It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Glenn O’Brien and Gina Nanni


You know what else a funny story: when Leandra and Amelia tried the Halloween Diet.

Leandra Medine: How did you meet?

Glenn O’Brien: I was the creative director of advertising for Barneys, and Gina, what was your…?

Gina Nanni: Back then I was in the PR department at Barneys.

GO: You have unresolved makeup.

GN: You know, it’s really hot in here all of a sudden.

GO: I thought she was one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen, so I used to stick my head in her office every day and say, “Hi Gina!” and that went on for a while…

GN: A couple of years, actually.

GN: We had a flirtation for several years, and then I — harmless flirtation — one day, we were at a party and — wasn’t it actually Richard [Prince] who prompted you to ask me on a date? And that was when I realized he was actually getting divorced, and he realized I was single, and we went on a date. We went on our first date and have been together ever since.

LM: What year was this?

GN: That was 20 years ago.

GN: God, we’re old.

We were at a party, and Glenn was with Richard Prince who I was talking to and I think he thought Richard was flirting with me and was going to ask me on a date, and then Glenn said, “Don’t talk to her! I want to ask her out,” or something like that, so I heard later.

GO: He knew that I liked you, so he was pushing my buttons

LM: So, how long did you date before you got married at that point?

GO: Five years, six years.

GN: Five or six years, five and a half years.

LM: So you’ve been married for…

GN: Fifteen years.

LM: And how old is your son?

GO and GN: Fourteen.

GO: We got busy right after we got married.

LM: What were the things that most attracted you to each other?

GO: Well I thought Gina was really beautiful but also really sweet and soft-spoken… I hadn’t seen the other side yet. She can be tough, too.

GN: That’s it? Soft-spoken?

GO: Yeah, I don’t know. I said you were beautiful. What else do I say? I said beautiful, smart, soft-spoken…

GN: You didn’t say smart.

GO: Oh, I forgot smart.

GN: Glenn was always very funny. He could make anyone laugh. We shared a lot of the same interests.

LM: How long after you got married did you launch Company Agenda?

GN: I started that two years before we were married, actually.

LM: Have you found running your own business and maintaining a marriage to be difficult?

GN: It’s easier and it’s harder. You’re not chained to a job as much, but juggling responsibilities can be hard. But I think for two people who work for themselves, we each understand a little bit more, maybe.

GO: Yeah, I can’t imagine being married to somebody who worked at a big corporation. We’re self-employed, entrepreneurial types.

LM: What has your career trajectory been like since the point that you met?

GO: It’s kind of the same because I always was visible as a writer and I had this kind of secret life as a fashion-commerce person doing ads. I still do the same thing. Except I think I’m better known as a writer now. Also, I’ve kind of gotten a little more into the art world.

LM: Right. Your apartment is full of beautiful art. Are these pieces that you’ve purchased together? Do any of them have stories?

GO: A lot of them are from friends — this is Basquiat, when he was still kind of doing stuff on the street and I was actually living on Mott. He did a big mural like this on the side of the tire store at the corner of Lafayette, and I saw him and I said, “That’s the best thing you’ve ever done.” The next day he came with that drawing. I did a lot of stuff with him. And then Richard [Prince] has been my friend for 25 or 30 years. We’ve done a lot of things together. James Nares is one of my best friends. Christopher Wool is one of my oldest friends. I’ve written a lot of catalogues for these guys.


LM: It’s sort of like my shoe closet. Is your relationship with art imbued in this personal history also?

GN: I would say so. I work with a lot of artists. That’s a big part of my business and I can say that many of our friends are artists. It’s always been part of our life together. Glenn’s first job was working for Andy Warhol.

LM: How many pieces in here have you bought?

GO: I don’t know, maybe half.

LM: How long have you guys lived in Noho?

GO: We moved in November 2001.

GN: It’s changed a lot. This whole block was basically artists and residents like SoHo used to be. This building next door used to be a parking garage. There were kind of industrial buildings. It’s probably half artists and half rich people from other countries here now.

LM: Do you still like the neighborhood?

GN: Yeah.

GO: Well, it’s the easiest place in New York to get a taxi. There’s really good restaurants around here. I actually hate to leave the neighborhood.

LM: What’s your favorite thing about the art world?

GO: I always liked hanging out with artists. All my friends were always artists and musicians. I always hated writers [laughs] I don’t know.

LM: Why do you think that is?

GO: They are too linear and logical and stuff. I kind of like the craziness and compulsion of artists and musicians.

LM: I find that writers tend to be, obviously, very in their heads. They’re difficult to be around because it’s hard to decode what’s happening in there from an outer-perspective. But what I find very endearing about creative people across the board is this very earnest sense of narcissism. It’s so hard to be a creative individual and not be vaguely narcissistic, and in some ways, it’s okay because it’s not covering itself up as anything.

GN: There are also different kinds of writers. I feel you’ve often been friends more with artist-type writers: the poets…

GO: Poets are different. They don’t count as writers.

GN: Rather than commercial writers.

GO: I guess so, yeah. I don’t know. It’s complicated. We have a friend who is a really good painter and have lunch with him once a month, and I always say “Wow, that’s so exhausting, all he did was talk about himself and his work.”

GN: Sometimes when you’re working a lot, and then you have that human interaction, you just tend to keep talking all about it…

GO: I usually don’t talk about my work until I’ve finished it, and then it’s like, “Can you read this and tell me if it’s terrible?”

LM: Do you read over a lot of his work?

GN: Almost all of it.

LM: How long have you guys been in New York?

GO: I came here to go to Columbia, so I’ve been here for a really long time.

GN: Long time. I came here to go to NYU.

LM: What do you love about New York?

GO: I wrote the introduction to Chris Stein’s photo book, and I said New York is the place where you could go be whatever you wanted to be. At least when I was a kid, you could be straight or gay, you could be an artist, you could be anything, really. When I moved to New York it was really cheap. It was cheap and dangerous, so it’s not really the same.

GN: But still, there are a lot of people who don’t fit in anywhere else who can revel in their own eccentricities, and that’s such a big part of New York.

LM: A friend recently told me that he wanted to leave New York because he didn’t feel like the city was being built for him anymore. Can you sympathize with that?

GN: Well, it’s definitely changed a lot in the last 20 year. It’s become a lot more gentrified, a lot more whitewashed. A lot of the neighborhoods are disappearing. They’re now developments where they used to be funky and there may be buildings where there’s an incredible, fabulous loft and there would be squatters next door. We don’t have so much of the rich living next to the poor mixing together. Now it’s many more incomes in zip codes. That is not so great.

GO: But I think of all these talented people from my generation — it was so cheap here that we didn’t really have to work. If you wanted to be a painter, you painted, and maybe you would do something once a week, but it was easy. Your time was your own. You don’t really have that anymore, even if you’re in Bushwick or whatever.

GN: I just read that the rents in Bushwick went up 29 percent in one year.

GO: I was just in Berlin, and whenever I go there it reminds me of what New York used to be like. People have these big apartments, and they’re cheap, and you can get a studio…People go out every night. It’s not so driven.

CF: And they give tax breaks for artists.

LM: Would you ever leave New York?

GO: It’s not in the cards for me, I don’t think.

GN: It’s hard to say. If we ever leave New York for weeks at a time, we end up getting homesick, thinking “Gotta get back to New York!” I think a lot of people are like that.

LM: I can’t tell if that’s homesickness or if that’s Stockholm Syndrome.

GN: A lot of it is loving the diversity of New York. You go to a certain place that’ great, and there’s a lot more sameness around, every restaurant is the same, there’s a certain type of person… In New York still, even though it’s becoming more gentrified, you can walk ten blocks in either direction… it’s a very different place between Chinatown and the Upper East Side

GO: I have to admit, when I was in Berlin I kept thinking, “there’s a lot of fashion here. It’s great.” People just kind of dress like bohemians…

LM: Fashion isn’t really an establishment there yet.

GO: No, not at all.

LM: Whereas here, it’s deeply ingrained in the culture so it’s hard to separate style from fashion. There’s a little bit of fashion fatigue happening right now across all of the metropolitan cities that host fashion weeks. I don’t think I ever got to experience the old/real New York. I don’t know if anyone from my generation has. I would love to hear a little bit more about your New York.

GO: During the punk days — nobody called it punk then — I look at pictures from then and think, “Wow, everybody look so great.” But it was just stuff they got from thrift stores and put together. The idea of buying designer clothes didn’t even exist.

GN: Even if you did buy designer clothes, people didn’t necessarily wear designer clothes every day, head-to-toe. Somebody might have bought a dress, but they would have worn it with vintage shoes. And they would have worn that dress for years, not gotten rid of it at the end of the season because it was out of fashion.

GO: It was always Bergdorf’s. Fashion was always above 57th street. It was society people.

LM: Glenn, when did you realize you liked fashion?

GO: I always loved clothes my whole life, even as a little kid. I don’t think I can actually say I like fashion. I kind of hate the fashion industry, but I love people with great style. Fashion is about a large group of people doing the same thing, and style’s about one person doing something remarkable. It’s “This is who I am,” not “This is who I’m pretending to be.”

LM: Who, right now, do you feel like is exuding interesting style and not just fashion, other than your wife?

GO: A lot of women I know who work, my friend Paula Grife, who is a great art director — she was an art director for Mademoiselle, then she was a great commercial and music video director and now she’s a ceramicist — Andy Warhol used to say, “The best look is a good plain look.” Paula would have on a really beautiful white shirt and some khakis and some really beautiful low-key shoes, and it would look like she wasn’t trying at all, but she always looked really elegant. And then every time we did a big job she would go out and buy something expensive, which is something I emulate myself.

LM: What do you find to be the easiest and most difficult parts about being in a relationship?

GO: The most difficult part, for me, is traveling [laughs] because we live in different time zones. I want to get to the airport three hours early, and Gina wants to get there as they are closing the door….

GN: Actually, our most successful vacations are when you’re already —

GO: I’ll meet you there.

GN: We meet each other in Europe or something because of different schedules. That’s kind of the only time we ever really have crazy fights. It involves going to the airport.

GO: Also, a sensibility conflict. It’s also like, I’ll say, “What do you want to do for dinner?” And Gina will say, “I Just had lunch at 4:30.” But that’s because you’re a businesswoman.

GN: But that’s about it.

LM: Isn’t it funny these seemingly small and tedious things can turn into such big fights?

GN: People pick up on specific things. We have friends, a couple, that also have travel issues and they went to see a marriage counselor who finally said, “I have a solution. Never take the same flight again.” Maybe they don’t. They’re still together, years later.

GO: I’m always concerned that Gina is going to be arrested by airport security.

LM: Why is that?

GO: Because she’ll bristle if they want to pat her down or something.

GN: It’s just a fear.

GO: I’m just like, whatever. I just try to avoid the cavity search. She’s more combative than I am.

LM: What have you found to be the most comforting parts of companionship?

GO: Just the usual: love, support. We have very similar sensibilities, in a weird way. The same taste, maybe. There’s not a lot of explaining to do. She knows what’s wrong with me; I know what’s wrong with her, it’s okay.

LM: That’s very important, that level of acceptance. You can fight about flights but you’re not really fighting about the moral planes that you’re standing on.

GN: The other thing I notice is that a lot of couples are very competitive with each other, which is the worst. That’s a relationship that’s not going to last. It must be why a lot of Hollywood marriages end quickly.

GO: Actors are all crazy, also. They don’t know who they are. I think artist couples… that’s a tough one, because as soon as one edges ahead in success, that’s hard, I think.

GN: It can be very personal, too. I think having a competitive attitude is just bad.

GO: I want her to be successful because I want her to support me. [Laughs]

LM: Do you have any advice for women or men who are looking for love? And then again, for couples who are already in the early stages of marriage and would like to make it to 20…

GO: I’ve told a few guys this. I’ve said, ”Skip the first two wives and go directly to the third.”

GN: I am the third wife, by the way. I think people go up later. When I was younger I dated people that I can’t imagine how now. You learn more about yourself and also figure out things that you want to change about yourself.

LM: It’s funny that people think that marriage can be medicine. You assume that things are going to change after marriage, like a guard will come down or be lifted. Nothing actually changes other than the fact that you wake up next to the same person every morning.

GO: I think a lot of women think, “He’ll be perfect once I change him.” People don’t change, or if they do it takes a long time.

LM: And you shouldn’t expect people to change. What do you think it is about Gina that has made the relationship last as long and successfully as it has?

GO: I’m considerably older, but I think she was pretty mature, so it wasn’t like, “The Beatles? Who’s that?” We always had adult conversations. A lot of times women, I think, women mature faster than men. I think a lot of times an age difference works because guys are just starting to figure it out. I can’t say any more on that subject.

LM: That’s fair enough. Do you have any particularly funny stories about each other you’d like to share? Or I’m sure you’ve heard some wild stories from his Andy Warhol days.

GO: I learned more from him than I did going to college about how to work and what work was, how to deal with people. Everybody had their own Andy Warhol. To some people he was the person who went to dinner at the White House and to others he was the person who filmed a blow job. Everybody could reflect themselves in the mirror of Warhol.

GN: For my generation, he was the reason everybody wanted to move to New York, definitely.

GO: Early on, when I was working for Andy, we went to a party — he would always take a bunch of us wherever he went; he liked having an entourage — he was like, “This is such hard work.” Before that, I never thought of parties as being work, and after that, I never thought of parties as not being work.

“Ugh, we have to go out again tonight?” That happens all the time.

LM: You had an interest in art previous to working with him, right?

GO: Yeah. I studied art a lot in college, I went to Columbia Grad School of the Arts. I think art has been fashionized because the history of modernism — I mean, modernism developed alongside science in technology, so people started thinking art was progressive and it was breaking new ground. In a way it was. Now, art isn’t progressive at all. It’s about novelty in the same way that fashion is about novelty. “Oh, that was good. Let’s bring that back this season.” We don’t really have the shock of the new so much anymore. This is a really complicated subject about which I am writing a book

LM: I’m going to ask one last question — if you could give one piece of advice, specifically to your son, your literal progeny, about relationships, camaraderie, love, what would it be?

GN: I would say to be completely open and to give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t think you can change someone.

GO: I would say, don’t be in a rush. You’re going to meet a lot of people in your life.

Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

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