to watch and listen to him today, and his enthusiasm is quite catchy. He is most animated when discussing a project or tour or other artistic endeavor, and not only for his own stuff. A passionate reader, an avid theater buff, and a fashion maverick, he remains excited and inspired by all the arts. It's one of the few topics that doesn't bring out the aloof apathy that he regularly exhibits.
The genesis of The Divine Diva Tour: A Fairy's Tale came about indirectly when Alan was on his last outing, 2003's Talented Trickster Tour. "That tour was difficult on so many levels," he confides, "And I vowed that the next time I toured, if there was to be a next time, it would be completely different."
Ilagan set about to confront the frivolous, superficial image so many had of him, to confound the accusations of vain egomania and narcissism, and to do it all in a light-hearted entertaining manner.
"My work had been dark and serious for a long time, and it wasn't representative of the fun and joy I often find in life."
Friends concur, citing Alan as one of the funniest people they know. He does love to laugh, and his conversation is punctuated by frequent guffaws and giggling, many times at his own expense. When he's in a good mood, his smile and laughter are infectious; when he's not he is equally entertaining, with a razor-sharp, dry wit and a cutting, sarcastic tongue. Tonight though, he is all earnestness, if a little playful. It is this version of himself that is mostly on display in The Divine Diva Tour, and it marks a welcome return to the wildly colorful character he left behind after 2001's infamous Man-Boy project.
"The last few years have been great on a personal level - far more calm and peaceful than I was in the late 90's, but my work has been more sober and serious," he contemplates. "It's like my work comes out of the place where I'm not, if that makes any sense. If I'm happy, my work tends to be darker, but when I'm depressed or upset or going through a tough time, my work tends to be more upbeat. It fulfills a need for balance."
That theory seems to have played a role in the fun and glamorous aspects of the tour. During the initial planning stages and prep work, Alan was experiencing the emotionally-draining months of early 2005. At the time he wanted only to escape, and he firmed up the idea of conveying fantasy and make-believe as a way of evading the dreary reality he felt.
He also realized the final vision for the new tour. "It always happens that way - you work really hard and nothing seems to be coming together, and then suddenly there's an idea or a notion that brings it all into one coherent form. Finding that one piece that bridges everything together - that's the best moment of creation for me. It's still raw and unedited, but you know the outcome, you see the whole, and it's thrilling. I live for those artistic moments."
There were more than a few of such moments in the creation of this tour, particularly in the evolution of the tour book, and all served to bring Alan out of the low spots of the previous months.
"Artistic expression has always been better than any therapy or medication. It is absolutely the cure-all for whatever has ailed me. Working through these things in an artful way, presenting what I've gone through and sharing it with others - this is what's important to me. The highest praise I get from people is not someone telling me how much they loved something I've done, but from someone who says they could really relate to what I was presenting, that they had gone through something similar and knew intimately what I was writing about. That recognition is the goal for me. It's very healing in a way."
In this case it came just in time. Following the events of the previous months, Alan still felt a great deal of anger and resentment towards his mother and Andy ~ an emotional albatross onto which he clung. Though the tour book is wildly entertaining and downright hilarious in spots, it is also fraught with slivers of tension, and by the end it's a full-out assault. It is his ultimate "Declaration of Independence" - from his parents, from his relationships (romantic and otherwise), and from his past. It's not that he wants to leave any of those entities, as he is quick to point out, but simply acknowledge that he is where he is through his own machinations and efforts. Alan runs the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, as well as perpetuating the idea that he supremely narcissistic.
"Of course people will say that. It's part of the reason I went so far with it. No one else is in this tour book. I don't insert any happy group pics at the end or party shots with everyone else. I wanted it to exemplify vanity and ego - everything that people have been saying about me since the beginning. And after seeing this if they still think that I'm honestly this vain, then they're not very intelligent. I think that the tour book implodes the idea of ego by playing up to it so relentlessly. It's very much an exorcism for me. And, I'm not going to lie, it was fun as hell!"
Some will be at the ready to criticize and dismiss the book as merely one more exercise in vanity and self-adulation, quick with their own diagnoses of narcissistic personality disorder and unhealthy ego, but the vanity is a sad vanity, and the ego is one of ironic persuasion. None of that is lost on Alan, and the subtlety with which it is executed is hardly unintended. Still, it may be misunderstood by some people. Though he is far from blind to the effect the book may have, he readily admits his ignorance regarding what others may really think.
"You never know about people - you just never know," he says with a mystified look. "As much as we'd like to think we know each other ~ as Mother, Father, sister, brother, spouse, partner, best friend ~ we can never truly know another person and what they're thinking or feeling. It's chilling, disturbing almost, to think that after years together you can look into the eyes of someone you've loved and not ever fully know what's going on behind them. Yet in a way it's comforting too. To know that we cannot be fully known or figured out, to have a special secret place that is untouchable to anyone but ourselves. Each of us has that secret spot in our soul that is ours and ours alone. It is a lonely comfort, but a comfort nonetheless.
There is a startling disconnect between Alan and his audience. ("What audience?" he asks with a laugh.) But there most definitely is an audience, and he seems surprisingly out of touch with how he affects people. It's a schism whose breadth he still does not fully grasp. He doesn't understand how his images and words can overwhelm, how a few sexy photos can inspire fits of frenzied adulation and a desire to get closer to him.
"The internet is a scary place sometimes, and once you put something out there you better be damn sure you don't mind seeing it come back in ten years. At this point I don't much mind what gets out, but it can be incredibly disconcerting to run into strangers on the street who know more about my life than I care to recall."
The first version of www.alanilagan.com contained an excruciatingly detailed timeline of his life up to that moment, and when folks began referencing isolated events that he himself had forgotten, Alan took it out. Replacing it with a daily blog "may be even more frightening" he admits, but he says that in spite of the instant contact it provides, there is still a controllable distance he maintains. "I'm always struggling to make it less personal and more universal, and that's true of all my work."
His web-site is where most of the world accesses him these days. He claims he goes unrecognized, but repeatedly runs into people he knows or has worked with while out in Albany. In Boston and New York he seems to be better known.
"Well, I don't think it's that, I just think people are more willing to come up to me in New York or Boston than in Albany. People seem to be a little afraid of me in Albany. I can tell when someone recognizes me, but most of the time they don't say anything. And it's quite possible most people don't even know who the hell I am!" That may be the case some of the time, but for the most part he has a higher profile than the average person. He himself doesn't always see this, and it may help to explain why his behavior is so extreme.
"Well part of it is the fact that I rarely get any feedback or response from anyone, so I just assume people are bored or not reading any of my work. Look, the only thing I hear from my friends is how they don't read my blog regularly. I mean, if I can't get my own friends to read the thing, who else is going to be interested?"
As it turns out, a number of people are interested. Despite the fact that the site has not been updated in over a year, it averages about 1000 visitors a day. (That's not hits, that's the actual number of people who have come to the site and looked at something. The number of total hits he has logged is well over two million.)
Those are pretty substantial numbers for a small, personal site, and the fact that it is so singularly focused makes the number of visitors that much more remarkable. Of course, Alan's personal life may very well be one of his greatest artistic creations.
"Oscar Wilde had this theory that great artists - great writers, great poets - exist only in their art. Their real lives are dull and uninteresting and boring. All the passion and excitement is reserved for their work. Bad writers and poets on the other hand, may create insipid, ridiculous work, but their real lives are thrilling, glamorous and fantastic. In effect, they live the life they cannot successfully put down on paper. And for these people their lifestyle becomes its own work of art."
He anticipates my next question.
"Right now I'm a little of both."
For the moment it may ring true. Yet for the past few years there has been a slow but definite transition from living out his personal life as his art, to a place where his art has eliminated the need to act it all out. That personal life, once the stuff of extreme behavior and outlandish plots, has taken a turn for the stable, while his artistic output has sharpened and expanded.
The Divine Diva Tour may work to confuse the issue, or serve to separate the artist from his art. Outwardly it would appear to be a regression to self-obsessed egomania, replete with Norma Desmond-like histrionics and unhealthy behavior, but for the first time his art is not mirroring his life, nor is it a reflection on incidents that have happened. The focus is on Alan, but on Alan portraying different characters. The real self is never fully revealed, or even hinted at. Despite the singular focus, the tour book is deceptively vague about its main subject, with its ever-shifting transformations and stunning image changes. Some of it is pretty risky fare, particularly the cross-dressing and partial nudity, and in today's political climate it may not go over so well.
"Once upon a time that might have concerned me, but no more," he proclaims. "Particularly in these times it is important to be who you are. I'm much more confident in that respect. True confidence and inner strength negate the need to be loud and obnoxious and attention-getting. I am a lot more comfortable in my skin now. And there is so much more power in quiet confidence and contentment than in screaming insecurity. But I'm probably a little bolder too, and that is a result of this. Before, I was out there and edgy in overt, dramatic, over-the-top ways, whereas now I'm probably edgier because of that inner confidence, that which allows me to be myself."
The tour book is much edgier, though Alan doesn't always get it.
"I do live in an insular world in a way. I surround myself with open-minded people who are loving and accepting, and I tend to forget that the majority of this country would be shocked and disgusted by everything I do. I mean, seeing myself in a dress and make-up just isn't that subversive to me and my friends, but I forget that to many people it is upsetting, it is jarring to their ideas of what a man should be, how a man should behave and dress and act. People get very nervous when their long-held notions of what is masculine and what is feminine are challenged or upended. But again, it's not such a big deal to me and everyone in my circle. Hey, I'm happy, so let me be!"
This open-minded live-and-let-live stance, exhibited so matter-of-factly, is part of his accessibility, but may also distance him from others. It strikes me that for all of his popularity, all of the adoring messages of thanks and appreciation gleaned from his web-site, his looks like a lonely life. He has valiantly attempted to focus more on his work and less on himself, but, and not entirely through his own doing, it is difficult to distinguish his art from his lifestyle. The fascinating reality of his being threatens to overshadow anything he might creatively produce. The two are hopelessly intertwined, and for someone looking for peace it might seem a hellish sort of existence. He's lived such a life for almost three decades, and knows no other way. Happiness may be blindness, and love a suspended belief.
The sun is setting on one of the first decent spring days and we are riding through the countryside of upstate New York scoping out locations for imminent photo shoots. "Yup, still shooting, still making frenetic last-minute additions to the tour book, still fucking crazy after all these years!"
He's self-effacing today, and it's directly at odds with the serious nature of much of his work. People who know him only through his web-site and writings (including yours truly) are always surprised at how funny and gregarious he is in person. We expect a serious, dark, brooding artist. We anticipate deep introspective conversation and quiet, thoughtful repose. What we get is Alan excitedly screaming, "Let's moon somebody!! I haven't done that since I was a kid in the parking lot of Dan-Dee donuts with my brother! Ha!"
At work he is more muted, more subtle, though for Alan that doesn't mean anything is less than shocking or surprising. Co-workers claim he has brought a new energy to the general lack-luster state of many government offices, and when he departs he takes with him some of that energy and exuberance.
"There is a definite change in atmosphere when he leaves for the day or is on vacation," says one former co-worker.
Work is also where his most recent controversy originates. When his first year at the Office of Mental Health was up, Ilagan was said to be all but guaranteed an upgrade. When weeks went by with no definite sign of it happening, he threatened to leave. After interviewing at a few places, he had originally decided to stay where he was and wait it out. In doing so, however, he also wrote a scathing review of his increased office duties and lack of a fair salary, especially in comparison to co-workers.
"I think 'scathing' is a bit harsh," he comments. "It was honest and blunt, and maybe it took certain people by surprise, but it was an absolutely accurate description of what I was feeling, and what the circumstances were at the time. I stand behind it completely. And if people thought that was scathing, they should have seen the original draft!"
Once again, he defied the traditional lot of a state worker, and his honesty got him into trouble. No one took the missive well, and reaction to it was vicious (proof, perhaps, of its accuracy).
"It showed me who was really a friend, and who was clearly more interested in the state juggernaut, and I could not continue to work in an environment where I had no respect for my superiors. Of course, that sort of thing is rampant in the state, so I guess I should have expected it. One day I may delve into the whole mess and explain everything, but I doubt it. Nothing terribly interesting I'm afraid. "
At the end of it all, he opted to stay where he was, on the promise of an upgrade. Though it's too soon to tell whether it will happen, one thing is certain: in May he received the results from a recent Professional Careers Test, and Alan earned 100 on two of them, and a 95 on the third. It sets him up to reach positions above and beyond what his pending upgrade would provide. Even so, his time with the state may be limited, and the only surprise in that may be that he has lasted this long.
"I am a terrible state worker in the sense that I don't just lie down and do as I'm told. I'm an intelligent person, I know a hell of a lot more than a lot of people in high positions, I have a degree with honors from an institution at which most of these people couldn't even get accepted. Now, this doesn't have any bearing on what I do, and I honestly don't let those credentials influence my work ethic. At the very least people have to acknowledge that much. I come in, do my job well, and perform the tasks I'm assigned. I will admit that it's very hard to do that when no one else is working that hard around you, but I do my best.
I've also been bad-mouthed and vilified on the state level because I tend to demand what is fair and right, and that is always frowned upon. As soon as you stand up and request what you deserve, you are immediately deemed a troublemaker, and they'd rather have you leave than accept what is due you. Let's face it, I'm just not meant to be a state worker."
The photo shoot research completed, he turns up the music and returns to a giddy mood. When we return to his home, there is still a bit of light in the sky, and Alan offers to take me on a "garden tour". He knows the names of all the plants, scientific and common, and it strikes me as surprising.
"Everyone is surprised when they find out I can do more than sit at a bar looking sophisticated."
It's true, but being underestimated is part of what gives him such drive. And being the underdog is where he is most comfortable. He points out a bed of ostrich ferns and laments the invasiveness of a plume poppy. The names and plants are foreign to me, but it's clear he finds his peace in the garden.
"I grew up in the garden, and it's always been a place of refuge and release. When I'm in the garden I'm not gay, I'm not mean, I'm not fashionable, I'm just part of life. Without judgment or appearance or expectation."
It's a side not many people see. Most view his egotistical tendencies as truth, failing to grasp what lies beneath, or worn out from trying. Is he really that narcissistic? Is he honestly that vain? He finally addresses the long-leveled charges, lashing out at everyone and no one ~ all fiery rage and exasperation. In one of the only moments of defensiveness he bares his claws (jungle red) and lets fly with the vitriol.
"I know what the naysayers say. I know the words they use. Aloof. Arrogant. Asshole. Stuck-up. Well fuck that shit. I'm not going to apologize if my star shines brighter than yours, or if I've been more fortunate than you, or if you don't think I work as hard as you. How do you know? How do you fucking know what I've been through, what I do each day?"
It is a page ripped directly from the Tour book's finale, a frightening display of raw pride and righteous anger ~ the fireworks we've all heard about but rarely witnessed firsthand. Yet it passes, giving way to a little laugh at himself and his fury. In the past he might have held onto that anger, and in some ways he still does, but he is remarkably better at letting things go. The edge is still there, sitting silently, stealthily, and defiantly just below the surface ~ a razor-sharp sliver of danger ~ but that dagger is no longer unsheathed as often as it once was.
The sun has gone down red in the sky. Alan tells me that it signifies a beautiful day is due tomorrow. He is hopeful in his tone, wistful too, in a sad sort of way ~ a Gatsby figure looking over the sun-kissed tips of an ocean to a place he can never reach. Tragic but trying, melancholic but mirthful. The American Dream is elusively gleaming in his eyes. In a manner he has conquered it in ways no one expected, but in his mind it will never be enough. He will always be searching, but he's beginning to enjoy the journey ~ this journey, in which I now realize I play a part.
Everyone thinks they are the main character in their play of life, and I am no exception. In my case, it turns out that I just happen to be the one who's right. Some tales are worth telling; most are not. You already know how I can twist and turn things, changing intent and meaning, transfiguring stuff you once took to be so solid. Don't feel duped. We all step outside of ourselves sometimes, looking over our lives with an objective eye and a third-person point of view. Don't mistake this for vanity or ego ~ it absolutely negates the ego, this transfer of tale-telling, tall and otherwise. But I will not explain any of this further. If you want it badly enough you will figure it out for yourself. If not, well, it doesn't much matter, does it?
This is the crux of fantasy and fact, and the slippery boundary where escapism confronts evil, both real and imagined. Fear is fear, though I am no longer afraid.
This is a tale that begins now. It may hold you rapt, it may leave you breathless, it may knock you to your feet, or it may leave you much as you were before it was told. But that's all that matters here ~ the telling of the tale. It will be grand, it will be gorgeous, and by God it will be Divine. For he is coming…