“Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in,” the doctors intone as Marion Cotillard gives birth to the titular character in Leo Carax’s latest film, Annette. It’s advice I could use if not for the two corsets I’m strapped into under my Mugler look. It’s opening night at the Cannes Film Festival and I have just walked the red carpet, with no pants on. Now you probably have a few questions, so let’s rewind to 96 hours prior.
It’s a hot Friday afternoon in Paris, but it’s not the heat that has me sweating. In four days’ time, I will be attending the Cannes Film Festival with Instagram. It’s a dream come true, one I’ve had since I was 12 years old seeing paparazzi images of my idol, Britney Spears, flashing her megawatt smile under the palm trees on the Croisette in 2002. At this particular moment, my dreams are on the verge of nightmare though. Finding a designer to dress me is proving to be a task of Herculean proportions, each decline feeling like a death knell. I’m on the phone having the millionth breakdown when the email from my creative director for Cannes, Moses Moreno, comes through: Mugler is more than happy to dress me for my first red carpet and I need to come immediately for a fitting.
Within 10 minutes, I’m in an Uber to the showroom. Within 30 minutes, I’m sweating on the floor of a dressing room trying pull on Mugler neoprene biker shorts. Ah, the joys of not being “sample size.” I spot this black-and-white jacket with padded shoulders on the rack. Have you ever seen an item of clothing and just immediately known it’s yours? That’s what happened at that exact moment. I’m looking at myself in the mirror, waiting for the inevitable button to pop, a raised eyebrow from the PR, the sound of a stitch popping, but fortunately none of that happens.
It’s now Saturday afternoon—I’ve enjoyed a night of peaceful sleep knowing that the biggest problem of my trip has been solved—when I receive an email reminding me that the dress code is strict and that I should be in a tuxedo and bow tie. Let me give you a little background on the gendered Cannes red-carpet dress code. Women must be in evening dresses and high heels, no exceptions. In 2015, a group of women in their 50s was turned away at the premiere of Carol, because their shoes were deemed not high heels. It later came to light that a few of the women had medical conditions that prevented them from wearing stiletto heels. In 2018, Kristin Stewart took off her heels in the middle of the red carpet and walked the rest of the way barefoot. The men’s protocol calls for a tuxedo and bow tie. In 2019, producer and DJ Kiddy Smile was initially turned away from the red carpet for wearing a gown.
Needless to say, the festival is not the most modern when it comes to identity and expression. As someone who identifies as nonbinary, where do the archaic protocols for the Cannes red carpet leave me? I don’t get dressed thinking, Today I want to look like a man so let me wear pants, or today I want to dress like a woman, let me wear a gown—we’re talking about inanimate objects with no gender. At the same time, so many people have worked so hard to make this happen—do I just outright defy the explicit instructions I’ve been given and miss out on this experience?
It’s now 4 p.m. on Tuesday and I’ve just checked in to my suite at the JW Marriott in Cannes. I’m set to walk the red carpet in four hours, and nobody but my manager, Danielle; my stylist, Moses; and I know what I’m going to wear. We’ve decided the best plan of action is to forgo the conversation with our festival concierge and just see what happens. I’ve locked myself in the marble bathroom to try and calm my nerves before hair and makeup arrives, and when I come out, there’s a big bottle of champagne that has just been delivered, which manages to do the trick. There’s a knock at the door and it’s my manager who informs me that we’re off schedule because there’s an issue with the makeup artist from a big brand I shall not name and that they’re trying to find a solution. In the back of my head, I’m praying that I don’t have to pull out my little beginner’s makeup palette from Amazon ’cause those HD images will be brutal. Thirty minutes and a bottle of champagne later, she comes back with news: “Chanel is more than happy to do your makeup.” I’m sure they can hear my scream all the way down the Croisette.
It’s now 5 p.m. and I’m on my rooftop terrace with Nicki Minaj blasting, explaining to the lovely Antoine from Chanel Beauty that I want to look like I’ve been in fight, and he starts blackening my eyes and reddening the bridge of my nose. I’ve been informed that we need to leave for the red carpet in about an hour and a half. I down another glass of champagne and try not to think about my wig that is still in the bag in my suitcase.
It’s 5:45 p.m. and the hairstylist arrives while I’m still getting my makeup done, and I show her a picture of a bobbed and gorgeously blown-out Ciara for what I want my black-and-red wig to look like.
It’s now 6 p.m. and my makeup is finished, but I still have to get dressed and have my wig applied—all within in 20 minutes. The hairstylist has just gotten set to style the hair. I nearly start to have a panic attack. I think my friends sense this and literally snap into emergency mode. I’m strapped into one corset, and then another. I’m being helped into my tights and boots. The hairstylist has styled only two pieces of the hair so far, and at this point I need to be out the door in five minutes. There’s a knock at the door; it’s my festival concierge, Guillaume, telling me we need to go while I stand there in my wig cap. My manager arrives; we have to go now for my allotted time to walk the carpet. I’m ushered out of the room while my friend grabs the wig from the hairstylist and is gluing it down as I walk down the hotel hallway.
We arrive at the elevator and I realize I don’t have my glasses or phone, and my manager tells me she’ll go to get them. Without my glasses, I’m legally blind, but I have Guillaume and my friend Elias to guide me. When we get downstairs, I’m told we can’t wait and that everyone will catch up with us. At this point, we’re late and it’s a whirlwind as we run down the Croisette, me in six-inch heels willing myself not to fall in front of the amused tourists along the beachfront. Before I know it, we’ve arrived. I’m at the gate to access the red carpet. My manager is nowhere in sight (not that I can see anything anyways) and my ankles are throbbing. Guillaume hands me my two tickets. I walk toward the first checkpoint holding my breath; if I’m going to be turned away and have to walk back to my hotel defeated, this is where it’s going to happen.
I can feel their eyes on me as I arrive; I’m silently saying a prayer. “Enjoy the movie,” the greeter says to me smiling and waves me to the red-carpet line—but I can’t relax just yet. I have no idea how this works—do I just walk? What side do I start on? “LOUIS!!!!!” I hear, and then another, and then a whole chorus of my name being screamed. I look onto the carpet and the photographers are yelling at me to come on.
I walk out into a storm of flashbulbs. All those years as a young kid prancing around in my bedroom posing for invisible paparazzi, moving my body like I had seen the celebrities and models do on FashionTV put me on autopilot. I do the runway turn, the over the shoulder, I hit them one after the other. The feeling is akin to being on a roller coaster—exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time—and just as quickly as it started, it’s over. I walk up the stairs into the Palais. I’m sure I’m hallucinating, but it’s as if an apparition of the Virgin Mary is right in front of me. Not far off the mark, it’s another Holy Mother, Mj Rodriguez, clad in a lace veil. This day has gotten even more surreal, and I don’t miss the chance to meet someone who has done so much for her community and representation in the media. I tell her this and she grasps my hands and looks me in my eyes and says, “We’re all in this together.”