If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that my jewelry designs are largely inspired by interesting historical women, including Cleopatra, Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn. But I’m also fascinated by ladies of more recent vintage such as Sally Randall, the mid-’80s New York It girl whom I wrote about in February.
A pre-Sally It girl — Anya Phillips — has been periodically on my mind since I read Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in 1997. Anya was a powerful presence on New York’s punk and post-punk scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s. She was a co-founder of New York’s famed Mudd Club, which was name-checked, along with the influential club CBGB, in the Talking Heads song “Life During Wartime.”
In Please Kill Me, Sylvia Reed, Lou Reed’s ex-wife, describes Anya as “…incredibly difficult, incredibly talented and incredibly troubled …” Anya was also incredibly tragic, dying of cancer at age 26. In a recent post, I wrote about Courtney Love, “…’talented but troubled,’ which is so intriguing in a 20-something, is damn sad in a 40-something. If you want to be a tragic pop-culture icon, you better die at 27 …” Well, Anya qualifies as intriguing. She jumped off the page and into my brain, where she probably dislodged something crucial, like my bank-account number. Every time I forget that number, I’m going to blame Anya.
As memorable as she was to me, there was very little information to be found about Anya outside of Please Kill Me (in my edition, she’s discussed on pages 200 – 201, 283 – 286, 304, 307, 336, and 382 – 38).
She’s mentioned in a few other books, including:
- Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie by Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Victor Bockris.
- No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980 by Thurston Moore and Byron Coley, with an introduction by Lydia Lunch.
But now, thanks to teh Interwebs and search engine Poodle, it’s easier to find out a wee bit more. In addition to being a club gal, Anya was a fashion designer …
… a photographer, a dominatrix …
… a drug dealer, and the lover/manager of post-punk “No Wave” musician James Chance (aka James White).
She was also a close friend of punk pin-up girl and Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry.
In Please Kill Me, Debbie says, “…Anya was great — very sarcastic, a great dry sense of humor, very pretty, and a terrific dresser. She dressed like a whore. I mean, we were all sort of dressing like that, we always wore the stilettos. But Anya had more of an overview. …” On the cover of Blondie’s second album, Plastic Letters, released in 1977, Debbie is wearing a pink dress designed by Anya.
As you can see if you look closely, the dress has a strappy S&M top like the blue dress Anya is wearing in the photos above. One strange way to get a better look at Debbie’s dress is on this “Debbie Harry” Barbie doll. I’m extremely unimpressed by the doll’s un-Debbie-like facial features, but the dress ain’t bad.
Anya played an even bigger role on James Chance’s 1979 album, Off White by James White and the Blacks: she sang under the name Ginger Lee, designed the cover, and took the cover photo as well as the photos of most of the band members.
Kristian Hoffman, one of the band members, describes on his website how Anya cut, styled and instructed him on how to dye his hair for the album photo that she took. He remembers her as, “Really very beautiful, and smart and sophisticated – she was more 30’s movie star than anyone else on the scene. And she designed all sorts of wonderful clothes … for her company Eso-terrorist Productions.” (According to Wikipedia, Anya connected Hoffman to punkish German countertenor Klaus Nomi, which resulted in a successful musical collaboration.)
At the same time as the Off-White album, James Chance released the album Buy under the name James Chance & the Contortions. Anya took the cover photo for that album. I am guessing that she designed the strappy bikini too, since it’s so similar to her own blue dress and Debbie’s pink dress.
In 2010, James recalled Anya’s relationship with his fellow No-Waver, Lydia Lunch, as well as Anya’s high profile:
“Well, for one thing they really didn’t like each other very much! Even though actually, before Anya was managing me, she did make a short-lived attempt to manage Lydia, but that didn’t work out very well, (laughs). I don’t think any of the things that Anya found for Lydia to do, she never did any of them, and just found her own gigs anyway, it was kind of a fiasco! Even before I really knew Anya, when I was hanging out with Lydia, Anya was someone who really stood out on the scene, she was very visible, everyone knew who she was, and Lydia would say things like, ‘Let’s do something to Anya!’ All these plots against Anya… she never actually did anything about them but there was definite animosity there!”
Anya dabbled in acting too, with a role in Amos Poe’s The Foreigner (1978). Debbie Harry also appeared in that movie.
Anya seems to have been a full-time provocateur. Her one-time roommate, photographer Eileen Polk, says in Please Kill Me, “Anya had a diary that she kept in the bathroom by the toilet, so if you went in her bathroom, instead of picking up a magazine, you could read her diary. Every guy she had sex with was rated in the diary. And she would write the worst insults about them. …”
Writer Glenn O’Brien recalls Anya punching another woman on Mudd Club’s dance floor: “Anya told me, ‘I didn’t like the way she was dancing.'”
There’s some disagreement about when Anya died. Please Kill Me says 1985. Some websites say 1982. But the most common date mentioned is 1981. And a Mojo Magazine Blondie profile says, in reference to Debbie Harry:
“In July 1981, the singer was devastated when her close friend Anya Phillips lost a two-year battle with cancer. Anya had been one of Harry’s closest confidantes since her days waitressing at White’s pub in New York. ‘She was a powerful energy source that’s now missing from the scene,’ said Debbie. ‘Anya’s death was a particularly personal loss for us.'”
Once in a while, I stumble across a tribute to Anya. Some are stranger than others. Vintage clothes site Enokiworld mentioned her in its description of a pair of ’80s crotch-high boots. “Black leather to the crotch, these Wild Pair high-heeled boots resurrect Anya in the golden days when CBGB was cool and Richard Hell was the sexiest thing on Earth.” (By many accounts, Anya had a mad crush on Richard Hell.)
Andy Warhol protégé and poet Rene Ricard remembered Anya’s style in a 1981 (see? 1981!) Artforum article on Mudd Club-regular Jean-Michel Basquiat and other artists:
“I think now about Anya Phillips who so briefly illuminated this fleeting world. I think about clothes worn by people so recently and yet how long ago it all seems that Anya would show up in those cocktail dresses and of all things, a Chinese girl in a blonde wig. And now all the girls in their cocktail dresses who never heard of Anya and how quickly each generation catches the look of its creators and forgets the moral underneath.”
In a way, Anya’s younger brother, Kris Phillips (now known as Fei Xiang) picked up where Anya left off by becoming a big pop star in Asia in the ’80s. He first became famous in Taiwan, where he and Anya grew up. Then he made a splash in mainland China, much to the Taiwan government’s dismay. Maybe he shares Anya’s provocateur gene. He’s quite a looker, no?
He certainly seems at home with surreal backdrops.
I think Anya would dig it!
UPDATED TO ADD: Handsome reader John Hathaway emailed to tell me he has been intrigued by Anya for some time and has done some research on her life. He thoughtfully sent me her obituary from Rolling Stone:
Rolling Stone Magazine
August 6, 1981
Anya Phillips dies of cancer
Anya Phillips, the definitive personality of New York’s No Wave music
scene, died in Valhalla, NY, on June 19 after a two year battle with
cancer. She was 26. Born in Taiwan, Phillips arrived in NY in the
early Seventies and worked as a photojournalist (for New York Rocker
and Punk magazine) and clothes designer (Deborah Harry wore a Phillips
dress on the cover of the second Blondie album Plastic Letters).
Phillips was most noted, however, as the manager of the influential
punk-funk band known alternately as the Contortions and James White
and the Blacks. Phillips lived with the group’s leader, James Chance,
for the last several years.
Thanks, John! Great to see that she was recognized in her day.
wow, thanks for digging this up! Please Kill Me is one of my favourite books and the photo of Anya arms crossed and looking adorably cheeky in the rubber suit stuck in my mind. what fantastic style (and a hot brother!)
Fantastic post, more than makes up for your love of the Willow Smith atrocity! LOL. I love reading about the New York punk scene and I love that book. BTW I am going to see Blondie next week, can’t fucking wait!
I WHIP MY HAIR BACK AND FORTH! I WHIP MY HAIR BACK AND FORTH! I WHIP MY HAIR BACK AND FORTH!
WHIP IT REAL HARD!
*gets out her guitar and harmonica* Pay no attention to dem haters cuzwewhip’emoff.
Every time I come to your blog I discover something that grabs my attention and sparks my interest. Because of you I must have at least 20 books I’m dying to read. Thank you!
Susu Paris Chic says
These are some lovely rocky inspirations dear! I love getting spurred by Madonna’s “Desparately Seeking Susan”, from the same era, ha haa… The Queen of Pop’s sweet, sloppy frocks and snazzy gum chewing. I want more of that kind of raggedy touch into my preppy life… at least at times!
devilishly pleasurable says
I\’ve never heard of Anya Philips but as I read this, I thought, \”I\’m liking her loads already!\”. . Her bondage-coming-loose style is striking. And THEN I saw Kris, and it all made sense. I think he looks miraculously young– probably the sort of celebrity in my mother\’s day and still looking extremely amazing today. When I first saw a picture of him years back, I was stunned by his good looks and then, his age. His voice is wonderful too. Okay, I know this is meant to be about Anya, but I got distracted clearly.
I haven’t seen some of those photos in so long. They brought back a lot of memories.
This was a very well-researched post. Thanks for taking the time to do it right.
very interesting character (never heard of her before) one you’d think would dye of drug overdose not cancer, so sad, even managed to remain a force after death by confusing ppl on her exact year of death, how does that happen?
This was so beautiful and tragic! I was too young, but my older cousins were in punk scene in the city in the late 70’s/very early 80’s. Their stories are horrifying but beautiful, as are the stories of the club kids later. Love the tributes you do, so fascinating
Oh, it’s epic-Wendy as I love her the best! Ive never heard of Anya Phillips, which seems ridiculous now that I see how fabulous and innovative she was. Very sad that she died so young.
Penny Dreadful Vintage says
Wish I could read the insulting sex diary.
OK… I had a mad crush on Richard Hell. Call me crazy. Anya had great style. I adore ballsy women! No fear. So strange about her death date.
Oh, and I’ve heard Legs is an asshole who is still in love with himself and thinks everyone else should be. Talk about living in the past.
So cool about Debbie’s dress on Plastic Letters… which I still play. A lot.
Wonderful post WendyB!
Very nice compilation. The domina, hmm, but I like the black and white photos. Thanks for sharing and drop by me too when you have time.
I have never heard of Anya before your post, but you did an amazing job at capturing my attention! She is awesome!!! Great job!!
OMG!!! Fei Xiang is very famous in Asia. Old Aunties dig him so much, and seriously I didn’t know Anya Philips is related to him, shocking!!!
Wishing you a lovely day
definitely did not click on “Wendy brandes blog” to read about anya phillips, but, as usual, definitely got more than i bargained for- its your calling i guess.
i hate that history forgets these sorts of women!!!!!!!!
how did YOU find out about her???
I think it IS my calling because my jewelry always provides more than expected too.
The book Please Kill Me was where I found out about Anya.
I also like your point about “selective news.” I think, for me, your blog is something I read because I trust you to write something interesting…but not necessarily something I would’ve sought out on my own.
I love the jewelry posts. Very informative.
I also love posts like this one, but I am sure you know that- and I am sure I could’ve predicted that about myself.
The jewelry making posts fascinate me. You’ve sort of reinvigorated a childhood passion of mine (jewelry & gemstones.)
Since we lived in Asia, I got to explore all of the gemstone vendors in Bangkok, Cambodia, etc. It was one of my favorite things about traveling…
and now you write about the design and mechanical end….and that is even more fascinating to me!
I forgot to mention Burma. As a jewelry maker, im sure you’ve heard of the giant gold pagoda with the MASSIVE ruby on top??!!! and the little umbrella encrusted with thousands of gemstones…..???
your asia inspired designs are my favorite…Im look forward to more of those…
all of your jewelry kind of reminds me of The Royal Diaries series…but for adults:
Fantastic post. I am ordering “Please Kill Me” right now.
sharon rose says
Hi there-a really great tribute post, thanks for sharing this, I did not know about Anya and this post made really interesting reading and she was certainly an amazing woman. Have a good weekend my dear xx
Anya died on June 19, 1981, in Valhalla, NY. PKM is tripe. Interesting stuff, to be sure, but take it with a grain of salt. Though most may not know her name, Anya’s cultural influence continues to this day. Thanks for writing about her.
In case you check back, thanks for this info…I also emailed you for some more!
It\’s strange that some people become famous and others – who might have been more creative, more powerful, more rebellious – get forgotten. Having died so early probably didn\’t help (but then, think James Dean…), but that Anya is behind THAT pink dress is fascinating.
She has such an interesting look
Suzanne aka Punk Glam Queen says
I hate that book. Legs was always passed out — yeah that’s a great person to record the scene! Although I can say with certainty that what Eileen says in the book is verbatim. But a lot of the other people were not happy. Although I suppose it served a good purpose as it led you to find out more about Anya!
PS Richard *was* adorable and a sweetie! Ever read any of his novels?
I know…SO many people hate Please Kill Me and Legs. I figured I wouldn’t get into that in this post since I wasn’t there and couldn’t testify to anything myself. But it took me forever to get through the book and I’m a fast reader. The only thing that ever stood out to me was Anya.
Suzanne aka Punk Glam Queen says
I know what you mean — I read really fast & usually force myself to finish even if I hate a book… it should have been interesting and easy for me to read since I was around & know a good portion of the people interviewed, but I don’t think I ever finished it as I got xo disgusted!
thank you so much for sharing this I feel like i know something more now and a book i need to find and read. thanks again!
La Belette Rouge says
Me thinks that Fei Xiang might, in time, be a contender for Sam Waterson brows. Fascinating post, Wendy. I didn’t know anything about Anya before today.
Totally agree on the brows. Anxious to see what develops there in the next 20 years!
To my mind, it takes a provocative, creative, and curious person to do such a splendid job of posting about another provocative, creative and curious person. Fantastic job, WendyB.
Mama says thank you!
You always say such sweet things!
maya (http://byebyesoccermom.blogspot.com) says
lol! I saw that Barbie at ToysRUs or some other toy store and almost got it for my 5 yr old rock-star but let’s face it she would not appreciate it.
maya (http://byebyesoccermom.blogspot.com) says
her brother is HOT!
melina bee says
wow, I never heard of her before but she sounds like she was a real force to contend with. Her eye makeup is really awesome, esp. the blue and red combo.
Thanks for writing this. I read it from start to finish. I am fascinated by the 70’s and 80’s era of punk music and culture. In particular, I have done a lot of research on Vivienne Westwood and her inimitable style influence on UK punk. There is something to Anya Phillips that reminds me of early Vivienne Westwood: wild, unrefined, creative, thought-provoking, and endlessly intriguing.
I think it’s interesting how we’ve gone from unpolished icons like Madonna (EARLY Madonna), Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Annie Lennox, Siouxsie Sioux, Tina Weymouth and Anya Phillips to the sleek, glossy, PR manufactured icons of today. Even their stints in rehab and paparazzi snapped crotch flashes are pre-planned.
I prefer the messy, sincere, crazy, creative women from decades ago than what we have now. There is a raw energy to their style and attitudes that I really admire.
But Grace, if you were a real punk you would have read it from finish to start 😉
In case you’re interested, there are some more music posts here http://wendybrandes.com/blog/category/music-hum/
Christina Lindsay says
Dear Wendy, what a brilliant post! I loved it. Two more books I must track down.
I’ve done quite a few posts and interviews on 80’s club kids in London which you might like. I’ve been asked to interview Poly Styrene from X Ray Spex next xx
wow, so chic and a rebel. love it.
her brother is like a walking sex god lol
the entire family are beautiful and amazing people, her baby brother spoke of her in his interviews with much affection and sadness, he said she changed his outlook on life, he realized life could be lost easily but luckily Anya lived life as she wanted, and so he was determined to do the same. He was by her bed during cancer treatments–she wasn’t calm and she didn’t accept it, she cried and screamed and told him she didn’t want to die. It’s heartbreaking to listen to him remember her final days 🙁
WOW! She looks so differently from her brother. I read that she’d always wanted to be cool since high school. She made it.