Editor’s Note: The name of the author and all the names in this story have been changed.
I didn’t know Clark was a heroin addict when he moved in with me. I had only met him in person once before, actually. We had an online relationship—he added me on Facebook, and every month or so we’d send some dumb videos to each other. This is how you find roommates in the 21st century. I needed someone to split rent with, he didn’t want to live in his old apartment, and things fell together. Before I knew it, he’s unpacking several carloads of clothes, trinkets, decorations, and household miscellany into my living room. He has these awesome leather-bound suitcases, the sort of thing Humphrey Bogart would use on cross-continental train trips. The house is starting to look better with him living in it. He knows way more about how to make a house a home than I do.
THE FIRST MONTH
He might have had good taste in luggage, but Clark’s a man of peculiar habits. He plays these bizarre noise records, he’s got a weird fixation on wire hangers, he likes to walk around downtown recording overheard conversations with a handheld microphone. He begins a kind of Banksy-lite street-art campaign all over town. This is fine, it gives the house some character, but I’m realizing that Clark has different boundaries than I do when it comes to drug use. He tells me right to my face that he’d done “a bit of H” last week, and that it was just some stuff he had left over that he was trying to get rid of. He says heroin is lame, and it gets over-idealized in his perspective. I don’t know anyone who ever idealized heroin, which makes me feel somehow uncool. Clark says he had to ease out of the stuff, and he was now done for good. I don’t know how to talk about this stuff, so I smile and say, “Yeah I know that feeling.” I don’t. Not at all.
THE SECOND MONTH
Strange, clattering, vaguely musical noises start coming from Clark’s room at 4 AM, also lots of giggling. I haven’t really met any of Clark’s friends, but they’re all esoteric people. One guy, Jeremy, is missing most of his teeth and wears a business tie on top of a tank top. I also hardly ever see Clark during the day now—the only way I know he’s in his room is I sometimes hear a rough-sounding cough. There’s clearly something seriously wrong going on here, but I don’t want to think about it. I start to lock my bedroom door.
THE THIRD MONTH
I come into my living room one day to find that Clark has pinned dozens of dozens of old black-and-white photographs all over our living room. They’re portraits of stony-faced old people who were staring into the camera without the slightest hint of humor. I ask Clark where he found all these and he tells me he went dumpster diving earlier, and gestures to a stack of moldy old books. He also bought a big black mechanical box that he says is used to grow mushrooms. Once again, I don’t ask any questions. He and his friends have started to shout out these almost cult-like incantations (“BORG-BORG”) till 6 AM. Sometimes I’ll see them hanging with the crusties in the neighborhood. I think they all live in the big old abandoned mansion a couple blocks down the street. They’ll go inside, shoot up, and puke behind the big oak tree in the front yard.
When David Foster Wallace committed suicide, his death wasn’t just mourned—it was read. It was read like code, like apology, like an event in a novel—not simply a plot-level event but a meta-level event, a commentary on the history and future of the novel itself. Theories went something like: Wallace killed himself because he’d lost faith in postmodernism and/or his own efforts to replace it (“killed himself if only to prove that postmodernism was dead”)1; because he was sick of irony but couldn’t see a way out of it; because his own virtuosic mind was no match for its own despair; because he’d lost faith in the ethos of daily attention to which his writing paid homage—as his friend Jonathon Franzen put it, had “arguably…died of boredom.”2 Insofar as one could find hope in his magnum opus Infinite Jest—“no single moment is unendurable”—his death seemed to negate this hope, to proclaim that this hope was not—ultimately, in the final analysis—enough.
Wallace’s widow, on the other hand, doesn’t talk about his suicide in terms of aesthetic or metaphysical despair. “It was just a day in his life,” she says, “and a day in mine.”3 She folds his death back into the longer story of his life—it was one day amongst many—and robs it of the sense of inevitability that others have forced upon it.
Even the title of D.T. Max’s new biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, suggests the size of his suicide’s shadow: it has become impossible to love Wallace’s work without reckoning with his ghost, how he ghosted himself. The book’s structure reinforces this suggestion of totalizing importance by closing, somewhat abruptly, with the event of the suicide itself. There’s no closing retrospective glance—no depiction of the mourning or eulogies—only the hanging and the unfinished manuscript left behind.
Max generally steers clear of the “Was his suicide an expression of generic/metaphysical anxiety?” fray, but his final lines nonetheless linger on an uneasy parallel between life and art:
“This [manuscript] was his effort to show the world what it was to be ‘a fucking human being.’ He had never completed it to his satisfaction. This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen” (301).
He had never completed it to his satisfaction… Vague pronouns offer a syntactical slide between living and writing; the uncompleted “it” refers to the struggle of being “a fucking human being” and the struggle to write a manuscript about what this struggle was like; “this” means both the end of Wallace’s life and the nonexistent ending of his book.
Max closes with Wallace’s act as an expression of agency (“he had chosen”) and with a suggestion about the way in which his agency worked against the desires of others—“not an ending anyone would have wanted for him.” In this, Max closes his book by glancing towards the people left behind—editors and loved ones and the fans who were also, for Wallace, “loved ones” of a different stripe.
Wallace often spoke of his readership in terms of love:
“…it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.”4
In his biography, Max gives us both sides of Wallace—the part of him that could give love, and the part of him that desperately wanted it. His writing was always courting both ideals; his suicide felt—to some, to many—like a betrayal of both.
A Weird Holiday at Mobutu Sese Seko’s Jungle Hideaway
The world has seen tyrants more evil than Zaire’s ruler Mobutu Sese Seko, even among Africa’s legion of Big Men who snatched power and held it when Europe relinquished its colonial chokehold on the continent. But no despot was quite as colorful. A case could be made for Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic who proclaimed himself emperor in 1977 and enjoyed feasting on the flesh of his enemies. The closest Mobutu ever came to cannibalism was simply downing the occasional beaker of human blood.
Mobutu managed to control Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for 32 years before being deposed in 1997, and during that time he bled the country dry while enjoying a lifestyle a real emperor might have envied. Once, after flying with Mobutu on his private DC-8 from France to Zaire, I watched with astonishment as he sent the jet immediately back to the Riviera to retrieve a fashion magazine Madame Mobutu had forgotten.
In June 1993, CNN’s Africa correspondent Gary Striker wanted to interview “Le Maréchal” about what amounted to a civil war in the southeastern part of the country while his army, unpaid for months, pillaged Kinshasa, its capital. I was Gary’s producer, but sensing we’d never get the truth from “The Helmsman” (Mobutu had a laundry list of unofficial titles), I had a secret agenda. I wanted Mobutu’s hat: that trademark jaunty leopard-skin number he sported everywhere.
As the military began ransacking Kinshasa, Mobutu literally headed for the hills to his native village of Gbadolite, where he’d erected a lavish presidential palace for himself in the heart of the equatorial forest. Of course, getting there—as well as convincing Mobutu to grant an interview—posed herculean challenges, even for Africa.
I’d been in contact with Mobutu’s advisors for weeks while we covered other news in Gabon: the second African/African-American Summit in Libreville, the capital, as well as Albert Schweitzer’s famed leper colony in Lambaréné. The hospital was still functioning, along with a small museum containing the doctor’s fabled organ (with Bach sheet music) and other personal items that belonged to the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Suzanne, the museum’s guide, was only a child when Schweitzer ran the place and said Big Al, who believed promptness to be a virtue, savagely beat both girls and boys if they were late for school—a juicy historical tid- bit the Nobel Committee obviously overlooked. “Oh, yes,” Suzanne insisted, “he slap us VERY hard across zee FACES.”
Back in Libreville, I finally received confirmation that Mobutu would be sending a plane to shuttle us to his jungle outpost. We were instructed to be at the airport early the next morning where we waited about 14 hours for a flight that never arrived. It was yet another WAWA1 moment. Two days and $600 in telephone charges later, we were back at the airport… still waiting. After standing around for another 12 hours with our dicks in our hands, a white 727 with Zaire’s distinctive red-and-gold torch livery on its tail landed and rolled up the tarmac. Finally, less than ten minutes later, we were airborne.
HOW A PLAGUE OF LADYBUG ATTRACTANT RAVAGED ROANOKE, VIRGINIA
By Rob Fischer
A view of Roanoke from the Roanoke Star. Federal agents swept through the area and surrounding towns to clear Amped and other synthetic drugs from the shelves, weeks before their sale was to become illegal in Virginia.
When a legal synthetic drug called Amped first shipped in October 2011, fans of recreational narcotics went crazy for it. Marketed as “ladybug attractant” and “exuberance powder,” Amped was developed by a trained biochemist, a rarity in the otherwise fly-by-night industry. But by the end of February something had changed. Comments from Amped users started appearing on blogs, claiming that unlike the initial batches of the fine high-octane stimulant powder that “made ladybugs scatter,” recent shipments were the color and texture of soggy piecrust. The stuff smelled like piss. For those willing to snort this congealed paste, however, it still provided a decent high.
Bath Salt Guru, the de facto synthetics industry blog, offered an obscure explanation for the change: Wicked Herbals, the company responsible for Amped, had fallen out with its chemist due to an argument over a change to the formula. A post warned readers that the product had been seriously compromised. Dozens of commenters pleaded for more details, and almost as soon as they posted their inquiries, other Amped users voiced satisfaction with their most recent shipments. After a few incoherently despondent responses, the anonymous blogger signed off: FTWWALD—Fuck the World with a Long Dick. Bath salts are more than just an upper. Users found Amped, and other brands, to be more potent than cocaine. One user described it this way: “On coke, you might see a group of girls and decide, ‘I’m the man,’ and go talk to them. On Amped you’d think, ‘Hey, I should work my dick up and go show it to them.’” He recalled taking a leisurely stroll one evening, snorting bumps of Amped along the way. At dawn he was swinging on a rope swing in a stranger’s yard, wearing nothing but his underwear, holding his semierect dick out to girls driving past, hoping he’d get lucky.
Few places were as primed for the plague of bath salts as the Southeast neighborhood of Roanoke, Virginia. Built on a foothill in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Southeast is a hodgepodge of vinyl-sided homes and weed-infested lots strewn with old cars and discarded furniture. A variety of drug epidemics mark past decades like geological strata; opiate and alcohol abuse are realities of everyday life. One resident recounted hitting rock bottom of a heroin addiction after being hospitalized for shooting Drano. Another recalled watching his neighbors roar down the broken asphalt outside his house with crack pipes clutched between their teeth. But drugs haven’t destroyed neighborly camaraderie. For instance, when the local roadhouse recently held a fundraiser for a developmentally disabled infant, the entire community showed up to give their support, including over 100 members of the local motorcycle gang.
Amped and other bath salts brands began appearing in Roanoke-area smoke shops in March, after their manufacturers sent out glossy neon postcards to tobacco stores, promising huge retail profits. Like some sort of farce of the crack epidemic, the proprietors of Southeast’s main tobacco shop, D.K. Tobacco, offered the first round of bath salts at discount. Employees even (allegedly) donned Amped T-shirts to hype the product. Across town, another tobacco store hired a man to hold a sign advertising bath salts. Before long, buyers swarmed.
Salem police chief Jeff Dudley holds up a unit of Amped that one of his officers purchased from a tobacco store.
“At the busiest times, especially after dark, it was like a Walmart parking lot out there,” said a neighboring business owner who requested to remain anonymous. Some customers reportedly showed up five or six times a day. Locals said it looked like a line outside a food bank. From his next-door tattoo parlor, Charlie Barham watched D.K. Tobacco’s business swell following local news coverage. “Suddenly we saw more than just your average tweaker pulling into D.K.,” he said. “Construction workers driving up in city trucks. Everyone including your grandmother heard about this stuff, and decided it was worth giving a shot.”
In a matter of weeks, signs of wreckage appeared in the neighborhood. Violent face-offs with suspected users became increasingly common, overwhelming police officers and emergency room personnel. In May alone Roanoke city police responded to 34 bath salts-related calls. “It was more than just a serious problem. It was an epidemic. And it came on so suddenly,” said Roanoke city police chief Chris Perkins. By this point the predicament was no longer restricted to city limits; Amped was ravaging the entire county. “We had an officer fight a kid for nine minutes,” said Roanoke County police chief Chuck Mason. “Most of our scuffles are less than a minute. The kid came charging at him out of the house stark naked.” An emergency room physician interviewed by the local news station said that if cocaine and methamphetamines were tropical storms, the bath salts situation was a hurricane.
Another adjacent business owner recounted shaky, glassy-eyed fiends lingering around the neighboring pizza shop and tattoo parlor, asking if the surrounding shops sold ladybug attractant. A few were leaning against lampposts in the parking lot to steady themselves while vomiting. The owners of the bakery next door said that their shop was broken into one night in what they believe was an attempt by the burglars to gain access to the tobacco store.
Angela Marie Crabb, a 31-year-old mother of two, lived two blocks from D.K. Tobacco. She had already struggled with alcohol, heroin, and crack addictions when a friend introduced her to Amped last March. A couple of days after Angela first used the drug, Lorrie Jones, her mother, found her naked and leaning precariously off the second-floor balcony of her building. “It was like watching something in a science fiction movie,” Lorrie said. “The way she contorted her body, her speech, everything was so strange.” Over the course of a few weeks, Angela withered away to 80 pounds, her face ghoulishly swollen. She showed up unannounced at her mother’s house one evening, attempting to bust the windows out in a rage. “It wasn’t her. It was the Amped. It literally looked demonic,” Lorrie said. The next night Angela suffered a heart attack. She spent the next six days on life support before passing away on April 25.
San Francisco, August 7, 1937. A midsummer day like so many others—a blanket of fog above the bay, the air warming as the sun lazily filters through and burns it off, teasing brightness from the city’s glittering new symbol, the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a Saturday, a day off for most, to relax, see friends or family, maybe picnic in the park, or, as many would choose to do, indulge in a new and thrilling pastime—walk across the bridge and take in the magnificent view. From one side, the city rose against the bay. From the other, the horizon of the Pacific spread out as far as the eye could see. Much more than a remarkable feat of engineering and a source of great pride for the city and for the country, the bridge was a gateway, named for the strait which it spanned, and as imposing and graceful an embodiment of the promise of California and the golden West as had ever been seen.
While there are beautiful bridges all over the world, the Golden Gate looms in the collective imagination, a stunning structure set within an equally magnificent landscape. In America, New York and the Atlantic can be thought to look back, forever bound to the customs of England, Europe, and the past. San Francisco and the Pacific, however, represent a greater unknown and a sense of freedom, connected to nature and Eastern thought, to the cycle of life and eternity. Traveling the country from east to west, one might end up in a San Francisco park named Land’s End. Set high above a rocky coast, it offers an unparalleled view of the ocean and the Golden Gate from its wild, windswept cliffs. In 1937, against a backdrop of seismic world events—from murderous purges in the Soviet Union to the Spanish Civil War and Japan’s invasion of China—the bridge would also symbolize the heights to which humans could aspire. Built in the midst of the Great Depression—a convulsive period of economic crisis, increasingly nationalistic aggression, and lingering resentments from the First World War that served as the ominous prelude to the second—it is one of the lasting achievements of its time. Unhealed wounds, of course, are not only the burden of the vanquished but of the victor, and even among the victorious there are those who remain deeply traumatized, are resigned to emotional defeat and forgotten. Do we memorialize those who are haunted in this way, or are there only memorials by default?
On that summer day 75 years ago, a man named Harold Wobber was walking across the bridge. Along the way he encountered Dr. Louis Naylor, a college professor from Connecticut who had come to San Francisco on vacation. A conversation was struck up between the two men, and they continued on together. At about the midpoint of the bridge, Wobber came to a stop, took off his jacket and vest, and reportedly said, “This is where I get off.” As he hopped the railing, Naylor attempted to take hold of his belt, but Wobber was able to break free and leapt from the bridge, its first recorded suicide. This is the man’s claim to fame, such as it is, and though not much more is known about him, what little information is available is telling.
School is the worst thing ever, but it’s something we all have to endure. (Unless you’re homeschooled, but then you have to spend all day with your mega-weirdo parents, and that’s way worse.) Old people will constantly tell you that “your school days are the best days of your life.” But all that means is that they’ve somehow fucked up so bad that their life since school has actually been worse than school. Can you fucking imagine? Yuck.
Going to school in the 21st century is much like it’s always been, i.e. like walking a horrible, horrible tightrope of anxiety and embarrassment. The only difference now is that if you fall off that tightrope, everyone will know about it a lot quicker, because we have the internet and mobile phones to help us spread information about who in our grade has a 7 PM curfew and who’s the only virgin to have ever lived, ever.
Luckily, I possess the authority to help guide you through this terrible time. So spit out that gum, put your phone away, and pay attention.
Every kid in public school wishes they were in private school, and every kid in private school wishes they were in public school. It’s a grass is always greener type situation, even though the grass in public school is covered in urine and maintained by self-loathing, overweight community college graduates whose sole reason for sitting in a room with you for eight hours a day is the promise of a yearly two-month, daytime television-filled vacation. Private school kids want to be in public schools because they have a reputation for being edgier—the girls are all totally slutty, and the boys come from the wrong side of the tracks. While that may be true, public school is also filled with unbelievably stupid children raised on professional wrestling and beef, many of whom are probably already riddled with diabetes. Being forced to exist with these little ogres means you actually have to hide the fact that you’re smart, lest you catch an ass-kicking from a bunch of future grocery store managers. Maybe you’ll want to keep your school books in a pizza box or pick up some slang to throw around outside of the classroom. If anybody asks why you’re doing some Poindexter shit, just say you’re trying to holler at bitches. Why join the chess the club? Bitches. Why take AP English? Bitches. Why act in the school play? BITCHES.
Oh, I’m sorry, is your superior education and head start in life getting you down? Just kidding, I bet you’re actually really down with the common man. Your dad probably has a copy of Ham on Rye resting under his monocle and 40-year-old Macallan single malt. I don’t really have any advice for you, pretty much everyone I know who’s been privately educated wears Opening Ceremony and has a personality disorder they pay people to ignore. Either that, or they will go the other way and develop a sense of shame about their privilege. Which leads to them shaving their heads, starting to talk like low-end drug dealers, possibly even becoming low-end drug dealers, and generally trying to copy the people who rob them on Saturday nights. This will either be permanent, or they will snap out of it at 18 when they realize no one is falling for it and, more importantly, no one likes low-end drug dealers.
(Brushes chip off shoulder, flicks hair.)
This is mainly for you private schoolers out there, although some public schools do require uniforms now, which is a bit like asking the janitors at the Port Authority Bus Terminal to wear tuxedos. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but no amount of tactical ripping or oversized safety pins is going to prove that you’re the last living punk or Sylvia Plath’s natural heir. For now, try and appreciate the homogeny of it all, because pretty soon you’ll have to dress yourself. Every. Single. Fucking. Day. Just know and take solace in the fact that every school uniform in the land is ergonomically designed to make perfectly adequate looking boys and girls look like sacks of baked beans.
GIRLS: Contrary to what old dudes on the internet believe, no one looks sexy in plaid or skirts that weigh more than a wet dog. Attempting to sex things up in any way is futile, and means you’ll be spending your mornings grooming, when you should be spending them sleeping. Also, covering spots with excessive Maybelline matte mouse doesn’t hide them; it makes you look like Mars (as in, the planet).
BOYS: You may think having one of those weird stubby ties makes you look like a straight-up G, but girls aren’t impressed by them. In fact, schoolgirls aren’t generally gonna be impressed by much that you do, because you’re a boy, so you’re going to spend lunch either a) smoking, or b) eating cafeteria “food” and washing it down with chocolate milk. Basically, you’re going to stink. Oh, and you’re going to get lots and lots of boners—remember to hide these securely behind your waistband. It doesn’t matter how old you are, no one likes a guy who stinks and has a boner.
If you’re like me, you have no idea what’s going on with the above YouTube clip. Six minutes of a pretty blond woman who goes by GentleWhispering and looks like every kid’s favorite babysitter whispering to the camera in a light Eastern European accent, caressing it occasionally, staring into it intimately, almost flirtatiously. It’s a little unsettling, almost like finding someone’s video diary and knowing immediately you weren’t supposed to watch it, and the tag “ASMR” doesn’t explain much, least of all why it has 125,000 views and more than 800 likes. If, on the other hand, you’re one of the people the video was made for—one of those people who experience Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response—you’ll probably find all six minutes incredibly satisfying, the video equivalent of a really nice, mellow kind of drug that leaves no aftertaste. You’ll want to watch GentleWhispering’s other videos, and hunt around for the hundreds of other ASMR videos floating around the internet: pretty young women talking softly and pretending to be travel agents; a pair of hands stroking and crinkling plastic bags in almost disturbingly sensual ways; another pair of hands opening a box of Legos; a 12-minute long pretend-eye exam monologue with no video. That last one is probably the most boring thing I have ever seen on the internet. It has nearly 350,000 views and 850 likes.
ASMR is a tricky feeling to describe, and I can only talk about it secondhand. From what I understand from conversations with ASMRers, it’s a tingle in your brain, a kind of pleasurable headache that can creep down your spine. It’s a shortcut to a blissed-out meditative state that allows you to watch long videos that for someone who doesn’t have ASMR are mind-meltingly dull. Not everyone gets this feeling, and though some people can get the tingles through sheer force of will, most depend on external “triggers” to set them off. Triggers can include getting a massage or a haircut or a manicure, or hearing someone talk in a soothing tone of voice (Bob Ross, the “let’s put a happy tree right here” painter from PBS, is a common trigger), or even just watching someone pay extremely close attention to a task, like assembling a model. It’s not usually sexual—everyone who talked to me about ASMR mentioned that right off the bat—but like sexual turn-ons, different people have different things that set them off: the sound of lips smacking together, a cashier’s fake nails tapping on the register, your friend drawing on your hand with a marker.
Maria, aka GentleWhispering (she didn’t want me to use her last name), has been triggered by everything from accented whispers to scratching grainy surfaces to being tickled when she was in kindergarten. During a Skype conversation I had with her, she described ASMR as feeling like “bubbles in your head,” and compared it to getting a scalp massage, but the sensation is on the inside. She went on: “It’s like a little explosion, and then just little sparkles and little stars going down [your back]. Depending on the strength of the trigger, it might just go into the top of the spine of the shoulders, but sometimes it goes down to your arms and legs, and other parts. Mostly, if you get it in your leg, it’s really exciting!”
She makes a “slight income” from her channel views, but told me she feels guilty about it (“I’m not doing it for money, but I still get it”) and puts most of it back into her videos. She recently bought a 3D microphone, a key accessory for any ASMR video maker; it makes those fake haircuts feel so much more real—put on some headphones and you can hear the scissors snip around your ear while she makes small talk in the other.
MEET KSENIA SOBCHAK: THE JANE FONDA OF RUSSIA’S DISSIDENT MOVEMENT
It was December 24 and 23 degrees in central Moscow—well below freezing—but the people on Sakharov Prospect barely registered the cold. Around 60,000 had clogged the broad boulevard. Earlier that month Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, had stolen the parliamentary elections with such brazenness that now, for the first time in ten years, Muscovites, roused from a decade of political apathy, had taken to the streets in protest. They chanted Freedom! They chanted Rights! They chanted Fair elections! For hours they chanted Russia without Putin! as if anything were possible.
Their march had ended here, on Sakharov Prospect, where organizers had set up a sound system and a stage. As clouds rolled across Moscow’s low skyline, a blond in a puffy white jacket and jeans approached the microphone. Her face, among the most famous in Russia, flashed onto the giant screen behind her. “My name is Ksenia Sobchak,” she said. “And I have a lot to lose.”
It must have started with oneboo. Then one turned to two, to three, and immediately it felt like the whole crowd was heckling her: “Fuck you!” “Get off the stage!” “Leave!” “Go fuck yourself!” “Whore!” People gave her the finger. Others rolled their eyes. She plowed on, telling the audience they needed to take their country back, to form a political party everyone could get behind, but it was almost impossible to make out what she was saying over the riot of jeers.
The American press calls her Russia’s Paris Hilton, but Sobchak is a far more prominent figure in Russia than Hilton ever was in America. She herself points out, 97 percent of Russians know who she is, even if most of them don’t like her. Only two living Russians enjoy better name recognition: Three-term president Vladimir Putin and one-term president Dmitri Medvedev.
Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, an early champion of democracy and capitalism, was the first elected mayor of St. Petersburg. He singlehandedly launched Putin’s political career, and Ksenia is rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter. In 1996, her father spiraled spectacularly to disgrace. He faced imprisonment on corruption charges, which he evaded with Putin’s help, by going into exile. When Boris Yeltsin turned Russia over to Putin, the charges disappeared and Anatoly Sobchak returned to Russia. He died in 2000 on the campaign trail for Putin. Ksenia, meanwhile, made a name for herself hosting a reality show called Dom-2 about a group of young people tasked with building a house on the outskirts of Moscow. The content combined the worst of Jersey Shore, The Real OC, and Tila Tequila. It was scandalous, deliciously addictive, and intellectually bankrupt programming. She posed for Russian Playboy, Maxim, and FHM; co-wrotePhilosophy in the Boudoir and How to Marry a Millionaire. She hosted decadent parties, dated oligarchs, and wrote a column for Russian GQ. In short, she came to embody Russia’s new heady, careless, apolitical glamour.
Then, last year, she underwent a mystifying transformation. She traded her reality show for a political talk show. She broke up with her boyfriend, a government official, and started dating an opposition leader. She climbed on stages and addressed massive street rallies. Russia’s Paris Hilton had turned into a Russian Jane Fonda, or so it seemed.
No one knows quite what to make of the change. Sobchak could be anything, the Russian blogosphere speculated: A Trojan horse sent by the Kremlin, a spy, a turncoat, a neophyte politician striving to be on the right side of history, a confused and bored celebrity trying to finally grow up, or a lustful 30-year-old with stunted psychological development caught up in the most exciting moment of her adult life.
AUNG SAN SUU KYI FINALLY DELIVERED HER NOBEL ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
(Oslo) Let’s face it. You can’t be objective about Aung San Suu Kyi. The woman is rightfully considered a goddamn saint, one who is flanked by Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama in the Super Trifecta of today’s iconic political heroes.
This past weekend marked Suu Kyi’s first trip to Europe in 24 years—and her second outside Burma, where she was either imprisoned or under house arrest for more than 15 years following the National League for Democracy’s (the party for which she serves as general secretary) parliamentary victory in 1990. Since then the ruling military junta in Burma has granted her travel privileges, but Suu Kyi remained in Rangoon, fearing once out of the country she would never be permitted to return. Even when her husband, Michael Aris, was dying in London, The Lady, as she was called by supporters who dared not speak her name, stayed put, continuing her non-violent struggle for democratic reform that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. And this is precisely why she—and I—traveled to Oslo. After all these years, she is finally delivering her acceptance speech (her children accepted the award and the more than one million dollars that went with it on her behalf 21 years ago).
When VICE approved this assignment, I immediately began reaching out to Suu Kyi seeking a one-on-one interview. But e-grams and calls to her party were never answered. Even diplomats from Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs were still in the dark about her itinerary less than a week before her arrival in Norway. Suu Kyi may be the only superstar around who doesn’t have a sophisticated PR machine behind her. In some ways it’s refreshing. It will be interesting to watch how long it will last.
When Suu Kyi was finally released in November 2010 the world’s press and leaders from around the globe hightailed it to her door, anxious to hear from her directly if Burma was serious about political reform. Economic sanctions were slowly lifted, and in April’s by-election, Suu Kyi and some 40 other members of the NLP handily won seats in the country’s parliament. With the sanctions disappearing, investors began serious prospecting. But Suu Kyi said Burma’s most critical need was establishing a mandatory system of secondary school education for its mostly rural and uneducated population. And that’s what she pointed out last month to The World Economic Forum in Bangkok, adding democratic reforms should be viewed with “healthy skepticism.” She welcomed investment but warned about possible corruption and stressed, in her view, that investment equals jobs. And jobs for many. In the past, she explained, only Burma’s elite profited from the infusion of foreign capital.
It has been about a month since I signed up for Badoo. The dating social network that began five years ago in Europe is pitching itself to New Yorkers as the next great place to meet people, using bright ads across the city featuring actual users sayingmostly scripted things like “I want to break your heart,” or “I want to blow your mind. I’m an enigma, wrapped in a puzzle, wrapped in bacon.”
The deluge of real life Badoo spam on subway cars and giant billboards doesn’t just offer some indication of the company’s desperation: it hints of what happens on the Internet version too. Behind its clean-cut image, the site’s true purpose is a little less innocent: arranging hook-ups with the people near you. It’s a formula that’s helped make it the second most popular social network after Facebook in France, Belgium, Austria and Italy. According to both Alexa and comScore, it is now one of the world’s top five social networking sites, and boasts more than 152 million users.
How it works
The business model – Badoo boasts “continued profitability” and an annual run rate of $150 million – rests not on commercial ads but on personal ones: it’s been a pioneer in the pay-to-play model of social networking (i.e., you pay extra to get promoted in other people’s feeds, just like in real life), and now claims to have about 1 million paying users every month. Still, Badoo has managed to score the lowest in a survey of 45 social networking sites for its privacy settings. And its Grindr-for-straight-people functionality has led to some serious concerns about stalkers and worse.
Would any of this deter me from pressing all of the I accepts? Nope.
Real Badoo users. GIF by Daniel Stuckey
Within the first hour of becoming a new member, my spam box received an average of six new marketing e-mails per hour. One of the subject lines I’ve become more familiar with is “Welcome back to Badoo.com.” I get this email almost every time I log back into the site.
It may have been started by a wealthy 38-year-old Russian entrepreneur named Andrey Andreev (or is it Andrey Ogandzhanyants? Russian Forbes called him “one of the most mysterious businessmen in the West”), but Badoo might be staffing some Boy Scouts. They’re just so damn prepared: When signing up, Badoo immediately harasses you for all your other possible logins. Essentially this helps them recruit your contacts and grab content. And you’re incentivized right off the bat to harness this synergy. Badoo won’t let you scope another user’s pics without having uploaded three of your own first. This has me questioning why girls without pictures are writing me, and I continue to get that other familiar subject line in the junk-box: “1 new message waiting for you!” It can’t not be a hooker or a robot.