Larah (rhymes with Hurrah) Berlin was a fahhbulous celebrity from Europe in the mid-1980's. Nee Laura Bernstein in Cleveland, Ohio, she moved to France (pronounced Frahhhnce) at a young age where she became famous for her great beauty, magnetic sexuality, and overall je ne sais quois.
A singer, a dancer, a performance artist, she took Europe by storm. "She puts the ammo in amour, and the amour in glamour," the papers proclaimed.
Yet after her fiancé Jean-Phillipe discarded her on the beach in Monte Carlo, Larah fled to Rome and collapsed. The nuns were so kind to her, they nursed her back to health -- and in 1986 she returned to the U.S. where she was sighted in several of San Francisco's North Beach restaurants (paparazzi following behind).
In the Spring of 1987, Larah Berlin made one quick appearance at San Francisco's Last Day Saloon, singing a couple of torch songs before stripping to lingerie and smashing raw eggs on her body. The standing-room-only audience went wild, and then Larah Berlin disappeared, never to be seen, or heard of, again.
Ladies and Gentleman, it can now be told. I was Larah Berlin.
My B.A. is from San Francisco State University in Interdisciplinary Studies in Creative Arts. My emphasis was on conceptual and performance art, and Larah Berlin was my Senior Project. For three months I was myself, Ericka Lutz, and I was also a young woman from Ohio, Laura Bernstein, who had taken on the persona of the fahhbulous European celebrity Larah Berlin.
During my time at SF State, I studied with several conceptual artists, many of whom were doing or had done "persona work": Ellen Zweig, Christine Tamblyn, Linda Montano. While all these artists worked with persona to some extent and discussed it in their classes, (Christine Tamblyn taught the entire course from her I took in persona, I found out later), Lynn Hershman Leeson, the director of the program, was probably the most influential on my senior project.
Lynn Hershman Leeson is a noted filmmaker who, from 1971 to 1978 lived a double life (artistically) as "Roberta Breitmore."
Leeson writes about "Roberta," "She penetrated trends such as EST, WEIGHTWATCHERS and most significantly, experienced resonant nuances of alienation. Roberta saw a psychiatrist, had her own language and handwriting, apartment and clothing, gestures and moods."
Roberta, taking away all the art talk from it, enabled Lynn Hershman Leeson to act out things she wouldn't have done as herself:
"To me, she was my own flipped effigy; my physical reverse, my psychological fears. As can be inferred from the records of both of us, her life infected mine. Closure and transformation of her life meant as well my own individuation."
In my mid-twenties, I felt fragmented. I'd already been an actress and a punk and a poet and a stripper and an artist's model and a traveler -- I'd had two dozen lousy jobs, and had bounced from coast to coast and back and forth from Europe. My friends didn't know my other friends, my family didn't know my boyfriends, and I kept a lot of secrets.
During those years I recreated myself, again and again and again, so "Persona Work" -- once I discovered that it was an art form -- felt deeply seductive. Being just me was unsatisfying, and how wonderful to live so many lives at once -- as I was already trying to do -- yet have it also be an artistic, social, and very cool statement.
Larah Berlin was my flipped efiigy, both a fantasy of who I wanted to be, and the nightmare of who I feared I could be -- shallow, obsessed with surfaces, ultimately a cartoon of herself. Larah was an opportunity to explore those aspects of me. I wasn't writing fiction then -- perhaps she was the first fictional character I ever fully created.
After I perfomed my Senior Project, Larah was over, and I never became her again.
Larah wasn't the last time I took on a real-life role other than Ericka -- during the next year I performed hundreds of strip-o-grams and singing telegrams as "Sara." It took many more years before I was comfortable in my own skin. I'm not sure exactly when my life stopped being about fragmentation and double/triple lives and started being about integrating all the many sides of me. But I know a big part of it started as I was developing Larah Berlin, because I was also starting to date the man I would marry, and he was the first man I'd met who could see -- and appreciate -- all the sides of me.
Persona Work was a valuable stage in life for me, and I'm glad that it never got out of hand, or leaked into other areas of my life. Persona Work helped me begin the long journey to figuring out the core of me, helped me begin asking the question, "Who am I?" in a meaningful way. I was lucky. Some people create personas -- the Internet makes it easy now -- and the results aren't always so benign.
I am not interested in escaping myself anymore -- I have fiction to do that in. I want my transformations to be real, not costume. But I do remember the urge to be somebody else; to gather attention as a fahbulous celebrity; to do anything -- anything -- to not have to be yourself right now. In this life. This finite, rigid life.
I'm so glad I'm not that unhappy anymore.