HAILEY GATES AT THE ELECTRIC ROOM AT THE DREAM DOWNTOWN IN NEW YORK CITY, APRIL 2016. PHOTOS: MICHAEL SCHWARTZ. STYLING: KRISANA SOTELO/THE WALL GROUP. HAIR: CHARLIE TAYLOR/HONEY ARTISTS USING HAIRSTORY. MAKEUP: ERIN PARSONS/ STREETERS USING MAYBELLINE NEW YORK.PRODUCTION: CHRISTIAN MESHESHA AND STEVEN WILLIAMS FOR X2 PRODUCTION. PHOTO ASSISTANT: NATHAN MARTIN. MAKEUP ASSISTANT: DINA DREVENAK.
In Viceland’s States of Undress, Hailey Gates travels to around the world, stopping in Venezuela, Pakistan, Siberia, China, Gaza, Russia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In theory, she’s there to attend the local fashion week, but once there, she is more investigative journalist and anthropologist than fashion ambassador. “We’ve been traveling to hot-spot political countries and using fashion week as an entry point to talk about politics, identity issues, women’s issues, and underreported cultural phenomenons that are present in these places,” she explains.
Raised in L.A., Gates is the granddaughter of legendary screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury. “She’s my mom’s mom,” she says. “I’m so grateful to her for paving the way for the rest of us intense woman to work with the greats.” Gates moved to New York to study playwriting and experimental theater at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and is still based in the city. Now 25, she works for The Paris Review as an advisory editor, does the occasional spot of modeling and acting (you may have seen her Miu Miu campaign lensed by Steven Meisel, or the film she appeared in with Meryl Streep, Ricki and the Flash), and has also written and produced her own plays.
Here, Gates discusses her States of Undress experiences—from trying to find tampons in Caracas to surfing in a burka in Gaza—with New York-based artist Tom Sachs.
TOM SACHS: Hailey, nice to see you.
HAILEY GATES: Nice to see you, Tom.
SACHS: How’s your new fame treating you?
GATES: I don’t think I’m very famous yet.
SACHS: In your TV show you go to difficult places like Pakistan, Russia, China, and the most dangerous city in the world today—Caracas, Venezuela—and you study women’s issues. You go to the fashion show, what else do you do? Let’s pick a city like Caracas, which has been devastated by corruption and the drop in oil prices. Do you have a bodyguard?
GATES: I have many a bodyguard. The thing that’s exciting about going to places, like Caracas, that have such an intense energy is that we are all subject to the circumstances there—no matter if you’re making a documentary or you live there. So, for me, it was exciting to have the moment where I got my period. I just turned to my camera guy and I was like, “We have to talk about this because I’m in the fucking capital city and I can’t find a tampon to save my life.” I ended up doing essentially a drug deal for the tampon. We had been scouring the city and there was nothing. I think we went to at least 25 stores.
SACHS: Eventually, how did you get a tampon?
GATES: I found a guy there who was what they call a “bachaquero,” which translates to “the ants,” because they all wait in line. He’s one of these black market guys who finds the basic need items that are difficult to find and then sells them at a profit.
SACHS: He’s a tampon scalper.
GATES: Basically. [laughs] He had a bunch in his bag, and I was like, “Oh my god, holy grail! Give me those! I’ll give you anything!” And he was like, “No, those are for my daughters.” Immediately my heart sank and I almost burst into tears because I was just thinking of a parent’s responsibility to find things such as tampons and diapers and how it’s such a harrowing process there. I’m only thinking about me, but everyone else is having to provide for a family.
SACHS: What did you learn about overlaying your values as a New Yorker onto your temporary existence as a Caracas-ian?
GATES: We couldn’t get water bottles, that was a big thing, and we couldn’t drink the water. We could find Gatorade, which is so funny, because for some reason on these shoots I crave Gatorade. We were all just pickled in blue Gatorade by the time we were done.
SACHS: Why start with a fashion show?
GATES: When we first started talking about the show, I did think fashion would be sort of limiting. I was worried about it. Then I started thinking about it less in this frivolous way, thinking about it in a basic way as a form of communication: Tom Sachs is sitting across from me, he’s wearing some swank Nike sneakers, a jacket with a 10 bullets patch on it, glasses, his hair is sort of disheveled, he has a heavy-duty watch on. You wouldn’t necessarily wake up and think, “Yo, I’m Tom Sachs. Look at my fashion,” but at the same time, you’re saying to me, “I work out, I’m serious about what I do, I have pride in my work and want to display something that means something to me. I’m into durability.”
SACHS: Just for the record, my watch is made of plastic.
GATES: So when I broke things down and thought, “You wearing sweatpants is as much information as Rihanna’s Met Ball gown,” things started making more sense. I think also fashion tends to be a more female-centric subject and so we were able to follow these women’s stories through that.
SACHS: A great man once said, “If I’m trying to figure out who I’m dealing with, I start with the shoes.” And fashion, intentional or not, is a political expression and it’s an indication of the place that you’re at personally as an individual in this society and also how the people in that culture deal with each other.
GATES: Yeah. And whether it’s a question of: “Here are the things that I’m allowed to wear,” like in Pakistan or Gaza, or “Here are the things that I want you to think about me, that I’m projecting that I would like you to know.”
SACHS: In one episode you go surfing wearing a burka.
GATES: I went to Gaza and met a young girl who is a surfer. [A few years ago] an NGO came to visit and brought the girls burkinis, which are sort of religiously appropriate full-body garments that are made of rash-guard material. It was really difficult, because she has outgrown the burka that they brought her and she’s now a woman, she’s 19 I think, so she has to wear full Islamic dress in the water, which is basically the equivalent of a winter coat.
SACHS: How did it work with their surfing stylings?
GATES: She was quite modest and did not want to be filmed on camera doing that, so she took me out and I attempted to surf in all of this clothing that she dressed me up in. Funnily enough, she chose an all red ensemble for me, so it was kind of this bizarre Islamic Baywatch outfit on the Gaza Strip. She wakes up really early in the morning and she goes out surfing before anyone’s up. She does it for herself, and I think she doesn’t like the attention that it draws.
SACHS: How hard is it to paddle in a burka?
GATES: It was incredibly difficult. She also gave me a board to use that was essentially for a nine-year-old, so it was very short and not buoyant enough to hold the weight of my body. I gave it the old college try, but I felt like I was drowning. When a boat sinks, the first thing you do is take off all your clothes. Then there were these Hamas boats that were out in the water, and she was very cautious of it. I would go under water and my headscarf would fall off, and she was like, “Cover your head! Cover your head!”
SACHS: As if surviving at sea isn’t hard enough.
GATES: The other thing that’s crazy is that there’s a fixed distance in Gaza, so if they go out past 900 feet, I think it is, they are immediately shot by the Israeli navy. There’s this sense of a kind of freedom that she has, but also that only a certain section of the sea is her own. She actually took me out in a boat because her brother has a boat. We drove out as far as we could, and I was just like, “Okay, slow down, buddy. Not too far!” She waited for these Hamas fishing boats to go by and she took off her headscarf and jumped in the water off the boat. She looked up at me and said, “This is where we can swim with our hair down.” I just immediately started sobbing. Then that night there were airstrikes.
SACHS: You could hear them? Were you exposed to airstrikes?
GATES: I was sitting in my room listening to bombs drop, wondering…
SACHS: Were you scared for your life this past year? Tell me about the scariest moment you’ve had? [whispers] Make it sound scary. Don’t let the truth get in the way!
GATES: [laughs] That was really scary. I felt incredibly helpless, which I imagine is only a fraction of how everyone that lives in Gaza feels. I puked. Then I thought, “I can’t call anyone I love because the feeling that I feel right now is so extreme.” I didn’t want them to feel even an inkling of the helplessness that I felt. The only thing that was comforting was that I was in a hotel, and I figured that’s where journalists stay…
SACHS: Hotels feel safe.
GATES: But we woke up in the morning and everyone was back on the beach like nothing had happened. I never thought I would go to Gaza, it’s incredibly difficult to get into and when you get there, it’s a war zone. Then they have this beach, and there’s this incredible, vibrant beach culture there, which is something that I grew up with in Southern California. There was this very intense feeling of, “I feel like I’m on the moon, I’m in the hardest place in the world to get to, but it smells like my home.”
SACHS: The places that you go to are the most dangerous places on earth, yet people find a sense of normalcy. You’ve met some incredible people this year; there was one man you met in Saint Petersburg, a dating counselor. I was really taken by your segment with him.
GATES: Russia was tough. I was trying really hard to allow the people I was interviewing to tell their stories and impart on us their opinions and wisdom, but it was severely at odds with my philosophies. He was the only one where I felt comfortable enough by the end to push back a little.
SACHS: You were very respectful and let your subjects dig their own graves. I noticed you pushing back in that episode, but it worked. What was interesting to me was how he responded when you broke down that wall.
GATES: I think also the comfort I felt in talking back to him was mostly because he was speaking about me.
SACHS: He was treating you like a client.
GATES: He was treating me like a client and saying things to me like, “You’re pretty, but your personality is a problem. Don’t worry, when you fall in love your personality will disappear.” He was saying things that were so deeply offensive to me, and he was making suggestions for me on how to become a marriable woman, so I felt I had some freedom there to speak back.
SACHS: I remember, because I watched it, but for the readers, what other things was he suggesting about sex and things to do and not to do?
GATES: He mentioned to take all dating profile pictures when you’re ovulating. [laughs] To never use a condom with a man that you think you might marry, because there’s some kind of pheromone exchange that apparently happens, not to mention STDs being transferred. He said it’s impossible for a man to fall in love with you if you have oral or anal sex.
SACHS: Why did he say that?
GATES: I’m still sort of confused as to his theory on that, but something about having sex “the way god intended.” I was like, “I don’t believe in god.”
SACHS: You told him that?
GATES: There have been a couple of moments where I asked translators if I could use that phrase and it’s often denied.
SACHS: The translators wouldn’t say it?
GATES: Yeah. It happened a lot in China. It was so interesting that it was even down to my translator not wanting to translate certain questions that I had asked.
SACHS: Like what?
GATES: Anything about the government. In some cases you have to say to yourself, “I don’t want any of these people to get in trouble because of this show that I’m making.” You have to judge the situation for yourself—what’s the most important question to ask and what’s a way that we can ask it without making everyone feel uncomfortable and allow people to speak. It feels like the most euphemistic society in this way. I felt like people were desperately trying to tell me things, but they were using nature or sayings or proverbs as a way to impart it.
SACHS: They get poetic instead of specific.
GATES: Very poetic, which is difficult.
SACHS: Tell me about Abdul Aziz Ghazi. Who is he, where did you meet him, and how did you get to speak with him?
GATES: Abdul Aziz Ghazi is a hardline Islamic cleric with ties to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. He recently, controversially, pledged his allegiance to ISIS as well. I met him in his hiding place in Islamabad, where he runs a madrasa—a religious school. He used to be the imam of the Red Mosque [in Pakistan]. He still is, but he’s not legally allowed to set foot in the Red Mosque anymore. I had a great fixer who helped me get to him. He hasn’t been giving interviews, so it was a little bit difficult. I had to leave my security detail behind when I met him because they’re at odds with each other. The only real comfort I had was that he had asked for the questions beforehand. There were two rules: I wasn’t allowed to ask anything about ISIS or Yemen. He brought them up on his own, which was very exciting for me. [laughs] I wore my first burka to meet him. He was far more welcoming then I had imagined him to be.
SACHS: Did you look him in the eye?
GATES: He would not look me in the eye based on Sharia law, which is fascinating because it had almost the opposite effect on me; I know that it may make one feel lesser or sort of ignored or not regarded as equal, but it made me feel like Medusa. I felt this incredible power that he would not look me in the eye, so I was constantly asking him questions, staring at him directly to see if he would break.
SACHS: When you had your interviews, how did you find the power of your sexuality on your subjects? From this guy Abdul Aziz Ghazi to the guy in Russia who said blowjobs were bad. You eventually even asked him if he’d had a blowjob and his answer was—
GATES: Thousands. I threw a spoon at him.
SACHS: And he laughed.
GATES: He did.
SACHS: Do you find that your appearance opens doors or closes them?
GATES: In some ways, because I look the way that I do, people find me unassuming at first, which is a great weapon, especially considering I’m a young girl and I’m here to talk about fashion. It’s a great entry point. Then slowly people feel the wrath of my intentions. But I was very surprised, because I was in full burka when I spoke to Ghazi and he didn’t look at me, so technically he never saw me. I was invisible to him. But there was kind of a warmth—and dare I say flirtation—from him that I was not expecting.
SACHS: Sexual flirtation?
GATES: No, but he asked me to stay for two weeks and accept Islam into my heart and I politely declined.
SACHS: But he’s an evangelist. He’s just doing his job.
GATES: Yeah, but there was a kind of playfulness to him that I wasn’t expecting. I thought he would be way more terrifying. This is the guy that I think is going to have the most intense views on what women should and should not be, and then there’s that insane moment when his wife comes out and chews him out on camera in front of all of us, and he turns to me and says, “They call her the president.” I thought I was going to drop to the floor. It was so shocking.
SACHS: She chews him out because he’s in a room with a woman?
GATES: And he’s being interviewed. She said, “You didn’t ask me. I told you not to give interviews.” There are so many layers.
SACHS: You’ve worked as a high fashion model, so you’re not just a critic of fashion and culture and how women’s bodies aren’t there own; you’re an active participant. How do you feel about that?
GATES: Complicated. It’s not something that I ever pursued. It’s something that came my way. I never had an agent or anyone helping me, I just would get an email every once and a while. And it was fun. I got to travel.
SACHS: You still do it?
GATES: Yeah, a little bit. For the right reason. I wrote a play that I directed and I was in, and I paid for the sets and the costumes and to put it up in a theater all through modeling. It really afforded me a lot of creative control in my life.
SACHS: So it’s been a good vehicle for the projects that are meaningful to you. How do you feel about the work you’ve done?
GATES: I’ve always been myself in them, so I don’t feel too far away from it. I was proud of the Miu Miu stuff.
SACHS: There was a fantastic moment in Saint Petersburg. Do you want to tell it?
GATES: There was a moment where they sent over a stylist to dress me up to attend a seminar for women to understand what men want, because it’s very difficult to find a husband in Russia. The stylist brought over a number of “dos” and “don’ts” that were photos from magazines. She started off with the “dos,” and they were ’50s silhouettes and lots of pinks and soft fabrics and accentuating the waist and the breasts. She said things like, “Don’t wear leather, but if you do, make sure it’s pink.” [laughs] Then she pulled out a tear out from a magazine, and she started describing it: “You should never wear animal print, because a man is the center of attention and you should not distract from that. Also this is a very bad attitude, you should always be smiling, Russian men love it when you smile.” And I said, “I hate to tell you this, but that’s a picture of me.” And it was a picture of me from the Miu Miu campaign that Steven Meisel shot, looking very, very unmarriable. So I was starting at a deficit.
SACHS: She was earning her fee. Throughout all the episodes, you subject yourself to the local customs. Whether it’s surfing in a burka, or in Venezuela you do a fashion show, or you go on a date with a dating counselor in Saint Petersburg and many other hilarious and subversive things, but you submit yourself each time. How do you feel coming back to the United States after all of this and submitting yourself to the culture in which you grew up?
GATES: It’s funny. Because I was working at The Paris Review before, and I still work there, there was this great presence of George Plimpton, who was sort of the inventor of participatory journalism. I had read so many pieces that he had written, so I think there was this Plimpton training that I got before I left. It’s funny to think about him, because he’s a very grand, WASP-ish, society guy, who embarrassed the shit out of himself doing all of these things poorly. It was nice because I would go on these trips and I would go back to The Paris Review and there was this warmth in that space that allowed me to decompress and move on. I definitely find New York now incredibly convenient, far more beautiful than I ever thought it was—I always thought it was kind of a disgusting place—and very boring. [laughs]
SACHS: [laughs] Amazing. I want that to be the end of the interview but I’d like to do some other stuff first.
GATES: Before you ask me some more questions, you and I worked together. Maybe we should talk about that. We worked together on a film called A Space Program. We have spent many a night eating spaghetti and meatballs and waxing poetic. But there are three things that I constantly think about that you have taught me when I am out on the road. The first one is: It’s easier to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.
GATES: Which I’d like to amend, because I got detained for Venezuela for following your advice.
SACHS: Tell me.
GATES: This is not in the episode, but I met a young girl there who was studying to become a plastic surgeon. She had a situation with her own breasts where one was significantly bigger than the other, and it’s as hard to find breast implants as it is to find tampons. There’s a very famous situation that happened with the President there, where a man threw him a mango that said, “Hey, if you have a second, call me.” And the President called him and he said, “I need a house,” and the President bought him a house. So I went to the President’s house with this young girl, and we wrote on a coconut, because that’s the term they use for breast there, “If you have a second, call me. I need some help.” We walked up to the guards. The President wasn’t there for us to throw it at him, so we left it there and then were immediately arrested and detained for many hours. [laughs]
SACHS: For the coconut.
GATES: Yes, the coconut scandal of 2016. So I think we should make some country-specific amendments.
SACHS: Sure. It is absolutely a sense that comes with the brashest, entitled, American perspective that could produce punk rock—there’s a reason you don’t have great punk music in any of the places that you visited. Or if you do, they get arrested like Pussy Riot.
GATES: The next one is, “This won’t fail because of me.” It’s been an incredible mantra this year, because you’re in all of these places and everything is so much harder than you imagine it to be. There’s always a moment where you can make it a little bit easier for yourself, and I don’t.
GATES: So I’m very grateful for that. Then the last thing was, you have a show up at the Noguchi Museum about the tea ceremony, and the tea master said this great thing that you repeated to me once about using a bamboo shoot as a vessel for water—you can use the wrong thing for the right reason. That’s how I feel about taking on this show. I’m not a journalist. I have not gone to school for this.
SACHS: You went to the Plimpton school.
GATES: There’s something about that phrase that really resonates with my understanding of myself embarking on this journey.
SACHS: I’m honored. I think what you’re doing is of the highest importance. This isn’t entertainment; this is 1970s-style journalism. Only on Vice could this exist. On any other channel it would be cancelled for being too good. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s hard-hitting, and it’s compassionate. You’re incredibly respectful to these people who would be easy to hate or look on with pity. You expose these people as expressions of the situations that they’re in, the conditions that are much larger than any individual. Similarly, we can live by outrageous mantras because we live in a society of such freedom where all those things actually really work. If I’ve learned anything from your show, it is how lucky I am to be here. What are your next cities? Where are you looking at?
GATES: I’m looking at Iran, maybe Beirut. I’d love to do Mexico. Maybe Vietnam.
SACHS: I just read that Wim Delvoye, the Belgian artist, bought a few mansions in the desert in Iran. They’re beautiful. I’m sure he’d be happy to have you as a guest.
GATES: Do you remember the artist that made bronze she-pees, Janine Antoni?
SACHS: What’s a she-pee?
GATES: It’s so you can pee standing up if you’re a girl.
SACHS: A femme pissoire.
GATES: I would like to use this opportunity to ask you to make me one.
SACHS: Done and done. Do you want this to be something you carry around or in your house?
GATES: Carry around. I need it for use. We can talk about the dimensions.
SACHS: It might involved a casting…
GATES: [laughs] That sounds intense. My greatest frustration on these shoots is peeing. I find it to be such an incredible burden.
SACHS: Have you ever gone down the road of clity litter?
GATES: Clity litter? Like a diaper?
SACHS: It’s like a little cardboard box that’s got the right shape and you put it between your legs and you can just pee on it.
GATES: I’ve peed in incredibly bizarre places at this point. I’ve been joking about getting a catheter for the next season, but I figure the she-pee will be a little more glam.
SACHS: I’ve looked at one NASA does, and I think the right tube and something to catch the last drip.
GATES: Being a girl and peeing is so hard. It’s my least favorite thing about being a girl.
SACHS: No matter how big your balls are, Hailey, and you’ve got a big set…
GATES: I still have to sit to pee.
TOM SACHS IS A NEW YORK-BASED ARTIST. STATES OF UNDRESS AIRS WEDNESDAYS ON VICELAND.