09.09.2015

Agent Provocateur

Call her Britney, Barbie or Babez

Words: Cayleigh Bright | Photographs: Nick Gordon

On Jana’s windowsill are three books: Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and Kim Kardashian’s Selfish.

“We live in the time of Kim Kardashian,” she says. "I think we’ll be remembered for that.”

We’re in Jana's sunny home taking pictures of her, having surprised her housemate that morning by arriving, photographer in tow, and waking him. We get the impression that the household’s not used to being awake this early, but that everyone adapts easily to unusual happenings at this point.

Jana and I share a best friend, although we’re from pretty different social circles. This means, firstly, that I’m seldom surprised anymore by what happens around her, and secondly, that I’ve come to appreciate her take on pop culture, from her love for Britney Spears to her decisive opinions on spats between celebrities. I don’t mind admitting that I underestimated her the first time I met her, about five years back: I didn’t think that I’d ever find myself discussing feminism and literature with her. Kim Kardashian? I would’ve predicted that, because I’ve been guilty of underestimating Kim, too.

“I love that though,” Jana says of people who take her at face value, making their assumptions based on her blonde hair and penchant for pink. “I find that aesthetic interesting, and it’s great to surprise people. It gives you the upper hand, because people don’t necessarily know how much you know, so they’ll be more open with you. And then you can come in at the eleventh hour, like, bam.”

Today, she’s dressing in all manner of textures, styles and colours, creating outfits that would be hard to categorise as belonging to any specific aesthetic or era. As she lies in a bath dressed in lingerie, a lacy robe and high heels, our photographer says, “Nice and natural.” It’s obvious why it’s funny, but I’d argue that this is Jana Babez in her most natural state. She wouldn’t.

“I try to push it,” she says of her personal style. “People think they dress ‘normally’ or ‘conservatively’, but that is just as affected as wearing a Justin Bieber shirt and cowboy boots. People wil say ‘Oh, I’m not very adventurous with my style,’ but you still decided to put that on. It might be two-tone, but you chose this.”

She has a point. I did indeed choose the navy blue poloneck and green parka that I’m wearing as I interview her. The contrast between my look and Jana’s might have been even stronger if we’d been doing this about a year ago – or, when she was going through either what she calls her ‘Barbie’ or her ‘Britney’ phases. Still, she’s far from demure. “I have more of what one would consider fancy dress outfits than ‘normal clothes’,” she explains. “I have sailor hats, I have cowboy hats, Hawaiian leis, an excessive amount of hats in every material imaginable. Shiny, reflective, leopard print. And even more than fancy dress costumes, I have lingerie.”

If you don’t know Jana personally, you might have a vague idea of her as the girl who was called onto stage during Lady Gaga’s Cape Town concert, thanks in part to the prominent headdress she created with plastic toys and a deftly used glue gun (she has the T-shirt from the concert framed on her wall). The parallels between Jana and the star are pretty easy to spot, but it’s Dolly Parton whose style she's currently loving. She’s into cowboy boots at the moment, but the admiration has more to do with the country singer’s blonde wig and over-the-top aesthetic than the middle-American influence.

The blonde hair’s kind of become her trademark, whatever she’s wearing. Another way you might know her is as that performing artist who walked around town in a stretchy, hot pink suit covering all of her except for her ponytail.

“I was kind of a social experiment,” she says. “It stemmed from catcalling. I don’t drive, so I walk quite a bit, and no matter what I’m wearing, no matter how I look… You’re still gonna get these remarks. I was in this insanely pink, bright suit. I can’t see, my hands are covered up so I can’t use them. I was the most visible person on the landscape, but at the same time disabled. Because this is not a human, this is an android. But of course they did.”

Once dressed in the suit, Jana started at the Mowbray taxi rank and headed for the Cape Town Station and the Grand Parade area, on another occasion taking it to the V&A Waterfront, to the Louis Vuitton store and the Wheel of Excellence, and on yet another occasion out to a club at night.

“Because it was a performance, I didn’t want to guide it,” she continues. “I wanted it to happen as naturally as possible. If someone would do something I wouldn’t stop them. I wouldn’t be like ‘Get off me,’ as you would in real life, because I wanted to see how far people would go if they could. People would grab my vagina, they would grab my boobs. They’d say the craziest things. To be honest, the reactions weren’t that different. I didn’t really have expectations. People were very outwardly sexual towards me and ya, I guess that was it. It’s about being a woman and walking through a city. You’re not a person to them.”

If she's troubled by snap judgements based on appearances, Jana's not showing it. Instead, she's fascinated by them – and how they can be interpreted, or subverted.

“’Oh the Kardashians do nothing for a living. What do they do? They’re just famous for being famous…’, she says, putting on a voice which is clearly not hers, and could be mimicking a conservative older man or that girl you went to high school who shares articles on Facebook with the vague disclaimer that she "didn't have time to click the link". It’s certainly hard to argue that any one family has got us talking about as many different social issues as the Kardashian-Jenners have, from transgenderism to the devalidation of women’s achievements based on their sexual behaviour – or, you know, how they dress. “And of course they are still very much ‘plastic’, and adhere to a Western standard of beauty, but I think that they do bring a different body type into mainstream media – different from the ‘heroin chic’ ideal.”

Whether or not it's healthy to idolise famous people is an old debate, but what Jana’s interested in is how we’re using celebrity culture in new ways, and how it’s getting us talking. “I sit on Twitter a lot. I don’t tweet that much, but I’ll sit on Twitter a lot and I follow a lot of 15-to-19-year-olds – because I’m a Justin Bieber fan, so you have to follow these fan accounts, and I’m always surprised by how intelligent and meaningful conversations young people are having online. They talk about feminism, body consciousness, being transgender… They might use very few characters and colloquial words, but they really are informed.” The future's looking pretty self-aware.

Welcome to the time of Kim Kardashian, and of Jana Babez. You might like it here.