Are we not all celebrity stans of sorts when a super high-profile public figure gets arrested? And when that really sad mugshot makes the rounds? In the 2000s, when tabloid culture (like, the actual mags) was raging, we were basically all stans, all the time — but especially when there was a trainwreck-level breakdown. That magnetism remains, and is no less apparent today. But with the ubiquity of easy-to-make memes and viral videos, the concentration of shock is less focused. We've just got so many public messes to choose from now.
What does that say about us as people though, when we're mesmerized by someone else's misfortune? Nicky Ottav thinks we're mainly relishing the realization that, for all their wealth, glamour, and fame, celebrities are just as susceptible to screw-ups, whether self-inflicted or beyond our control, as we are.
While he earned his stars in the New York club scene, Ottav actually hails from Los Angeles where, growing up, he saw firsthand the hoards of paparazzos waiting for stars to somehow slip up, or even do something as simple as — so shocking — enjoy a meal outdoors on a cafe patio. (Because Stars! They're just like us!)
Early last year, when Ottav launched his debut exhibit, Saints of a Different Order, where he honored the blissfully outlandish and self-loving identities of friends and fellow party people, he began a shift toward art full time. He's still very much in that mode, night-crawling less and day-painting more.
And if you've checked his Insta recently, you may have noticed a new collection brewing: Meltdowns and Mugshots, a tribute to those vulnerable moments in a celebrity's life. Iconic images like Bieber's mugshot, Amanda Bynes in court, and that terrifying WTF moment when Michael Jackson dangled his baby over a hotel balcony are honored with handpainted portraiture on the backs of jackets — art you can wear, obviously!
We spoke to Ottav about the collection, his upcoming visit home to L.A., and why we so love a good shakeup in the celebrity facade of fame and perfection.
You mentioned you're going to a party tonight? Is it something you're involved with or are you just attending for fun?
I'm directly involved with it. It's basically a venue on the Lower East Side where a party is happening, and then I run a room that's connected to the venue that is basically sponsored by this secondhand store called What Goes Around Comes Around. So people can come in, and it looks like a boudoir filled with clothes, and people can either buy the clothes or they can rent them.
So you help people get dressed, yeah?
Yeah, basically. And all my friends come play dress up, because all the clothes are super groovy and really nice. It's really cool, selected vintage clothes, so it's all authentic disco stuff. I'm really excited for it to be warmer and more like spring and summer so that people will actually feel like changing out of their clothes, because it's been really cold.
But that's such a great idea. I love that you can rent them because not everybody is prepared to invest in a huge look for every party.
It makes turning out a look more accessible.
Exactly, I mean, and that's why they put me in charge there, because I'm obviously all about turning out a look, you know? And it's really funny how people completely change when they're in bell bottoms and a wig. Once people 100 percent come out of their shell, it's really funny. Like, really straight business men running around the place in dresses and — it's really silly, it's fun.
I love that. So what else are you working on? I've seen the jackets, it's Meltdowns and Mugshots, right?
I love them. I just watched the Lifetime Britney Spears movie and then I saw your Britney jacket like right after I watched it.
Oh my god! I didn't even know that there was a Lifetime Britney Spears movie!
Oh, it's so bad! They didn't even get the rights to her music.
No! You're kidding?
Nope, there's fake Britney Spears songs that kind of sound like her songs, but they're not actually a song.
Oh, shit. I have to watch it. What! Wow.
It's so good-bad, I loved it so much.
Does it go through her breakdown?
Oh my god. Yeah, well I'm almost finished up with this [collection]. I'm going to launch them either this month or early next month. I really wanted to release it for Fashion Week, but they're pretty involved in terms of production. I handpainted all of them. So I'm just going to release it as a little capsule collection, probably in early April. I've been working on them for the past, I want to say, three or four months, after someone left a jacket at my house — a leather jacket that was totally painted, and I still wear it out all the time. I ended up finding out whose jacket it was, but the girl ended up giving it to me, like, "You wear it so well, you keep it." But everywhere I went, people were asking me over and over, I love that jacket, did you make that jacket? And you know, I was honest, I kept having to say "No, I didn't make this jacket, I wish I made this jacket." And then somebody said to me, "Well, why don't you start just painting your stuff on jackets?"
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That's so awesome, I love the collection so far. It's all jackets?
Yeah, I think there's around 12 of them, and I want to get it to maybe 15. There's Kim Kardashian, there's two Michael Jackson ones, there's his mugshot and him holding Blanket over the railing.
I saw that!
That's the only where I'm like, "Shit, I don't know if I can sell this one." I really want to own it. I just finished up Amanda Bynes at court. Remember when she wore the crazy wig? I just finished that one. I've got Justin Bieber's mugshot, Paris Hilton's mugshot, Macaulay Culkin's mugshot, and a few others I can't even remember. Tara Reid!
Yeah! I love it.
I've been struggling to think of any more that are really iconic.
Is it Tara Reid's nip slip moment?
It's the nip slip moment. Yeah, I was like, initially preparing myself to end this collection and then kind of have a jumpstart that would be nip slips next time, or even fake nip slips, but I decided to include it because I love her expression. She's just smiling, like, she has absolutely no idea.
Yes! Oh, god.
She looks crazy.
I want to feel bad, but I don't? But I do.
Yeah. For me, it's like this subject matter, I've been doing a lot of thinking about why my mind instantly races to these iconic moments, or like specifically to painting celebrities, which has kind of characterized my work over the past year. It's like we project so much onto these people, and these are little slip-up moments where they're humanized, suddenly. You're reminded that they are not infallible, that they are actually also people too. And also that same instance that they're finally human, they've made a mistake that any of us could make, they're also — it's as far away from a normal person as possible, you know? And like, I mean, that's like Britney Spears shaving her head; she looks crazy, she doesn't look like anybody else. Or like Michael Jackson, his evolution, or de-evolution, of a person, into basically a monster, is really interesting to me. For some reason, I can relate to it.
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I don't know if I should get into whether I feel bad for them in these moments or not.
I guess they did ask for it, but I don't know? Who can even know what that would be like? I'm interested in that place, where people have a lot of eyes on them and expectations versus reality, that a person in that position has to inhabit.
I love your mid-2000s inspo on Insta. This kind of relates to that, right?
They do all hail from a kind of a similar time. I almost want to say the explosion of the Internet, or at least pre-social media days.
Where we were still looking at tabloids.
Yeah, I was just about to say, it's real tabloid history. Like, very much in the moment where that would be the form of news for celebrity culture. I feel like I've seen all of those on the cover of a rag magazine.
That era, for real. I remember being at work, scrolling on Perez Hilton and Dlisted forever.
Yeah, it's crazy. I mean, it's just such a wonderful time. I guess that that's another reason that my obsession with this whole culture — it obviously stems from growing up and living amongst it.
It's always on your mind when you're from that place. You're out and about and encountering these people in real life, and encountering paparazzos, while waiting outside of a cafe, or like across the street from your house. And so it's just kind of with you, and I think it really stuck with me as a subject that's close to my heart.
That must be so crazy to see.
Yeah, yeah. And even like in elementary school, a lot of the kids that I went to school with had parents that were in the industry, so it's sort of normalized. But at the same time, there's nothing normal about it. So it becomes something you're used to, but it's very strange. I find celebrity culture to be very surreal in that way.
Photo Courtesy of Anthony Arrigali
I don't know if you were desensitized to it, but is there anyone you came upon, out and about, where you were freaking out about?
It's the weirdest thing, I mean, I think for that reason, that's why, when I've been out and about in fashion weeks or whatever, or even in New York, and been somewhere where there's someone noteworthy and my friends are all like freaking out, I have not really been that phased by it. Because it's like, it's such a tension between celebrities being viewed as people, or as a community that is infallible, untouchable, demigods. But because of growing up around it, I guess I have been desensitized, and I'm not phased by it. But at the same time, I'm allured by the whole culture, as a whole. So not one single celebrity freaks me out or makes me have butterflies, but I am more allured by the idea of what it might be like to be them, and to get inside their heads. I don't know, I met Lady Gaga, and I was just... it was very exciting for me. That's the one time I've gotten very nervous around a celebrity.
But other than Gaga, you know, I'm not really that phased by it.
For me, if I were in L.A. and I ran into Angelyne, that's when I'd freak out.
Oh, okay. Well, I mean, yeah. Absolutely. But I mean, that's the kind of thing, growing up in L.A., you really are always around. You're on the freeway and you see her drive by in her pink car, and you're like, "Oh, that's Angelyne." For me, that's someone that actually was like, from day one, was very inspiring because, I mean, Angelyne is famous for putting up a billboard of herself. What could be more Los Angeles? What could be more telling of the culture of celebrity than to put yourself on the marquee and suddenly you're someone of importance, because you're a celebrity? It's like a chicken-and-egg situation — you know, how they always used to say about Paris Hilton, and like what is she famous for? She's famous for being famous. That's something that has always stuck with me.
So what are your plans while you're in L.A.?
I'm really just trying to do some shoots, and I'm doing a mural in Silver Lake. I don't really know what the subject matter is going to be, but this conversation is kind of inspiring me to do something maybe Angelyne-esque.
Oh my god.
A big mural. Then I think probably just trying to see my friends and family because it's been a long time since I've been there.
It's been a while?
Yeah, oh god, it's been like a year. I almost never go home because it's just crazy busy in New York, but I'm so excited. So nothing much, hopefully a few shoots and definitely making some art, and I'm trying to collaborate with a shoe brand that's out there, so I'm going to take that meeting. But it's a pretty quick vacation; I'm there for seven days.
Cool. So I've noticed you're really transitioning into art full time.
As much as I can, you know? As much as I can. Outside of this thing that I'm doing tonight, which is something that I do every week, I'm really trying to do a lot less nightlife stuff, which is kind of what I've always done, and really just only be focusing on the art, because it's really what I came out here to do.
I'm guessing you're staying put in New York, right? There's no temptation to move back to L.A.
It's interesting, the last couple times that I've gone back, it's... as though L.A. is really trying super hard to almost meet or match New York. Every time, it's more and more possible that I would maybe someday move back there. Because when I moved, the clubs weren't open past 2 AM, there was much less — there wasn't a fashion week that was really noteworthy. There was just a lot of things that I felt were lacking in that city that would make this a better choice for me. But nowadays, they just made everything open until 4 AM in L.A. as of January. There's the Broad, a new museum opened, a huge new museum. There's tons more stuff, like Moschino brought their show to L.A. Fashion Week, so now L.A.'s really on the map in a fashion sense. So I don't know, every time I go back, it feels more and more possible. At first, I really would have never considered it, but now I'm like, "Oh, I could see that."
Photography: Anna Bloda