From MySpace to Dave’s Place…
Kodachrome: Gottschalk, having a rare moment of peace.
This is the ultimate social-networking love story. It’s the tale of how David, the luckiest guy in the world, met Molly, the luckiest girl in the planet, on the internet, and how they lived happily ever after (well, for now, anyway). The thing is, Molly’s prince, well, he wasn’t like the other guys. For one, one of his closest friends is a transsexual icon of New York nightlife. And another best friend is Courtney Love. Well, was. It’s a long story. It could be a colorful blog post, but it is, in fact, a story, with a beginning, middle and… Oops! It hasn’t ended yet!
In 2008, it is accepted that people “hook up” on the Internet—on MySpace, even. But Molly and David’s connection was different from most. For one, there was the distance: When they first made contact, Molly, who is 21, lived in Georgia. David, who is 44, lived in Los Angeles (and Hawaii). David is quite a bit older than Molly. And famous. And rich. And gay. Despite these differences, both their lives changed forever when the Internet brought them together. Today, Molly lives rent-free in David’s house in the Hollywood Hills. And David has never been happier. If it wasn’t love at first sight… Oh fuck it. It was.
Carnivale. (From left) Molly Gottschalk, David LaChapelle, Amanda Lepore, and friend.
In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, lovable urchin protagonist Charlie Bucket’s dreams were fulfilled when he found a “golden ticket” in a candy bar. A truly modern woman, Molly found her golden ticket in an e-mail, naturally. One hot summer night in Savannah, Georgia (where she attended art college at the Savannah College of Art and Design), she had just gotten out of the shower, when she heard a new e-mail enter her inbox. It was from someone named “David.” “Please contact Paul Cupo at my studio immediately,” David wrote. Moments later, her phone rang. “Is your name Molly Gottschalk?”
“Did you enter a contest in December?” the interrogator on the other line continued. It was hard to hear him; Gottschalk’s roommate was rushing her to get ready to go out.
“Yes, I did.”
“Well, I have to tell you…” Paul’s tone suddenly brightened: “… out of the 8,000 people who applied, David chose you!” Gottschalk was rendered speechless; the seconds before she was able to say anything felt like forever. “I was so excited,” she says today. “I didn’t know how to respond.”
Actually, what she said was, “Can I call you back—I’m in a towel!” That’s LaChapelle’s take on the events, anyway; at this, he and his new friend share a knowing laugh. “My roommate actually took a picture,” she continues. “I’m standing in a towel, talking on the phone, trying to keep my cool, but my friends were all so excited!” Gottschalk sighs, and then looks across the table at LaChapelle. “I was supposed to come out here for two days,” she explains. “That was five months ago. I haven’t left yet.” “That’s right—she’s living in my house in the Hills!” He interjects yet again. “Molly’s 21 years old, and she’s living rent-free in the house that I worked my whole life to get! By the way, I’m leaving for Hawaii tomorrow… ”
Molly Gottschalk is living proof that miracles can still happen. She was most of the way through her second year at SCAD, as the college is acronym-ed—“almost a junior”—when, logging in to her MySpace account one day, an ad banner caught her eye: “Win a photo shoot with David LaChapelle.” David LaChapelle. Wow. The rules required contestants to submit an essay and their MySpace page URL; the winner and a friend would then be flown out to either New York City or Los Angeles, where they would spend two nights in a hotel and be the subject of a personal photo shoot with LaChapelle. “You’d never look at that and actually think you’d win,” Gottschalk exclaims. But she entered, anyway, just in case. “It just seemed too amazing not to!”
At the time, Gottschalk was just beginning her photography major, and LaChapelle was one of her artistic heroes. That’s not so surprising: LaChapelle is not just a wildly successful photographer, he’s an artistic maverick who has controversially bridged high and low art throughout his career; love him or loathe him, he makes you pay attention. Hindsight very well may prove that LaChapelle’s impact on recent generations of young artists has been as significant as what his idol, Andy Warhol, did for LaChapelle’s peers. Like Warhol, LaChapelle embraced the aesthetics of fashion and advertising early on—and in some instances went on to define them.
LaChapelle’s lens didn’t just capture pop culture; it transformed it into something irresistibly freaky-deaky. His distinctive images—elaborate, surreal, highly staged tableaux, charged with frank eroticism—would come to personify celebrity culture of the last two decades. To the public, Pamela Anderson became a larger-than-life glamazon in no small part due to the magic of LaChapelle’s postmodern baroque vision. He memorably caught Tupac lounging uncharacteristically in a bubble bath, and Britney in short-shorts as the ultimate naughty schoolgirl.
Ironically vulgar, frequently scatological, gleefully profane, LaChapelle revamped Gwen Stefani into an exotic style goddess and posed Courtney Love as the grunge Virgin Mary, holding a Christ-like Kurt Cobain—always pushing buttons and boundaries of race, sex, gender, and beyond. In some cases, he was used to visually announce a significant change in an artist’s career: Under LaChapelle’s gaze, Christina Aguilera went from squeaky-clean teen pop star to buck naked and dirrrty. His own showbiz juice began to rival that of his subjects, which allowed him to pick and choose, sometimes controversially—like when he famously turned down Madonna. “When I started to analyze what made me happy or not,” he stated at the time, “I understood that Madonna was not the person with whom I wished to collaborate.” Like his Pop Art forbears, LaChapelle wasn’t afraid to wade in the mainstream to further his ambition. Starting out at Interview magazine, LaChapelle would provide award-winning images for nearly every prestige publication—Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and so on. He directed Armani and H&M commercials, along with music videos for Mariah Carey, Elton John, and Avril Lavigne that ushered in a new era for MTV. His feature-film debut, Rize—an in-your-face documentary on the kinetic inner-city dance style known as “krumping”—won over critics and film festivals like Sundance. LaChapelle has also published four successful monographs, the most recent of which, Heaven To Hell, spurred the MySpace contest that brought Molly into his life.
It was Heaven To Hell’s publisher, Benedict Taschen, who inadvertently kick-started this uncharted marketing gambit. “I asked Benedict, ‘What should I do to advertise the book?’” LaChapelle recalls. “He said, ‘Just take the budget and do it yourself.’ My thing was MySpace: I approached them, and we made a really nice deal—they really got behind the book.” LaChapelle was a latecomer to the power of the Internet phenomenon: “I’m one of the pioneers of digital photography, but you’d be surprised to learn how illiterate I was about the computer.” He caught on quick, however, when he saw how social networking was draining his interns’ time. “I’d ask them what magazines they look at and they didn’t have anything to say,” LaChapelle laughs. “But then they were on MySpace all day.”
To him, MySpace means to a new generation of artistic misfits what the pioneering, edgy publications of his youth meant to his: the Soho Weekly News, Paper, the early Details—and above all, mentor Andy Warhol’s Interview. “Andy would’ve loved MySpace,” he says. “He would’ve had his own MySpace page!” LaChapelle cracks up at the thought, but it’s a good point: Warhol would’ve certainly gotten off on both MySpace’s democratically crass mass appeal and its startling marketing power. “It’s instant information—you don’t have to wait for something to come out,” he continues. “Magazines have been so under the publicists’ thumb: people want to hear real stories, not ass-kissing. They want to express their own opinions, not be told them.”
LaChapelle, who quickly found himself logging in to his page 15 times a day, realized MySpace could be a useful tool to aid his famous ability to spot raw talent. “I thought it was going to be really hard to choose among 8,000 entrants, but Molly really stood out so much in her pictures and her essay,” he says. Gottschalk herself wasn’t so sure. “I never thought I was going to win,” she says today. “The photos on my page aren’t very serious. There’s a picture of me dressed as Paris Hilton, me in cornrows… I thought I’d enter anyway, even though my page wasn’t that great. I was so shocked—shocked—anything came of it at all.”
The girls: (from left) Gottschalk, Gault, and Lepore.
“Molly stood out because she wasn’t trying to impress,” LaChapelle explains. “She came off exactly how she is—just really straightforward and simple. People have the wrong idea about me, like about my friendship with Amanda Lepore. Amanda’s very quiet, normal, down to earth, and—it sounds crazy—wholesome. The only thing she ever wanted was a sex change. Once she did that, she didn’t want another thing in the world, and everything just happened to her.”
Gottschalk’s destiny has proven another such simple twist of fate. When a study-abroad program in France prevented Gottschalk from locking down her photo shoot with LaChapelle, she requested instead a summer internship in his Los Angeles studio; to her surprise, he agreed. “I started working for David this past July,” Gottschalk recalls. “I got to the studio around 11 a.m.—I was so nervous!” “She was late!” LaChapelle interjects. “No, I wasn’t!” Gottschalk retorts. “Anyways, I didn’t know if I was going to have a friendship with David, but he was immediately so generous. I didn’t know what to expect, but he was so nice.” “I felt very comfortable with her,” LaChapelle agrees. “It wasn’t awkward at all.”
But Gottschalk’s first day did provide a typically atypical trial by fire into what LaChapelle calls “the most base-level Hollywood garbage you could imagine!” After work, LaChapelle took his new protégée to Courtney Love’s house, where he styled the grunge goddess for a surprise performance later that night at the Sunset Strip’s Roxy club. The concert halted abruptly, however, when Love spotted LaChapelle chatting with Paris Hilton in the crowd. “I hadn’t seen Paris since she got out of jail, but then Courtney started going totally crazy,” LaChapelle recalls. “She started yelling at me backstage: ‘Paris Hilton is not my demographic!’ Me and Courtney had a huge fight and broke up as friends that night.”
In Gottschalk, however, LaChapelle had found a new BFF, which became clear as the night wore down. “I was staying with a cousin who I’d never met in Redondo Beach, which is like an hour away,” Gottschalk says. “I don’t even know if she’s really my cousin… ” “You know those Southern families—it’s like, is she my mother or my sister?” LaChapelle quips. “I was so desperate to find somewhere else to stay,” Gottschalk continues. “But then David offered me his house. I went to Courtney Love’s house, met Paris Hilton, and then he dropped me off at his house, where I now still live. It was kind of a really exciting first day. Definitely!”
LaChapelle stops short of claiming Gottschalk as his latest muse. “I would say she’s a-muse-ing,” he puns. Watching the two finish each other’s sentences across a sprawling worktable in LaChapelle’s airy, majestic West Hollywood studio suggests otherwise, however. It’s easy to see what drew LaChapelle to Gottschalk in the first place—her natural beauty for one. She evokes not the pneumatic symmetry of today’s Victoria’s Secret mannequins, but instead the idiosyncratic sex icons of the 1960s—Twiggy, say, or Jane Birkin, or Mia Farrow. Her quiet charisma, meanwhile, provides a nice, calming foil for LaChapelle’s manic-mellow alpha dog.
As a result, he’s already promoted Gottschalk into a full-time job as studio production assistant. “As an employee, when something needs to be done you can never actually escape,” she explains. “I usually find myself adorning false eyelashes, curlers, and some sort of barely-there leotard, climbing up a ladder to the prop room.” She’s also become the studio’s house model, appearing in front of the camera for most of David’s recent shoots, from a Motorola commercial to a J.Lo music video (where she portrayed a “baby hooker”).
“Being in the photo is my favorite part,” she explains. “You run around all week planning everything; then when it’s time to do the shoot, you can sit and get your hair done and have your eyelashes put on.” The glamour quotient indeed runs high: for example, LaChapelle flew Gottschalk to Milan to join his merry band of outsiders in celebrating the opening of a retrospective exhibition. Once in Italy, Gottschalk discovered more perks of entourage life, like when she received a beautiful couture dress gratis from an admiring designer. “It was the most beautiful silk dress I have ever seen—backless, and a rich shade of eggplant,” she says. “I later wore it to the party. I don’t think we ever went to bed before 6 a.m. I can also assert with great confidence that there was not a single night where I was not carried home because my feet were entirely too sore from dancing to bear the journey back to the hotel. I would call my friends in Savannah every day with something like this, only each time it was more exciting. It got to the point where they were like, ‘Are you making this stuff up?’”
The Drawing Board: LaChapelle and Gottschalk, hatching new plans in his Hollywood compound.
The job does come with some occupational hazards that would be hard to make up. For example, Gottschalk was nearly teabagged during the shoot for the Boogie Nights-style short film LaChapelle directed for Elton John’s current Las Vegas multimedia spectacle, The Red Piano. Wearing only a scarf taped to her breasts, Gottschalk lay on the floor, portraying an overdosed junkie model; with her eyes closed, she didn’t notice the testicles dangling right above her. “I needed the actors to freeze at a certain point in the shot,” LaChapelle explains. “I gave the signal right when this naked guy was crawling over Molly. He’s got an enormous penis and nut sack, and he stops right over her head! For ten minutes, his balls were hanging an inch from her nose! Everyone was shouting ‘Don’t open your eyes!’ We laughed so hard about that.”
It’s all in a day’s work. “She just fits in,” LaChapelle says. He also finds inspiration in Gottschalk’s personal style, which mixes Holly Golightly poise with art-world chic. Indeed, the vintage dark blue dress with short blouson sleeves she’s wearing today—think Audrey Hepburn meets Cindy Sherman—belies sophistication beyond her youth. “I’m amazed at her look; every day it’s different,” he says. “She finds weird things and puts these beautiful, unique little outfits together. It’s great to see someone putting in the effort. It reminds me of the East Village way back when, when it wasn’t just about labels and status. It’s really sweet.”
Gottschalk’s impulsive journey clearly reminds LaChapelle of his own vagabond coming of age. In the mid-’80s, he dropped out of high school in North Carolina to pursue his dream—move to New York and work with Andy Warhol—living in squats for nearly a decade until he “made it.” Gottschalk’s arrival also coincides with an idealistic shift in LaChapelle’s own current work—a move from for-hire projects to personal gallery installations and museum shows. “No more fashion-celebrity-magazine editorial stuff,” he says, sounding relieved. “I’ve said all I wanted to say about that. Financially, I don’t even need to do commercial work, but two years ago, it wasn’t like that: I titled my book Artists and Prostitutes for a reason. I really just needed to change my life. But this is a different time: I feel like I’m just starting out.”
It is clearly a new era for Gottschalk as well, made clear by an unexpected visit from her mother. “She dropped in like, ‘What the hell is going on with my daughter?’” LaChapelle says, laughing. “It was definitely a surprise attack! But she was super sweet.” “My mom’s actually really excited for me,” Gottschalk maintains. “She’s been so supportive and nice about everything.” Besides, LaChapelle has been filling in on the maternal side: he was concerned when he recently found what appeared to be a condom wrapper in Gottschalk’s unmade bed (it turned out, in fact, to be a lollipop wrapper). “I was like, God, I hope she’s not using that for contraception,” he says. Gottschalk laughs, as much at her odd, Internet-assisted good fortune as at LaChapelle’s joke. “Was coming here what you expected?” LaChapelle asks his unlikely disciple. “You must’ve had a fantasy about how it was going to be.” “It’s more than I ever expected,” Gottschalk says, smiling softly. “It just gets more and more fun. In fact, it kind of surpasses my expectations every single day!”
“David used to joke that I was like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz with how crazy it is in ‘LaChapelle land,’ clicking my heels together, repeating ‘There’s no place like home.’ Ironically, I’ve come to regard this as it.”