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There has been no avoiding the scandal that hit when writer/performer Nancy Balbirer, at the behest of some of her more savage friends, read an autobiographical excerpt from her upcoming work, “Take Your Shirt Off and Cry,” at Joe’s Pub in New York on Feb. 23. Balbirer’s piece, about her old roommate “Jane,” a particularly savvy young actress who rose to mega-celebrity and left Nancy in the dust, was pounced upon by vicious international tabloid reporters and Deborah Norville, who decided that Balbirer’s piece was about America’s “Sweetheart,” Jennifer Aniston.
Balbirer’s piece was created to accommodate the theme of the evening: To celebrate the release of Mike Albo and Virginia Heffernan’s “Underminer” paperback, all the performers relayed an experience of having been “undermined” by, in Albo’s words, a “best friend who casually destroys your life.”
“Jane,” in Nancy’s tale, was a lousy friend — but she really knew how to get ahead. Balbirer’s piece was, in her words, “mainly about betrayal and the weird compromises people make in pursuit of celebrity.”
Since Feb. 23, Balbirer has been besieged by running-dog lackeys of the yellow press. Misquotes abounded. Nasty things were said in chat rooms about what a bitch Nancy was for telling such awful tales about “Jane,” which were obviously the result of jealousy and opportunism. Since Balbirer refused to defend herself in the shark pool of tabloid reportage, we felt compelled to kidnap her Wednesday night and force her to speak on her own behalf.
How close were you to “Jane”?
We were very close friends for about 18 months. She was poor and working as a waitress, so I let her live with me rent-free for about five months. We had a Wednesday night poker club with a bunch of girls, and played for pennies. We had T-shirts made that said “Pussy Poker” with a disco vagina decal. She was fun. I really cared about her. She bought me my first thong.
You feel wronged by the tabloids. What was it you were actually trying to say with your “Jane” piece?
In her own way, Jane was trying to help me. When I was at NYU, [playwright and film director] David Mamet told me that I should be “an artist,” “speak the text,” not sell out to “commercial horseshit,” etc. “Jane” told me that in order to break into acting, I had to be likable, fuckable, have straight, blow-dried hair, and pert nipples. On a certain level she was more brilliant than Mamet, because she actually had solutions.
What really pisses me off is that this is my actual life experience, and somehow I’m not allowed to talk about this without people calling me “opportunistic.” I could have sold my story to [the National Enquirer's] Mike Walker or the Globe or something, but I just told a story about “Jane” for a benefit for 826 NYC — a nonprofit that teaches kids to write, and to not be afraid to share their stories.
What about “Jane’s” alleged nose jobs?
I always told her not to get a nose job. She had a long, gorgeous nose with a bump in it. She used to shade and contour, and very well. She was great with makeup. When she first got to L.A., she told me her agent told her she didn’t get a part because of her nose — and that was all she needed to hear. After that, I remember Jane telling me that she got a discount nose job from her father’s plastic surgeon. She really felt like it solved a lot of things. And she did not stop working from the minute she got a nose job. She was off to the races.
She gave you a lot of advice?
She thought I was too angry, and had stupid ideas about being an “artist.” I didn’t want her to alter herself so much, because I didn’t believe in it. However, she was right: Nobody is ever beautiful enough in Hollywood. She had amazing girl tricks — like electrolysis for the hairline, and icing her nipples before auditions. She told me to put chicken cutlets in my bra. She was a real girl. I was very uncomfortable with that shit.
What about the TV gig she allegedly got you axed from?
A producer friend of mine knew the producers of her show, and he told me that he had been told that she had gotten me fired. He told me that Jane had told her producers she wouldn’t work with me. It was really fishy — I was hired at 6 p.m. and by 10 p.m. I was fired — so why did they pay me for two whole weeks if they didn’t use me at all? I didn’t suspect Jane’s interference until my friend told me that story. I didn’t even think it was weird that she didn’t call me back. But after I heard that she had me canned, I completely fell apart. I was totally devastated. I lost it. And I never heard from her again.
Why do you think she dumped you as a friend? Is it because she perceived you as desperate?
I guess we weren’t as good friends as I thought. To this day, I really don’t know exactly why. I felt very close to her, and I felt very hurt and betrayed when she never called me again. I thought maybe I reminded her too much of her pre-successful self.
So what are you hoping to gain from this absurd experience?
I thought it was a sad story, and most people who were in the audience (at Joe’s) that night got that. I wish people paid more attention to the deeper autobiographical stuff and the larger cultural issues I addressed, but I realize it is pie in the sky trying to get anyone interested in anything besides who Jane really was — and her nose job and her nipples. But hey, if I can’t have a relevant cultural dialogue, well, a callback would be nice. It has been 11 years.
Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.More Cintra Wilson.