I have a dress and I have worn it many times.
I needed to impersonate a dead author for Paul F. Tompkins’ Dead Authors podcast. Most of the good authors on the list he gave me had already been taken, meaning someone else had done Jorge Luis Borges. I was scanning through the list of these garbage authors and my eyes lit upon one that came as a complete revelation to me; of course, I should be Ayn Rand. In the podcast, Tompkins, in the guise of legendary time-traveling writer H. G. Wells, interviews various dead authors by bringing them forward in his time machine to discuss their lives and work. I’d been fascinated with Rand since I’d written a story in the New York Times Magazine about a competitive championship tournament bridge player who was also an active objectivist and Rand devotee. I had read half of Atlas Shrugged before I got the gist of my role. I really enjoyed the book because of its absurdly reductive philosophy that inadvertently plays on adolescent male narcissism like a jazz saxophone—to draw a connection to the famous Randian saxophonist and economist Alan Greenspan—but it also spoke directly to the adolescent male fantasy of, “I’m the only smart one. Everyone is leeching off of me and I’d rather destroy my work than compromise my integrity by being nice to others.” Her moral severity came as a tonic to my cultural relativist upbringing.
I started researching Rand and found that in her public appearances, she could be really funny, and purposefully so. I watched a couple of interviews that she gave to Phil Donahue between 1979 and 1981. By the time she was on Donahue, she knew that her life was coming to a close and therefore did not give a shit about anything anymore. She seemed to enjoy saying things that would make Donahue gasp, mostly about religion, God, and women, like that a woman shouldn’t be president, which you knew she didn’t believe. You could tell that Donahue loved her.
During one of those interviews, she revealed that her favorite television show was Charlie’s Angels. Donahue was like, “Come on, Ayn Rand!” and she said, “It’s a very good program. Why should I not enjoy it?” It’s like, Just because I seem like a humorless scold, why should I not enjoy things that are enjoyable? A show about three young, beautiful, talented women who were not accepted by the police department and who, when forced into roles as traffic guards, became so incensed that they left to form a detective agency where they could shine—of course she loved Charlie’s Angels! I began to think: What if Ayn Rand had written, in 1980, a weekly column for Parade about her favorite television shows? That was the backbone on which I based my impersonation for Tompkins. I would talk to him about the Village People and Charlie’s Angels and why, because her moral philosophy is founded on the belief that there is an objective reality that man can perceive accurately, she can definitively and objectively say that the best movie of the year is Caddyshack.
I got this all planned, and then Paul called me and said, “Because we record this live in front of an audience, it’s customary for the person impersonating the author to dress as the author.” I told him that was fine and rented a dress from a costume shop in San Francisco—a frumpy, polyester, half business wear, half evening wear squared-shoulder dress that Ayn Rand would have worn in 1979 or 1980. It was the first time I had ever worn a dress (onstage or off). It was tremendously terrifying, especially since it was two sizes too small, but it was also liberating. I’d been wearing suits—and not just suits but three-piece suits—or tuxedos, things that were designed to protect and distract everyone from me. But now, as Rand, I was literally letting it hang out there, and it was transformative, maybe with a little emphasis on “trans,” if you know what I mean.
I decided to continue performing as Ayn Rand in my standup act, or, rather, my standing up and talking routine. I would make a request on Twitter ahead of time as I traveled around to do the act: If anyone had a dress, in a style that Rand might have worn that would fit a man of my proportions, and could bring it to the show, to let me know and I’d comp their ticket. It was very exciting to receive strange dresses and to change into them onstage, which I found a clever way to do by wearing a flesh-colored V-neck T-shirt and very dark colored underwear. Even though I was briefly near nude, I still felt protected as I slipped into the dress.
Then I reached Eugene, Oregon, and I don’t know what it is about the people of Eugene—whether they don’t own dresses in the style that Rand might have worn in 1979 or 1980, whether they guard them jealously, or whether they are just not a play-along kind of crowd—but despite my many entreaties, no one in the audience would come forward with a dress. As we drove into town and pulled into the strip mall where our hotel was located, John Roderick, with whom I was performing, saw a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. “That’s where you’re going to get your Ayn Rand dress,” he said. It was an amazing thrift store and indeed I found maybe half a dozen perfect dresses, all for under $50. I settled on a purple and electric-blue number made entirely from man-made material with a very clever cross-broach fastener in the front, size 18. It was modest eveningwear for older ladies and big ladies, and it fit like a charm. I paid $20, put it on onstage, and became Ayn Rand.
Since then, I’ve performed in this dress a dozen times or more. This dress isn’t different from any other Rand dress, except that it’s mine. I own a dress, and it’s the first dress that I have owned. From a theatrical point of view, it is perfect. It catches the light and shines a beacon of objective judgment across the entire crowd. It’s indestructible. It does not wrinkle. You ball it up, throw it into a satchel, and bring it on the road, and it looks perfect the moment you take it out.
That brief moment of discomfort—that “what am I doing?” moment—and the transgression that I initially felt in San Francisco when I put on that dress for the first time is gone. Now, it’s the part of the show that I look forward to the most. I no longer even wear that dumb flesh-colored T-shirt, although I still wear underwear because no one wants to see beyond that. But at a time when the work that I’m doing as a writer, as a performer, and as an actor is striving for less of the exaggerated gamesmanship of pretending to be an expert or deranged millionaire, and striving more to be authentically and vulnerably me, it is a real moment of power. For the audience, I think it’s a powerfully disgusting moment—when I fully disrobe and stand for a period of time in only my underwear while trying to figure out if the dress is inside out or not before I put it on. Even though I’m imitating, in a ridiculous fashion, an exaggerated version of Ayn Rand, what precedes the moment of putting on the dress is an utter nudity of self, about as close as I’ll ever get.
Excerpted from Worn Stories, out now from Princeton Architectural Press.