Dress Downer

VH1’s joyless costume party.

A loose, informal chignon with loopy tendrils is one thing. A lumpy ponytail, with one section pulled out of the clasp so it rises up greasily and asymmetrically is another. This scourge of girlhood was Heather Graham’s hairstyle on Tuesday night at the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards (VH1), broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall.

Graham appeared, as usual, glowing and superhappy—this time in a black, wide-open vest with silvery panels, and black pants. At the podium she expressed scripted lust for Tom Ford, Tom Ford of Gucci, in full Rollergirl mode, lurching flirtatiously toward the audience and flashing a big kooky smile. With her tipsy physicality and eagerness to please, she seems like the kind of female friend who might need a little looking after. She was the best thing about the show.

Bowie was dismally rebellious

The crowd was dour, and the ambiance at Radio City did little to lift spirits. The show started with David Bowie at a shadowy mike singing “Rebel, Rebel,” his voice mysteriously muddy and wan, with no force to it at all. He sounded like a weakened John Cougar. Currently promoting his new album (of course), he did look good, in a skinny, shiny blue suit. Bowie has kept his bony rocker physique; his face is angular and scary but not cadaverous. The single word “Bowie” was lighted in caps behind him in what must have been a deliberately cheap-looking backdrop. Sometimes, in a broadcast trick, his color left him, and he became black and white. This dismal sequence was meant to kick off a tinselly awards show? I was expecting good gilt, and the list of promised stars-who-party had struck me as stupendous: Cate Blanchett, Pink, Natalie Portman, the Williams sisters, Lenny Kravitz, Hugh Grant, Brittany Murphy, Steven Tyler, plenty of models. I held on to hope throughout the first commercial break.

Song over, Bowie gone, Debra Messing appeared to liven things up. She had on a big, ragged, cream-colored dress by Alexander McQueen, and she sashayed, runway-style, out into the audience. This was probably supposed to be a parody of a sashay, but Messing looked sincere; I sensed that she is fighting to buck her role as comedienne for something more glamorous. This was discomfiting. Cutaways to the audience revealed that no one had broken a smile yet.

Messing started out in the official informal chignon of recent award shows. It looked messy, with strips instead of tendrils hanging down, but there were logistics to consider: namely, that she had four costume changes ahead of her and whatever products were in her hair were going to have to work for the hair up, down, partially up, then all the way down—so each style, including this first one, was compromised. Although, as soon as VH1 broke for its first of a half-dozen possibly historically long commercial breaks, it became clear that Messing had plenty of time to change—and maybe even wash her hair—while we at home sat through 20 or so promotions for Liza Minelli and David Gest’s imminent reality show.

Cate Blanchett took the bummer night in stride, appearing at ease in a messed-up mullet and a black bell-sleeved dress that came to the knee. Someone at VH1 is surely getting in trouble this week for the transparent podium, which was decorated with dots: You couldn’t tell much about what anyone was wearing below the belt. They were all in dots. Stalwartly, Blanchett let the dots have their way. She is promoting her new movie, Heaven; maybe that helped her see a purpose to the night.

Of all the bored guests, Hugh Grant seemed the most bored—brooding, exhausted, contemptuous. So, why did he show up? Surprise: He won the Leading Man Award, which he accepted with “insouciance,”  which in fact registered as vague despair—the old stoned, what-am-I-doing-with-my-life look. The Leading Man Award at the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards doesn’t seem to require that its recipient care a fig about fashion. He wore the same outfit in all the montage pictures: a black suit with a skimpy, near-translucent white unbuttoned shirt. Grant had on something styley in maybe one of the images, which, no kidding, looked like a Photoshop setup. He pronounced “Vogue” as “Vog.”

Fortunately, Venus and Serena Williams were neither dotted nor despairing. They bypassed the podium, coming out—in black-and-white splendor involving bodices and bellbottoms—from their own part of the stage, and they must have hired their own writer, too. The Williams’ banter was natural and slyly delivered, with a sidelong reference to “being fined $100,000 for inappropriate attire” that reminded everyone, for less than a second, that fashion can have consequences. That in turn amplified the ironies of the whole show’s malaise. If these grumpy style people can’t get excited about fashion awards, why should we, at home, ever, ever care about them again?

Except for Danes, the show went bust

In imaginative outfits, Claire Danes, Christina Ricci, and Jennifer Lopez (named Most Influential Artist) all seemed reasonably game, but, overall, the disappointments compounded each other and the show was an unqualified bust. P. Diddy painstakingly read off the TelePrompTer in a robotic voice. The comedy bits were public-access quality. But it took Pink, who (in singing lazily in a T-shirt with a—would you believe?—visible bra strap) showed no effort at style, to illuminate what ought to have been obvious to me all along: namely, that to get exercised about the shoddy VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards—staged almost entirely as a perk for the magazine’s and the channel’s main advertisers, many of whom were in the audience—means leaving oneself open to ridicule. Apparently, Tuesday night’s celebrities go to Radio City for the same reason that adolescents go to church: Their publicist moms make them go. Suitably, they dress nonchalantly to show they don’t care. In this, Heather Graham had the hair exactly right. She should get a prize.