Liv Fontaine, whose birth name is a closely-guarded secret, is a 21-year-old art student at Chelsea College of Art. New to London, and an as-yet-unknown rising star, many will only know her from the cheers, praise and encouragement she hollers at strangers on the street from her flat, several foors up on Bethnal Green Road.
We meet with Liv in her bedroom, where every surface is glittery, reflective or holographic. She sits on a huge bed right next to the window, overlooking the nighttime east London buzz she has very quickly become used to. We’re surrounded by collections and souvenirs which speak volumes about Liv’s diverse, but somehow coherent tastes; a bookcase dripping with glamour and scandal (I notice titles like ‘Murderous Women’ alongside Madonna and Dolly Parton biographies); a wide range of Jesus statuettes and other kitsch religious paraphernalia. It’s a den so tacky and decadent it would make even the gaudiest Santa’s grotto look as drab as a prison cell.
I try to get to the root of Liv’s addiction to glitz, and ask what first inspired her style: “I like to dress like an old Jewish grandmother. Bless her soul she’s passed, but I did actually have an old Jewish grandmother. She was something else. Her name was Esther Leah Joseph, and she was so glamorous and beautiful. I have one photo of her framed where she’s wearing a tiara, pearls and fur, and people always ask why I have a picture of the Queen.
“She was born in Bethnal Green which is where her family came when they first started coming to this country on the boats, and where I am living now. Her family had a shoe shop and she sold her fist pair of shoes when she was six. She was pretty good at business, she had shops and restaurants. When she was old she lived in a flat in Richmond which had gold ornate tables where she used to eat smoked salmon, it was pretty fabulous; even the cigarette lighters were marble and ornate.
“When I was young I thought it was logical that she must be friends with the Queen or maybe Elizabeth Taylor. Now when I look glamorous I feel close to her because she would have loved all the gold, and the blue eyeshadow. My style is like hers; really grand, but I put it all together wrong. A bit too much of everything. There’s always plenty of gold jewellery. I don’t believe that less is more. For me, more is not enough!
“Apart from when I want to look like her, I just like to dress up! Some days I’ll be like a ‘sexy latino’ and then some days I’ll be like a proper gutterslut. I like to mix it up, because I have a different feeling every day. Once just to go to my friend’s house I dressed as a tropical bird. It was really weird. I was wearing a yellow, netting underskirt, but I wore it over my shoulders so it was like tufts of feathers. I had loads of colourful belts around myself in different places. Sometimes I also like to dress up as a cheerleader when I go out.”
The history of Liv’s family is embedded in Bethnal Green Road and east London, and for a newcomer to the area she has become very ‘involved’ very quickly. “‘Involved’ is a good way of describing my relationship with my beloved road. I just love it. There’s such a mix of characters and I love talking to all the people in the shops.
“Then of course there’s Noodle King; I always dress up to go there. The best thing about Noodle King is the photographs of all the dishes on the walls, I have said on many occasions that I wouldn’t mind those in my own home. If I’m going to Noodle King, I’m going to make an effort. My friend seemed a bit embarrassed last time: ‘Why do you have to do this?’ But I just think it’s glamorous. I know it’s really bad to admit it; I just want to be rich and famous, but I have to pretend I am already there. I’m clearly not! A good title for this interview would be ‘I used to be a gutterslut, but now I wanna be rich and famous.’
“I get most of my clothes from charity. You find a lot of Jaeger in charity shops so I have loads of it, for instance I have a Jaeger ‘Children of God’ dress – pure pink, all the way to the floor, no shape at all. I would describe it as a robe. So it makes me look entirely like a cult member, which is a look I am waiting for the right occasion to wear.
“I also get loads of stuff from Watney Market. I got these hair grips, where it’s like someone has got a marker pen and written the Chanel Cs on them. I love that stuff. I love fakes. Even if I was rich I would still buy fakes, they just have much more attitude about them. I was getting out my £10 Whitechapel Market Louis Vuitton purse in Knightsbridge the other day, I was very proud.”
In asking whether there’s a relationship between her clothes and her art work, I make a crucial mistake: “Well when I do my art work I take most of my clothes off, normally. The Cake Sit Live is a pretty prominent performance of mine. I did it when I first started at Chelsea in front of an unsuspecting audience. I just walked in the room and said: “I’m gonna do a performance called ‘If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake.’” It was in a seminar and I took off my clothes (I was wearing a slip though) and then I sat on a big cake and did a reading from a homemakers’ manual from the 50s.
“I was looking at traditional roles of women symbolised by the ritual of making a cake for their husbands and families. Instead I made the cake for my own pleasure. I want to subvert the saying ‘whore in the bedroom, angel in the kitchen’. I think next I would like to start some sort of cake-sitting society where we can all bake cakes together then we will look our sexiest and sit on the cakes.”
Liv’s artistic experiments with food and flesh have not always been so victorious: “Curry has been on parts of my body that curry should never be. I don’t want to think about that. It was very frustrating because I didn’t even get any usable work out of that occasion. I had just cling-filmed a lot of curry, baked beans and meat to my body and the footage is just disgusting because I start to react to the curry and get burned, so I am not really ‘in role’. That was a mistake. It was even worse than when I tried to eat a pizza sat in the shower – I was sick. Can you imagine? A pizza in a shower. Those were the days.”
Liv is full of anecdotes about how the public react to her more unusual outfits: “I was wearing an all-in-one, pink, crushed velour jumpsuit with gold studs on it, with pink old lady slippers which I got off the market. I was on Bethnal Green Road and these three boys were like “Euugh! Halloween was ages ago – that’s disgusting.” But sometimes I don’t get any reactions, because in east London everyone looks mad.
“I really have adapted to the reaction you sometimes get. When I am walking up and down Brick Lane in my old lady slippers it’s obvious some people think I’m a crack addict, but in a way I quite enjoy that because I can come back home and sit in my lovely, gold room and think ‘If only you could see this, bitch!’
“Sometimes when I go in City Wines and Foods looking nice they’re all like ‘Wooo!’, but normally they’re like, ‘You look like my grandma’.
“That’s what pisses me off about life, because if I were to do my hair or something or have some more mainstream makeup, I’d probably have a boyfriend by now. I’m not sure I am ready to compromise my style but if I did, I wouldn’t be on match-dot-com at the age of 21, that’s for sure.
“Sometimes when I watch these nature shows on TV I feel like I can get away from everything. But I wonder how could mankind have got to this point in life, when things can be so simple and nice? It’s awful isn’t it. I thought about throwing away all my possessions, but the trouble is I have got such good stuff!
When I find a new piece of clothing or something I like my heart fills with joy. I feel like I’ve got one up on the world.”