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Issue 17

Roseanne: My Lives

Roseanne Arnold, Ballentine

BY Philippe Lepage-Möller in Frieze | 06 JUN 94

I first fell in love with Roseanne when I watched her on one of those Barbara Walters interview specials. I loved Roseanne for two reasons. Unlike Barbra Streisand, Sally Field, Bette Midler and other divas, Roseanne didn't cry. She didn't cry when Barbara started in on the weight stuff, the trailer parks and then the weight again. This was back when Roseanne was Roseanne Barr, a very fat, pretty unhealthy looking new star. Usually a Barbara Walters interview is a chummy affair - you get the feeling the ladies have lunched. But with Roseanne you could tell Barbara was keeping her distance, didn't want to get too close to her subject, as if fat were contagious and Barbara feared for her life. The thing that made me idolise Roseanne was that she didn't apologise for being big and she didn't regret it. An emaciated Barbara looked astounded, so Roseanne said it again, that she didn't care about being skinny, that she wasn't going to starve herself anymore - that she was famous, so she could stop trying. If ever there was a more liberating moment on television, I never saw it.

Roseanne - now Arnold - is still fat, but glamourous fat. Looking more like a plump half Chinese barbie doll than a suburban Midwestern housewife, Roseanne acts out the Hollywood syndrome, in reverse. She 'made it' as a frump, and then bought herself a new face. The remarkable thing about this transformation was that it didn't affect the ratings of a show whose success was due in part to the fact that audiences wanted to see themselves when they watched television.

In a gay bar episode of her show, this metamorphosis is derided by a fey Martin Mull, who mistakes her for a drag queen doing Elizabeth Taylor (which is no small thing if done well, and Roseanne did it well.) Roseanne doing Liz doing Cleopatra. Of course it's a strange idea, that a fat woman being glamourous should look like a woman in drag - that by dragging-up she is passing as the thing she actually is and, because of her proportions, isn't accepted as. Maybe that's why Roseanne seems to do diva in a postmodern way. A working-class Judy Garland for a genderfuck generation.

This camp idolatry thing is a tad dated but the tone of My Lives is like an autobiographical Mommie Dearest. Maybe Roseanne created herself as an object of camp. She's a weird hybrid of Hollywood phenomena. I guess she's really nuts, but maybe not really, not given her talent and what she's had to deal with. Her book is great; great because she tells her real life. Here is a book by a major celebrity that tells us: I feel like killing myself every goddamn day. I have turned tricks, had my father molest both me and my daughter and I have lived through it and can tell you all about it because I know you have too. It's the same thing that makes her comedy genius.

I like Roseanne's idea that we all come from some kind of white trash parlour, and because she's the biggest and the loudest, she's gonna blurt it all over town. She's gonna clean house, even if it's the one she was born in. When I tell a friend about really worshipping Roseanne, she asks me if I think maybe she lies or exaggerates, like the stuff with her parents or her latest divorce scare. Well maybe, I tell her, don't we all? Actually, it's even more comforting to watch a famous person resort to the same kind of miserable attention-starved behaviour as the rest of us. But later on in the day, I take it back. I think every word is true, because it wouldn't affect me if it wasn't. When I watch her show - and this book and her off camera escapades are all part of Her Show - I feel like I am looking at the moon. You know when you are looking at the moon and you wonder about all the other people looking at it in other places and you wonder if they are seeing or feeling the same thing? And then you don't feel so alone? It's like that.