If you want to know the general consensus on any given topic in LA, it’s not the cabbies you listen to, but the nail salon buzz. Everything from Michael Bloomberg’s failure in the presidential race and Russian collusion claims to coronavirus conspiracy theories gets thrashed out while women and men have their cuticles trimmed — because, unlike back home in the UK, bankers, bricklayers and Larry David will all come in for regular mani-pedis.
As in a chamber of Congress — one offering $1-a-minute shoulder massages — there’s always a dominant topic, and right now it’s Meghan Markle. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been apologized to ‘for Meghan’ in LA nail salons over the past year. Even so, I still haven’t worked out an appropriate response. ‘Nonsense! We love anyone who turns on our 93-year-old monarch, prodding her in the sternum and seething: “Last I looked you didn’t own the word royal!’’’ That’s not going to work, is it? Then again, neither is: ‘As soon as we heard the words “LA actress” we knew this one was going to be A Piece Of Work.’
It’s school’s-out time when I get a call from a friend. For a moment there’s just silence on the line — then a shuddering inhalation: she’s trying not to cry. Eventually she gets it out. There’s been a lockdown at her children’s school, after a gunman was spotted at the gates. Whether the school locked down in time, she doesn’t know. Whether that gunman is in there now with her five-year-old and nine-year-old, she doesn’t know. It’s six minutes before she gets word that it was a false alarm, set off by an armed security guard walking past the school entrance with his gun visible. Like any mom living in America, my friend ended up ‘grateful’ that it was only six minutes of unimaginable pain, as opposed to a lifetime. But those are still six minutes no parent should ever have to live through.
There’s something more than a little distasteful about the backslapping that’s been going on in Hollywood since Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of criminal sexual assault and rape. After all, this was a city and industry that encouraged and covered up a casting couch culture for decades. And yet even colluders and enablers seem to have come out of it smelling of virtue.Aside from the worry that holding up Weinstein as a prize #MeToo catch may be enough for some — who might then quietly resume the sexual harassment and intimidation where they left off — I can’t help but wonder whether hypocrisy won’t always be embedded in this business. And if one thing sums up that hypocrisy more than anything else for me, it’s a scene in the film Bombshell about the late, ‘great’ sexual predator and CEO of Fox News, Roger Ailes. The scene features Kayla — the ambitious twenty-something blonde played by Margot Robbie, who was Oscar-nominated for her performance — finally managing to snag a private meeting with Ailes, who listens to her pitch before ordering her to ‘stand up and twirl for me.’ Breathing heavily, he then asks Kayla to hitch up her dress higher, higher — higher. This she duly does, trembling and shivering all the while, until her underwear is visible not just to Ailes, but also to us, the audience. The film’s writer and director (both male) would presumably say that the scene is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable: that’s why it’s so long drawn out and invasive. And if men happened to be turned on by gorgeous Robbie as the movie makes its point about predatory pigs? Well, that certainly wasn’t the intention. Useful, though, to be able to titillate and moralize simultaneously.
For germaphobe Angelenos the coronavirus is scarier than a waiter coming at you with a breadbasket. But there is one silver lining: the death of air-kissing. Human contact may never have been part of the deal with Hollywood’s onetime favorite ‘hello’, but the facial proximity ‘always felt borderline inappropriate’, in the words of my neighbor. Of course this is a woman who, like most Beverly Hills mothers, name-tags the wine glasses she passes out at parties; a woman who laid down hypoallergenic grass in her backyard — for fear of the kids coming across an actual grub — and who once put the whole family on ‘preventative antibiotics’ when a pupil at her son’s school got a sniffle. Handshaking was never going to be a valid alternative to air-kissing for these people: why not roll around in a giant pathogen-filled petri dish while you’re at it? No, ‘corona kissing’ is the answer. Remaining a few safe feet away from one another, mouths in grimly set lines, you allow your chin to move briefly and rhythmically no more than an inch and a half forward, in what must be one of the least graceful greetings in existence, apart perhaps from ‘Ebola elbow’. Still, at least the ghastly ‘mwah, mwah’ sounds have gone the way of pork rinds and flirting — incidentally both truly great while they lasted.
This article is in The Spectator’s April 2020 US edition.