It was announced last month that the little man is finally getting the big screen treatment. The director of the last two Muppet films is making an Action Man action movie.
But it seems that moneysupermarket.com have beaten him to it, producing this blockbuster which has been airing on UK television.
Epic Action Man
In it a regiment of Action Men in various butch outfits and manly accessories break into some very camp dance moves, to the strains of CeCe Peniston’s gay club hit ‘Finally’. For the big finish, some of them strip down to their moulded plastic briefs while the rest of the guys hoof it.
It’s very Village People, darling.
‘Epic Action Man’ represents a continuity with Moneysupermarket’s previous offerings which have ostentatiously fucked about with conventional masculinity – such as ‘Epic Strut’ in which a man who is apparently a male office worker from the waist up and a big-bootied woman in heels from the waist down (a kind of gender-fuck Centaur – or a binary non-binary) shakes his be-denimed money-maker around town.
Can we fix it?
The sequel, ‘Epic Squads‘, saw ‘Dave’ up the ante and lead a squad of similarly split-dressed apparently male office workers in a flaming dance-off with a group of builders with some really devastating moves.
And then the ante was upped again last year in ads which starred those famous 80s TV icons of boyish excitement He-Man and Skeletor, perhaps the best one being a parody of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey famous end-of-movie dance to ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My life’ from the ultimate 80s chick-flick, ‘Dirty Dancing’. (And yes, Skeletor gives good Grey.)
He-Man and Skeletor Dancing | Money Supermarket Commercial
So, having gayed up He-Man and got him to drop his big sword it was probably inevitable that they would turn Action Man into a club queen.
I’m not sure that Moneysupermarket has any other aim in these ads other than to grab our attention with something a bit shocking and giggly as we inhale our gluten-free ready meal. And it’s easiest and safest nowadays to do that with machismo: the images and iconography are very familiar and because they came from a more ‘innocent’ age, or at least less knowing, much of the work of parodying them has already been done by time. (See also Top Gun.)
Though Action Man like He-Man was of course always more than a little bit camp – at least seen in the right light, or by the wrong eyes. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, butchness is such a very difficult pose to keep up. Even when you’re made of 12 inches of moulded plastic. (I’m not if I’m honest really looking forwards to the Action Man movie: I prefer to hold on to the movies he starred in inside my head when I was a kid.)
Perhaps though the ‘funniest’ thing about Moneysupermarket’s ‘Epic Action Man’ ad and its swishing is that it is actually a case of dolls imitating real life soldiers. Action Man is here after all just catching up with all those YouTube videos of yer actual live squaddies in some desert locale camping it up to Lady Gaga.
Muller Light’s latest ad continues its heavy-handed theme of debasing the objectified men it uses to sell its aerated dairy products – perhaps finally reaching a kind of climax.
The new ad (for fat and added sugar free ‘Greek style’ yogurt) deploys the usual buff and topless ‘fat free’ young male as eye-candy, this time handling his ‘pot’ – but he loses control at the signature ‘FAT FREE!!’ shrieks and ends up glazing himself. Hee-hee!
The Narcissus myth about the beautiful, doomed youth who falls for his own reflection continues to be a mainstay of this Millenium’s advertising – albeit re-written with a ‘happy ending’.
For example, this Pure XS Paco Rabanne TV ad set in a kind of Big Brother bathroom, stars a young, athletic and voluptuously beautiful man (Francisco Henriques) undressing/stripping for a bath, using the gold tap as a phallic signifier – while admiring himself in the mirror. All the while observed by young women through peepholes and two-way mirrors – admiring his admiration – and camply swooning to the floor as one at the end of the ad when he squirts the product at his groin.
Stinging nads to one side, the ad is a canny comment on – and exploitation of – the starring role of male vanity and ‘objectification’ in our 21st Century selfie-admiring, cam-show culture.
Thanks to a mediated world where everyone carries around a multiplying mirror in their pocket called a smartphone, Narcissus no longer wastes away unable to possess his reflection. He can reproduce himself on endlessly on social media, become a sporno hero – and find himself reflected in the gaze of others. Male beauty and male tartiness, once stigmatised as ridiculous or perverted, are the shining, Immaced inspiration of our age, the very symbol of ‘sexiness’.
Pure XS Paco Rabanne
Which makes it all the more unforgivable that I missed the ad when it first aired last year. I was probably fastforwarding to the latest instalment of Love Island or Bromans. But not to worry, some 120 people complained to the Advertising Standards authority about it, getting it into the news this week.
Shockingly, they weren’t complaining about the fact that it ends too soon.
It seems that most were upset about the Pure XS ad ‘objectifying’ the young sporno featured voyeuristically in it, claiming it was sexist and offensive for that reason. Apparently objectification is a bad thing.
Fortunately for the future of spornosexual advertising, the ASA rejected these complaints, and ruled that it was ‘unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence’ – which seems ‘objectively’ true.
However, the basis of the ruling was pure doublespeak. According to the ASA the ad – which like many ads today goes to enormous trouble and glossy expense to serve up the young man as a all-singing, all-dancing SEX OBJECT – even helpfully showing him being perved over by young women – ‘did not objectify the male character’.
But the ASA itself admitted that the commercial:
‘was heavily focused on the physical appearance of the male character. The ad featured multiple shots in which the male character was topless and his expressions when looking in the mirror suggest he was admiring his own physique and attractiveness. We considered that this and the reactions of the women to him placed a strong emphasis on the attractiveness of the male character.’
Well, quite. You could hardly say otherwise. But they then go on to say:
‘However, we noted the scenario depicted in the ad was not realistic and the tone was risque but comedic and farcical. We considered the ad showed the male character’s attractiveness in a light-hearted, humorous way, rather than in a degrading or humiliating manner… we considered, for the above reasons the ad did not objectify the male character.’
It’s certainly true that the scenario depicted in the ad was presented as comedic and farcical – as well as sexualised and objectifying. The ‘light-hearted’ presentation of the ad (and I’m not really sure that sexiness, or multi-million pound fragrance advertising, is ever really ‘light-hearted’) does nothing to change the fact that it glories in presenting the man as a (very willing) sex-object. The humour may make it more palatable to some, including apparently the ASA, but it does not do away with ‘objectification’. There would be no ad without it.
What the ASA seems to be saying is that the male model was not objectified because it’s not bad objectification. Good objectification, according to the circuitous reasoning behind what is anyway a loaded term, can’t be objectification – because objectification is necessarily bad. When in fact, objectification can be… wonderful. Which is part of the reason why so many young men today work so hard to turn themselves into sexy things.
Which raises the issue that got this ruling a lot of attention in some sections of the press this week, and alerting me to the existence of the ad. It seems likely XS was complained about by people who are not really offended by it but pushing an agenda, or as they might put it, concerned about double standards.
A double standard that seems to hold that objectification of men is either impossible or is good if possible, and objectification of women is bad – by definition. A double standard that, on TV at least, seems to now be the dominant morality – in part because TV tends to be watched more by women than men. Even BBC costume dramas these days are all about the gratuitous topless male tottie. Indeed, things have got so bad of late that I am tempted to actually watch one.
The double standard appeared to be underlined by the ASA’s simultaneous ruling – after just one complaint – that an ad featuring an attractive young female tennis player was ‘objectifying’ and therefore upheld the complaint.
The poster ad for Tunnock’s tea cakes (which was placed near a tennis tournament in Scotland) showed an athletic young female tennis player holding a tea cake in place of a tennis ball at the top of her thigh with her skirt raised at the hip. Text underneath stated: ‘Where do you keep yours?’ Then beneath an image of the product the endline: ‘Serve up a treat.’
Explaining why they upheld the complaint the ASA said:
‘We considered the phrase “serve up a treat” would be understood to be a double entendre, implying the woman featured in the ad was the “treat”, and considered this was likely to be viewed as demeaning towards women…’.
‘We considered that although the image was only mildly sexual in nature, when combined with the phrase “serve up a treat” it had the effect of objectifying women by using a woman’s physical features to draw attention to the ad.’
‘In light of those factors, we concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious offence to some consumers and was socially irresponsible.’
The Tunnock’s tea cake ad is, like the product itself, very 1970s. It is not nearly as glossy or expensive or indeed as playful or as knowing or well made as the Paco Rabanne ad. And it isn’t, for my money, very funny. I’m not sure though that any of these points are sufficient reason for calling it ‘socially irresponsible’.
You could perhaps argue that it is ‘more’ objectifying than the Rabanne ad because of its disembodied nature (the shapely thigh has no face) – and because of the history of female objectification.
But the ASA doesn’t argue this. It doesn’t accept, remember, that the Rabanne ad is objectifying at all. Difficult not to conclude that the main difference that the ASA seems to be interested in here is that one objectifying ad features a man, the other a woman. Indeed, if the tennis player had been a man wearing a kilt with the same text and the teacake in the same place I have a hunch the ASA would not have upheld the complaint. Or at least, I certainly hope not.
It upheld the complaint about the Tunnock ad on the grounds that it ‘uses a woman’s physical features to draw attention to an ad’. But that is precisely what the Paco Rabanne ad does with a man’s physical features – and at greater, HD length. Though granted without the cringe making copywriting.
Perhaps the strongest grounds the ASA has in censuring the sticky ad and not the smelly one is that it ‘bore no relevance to the advertised product’. Paco Rabanne, like most fragrances, is associated – or tries very hard to associate itself – with sensuality and sexuality. But this doesn’t seem to be a major part of the ASA’s ruling. And anyway there are all sorts of products pushed in prime time by attractive, mostly naked young men in ads that don’t bear much relevance to the product – or tin mining in 18th Century Cornwall.
Interestingly, some of those 120 complaints about the aftershave ad claimed it was ‘sexist’ because it ‘depicted women as powerless and weak and therefore reinforced stereotypes’.
These complaints were also not upheld. The ASA’s explanation points out that the women are ‘in a position of power over the male character’ because they are voyeuristically watching him, possibly unseen. Again, admitting in effect that the young man is objectified – despite asserting in their first ruling that he is not.
‘We considered because the women were seen to be watching the man, perhaps without his knowledge, it suggested they were in a position of power over the male character. We noted as the ad progressed and the male character was in various stages of undress, it was evident from the reactions of the women depicted they were increasingly being overcome with excitement. We further noted during one of the final scenes, all of the women were seen to have fainted and collapsed at the sight of the man spraying the fragrance towards his groin.’
The ASA ruled that the surreal and farcical nature of the ad meant it was unlikely to reinforce stereotypes of women and concluded it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence. Which essentially means: only an idiot would take the fainting seriously.
I would add that the women’s voyeuristic enjoyment of the young man and their very visible arousal over him show that
a) The ad is depicts the women as having very active, almost perverse, sexual appetites, which is about as contrary to stereotypical portrayals as you can get
b) Their ecstatic response to his tarting shows that being ‘objectified’ can be very powerful. Which of course further undermines the ASA’s notion that it’s necessarily ‘bad’.
I’m not sure that I should be bringing any of this up though. All drawing attention to the possibility of a double standard here is likely to achieve is the banning of male objectification as well as the female variety – for the sake of ‘equality’.
And that would be horribly cruel. Narcissus really would wither away then.
Postscript: My chum Simon Mason helpfully pointed out something I’d forgotten – that the Pure XS ad is rather similar to a German ad I wrote about a few years back, which features a young sporno taking a bath, spied on by the camera/us, a voyeurism he seems to approvingly acknowledge towards the end:
I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing, but Mark Simpson made me.
Write a preface, that is – for the following journalistic essay “Killer Queen” on “gay spree killer” and “Versace assassin” Andrew Cunanan, my erstwhile love rival who once offered to kill me. It was first published in TheStranger July 23, 1997, concurrent with the breaking news of Andrew’s death by self-inflicted gunshot to head upon being cornered by police, a week after shooting Versace to death outside his house in Miami.
The uber-cool Seattle alternative weekly had a red hot global scoop on its cover. The piece was widely picked up and also syndicated in The London Times, the Irish Independent and The Face. This is the first time it has been available online, however. So in a 21st Century sense, this is the first time it actually exists.
Some 20 years later as I write this, American cable channel FX is airing episode 3 of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. The show is said to be “loosely based” on a book by Vanity Fair contributor Maureen Orth: Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History.
I – and mutual acquaintances of Andrew Cunanan much closer to him – freely shared all we knew with Orth. At the time, she was best known as the wife of long-time NBC TV Meet the Press host Tim Russert.
I vividly recall the moment sitting on my Murphy bed in Lower Queen Anne speaking on the phone with Orth when, after flattering me with praise for the article below, which had been faxed to her, she asked me to explain to her the specifics of what a “glory hole” was. When it came to the gay demi-monde she was certainly out of her element. The world of alternative newspapers also seemed to present a problem: in her book she cited “Killer Queen” as being published in “Seattle’s gay magazine, The Stranger”.
Ironically, there was no glory hole in this story. Not per se. It was an, um, enlarged peephole in a men’s room partition on the Navy base in San Diego. Smaller than a glory hole, but large enough to stick a finger through. I explained this to Orth.
She sighed. “And I have to deal with the family.” The family of Andrew’s first victim.
No, I didn’t think much of her book, Vulgar Favours. (I thought her nemesis Gary Indiana actually came closer to hitting the mark, with his novelizing non-fiction a la Truman Capote in Three-Month Fever.) But, in my very limited personal human contact with Maureen Orth, I guess I couldn’t help empathize with her: she had gotten in over her head when it came to the specifics of implied dick meatus touching; I ended up with people mistaking me for someone interested in their “True Crime” horror gore.
I didn’t watch the latest instalment of The Assassination of Gianni Versace – and I’m not planning to watch the other eight episodes either. Why would I want to?
* * *
by Steven Zeeland
(Originally appeared in The Stranger, 24 July, 1997)
Andrew Cunanan gave me my first Xanax.
This story starts on the beach in San Diego. Andrew used to go there with Corporal Jay. I am what some people would call a “military chaser,” a lover of men like Jay.
When he was a little boy, Jay told his grandmother that he wanted to join the Marine Corps so he could be trained as a marine biologist. She laughed and said, “Oh, you don’t want to go in the Marines. They don’t teach you anything about marine biology, they just teach you how to kill.” At 18, Jay joined the Marines and learned how to kill people with his bare hands. But he retained his affinity for sea creatures. One late summer’s day in 1994 he was wading back from a swim when he stepped on one. It was a stingray. Jay was spared the full fury of its venomous tail; he got away with minor puncture wounds to his sole.
Andrew was equipped to treat Jay’s pain. He made him swallow a Vicodin, a narcotic analgesic. When Jay came home to our Hillcrest apartment, his foot was still a little sore, but he was smiling glassily as he marveled, “Andrew’s a walking drugstore.” He added that Andrew had finally revealed how he obtained at least some of the money he threw around so freely: Andrew dealt prescription drugs.
Probably there was not a long pause before I said, “Maybe he can get me some sleeping pills.” I’ve been an insomniac since I was five. The day of the stingray I was uncomfortably close to exhausting the bottle of Restoril, a sedative, that a sailor friend left in my apartment when he shipped out.
A few days later Jay returned from a night at the bars with a miniature Ziploc bag containing three lavender pills. “I told Andrew what you wanted. He scoffed and said, ‘Restoril is not a very potent drug.’ He said that you should try these. It’s what he takes.” I asked Jay how much I owed Andrew. “It’s a gift. And if you want more, he said that he’ll give them to you at cost.”
Xanax is an anti-anxiety medication prescribed to inhibit panic attacks. A few nights later I took one of the pills at bedtime.
I didn’t like Xanax. It got me to sleep all right, but the entire next day I felt…emotionally flat. Not up or down, neither anxious nor particularly relaxed, but as though a little too much of my personality had been stripped away.
Even then I suspected that Andrew may have considered lacing the Xanax with poison–I knew he didn’t like me. But I placed an order with him for more Xanax anyway, to keep on hand for when I felt panicky after waking from nightmares. Or for when I had to see my family. Or for when Jay indulged his pesky habit of turning psycho on me.
I didn’t take a Xanax the night in early May when I received a phone call informing me that Andrew was accused of murdering former Navy Lieutenant Jeffrey Trail, 27 (bludgeoned to death with a claw hammer), Minneapolis architect David Madson, 33 (shot in the head and back), and Chicago millionaire Lee Miglin, 72 (stabbed, tortured, throat cut with a gardener’s bow saw) in a cross-country killing spree. A few days later it was reported that Andrew killed a fourth man, New Jersey cemetery groundskeeper William Reese, 45 (shot in the head). Then Andrew disappeared.
I felt astonishment, not anxiety.
That was to change.
* * *
TO DIE FOR
An accused man takes on a special beauty. That, at least, is what Kafka says in The Trial.
I thought Kafka must be right when I saw photos of Andrew on TV’s America’s Most Wanted. Andrew was a lot better looking than I remembered – sneering, scruffy, unaccountably butch – almost hot. Then I realized that the photo could only have been taken before the murders. So was what I recognized an anticipatory hint of the enhanced attractiveness that Andrew was about to assume? Or did what I now saw in him reveal something about what makes a man attractive to me?
In May and early June, the same photo of Andrew was featured in magazines and newspapers across the country. The accompanying text didn’t vary much. As pieced together from Andrew’s press clippings:
“The sequence began in San Diego’s funky, gay-friendly Hillcrest neighborhood, with a 27-year-old who called himself Andrew DeSilva, but whose family knew him as Andrew Phillip Cunanan. Bespectacled and slightly paunchy, ‘DeSilva’ liked to dance with his shirt off.” Time. He “laughed loud, bought expensive gifts for friends and always covered the dinner tab – sometimes for as much as $1,400.” Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He was vague about where the money came from, suggesting to some that it came from his ‘rich Jewish family’ and to others that his father owned land on the Riviera and a plantation in the Philippines.” Newsweek. “Reporters located his mother, MaryAnn, in a central Illinois town, and learned [that] the Cunanans were once wealthy, as Andrew used to brag.” Time.
As an “openly gay teenager” at the exclusive Bishops prep school in La JoIla, Andrew “would whistle at the boys on the water polo team, and he once came to a school dance in a tight red bodysuit with an older man his date. The yearbook voted him ‘Least Likely to Be Forgotten.’” Newsweek. “When his schoolmates teased him, he gave it back to them with a jaunty, ‘Come on, you want some!’” Philadelphia Inquirer. “In 1988 his father, Modesto [a retired Navy career officer turned stockbroker], fled the country to avoid arrest on charges of misappropriating funds.” Time. “Court records say Andrew Cunanan moved to the Philippines in November 1988 to live with his father, returning after only a month because of ‘squalid conditions.’” Minneapolis Star Tribune. “MaryAnn Cunanan now gets food stamps.” Time. “She thinks her son supported himself with money he got from wealthy older men. He was a ‘high-class homosexual prostitute,’ she said.” UPI.
“In late April, DeSilva/ Cunanan told friends he was leaving town, starting with a trip to Minneapolis to visit David Madson and Jeffrey Trail.” Time. Four of his friends threw him a farewell party at his favorite Hillcrest restaurant, California Cuisine ‘The party lasted almost three hours; they ate beef tenderloin, ostrich, and trout. And, for once, Cunanan didn’t cover the food tab – for $220. The waiter who served the party said Cunanan seemed strange, and spoke as if he were reciting prepared lines. ‘He said, “This is a very bittersweet time for me.” Then he leaned back, put his hands behind his head and said, ‘Everyone has their own version of what they think I am. Nobody knows the truth.’” Minneapolis Star Tribune.
The reporting in Andrew’s hometown was disappointing. The San Diego Union Tribune pretty much just ran stories off the wire services. The town’s two gay papers devoted full front pages to the case (“America’s Finest City Home to America’s Most Wanted”), but offered no insightful anecdotes from “the community.” Area TV stations maintained a weeklong vigil in front of California Cuisine, but were reduced to running stories about how they couldn’t get a story because no one wanted to talk.
“The murders have sent many gay people in San Diego into a panic,” reported the weekly Reader. “From the Chee-Chee Club downtown to the International Male fashion store in Hillcrest, people said they ‘knew nothing’ about Cunanan or were unwilling to talk.”
The Reader did manage to interview one friend of murder victim Jeff Trail. He described what happened when he tried to procure photos of Andrew for the FBI: “I couldn’t get one person in this community to give me a picture. They thought of [Andrew] as this rich guy who gave away thousand-dollar coats and gave away shoes and paid for dinners and tipped well and should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Some said they’d actually take him in right now if he needed shelter.”
On June 7, America’s Most Wanted dubbed Andrew “Public Enemy Number One.” Their profile included an interview with Andrew’s most recent roommate, shown only in extreme close-up of his teeth. Another San Diegan interviewed, however, was not at all shy about appearing on camera. Under the landmark pink “HILLCREST” neon sign, Nicole Ramirez Murray, the town’s best known gay activist, hammed it up in alternately male and female drag, boasting that while he had only seen Andrew once at a party, he was intimately acquainted with the two worlds Andrew moved between: “One, a very closeted social elite. A very powerful movers-and-shakers world. Then he was among his peers, which was your party boys and your bar and restaurant scenes.” Murray offered that Andrew “probably could be in drag now. I would advise him to be in drag.”
A week later, Murray scolded readers of his gossip column in the Gay & Lesbian Times: “This whole murder spree has taken on a media circus of its own, with just about everyone claiming that they knew him.… Please! Was I a close or good friend of his? No,” he snapped, “and no one really was.”
In truth, just about everybody in the San Diego gay scene did know “Andrew DeSilva.”
The friends I shared with Andrew confirm that the media got at least two things right: Andrew never forgot a name. And he liked to give people presents. In recent months, perhaps hundreds of men have stared at their own personal mementos of the now famous accused “spree killer.”
To retrace how my world overlapped with Andrew’s, I returned to San Diego, one of his presents hanging around my neck.
* * *
WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE
Inevitably, news stories on Andrew invoke Californian inclinations for shallowness, spectacle, and lunacy. But San Diego’s huge military population makes Hillcrest very different from West Hollywood.
Quoting Murray, an East Coast daily reported: “The San Diego gay community can be particularly secretive, even from the inside. Gay military men and women based in San Diego fear their careers will be destroyed if they are discovered [Note: the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was very much in effect at this time], as do wealthy retirees still active in political circles.” Murray should know. In addition to having 30 years’ experience as a political operative, he is allegedly a former street drag prostitute who specialized in turning military tricks. He told a reporter: “When I saw Cunanan, I thought, there’s a guy who knows how to handle himself, and he’s making a career, or whatever it is he’s doing.”
For my part I never recognized a kindred spirit in Andrew. Flashy, flush with cash, wildly exuberant and always grinning, he seemed if anything almost my opposite.
I sometimes have a hard time being sociable. But for the first year or two of the four years I lived in Hillcrest (Jay and I left San Diego in September 1996), I spent almost every night in the gay bars and dance clubs, hanging out with my own circle of military boys and hunting for more. My objective was not usually sex – I preferred other venues for that – but to befriend and win the trust of men I could interview for my books. By 1994 I’d met hundreds of sailors and Marines.
Two military men, however, got to know me better than the others. Out of all my San Diego friends, they also happen to have spent the most time with Andrew. Tim, a Navy Lieutenant, met Andrew through Jeff Trail in 1993. At first he saw Andrew mostly at Flicks, the Hillcrest video bar next door to California Cuisine.
“He was a very engaging personality. I liked him very much and spent a good amount of time hanging out with him.” They started going out to dinner together one-on-one. Andrew liked to gossip, but he also enjoyed talking about books. “He was well read, and very intelligent. And in San Diego that’s not a very common thing to run across.”
Tim was puzzled when another Navy officer he knew expressed dislike for Andrew. “I thought, ‘What’s not to like about him?’” Over time, however, Tim began to notice things about Andrew that bothered him.
“Andrew would never reveal very much, other than the stories he would always tell everyone about himself. He told me that he grew up in a very wealthy family. That his parents made their money from owning parking lots in Manhattan. That he had been an intelligence officer in the Israeli Navy. He told me that he went to Yale as an undergrad, and that he was a member of Skull and Bones, the very exclusive fraternity. These pieces started not fitting together.”
More suspicious was Andrew’s presentation. “He had these pat stories, and it was always as if he was doing a performance. I mean, the same inflections of voice, the same types of facial expressions at the same points in the stories. I started to get the feeling I wasn’t talking to someone real. Almost like the way someone famous behaves when they’re being interviewed on TV.”
Tim was uncomfortable when Andrew insisted on giving him a fancy calculator. “That was another thing that kind of set off the alarm bells. ‘This guy’s trying to buy me.’”
I asked Tim what he thought Andrew wanted from him.
“Andrew was someone who craved attention. He craved having people around him who would somehow reflect what he wanted to pretend to be. And you saw that with the old men he hung around with. Because they had money.”
Tim, who is muscular and handsome, does not believe that Andrew was sexually attracted to him. “I never, ever heard him talk about having sex. And even when he did express interest in someone, it was like so put on, it was almost over the top. He would just make extravagant gestures, talking about some guy’s body and, ‘Oh baby, What I would love to do to you.’ But it was never anything you could take seriously.”
Tim says his awareness that Andrew was not what he seemed came in stages, “I started feeling a little queasy, like maybe he was a little too saccharine. And then there were the lies. The final thing was when I heard that Andrew was trying to get Jay to sell drugs. That was the last straw. And I was going to…” Tim laughs. “I’m so glad I didn’t do this; people look at me and think I’m a brawler. The truth is, I’m just a big gentle guy. But I was going to go up to Andrew and threaten him. Now that would have been among the dumber moves I would have made in my short life.”
Another Navy lieutenant told me that Andrew was always ready “to add another military person to his list of friends. What drew me to him was that he knew everyone and was a friendly guy. Since I was assigned to a ship, I would be gone for weeks at a time and did not make many friends right away. So when I would go into the bars, Andrew was someone who I could stand and talk with when I didn’t know anyone else.”
Tim agrees that Andrew was a good contact for military men. “While I was in the Navy, it was an awkward thing for me to go and meet people socially. Because I had so much that I had to hide, and I was just so protective. Here was a guy who could introduce you to anyone. Maybe part of the reason that military people hung around Andrew was that he was just kind of a hub of a wheel.”
I began to realize that Andrew’s life overlapped with mine more than I had expected.
Military boys make easy targets for all sorts of predators. Andrew drew them into his circle by showering them with money and attention. I just gave them attention. He pretended to be a rich former military officer. I admitted to being an obscure, usually broke author, but even that impressed them. In creating our personal mythologies Andrew and I both adopted new last names. We both haunted San Diego gay bars courting beautiful young men that we didn’t want to have sex with (how many other men can say that?).
And, we competed for the favor of one young military man.
* * *
Steven Zeeland playing dead amongst the cacti with Jay, east of San Diego – some years before meeting Cunanan
PSYCHO MARINE AND KILLER QUEEN
“Jay looks like a baby seal – just about to be clubbed.” This was the parting shot from the sailor from who I inherited the Restoril and Jay, an adorable 21-year-old Marine from rural Wisconsin who attached himself to me like a burr, taking the place previously occupied by the sailor.
I don’t remember now exactly when in 1993 Jay first mentioned Andrew, or when Andrew first came by our apartment to pick him up, or when I first started getting worried, as opposed to merely feeling jealous. But for two years, Andrew was my biggest rival for Jay’s affection.
“A social cyclone” is Jay’s term for Andrew. “He could always move in and dominate any room. Tim introduced us. Andrew struck up a conversation with me. I was in the Marine Corps at the time so he asked me a lot of questions about that. And then he was gone. The next weekend I bumped into him again. He recognized me, and he remembered my name – which is a rarity. He just said, ‘Follow me.’ We went to the bar, where he proceeded to buy me two gin and tonics, one for each hand, and tipped the bartender $20.’”
I asked Jay what he thought attracted Andrew to him.
“I don’t know. I mean, at that time I had a certain unworldliness. I was probably easy to manipulate.”
Andrew gave Jay presents.
“That camera. An electric razor.” He laughs. “This watch.”
But Jay, too, insists that Andrew was not interested in him sexually.
“The topic never came up. He did joke about it once, but it was in a big group of people. Andrew was bending over and backing into people. I was not singled out. He was doing it to a bunch of people.”
Occasionally Jay did observe other men trying to pick up Andrew.
“Andrew would just lead them along, and be all coy and seductive. Usually they were young, flitty dance bunnies. Andrew would buy them drinks. And finally, right as the bar was closing and they were all worked up, he’d say, ‘It was nice to meet you. Goodbye.’”
Dining at California Cuisine was a new experience for an enlisted Marine who once lived in a trailer park.
“I was always hungry afterwards. He saw my reaction when I saw the prices, and when the small portions arrived. He assured me that if I wanted to, we’d go get something else. But I was never demanding. I think that’s probably another reason why he was attracted to me. I never wanted anything else from him. At first I was uncomfortable with him buying me drinks, so I’d buy my own. But he figured a way around that. He’d buy the drinks before I could. He knew I wouldn’t turn them away once they were already bought.”
Jay and Andrew went to the movies together. “I actually got to go see Pulp Fiction with him,” Jay laughs. “Andrew was all animated and yelling. He especially liked it when the person’s head was blown off in the back of the car. He proclaimed it the best movie ever made.”
Jay also accompanied Andrew to a gay Tupperware Party. “He won my melon-baller for me. I was his partner in the little game where they quiz you on the various features of a certain product. He wanted me to get the orange-peeler, but I said, “No, I have to have the melon-baller.”
Jay says he never questioned Andrew’s stories. “He was so knowledgeable about such a variety of subjects that he could easily deceive anybody. He knew things about the Marine Corps that – if you studied history you wouldn’t even know these things. He could rattle off all this detailed information about life in the Israeli military. Nobody ever challenged him. Not in San Diego.
“There was one time when I actually spoke back to him. I mean, before the last time at the tide pools. It was one night when we were at the bar. I was a little bit depressed. He already bought me so many drinks I was drunk, and I said, ‘I really don’t want another drink.’ And he snapped back, ‘Shut the fuck up. You don’t know what you want.’ He wasn’t laughing. He was very serious. And he got me another drink and he forced me to stay there until I drank it.”
Jay pauses. “You know what? There was one person that he did have sex with. And afterwards every time that person came around he tried to shut him down real quick.”
Andrew wasn’t a “military chaser” like me, but he did court a lot of military men. Were military guys more susceptible to his approach?
“Well, yeah. Most of the military guys out there didn’t have that many solid connections to the gay community. And him being knowledgeable, knowing the whole rank structure, it made him easier to get along with.”
How was Andrew different from me?
Jay laughs. “He was very different from you. He had money! And he was very social, very outgoing. He wasn’t… Scandinavian like you. Andrew was not at all reserved.”
Were there any ways in which we were similar?
Well, you both paid attention to me.”
* * *
The Navy restroom where Zeeland met Trail
Between the stalls in a men’s room on one of San Diego’s Navy bases is a waist-high hole barely large enough to accommodate a man’s finger. Lunchtime is the best time to visit it. Uniformed sailors seek out the hole on their break, as do Navy men in civilian clothes attending classes held in the adjacent conference center.
In 1995 I told Jay about an especially beautiful man I’d encountered there, for the third time. The guy was shy, and only once, briefly, did he kneel down and in accordance with the prevailing etiquette stick his penis under the stall. Most of the time we just watched each other through the hole, or took turns sticking our pinkies through it, touching, just barely, the tips of each other’s penises. His face (I saw through the gap in the door as he arrived, and from the parking lot afterward as I watched him drive away) was boyishly cute. On one of his bronzed, hairless legs was a small tattoo. I’d studied it closely and identified it as a cartoon mouse.
Jay asked: “What kind of car did he drive?”
I told him.
“What color sticker?” he pressed, referring to the Department Of Defense decals that identify service personnel as officers or enlisted.
“Blue,” I muttered.
He laughed. “That’s Jeff,” he said. “He’s one of Andrew’s friends.”
Later I was introduced to Jeff at the gay dance club West Coast. We shook hands, he looked at the floor. I didn’t ask Jeff if I could interview him. By then my book on sailors was finished. And he had already done his part for the gays-in-the-military debate, appearing on a network tabloid news show on the topic, in silhouette.
Jeff used to go to the beach with Jay and Andrew.
“Andrew really, really liked Jeff. Jeff was given respect, and space which Andrew didn’t give to that many other people. Andrew always referred to Jeff as ‘the alpha male,’ as in Jane Goodall’s research into chimps. He did it mainly as a joke. He’d say that to show proper honor to the alpha male you have to expose your genitals. He went up to Jeff and imitated a chimpanzee showing his genitals to the alpha male. Not his actual genitals, he just opened his legs.”
Tim knew Jeff, too. Both men graduated the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Jeff Trail, Cunanan’s first (known) victim
“Jeff was a guy who absolutely loved having attention heaped upon him. He craved it. In fact, we used to make fun of him, that if you didn’t pay him enough attention he would start to behave like, ‘You’re not paying attention to me!’ But it wasn’t like he would be putting on performances and making grand gestures to get it. He just liked having people around. He threw parties, and they were very neighborly types of gatherings. They were not the self-absorbed spectacles of an Andrew DeSilva. Jeff was very… Illinoisian. He was just a good-natured, folksy kind of guy. He was such a lot of fun. Really great sense of humor. Very, very loyal type of person.
“When I heard that Andrew was trying to recruit Jay to sell drugs, I spoke with Jeff. At that time I was probably hanging out socially with Jeff more than anyone else. And I said something about Andrew: ‘I just don’t like the guy. There’s something not right about him. He lies a lot. He’s involved in some illicit activities. I just want to stay clear of him.’ The funny part is, Jeff agreed with me. But Jeff’s response was that Andrew considered Jeff to be his best friend, so how could Jeff turn him away?”
I remind Tim of what he told me in his interview in Sailors and Sexual Identity: “No matter how old a group of sailors are, because of the retarded lifestyle of the Navy, they’re a very boyish group. But beyond boyishness, there’s just an incredible vulnerability about them. You realize how much these guys need to be taken care of.” I tell him the cartoon mouse tattoo makes me think of Jeff as especially boy-like.
“Yeah. Actually, that’s a very good description of him. He was kind of like an overgrown 16-year-old.”
Why did he stay so close to somebody like Andrew?
“I think it was Jeff’s loyalty. I think it was also Jeff’s love of attention.”
So Andrew himself craved attention, but he was also a master at providing it.
“Most definitely. I think that was one of the things that probably drew me to him. I mean, it’s not something you like to admit, that you have an ego that needs stroking, but I think when it’s done subtly enough, it’s very comforting until you realize, ‘Hey, I’m, being stroked here.’”
Tim attended the memorial service held for Jeff Trail, Andrew’s friend and allegedly his first victim. I didn’t find out about it in time, but I probably wouldn’t have gone anyway. Some people would probably question the legitimacy of my connection to the murdered former lieutenant. But I couldn’t sleep the night I read that his mother said his bludgeoned body was unrecognizable.
* * *
Coming home to Hillcrest felt like slipping into a blood-warm pool, the air scented with eucalyptus and jasmine, painfully beautiful semi-naked creatures bobbing about me. At first I marveled that anyone should need Xanax in such a naturally tranquilizing atmosphere.
From the airport I went directly to the place where Jeff and I had met.
I am not authorized to visit Navy bases, but the guard shack at the entrance was unmanned. Out of habit I peered inside, looking for Polaroids like the ones I’d seen posted in guard shacks of sailors blacklisted for misconduct. There were none. Instead, there was an extremely poor quality photocopy of Andrew’s FBI poster, the photos all but unrecognizable.
The men’s room was deserted. I checked for graffiti but found only a message from a person who signed himself “Zyklon.” He wrote that he killed faggots, boasting “the bodies are never found.”
I tried to use the Polaroid camera Andrew had given Jay. It jammed. In my frustration I used my Swiss Army Knife to pry open the back of the camera just enough to slice through the print, which came out black but for a blot that Jay, when I showed it to him, said looked like dried blood. I took another shot. Again the camera jammed. I managed to extract this photo intact. It was completely white. How perfect, I thought, that the “man of many faces,” a man who the FBI says leaves no fingerprints, and has no distinguishing scars or tattoos, should give a camera that records no images.
But Andrew was everywhere in San Diego. At least in casual conversation.
Many of the acquaintances I talked to about Andrew seemed unaware that I had not been living in San Diego for eight months. It was as though I never left. And they appeared blithely unconcerned about the prospect of Andrew coming home to kill them. Instead, they joked about him. A man who works at the copy shop where I used to get my mail pressed his fingers to his temples and deadpanned: “Someone was just in here asking for you. Some guy named… Andrew Cunanan.”
A high ranking Marine Corps officer I ran into in a coffeehouse found it humorous that he had let a prostitute, drug addict, and accused serial killer use his cell phone. In a gay bar, I walked into the men’s room and hesitated before eschewing the urinals in favor of a stall. “You don’t have to worry, I’m not going to kill you,” a stranger standing at the urinals reproached me. “I’m not Andrew Cunanan.”
When I got the camera fixed the results were almost as disappointing as the blank photographs. The Polaroid Captiva 95’s format is ill-suited to exterior shots of, for example, the apartment buildings of alleged serial killers. The Captiva was designed as a “party camera.” The best photo taken with the camera Andrew gave Jay is still the first. Shot in a bar – by Jeff Trail – it depicts the reputed psycho killer in Nautica jacket, his head pressed to Jay’s chest, a smile on his lips that now, at least, seems to betray trouble.
Cunanan with Zeeland’s boyfriend Jay – photographed by Jeff Trail
* * *
ANDREW’S COMING, LOOK BUSY
Andrew has been everywhere; nationally too, often in many places at once. An FBI spokesman told America’s Most Wanted, “He’s been sighted in practically every state in the union.”
A Marine Captain who lives in the Bay Area emailed me: “The latest news reports put him in San Francisco. The community is ALL abuzz about it, rife with sightings and reports of encounters. The five o’clock news was actually interviewing bartenders and regulars from the Castro who had seen him. It was really weird, like Elvis sightings or something. I don’t think there’s ever been a gay serial killer like this. It’s very different from Dahmer and the other guy who dressed up like a clown.” This was before Andrew turned up in Miami.
Andrew‘s place in the pantheon of gay serial killers seemed secured when the FBI added him to its Ten Most Wanted list. The Advocate fretted about the bad PR. The San Diego Gay & Lesbian Times editorialized: “Neither Ellen [DeGeneres] nor Cunanan are representative for most people in the gay and lesbian community.”
It was hard to know whether to cringe or laugh at America’s Most Wanted’s interview with Andrew’s roommate’s teeth. Asked the excruciatingly earnest reporter: “There’s been a lot of speculation about the motivation behind these terrible crimes. Was it AIDS causing the fury?”
The Teeth replied: “The HIV-positive thing is a big hoax, I would like to say. It’s just a big rumor.”
Tabloid TV could buy that. But when asked: “Or was it the effect of Cunanan’s interest in sadomasochism?” The polished white incisors chattered: “Andrew did have a, um, fetish for S&M. It never crossed over into his day-to-day activities. Just because someone likes, you know, wrist ties, or, or, anything of that nature doesn’t mean they’re going to go out and kill somebody.” Scary horror movie music erupted as the Fox TV series’ producers cut to a zippered mouth being pulled shut on a leather hood.
The San Francisco Examiner reported that a man “with whom Cunanan had planned to share a two bedroom apartment… got chills when he heard the news of the killings. ‘I’m glad we didn’t become roommates. I feel bad for him in a way, though. If someone had reached out to him, maybe he wouldn’t have gone on this killing spree?’”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted the author of a police textbook on homicide investigation as an expert in “homosexual killings.” He called Andrew “a classic example of that type of serial killer. This is a psycho-sexual manifestation of Cunanan’s rage. Every time he kills a man, he kills that bad part of himself that he doesn’t like.”
“Why is it,” Mark Simpson, author of Anti-Gay, wrote me [collected in The Queen is Dead], “that these days if you’re homosexual you’re not allowed to be evil? You’re just misunderstood. Really, I sympathize with Andrew. You go through all that trouble of murdering your friends, hitting them over the head with claw hammers, cutting their throats with bow saws, torturing them, wrapping them in plastic, and still people won’t accept that you kill not because you’re full of ‘self-loathing,’ but because you enjoy it. Especially when it’s written all over your face. I looked at that snap of Andrew with Jay which you sent me, and immediately thought: ‘Who is that mad, scary bitch?’ But then, people say the same about me.”
I wonder if Andrew and I got some of the same laughs out of his press. When police found the murdered millionaire’s Lexus, the car was strewn with Andrew’s press clippings.
I know that there are many people Andrew would want to kill before me. But I’ve had to consider whether publishing this essay might not move me up on his list. Maybe he would grant me an exclusive interview, my last and best remembered. At its close, in a slightly desperate stab at humor, I’d quote the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Mam is Hard To Find”: “You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you come from nice people!” As my body fell limp to the floor, my cat would rub affectionately against the killer’s leg.
Of course in writing this, I’m indulging in the same drama queen silliness of Andrew-spotters nationwide. Really, Andrew never paid that much attention to me. But he did once offer to kill me.
* * *
SCREWDRIVERS AND STEAK KNIVES
Military boys share something of the attractiveness of the accused. There is a vulnerability and menace about them that derives from their apprenticeship in institutionalized violence, but also from the troubled backgrounds that propel so many of them toward the military, especially the Marine Corps.
One evening Jay returned from dinner with Andrew at California Cuisine to discover that his car had been broken into. Missing were a green suede jacket and a car vacuum cleaner. Probably it was something in his past that led Jay to conclude it was me who had violated his trunk with a screwdriver. He appeared at the door and, to my confusion, wordlessly began packing up his belongings.
Later, Jay related that he went to Andrew for advice. (Tim was out of town.) Andrew told him that he did not know me well enough to say whether I was the type of person who would violently betray the trust of his best friend. “But,” Jay told me cheerfully, “he said that if I wanted him to, he would kill you anyway.”
This offer didn’t seem a big deal at the time. After all, Jay had confided that he himself sometimes dreamed, and daydreamed, about murdering me. “I won’t tell you the details,” he once chuckled, “but it involves an ice pick.”
When I brought this up during our conversation about Andrew, Jay protested: “Doesn’t everybody sometimes dream of murder?”
He has a point. And Jay was, for the most part, a lovable psycho. Even if he did confess that he equates fucking another man with sticking a steak knife into him, to my knowledge he’s never physically hurt anyone who didn’t want it.
Still, after meeting us, Mark Simpson (who’s had his own hair-raising involvements with military boys) wrote me that although he admired our unorthodox partnership, “perhaps I will yet read of one or both of your bloody ends, a la Joe Orton, in the National Enquirer.”
* * *
FEED THE ANEMONE
I don’t know Andrew well enough to say whether he’s the type of person that would violently betray the trust of his best friend. But the incident that marked the turning point in Jay’s – and my –
relationship with Andrew will not come as a surprise to anyone versed in serial killer narratives.
Jay: “We were down at the beach in the tide pools. There was a really, really big anemone that I found. Andrew shrieked and said, ‘I’m going to catch a crab for it!’ So he went around to a rock, and there was a crab that Andrew saw, and it crawled into a little crevice. He tried to dig it out with his fingers and it was pinching at him. He got frustrated and took out his keys. I said, “You know, there’s probably other crabs in other places. We really don’t have to feed the anemone.’
“He snapped at me to shut up. Then he started jabbing his keys into the hole. He had a very focused look in his eye. He just kept jabbing until the crab was basically mush, and there were little pieces falling out. He took the little pieces and fed those to the anemone. Then he went around and found a different, smaller crab that he fed alive to the anemone.”
So that disturbed you?
“Well, there was a certain amount of violence. And he’d already shown me his gun. I guess I kind of took your and Tim’s words to heart and started distancing myself. Which wasn’t too hard to do because a month later I started up school, which almost totally removed me from the picture.”
Jay majored in marine biology.
“Sometimes I would still see Andrew out. He’d say, ‘You haven’t called me,’ but he was never reproachful. He would say, ‘My number’s still the same.’ He’d buy me drinks. It was like I never left.”
* * *
It seems safe to call Andrew a particularly extreme casualty of what author Frank Browning calls the “burden we all face in contemporary consumer society, where we accumulate concepts and slogans about experience instead of living inside of experience.” But, obviously, questions remain.
Writing this essay gave me nightmares. After I got back from San Diego, I visited a low-income medical clinic. Offhandedly I told the doctor, “I need a refill on my prescription for Xanax.”
He grimaced, sighed, and demanded: “Do you have some insight into why you need this?” Ultimately he condescended to prescribe me exactly seven tablets, protesting: “Xanax is such an ’80s drug.”
The night I took my first licit Xanax I had my worst nightmare about Andrew to date. In my waking life I am a pacifist. In my dream, I cut Andrew to pieces with a knife.
The Queen is Dead, Zeeland & Simpson’s collected critically-acclaimed collected correspondence from this period, is now available on Kindle.
marksimpson.com patrons can read here Zeeland’s ‘Making Money Out of Andrew’ July 1997 letter to Mark Simpson about the background to this piece, how the Seattle Stranger spiked it – until Cunanan shot Versace to death. And how he nearly got a five figure advance to write a book about ‘Uncle Monkey’ – until a cornered Cunanan selfishly shot himself in the head.