Thursday, October 27, 2011

Some (Underage) Girls

I just finished reading It’s All Over Now, the memoir of Mandy Smith, former wife of Bill Wyman. She was a model-turned-pop singer, he was the bass player for the Rolling Stones. They married in 1989, divorced in 1991, no kids.

Sounds fairly dull, right? Hardly. Mandy Smith started dating Bill Wyman when she was—wait for it—thirteen years old. Yes, you read that right. Thirteen. They met in 1984 at the British Rock and Pop Awards, where Wyman was accepting an award on behalf of another musician. Mandy and her fifteen-year-old sister Nicola had received V.I.P. passes to the event from a bouncer they were friendly with (the sisters, who looked and dressed much older than they actually were, had already been frequenting North London nightclubs for several months). Before the show started, Wyman, then 47, spotted Mandy dancing to the warm-up band and summoned her to his table. He was completely smitten with the young teenager, even after she told him her real age. He later introduced her to his famous band mates and friends, but instructed her to tell them that she was seventeen (the age of consent in England is sixteen). This wasn’t just for legal reasons, it also served to protect his credibility; the middle-aged Wyman was well known in certain circles to prefer dating “barely legal” girls of seventeen, and he was keen to maintain his reputation.

Feel like scrubbing yourself with bleach yet? Totally understandable. I often had the same urge while reading certain chapters of Smith’s tell-all book, especially when she describes having sex with Bill Wyman for the first time at his stately manor in the English countryside. She wasn’t thirteen at the time, however. Bill, old-fashioned gentleman that he was, waited until she turned fourteen to initiate a physical relationship. What a guy.
Would you let your teenage daughter date this man?

Despite the inherent ickiness of Smith’s story, I found It’s All Over Now a truly fascinating book. This is partly because I actually remember reading about Mandy Smith in People magazine when I was thirteen. She was sixteen years old at the time and had just launched a singing career that came about after the British newspapers caught wind of her relationship with Wyman. Their affair became public shortly after the two broke up briefly in 1986, about the same time that Smith reached the age of consent. The English tabloids collectively creamed themselves and went wild for the story of the Rolling Stone and his scandalous underage fling. Smith was immediately offered a modeling contract (she was definitely gorgeous, with a sort of ‘80s Brigitte Bardot look going on). She also landed a record deal with Stock, Aitken and Waterman, the same production company responsible for Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue, and her People magazine interview was part of a publicity tour to sell her music to Americans.

I remember reading that interview, wherein the writer focused just a little on Mandy’s music and a lot on her relationship with Bill Wyman. I marveled at the fact that Mandy had been only thirteen (my age!) when she met him, and I clearly recall wondering just how in the hell I could get a grown up, real live rock star interested in me, a gawky little thing with braces and stringy hair. Of course, if I’d had the means (and the looks) that Mandy had, I wouldn’t have chosen crusty old Bill Wyman. I’d have gunned for any (or all) of the members of Duran Duran, or maybe Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, or Andrew Ridgeley (the straight one from Wham!). Although—truth be told—I wouldn’t have been too picky. Just the idea of dating a rock star when I was thirteen years old was pretty exciting. I may have even settled for Rick Astley.

I suppose that’s what prompted me to seek out Smith’s book. I remember being that age and envying a girl who could get an adult rock start to go out with her. I know that I’d have had no qualms about dating a famous grown man when I was thirteen: I think most thirteen-year-old girls consider themselves mature enough to date the twentysomething rock stars they fantasize about. Of course, any parent worth their salt would object to the union, if—as in Mandy’s case—the fantasy became reality.

Not that she was at home obsessing over Stones albums and gazing at pin-ups of Bill Wyman (ew) and daydreaming about meeting him someday. In fact, Mandy had no idea who he was at the time they met. She had heard of the Rolling Stones but considered them to be part of her mother’s generation. After Mandy’s first encounter with Wyman at the awards show, she and her sister even considered setting him up with their mother Patsy, an attractive divorcee struggling to raise two daughters on her own (Mandy’s father—surprise!—wasn’t in the picture). Before Bill’s designs on Mandy became clear, the sisters went so far as to invite him to dinner at the modest North London council house they shared with their mother, hoping the two “old people” would hit it off.

Although Patsy Smith was bemused and flattered by the thought of a Rolling Stone dropping by for dinner, she made it clear to her daughters that she wasn’t interested in a set-up with Bill. She also didn’t seem to suspect anything funny about his intentions towards her thirteen-year-old daughter, viewing him as a nice man who’d simply taken a friendly interest in Mandy. If that’s true, Patsy is guilty of being either (at best) willfully naïve or (at worst) grossly negligent. It’s difficult to discern; I feel like the whole issue of Patsy’s culpability is a bit murky. Smith is very staunch in her defense of her mother, which is understandable, as both Patsy and Mandy were beaten up in the press quite badly, and Mandy was weary of tabloids painting her mother as a star-struck opportunist who pushed her into dating Wyman.

As far as naïveté vs. negligence, Mandy claims that she hid the true nature of her relationship with Bill from her mother during the first year that she and Wyman were dating. If that’s the case, Mandy was not yet fifteen when her mother got wise to what was happening, and still had ample time to yank her underage ass from Wyman’s clutches. But Mandy also expends a lot of ink on her mother’s mysterious illness, the same one that kept Patsy virtually bedridden for a good chunk of her daughter’s childhood and adolescence (Mandy would one day suffer a similar ailment—more on that later). Again, the details are hazy: Mandy describes her mother as perpetually frail and prone to dizzy spells and fainting, but beyond that, her “illness” was never adequately diagnosed (Mandy later says that her mother was able to control her symptoms by adhering to a strict diet). Smith blames her mother’s lack of involvement on her poor health, essentially saying that she just didn’t have the energy to monitor Mandy’s relationship with Bill.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to think about her mother’s role in all of this. I don’t buy the tabloid claims of Patsy Smith as a calculating, gold-digging mom-pimp, but I can’t quite swallow Mandy’s story of her mother as a fragile invalid who was too weak and/or ignorant to put the kibosh on her young daughter’s romance with a middle-aged man. Both scenarios are possible, but I’m inclined to believe it’s only a pinch of the former and just a little more of the latter. I also believe that Wyman’s money and celebrity status caused Patsy to look the other way in a lot of instances where parental common sense should have prevailed.

There were, however, quite a few other adults involved in this fiasco, and they failed Mandy pretty hardcore. The entire Stones entourage quickly learned that the sweet young thing on Bill’s arm was a really young thing, and (apart from some rude jokes) they did nothing to discourage the union. In fact, all they really did was cover Wyman’s ass and keep things on the down-low when outsiders were around, just to ensure that no one got any bright ideas about running to the press. When someone did go running to the press, it was—oddly enough—another teenager. In 1986, during Smith and Wyman’s brief break-up, one of Mandy’s friends went round to the British tabloids with the story of a girl he knew who had dated one of the Rolling Stones while she was underage. That’s when the proverbial shit hit the fan and the Rolling Stones publicity machine came out in full force to protect its own, making certain that it was Mandy who was portrayed as the sketchy one: a wild child who partied in nightclubs and lied about her age, a money-grubbing “teen temptress” who seduced Bill Wyman and led him astray with her underage charms. (Seriously, a teen temptress? Whatever, Professor Humbert. Please proceed to hell.)

But for Mrs. Smith’s seriously flawed parenting and the sleaziness of the Stones’ minders and publicists, I feel the real villain in this sordid tale is Bill Wyman himself. There are many reasons for this, the most glaringly obvious one being that she was thirteen years old, you pervert.

And if it seems like I’m of two minds on this, I apologize for being unclear. As I said earlier, when I was thirteen years old, the thought of someone my age getting a grown-up rock star boyfriend sounded pretty fucking badass. But again, I was thirteen years old. I wore frosted denim and striped Keds. A lot of things that seemed cool at the time weren’t cool at all, and it wasn’t just because it was the ‘80s. It was because I was a clueless thirteen-year-old kid, just like Mandy Smith. Well, not just like her—I was a thirteen-year-old who looked a lot younger than I was, and she was a thirteen-year-old who could pass for seventeen. But still—and I can’t emphasize this enough—she was thirteen years old and seriously Bill Wyman, that shit is nasty.

Really, I could go on and on about this and no matter how you spin it, there’s no excuse for an adult, any adult—middle-aged or not—to go after a thirteen-year-old kid. I mean, sixteen? Yeah, it’s icky, but (in England) it’s legal. Fifteen? Pretty fucked up. Fourteen? Royally fucked up. But THIRTEEN? Christ on a cracker, that’s what people used to laugh at Michael Jackson for. It’s weird that the scandal was hardly covered in the States aside from the brief write-up in People magazine (and again here when Smith and Wyman married in 1989). And in the UK tabloids it was just a lot of slut-shaming and unimaginative “Lolita” comparisons for Mandy, while Bill Wyman’s personal and professional reputation suffered nary a scratch.

Putting aside Mandy’s underage status, if that’s possible (it isn’t, but bear with me), she and Bill were never exactly a match made in heaven. From their first meeting to their rocky courtship to their doomed marriage, Bill’s treatment of Mandy was truly reprehensible. He was possessive and controlling, given to throwing jealous fits anytime another guy looked at her sideways, yet he had no problem stealing off to bang one of his numerous ex-girlfriends or any Stones groupie who happened to catch his eye. He expected Mandy to be at his beck and call, always standing by whenever he required her services for sex or companionship, and he repaid her by being suspicious, cold, and aloof. He was also quite the manipulator, frequently employing the old “come here/go away” game, and following it up with the inevitable “WAIT! DON’T LEAVE ME!” refrain anytime she called his bluff. With regard to their disastrous relationship, I think it’s apropos to invoke sex columnist Dan Savage’s “campsite rule,” a decree stating that, in relationships with a large age disparity (ten years or more), “the elder partner should leave the younger in better shape than they found them.” Using that analogy, Bill Wyman not only left the campsite in complete ruin, he littered it with used condoms, cigarette butts, and empty beer cans, then pissed all over the bonfire pit.

The impetus for their 1986 break-up was when Bill, after yet another period of clandestine whoring, contracted a case of the crabs. Instead of biting the bullet and telling his girlfriend so she could at least get herself treated, Bill—bizarrely—went behind Mandy’s back and called her mother. This prompted a visit from Patsy, who came round to Bill and Mandy’s flat (Bill was out of town, conveniently) and sat her teenage daughter down for a supremely awkward, hilarious, horrifying conversation about the “little animals” Bill claimed he had caught from Mandy. Apparently Wyman, hoping to avoid a shitstorm (and banking on Patsy’s ignorance), blamed his pubic lice on a pair of second-hand jeans Mandy had purchased a few weeks earlier. Okay, back up a minute. Think about this: the man pounds groupies like it’s his job, gets a nasty case of crotch crickets, tries to mind-fuck his girlfriend (and her mother) by blaming it on used jeans, then handily skips town. Talk about mind-fuckery; that shit is positively Machiavellian.

It was the semi-final straw. Mandy called Bill, told him to fuck right off, then packed up her stuff and moved out. Shortly after that, her enterprising young friend sold her out to the press. And that’s when Mandy—no longer with Bill but now saddled with a level of fame that made normal daily life impossible—found herself surrounded by loads of photographers, agents, and record promoters who smelled money.

While the modeling career was a no-brainer: she was tall, thin, and cute, with a now-recognizable face (in England, anyway), her foray into pop music was another story. Her song “Positive Reaction”—which hit #39 in Germany, failed to chart in the UK and didn’t go anywhere near the US Hot 100—is below and…well, to put it delicately, her singing makes Britney Spears sound like Barbra Streisand.

To be fair though, I doubt anyone involved in Smith’s music career thought they had stumbled upon the next Streisand, or even the next Minogue. Mandy Smith wasn’t Susan Boyle: she didn’t “dream a dream” and blow away a panel of judges with the sheer force of her vocal talent. Smith was, in her own words, largely viewed as “a sultry starlet of dubious repute”. Some cynical industry types saw the chance to make a quick buck off an attractive young girl embroiled in a sex scandal with a world-famous musician, and totally ran with it.

Boy, did they run with it.

Although Mandy’s music never found an audience in the US, it wasn’t just due to the overall crappiness of the songs (after all, we yanks were busy making Tiffany famous at the time, so what did we know from taste?). There were other problems standing in the way of her stardom. On a promotional tour of the US, Mandy began to suffer dizzy spells, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and a host of other maladies that read like an extensive list of Viagara side effects. When she finally collapsed in a Miami hotel room, her handlers scrapped the rest of the tour and sent her home to England to recuperate. It was then that—weary from life on the road, malnourished from months of take-away food, and exhausted from lack of sleep—Mandy found herself depressed and, at age eighteen, pining for the first and only boyfriend she’d ever had: Bill Wyman.

So Mandy called up Bill, they reconnected, and—because love is blind, deaf, dumb, and legally insane—soon found herself back together with him, just as if his womanizing, his mood swings, his crabs, and his callous treatment of her had never happened. They even started making wedding plans, Bill promising all the while that he had changed, that everything would be different this time.

In the end, of course, nothing was different. After a big frou-frou fairytale wedding, the Wyman-Smith marriage went straight down the toilet and right into the sewer.

Bill was just as cold and distant as ever, paying attention to Mandy only when he wanted sex and freezing her out anytime she failed to submit to his libido. Mandy’s health also began to worsen; she was rapidly losing weight and unable to determine why. Although there were whisperings among Bill’s Rolling Stones compatriots that she had an eating disorder—Ronnie Wood’s wife Jo, shocked by Mandy’s increasingly gaunt appearance, even cornered her and demanded, “You’re anorexic, aren’t you?”—she repeatedly insists that this wasn’t the case.

Smith devotes several pages to her sickness, her numerous doctor visits and her lengthy hospitalization, but is ultimately rather vague about her diagnosis. She writes of having “violent reactive allergies” and her doctor running a battery of allergy tests, finding her allergic to “dogs, cats, fumes, cigarette smoke, dust and mildew,” along with having dietary sensitivities to fats, sugars, and dairy products. She alludes to having “an underlying cause that made (her) susceptible to these allergies,” and that her mum, who had a similar history of unexplained illnesses, was the only one who truly believed her.

I’ve read and re-read the passages where Mandy talks about her symptoms and her illness, and I’m still not quite clear what was going on there. I don’t think she was imagining or exaggerating her health issues; I think it’s at least possible she was suffering from some weird environmental allergies, as her mother may have done. I mean, I saw the movie Safe; I know that a person can develop life-threatening allergies seemingly out of nowhere. I also know that Western medicine tends to be a bit skeptical and dismissive of such things, so I can see how she may not have been able to obtain an adequate diagnosis from her doctors. But, based on my own experiences with dysfunctional relationships (and my armchair psychologist’s intuition) I think Mandy’s main affliction was mental. She’d spent years under the thumb of an emotionally abusive dickweed, from the impressionable age of thirteen up until age twenty, and it was finally taking its toll, both physically and mentally, consuming her from the inside out.

Despite addressing some very serious themes, Mandy’s story is not all gloom and doom. Like any good showbiz tell-all, It’s All Over Now is chock full of some fantastic behind-the-scenes dirt. I loved reading her backstage musings on the other Rolling Stones. She describes drummer Charlie Watts as sweet, easy-going, and usually drunk; while Woody (Ron Wood, the band’s rhythm guitarist) was cheerful and gregarious and always game for a laugh. Mandy had less affection for Mick and Keith, however. She recalls Mick as something of a prick, to put it mildly, while Keith “seemed to be on another planet. If he was not on drugs, then he had the mad, blank look of someone who ought to have been. He was always out of reach, on some cosmic ray somewhere.” Sounds about right, from what I’ve seen of his interviews.

There’s also a great scene where Mandy and Bill are at a fancy London soiree with the other Rolling Stones and an impressive cross-section of rock royalty. Mick Jagger, in one of his “bitchy moods,” stands on the sidelines gossiping with David Bowie. Mandy catches Jagger glaring at her, then overhears him reveal her age (fourteen at the time) to Bowie, who does a spit-take into his glass of wine. The two of them saunter over, and Jagger sneers at Bill, “Innit about time you took her home? Past her bedtime, innit?” He and Bowie then scurry away, cackling like a pair of old ladies.
Yeah, I can totally see that.

Mandy’s stories of hanging out with the other Stones’ wives are also quite amusing. She talks about Jerry Hall, the famed 1970’s supermodel who was then married to Jagger. Mandy found it funny that—while Mick talked a good game—it was Jerry who was in complete control of their relationship. Hall was a bossy, brassy Texas girl who endlessly referred to Jagger as “mah may-un” and kept him on a very short leash, especially when other women were around. Good to see there was someone who could put Jagger in his place, at least for a while.

The Stones’ gossip is fun, but the juiciest, most awesome part of the book by far—in my opinion—is a story from Mandy’s “hen night” (Brit-speak for bachelorette party) a few nights prior to her 1989 wedding to Bill Wyman. She was celebrating her last night out as a single woman, partying it up with her girlfriends and several female relatives at Tramp, a ritzy London nightclub that was also a popular celebrity hang-out. Mandy hit the dance floor with her Aunt Adrian, when who should come bounding up but—seriously!—Simon Le Bon and John Taylor(!). So Mandy and Aunt Adrian dance with the boys for a while, giggling and whooping it up, then John Taylor (John fucking Taylor!) grabs Mandy close and starts nuzzling her neck:

This was no joke, I realized with a start. He was actually coming on to me and coming on strong. I gently pushed him away and held him at arm’s length. “Steady, John,” I told him. “I’m on my hen night!”

He started to laugh. “Well, we’d better get a move on, there’s no time to waste,” he replied in earnest.

Holy shit, that reads like Duran Duran fan fiction, torn straight out of my journal at age fourteen. I seriously would’ve killed to have had that encounter with John Taylor back then. On a separate note, can you imagine how surreal that would be? It’s 1989 and you’re out at a club, just having fun and enjoying your hen night, when the two foxiest members of Duran Duran appear out of nowhere and start horning in on you and your aunt (!?!). Needless to say, Mandy didn’t take John up on his generous offer. Somehow she resisted, even when he later “pressed his phone number into my hand and suggested that we go out.” (As a lifelong Duranie, this information really isn’t all that surprising: judging by the timeline, this was would have been just before John took up with Amanda de Cadenet. Clearly, he had a thing for barely-legal blondes.)

So whatever became of Mandy Smith? Well, she and Bill split for good in 1991, although they only spent a few weeks living under the same roof together after the wedding. Smith received 20,000 pounds in the divorce settlement, most of which went towards her extensive medical bills. Her health improved steadily in the months following her divorce, and she claims to have learned to manage her illness through a careful diet--as her mother did--avoiding yeast products and eventually becoming a strict vegan. Smith moved on romantically as well; in 1993 she married Pat van den Hauwe, a professional UK footballer, although they separated two years later, divorcing in 1997 (both have spoken publicly about van den Hauwe’s problems with drugs and alcohol, which played a part in the demise of their marriage). Professionally, Mandy worked as a television presenter throughout the nineties and, in recent years, as a makeup artist. She now lives in Manchester (Brooko shout-out!) and runs a PR firm with her sister Nicola. She also has a ten-year-old son, Max, the product of a brief relationship with Vanity Fair model Ian Mosby.

She’s still very pretty, looks much healthier and no longer wears that vaguely haunted, glassy-eyed expression apparent in some of her photographs with Bill. It seems she’s settled down and made peace with her past and the unhealthy, emotionally abusive relationship that thrust her into the limelight all those years ago.

I hope so, anyway. I like Mandy.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Rachel Maddow schools Mitt Romney!

Thank you Rachel Maddow. You perform a valuable public service every night.

This lesson is not only for the Mittster, who I suspect has never been anywhere near a woman's "down there" parts (I certainly wouldn't want him--or his legislation--around mine!), but any and all men of the same idiotic mindset.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

Oh, hai Greg!

It's a Sestero kind of day, kids!