To Carrie Brownstein, glamour means confidence “mixed with glitter.” And if glitter is in short supply, getting your 12-year-old hands on a lavender lace crop top once worn by Cher will also do the trick—but more on that later.
David Bowie’s music bounced off the walls at the 14th annual Moth Ball on May 10, where Brownstein spoke with Fusion before receiving the Moth Award, honoring “the art of the raconteur.” The glam rock-themed gala called for attire inspired by the fabulous, androgynous individuality of legends like Bowie and Iggy Pop. Enthusiastic weirdos in their best makeup and shiniest suits milled the room, there to cheer on the musician, writer, and actress—herself a queer icon and pop culture Renaissance woman—for her contributions to storytelling.
She’s seen success shredding on guitar with rock band Sleater-Kinney and poking fun at modern absurdities as the co-creator and star of the IFC sketch comedy series Portlandia, but Brownstein said the most glamorous thing about her is a pair of “very well-dressed” dogs, Tobey and Olive. “They have excellent collars,” she laughed. But as far as she was concerned, preparing for the “Oh! You Pretty Things”-themed event meant “buying an eyeshadow that didn’t have brown in it and putting it on my face.”
Brownstein may not see herself as glamorous, but she’s an unequivocal hero among fans and an intense rocker with an unmatched penchant and talent for words, jokes, and vulnerability.
Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, was published last fall and details the journey from the small stages of her Pacific Northwest youth to international stadiums and countless television screens. The celebrated book describes Brownstein’s introduction to punk rock and her relationship to music and sexuality—and the sexuality of her father, who in middle age revealed to his daughters that he is gay—rehashing how, in 1996, Spin outed her by referencing her relationship with bandmate Corin Tucker in the first major magazine article about the group. In the past she had occasionally written about music and culture for outlets like NPR, but the book introduced Brownstein’s prose to a wide audience and added “talented wordsmith” to the substantial list of skills for which she is known.
On the day we met at the 2016 Moth Ball—a yearly fundraiser organized by the storytelling platform, which honors true stories told live on stage and via podcast—The New Yorker published her short comedic takedown of the ever-dreaded conference call (“We’re eight minutes into the call when Barb suggests that we get started”).
“I feel really edified by it,” Brownstein said of writing. “I always had a fondness for language and communication, so when I would read books and saw a word I didn’t know, I’d write it down. I’ve been lucky enough to hold that in my brain. I like the sound of words.”
A grinding work ethic has allowed for Brownstein to engage with varied modes of storytelling. Before the book’s release, in 2014, Sleater-Kinney announced a new album—their first in a decade—and a tour followed. That same year, she was tapped to complete the late Nora Ephron’s screenplay for a movie based on the U.K. television show Lost in Austen. Besides continuing her work with Fred Armisen on Portlandia—which just wrapped up its sixth season—she recently appeared in the Academy Award-nominated film Carol and the Amazon series Transparent.
“There’s something really kinetic about acting—about all performing—that I’ll always enjoy,” said Brownstein. Her creative pursuits provide opportunities to connect with other people, but the merits of success have not made an extrovert out of the 41-year-old. “I’ve learned that I’m a little shier than I thought,” Brownstein said. “But I don’t take any of it for granted.”
On stage that night, Broad City’s Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson expressed admiration for her work, calling Brownstein “smart, and a thought leader.” The award, an oversized white finger designed by Jonathan Adler, sat on the floor next to Brownstein during her acceptance speech. She began with more reflections on own personal style, noting her surprise when she learned that she’d was being honored for a glam rock-themed honor. “During the early days of my band Sleater-Kinney—which if you haven’t heard it, is pretty heavy rock—my look could best be described as ‘business casual,’” she said. “If I didn’t have dyed black hair and [wasn’t] shouting angry lyrics, you’d think, ‘Oh, that’s weird that my bank teller’s on stage right now.’”
Then came a tale of the childhood obsession that led Brownstein to own Cher’s lavender shirt—but in true raconteur fashion, she warned the audience that her pathway to the relic was “circuitous.”
In middle school, Brownstein adored daytime soaps—Days of Our Lives in particular. Summer breaks were spent in front of the television, and when a local radio show hosted a weeklong in-studio tribute to “Days” (“That’s what the fans called it,” said Brownstein, smirking), she knew she had to be a part of it. It was there that she entered her name into a raffle—“for what, I did not know,” she explained.
When her name was called and the camera panned in her direction, Brownstein panicked, covering her face with her hands until the television crew cut to commercial. This traumatic experience broke the spell that Days of Our Lives held over her, “but in its place [she] found something more exotic, more intriguing, more glamorous.”
That something? Cher’s shirt.
“There aren’t a lot of opportunities for a 12-year-old to dress up in a see-through lace top, so I didn’t have an occasion on which to wear my new shirt,” Brownstein joked. Enchanted still, she’d take it from her closet, inhale deeply, and wonder if there was something the shirt could tell her about Cher, about the world outside of her Seattle suburb. The shirt hinted at what was to come: a life beyond her parent’s impending divorce, her mother’s anorexia, and her loneliness.
“It seemed to wink at me when I opened the door as if to say, ‘not yet, but soon,’” she said.
Alli Maloney is a writer.