Inside Artist Sarah Baker’s Glitzy, Riotous Versace Soap Opera

Published December 12, 2019

Sarah Baker. Courtesy Baroness.

Sarah Baker, the artist behind Versace’s six-episode holiday campaign, is a soap opera savant. The series, a gem-laden joyride of luxury and intrigue, was released in combination with an art book and an issue of Baroness Magazine, guest-edited by none other than Donatella herself. Baker fell in love with the soap opera genre—and with the maximalist ethos of Versace—while attending the San Francisco Art Institute, where she first encountered a “symbolic language of wealth” that many of her classmates were fluent in.

Baker, now a master of that language, has spent the last 20 years making film and performance works that explore the mystique of wealth and celebrity. Over the course of a lengthy relationship with Baron Magazine (and its sister magazine, Baroness), Baker has written and produced a number of 80’s-reminiscent romance novels and micro-soap operas: mood pieces in which women with gravity-defying hairdos swirl martinis with long, manicured fingernails, their cleavage jingling with gold jewelry. Baker narrates the films with her signature monotone, underscoring the comedic heights to which she’s elevated the stuffy genre of pulp romance entertainment.

Baroness by Sarah Baker.

The episodes serve as a condensed version of Baker’s art book, and they’re everything one could hope they would be. Viewers can expect much greed and scandal (par for the course), as well as a hearty dose of feminist plot subversion. We sat down with Baker to discuss oysters on the half shell, gold chains nestled in chest hair, bejeweled handcuffs, and poolside collusion.

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MARA VEITCH: Why are you drawn to depictions of glitz and fame in your work?

SARAH BAKER: I’ve always been interested in the accumulation of established wealth. I think what sparked my interest was studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, where there were so many people who looked extremely wealthy. Then I went to London to do my master’s degree, where I became this poster girl of cheerleader Americana to my British classmates. I became very interested in representation and how we judge one another based on these cultural signifiers. These symbols of culture and wealth led to my interest in Versace almost 20 years ago. 

VEITCH: Why is Versace the embodiment of wealth for you?

BAKER: It’s those beautiful over-the-top Baroque patterns, luxury depicted through patterns and jewelry. This led to my interest in Jackie Collins, who was the grandmother, I guess you could say, of this uber-bitch character. Jackie Collins wrote that character in The Stud and the character was called Fontaine Khaled and Fontaine was played by Joan Collins and The Stud and then Aaron Spelling took that character and the actress and turned her into Dynasty.

VEITCH: A soap opera is something of a trap for a female character: she’s ruled by passion, she’s empty-headed. What are you doing to subvert that typical character?

BAKER: It’s hard, because the women in these shows are constantly cat fighting. But what we were interested in—when I say “we,” I mean me and Baron Magazine and Donatella Versace—was creating a more supportive feminine scenario. In chapter one, when Angelina gets a blackmail note, she thinks her arch-nemesis, the Baroness, is behind it. The Baroness is a towering, monstrous depiction of brains and cold beauty, but her character is actually surprisingly compassionate.

VEITCH: What is the message that you send with this project?

BAKER: Ultimately I was interested in character development. Angelina was originally going to basically crumble and disintegrate. But that was not on-brand for Versace, which was actually great. Ultimately, all three parties wanted to depict a typical soap opera scenario, but with the twist simply being that these women are working together.

VEITCH: How did you come to be working on this? Did you know Donatella beforehand?

BAKER: No, I didn’t know her before. I’ve worked with Baron Magazine quite a bit. They approached me to do a book for Baroness Magazine, they do a lot of art books. It was almost a sequel to the last project we worked on, which was called Angel. We got Versace as a partner, and Donatella loved it. 

VEITCH: How involved was Donnatella?

BAKER: She was really vocal about maintaining a certain aesthetic. She had a very clear vision for the story. It was extremely collaborative. Donnatella wanted Helena Christensen to play the Baroness, and we were thrilled that that was even a possibility.

VEITCH: Are there particular moments in the series that you really love?

BAKER: I had a really fun time dubbing everyone’s voices. I was going for a book-on-tape sort of feel. I really loved doing Angelo’s voice. Versace asked me to lower my voice a bit. Another thing is that we actually did a full version of Angelina’s song, “Spritz Me With Your Love.” We’ll be releasing it soon, actually.

VEITCH: Cannot wait.