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.
… a photographer, a dominatrix …
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.
“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 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.)
“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.