In the outrageous first episode of Who Is America?, Sacha Baron Cohen revealed that, with only a nudge, politicians like Rep. Joe Wilson and former United States Sen. Trent Lott will endorse arming toddlers. On the other end of the spectrum, however, is Christy Cones, the fine-art consultant at Coast Gallery in Laguna Beach, California, who is easily the premiere’s most sympathetic interview subject. Cones believed she was meeting with a British ex-con trying to succeed as an artist, and she keeps her cool throughout the segment, even when she learns that the painting she’s holding is supposedly made of feces, or when Baron Cohen, as “Ricky Sherman,” requests some of her pubic hair for an art project.
Slate spoke to Cones, who also runs the Kalos Kagathos Foundation, about why she agreed to appear on the show in the first place, how she felt when she learned she had been duped, and whether or not Who Is America? should be considered art.
You were originally approached to do this interview in May 2017. Had you forgotten about it since then, or have you been waiting for it to come out?
It was fermenting in the back of my mind, but for the most part, I assumed, as I was told, that it would appear on British public television. They sent me some emails early on—I haven’t released them yet, because I think people care more about the political figures’ reactions, and I’m the only person [in the first episode] who isn’t affiliated with politics. But they set things up by telling me it would be filmed for British public television, not Showtime.
Would it have changed anything if you’d known you would be on Showtime?
I would have never worn that freakin’ Cavalli dress. I would’ve worn my Wolford dress if I’d known it was American. But that’s beside the point.
You do plan to share that email exchange setting up the interview, though? The release forms Baron Cohen uses for his projects have become somewhat infamous.
I’m going to have my own ChristyLeaks and release the emails. I even have the video that I initially submitted to them—they had me send them a short video about myself. In retrospect, that’s probably what they used to make that picture of me, where [Baron Cohen] acted like he had painted it in the bathroom. But I’ll wait to share those at the appropriate time.
But they are quite revealing about the level these people were willing to go to perpetrate their art.
Do you consider what Baron Cohen does “art”?
Yeah, totally. Let’s face it, the guy is in the tradition of, oh, let’s go all the way back, Aristophanes and Horace and Petronius and Jonathan Swift and Voltaire and Colbert. We need our comedians and our satirists, even when it’s dark, to hold the mirror up to us as a culture. “Who is America?” We’re all America. Not just the politicians, but everyday people like me.
How did you wind up doing what you believed would be a segment about an ex-con who found solace in art?
They had approached another gallery, and those people turned them away, and then they came to us. I Googled who [Baron Cohen’s production team] said they were in the emails and nothing really came up. Everybody told me, “You’re putting yourself at risk. This could all be a sham.” I was just like, “Oh well, let’s have fun.” It’s OK to satirize.
So you did suspect that all was not as it seemed?
I was suspicious all along, but I kept wavering back-and-forth. I have to be honest, at the same time, [Baron Cohen] is such a genius that he pulled it off and I believed that he committed this crime, he went to prison, he was repeatedly, well, sodomized in prison.
When did you find out that this was actually a satirical segment for Who Is America?
All of a sudden, I got a phone call, and, I don’t even know how they got my number, but it was a reporter. I was actually in bed when I got the call, and they were like, “I hate to be the bearer of news,” and I was shocked and said some things. Then they wrote their story and of course a lot of what I said was excised—just like in the interview with Sacha.
Did they edit a lot out from the show?
A ton of stuff! Especially at the key moments, like the pubes. There were a couple of times, also, where I would make a critical remark that they didn’t show in the final version. When that happened, I would see a kind of flare of anger in his eyes and I worried that he might be a violent, impulsive person. I guess it was all feigned, but certainly I was like, He might freak out, better not say that.
For the sake of art, not for the sake of my own ego—although it would probably appease that too—I wish I had the full footage of that interview, because we went on for like an hour and a half. We had these awesome conversations about art. Mostly, I was acting and putting on a show. I didn’t know what was going on. We were both playing our roles so well. I just wanted to be likable and pretty and fun and talkative.
How did you feel when you saw the final segment?
I felt lucky and fortunate. Thank you, God or gods or destiny, for bringing me into the path of this comic genius and letting me be tangentially involved in a project that is noble and worthy, even if it ruffles feathers. You gotta learn to laugh and realize that without art and satire, humanity would have perished thousands of years ago. We have to identify things that are wrong in our culture and we have to find solutions and the best way to do that sometimes is to view them from a perspective that will cause less pain.
I just don’t take myself as seriously as the politicians. They put themselves in the limelight and then they act so victimized. I don’t feel like I got shammed or look like a fool. I think to most people I came off pretty good.
The most talked-about part of the segment was probably the pubic-hair paintbrush.
I know. I knew that, hey, there’s the chance for a good show. Oh no, a piece of body hair from the erogenous zone! Big deal, it’s body hair. People shave it off all the time. That does seem to be the thing people are shocked about. In another few decades, people will, I hope, be less offended by the idea of the human body nude. I come from a background in ancient Greece, and it used to be OK to portray the human body in its natural state.
I feel like that’s typical that people are going, “Oh my God, that’s so crazy” instead of talking about those changing perceptions of sexuality.
Do you think Baron Cohen was trying to make a particular point about art with this segment?
In part, I felt like it was a microcosm for the entire show. They came in and presented this artwork with feces and semen—I don’t think that it was, but whatever it was, it stunk—that would pretty much repulse anybody outside of the art community. In the art community, though, these things are well established, y’know, with [photographer Andres] Serrano with the crucifix and the pee.
A lot of people will be repulsed by the art, but it’s the same with [Who Is America?] as a whole. That’s just a part of the dialogue about what art is. In that sense, the show is the same way as this prisoner making art from his gut and intestines, because the show repulses people and offends people who say, “Oh, you shouldn’t lie.” The greatest geniuses always offend.