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Today’s leading Tik Tok influencer creates fashion parodies from one of the world’s poorest islands | Culture

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Shaheel Shermont Flair is 24 years old, and he wants to be a comedic actor. On his social media, where he showcases his talent for comedy through videos/reels, he describes himself as a “public figure” and “artist.” On June 20, he shared his latest witty idea online: a fashion show parody. “Fashion shows be like this,” he declared (alongside the emoji of a face crying with laughter). Then, barefoot and dressed in a T-shirt and sport shorts, he started walking like Linda, Naomi, or Christy through what looks like the backyard of his house. Each trip displayed a style created with all sorts of knickknacks, junk, utensils and household furnishings. In an unintentionally Rickowensian moment (or not), he even used his little sister, Riharika, who was accessorized and off to the side, as a complement. On TikTok, where he has been appearing as @shermont22 for a little more than a year, the short video has racked up over five million views and counting. He continues to gain followers as well; he has nearly 350,000 right now and 13 million or so “likes.” Viewers keep asking him for more. At popular request, he uploaded his most recent video a few hours ago. It is the ninth installment of a viral saga that, in reality, is not so ironic and hilarious.

By today’s standards, Shermont is already a star in terms of fame and glory. In a recent story on his Instagram profile (@shermont_22, which has considerably fewer followers, although one assumes that his viewership there will eventually grow), he confessed to having googled his name and was in disbelief about how far-reaching his performance was. “I’m in the news!” He was amazed and posted screenshots from different digital media, especially from Southeast Asian outlets. On Twitter, he is being hailed as the week’s hero for making fun of, mocking, and deriding that silly and increasingly absurd thing: fashion (of course).

The same thing happened just two months ago, when a video on Douyin (a social network) went viral on its Western counterpart, TikTok, giving rise to the turn-your-grandmother-into-an-international-supermodel challenge. In the video, a venerable elderly Chinese woman was dressed as the personification of Balenciaga, Gucci and Prada by a little boy (presumably her grandson) with what he had on hand in his yurt, including chicken. The results of the challenge—images done in the style of luxury advertising campaigns with brand logos superimposed on them—tell us that we are all Demna Gvasalia, Alessandro Michele, or the tandem Miuccia-Raf Simons, or at least we can be.

An elderly woman dressed by her grandson, who used everyday objects to recreate a Balenciaga advertisement.
An elderly woman dressed by her grandson, who used everyday objects to recreate a Balenciaga advertisement.RR.SS

For a long time, people have complained repeatedly about how bad fashion is, now more than ever. Not only does fashion pollute the planet and exploit its workers, but it also mocks consumers. Are these designers crazy? No, they are just pulling our leg with so much aesthetic arbitrariness/ugliness/stupidity. It’s only fair, then, to return the favor in jaw-droppingly funny ways. In fact, trolling the fashion industry—like Shermont and the Chinese grandmothers (there are quite a few of them)—may be evidence of a certain social disgust with its three-ring circus and its trainers, illusionists, and clowns, whose extravagances are understood as nonsense and, even worse, insults or near-insults. Vetements’s DHL uniform. Virgil Abloh’s Ikea bag. JW Anderson’s broken-skateboard-encrusted sweater. Balenciaga’s shredded sneakers. All of Balenciaga, the brand inevitably referred to in comments on the young comedian’s reels. There are more than a few comments that also praise Shermont’s attitude and stylish model’s trot; they ask to see his fashion show in Paris and Milan already. And then there are those who attempt to be funnier and more sarcastic and ironic than the video itself, which is typical on Twitter. But none of the commenters have taken issue—or even tried to take issue—with the video’s deeper premise.

Shaheel Shermont Flair is a Fijian of Indian descent; his ancestors were Indian girmtyas who went to British-colonized Fiji in the mid-nineteenth century as slave labor. He is also gay. “Welcome the queen to Instagram,” he urged in April 2021, when he debuted on the social media site. In November, he posted that “[m]y sexuality isn’t the problem, your bigotry is.” In April of this year, he returned to the fray: “There are those who hate me for being different and not living by society’s standards, but deep down they wish they had my courage.” Before his phenomenal fashion show, he was already doing “low cosplay” of Indian women by using waste—toilet paper for the sari, a bottle cap for a nath on the nose, and a tea bag for the maang tikka on the forehead, for example—to create an Indian bride’s trousseau in the playful post, “Getting ready for my lover.” In another, he straps on two water-filled balloons as swaying breasts under his T-shirt. “The things I do for TikTok,” he wrote. Indeed, Shermont has made comedy his path to escape bullying and discrimination (prejudice is double in his case) and turned his social media accounts into a highway to heaven. Just like Apichet Madaew Atirattana did back in his day.

Thai Dovima turns everyday objects, twigs, and garbage into original garments.
Thai Dovima turns everyday objects, twigs, and garbage into original garments.

Except for its glamorous intent, everything about Shermont’s catwalk recalls that of the so-called Thai Dovima. In 2016, before Tik Tok’s one-track mind took over, a teenager from the rice-growing region of Isaan—one of Thailand’s poorest areas—astonished the world by turning everyday objects, twigs, and trash into fabulous outfits. He filmed himself modeling those clothes at different locations in his village; his grandmother acted as a styling assistant. Facebook and Instagram went wild over what was termed the “break down of barriers between gender identity, fashion and recycling.” At the time, Madaew (a nom de guerre) explained it this way: “I want people to see that ugly things that don’t fit in can be transformed into something beautiful. And that dressing well is not about money.” Just a few months later, Asia’s Next Top Model, the South Asian edition of the U.S. talent show, called him to be a guest designer during the program’s fourth season. The following year, Time magazine put him on its list of new generational leaders. His example spread. Soon, new stars made their appearance: Suchanatda Kaewsanga, a fellow Thai who is openly trans, and the Chinese Lu Kaigang, whose offerings for fashion shows in his village—located in Guangxi province—unironically included dresses made of garbage can lids and old air-conditioner bags.

Here, we have a response from the poor and marginalized to fashion’s global impact as a mass phenomenon ascribed to the culture of leisure/entertainment. It is a practice that resonates with the button-down politics of Patrick Kelly, the first African American designer to join the ranks of the Parisian ready-to-wear trade association in the mid-1980s; the clothing activities of the swenkas (workers of Zulu origin) and skhothanes (post-apartheid image-obsessed youth) in Johannesburg; and the young Ghanaians who exploit the city-sized textile dumps surrounding the capital, Accra, as sources for their creativity. The narratives of the designers who establish the industry’s current direction, amplified as never before by digital media, also show that it is indeed possible to dress as stylishly as Balenciaga, Gucci or Prada without breaking the bank. That’s why TikTok’s Chinese supermodel grandmothers reflect aspiration and not scorn; they are proof that fashion has something for everyone, even the most socially disadvantaged (one can’t miss the proud hashtag that usually accompanies them, #chinastreetstyle). That’s why Apichet Madaew Atirattana, Suchanatda Kaewsanga and Li Kaigang have made careers as creators, bloggers or influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers. They’ve come so far, propelled by the dreamy fuel that the magazines in village hair salons and satellite TV offer. “It’s very easy to blame fashion for all the problems it creates, but I’d like to think it’s also capable of helping people in many ways, in positive ways,” says Minh-Ha T. Pham, a professor of media studies at Pratt Institute in New York and the author of Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet (2016), an essay about the dynamics of race, gender and class among the young Asians who have found a way to express their identity through fashion, and in the process pushed the system to finally recognize them as a socioeconomic and cultural force. Shaheel Shermont Flair laughs, but he does fashion shows because he also knows what fashion can do for his ambition to become an actor.

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Britney Spears responds to ex-husband’s ‘hurtful’ claims that her children don’t want to see her | Culture

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Singer Britney Spears responded on Sunday to claims made by her ex-husband Kevin Federline about her relationship with their two children, Sean Preston, 16, and Jayden James, 15.

In an interview which will be aired on ITV news, Federline said that the two teens had not seen their mother for months. “The boys have decided they are not seeing her right now. It’s been a few months since they’ve seen her. They made the decision not to go to her wedding,” he said, as reported by The Daily Mail.

In June last year, Spears married personal trainer Sam Asghari. The ceremony was attended by personalities such as Donatella Versace, Madonna, Paris Hilton, Drew Barrymore and Selena Gomez, but not her closest family or children. After the wedding, Spears and Asghari bought a house, valued at $10 million, near Federline’s home.

Federline, a former dancer, had a tumultuous romance with Britney Spears in 2014. The two met while recording a music and started dating. They were soon engaged and married just three months later. But the pair divorced two years later, citing “irreconcilable differences.” Federline has since married volleyball player Victoria Prince, with whom he has two daughters.

In the interview, Federline blamed the alleged fallout between Spears and her children on the singer’s Instagram account, which often features revealing photos. “‘Look, maybe that’s just another way she tries to express herself,’” Federline explained as what he has said to his sons. “But that doesn’t take away from the fact of what it does to them. It’s tough. I can’t imagine how it feels to be a teenager having to go to high school.”

Federline also spoke about the controversial legal conservatorship that gave Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, complete legal control over her finances and day-to-day existence from its signing in 2008 to its end in November last year. According to the former backup dancer, the conservatorship “saved” the singer. “This whole thing has been hard to watch, harder to live through, harder to watch my boys go through than anything else,” he said in reference to the process to end the guardianship.

But Spears has denied Federline’s “hurtful” claims. “It saddens me to hear that my ex-husband has decided to discuss the relationship between me and my children,” wrote Spears. “It concerns me the fact that the reason is based on my Instagram … it was LONG before Instagram … I gave them everything. Only one word: HURTFUL.”

The singer added that her mother advised her to give her children to Federline while she was under the conservatorship.

Spears’ new husband Asghari also rejected the claims. “There is no validity to his statement regarding the kids distancing themselves and it is irresponsible to make that statement publicly. The boys are very smart and will be 18 soon to make their own decisions and may eventually realize the ‘tough’ part was having a father who hasn’t worked much in over 15 years as a role model.”

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Margot Robbie’s self-confessed ambition has made her the highest paid actress of the year | Culture

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Self-doubt is Margot Robbie’s greatest motivator, and competes with ambition in the Australian actress’s psyche. She couldn’t believe her own eyes when she first saw herself on a giant ad for the Pan Am TV series in New York’s Times Square. “I still have the photo,” she told EL PAÍS a few years ago, somewhat wistful for the days when she was still a nobody. The script of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the Martin Scorsese film that put her on the map, touted her as “the most beautiful blonde in the world,” but she didn’t believe the hype. “I remember saying to a friend, ‘I haven’t worked in six weeks.’ I’m sure there’s nothing out there for me,” laughed Robbie. But Hollywood didn’t share her skepticism. In July, Variety magazine ranked Robbie as the highest paid actress of the year when her US$12.5 million salary for the upcoming Barbie movie was announced.

Margot Robbie may be this year’s highest paid actress, but 17 men made even more money, led by Tom Cruise who was paid US$100 million for Top Gun: Maverick. Her Barbie love interest, Ryan Gosling, was paid the same as Robbie, even though she has the titular role, more evidence that pay parity in Hollywood is far from being a reality. Robbie ranked ahead of Millie Bobby Brown (US$10 million for the Enola Holmes sequel); Emily Blunt (US$4 million for Oppenheimer); Jamie Lee Curtis (US$3.5 million for Halloween Ends); and Anya Taylor-Joy (US$1.8 million for Furiosa).

Robbie’s misgivings about her career aren’t shared by other industry giants. Martin Scorsese compared her to Carole Lombard for her comedic genius, Joan Crawford for her toughness, and Ida Lupino for her emotional range. He described Robbie as having a surprising audacity, and recalls how she clinched her role in The Wolf of Wall Street by stunning everyone with a tremendous, improvised slap of Leonardo DiCaprio during her audition.

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling during the filming of director Greta Gerwig's Barbie in California, June 2022.
Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling during the filming of director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie in California, June 2022.MEGA (GC Images)

Robbie showed the same boldness when she lobbied director Quentin Tarantino for another role opposite DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019). She sent the director a letter telling him how much she admired his films, especially her all-time favorite, True Romance (1993). The letter probably wasn’t necessary, as Tarantino already had the I, Tonya star in mind to play Sharon Tate in his new movie, describing her to EL PAÍS as an actress with a visual dynamism and personal qualities that you don’t see every day.

Robbie has wanted to work in movies ever since her start in Neighbours, the long-running Australian TV series that is coming to an end after 9,000 episodes and 37 years on the air. “Of course I’m ambitious. My career motivates me. I came to the United States with a plan, and I’m always looking ahead,” she told us. Even as a child growing up in Queensland (northeastern Australia), Margot Elise Robbie displayed her business smarts and drama queen chops when she decided to sell all her brother’s old toys from the sidewalk in front of the family home.

She jokes about her childhood, but part of that little girl always comes out in the wide variety of characters she plays. She has had all kinds of roles in little-known films like Suite Française and Z for Zachariah, and also in box-office hits like Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. She won Oscar nominations for playing driven women in I, Tonya (2018) and Bombshell (2020). “Yes, many of the women I’ve played share my ambition – this is a tough industry. But I’m full of doubt like anyone else. You never know how things will turn out,” she said.

 Margot Robbie and her husband, Tom Ackerley, at Vanity Fair magazine’s Oscars party, March 2018.
Margot Robbie and her husband, Tom Ackerley, at Vanity Fair magazine’s Oscars party, March 2018. Jon Kopaloff (WireImage)

Seeking more control over her films, Robbie founded production company LuckyChap Entertainment in 2014 with her husband, British filmmaker Tom Ackerley, and some friends. She hopes to use LuckyChap as a vehicle for herself and other actresses, as she did with Promising Young Woman starring Carey Mulligan, a black comedy thriller film that won writer/director Emerald Fennell an Oscar for best original screenplay. “Margot is an extraordinary person,” said Fennell. “That’s why she’s doing so well as a producer who is determined to try different things and give women a voice.”

Robbie met British assistant director Tom Ackerley on the set of Suite Française in 2013. They began a romantic relationship the next year and moved in together right after attending their first Golden Globes gala for The Wolf of Wall Street. Married since 2016, the couple and co-workers in LuckyChap have a bright future ahead, judging by all the work that is piling up for Robbie. In addition to Barbie, she will appear in Amsterdam, directed by David O. Russell; as silent film star Clara Bow in Babylon, directed by Damien Chazelle; and has a role in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City. As if that wasn’t enough to keep Robbie busy, a remake of Ocean’s Eleven awaits her; she will play opposite Matthew Schoenaerts in the post WWII drama, Ruin; produce a remake of Tank Girl; and play a female Jack Sparrow in another installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. Surely Margot Robbie doesn’t have any more doubts about her career.

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Salem’s last witch regains her honor | Culture

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As statues of slave owners and slave traders continue to fall in the United States, the embers of the bonfires that burned women accused of committing spells and witchcraft are also being extinguished. In the umpteenth revision of history to try to exonerate the victims, the most recent episode concerns the last official Salem witch, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., from the massive 1692 and 1693 trials in the English colony of Massachusetts. Thanks to the initiative of a middle school teacher and her students in Andover, located in the same county as Salem, her spirit can now roam free. The enthusiastic students began the vindication process in 2020 and persuaded Massachusetts state senator Diana DiZoglio (D), who took up the cause and pushed for Johnson’s pardon, which was announced last week.

It has taken 329 years for Elizabeth Johnson Jr.’s name to be cleared definitively. She was the last of the Salem witches to be exonerated. While Johnson was spared a death by hanging, she was stigmatized until she died at 77, an uncommonly long life for the time. Historians say that Johnson showed signs of mental instability and was single and childless, all of which were signs of witchcraft during that period. She pled guilty before the court of inquisitors. Almost 30 members of her extended family were also implicated, as if witchcraft were contagious, hereditary, or both. Johnson, her mother, several aunts and her grandfather, a church pastor, were tried as well. According to historian Emerson Baker, the author of a book about the Salem witch trials, her grandfather described Johnson to the judges as a “simplish person at best.” Most likely, the judges would have equated “simplish” with different during that superstitious and pre-scientific period.

The fact that Johnson didn’t have any descendants deprived her of anyone to vindicate her good name, as relatives of the other defendants did. The first attempt to do so happened at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Then, in the 1950s, Massachusetts passed a law exonerating those found guilty, but it failed to gather all the names. A 2001 attempt at justice excluded Johnson because, after her conviction in 1693, she was formally presumed to be dead (executed).

The social hysteria against everything that deviated from the norm, against the minimal exercise of free will, was implacable against women, as Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (the playwright adapted it for the big screen in 1996) and recent variations remind us. The theme lends itself very well to artistic creation, but in real life it amounted to opprobrium for those who suffered it and represented a cause for scorn among puritans.

Illustration of the 1692 trial of two Salem witches. The Granger Collection.
Illustration of the 1692 trial of two Salem witches. The Granger Collection.The Granger Collection / cordon press

Salem was more than a witch trial. According to historians, it was a collective exorcism fueled by a puritanical inquisition based on paranoia and xenophobia, a gratuitous auto de fe that unleashed people’s worst instincts: fear and the human tendency to blame others for one’s own misfortunes. At least 172 people were indicted in the 1692 trial. About 35% confessed their guilt and were spared the gallows; according to sources, around twenty insisted on claiming their innocence and did not escape that fate. The rest of the detainees were acquitted or sentenced to prison. The Salem witch trials represented a collective bogeyman through which one can foresee the later threat of the Ku Klux Klan. It is hard not to wonder what bonfires would have burned today on the pyre of social media and extreme polarization.

The great Salem witch hunt can be re-read through the prism of gender. As the adage goes, se non è vero è ben trovato (Even if it is not true, it is well conceived). Witches, like those in Salem and the woman in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (made into a film in the 1950s), were demonized for going off the rails. The dominant society’s puritanical stance against any kind of heterodoxy or freestyling, against rebels with or without a cause, led people to be targeted for dressing exotically by puritanical standards or for daring to drink at a tavern, a sacrilege for the morals of the day. It’s not difficult to draw a straight line from the bonnet of a witch on the gallows to the handmaid’s white bonnet in Margaret Atwood’s novel: all were women who were demonized, objectified, and scapegoated for deeper ills.

Beyond gender, other historians emphasize the socioeconomic dimension of the Salem witch trials, which combined a deep-seated inequality with racism, the United States’ original sin since well before the Declaration of Independence. The trials targeted colonial society’s most vulnerable during a period of economic instability that unleashed fierce rivalry among Salem families. According to historian Edward Bever, society was permeated by interpersonal conflict, much of it stemming from competition over resources. People did whatever they could to survive, from physical aggression to threats, curses, and insults. One of the first women accused, Sarah Osborne, was a poor widow who dared to claim her husband’s land for herself, defying the customary laws of nature, which granted the inheritance to sons. The accusation of witchcraft ended Osborne’s claim. Tituba, an indigenous slave, was accused of being a witch because her racial origins differed from the norm. Sarah Good was also poor, but she defended herself against the humiliations of her neighbors, which led her to the gallows; her daughter, Dorothy Dorcas Good, was Salem’s youngest victim: she was arrested at only four years old and spent eight months in prison.

Since then, history has not changed the fact that vulnerable women pay the price for circumstances beyond their control. That the Puritans of the time considered women—the evil heirs of Eve —prone to temptations such as the desire for material possessions or sexual gratification was only an added factor. Poor, homeless, and childless, these women in the shadow of society’s dominant morality were fodder for the gallows. But Elizabeth Johnson Jr. didn’t just manage to save her life; 329 years later she recovered her honor as well.

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