New York Times Mag November 5, 2000

CHATEAU BABYLON

With a cast of thousans, the photographer David lachapelle documents his own party and fives a new meaning to a family affair. Peter McQuid meets the tribe.
We're gonna do elegance blase, a lost style, like parents' parties in the 60's." David LaChapelle, in Los Angeles for a gallery opening at the Fahey/Klein Gallery, is holding forth on the theme of his after-show party. His allusion immediately brings to mind blocks of cream cheese with tins of salmon caviar, women in sheath dresses, men in sports jackets, party-colored, gold-tipped Nat Sherman cigarettes in little urns on the coffee table, Herb Alpert's "Tijuana Taxi" on the record changer.

It's a curious choice for someone of LaChapelle's aesthetic persuasion. And he's chosen to do it at the Chateau Marmont (the hotel equivalent of a groupie who wised up and married well) rather than the no-square-inch-left-undesigned Mondrian, down Sunset (more like the new chick in town who has just shacked up with a producer and thinks it's going to last forever).

That would be the obvious choice for one of the world's hottest (and most perverse) photographers. Until you look beneath the artificiality of the worlds he creates. At first glance, his pictures are all cartoon irony and in-jokes, but look a little further and consider the "ugly" people rendered as beautiful, the beautiful rendered as freakish, the Tex Avery angles, the light -- natural and artificial -- and realize that at the heart of things, the auteur has created a kandy-kolored reality that even at its most queasy can transport one back to a time when just existing was a shocking new experience. It's called childhood.

"We thought we would have all fake food," LaChapelle says, "since no one in L.A. eats. They're all on MET-Rx." MET-Rx, for the uninitiated, is a powdered witch's brew of predigested protein and minerals that, when mixed with juice or water, produces a frappe that enhances the results of all those gym workouts that all those people in Los Angeles are constantly supposed to be doing.

"This way, no food ever gets wasted, you just bring it out for a party and then put it away when you're done," LaChapelle continues. This concept will play out several times over the evening as guests attempt to tell the difference between the real food and the fake. It won't be easy, since Fred Eric, the owner of the restaurant Vida, a master trickster and one of Los Angeles's preeminent chefs, has been engaged to realize LaChapelle's gastronomic vision.

The evening will proceed in two parts, with an intermission when LaChapelle and crew leave to attend the gallery. But first is family time, wherein the LaChapelle inner circle hangs out, chats and does what it does best, which is produce.

A LaChapelle photo shoot is a production, and so, apparently, is a LaChapelle life.
His entire crew, including Kristen Vallow, his set designer, his studio manager, agent, favorite art directors, wranglers, muses -- their friends and relatives -- have all assembled at one of the chateau's most remote and desirable Modernist cottages to hang out, talk, smoke, talk some more, get made up, run around, carry things, talk and fuss over the makeup artist Sharon Gault's baby, nicknamed Peanut. Amanda Lepore, whose flawless transformation from male to female is almost incidental to her voluptuous lips, is here from New York, along with Princess Zoraya (Armen Ra), who is learning to play the theremin. The actor Tobias Maendel is lounging around in blue jeans and aviator glasses, looking like a mid-70's hustler. Lili Haydn, a violinist-singer who appeared onstage with the P-Funk All-Stars at Woodstock II, is tuning up. Amy Dinkins, an opera singer, is running scales. The landscape designers Andrew Cao and Stephen Jerrom are pouring ground and tumbled shards of colored glass to make glittering walkways in the yard. Eric and his assistants are putting the final touches on the fake-real food. And Drea De Matteo, an actor from "The Sopranos," is holding court on one of the lawn settees, looking like a cross between a biker chick and a young Farrah Fawcett.

Gault is trying to do everyone's makeup for tonight with the help of her sister and mother, while Peanut, who has starred in several of LaChapelle's photos as well as in a Moby video, avails herself of an early supper at her mother's breast. Spotting a visitor munching on one of Eric's pastries, which looks like a sugar cookie but turns out to be a fruit tart, Gault queries, "Is that real?"

Billy Erb, the disc jockey, arrives, and sound equipment is moved in. And the drag queens are hogging the bathrooms.

"Picture time!" LaChapelle yells, and the family, all 20 or more, crowd into the frame. It is Andy Warhol's Factory, without the sinister undertones.
Everyone departs for the opening, which is when things start to spin into high gear.
The opening is hot, crowded. After two hours of air-kissing, everyone starts to make their way back to the chateau. Paris Hilton turns up; Drea is back with her posse. Bruce Cohen, a producer of "American Beauty," is here. Matthew McConaughey strolls in.

Erb, in a flight of D.J. irony, cranks up Mariah Carey. This prompts the actress Rose McGowan, the girlfriend of Marilyn Manson, to shriek, "Your music sucks!" He responds by taping pictures of Carey to the wall behind his turntable.
There are mysterious cubes sitting on platters on the elaborate buffet.
Real or fake? Both. They are gelatin made with fruit puree.

In one of the bedrooms, a drag queen is chatting with Paul Reubens: "I mean, Stephen Dorff as Candy Darling? Give a queen a break. Hell, give a queen a job!" Everyone laughs.

Outside, one young woman greets another. "You're here!"
"I used your plus-one!"

Couples and groups of three and four sprawl out on the living room rug -- a mass of bell-bottoms, Afros and long, straight hair.

It's midnight and Erb has switched over to vintage rap; Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" blares out over the yard and, no doubt, up and down the canyons of Hollywood Hills. "Rapper's Delight," by the Sugar Hill Gang, comes on, and LaChapelle shows off his break-dancing moves.

On the terrace, Cohen approaches a writer. "O.K., so I'm having a fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton," he says. "You'll be getting yours in the mail soon."
"Cool! I'll definitely come."

"Have you talked to Matthew McConaughey yet?" one guest screams to another. "No, should I?" the other asks. "Yeah! He's insane!"

At around 2 a.m., the crowd starts to thin. Some are home to bed, some are off to bed. Some are on their way into Hollywood in search of after-hours fun, and some are making out on the chaise longues. No block of caviar-slathered cream cheese here, but if any D.J. has a copy of "Tijuana Taxi," it is Erb. Down the hill, Sunset Strip is still in high gear. West Hollywood has yet to enact its no-cruising ordinance, and it's last call. Peanut is asleep up the hill, at LaChapelle's house, and coffee, juice and Snapple (more fake food!) are being served in the bungalow's kitchen.

And as the strip throbs, the music blasts and the stars whirl above, the chef is getting to know the set designer. At press time, the pair are officially affianced. Should be quite a wedding.

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