What do girls want? Carmen Electra wanted to be a drummer, a dancer, or simply, a star. When I was 18, part-girl part-woman, I watched the Baywatch babe open her door for MTV Cribs; the camera followed her to an “exotic” space, behind a shimmery curtain. I never envied Electra for her looks or her confidence, but I envied her pillows, and from that moment on, I wanted what she had — a room where a girl could “be by myself and be in another world.”
Cribs will return to the US in early 2021, after a decade-long hiatus, but the reality show stayed in the collective conscious of Millennials, since its premiere in 2000. We remember Missy Elliott’s Ferari-shaped bed and Mariah Carey’s 11,000-square-foot TriBeCa loft. Architectural Digest’s Open Door series is just one example of the many see-how-they-live formats Cribs inspired, and its popularity has soared during the pandemic. When YouTube recommended the Hilary Duff episode to me, I started wondering about Carmen Electra. What happened to her? Where was she now?
Memory is faulty, of course, and I actually wondered, What happened to Carmen Alexa? Also, I wasn’t sure whose house I saw. Maybe Yasmine Bleeth? (I searched for “Yasmin Bleath.”) I didn’t remember Bleeth and Electra as Baywatch beauties. When I searched for “Carmen Alexa MTV Cribs,” Google showed me a video of Pamela Anderson’s house tour instead. I watched it, thinking Carmen’s pillows might be in there somewhere — she was not; they were not.
I eventually found two versions of Electra’s Cribs taping. Here’s what I forgot: The “exotic” space took the shape of a circus tent. Fabric panels extend out from a chandelier, in alternating shades of red and gold. “Everyone calls it a genie bottle,” Electra says, as Christina Aguilera’s 1999 hit song plays in the background. The two versions appear on YouTube and Facebook. One video runs 30 seconds shorter than the other, but the biggest difference is in the comments section.
The Facebook comments are mostly about Electra’s nipples. Two people couldn’t accept the claim that meditation occurred in the curtained room. Orgies and drugs, they said. In other words, you can’t take this woman seriously. She posed for Playboy, after all.
On YouTube, there are three mild comments, and the person who uploaded the video mistakenly attributed it to 2004. You would think a simple Google search like, “MTV Cribs episode list” would produce a quick verification. You’ll get hits from sites “tvmaze” and “sharetv,” but you won’t find Carmen Electra’s name anywhere, not even on IMDb. This is an unsolved mystery, and it validates a point I’m trying to make: No one remembers this Cribs house, the relatively-modest Beverly Hills condo with an “exotic” room. And yet, it’s the one that made the biggest impression on me.
I confirmed the year by reading a New York Post interview with the show’s creator, Nina Diaz. She mentions how they visited Electra’s house in the first season, and how they visited Electra’s neighbor, Apollonia. There’s speculation about this setup, on Facebook:
anyone else find it strange that both of those ladies dated prince? did he buy an apt. complex were (sic) he retires his exes?
You can’t read about Carmen Electra without reading about Prince — the man who named her and housed her in his Paisley Park estate. Even Electra’s Wikipedia page summons their relationship, as producer and singer, by the second sentence. The two were lovers, also. Fans know this, and they know that one of Prince’s Top 40 hits — Eye Hate U — broadcasts a romantic tiff between them. What people may not know is how Prince gave her an ultimatum: Live with me or lose my financial support. Electra chose to go it alone.
Electra’s association with Prince got to me, too. As soon as the internet reminded me of their connection, I thought, Is that where the genie bottle idea came from? Doesn’t that seem like something Prince would have, in his house? A space devoted to meditation and quiet reflection? I thought this, even though Electra says, on Cribs, “This room was just an idea I had.”
Then I read Carmen Electra’s take on Prince’s pad:
“Everything in Paisley Park was pastel and light and fluffy and dreamy. You just felt like you were in another world–a world that Prince created.”
A so-called Carmen Electra documentary (basically a compilation of her music videos) emphasizes her identity as a sex symbol. To most people, including Prince, Carmen Electra’s sex appeal overshadows her creative ambition. You can see this play out in “Fantasia Erotica,” a track from Electra’s self-titled (and only) music album. Although the song’s lyrics are officially attributed to Electra, Prince recorded the track a year before they met, and he offered it to another singer — Anna Fantastic.
“Fantasia Erotica” invites you to “come into this world,” where a barely-dressed woman dances, crawls, gyrates, and contorts. I don’t identify with this woman or the men watching her. I’m one of the “wallflower people” Electra entices “out of the corner.” But this lyric jumped out at me: “Open your mind to the power of the body.” There’s something simple and beautiful about the message. It’s almost empowering.
“You’ll find you’re living in my dreams,” Electra sings on another track, “Go Go Dancer.” The song’s video portrays her as a high school student by day and pole dancer by night. Is this her dream, though, or a man’s fantasy?
As I was researching and writing this piece, I brought up Electra’s name to four different people. “What comes to mind when you think of Carmen Electra?” One person said, “Dennis Rodman.” Another said, “Dave Navarro.” The other two couldn’t recall anything about her. “Who is that again?” They remembered Baywatch, but they didn’t remember Electra. The troubling thing about models (and actresses and pop stars) is that they seem interchangeable. No — they are interchangeable, by design. I wanted to remedy this by fleshing out a real person on the page.
I pitched the story to The Cut’s “I Think About This A Lot” series, thinking I would write a few hundred words about this pop culture fixation, with a subtle nod to Virginia Woolf’s iconic essay, A Room of One’s Own. But as soon as I sent the email, I knew I wanted to write something bigger and longer.
I’m a bookish over-thinker who claims Virginia Woolf as my favorite author. She penned the famous feminist text, and I’ve been thinking about it, constantly, while writing this essay. I even considered this headline: The Sexy Pop Version of ‘A Room of One’s Own.’ The concept of a room of one’s own is easy to grasp, easy to champion. Millions of creators use the phrase, and I imagine most of them have never read its source.
No one reads The Waves, either — the experimental novel, composed entirely of soliloquies. It’s too difficult, too maddenning. Electra sang, “You’ll find you’re living in my dreams,” but in Woolf’s novel, you actually enter Woolf’s mind. Most people find it disorienting and frustrating. Me? It’s the only book of hers I’ve read more than five times. I’m obsessed with it.
The more I look for meaning and a coherent message in Electra’s pillows, I’m reminded of my tendency to fixate and obsess. Am I trying too hard? Am I stuck in that 18-year-old mindset, where everything feels both personal and universal? I can’t tell if I’m being true to the story, or if I’m trying to elevate a vacuous model to the status of a serious intellectual.
As one Millennial put it, “I’d like to think that I watched ‘Cribs’ with my siblings and friends solely as comfort food to be consumed, digested, then mentally excreted. In hindsight, however, it probably affected the neural circuits in our brains.” Maybe I should have done what writer Talmon Joseph Smith did — resist the temptation to go down the “sadly substantial online rabbit hole.”
We don’t always choose our influences. Sometimes, we turn on the TV, and we see something that we can never un-see. I don’t know if I chose Virginia Woolf, either. In college, she was unavoidable. But I watched most of my peers reject her. She was too snobby, too British.
Part of me wants to reject or ignore or forget Electra, too. For the opposite reason. She’s too frivolous, too much of a party girl. But the truth is, I still like her “genie bottle” idea. Right now, I don’t have a room of my own. I share a one-bedroom apartment with my partner. We can’t afford more space, for the time being.
I didn’t listen to Christina Aguilera or Carmen Electra when I was growing up, but I liked popular music — Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, Liz Phair. I liked women who wrote their own lyrics, (although none of them escaped the inevitable emphasis on their sex appeal).
This is only a theory, but I suspect Electra’s meditation space didn’t come from Prince at all. That womb-like room came from grief — from losing her mother. Electra said she didn’t know who she was, after her mother died. She looked in the mirror, and she didn’t recognize herself. I see this as the beginning of Electra’s self-awareness — a vital step for any artist.
Part of me wants to shape this story into a leaner, more poignant narrative. And part of me wants the reader to make their own choice about whether to engage further. No one is forcing you to look at this page. You can avert your gaze. You can change the channel.
Part of me doesn’t want to come off as an angry feminist, but I am one.
I feel protective of Carmen Electra, even though she’s only a persona in my world. I don’t want her memory reduced to Playboy covers and erotic fantasies. I can’t accept one Facebook user’s awful remark:
I forgot about her pointless existence.
There’s a person behind the persona. Who really knows the woman formerly known as Tara Leigh Patrick?
A profile in The New York Times paints Carmen Electra’s career trajectory as a reckoning with authenticity. “Clothing can act as a sort of metaphysical armor, and Ms. Electra found out early on you don’t need much of it to protect yourself from the world.” Although Electra never abandoned her role as a sex symbol, she figured out how to navigate her success, on her terms. Still, like the Facebook users, readers of the NYT won’t accept her as a legitimate icon.
One of the pics of her is captioned with the label, “artist”. She’s a marketer of shallow, pop culture burlesque — how is that artistry?
Regardless of whether you think Carmen Electra’s success is admirable or despicable, if you compare her Beverly Hills condo from 2000 to her minimalist Hollywood Hills estate in 2016, it’s easy to see how far she’s come. Architectural Digest described the waterfall terrace as the “ultimate Zen experience.” I couldn’t help thinking about the pillows again. I’ve never stopped thinking about those pillows.
Twenty seconds in the genie bottle. That’s all it took to transfix me for two decades. I don’t know if it matters where the idea came from, originally. I know how the idea came to me, and I know how it influenced me, going forward. I was 18 when I saw Carmen Electra’s Cribs tour, and she was 18 when she met Prince, and Christina Aguilera was 18 when she sang these lyrics:
If you wanna be with me, baby there’s a price to pay
I’m a genie in a bottle, you gotta rub me the right way
If you wanna be with me, I can make your wish come true
You gotta make a big impression, I gotta like what you do
Like Prince’s “Fantasia Erotica,” the lyrics weren’t written for a specific singer. Although Aguilera had a minor role in composing the song, she claims it’s about self-respect. But I find the message disturbing — not because it’s too sexy for an 18-year-old, as Debbie Gibson suggested. Look at a line that comes later: Just come and set me free baby and I’ll be with you.
Why is a caged woman supposed to be sexy? Why do her powers depend on someone else’s touch?
I did go down the rabbit hole, and I finally found one person who remembered Carmen Electra’s Cribs tour.
I remember Carmen Electra’s episode being one of my favorites because her life style looked like something I could realistically achieve with hard work.
The sentiment both contradicts and supports the Millennial ethos. Some of us had relatively-modest expectations, but even those proved harder than we realized.
Dark, soft, womb-like. That’s how I would describe the “exotic” space in Carmen Electra’s condo. I was 18 when I watched that Cribs episode, and I was on the verge of leaving home, to move in with my boyfriend. I thought about Electra’s pillows when I got my own apartment, when I was single again, after years of trying to be the woman I thought men wanted me to be. My place wasn’t “light and fluffy” like Paisley Park; I had velour furniture (purchased at the thrift store) in a rusty-amber hue. I did drugs, had sex with multiple partners, but I meditated, too.
Maybe it wasn’t the woman in me who wanted the room of my own. Maybe it was the little girl. How different is Electra’s “genie bottle” from a makeshift tent that kids hide under, with a flashlight, past bedtime, reading fairy tales? Maybe I’m doing what people have always done to her — objectifying her for their own fantasy story. I want Electra’s story to fit into my world now. In my version, she meditates. She finds time to be alone. Girls want that, sometimes.