Manson, Unmasked

Today he's America's Antichrist Superstar. But just a few years ago, in South Florida, Brian Warner was clawing his way to the top.

But he never wanted to be a musician. He wanted to be a big rock 'n' roll-l-l-l-l-l star. There's a difference.

The videotape is rolling. The overhead lights are dimmed in a cramped photo studio. Manson stands before a TV monitor, arms folded, and turns his narrow face with its aquiline nose, tiny mouth, and weak chin toward the cathode glow. A monster leers back at him: stringy black hair, eyes like lifeless white marbles, teeth smeared with black wax. The creature on screen growls and seethes and fills the entire damn box. Behold the God of Fuck. Behold Marilyn Manson. Behold a skinny dude with pretty basic stage makeup.

Manson's (now ex-) girlfriend Missi is also here. She's tall, thin, very pale. Pretty in a bored-yet-predatory sort of way, she is downplaying her looks today: a black pullover and blue jeans, a torrent of black hair reaching below her shoulder blades. The tattoos and the Betty Page bangs would come later.

Manson is taller and thinner, maybe six feet three in his combat boots, but not quite as pale (no makeup). He's outfitted in what, for him, serve as civvies: black jeans and boots, a long-sleeve black T-shirt bearing the band's "The Satanic Army" logo (in the style of the Salvation Army insignia). The group's varied catalog of merchandise, for which Manson formed a company called Satan's Bakesale, is perhaps his favorite means of self-expression off stage.

It's May 1994 and my magazine's photographer is shooting pictures of the TV screen with Manson's image on it because the singer won't pose for us. Like most publicity-related matters, this choice was his. He doesn't explain why, but I have a theory: Our photographer is our photographer, who might want to pose him in a way that might not project quite the perfect image of Manson or his band. Plus our photographer ain't exactly Annie Leibovitz.

Instead his New York publicists are sending us a selection of shots both from live performances and from the photo sessions they'd done for the cover and interior art of the first record, Portrait of an American Family, which is currently being mixed. These shots will become the lead art for the story, supplemented by shots from the videotape, and a closeup of Manson's Kiss lunch box, both of which he has brought today.

"Hey," Manson says, as I walk into the room.
"Hey, man, how's it going?"
"OK. The label had a problem with some of the album art, though."
"Which art?"

Manson reaches into a black folder and pulls out a mockup of the proposed CD insert. He unfolds it, revealing lyric text, line drawings, credits, thank-yous, and an arrangement of tiny Polaroid photos. "They didn't like the Polaroids too much."

Squinting, I note what appear to be shots of a naked woman splashed with blood. "They draw the line at snuff photos, huh?"

"They wouldn't let me use this, either," Manson says in disgust. He shows me another panel featuring a photo of a little boy, maybe five years old, naked but unharmed, sitting on a brown couch and staring guilelessly into the camera. "This photo counts as child pornography in, like, Oklahoma or something. So it's out."

"Who's the kid?"
Manson's tiny mouth corkscrews into a smirk. "Me."

Another day, another Denny's. It's May 1994 and Manson and I are sitting at a table sipping Cokes in the mostly empty family restaurant on Federal Highway just north of Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. This time we're alone, and we're working. As I scribble in my notebook, he outlines Marilyn Manson's plan for world domination. It has a lot to do with people hating him.

"What good would Marilyn Manson be if no one hated Marilyn Manson?" he queries, already evincing a tendency to talk about himself in the third person. He's wearing a close-fitting red shirt with long black sleeves, covering, as he usually does in public, the intertwining tattoos of black flames, grinning devils, skulls, eyeballs, pentagrams, and triple-six dice running up and down each arm. We're at ease, chatting away.

In this conversation especially, I begin to notice that, despite his contention that the line between Brian Warner and Marilyn Manson doesn't really exist, he is able to view the band and himself with some critical distance.

His on-stage persona, I tell him, sometimes reminds me of a carnival barker, beckoning to slightly squeamish onlookers. His eyebrows arch slightly, and he tucks a stray black lock behind his ear. "Yeah," Manson says as he mulls this notion. "Yeah, I'm inviting people in to see the freak show: Come on in and see the freaks! And then I pull back the curtain, and it's a mirror." He's wearing a little half-smile now, pleased with the image.

In the coming months, Manson will recycle some version of this "freak show" line in interviews with Alternative Press and Spin. Doing press, after all, is crucial to the plan, and Manson gets better and better with practice. Almost without exception it is Manson alone giving the interviews. It's always been his vision, and he trusts no one else, not even his bandmates, to give voice to the vision.

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