ABOVE: CHRIS BLACK. PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFF HENRIKSON
It was the most #blessed of times. It was the most #fml of times. Narcissism ruled the land in tandem with insecurity. And, on the Internet, no one knew what they were doing.
“When I figured out that I could sell knitting supplies to a luxury car company and advise a household battery brand on how it could raise its profile among tweens and teens, I became certain that a loudmouth with an opinion was a good thing to be,” writes Chris Black in the introduction to his new book, I Know You Think You Know It All (Powerhouse). “Reality is in short supply,”he continues.
Black, who writes a column for Style.com and occasionally blogs about a beauty brand he really digs, used to manage musical acts, and now runs the creative agency Done to Death Projects, where he produces campaigns for brands like New Balance and Schott. His job, so to speak, exists right in the hyper-modern, gooey sweet spot where fashion brands, personalities, and the Internet collide, and where his voice, his opinion, and his taste are sought-after commodities. His stentorian Twitter dictates about etiquette (“Stop whining about how tired you are”), social commentary, and quotes from great dead people on how to behave, read like a good-old-boy Emily Post wacked out on edibles wearing digi camo. People of the Internet took note, and Black collected his thoughts into a book. Know It All , however, is more than just a “best of;” it is its own entity, a tongue-in-cheek sum greater than it’s parts, and it’s just as fun to be around as its author.
CHRIS WALLACE: I wanted you to critique all my super thirsty Instagrams…
CHRIS BLACK: Yeah, but your Throwback Thursdays come from a backlog of photos that were professionally taken by a famous photographer that I really like. I was very jealous of [Paul Jasmin’s] birthday cake.
WALLACE: The giant joint?
BLACK: Oh my god.
WALLACE: That is very on-brand for you. Speaking of your brand, why are you so bossy? Who are you to be telling people how to be? How to do it? What not to do?
BLACK: That’s just strictly being opinionated. And our modern times have given me a place to do that on a mass scale. I’ve always said this shit to people I know, but now that there’s Twitter I’m able to do it and everyone can see it and like it or hate it.
WALLACE: That’s what plays well online. You’re firmly on one side of a fence.
BLACK: You can’t be wishy-washy. That’s the most boring thing in the world, to be a middle-of-the-road wet noodle. That’s my greatest fear, to be like, “Oh, whatever.” That’s just not who I am.
WALLACE: How did it form? When you were 13, were you already the type of person to see a movie you didn’t like and be like, “Nope”?
BLACK: Honestly, it was from being into hardcore and punk. It’s such a very opinionated world. “This is what I’m into, and if you’re not into it, you suck.” I got into that at 13 and in that world you’re rewarded for being opinionated. I was surrounded by people that I had everything in common with, which is pretty rare for a young person.
WALLACE: So the slightest differences are magnified.
BLACK: Very much so. Being vegan—and this was very 12-years-ago—it was very different. You had to seek things out. It took a lot of work to find out the information you were looking for. You couldn’t go online. You had to mail order things. So you also formed relationships with people. As a 15 year old, I had friends in L.A. I’d never been to L.A., but we shared the same subculture together. We were into the same shit, which I think is crucial to my whole thing.
WALLACE: William Gibson said this amazing thing about how the Internet both made everybody a part of all kinds of zany subcultures, but also ruined subculture as a thing.
BLACK: Because you can just be an expert in 10 minutes about anything. You don’t even have to be that into it to be an expert.
WALLACE: You don’t need the proximity of a likeminded person. You don’t have to go to the bookshop and geek out with somebody about the first edition Lovecraft. You can be a dude in Arizona freaked out about Bauhaus design and—
BLACK: Yes. And you can own all of the books. You can do all the research. You can buy everything.
WALLACE: Everybody can “do” themselves. As Colson Whitehead just wrote, that’s our refrain, “Do you.” But that sounds so insecure. We’re so fucking insecure that we have to force ourselves into a kind of narcissism.
BLACK: The Internet is the most insecure. You’re looking for validation all day—that’s the whole thing.
WALLACE: Did you like my picture yet?
BLACK: [laughs] “Wait, did you like it?”
WALLACE: It’s been a whole five minutes.
BLACK: Hold on. Give me one second. But that’s really what it is. The reality, too, is that you can make a living off of this shit. I know people who—without naming names—are, in my opinion, fully embarrassing themselves for a buck. I guess it’s better than working in a fucking factory, or doing something you don’t want to do. But I couldn’t live like that. I have a little more self-respect than that.
WALLACE: I still don’t know what you do for a living.
BLACK: Sure. And that’s part of the fun of it. That’s my whole thing. For me, if someone is interested in working with me, I would much rather them email me and we sit down or get on the phone, than them look at a client list and decide if I’m worth it or not. It should be based on work, and based on how we get along. As opposed to like, “Oh, he’s worked with this, this, and this. Let’s go. That’s fine.”
WALLACE: Are you the sage in real life? Do your friends come to you for advice?
BLACK: Totally. Someone told me recently, “You’re like Oprah, man. People will tell you anything.” I’ll ask questions and I don’t care. If you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine, but it’s not going to be aggressive. It’s going to be, “Oh what happened here, here, and here?” Nine times out of 10, people answer. And that’s how you get to know people. I’m open, too. If you tell me something and maybe you’re feeling a little embarrassed or whatever, I can reciprocate and push the conversation. I think that has a lot to do with it. I also think it has to do with the fact that it’s no judgments. Not to be a hippie about it, but I think that’s what it is. It’s a combination of being willing to ask the questions, and being very open myself.
WALLACE: We grow up, so many of us, with the how-tos of men’s magazines.
BLACK: We both participated in that to an extent.
WALLACE: We did. And it must be working. There are kids out there who aren’t being given instruction on how to be a man. And maybe it’s more necessary now than ever. Parents can’t tell them how to behave within a medium, the Internet…
BLACK: That they don’t understand. I never thought about that. I talk about this in the book, but I see a lot of that on Tumblr —people asking advice from people they don’t know. That’s so odd to me. You like their taste in… pictures? That leads you to believe they’ll give you great advice on a real problem you’re having? That’s very odd.
WALLACE: That brings us to the point of tastemakers-slash-influencers. This is a thing that is important.
BLACK: Where does the line get drawn?
WALLACE: How have these people become the elect? Because you have a Getty account and post dope pictures of Paul Newman?
BLACK: That’s the last person I want to know about life from. Asking an anonymous person for advice seems very odd.
WALLACE: But are you going to get it a lot now?
BLACK: I wonder. I would love to. I’m totally down to answer those questions. It’s like Glenn O’Brien—he’s the only one that does it right. And in his case, it’s mostly fashion leaning. So it leaves a little to be desired, as far as life.
WALLACE: How is social media changing us? Or have we molded it toward a sort of baseline of our own human instincts? The way Instagram works, is that a distillation of something we are already doing, and it’s just the crack version?
BLACK: Yeah. I’m double tapping people as they walk down the street. You know what I mean? When I first moved to New York, I would sit on that bench in front of Balthazar and I would just look at people all day. I couldn’t get enough. But what I was doing was like, “Eh, I could take it or leave it.” Or, “Oh, that’s a cool this. Or that’s a cool that.” Or, “She’s super hot.” That’s the real life version, pre-Instagram.
WALLACE: Do you have rules that you live by?
BLACK: Not so straight ahead as all that, but yeah, definitely. My wife will tell you that I’m very particular and it’s annoying for other people. I eat the same thing every day. I go to the gym at the same time every day. I have a schedule. I go to L.A. all the time, so I take that same 9:30 am Delta flight from JFK. I will not take another one. And it doesn’t matter at all, but I just won’t do it. So I do have rules, and etiquette things. I think it’s a southern thing too, to an extent. I’ll hold the door for someone, but if they don’t say, “Thank you,” it pisses me off. I say, “Yes, ma’am,” and, “Yes, sir.” Stuff that is maybe archaic in a lot of ways, but that’s how I was raised, and I don’t think there’s really any harm in that. I was forced to go to Cotillion when I was in seventh grade. So I learned what fork is what and dance steps.
WALLACE: Where’s the section in the book about soup spoons?
BLACK: I left that out. It wasn’t even some hoity-toity shit. It was just something everybody did where I’m from. Very southern.
WALLACE: What’s the IRL life of this thing? Are you going to do speaking tours?
BLACK: I would love to do speaking. That’s what I love to do.
WALLACE: Take this show on the road.
BLACK: There are two things that inspired me a lot. The first one, that I learned about a long time ago, and I’ve probably told you this before, is that the cast of The Real World, as soon as their season is over, go do very lucrative speaking tours at colleges. So I was like, “If those bozos can do it, I definitely can do it.” Then I recently heard about Jeff Garlin, during some sort of press tour he was doing, he would just stand up there and be like, “All right. Ask me anything you want for an hour.” No one can ask me questions about working with Larry David, so it doesn’t really work the same way. But that kind of thing where it’s like, “Whatever you want man. I’ll give you my two cents.”
WALLACE: Well, will you give me a “like?” This pic is fire.