What makes you laugh? I find all sorts of things funny, although they are rarely jokes in the traditional sense. I can only remember one joke in fact – the one about the inflatable headmaster at the inflatable school telling the inflatable boy caught with a needle that not only has he has let the school down; worst of all he’s let himself down. But the best fun is when people are being amusing without knowing it.
In my past as a glossy magazine journalist I worked with some staggering characters (sometimes literally if they’d been on the white wine and, as usual, hadn’t eaten). One editor asked me in all seriousness if I knew the difference between aristocratic legs and those of common people. Another had some good party tips: champagne made your breath smell, canapés were to be avoided because those that fell on the floor were put back on the trays and MTF men were to be avoided at all costs (MTF = Must Touch Flesh). Oh, and Desserts was Stressed in reverse. An assistant of mine once failed to show up to work because she was testing different shades of white paint on the wall of her flat (why it couldn’t wait for the weekend, I don’t know). Another person warned me of the perils of cheap flight on aeroplanes: ‘In Economy you make Enemies, in Club you make Comrades and First you make Friends’. Granted, at the moment, volcanic ash clouds are making it difficult to put this to the test.
But it was the moment when someone in the office described in outraged tones her boyfriend landing his helicopter in her parents’ orchard: “he blew all the petals off the herbaceous border! Mummy was furious!” that I realised I just had to use all this material. I worked some of it into my first novel, SIMPLY DIVINE, but the theme of the hilarity endemic to the glamorous lifestyle has remained a constant in all of my novels. And never more so than BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE, which takes a long, amused look at celebrity and the film industry. Here’s a little taste of what you can expect:
The doors flew back, and in, rather to everyone’s amazement, came Belle Murphy, her lavishly lipsticked mouth stretched in a dazzling smile the width of a watermelon.
“Hi guys!” she trilled. The guys waited for a reference to her lateness, followed by an apology. They were disappointed on both counts.
Belle looked, Mitch thought, not only smaller than she appeared on screen-every star looked like that-but even smaller than when he had seen her last. Clearly her relationship with food had got that bit more distant in the meantime. For all the movement and vitality of her presence-the shining hair, the flashing sunglasses, the exposed and prominent rounded domes of her breasts rearing beneath a necklace of very big diamonds-Belle’s body, Mitch estimated, as about the width and thickness of a copy of Vogue. And not a Christmas issue, either.
She looked pretty good, all the same. He noted with relief her clinging grey silk dress with plunging neckline, black high heels, enormous black sunglasses, and the way her cascade of white-blonde hair pushed back from her face and poured over her shoulders as far as her elbows. She was working the high-octane glamour look, as she should be. She was doing that bit right at least.
He shot a timid yet triumphant look at Arlington. Surely even Hollywood’s chillest lizard, however angry, couldn’t be immune to such a tasty piece of ass as this. He took heart when he saw that Arlington was apparently staring at Belle’s breasts.
Arlington was, however, looking at the bag Belle had under her arm. It was huge, heavy with gilt and buckles, and almost as big as she was. He recognised the type without enthusiasm. His fifth wife had had one in every colour. They cost a minimum of two thousand dollars a pop. What was even less appealing to Arlington was the presence in one corner of the bag of a small, brown dog with a very big diamond collar.
It was one of those trembly, skinny, yappy ones, Arlington saw with dislike. It looked restlessly about with enormous and very prominent black eyes. They held a ruthless expression, a look that clearly warned it might go for the throat at any minute. Arlington recognised the expression; it was one he often used himself in business meetings.
Mitch’s expression, meanwhile, was one of abject misery. That Arlington Shorthouse disliked dogs was common knowledge in Hollywood. NBS was the only studio that never put out movies with dogs in them, which were the sort that more or less kept all the other studios afloat.
“Darling!” breathed Belle in her trademark little-girl voice. Holding out her arms, she staggered across the carpet in her high heels towards the burr-walnut desk. “Arl! May I call you that, for short?”
The sound now filled the room of four strangled, horrified coughs. Four minds reverberated with one single thought. She had called him Arl, Mitch realised, cringing. No one called Arlington anything for short. No one ever said “short,” and she had done that too. “Short” was not a word that was ever breathed in Arlington’s presence.
Mitch, who knew how the studio head also loathed unscheduled physical interaction, now watched in horror as Belle seized Arlington’s neck with a white hand on which a huge diamond ring glittered. “Mwah! Mwah!” Arlington gasped with pain as her razor cheekbones banged against his smooth and elastic cheeks.
It crossed the screeching, veering chaos of Mitch’s mind that Belle might be drunk.
Belle, having smeared Arlington’s tanned cheeks with red lipstick, now stood unsteadily erect in her five-inch stilettos. She held up the bag with the dog in.
“Gentlemen,” she pouted breathily, batting her wide, blue eyes behind her sunglasses.
“I’d like you all to meet Sugar. It’s Sugar’s fault we’re a tiny weeny bit late. I had to take him to the dog beautician for a manicure.”
The men in the room stared dumbly. Each and every one of them was familiar with star behaviour. But this woman wasn’t even a star anymore. Mitch stared at the floor, wishing it would not only swallow him up but also mash him to a pulp. He felt he didn’t want to live anymore.
“There you go, precious,”Belle crooned to the dog as she put him on the floor. “You go run about, sweetie.” As Sugar immediately shot beneath Arlington’s desk, Belle beamed at the studio head. “See, look. He likes you.”
“I don’t like him,” Arlington said ominously.
Belle’s megawatt grin abruptly disappeared. Her big mouth, which was painted shiny and red, bunched disapprovingly, and her darkened eyebrows snapped angrily together. “How can you say that? Sugar’s so sensitive. So easily hurt, poor baby.” She bent under Arlington’s desk and cooed some endearments. At least he gets to see her tits now, Mitch thought.
“Look, shall we get on with the business?” asked Bob Ricardo, looking at his boss and drumming his calculator with his fingers.
Arlington flexed his stubby hands and stared at his neatly clipped nails. “Look, baby. So you were huge last year. But a year’s a long time in showbiz. You’re losing it, and there are plenty of other girls out there just dying to take your place. Bob?”
“Basically, the bottom line is this. Bloody Mary cost two-hundred and-fifty-million dollars to make, and so far it’s grossed thirty.”
“Thirty million?” Belle beamed. “Hey, it’s only been out two weeks. Thirty million’s pretty good.”
Bob shook his bony, crop-haired head. “Not thirty million dollars. Thirty dollars. Three-oh.”
Mitch gasped. He’d no idea it was this bad. This was historic.
“Thirty?” croaked Belle.
“Thirty,” confirmed Bob in his grating tones.
“Thirty dollars! But that’s impossible!” Belle shouted.”No one’s ever made…”-—she screwed up her mouth to spit out the words- “thirty freaking dollars on a two-hundred-fifty-million-dollar picture! It’s impossible, right?”
“Wrong,” Bob said with relish, his lean fingers gently tapping the white surface of his balance book. “Sure, it’s made a few million, but when you take away the taxes, the costs, and so on, well…”” He pulled a face. “Thirty’s what you’re left with. Which means,” he frowned and tapped the large buttons of his calculator, “a deficit of two hundred forty-nine million, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and seventy dollars.”
Even though he had heard it before, the figure hit him just as hard as it had the first time, right bang slap in the balls. Arlington closed his watering eyes and swallowed. Forget calling this a turkey. It was an outbreak of swine flu. An epidemic of H1N1 right through their balance sheet.
The extent of the damage was still, in fact, coming in. There was some confusion over whether Bloody Mary had been number six or number nine in Moldovia. “It’s the right number, all right,” their contact there had reported. “Right now, we’re just establishing what way up it is.”
“You got your sums wrong!” Belle gasped, breasts heaving up and down agitatedly. “The critics said my acting was great!”
Arlington pursed his lips. “No one gives a gnat’s snatch about the acting.”
From under Arlington’s desk, the dog growled. “I always said we should make a sequel to Marie,” Belle declared passionately. “But no one would listen to me.” She thumped a skinny fist heavy with diamonds so hard against the prominent bones of her upper chest that it seemed to Mitch that she might snap them.
“We couldn’t do a sequel,” Michael J. Seltzer said shortly. “She got her head chopped off in the last one.”
Belle glared indignantly at Seltzer. “We should have done Anne Boleyn instead. Or Elizabeth…whatever number she was. The one in the big ruffs. Or Henry the whatever. You know, that powercrazed psycho with the six wives.” Belle rolled her eyes. “Six wives! How normal was he?”
The six-times-married Arlington looked predictably thunderous at this. The folly of Bloody Mary struck him anew. Burning desire. What the hell had the studio been thinking of to use that as the film’s catchline?
Or, to be precise, Arlington thought, eyes slitting as he looked at his Creative Head, what had Michael been thinking of? It had been his idea to make the film in the first place; to make it, moreover, not straight and historical, but sex it up, make it like some sixteenth century Catholic Playboy Mansion, with Philip of Spain running around pleasuring everyone from the lady’s maids to the spit boy. He had even pushed for an alternative title, Burn, Baby, Burn, on the grounds that it was more commercial. It had been his decision to take out all the Protestant-versus-Catholic elements on the grounds it might offend people, meaning that nothing made any sense and the executions looked gratuitous.
Belle’s sunglasses, which she had now replaced, flashed defiantly. “Anyway, Bloody Mary did very well in the Ukraine.”
“Only because they thought it was about alcohol,” replied Bob wearily.
Arlington slid another look at his watch. Shit. He had another fifty meetings scheduled today. This was taking far too long. He looked meaningfully at his head of PR.
Chase McGiven cleared his throat. He sat with one ankle raised to his knee, on which balanced a blue plastic folder he tapped restively with a fountain pen. “Miss Murphy. We’ve been doing some, ahem, qualitative personality research…”-he tapped the folder harder-“which I have right here.”
“Some what?” Belle snapped rudely.
“Qualitative personality research is qualitative research concerning a personality,” Chase informed Belle. “See what they think of you, in other words.”
“Was this really necessary?” Mitch interjected, feeling he should say something, anything, to remind them all he was still here.
Chase ignored him. “According to our research, and, of course, this is confirmed by the figures from Bloody Mary, your popularity is, how can I put this?” He looked thoughtfully at Belle.
“Huge?” prompted Belle.
“Slipping,” said Chase.
“Are you sure?” Mitch interjected desperately.
Chase leant back in his chair and put his arms behind his head.
“Her popularity’s at rock bottom.”
“Like the takings,” interjected Bob, with relish.
The dog began to yap under Arlington’s desk.
“C’mon, Belle. You know it’s true.” Chase leant forward.
“People are dropping you from projects left, right, and centre. No film will touch you at the moment. You’ve lost your cosmetics contract, the perfume launch has been decommissioned, and you’re not even being considered for that Disney animation about a worm with issues any more. The part’s gone to Scarlett Johansson.”
Mitch’s breakfast came shooting back up his windpipe in a sudden and unexpected manner. He pulled an apologetic face as Belle ripped off her sunglasses and whipped round to meet his eyes with blazing balls of blue fire.
“I was gonna tell you,” Mitch murmured unhappily.
Chase ploughed on. “Specifically, what our qualitative personality research tells us is that your recent behaviour has played badly with the fans. You’ve misread the zeitgeist.”
“I’ve never read the zeitgeist,” Belle blustered.
Chase stared at her with such a bewildered expression on his face that Mitch almost felt sorry for him. He had clearly underestimated the scale of the task before him, but then, who hadn’t?
“People don’t want stars like that anymore,” the studio PR continued. “Drunken, wild, dressed like hookers…””
“Hey,” interjected Belle indignantly. “It takes a lot of money to look that cheap.”
“You gotta calm down,” Chase advised. “Get some respect from somewhere. Get yourself some gravitas.”
“What sort of ass?”
Mitch wiped the napkin from this morning’s purchase of jelly doughnuts over his perspiring brow. He felt a slight tightness form in the wake of the wipe; sugar crystals, he realised too late. He had frosted his own forehead. “What Chase means,” he said to Belle, “is that you need people to take you more seriously.”
Belle nodded sarcastically. “Whaddya want me to do, go play Hamlet at the Royal Freaking Shakespeare Company? Huh?”
“Shakespeare. It’s a thought,” Arlington admitted.
Belle gasped in angry disbelief. But Chase interrupted.
“Fans these days…” he continued smoothly, “want stars they can respect. Caring stars, loving stars. People who care about the big issues. Global poverty. Families. The environment.”
Belle stared at him disbelievingly. “I’m a celebrity. I’m not running for president.”
Chase grinned wolfishly. “Belle, let me tell you, you know what you are. Sort of. People expect their stars to have issues these days. Consciences. Just look around. There’s Angelina and Brad there with their rainbow family, Madonna and that little African guy, Clooney and Darfur, Gwyneth Paltrow and, uh, her macrobiotic yoga…”
Belle’s shiny red lips were twisted in a scornful sneer. “So what are you saying? That you want me to-she snorted with disgust- “adopt…”-her eyes rolled incredulously, and she tossed her white hair-“an African baby?”
There was a dead silence.
Arlington’s eyes burned, and his mouth rushed with water. His groin felt suddenly tight, as in moments of extreme sexual excitement. This was the answer. The idea they had been looking for. If anything could turn round Belle’s career and reputation-and she was, after all, one of his most expensive stars-it was this.
“That’s exactly what we want you to do, Belle,” he said. “And if you don’t, you’re dumped.”
© Wendy Holden, Sourcebooks Landmark, 2010
I hope you enjoy Beautiful People and it turns out to be one of those things that make you laugh. But I’d be interested to know what else does-tell me in the comments!
A witty, utterly addictive novel from bestselling author Wendy Holden, Beautiful People is a tale wicked in its observations yet buoyant at its heart: an irresistible confection you’ll want to devour immediately.
Darcy-a struggling English rose actress when The Call comes from L.A. An Oscar-tastic director. A movie to make her famous. The hunkiest costar in Hollywood. So why doesn’t she want to go?
Belle-a size-zero film star but she’s in big, fat trouble. Hotter than the earth’s core a year ago, she’s now Tinseltown toast after her last film bombed. Can she get back to the big time?
Emma-a down-to-earth, down-on-her-luck nanny trying to weather London’s cutthroat childcare scene and celebrity mom whirlwinds. What will it take for her to get back in control of her own life?
Jet to London, Hollywood, and Italy; toss in a passionate star chef, a kindhearted paparazzo, and a reluctant male supermodel; and find Wendy Holden at her best-a smash international hit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wendy Holden (U.K.) was a journalist on The Sunday Times, Tatler and The Mail on Sunday before becoming a full time author. She has now published nine novels, all top 10 bestsellers in the UK, and is married with two young children. Her novels include FARM FATALE (in US Stores from Sourcebooks Landmark in July 2010), BAD HEIR DAY (also coming to US stores from Sourcebooks Landmark in September 2010), SIMPLY DIVINE, GOSSIP HOUND, THE WIVES OF BATH, THE SCHOOL FOR HUSBANDS, AZUR LIKE IT, and FILTHY RICH. For more information, please visit http://wendyholden.net/.