The first time I heard of Jon-Jon Goulian, I was flipping through US Vogue, and a personal essay called Fish Out of Water caught my eye. I’d already become fascinated by androgyny in men’s fashion – from the ethereal beauty of Andrej Pejic to Marc Jacobs in his trademark kilt – so this nostalgic story of an anxious and insecure teenager finding solace by dressing in sarongs and high heels naturally caught my attention.
Set against the romantically retro backdrop of California in the 1980s, the essay centres around the writer’s unlikely friendship with a gorgeous and popular girl called Courtney. Jon-Jon – a nickname I already felt entitled to use – remembers afternoons they spent at the beach after school in matching seashell necklaces, giggling in a shared changing room as they tried on leggings and halter-tops. With my love for the dramatic and people with more courage than me to be themselves, the story made my little heart leap. How could I not be entranced by a guy who would show up to his high school prom in a skirt, tights, high heels and red lipstick – with the hottest girl at school on his arm?
The story is expanded on in Jon-Jon’s memoir, The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, which was released in May this year. The book had been stirring up excitement in the New York literary scene since Random House gave him a ridiculously huge advance on it three years ago. In a way, he’s that very postmodern kind of celebrity who becomes famous for simply being himself. But the thing about Jon-Jon is that although he claims to have achieved nothing in his life, he’s quite brilliant. Not many people with degrees from Columbia and NYU – plus a resumé that includes a few high-profile law firms and the New York Review of Books – would call themselves a failure as he does.
Jon-Jon’s Vogue article ends with a scene twenty years later, when he meets up with Courtney again and they buy matching pairs of Billy Blues trousers. He was wearing these same trousers when I picked him up in a cab from the Sofitel, where the Melbourne Writers Festival had put him up for his stay in Australia. The cab driver, who had been warning me about how I had to be careful with this older American man, glanced out the window suspiciously. ‘That bald guy?’ he said.
Yes, that bald guy. Jon-Jon is striking to look at, with that kind of incredible coolness that comes from more than just his Gucci sunglasses. Tattoos run up and down his arms, with a chain of triangles inked across his throat like a necklace. I remember reading an article in the New York Observer that opened by describing Jon-Jon’s pelvic bones, and looking at him now in his tiny tank top and low-slung trousers I kind of understood why. With a body like an Olympic swimmer, you would never guess that he’s forty-three years old, or that he’s spent his whole life feeling insecure about how he looks. In his lipgloss and his wedge heels, he exudes a sort of nonchalant glamour that seems to say, ‘This is me, and I don’t care.’
The day before, I had approached Jon-Jon after his reading at the Writers’ Festival and asked him to sign my book. Naturally, I was horribly awkward, blushing and stumbling over my words, but he apparently found my lameness touching – and by a strange stroke of luck he invited me to spend the day with him. It was the first time he’d left the United States in twelve years, he said, but he hates exploring alone. Nam Le had given him a list of his favourite places in Melbourne, and Jon-Jon decided he wanted to go to them all. ‘It will be a day of splurging!!!’ his text message that morning said. ‘Don’t forget, I’m treating.’
Most of Nam’s suggestions involved food, so we set out on an eating safari: early lunch at Three Bags Full, second lunch at Thanh Thanh, apple strudel at Pellegrini’s, dinner at Coda, cocktails at Madame Brussels. It was quite a feast for someone who lives mostly on what he calls a ‘squirrel’s diet’ of nuts and berries. (He had even brought a stash of nuts all the way from the States with him; when I told him we actually have nuts in Australia, he grinned sheepishly and said, ‘Yeah, that’s what my mother told me.’) Still, despite his intense fear of saturated fat he loves menus, and he told me that often in hotels he’ll just look at the room service menu for hours before going to sleep.
One of Jon-Jon’s most endearing qualities is the way he finds his own weirdness so amusing. It would be understandable for someone with so many phobias and obsessions to be withdrawn and awkward, but unlike me social anxiety clearly isn’t one of his neuroses. He’s effusive and chatty and likes to cuddle – every so often throughout the day he would just stop in the middle of the street to give me a hug.
It’s a strange kind of intimacy, feeling like you know someone from their creative work, when really you don’t know them at all. Having read a whole book about Jon-Jon’s life put me in a peculiar position of wanting to get all deep and meaningful, but feeling as if I knew things I had no right to know. From his book, I knew that as a teenager he silently panicked about having a third testicle, which turned out to be a hernia. I knew that his first sexual experience was a blowjob from a brazen 14-year-old stranger in a mall parking lot. He describes himself as ‘vain, prissy, neurotic, body obsessed’, and part of me wanted to talk about how much I relate to that. Then I remembered: we don’t actually know each other. We stood on Victoria Street huddled together, his chin resting on my head, and I could feel his heartbeat through his thin cotton tank top.
At one point in the afternoon, we ended up at The Paperback Bookshop on Bourke Street. Jon-Jon picked up a beautifully bound copy of Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham and said, ‘See, this is why the book can’t die.’ He decided he wanted to buy something to support such a nice little bookshop, and we spent a good forty-five minutes trying to choose something. Then, remembering that I’d told him my mum was jealous of my getting to spend the day with him, he decided to buy a copy of his book to sign and give to her. It was such a small gesture, but it was one of the sweetest things a man has ever done for me, and if there’s one thing I would want people to know about Jon-Jon Goulian, the man in the gray flannel skirt, that would be it.