Taylor Warren says she was a little weirded out when she found out that Kanye West would be carrying around her severed head in his latest music video. But then she decided to go with it.
West's video shows him, Rick Ross, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj living in a sort of torture-palace-mansion thing, littered with the dead, dying, and dismembered bodies of models. Occasionally, models — who may be zombies, or vampires, or vampire-zombies? — try and break into the mansion; they are, naturally, killed and dismembered. Warren appears in the clip as a vampire who kills a man with a stiletto and drags his body across the bottom of a drained swimming pool. Later, Kanye raps an entire verse while dangling Warren's severed head by its hair from his right hand.
It comes as a surprise to no one — least of all West and director Jake Nava — that the video has been incredibly controversial; West even pre-emptively instructed us all that "it is an art piece and it shall be taken as such." I'm of many minds about this: the use of violent imagery in fashion has long been commonplace (Warren points out that the inspiration boards for the video included photographs by Steven Klein and Guy Bourdin), and it often ends up glamorizing violence against women. (That was something I thought a fair bit about when I modeled.) On the other hand, a depiction of violence (or misogyny) is not always an endorsement of it. And the violence is not necessarily inappropriate to the song's subject matter. You can see how the video could be a commentary on the typical depiction of black men in the American media, as violent monsters.
And maybe the video's real problem is one of narrative: the models are supposedly the aggressors, the zombie/vampire-attackers, but they're shot to look pretty wimpy as they set upon the mansion. Their manicured hands reach through metal bars, but it's to caress Kanye, not attack him. And a whole crowd of these supposedly fearsome creatures can't even manage to break through a set of French doors. If the models seemed like a more credible threat, if they seemed more powerful and less sexualized, their apparent deaths might not be so disturbing, and the video might be a lot more interesting.
Warren, 23, has worked as a model since 2003. She tells StyleCaster, "When I first heard that I was going to be 'beheaded' I got a little offended, like, 'What am I even doing here if no one is going to see my head?!' Then I learned they meant it would be just my head."
How did you and the other models feel about your looks?
Everybody thought everyone else looked awesome, but nobody was really into how they looked. We didn't feel very sexy. It was really creepy and I didn't like my look at first -– I had this huge, ugly gash on my neck. But now I understand why they did what they did.
Did the shoot differ from your expectations?
It was just like any other job for us: Nobody was popping bottles of champagne, there was no booty dancing! There was a lot of waiting and it was really cold, but the crew was amazing and it was a very positive experience. It was an easy breezy way to spend two days, and everyone was having a really good time. The director knew we're not actors, and he saw the humor in everything we were doing. Very respectful.
Did you get to meet or shoot with any of the artists?
I shot with Kanye when he held my decapitated head, and that was really amazing! I was super stoked to be a part of it. We met before we shot the scene and he said, 'Hey, how's it going,' and then I had to kneel down and he was holding me by the hair — I couldn't move or talk because it would ruin the shot! Between takes, he still had my hair and would talk to the director or on his phone while I was chilling three feet below him, but I couldn't help but think, 'This is so surreal and amazing.'
When asked if she thought that all of the "girls" had as positive of an experience as she did, Warren replied, "I honestly think it depends on what they had to do. So the girls in lingerie or hanging from the ceiling might not have been as happy. Personally, I wouldn't have wanted to do the scene in the bed with Kanye in just my underwear." While almost none of the models in the video have been identified publicly — and they are not credited by name in the video — one of the "dead" models in the bed scene has. She is a New Zealander named Bella Barber, and here's Kanye West adjusting her apparently lifeless head. It's interesting that for Warren, the combination of implied sexual availability and death was more disturbing than (grisly, decapitated) death alone. Barber's feelings about the video are not known.
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