Heather Cassils: Lady Gaga's Prison Yard Girlfriend
By Noah Michelson
Lady Gaga's "Telephone" video is nothing short of epic. Nearly 10 minutes long, it picks up where her "Paparazzi" video ended -- with the pop star headed to jail for murder. Once inside, Gaga does what any woman in her situation would do -- she finds herself a hot girlfriend. Canadian performance artist and personal trainer Heather Cassils was handpicked by Gaga to play the role of her prison yard girlfriend. We chatted with Cassils to find out how she ended up in the "Telephone" video, her feelings about depictions of queer women in mainstream media, and what it's like to make out with the most famous woman in the world.
Out: Were you familiar with Gaga's work before you were cast for the shoot?
Heather Cassils: I was not a totally massive fan per se, but my background and training is as an artist, and I did notice she was bringing a lot of elements of performance art into her pop cultural practice. And she has referenced people like Leigh Bowery and feminist performances, so I was aware of that, and that's what caught my eye about her more than anything else -- as well as the fact that she was doing something different and presenting herself differently from other pop stars who have been around in the last little while.
How did you get cast in the video?
I got cast because I work as a personal trainer. I run my own independent contracting business, and I run it out of a gay gym in Silver Lake. There's a woman at my gym named Dallas, and she's also kind of an aspiring actress of sorts, and she had been called in to play one of the guards. She called me up from the casting and said they were desperate for bodybuilders, and she told them, "There's this person at my gym who's not a pro bodybuilder, but she has a really cut physique," and she suggested I'd be perfect for it. So I went down and auditioned -- but I'm not hormones or anything like that -- so they ended up casting me as an inmate in the prison scene. They were blocking the scene, and the woman who was blocking for Gaga disappeared, and Gaga came out, and she just kind of instantly called me over, and it just happened like that. She called me over and asked me to portray her girlfriend and said, "OK, you're going to be my prison girlfriend, and you're going to come to me, and I'd like you to touch me inappropriately." [Laughs] We just kind of went from there.
So, it just happened right there on the spot?
Yeah. It was a very strange, organic Los Angeles moment.
What was Gaga like on set?
She was extremely professional and very, very funny. After we did the [kissing] shot, she screamed across the yard to me, "I think you got me pregnant!" [Laughs] She was also very present and real. She took the time to ask people what they did for a living and who they were and where they were from. She was a very genuine, grounded person.
OK -- let's get to the juicy stuff: What was the kiss like?
I think we did several takes -- to be honest, it was a little bit of a blur because it happened so quickly. On the first, take her cigarette sunglasses were steaming a little bit, but by the third or fourth take we were both inhaling a lot of secondhand smoke [Laughs]. It was kind of intense. And it just kind of happened naturally because she didn't really give me explicit instructions to kiss her -- it just felt like a natural thing to do. In fact, I sniffed her like a kind of aggressive beast. And as we got closer, she actually put her tongue in my mouth. She just went for it. [Laughs] It was really good.
Tell me about your feelings about depictions of queer women in popular culture.
I've been in shoots before, and I've worked with other artists, and there's this thing where they try to femme anybody up -- especially when it's mainstream media. And there's this expectation that you're either going to fit on one end of the spectrum or the other, so I really appreciated that I literally showed up on set and was allowed to go just as I am. My body is a complete construction. I feel there's a lot of pressure, even in the queer world, to go trans or whatever and take these real extremes, and I don't really think there's anything wrong with that, but I do think there's a lot you can do with your own body. And as a visual artist I think of the body as a sculpture of sorts. If you can manipulate it via exercise and diet and physically empower yourself and give yourself a body that has a certain masculinity to it -- that has a lot of power and you can insert that into mainstream images. People get really caught up on language, and when you're talking about these things people get kind of hysterical, but when you just present them with an image of something that's "other" or that they can't plot, I think that's really important -- and to offer up something in between that doesn't have binaries -- because it offers people more options. And I believe that binaries are dangerous across the board. If you look at mainstream representations, it's mostly things like The L Word. Or you have a trans character, but it's not played by a real trans man, it's played by someone with a grizzly man beard Scotch-taped onto their face. So I think we're moving closer to where we should be, but I don't necessarily identify as trans -- though I kind of do -- but I don't take hormones, and I don't want to alter my body in that way, but I think it's a real progression when someone who identifies in that way can then actually be that instead of having someone play you in black face or whatever.
Right. I think it's important to have people who complicate our notions of gender -- whether they be playing with butch/femme or consider themselves gender queer or just don't fit into the gay/straight/bi/trans spectrum so neatly -- because we still have a long way to go with our understanding of gender and sexuality, even in the queer community.
Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. One thing I like about Lady Gaga is that strange rumor about whether or not she has a penis. I'd like the same rumor to circulate about me. [Laughs] The not knowing and the suspension of disbelief and what that does to people -- it starts with the body, but it can translate into all kinds of other important things.
Definitely. And the other thing about the penis rumor is that she doesn't deny or confirm it. It's like she's saying if she does have a penis, it's not a bad thing, and if she doesn't have one that's not a bad thing either. It gives people permission to be who they are.
What do you think about the new breed of younger pop stars -- and some have accused Gaga of this -- who claim bisexuality or a kind of pansexuality in an effort to use queer culture for their own personal gains?
That's been going on since the dawn of time. Elvis stole from African American music. Everybody's constantly riffing -- Madonna stole voguing from poor, disenfranchised black drag queens in Harlem. This isn't a new concept. I think there's more reverence with regard to Lady Gaga as she's obviously educated herself in her trajectory with visual arts practices and the stuff that she's doing isn't light stuff. It's difficult when they're making millions of dollars and placating to the masses -- it's tricky to maintain that, but I think she tries. And even including someone like me is a part of that. The thing that was kind of interesting was that in between takes I was getting kind of annoyed because the camera guys were really kind of drooling and talking about "girl-on-girl action" and I said, "What about boy-on-girl action?" And she turned to me and said "Oh. Do you identify as male?" [Laughs] And I said, "Well, probably more than you do." And she said "I'll be sure to tell people that." We just had this abstracted conversation about gender in the middle of this shoot, which I thought was really weird and pretty interesting: A) that she would take the time and B) that she would even ask me about that.
Tell me about your own art.
I started off as a painter and a drawer, but I now do performance art, and I know that sounds absolutely terrifying, like you imagine people shoving yams up their asses, but I think of my work as moving paintings essentially. There aren't a lot of massive, sweeping actions. It's more like I use the fact that the image is live to try to capture and transfix people, because people can walk away from a painting. I do portraits of sorts. I recently got funding through the Franklin Furnace, which is the largest nonprofit performance art fund in New York City to do this piece called "Hard Times," which is kind of my portrait of the current culture of California. It features me -- I train really, really hard so that I get really beefy and really ripped in a kind of scary way, and I do this performance on a really, really high piece of building scaffolding. I'm basically wearing a blonde Farrah Fawcett wig and a coral body thong. Basically, I do these body building poses but I slow them down incredibly, and I transfer from pose to pose so slowly that I create a nervous system overload -- the entire body starts to quake and then the scaffolding does too. And when I turn around, you see that I have this prosthetic mask on that looks like my eyes have been removed from my head, and I have this soundtrack that I composed with a sound designer friend of mine, which is made up of 12 to 20 different wattages of just raw power -- like literally the sound of electric power -- and I mix all of that together and do this piece that basically, to me, is a portrait of California in this kind of economic crisis and this need to uphold the beautiful and the superficial in a place where we are rotting from the inside out in a lot of different ways. So I wanted to create this image that plays with the expectation of this beautiful woman that you're going to see, and then you get something else. And all of it is using a lot of tropes from film because I live in Hollywood.
Have you been recognized from the "Telephone" video yet?
Yes. It's very strange. It's kind of like the people you wouldn't normally talk to you all of a sudden really want to talk to you [Laughs] -- just because you've had this experience of being close to a celebrity. It's kind of crazy. My Facebook page exploded, but in terms of just off the street? It's mostly from Facebook -- like people posting and re-posting and re-posting. So it's not like complete strangers but more like strangers of strangers of strangers who've seen my friends' post. But I was just at the Fusion Festival -- the LGBT people of color film festival in L.A. -- and I was definitely approached there quite a few times at the opening.
So the attention is flattering? It doesn't weird you out?
It is a little weird to be someone who works really hard at what I do, and then to do something like making out with a pop star and to get so much attention for that. I do think being in the video is important because there are going to be kids watching that who maybe haven't seen anything like that before and can then maybe imagine themselves being something different. So in that kind of simpler way I do think it offers something important, but it's not the same kind of level of rigor or mental work as when I'm doing my own performance work.
It really speaks to the idea of visibility. When you think about the way queer women are presented -- even in 2010 -- we never see images like you and Lady Gaga making out.
Oh, yeah, and that's a very sad thing. It's like the opening of The L Word will have a pregnant married couple, and it's like a fucking nightmare! [Laughs] And it's not that I'm not for fighting for equal rights but come on -- what makes us queer? To be queer is to be on the outside and to be on the outside is to be a force of resistance. I think of my body as that, and I think of it as armature -- I don't want to belong in that really particular way. I think it's important to posit something that will make people raise their eyebrows. It's not about just being accepted -- it's about opening up people's brains a bit.
Whenever I see truly queer representations, especially embedded in such a mainstream moment like "Telephone," I think of kids in the middle of Kansas who maybe aren't exposed to anything, and then they see this Lady Gaga video, and they start asking questions. Even something as fluffy as a pop music video can be hugely influential.
Totally. Gone are the days when if you're against the war you go and protest on the street. Protesting doesn't stop wars anymore. Going to your gay pride rally is nice -- it makes you feel good, but unfortunately we don't live in that era anymore. The only way you can create social change is to insert yourself into the machine.
Right. And cast yourself as a monkey wrench.
For more information about Heather Cassils, visit her website.
To see our exclusive photo shoot with Gaga from the September 2009 issue, click here.
To read our Gaga cover story from the September 2009 issue, click here.