Kate Flannery, STRIP TEES: A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles

Kate Flannery, STRIP TEES: A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles

Debut author Kate Flannery joins Zibby to discuss Strip Tees: A Memoir of Millenial Los Angeles, a brave, racy, and devourable memoir about her time working for American Apparel as a recent college grad in the mid-2000s and toeing the line between sexual empowerment and sexual exploitation. Kate talks about the cult-y environment of the provocative, controversial company; the inappropriate behavior of its CEO; and her decision to write a book at the end of it all. She also describes her current career in reality TV and reveals the topic of her next book!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kate. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Strip Tees: A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles.

Kate Flannery: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I literally have been toting this book around with me for a long time because all I wanted to do was read it. It went in the pile where I had to read it ever since I saw the cover and read what it was about. I love LA so much and have driven by that American Apparel store so many times until it was gone. I couldn’t wait to read it. It was so interesting and so good. Thank you for writing it. I feel like I went on the whole journey with you of your career and all of that. It was great.

Kate: Thank you. I really, really appreciate that. It’s a love letter to Los Angeles, for sure. People connecting with it is such an unexpected surprise. I’d hoped they would, but I didn’t realize how gratifying it would be to have people, like, this really spoke to me. I understood this story. I was there. I saw some of it myself. I know that store. That’s so exciting.

Zibby: I also think this whole genre of “coming of age through your career” books is something I find just so fascinating. I’m so excited. Instead of just, I traveled, or something, we get to dive in and watch how you grow up in the context of your job, which of course, is a much bigger commentary on society. I just love it. It’s such an experiential thing where you feel like you not only get your emotions, but your job. I love it.

Kate: Thank you. Thank you so much. I think these books are popular because the office is a thing of the past. We’re on to startup culture. It’s a wild, weird world full of risk-taking and bad behavior and breaking of the rules. It makes such a good read. Uncanny Valley, all of those books, they’re great.

Zibby: Maybe you should describe the book for listeners since I just dove right into the things I liked.

Kate: My book is called Strip Tees: A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles. It’s about my time working for a very controversial and provocative fashion company called American Apparel in the mid-2000s. We’re talking a decade before Me Too, which really doesn’t seem that long ago, but it may as well have been a totally different century because it was just a very different time. The company itself, American Apparel, operated under a very progressive veil. Everything was made in the USA. It felt good to work there. It was seemingly run by women. I was fresh out of a Seven Sister, a total feminist warrior out of Bryn Mawr College. Nobody was going to get me. We were in a post-feminism world. Gloria Steinem fixed all that stuff. When I saw this risqué, wild company that was fighting the good fight, it was so compelling to me. That time period, that turn of the millennium, was just a very different time. We were post-9/11. We were post-the AIDS epidemic. We were in this celebrity sex tape, Playboy spread — the girls had gone wild. Young women really had to toe the line between sexual empowerment and sexual exploitation. That’s sort of the story of Strip Tees, that line. That’s my book.

Zibby: You paint this very unsavory picture of — you pronounce it Dov or Dov (Dove)?

Kate: It’s Dov (Dove) like the bird.

Zibby: Dov like the bird. You probably wrote that in the book, and I forgot. Dov and, essentially, his affairs with many of the workers — maybe not affairs, but relationships. It was some accepted thing. In the book, you gradually see how all these things — you’re like, okay, maybe that’s a little weird, but whatever. I guess this is how it’s supposed to be. It’s not that big a deal to watch people having sex in the dressing room. You could see you rationalizing every next step and seeing how you got deeper and deeper and then, of course, contrasting that with your opening image of the girl in the cult and what it means to be in a company cult, if you will.

Kate: It’s true. It was very cult-y. In a way, we’re still in the cult. A lot of the girls in the book are still with Dov Charney, in relationships with him or have — I was very naïve about that. In a way, I’m still in the cult because I’m like, what’s Dov going to say? Who cares what Dov — he should be worried what I’m going to say. It’s just so easy to slip back into those roles. I’m experiencing a lot of blowback now because my friends are starting to read it. People I wrote about are starting to read it. Those cult dynamics, they’ll get you. Twenty years later, it’s still sort of easy to sneak into. Dov, working for him felt good. He was charismatic as well as problematic. He was fun to be around. It was fun to work with someone with a huge vision that was changing the world and still making a profit. I thought ethical capitalism was a thing that we were doing here. We were going to make money. Everybody was going to be fairly treated. That’s just not how capitalism works. Then again, I was twenty-four. Hopefully, now I’d be a little smarter.

Zibby: You can still have a company that treats people well and is profitable. That is not misleading, but maybe not this company.

Kate: It’s a shame because he showed, in the USA, you can give your employees not only a fair wage, but benefits and free English lessons and massages, and you can still be a billion-dollar company. Unfortunately, he just took it all down himself with his bad behavior. That’s a nice way of putting it. I just wish the company could have held on and been a model for so many other companies to bring back those jobs, bring back union jobs, bring back jobs where people can make a dignified living. American Apparel proved you could do it, for the factory workers anyway.

Zibby: Speaking of modeling, one of your things as you grew in the company was becoming a scout because you had this eye for new talent and all of that, and even modeling yourself, inadvertently perhaps, but having all the women who work at American Apparel become de facto models in whatever they’re doing, even if they don’t want it, necessarily, photographed. Tell me about how that affected your perceptions of self-image at the time and if that’s one of those things that stayed with you.

Kate: At that time, it was this real — again, that turn of the millennium, that first five years, there was a lot of model worship happening. America’s Next Top Model was in its early seasons. It was such a huge hit. Celebrity culture and paparazzi, there just seemed to be such value in harnessing that. I thought modeling would be a feminist act. I’m getting paid. Really, it’s just the same old game. You’re just an object. You’re not going to win that game, but I gave it a shot. I tried. I got some great photos of myself from back in the day.

Zibby: Where are they now?

Kate: Oh, my gosh. You don’t know because of the promo copy, but there is a twenty-photo insert in there.

Zibby: No way.

Kate: Yes, I’m so excited. It’s a little surprise in the hardcover. There’s ads and flyers, the “Obey your masturbator” flyer that I took down. I saved it. I knew I was going to write this book. I just approached it like an anthropologist. I saved everything. Those photos are going to be good.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I can’t wait. The downside of the galley, I guess. That is really exciting. Amazing. You knew you were going to write this as a book? Tell me more about that. When did you know? How long did it take? Tell me the book piece of this journey.

Kate: It’s an interesting story. I always knew I was going to write this book. I told everybody, I’m going to write a book about this. Nobody believed me. It took a while. Really, it was when I took down — the store was flyer-bombed. We were wheat-pasted with flyers about Dov Charney. They said, “Obey your masturbator,” a little pun. I talk about it in the book. It’s very early in my career there. I remember we were taking these flyers off. I took one off, and it was in perfect condition. It didn’t get ripped. I just thought, I’m saving this. I’m going to write about this. There’s something here. As a young writer, I was always wondering, what is the story that I was going to tell? In that moment, I knew this was it. I continued to take notes. When I would have a particularly insane conversation with Dov, I would go right to the back of the store and flip over a flyer and write down everything he said. Almost everything that he says is verbatim because I wrote it down.

Okay, so the whole story. I really had to wait until the company folded before I could — I did try writing a fictionalized version. I was too close to the subject matter. Me Too had to happen. All of that stuff had to happen. I work in reality television, which isn’t necessarily the most creatively gratifying field. I work in the editing department, so I’m not writing the stories. I just had this moment where I was like, I have to get back to myself, back to what I love doing, which is writing. I started taking just community classes. I started talking to writers there. Someone told me, “You know, you can sell a memoir on a proposal.” I was like, oh, my god. It’s so audacious. You can sell a book before you write it? I’m going to try that. I’m a nerd. I can write a damn good proposal. I took a class on how to write a proposal. It included chapter summaries. I really had my story down just from thinking about it all these years and writing versions of it. Then I sold it on that proposal. I lost my mind for two years, but I came out with the book. I always like to tell people that. You can sell nonfiction books on a proposal. Let me tell you, it’s the only way I would’ve done it. I needed that deadline. I needed to have signed a contract. You must finish this book. It was so helpful.

Zibby: After you got the contract and you started writing, did you work closely with an editor at your publishing house? What was that like?

Kate: I had an editor who really understands pop culture and really believed in it from the beginning. My proposal was pretty strong. I wrote a first draft. I turned it in. Then a month later, he gave me a round of notes. That was that. I had two months to do that. I turned it in on Halloween, which is such a symbol. It was a scary day exhilarating. I’d say all in all, the process took me a year of heavy-duty writing and six months of worrying and then another six months of planning. The initial proposal stuff probably took six months.

Zibby: Were you also still working your day job, or did you take time off?

Kate: I’m still working two full-time reality jobs, sometimes overlapping. I work on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and I work on The Amazing Race. They’re both really great shows and great jobs and very supportive, really great places to work. I was working full time and writing. It was crazy.

Zibby: When you say you’re editing now, do you mean you’re editing the footage? You are in an editor bay and all that stuff? Tell me about your job now.

Kate: It’s interesting. At Amazing Race, I am a deliverables manager. It’s basically like a script supervisor in post. This is probably boring.

Zibby: It’s not. I’m really interested in this.

Kate: I walk down the episode, and I’m like, there’s an accent missing over this — there’s a lot of subtitles in Amazing Race. They’re yelling. They’re running around. Sometimes there will be misspellings. Maybe the host will be pronouncing something wrong. I’ve caught that before. I’m the last set of eyes to make sure everything is good before it heads to network, which I love doing. Correcting grammar, sign me up. I love that. For Drag Race, I basically just transcribe drag queens all day for insurance. It’s a union gig. I’m listening to their sit-down interviews and looking for the good stuff, writing down everything they say, timecoding, just stuff that editors need to build the show. That’s how I do it. It’s great.

Zibby: Amazing. Sorry, I’m interested because now I feel like I’ve just been on this whole — I care what happens with you and your career. I really want to know what you’re doing, knowing what you did. Tell me a little more about what you’re going to do about people who you write about not loving the content. How are you prepared for that? Are you prepared for that? Did you ever think it’s, “It’s going to be so hard for me. I’m just not going to do it”? I know you said you thought about fiction.

Kate: No, I thought everyone would be fine with this. I changed everybody’s names. I changed details about where they came from. Really, to this small core of people that was in this circle nearly twenty years ago, you could maybe sniff out who’s who. That’s sort of an issue. One of the girls is really upset about what Dov is going to think. You’re ruining my relationship with Dov. You’re barking up the wrong tree with that argument with me. I thought everyone would be okay. I underestimated that. Also, another thing I totally underestimated is that just the act of writing a memoir is a betrayal to the people that you’re writing about just because of what it is, because it’s so one-sided. The insignificant details, to me, that I leave out or that I don’t include because they’re not important to my story may be very significant details to someone else. I’m just presenting my side of the story. No matter how much love I use to write about these girls, who are still my friends — well, some of them, up until recently. That’s always going to be hurtful. It feels really ruthless. It’s hard for me. It’s very upsetting, but I’m dealing with it. Some friends have been incredibly supportive. Man, I knew that was happening, but I didn’t know. I wish we were there for you more. It’s made me closer with friends too.

Zibby: I think that’s one of those life things, whether you’re writing a memoir or getting divorced, all these things, grief. People surprise you. You never know who’s going to show up for you, who’s going to turn. Mostly, it’s a reflection on how they feel about something. It really has little to do with you personally. It’s their own mirror that then — you know all this.

Kate: That’s exactly what it is. One of my friends who’s talking me down every day is like — this might be therapy talk. He said, “The only thing that you can control in life is how you react to things.” I can only control how I react to their reaction. It’s a big learning lesson. I was very naïve about a lot of things. I feel like that’s my brand now. I’m naïve at the end of the book. I’m naïve when I’m writing it. It’s crazy.

Zibby: This might not even be an appropriate question, but your hair is so cool. Is that natural, or did you do that as a “cool look” thing?

Kate: It’s created in a lab. I mean, it’s my hair, but no. I want to be one of those old Italian women with a shock. Maybe I’ll get there. It’s manipulated.

Zibby: It’s super cool.

Kate: Thank you.

Zibby: My friend’s stepmom has a shock of white hair like that naturally.

Kate: Naturally, that’s what I want. That’s what I’m going for.

Zibby: Have you written proposals for any other books? What are you going to do next?

Kate: I am cooking up my second book now, which is another memoir. This one has more of a true crime element. It takes place in my hometown. I’m here for the summer doing a lot of research. I haven’t really talked about it at all. Should I spill the beans?

Zibby: Sure.

Kate: I’m used to pitching things in TV terms. It’s My Girl meets Paradise Lost, the documentary about the West Memphis Three. There were three teens accused of murder. The town went wild in a satanic panic, rumor panic that overtook the town. It’s a satanic panic, true crime, coming-of-age story in a pre-internet world that I long to be in and write about.

Zibby: That sounds awesome. That sounds great. How much input did you have on the cover? This cover is just perfection.

Kate: Isn’t it wonderful? The publishing house is really great, Holt. They give you all kinds of options. That one was clearly the winner. I wanted it to say American Apparel without having to write American Apparel on the cover. It’s just perfect. It’s so summery. She’s wearing American Apparel. It’s just perfect. Thank you. I love it too, obviously.

Zibby: It’s so great. What types of books do you read when you’re not busy writing and being on TV? Do you like to read, or are you more a TV person?

Kate: Oh, no, I’m a reader, for sure. In fact, I just recorded the audiobook. They were like, “Do you listen to audiobooks?” I said no. They went, “You’re a reader.” I’ve been on a memoir-only diet for two years just reading every memoir I can get my hands on. I really do love reading nonfiction. Continuing in that vein, I just ordered Pageboy. I’m dying to read Pageboy. I just know that’s going to be the memoir of the summer. What else am I excited about? I just went to Holt to visit, and they gave me a stack of books. I’m reading My Last Innocent Year. I’m reading all of them all at the same time. I’m reading . What else did I get there? I’m just about to start Kitty Karr, which I know is going to knock my socks off.

Zibby: Amazing. Awesome. I know you’ve already given some advice, which was really useful for aspiring authors in terms of memoir proposals. What other advice either for the writing or proposal writing or the writing itself or navigating this launch? Any of it or all of it. Just spill what you’ve learned.

Kate: Oh, man, I don’t even know how I’m navigating this launch because I’m just taking each day by day. I thought I was going to love this part, but it’s kind of stressful. Although, you’re making it fun. I was legit nervous. I haven’t really done many interviews, and certainly no live Zooms. My main advice that I would give, because I never could’ve finished this book — someone gave me this advice. I was like, whatever, but man, were they right. It’s so obvious. I’m really a lone wolf in all aspects of my life. That’s why I love writing. It’s really a solitary activity. I can do it all on my own and just be in control. When I was really struggling through that first draft, a woman said to me, “Do you have a writing group?” I was like, “A writing group? No, but maybe I should get one.” I found a wonderful group of women in New York City. This also was all happening during COVID. It was such a crazy time to sell a book and write a book and all that. I met with them every week. I needed that weekly deadline and the encouragement and hearing what they were writing, that weekly salon. There’s no way I could’ve finished my book. Anybody can do that. All you need is one other person. You just make a commitment. It sounds so easy, but it was so hard for me to do. That is when I started making progress, for sure, those weekly workshops.

Zibby: Gretchen Rubin has all these personality types. I am like you. I like to have accountability for some things. Some things, I’m fine. I will just not work out ever again if I don’t have anybody. I only work out if my friend is waiting on the tennis court or something. I think in different areas, we have to know when we need the extra encouragement.

Kate: It’s so true.

Zibby: I’m sorry you’ve been stressed. It is stressful when books come out, especially deeply personal ones. It’s kind of a wild ride. It’s very uneven. Unexpected things happen. No matter how much you prepare, you don’t know what’s going to happen when it comes out. I wrote a memoir that came out last July. I was so emotional the month before it came out. I was crying all the time. I’d been thinking about it for so long and working on it. Then it was coming out. It was out of my control. That was scary too. I found myself just in a very sad place even though it was the most exciting thing ever.

Kate: Totally. It’s also nice to be in my hometown and be with my family rather than in my apartment in LA navigating all this because it’s just so much easier when you have people to share everything with. It’s really tough, a lot trickier than I thought. You know that book Before and After the Book Deal? The first thing is, get a therapist. I’m not joking. You’re going to need one. Man is that right on. You need help. It’s too hard.

Zibby: I love that book. Courtney Maum, she was on this podcast. I have a bookstore in LA. You have to come do an event. I don’t know if you planned your whole tour and everything. I would love for you to come do an event there.

Kate: I would love to. Yes, I know. It’s in Santa Monia, right?

Zibby: Yeah.

Kate: Yes, I would love to. A west side one, yes.

Zibby: Great. We’ll follow up after this. I’m really excited. It’s really well-written, great story. It has all the elements. It was an immersive, wonderful read. I’m just totally rooting for you now and feel very invested. Even though it might be tricky for some relationships, I guarantee for the average reader, this is a very net-positive experience.

Kate: It was important to tell this story. That’s the most important thing overall. This story needed to be told.

Zibby: Yes, a hundred percent, even though at times, it was totally unbelievable. I’m like, seriously?

Kate: The story told itself. I hate to say it was easy to write after all this. I just wrote what happened. Not much to it.

Zibby: Not much to it. Amazing. Kate, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for Strip Tees.

Kate: Thank you so much for having me. It was so fun. Thank you.

Zibby: Take care.

Kate: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

STRIP TEES: A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles by Kate Flannery

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