Mona Awad on Beauty Cults and Tom Cruise
In Conversation with Christopher Hermelin on So Many Damn Books
Mona Awad visits the Damn Library via the casual magic of web video for a third go round, this time for her be-deviling, garnet-bedazzled Rouge. She talks about putting her characters through the ringer, horror stories showing you a path, Tom Cruise, beauty cults, and more. Plus, both Mona and Christopher extol the many virtues of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, and how it came at exactly the right time.
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What’d you buy?
Mona: The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis, Scottish Ginger Snaps
Christopher: The Forest Brims Over by Maru Ayase, transl. by Haydn Trowell; My Stupid Intentions by Bernardo Zannoni, transl. by Alex Andriesse
Mona: The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis, Duchess of Nothing by Heather McGowan
Christopher: Forgive Me Not by Jennifer Baker
From the episode:
Christopher Hermelin: I read another book this year, Natural Beauty by Ling Ling Huang that also dealt in sort of a beauty cult. And they both ended up sort of complementing each other in in this interesting way. They were very, very different approaches. But what is it about cults and beauty that seem to fit? It’s like you can’t have one without the other. I feel like at the base of a lot of cults, there’s beauty or like a rejection of beauty. Like, “You don’t have to look beautiful.” Which is a different type of image obsession.
Mona Awad: I think that’s really important when you think about the other side of it, which is, of course, the beauty industry and the cult of beauty. I think it’s about enchantment. I think it’s about the power of the beauty industry. And the hold that it has over someone like me who is very vulnerable to the messaging. It’s all the language that’s shared, you know, and like “the glow.” The pursuit of the glow, right? The brightening, the journey. Everybody’s on a journey. Everybody’s on a skincare journey.
Even just that language, just calling it “a journey.” It just puts it into the realm of the spiritual. And maybe it is spiritual. Because I don’t think that it’s just about the surface. If it were just about the surface, it would not have such a powerful hold on us, the idea of beauty. There’s just real undeniable power and magic to it.
And I think that the other thing about it that makes it a cult is that there are certain people who I think are particularly vulnerable to the messaging, and those people tend to be more isolated and maybe not have as much support.
Like Belle, for example. She’s very alone. And so I think it would be very easy for her to sort of fall under the spell of, oh, I need to take care of my skin. It would seem like she was taking care of more than that, you know?
CH: You don’t have to go chasing this language. It’s out there.
MA: It’s out there. I didn’t have to make most things up. I mean, you know, all the connections between the beauty treatments and horror. They’re right there. They’re already there. The elaborate rituals. I mean, I didn’t have to exaggerate very much to do it. The relationship between beauty and the Gothic is really intertwined.
CH: Blood is right there. There’s always blood.
MA: There’s always blood
CH: You could be talking about beauty or horror. Tom Cruise makes a really fun cameo in this in this book, and your copy references Eyes Wide Shut, which I saw for the very first time this weekend. Did you actually have Eyes Wide Shut on your mind, or is this an invention of copy? Because it’s not Eyes Wide Shut Tom Cruise that is making no make an appearance here.
MA: It’s late eighties Tom Cruise. The best Tom Cruise. Although I think he’s wonderful in Eyes Wide Shut. But no, I think it is it’s very evocative of the book. The book actually draws a lot from Kubrick. From A Clockwork Orange, to just in terms of how the beauty treatments are performed. There’s a very kind of horrific nature to it. I won’t spoil anything to the way that the beauty treatments unfold for Belle. So Kubrick was on my mind, and Tom Cruise is in that film and there’s definitely a very lavish, over-the-top house that is also at the center, which felt very fitting, too. So, yeah, there are, there are some parallels for sure. I think it’s I think it’s an apt comparison.
MA: As for Tom Cruise, I think it had to be late eighties Tom Cruise, because again, not to spoil anything, the book revisits Belle’s childhood in the eighties. So it had to be Tom Cruise at that age because that’s when he makes the appearance there.
CH: Right. Sort of.
MA: Sort of, you’re right. Sort of. We see him. We see him in other places. You are correct. Yeah. And that was very intentional by the way, I will say.
CH: He is the perfect movie star for for this book, because he has such a strange dichotomy of the darkness to him and mystery to who he is at all, and what his intentions are on this Planet Earth of ours. So I’m unsettled by him already. So when I saw him on the page, I was like, “Oh, yeah, of course, of course. Tom’s here.”
MA: Yes. I mean, I will say, you know, it’s also like a tribute to my own childhood crush because I had a crush on Tom Cruise when I was a kid. And I do think he’s very mesmerizing. Tom Cruise has got some power. It’s a different kind of power than outward.
CH: He has such magnetism.
MA: Especially in those films. I mean, I think he still has it on the screen. It felt very important because he was such a symbol of of beauty and stardom and purity and back in the back in the late eighties. It really felt like the perfect choice. Again, another just intuitive choice that turned out to be absolutely right.
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