The Art of Perfume Ads: Lady Gaga Fame

Fame, the first fragrance to bear Lady Gaga’s name, will be released in September. First disclaimer: I haven’t tried it yet, so this isn’t a review. Instead, I’m taking a lighthearted look at the advertising image that was released in July. Second disclaimer: although I’m a general admirer of Lady Gaga’s music and self-presentation, I’m not an expert on her every word and deed. This is just my own, Rorschach–blot-like impression of the ad. And one quick warning: this post will include further nudity, albeit of an artistic nature. (NSFW!)

This ad for Fame (shot by Steven Klein) is refreshingly unlike any other perfume ad that we’ve seen lately: no embracing male-female couple, no evening gown, no grassy meadow, no fancy interiors, no flowers. Just the Lady herself, posed like an odalisque, nude except for clusters of tiny, thong-clad men and a black leather mask.

Given the subject of the fragrance, and many of her songs, I’m tempted to look at this set-up as a metaphor for “fame.” Do the climbing men symbolize the star’s fans (yes, the “little monsters”), latching onto her glamor and power? Or do they represent the many moving parts of the fame-machinery that has made her a household name?

And what about that mask? It could just be a bondage reference (again, not one of my particular areas of expertise). On the other hand, it does remind me of certain older photographs that I’ve seen.

A few years ago, a work project led me to read about E. J. Bellocq’s photographs of female prostitutes in New Orleans, shot in the red-light Storyville neighborhood at the close of the nineteenth century and the opening years of the twentieth century. Bellocq photographed the women in the rooms where they lived and worked, sometimes unclothed, occasionally wearing masks to protect their identities.

You can read more about Bellocq and his Storyville portraits in a post on the Smithsonian blog, here. They’re memorable images, not just because of the nudity and the masks, but because the women seem to be captured as individuals, “off-duty.”

Bellocq has been a strong source of inspiration for the living photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, who has restaged and expanded some of Bellocq’s Storyville tableaux. I’m not really a fan of Witkin’s work, but I do know that he has influenced everyone from Alexander McQueen to David Fincher, and I’m sure that the Haus of Gaga is aware of his art too.

Witkin has posed a variety of nude models in masks, including these three hermaphrodites [correction: pre-operative transsexuals] in a parody of the classical “Three Graces.” He constantly borrows and transforms images from art history, and then the cycle is perpetuated when he in turn inspires other artists.

On the other hand, there was something else about the Fame ad that seemed familiar to me, something not quite as historical. When a certain memory came to my mind, I laughed and then I tracked it down on the internet.

Remember those little muscular men? (Apparently the model Zeb Ringle posed for most of them.) Well, they reminded me of certain posters and prints that were sold at shopping-mall gift shops in the late 1980s and early 1990s (and still might be sold there, for all I know.)

These “bodyscapes” by the “self-taught photographer” Allan I. Teger (as you can see by the copyright information!) play with scale by placing miniature human figures on a nude body.

I’m still not sure whether these scenes are meant to be humorous, or whether I’m laughing for the right reasons. I actually haven’t thought about them in years, and I didn’t expect them to surface in my memory in connection with Lady Gaga, that’s for certain.

Part of the fun of Lady Gaga, for me, is seeing how she and her collaborators, her fellow magpies, pick and choose from fashion and art and popular culture of all kinds. I’m probably making my own connections here, like a game of free association, but that’s part of the fun too.

What do you see in Lady Gaga’s Fame advertisement?

Images: Bellocq photographs via Fraenkel Gallery; Witkin photographs via Edelman Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Photography; Allan I. Teger photographs via Bodyscapes.

To read more posts in this series, click here.

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13 thoughts on “The Art of Perfume Ads: Lady Gaga Fame

  1. This picture of Lady Gaga is just stunning! Like a mixture of Matisse, Bellock and Man Ray all rolled up into one. Thank you for the information about Teger, for the life of me I can’t remember ever seing these pictures.

      1. I’m actually pretty fond of this ad, which is so unlike anything else out there (Too bad we can’t say the same for the actual fragrance.) Like so much of what Lady Gaga does, it’s a deliberate layering of references to high and low culture… I don’t think any of us would say she possesses the pure innovation of a Matisse or a Man Ray, but she (and her team) are certainly clever at picking and (re)mixing!

      2. Wether these artists where considered as inpiration or not for this picture is quite irrelevant, this is what I personaly saw in it. What is relevant, is the fact that even if it’s overprocessed, it takes into consideration the past. It uses known imagery cleverly to appeal to the masses. Will the picture end up in a museum, quite doubtful. Will it help sell a lot of “Fame”, I do believe it will.

  2. “The Three Graces” are definitely not hermaphrodites-they are pre-op transsexuals. Joel has been masking his models since the beginning of his career.

  3. I am very glad that your blog both discusses the makeup/ perfume which makes up the surface art/ of this culture then goes deeper.. one of the issues I am very concerned with is the actual makep chemicals…. IN the perfumes women wear all the time….. its like the lead in Romes water…… etc… anyway I like your blog….:-)

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