Horoscopes, Divorces and Bikinis

Vogue’s iconic new year cover in 1974, photographed by David Bailey, featuring actress Anjelica Huston and the designer Manolo Blahnik. (Pinterest)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 29 January 2023 — It must be 15 or 16 years since I last flicked through the pages of a celebrity magazine. I remember the sparky covers with their 1990’s celebrities — Liv Tyler, Uma Thurman or Andy García — a bikini on the front page and the headlines were always about the mysterious reappearance of some actor, or a duchess’s secret, or a millionaires lover, or the second to last royal scandal.

These days, all serious and grown up now, I go down to the news kiosk in search of some bread or a literary supplement, and when I see the celeb mags I feel a wave of nostalgia. The covers no longer feature Angelina Jolie but Ana de Armas. Princess Diana has been replaced by Princess Leonor, Cher by Dua Lipa and Tom Cruise by Thimothée Chalamet, which, if we are even half awake, is almost an improvement.

I don’t know how all the mothers, grandmothers, aunties and their friends used to get all these mags through the customs and the censorship of the Island. To run their fingers over the dazzling pages, to admire Brad Pitt’s biceps or catch up with the latest diet to beat hypertension was their way of being transgressive, of staying young and of defying their parents, husbands or grandparents with this rather chaste print-based version of sexuality.

We too, still young boys, hoped that no one saw us cutting out a lingerie advert or a centrefold poster of Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer or some chick in Karl Lagerfeld’s service. All those exotic names, the perfect face make-up, the long suntanned legs, the supernatural cleavages and the feline eyes, they fixed themselves upon our retinas and, I can guarantee, they will never leave them.

But it didn’t stop there. The models, singers and actresses, the scandals and heartbreaks were only the mere surface of the wider universe that those fifty pages covered. Every celeb mag, as we discovered later — whilst in search of tricks (always useless) for seducing our first girlfriends — was a tiny encyclopaedia.

Following the contents page and adverts for Coca Cola, Victoria’s Secret and Rolex — yet more names of remote and unachievable things — came the news of celebrities’ love lives. The gossip columns were the perfect polar opposite to the political press, they explained the economic climate better and without numbers and put on record all the drunken women, divorces and rumours that would later be turned into novels, songs and plays.

Once the appetite for gossip had been satisfied then came the diet advice and only after that, the recipes. Cooking tips, new types of blender, the  top ten brands of oven, how to decorate your patio to be a hostess for a ’brunch’ (but what was a ’brunch’?). As diligent as ants, the family set about an impossible project: trying to translate advice from a capitalist world to a ’sackcloth and ashes’ socialist one. A stuffed duck had to be adapted to a chicken as skinny as Cindy Crawford; the house wine passed for a Moët & Chandon; and the rusty wheel of the Singer sewing machine would spin tirelessly to try and achieve the style of a Valentino or a Versace.

When ill-fortune took hold there was no more pressing a remedy than the horoscope or the prophesies of that rather camp Walter Mercado, who appeared to be the product of a union between Elton John and Barbara Streisand. You only had to hear our mothers talking: “I read that this month some expected money would come our way”, “When it’s full moon, don’t get mixed up with other people’s business”, “You will feel vital and full of energy”, “Love will come knocking at your door on Friday, don’t hold back”.

Finally, on a hot Sunday afternoon it was time to open the magazine just before the classified ads, where there were the five, or ten, serialised chapters from the novel by Corín Tellado, the ubiquitous and harmless pornographer, as he was described by Cabrera Infante.

Taurus or Capricorn, alchemy or astrology, pig or rabbit, sunflower or olive oil, bikini or underwear, tracksuit or sarong; life was a constant dilemma of choice between things we had never even seen, and the magazines — the authorised opinion of Queen Elizabeth or of Keanu Reeves — helped us out in our theoretical predicament.

What we didn’t know [as kids] was that this whole microcosm was dependent upon a crude and secretive market. The magazines didn’t arrive home free of charge. They were rented by the day, they were traded for a bunch of bananas or a bottle of tomato pureé, certain titles became collector’s items and they were carefully looked after. Many female friends were ostracised for not returning a copy in time or for having ripped the cover. In an austere and monotonous country, that particular bastard genre of journalism was our only connection with the other world. Any infraction or theft would unleash a war.

Thanks to poor literature, our childhood got to become technicolour — as Nabokov used to say — and not black and white. Because of this, everytime I see the seductive and aggressive magazine covers, calling out like sirens, I wonder whether the termites have yet ground up the copies that I left back at my house.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.