It is wrong to judge an autobiography on the character of its subject. It’s apparent from Australian fashion designer Alannah Hill’s memoir, Butterfly on a Pin, that she is melodramatic, rude, narcissistic, deliberately ignorant and Difficult to Get On With. Hill says that she was molested no fewer than 4 times her in her youth. She does not mention eating anything other than junk food and lollies. In her younger days she lied, forged and stole (“the next day I shoplifted a hammer”). She is obsessed with her son* and her dead mother (whom she spends much of her book demeaning). She had an undoubtedly rotten childhood, has pulled-herself-up by her pretty bootstraps and feels very, very sorry for herself. (When she calls herself “unjoined”, read “unhinged”).
So, not someone you would (as P says) “want to go on a houseboat holiday with”**, but you would want to read her book. You DO*** want to read this funny, zippy book, if you have ever worn one of the Alannah Hill girly garments with a silly name like “The I-Have-No-Interest-in-Telling-the-Truth,-the-Whole-Truth-and-Nothing-But-the-Truth Cardigan”.
The story of the naming of the pieces in the Alannah Hill range is wry and typical of the exchanges between Hill and her mother Aileen:
“The naming of a new collection went like this : ‘Mum! It’s me, Lan. What are you doing right at this very moment, Mum?’
‘Is that YOU, Lannaaah? Are you calling me on that little silly phone you’ve got? That’s not a phone, Lan, it’s a toy. I’m just sitting here, dear, I might get my hair set, but I’m still in my dressing gown, dear. Have you been sacked yet, dear? Did you ask what I’m eating, Lan? How do you know I’m eating? I’m just eating a little SAO BISCUIT!’
And that’s how it went, from Mum’s mouth, straight into my collections:
-I’m just having a little Sao frock
-You can’t sew, dear, frock
-He’s going to jail cardigan
-Love me in the cemetery frock
-She’s a little bitch coat
-Who the HELL do you think you are? frock
-Ask your father, dear, cardigan
-You’ll burn in hell, Alannah, camisole
-He doesn’t LOVE you, dear, skirt
-You’re a disgrace frock
-Where’s my pony skirt
-Read your Bible, Alannah, frock
-He’s NEVER going to marry you, Lannah, cardigan.'”
Hill’s parents were the stuff of cliché – a drunken, disappointed, lapsed-Catholic father and a miserable mother calling upon all the Catholic saints to witness her martyrdom. The family (5 children of course) move from a failing orchard to “the graceless hellhole, the hellhole of THE MILK BAR” in the perfectly named Tasmanian town of Penguin. [A town that sits on the edge of tempestuous Bass Strait, features a 10 foot high statue of a penguin and has a famous local football team called ‘Penguin’ – Ed.]
The Hill family was poor, isolated and insanely bleak. “There would be no unnecessary talking, no laughing, no family holidays, no counter lunches, no counter teas, no Sunday drives and no games. Of any sort. We had no pencils, no pens, no music, no radio, no books, no toys, no friends and no hobbies. In Geeveston, by 5.30 pm we were in our narrow beds, lined up against one wall in the small porch.” The child Alannah ran away to join the carnival, fought with her sister over a rag doll found in a puddle, was rejected by the Girl Guides, pushed her injured brother around in a pram, was thrown out of trade school and was “beside herself” when the neighbour’s mother was found unresponsive in the bath draped over a rusty mower.
Hill’s reconstructions of her mother’s lifelong, unsparingly negative and off-point diatribes are the funniest passages in the memoir, awful as they must have been and exaggerated as their rendition here may be. When Hill suggests that she might move to Melbourne:-
“OH GO ON with you, Lannah! Take your BED over there then! Take your BED to Melbourne and lie in it on your OWN and see JUST how quickly you run back here to Ulverstone! Go ON! Nobody EVER rings for you. Why’s THAT, Lan? Why doesn’t anyone ring for you? Maybe it’s your get-up and the way you STICKYBEAK into other people’s business. You’re such a stickybeak, Lan, and people DON’T LIKE a stickybeak.”
Hill is molested at 12 years of age and, she says, “…from that day on I was a sitting duck…I didn’t know if it was night or day, morning or afternoon.'” That trauma (and subsequent incidents, some of which she suggests she unwontedly invited, one of which was a truly terrible crime) hit her hard. The book is mainly concerned with Hill’s view of herself as “smashed-up” by her childhood and abuse and its effects. However, it is not entirely clear how this brokenness manifests itself. Hill refers to her “free-floating anxiety”, her “inner mongrel basdard” , to often feeling “imperfect and unreal” and “Buried-Alive Alannah”. But we don’t really understand what this means to her in day-to-day terms. How is she different from the rest of us with ‘normal’ childhoods? Certainly she feels inadequate at times – but that is to be human. Her behaviour is no doubt eccentric and temperamental but again….
We see a driven, fabulously successful millionaire who has worked at what she loves. There is a conflict between her claims of being ‘unjoined’ and obviously strong sense of self and confidence.
Hill says that she told a potential lover:-
“‘Men see a vision, a creation of me that they’ve drawn inside their own mad, love-driven heads. You believe I’m a perfect vision of loveliness and glory, you’ll idolise me, adore me and then you’ll have to live with the crushing disappointment. I’m a bathtub without a plug. A broken window, a cracked skeleton. I fall from elegance with dull thuds onto floors. I can fly you to the moon and back in one day, and the very next I’ll fly you straight to hell, where you’ll stay until I feel loved again. I’m really a very plain, ordinary girl pretending to be a smashing girl…”
We just don’t know what that means other than “I am vain, imperfect, want to be loved and I act badly at times.”
The young Hill flees to Hobart, then Melbourne. Before she left home, Hill began to develop her trademark look –
“I announced to Mum that I’d now be wearing make-up for the rest of my life. She told me I looked ridiculous and to take some ‘layers’ of her foundation off. I told her I’d be wearing more layers of eye shadow, more layers of lipstick, more layers of everything, and that nobody would ever see me without make-up, a costume or a hairdo ever again. Mum agreed that it was probably a good idea.” “I felt like a different person. I was transformed. No longer an abused little mongrel bastard, I understood the power of make-up and clothing. I was becoming the girl I’d always imagined I could be…My reinvention became my weapon to deal with the world.” Hill takes this to such extremes that, decades later, when admitted to hospital for her son’s caesarean birth, she wears “what can only be described as a meringue-pink ball gown with kitten heels”. She puts a DO NOT DISTURB sign, which she had “borrowed” from the Sydney Westin hotel, on her hospital door, totally stage-dresses the room, and wears complete makeup in the operating theatre.
In her early days Hill wandered about, trying to create a place for herself. She pretended she was a librarian, got sacked from KFC, got sacked from a jewellery store and lived dangerously. She knocked on the doors of mansions looking for a room to rent. She walked into exclusive shops, “leaving my name and a reference I’d written myself, stating ten skills I did not have, one of them being stenography”.
The laughs in the book are not all intentional – Like Joan Collins (!) Hill calls herself shy – “I was shy but I always had to appear larger than life; I knew I wouldn’t be seen if I didn’t make a scene…” – obviously thinking ‘shy’ is a synonym for screaming attention-seeking show pony. The “naturally rather shy” Hill would flirt, she admits, with a lamp. This shy young woman hitchhikes alone to “uber-cool” New Wave Melbourne nightclubs dressed like a “kindergarten kabuki girl”. She fires personal questions at people with machine gun subtlety. When she meets David Heeney, future CEO of Factory X, she shouts over the music, ‘I have heard some preeeeetttteeeee wild tales about you, Cowboy Man. Are you a hairdresser? Do you own a cemetery? Have you shrunk yourself in the wash? You’re rather short, dear? Do you own an op shop in Fitzroy Street? Do you have a girlfriend? Are you married? Do you think you will ever have children? What are you looking for in life? Love, money or happiness? Which one?’ And…spoken in a posh English accent: ‘And where did you schoooooooooooool?'”
When the shrinking violet introduces herself to Robert Pearce, he tells her that he had seen her a year earlier, making a “‘tremendous public spectacle'” of herself, dancing and busking outside the Prahran Town Hall on Chapel Street, probably wearing a “pink plastic nineteen-sixties frock.” She asked for details, because she wanted to know how to do it again.
When this wallflower wants to be in the film Dogs in Space, she dresses-up and, at the production offices, “showed myself off again and again” to Richard Lowenstein and Michael Hutchence, and nabs a featured extra role.
This is not a “tell-all memoir”. There are gaps, hints and unanswered questions in Hill’s story. Her self-deprecation is carefully crafted to fit the fragile image, but the rock below and the ruthlessness are evident too.
But Hill is candid in her best chapter, “Coming Apart at the Seams”, dealing with the David Jones’ incident****. The depiction of her dawning horror, her desperate attempts to minimise the damage in her own mind and her utter wretchedness when the inescapable reality hits is visceral. Refreshingly, she does not pretend any PC views, or fake outrage at her own insensitivity – it was, she says, a flippant remark, (although we rather suspect a rejection rankles here). Admirably too, she does not even mention the substantial amount which she subsequently helped raise for charity in atonement.
Hill is also straight-up about having bought a house which she could not afford (with a mortgage of $23,000 a month). She does not pretend that she simply changed her mind, or wanted to move on. ” From the first day I stepped inside my blue-chip castle, I wasn’t just paying the colossal price of a south Yarra mortgage, I was also paying the price of a colossal illusion, an illusion that would dissolve into a future where, in less than three years, I’d be forced to sell my South Yarra mansion, the one I could never stop talking about.” This honesty is all the more impressive in the face of her her spinning-eyed acquisitiveness, her unappealing desire to trade up and up and up, real estate-wise.
It’s no surprise to the reader that Hill has had an unhappy series of relationships – at least two with men substantially younger than herself. She is wary of intimacy, “because becoming dependent on a man meant diminishing myself.” She told herself early on that she “couldn’t rely on anyone else“. At 39 Hill decides to have a baby with her partner Karl, despite his expressed lack of interest and the warning of her assistant Hanh, “‘..He no good! He no take care of you and the baby. He will leave you for sure. I feel sad for you, Lan, you spend years of your life giving him a good life and he treat you this way. It not fair, Lan, it not fair. What you going to do, you too old to have a baby with someone else. All your eggs dead anyway.'” Although we have the benefit of Hill’s 20/20 hindsight, we are surprised that she is surprised with Karl leaves a week after the birth of their son.
At the time of writing Hill was in a relationship with Hugo Race (formerly of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, some of whom appear earlier, throwing beer-soaked toilet paper at Hill’s head ). Race “..had a reputation for being difficult, prickly, an Ernest-Hemingway-esque romantic, dramatic musician, often on tour in Europe. Could I have found myself anybody more perfect? Mercurial, aloof, distant, moody but intoxicatingly attractive to me. Perfect!”
There is an odd incident concerning an early lover of nine years, “posh boy-person” Steven Jones Hyphenated Evans, who disappears absolutely at page 183 in about 1987, only to reappear at page 289 in about 2013, when Hill tells us that he is “the man who had influenced almost every decision I had made for the last thirty-five years…” Hill then seems to take credit for his remarkable recovery from apparently terminal bladder cancer – Her feat? She introduced him to an oncologist.
Hill’s uber-confidence and self-absorption are monumental. Again, we don’t have to like the subject of a memoir, and their lack of insight may be of interest, but it is not clear when Hill is boasting about her rebelliousness and when she is serving-herself-up for our dissection.
In India she contracts typhoid as a result of neglecting to have the recommended immunisations – “I’d read the fine print but was sure it didn’t apply to me.”
Many years earlier, when attending a sophisticated and arty “dinner-party-as-an-idea”, Hill shuns the “inedible food” and brings her own picnic pack – red cordial, Smarties, salt-and-vinegar chips, Cheezels, hors d’oeuvres on Salada biscuits and chocolates. When it is the turn of Hill and her partner to host a dinner-party-as-an-idea, she breaks into the empty apartment next door and serves lemonade, jelly, confectionery, pizza subs, saveloys, fish fingers and cold party pies on the floor, lit by borrowed torches. Backed by ABBA.
Does Hill really live on children’s treats? Was she truly diagnosed as suffering from diabetes, scurvy and malnutrition when pregnant?
Hill’s fashion career started when she was offered a job at hippie Chapel Street boutique “Indigo”; her idiosyncratic personal style having been recognised. Clearly a sensational saleswoman, Hill sold masses of clothes she loathed, and ultimately helped re-brand the outlet with a more modern look, launching her own label. True to fashion, when she is asked to leave, she is told, “‘If there’s ever any trouble, you’re in the middle of it….Lan, you’ve just got bigger dreams than the rest of us. You’ve become impossible.'”
After the appropriate period of spectacular mourning, Hill starts work at Dialogue, (main label Target). Here she worked incredibly hard, hands on, based in a room under the stairs, hidden from the financial controller. Shortly after she sold a sizeable amount of her collection (including to David Jones), Dialogue went into administration. Hill then went to work at Factory X, ultimately opening the Alannah Hill bow teeks under their umbrella.
Unusually, Hill’s parents agreed to attend the opening night of the first bow teek, in chic Chapel Street. “I don’t believe my parents had any idea what they were really attending. Something about having to travel all the way to Melbourne to attend some kind of an opening with my name on a window.” Hill’s mother sat in the front window smoking, greeting guests, “‘Oh dear, Lan, who was HEEEE? What a crushing, drunken bore…You can’t sew a thing, dear, you can’t even darn a sock, Now you listen to me, Lan, you LISTEN to me. This does NOT feel RIGHT, I smell a rat and I just don’t like it! Now tell me again, why IS your name on all of the clothing? WHY?”’
Although she misses the main point, Aileen Hill does raise an important question. We never read about her daughter working on a sewing machine or picking up a sewing needle. When asked how she had built a successful fashion brand, having not done a design course, she answers, “I suspect the truth, dear reader, lies in my favourite line from that great Australian comedy The Castle. ‘It’s just the vibe of the thing, and….no, that’s it, it’s the vibe.”” Hill says that she worked up to a hundred hours a week, forgoing a social life; she had “instinct, determination and tenacity with a desire to never, ever, ever give up.” Her success was due to the fact that she was her ” own best advertisement”, living, breathing, dreaming it, without distraction, a real person behind the brand, in her fantasy world.
Yes, but these are motherhood statements. We do not know if Hill can sew, if she holds pins in her mouth, how she learnt to design, or how she actually physically expressed that instinct, determination and tenacity (other than when she talks about meetings and publicity). We do not know how she spends a day in her studio. We really have no hint, in a practical sense, of how Hill made it from shop-girl at Indigo to a fleet of Alannah Hill bow teeks. It’s like the South Park Underpants Gnomes’ business plan – “Phase 1: Collect underpants, Phase 2: ?, Phase 3: Profit”. Therein lies the one real fault of this book. We are told very little indeed about Hill’s inspiration, her theories, her designing and nothing about how she collates a collection. Although this is a memoir about healing and dealing with trauma, Hill is famous for fashion. The typical reader of this book will want to know something about being a fashion designer and – also – would be fascinated to learn how Hill compiles her own, famous daily look.
The Alannah Hill brand was sold to stores in London, New York and Singapore. But that didn’t impress Aileen. When Hill phones her mother to tell her that she is standing on Fifth Avenue outside Henri Bendel’s which is featuring Alannah Hill designs in the front window, Aileen says “‘New YORK??? Oh, you are NOT, Lannaaaah! How can you be talking to me in Ulverstone on that tiny little beeping phone of yours? From New York? WHAT clothing, dear? WHAT window? FIFTH Avenue? Didn’t they want you on FIRST Avenue, Lan? You only came fifth?”‘
Factory X begins to take decisions about the Alannah Hill brand without her knowledge. She makes a tactical error, and is pushed out. She says that she reinvents herself and launches the short-lived Louise Love brand, (but this brand looks the same as the ‘old’ Alannah Hill, and so does she.) She does, however, tell the story of her trauma and that may be cathartic both for herself and others.
When Aileen dies, Hill says, “Nothing can ever prepare you for the news of your mother’s death. It penetrates the heart with a burning arrow of sorrow and sometimes scorching regret. My world went black. I went black. It was the blackest day I’d lived.” Hill falls into a seemingly bottomless slough of overblown grief, which is somewhat difficult to swallow, given the preceding chapters.
Even when her therapist has told Hill, “you have to stop living in your head with your mother – it’s time to let her voice go.”‘ and she says, “in my better moments on this earth, I understand that we are all responsible for our own lives”, Hill will not stop living in that shadow. Is it because this is the (invisible) disability which makes her special and absolves her from normal behaviour?
Despite Hill’s (self-confessed) poor education, naivete and apparent lack of intellectual curiosity, she has a sharp eye for the mysteries and ironies of existence. She writes very well indeed, and has an amusing, individualistic turn of phrase:
“My shoes slipped off my feet in excitement”.
“A gang of Alannah Hill girls walking toward you could knock a Tim Tam biscuit right out of your hands.”
“A scared tip-rat, I cried at the drop of a scream.”
(When worrying that she is a bad mother), “”I catastrophised a little bit more about whether my delivering him a Scotch Finger biscuit with a Kit Kat on a side tray would come back to haunt me in E’s teen years.”
Hill is flashy, inconsistent and self-obsessed; essentially a loner, but that is how creative, eccentric butterflies should be.
***********[*We suspect that Hill’s son may be indulged, when Hill says, “I’ll show you how to become so exhausted from shrinking yourself to suit your child’s every whim, every demand.” and “I didn’t feel I was giving E the best start in life, so I made up for it by giving him everything. Easy!” Hill’s mother apparently said that E will either “end up in jail or become a famous actor.”] [** Although, for the record, let it be noted that we at TVC are unlikely to go on a houseboat holiday of any kind, on our own or with the dearest of friends.] [***Hill LIKES capitals and footnotes.] [**** In 2010 a woman accused the then-chief executive of David Jones of sexual harassment. When asked about the matter at a highly publicised David Jones fashion event, Hill said (inter alia) “‘I wish he’d touched me up. I threw myself at him! He told me he didn’t want to mix business with pleasure…’]