BY MIN CHEN
When you’re famous, anonymity becomes a commodity. Just ask Sia. Before 2013, the prolific Australian singer-songwriter had marshalled a respectable audience on the back of her inward-gazing, soulful indie pop—her profile ramping up when her 2004 single “Breathe Me” movingly soundtracked the closing minutes of the Six Feet Under series finale, then soaring with her superb 2010 album We Are Born. By then, though, she’d grown wary of her burgeoning popularity, electing to cover her face with masks or streaks of paint to preserve some manner of privacy. No chance: in the following years, as the David Guetta-released “Titanium” and downright triumphant “Chandelier” hit big, Sia was unquestionably and inescapably famous.
She hated it—at least according to her “Anti-Fame Manifesto,” released in 2013. In it, Sia railed against fame as “the stereotypical highly opinionated, completely uninformed mother-in-law character… criticizing you for an hour straight once a day, every day, day after day.” Declaring that “that is not something I’m interested in,” she concluded, “me and fame will never be married.” Accompanying that statement was a now-infamous image of the artist, her head and face shrouded by a paper bag. This unsparing rejection of fame—and the exposure, trappings, and obligations that come with it—would have been complete, if it didn’t also come as part of Billboard cover story package. To front a magazine with a splashy stature matches its readership, if only to turn your back on all the publicity it might generate, seems paradoxical if not illogical. The gesture spurns that fame monster, that mother-in-law, while keeping its company.
From 2014, however, Sia would finesse that her celebrity-scorning into a form of performance art, defined by massive, face-obscuring blonde wigs. “I had the idea that, well, if Amy Winehouse had been the bouffant, maybe I was the blond bob,” she explained. Said-bob was previewed on the cover of 1000 Forms of Fear; and she’s worn variants of them, designed by her makeup artist Tonya Brewer, on the Grammy stage (where she performed with her back to the audience), on Saturday Night Live, on Ellen, in James Corden’s car doing Carpool Karaoke, and in various live performances and red carpets. As she told Corden, the wig only comes on when “there’s cameras around” in order to “try and maintain a modicum of privacy.” Because ultimately, her music should do the talking, as she told Kristen Wiig in Interview in 2015, “Music is for your ears, not your eyes, right?”
Viewed starkly, Sia’s disguise is less a shield against the glaring lens of fame (since a cursory Google search will yield any number of photos of her sans wig) than it is gimmick, pure schtick. For a thing that was supposed to ward off attention, it has generated endless buzz around why she wears a wig or what she looks like under the wig. It turned her into an icon and a fashion plate, and endowed her with some kind of mystery—even as she walks a red carpet toward a flashing pool of cameras.
Also in Interview, she waxed at length about how her wigs guard her against being dissected “when I put on 10 pounds or take off 10 pounds or I have a hair extension out of place or my fake tan is botched.” In effect, “it affords me a little bit more freedom in terms of my expiration date.” She reiterated that theme to Rolling Stone recently, remarking that she’s “set up a model where I can age,” since “the wig never gets old.” It’s a bizarre combination of self-care and self-loathing: evading the media’s callow judgement by rendering herself invisible. And it’s, again, a fine balancing act of rebuffing fame’s trappings, just as she submits to pop stardom’s expectations of youth and beauty. Sia herself seems aware of the contradictions inherent in the donning of her disguise: “People say, ‘Enough of this shit where she doesn’t show her face,’ and ‘It’s a gimmick.’ For sure. I’m trying to do this differently, for serenity. And it’s a fun game for me as well. I have nothing to lose. But of course, I want to be loved.”
The wigs, then, exist for a multitude of reasons—for fun, for serenity, for self-preservation, as a mask or gimmick—all of them valid enough as she attempts to navigate celebrity waters and negotiate the push-pull of renown. The wigs will not repel fame; instead, in their oversized volume and photogenic quality, they might as well be a statement on fame itself. Under that helmet of hair, Sia is subsumed and hidden, her person effaced in favor of an ineradicable image. As her stylist Samantha Burkhart put it, “When you’re not showing your face, you’re literally becoming an object.” Sia, then, shoulders not just a giant blonde bob, but some burden of exposure—offering herself as inanimate object, illustrating and echoing the media’s own objectification. Here, she’s as much famous person as a performance of a famous person.
Is that too much to hang on a wig? Maybe. Fame itself is too much to hang on a person. But just as her wigs have taken root in her public persona (again, just ask Google), so Sia has grown into her fame. Take her name-making “Titanium.” She may have derided the 2011 track as a “cheesy pop house song,” the runaway success of which torpedoed her plan to retire after a brief career as “this cool, credible artist.” But it’s not stopped her from working with Guetta six more times (or from filling her 2016 release This Is Acting with “more pop” songs she’d written for other artists) or from rolling out the track in a storming 2016 Coachella slot.
That set was watched for its star-studded cameos by Kristen Wiig, Paul Dano, and Tig Notaro, and lauded for its deployment of performance and interpretive dance, featuring Sia protégé and regular stand-in Maddie Ziegler, in an audio and visual package equally quirky and celebratory. Under that mighty spotlight afforded by her popularity and presence, Sia, as is her wont, chose to spend the night toward the back of the vast stage, standing still behind her microphone in a monochrome getup as dancers whirled around her. You could still see her as well as hear her though; her performance rang clear, even and especially under yet another giant, ageless wig, colored black on one half, white on the other, with a huge bow affixed at the top. But of course there was a wig. There were cameras around.