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Exile in Buyville

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Liz Phair is a girl with a problem. A shopping problem.

By Lori Leibovich
Elle, May 2001

Liz Phair is a girl with a problem. A shopping problem. It started in 1993, when her breakthrough album, Exile in Guyville, went gold and earned Phair, now thirty-four, the adoration of critics and a big fat check to play with. She has somehow managed to maintain her indie cred while also becoming a glamorous rock goddess who likes nothing more than trolling through boutiques scarfing up every dress in sight. Phair spoke with ELLE from her new hometown, Manhattan Beach, California, where she’s working on her fourth record and caring for her four-year-old son.

LL: If you weren’t a rock star, do you think you’d be so obsessed with clothes?

LP: I would have liked to dress well, but no way would I be such an egregious offender.

LL: What do you buy on the cheap?

LP: Nothing. It’s awful. Sales repulse me — they’re so confusing. I think it’s because I’m not naturally stylish. If you can’t visualize what looks great on you, you have to pay people at boutiques to tell you.

LL: What was the first thing you ever went into debt for?

LP: I never went into debt. The first few years out of college, I didn’t want to get a regular job, so I sold my art. I made drawings and forced everyone I knew to buy them. It got to the point where I would go to my friend’s house to eat lunch and then borrow her cosmetics. I was really poor.

LL: Any purchase you regret?

LP: It’s always the clothes; they’re gone in a season. The only nice thing is, when I clean out my closet, I look at some of those dresses, and all my memories are tucked away. I remember where I was and what a fabulous night I had.

LL: What purchase has brought you the most pleasure?

LP: My house. I sold it, but it was a great investment. I have a wistful sense of women and their houses. Men are off doing whatever, and women are in their houses. Mine was a cool combination of old and new; a narrow Chicago town house built in 1896, but the interior was modern, with glass, skylights, and walkways. Letting go of it was emotional.

LL: What did your parents teach you about money?

LP: The credo was, “If you earn half of it, we’ll help you with the rest.” That didn’t work, because they would say, “Well, you don’t need that many sweaters.” I grew up in a very materialistic community [Winnetka, Illinois], and my parents fought that. But it didn’t work! What they really taught me about money is that it isn’t important. This sounds clichéd, but my greatest wealth is my network of friends.

LL: What would you do if you won the lottery?

LP: Oh, my God! I’d buy a house and then I’d go to an island off the coast of Africa, somewhere with excellent snorkeling and scuba diving, maybe Madagascar. Then I would totally chill on some really plush African safari.

LL: Do you have a money guru?

LP: Yes. Rit Venerus, my accountant. He will actually talk me down when I’ve spent too much on clothes and I’m feeling shameful, like a drug addict almost. I’ve cried with him.

LL: Can spending be theraputic?

LP: Yes, in the saddest way, like eating a box of chocolates. The worst is when I get to the studio and something is wrong, so I can’t record. There I am in Hollywood. What else are you going to do? You call everyone you can think of on your cell phone and then you go buy something.

LL: What’s the most expensive gift you’ve ever given?

LP: I gave my husband a really cool video camera once. And a really cool stereo. I’ve given my husband a lot of toys.

LL: What’s the most expensive gift you’ve ever received?

LP: College.

LL: What causes do you support?

LP: I give to charities in the most disorganized way. If I’m watching TV and they show children, I give to the Christian Children’s Fund, and then every month they send me a picture of the kid I support. I give to all kinds of things.

LL: Shrink or spa?

LP: Definitely spa. Not to belittle shrinks, but instead of going to your therapy appointment sometime, get a massage. I guarantee you’ll feel good — if your problems aren’t that serious.

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