styled by Zee Polidori featuring fashion by Namilia
Tierney Finster is a writer, editor, and actor who prefers to unify her variety of creative talents and projects under the title ‘storyteller.’ She frequently collaborates with her lifelong best friend and muse, director Niko the Ikon. Together, they have created a variety of videos and music videos, including the YouTube show, It’s Totally Tierney. She has written for PlayBoy, and is currently the senior editor of Sex + Love at Mel, a new men’s lifestyle publication and newsletter.
We spoke to Tierney about growing up in Los Angeles, her obsession with video girls, and her undying love for Britney Spears. She muses on the importance of mixing analog journalism and social media, and touches on the underrated power of niche followings. Her insights into today’s corporate-driven media culture ultimately reveal how the relationship between popular musicians and fashion has undergone a dramatic evolution.
Tierney Finster: So I grew up in the valley and so did both of my parents. You know, in this story I’m wearing all pink and marabou and negligees, and when you look at pictures of me when I’m little, I’m in a hot pink ball gown with a cigarette holder with a Lucky Strike, and a tiara and rhinestone glasses...
Debra Scherer: I want to see those pictures!
TF: Yeah! With my dad kneeling next to me! I always liked to perform, and act, and take pictures.
DS: So what were the first projects that you did? Also you have a partner in crime that you work with on a lot of projects.
TF: Yeah, I work with Niko, Niko the Ikon.
DS: Is that the name he goes by? Niko the Ikon?
TF: Yeah, always. I think our identities today are very, very much informed by one another. We met in middle school, I think 7th grade, and our parents lived maybe five minutes away from each other in the valley, Van Nuys area, and we would just hang out and take pictures. And, you know, he was always a director. I think Niko’s biggest talent is just creative direction in a really totalizing sense. A lot of things that he was doing in 8th, 9th, 10th grade, became the kind of visuals, themes and identities that many people took on later. He has really always been ahead of it, so it’s lucky that I got to play dress-up in that way.
DS: Right. So you were his muse?
TF: Yeah, very much so, and him mine. I think we have such similar sensibilities, I always just associated him so much with visuals, and me so much with words, and I think, over time, we’ve been able to maybe teach each other. I think we both exist very much as individual producers of things, but it’s always better together.
TF: We had a YouTube reality show called ‘It’s Totally Tierney,’ and Niko would direct me, but also, I grew up in really cool LA public school improv programs. I love media and I always loved improv, and Niko’s the best improv partner imaginable, really, so...
DS: Right, right!
TF: We just would have a lot of fun, and I think we’re lucky that we got to do other things based on that kind of fun. I think that spirit and the honesty of that relationship is what has made people interested in talking to us, working with us – just because people are at ease. Unless people are really intimidated by intimacy, most people are looking for closeness. So if you’re doing a music video, or doing a shoot, and you’re with two people that are clearly best friends, then it kinda puts you at ease too, because you’re like, ‘we’re all hanging, we’re all cool.’
DS: Right, right right.
TF: So it’s good. I think what was funny about this project was that usually I work with people, or just create things with people that I know really well, or that I at least really love beyond knowing, you know?
DS: Right! Yeah, we just kind of did that guerilla-style; boom just met and just did it!
TF: I’m glad!
DS: I don’t know, there was some sort of kismet...It felt like we were all there for the same motivation.
TF: I mean, I’m not very shy, so if the goal is taking good photos, I’m pretty confident that I always could.
DS: Right, right.
TF: Which is really something! I don’t think I would’ve been able to admit that at other points in my life, but I’m like, girl that’s what I do!
TS: So it was cool for me to go into an environment that wasn’t so family, because a lot of stuff I do in LA feels very family, and just to be in a beautiful house, with people really invested in making a cool thing...strutting around with strangers was interesting. It was good, I mean I’m an intimacy addict in that way.
DS: So talk about some of the other things you work on, you’re a writer as well, and you were writing for PlayBoy for a bit of time, right?
TF: Yeah. I’ve always been a writer; I think that’s the base for any project, just the writing behind it. I went to school for screenwriting. I was always a big reader more than watching movies, I only really went to school for screenwriting because I liked visual stuff. I was 18 in 2010 thinking like, ‘okay, not that many people my age are gonna read my novels,’ you know?
TF: So after college I started writing for PlayBoy. I have a friend named Zak Stone who’s an incredible editor and writer. He was working for PlayBoy, and we had become friends on Facebook, and I would see him post articles. He had a column called, The High Road, which was a series of really, really fresh, smart fun takes on marijuana, especially in California. My friend would have these underground parties, though what does underground really mean? But the parties were in some really disgusting, dirty, gross spaces.
DS: Sorry I missed those gross parties! [laughing]
TF: Yeah, gross, fun parties! But I saw Zak there, and I remember telling him, “I really like what you write.” And I remember he was really happy, because he was like, ‘oh you’re a screenwriter?’ you know, and I was like, ‘I’m glad someone thinks I am!’
TF: But ever since then, I pitched to him, and I wrote stuff for PlayBoy until we all left to work on a new men’s lifestyle magazine...
DS: What were some of the kinds of things that you wrote about at Playboy?
TF: The first story I ever wrote was about ‘millennials,’ another really good term to go with ‘underground’ – things that I’d prefer not to be associated with.
DS: Authentic, Millennial, and Underground.
TF: Yeah! I don’t care either way...I think it’s quite hot that people are obsessed with my generation in this way, whether it’s negative or positive, and I think there’s plenty of good reason to be, but that’s just how it was. The title was something about the problem with millennial men, and the solution being, encouraging more of them to go to strip clubs. Talking about strippers and strip clubs as a kind of shamanistic space to treat or get at some of this insane digital isolation. I mean, I was just looking around at my younger guy friends thinking, ‘none of you hook up with anyone,’ and my girlfriends were having a similar experience, and older guys I knew didn’t really come of age in that way, so I was just like, ‘what’s the deal?’
DS: Go get a lap dance!
TF: Talk to a girl! You know? Feel good! I get it, there’s anxiety, and I think, it’s kind of a murky political space in some ways. But I’m definitely pro-sex worker. I think that there’s a lot of hype and negativity and associations around what happens at strip clubs, or what strippers are like, or what strip club clients are like, but I think that I never really envisioned myself working so much at a men’s lifestyle space. I like to use the term ‘space’ in this way because it’s such an industry thing to say. Like, ‘I’m in that space!’
DS: Yeah, oh my god I know.
TF: I’m in a lot of fucking spaces!
DS: I know! I’m in so many spaces! I’m like a time traveler or something, because I occupy a lot of space, I don’t know.
TF: Occupy! It’s a good thing. But I think it’s pretty cool that these men’s sites want a pretty politically radical, very sex-positive feminist to be in charge of their sex and gender coverage.
DS: Yeah, when I heard that you had that column, it reminded me a lot of, and this was many iterations of the now-defunct Details magazine ago, when it first became a men’s magazine and there was a, I can’t off the top of my head think of what the writer’s name was, but it was like...people started to get the magazine just to read her column.
DS: And it was a strong, feminist voice in this sort of snarky men’s space!
TF: Yeah! And I think women know how to talk to men better.
DS: Yeah. And it was great! I think that work that you’re doing there, it’s amazing. So tell us about this new site you are working for now?
TF: It’s called Mel – it’s wearemel.com, which will launch very soon, but now it’s running as a newsletter. I’ve done a lot of interesting work there. I think sex is something that I never thought that I was gonna be so publicly tied to, in terms of my work and identity, but I’m really happy. I mean, I ask people about their secrets all the time, and a lot of guys I talk to are like, ‘you’re the first person I told that, to’ or, ‘you’re the first person not to make me feel bad about this,’ and I’m super happy to play that role. I don’t think it’s any woman’s job to make men feel better about themselves.
DS: Right. No, it’s not! Not at all!
TF: I don’t, but at the same time, I know that I’m good at doing that, and you know, I think men have a lot of internalized fear, and shame, and anxiety, because in some way, whether they’re conscious of it or not. I think women have more emotional room to connect with other women, and I think men don’t get a lot of that so...like, I think men are my fetish.
DS: Right, yeah.
TF: Or my muse in that way.
DF: So the theme of the issue is, funnily enough, it’s a tip of the hat to the great Barry Manilow – that ‘Music and Passion are always the fashion,’ and it’s something that I wanted to explore this time, because, you know, the fashion industry has sort of switched roles with a lot of the other industries, and now everything is entertainment and technology. That’s a big theory I have – that we are now living in, working in, a sort of uni-industry. There’s really just one industry now, entertainment-technology.
DS: Fashion is just one piece of a bigger industry. And it’s just uncanny to me, how much influence music, the music industry, and the performers, have on all of the other creative fields, in such a big way. I’ve always been very influenced, not only by performers, but by album cover design. One of the things that we started noticing just within the fashion industry is that, even the stylists that work with, let’s say, a Beyoncé, and they pull something and it gets into one of her videos, it’s gonna be much more influential than something that’s on the cover of Vogue. And that is something I would never have thought could ever be possible 20 years ago. You know, the musicians and performers, they weren’t even wearing fashion, they were wearing costumes, and the great influencers were the original Madonna before fashion got their hands on her, when she was literally just wearing ripped up stuff and rubber bracelets...people from your generation know of Madonna as the Madonna that we know now, but the original Madonna, it was so...in terms of style influence, it was just mind-blowing! It was such an original expression that she just had.
TF: Look what she does now!
DS: Look what she does now!
TF: I mean, she’s the epitome of that cycle, or process changing.
TF: She’s like scrolling on Instagram wanting to look like these Tumblr girls, you know?
DS: And it was even from long before that, I remember, so she, let’s say, came up in the ‘80’s, by the ‘90’s, early ‘90’s, she already was wearing head to toe Prada, or something like that. You know what I mean?
DS: How are we supposed to be inspired by that?
DS: Like anybody can walk into Prada and get that same outfit, and we’ve already seen it at the show, we’ve already seen it on the models, and NOW she’s wearing it, so she’s no longer the leader.
DS: So, where are the leaders? There’s always something about these expressions of passion for music that are just compelling. Barry Manilow was right!
DS: Its always in fashion!
TF: I think what you’re saying is true in terms of musicians. Popular musicians are the best advertisers there are today.
TF: And we see that not only in what they wear, in where they go... I think especially pop stars, and major mainstream celebrities have shifted from the early 2000s paparazzi culture and now use social media to take things into their own hands...
DS: That’s right.
TF: But that’s also given them the opportunity to take their advertising and side hustles into their own hands…
TF: So they have these outfits tagged with, you know, it’s a ‘link in bio,’ or it’s just tagged, and there shouldn’t necessarily be shame attached to it, but you could be a really top-tier celebrity and you’re still shameless for these advertisements. And I get it, you know, you post one thing and get 50 grand, and maybe I’ll post it too one day, like, give me some diet tea, or teeth whiteners.
DS: Right. Exactly!
TF: Like I’ll get in on the hustle too! But I think in terms of really crediting these pop stars, or even their stylists, I have such little actual respect for most mainstream fashion stylists, and especially working with these big celebrities. Because I think the major influencers that once were these more expressive, free musicians, I think 10 years ago, even 20 years ago, there was a culture of musicians having artistry, and that included style. But mainstream musicians are 100% advertisements at this point…
TF: And the people that are behind those teams, all they are, are people who are really good at watching the Internet. So the major influencers that I would identify in 2015, some of them are my best friends, and there are others that I don’t know. But I’ve also been watching for whether it’s two years or five years or ten years, starting from MySpace on, people have shared their visual culture online, for free, and been stylists or creative directors without identifying it as such, just using their camera phones to take cool things.
I watched that happen, and even if the following is small, but engaged, and then you have someone who’s right at that in-between who is just in-the-know enough to be watching that person, but not in-the-know or confident enough, or gracious enough, to HIRE that person as a consultant, or as a stylist themselves. So I have friends where, these big shoots happen and then, you know, they meet someone after, that was a model, or a stylist there and say, ‘oh! I just put you on my mood board!’ And that happens all the time!
DS: Oh my god, don’t get me started...
TF: But all my friends are just like, why don’t you give me a call? I’ll come fucking model for you, I’ll style for you, I’ll art direct. You know, the people with the good ideas are going so unpaid and under-appreciated and unrecognized! And I think, when that happens to people enough over a certain amount of time, they actually just disrespect this singular, global culture to an extent that they might not want, or they don’t want to participate at all anymore, and feel really like, ‘this is kind of a disgusting world,’ and just try to create a private economy, and a private cultural circle. Or, they’re like, ‘look how shitty this all is, give me your teeth whiteners, give me your waist trainers, gimme all of it!’
TF: Because, you guys don’t even really deserve these ideas or these images anymore, and I’m getting fucked and exploited.
DS: That’s kind of what people do, so to take the other road and say, ‘I’m not gonna do that,’ you know, it’s a lonelier road, but, I’m on that road! So, welcome to my road!
TF: I think fashion is 100% the thirstiest industry there is. And I think it’s at a point now where people freak out at how behind most things are. And so, you know, people are casting lookbooks based on how many followers people have.
DS: Absolutely! So, taking that back to the music, I brought up Madonna in the ‘80’s. Who for you is that personality?
TF: Britney Spears! I mean I looooove Britney Spears! I love every version of her, even right now. Since I was a very little girl I definitely just wanted to be like a sexy pop princess.
TF: Like Britney!
DS: I have to say, I get your Britney thing! But it’s not what I would’ve guessed, but I guess, yeah!
TF: I also love Kathleen Hanna and Riot Grrls. I mean, as a kid it was only about Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, and a variety of rappers. And I think the bravado that those artists share is pretty evident in me as a person. I have always been super performative.
DS: So a lot of the video work that you do is music video. How did that come about? Was that a dream of yours?
TF: I think I always wanted to be a video girl, and I think Niko and I always shared a lot of the same idols, and that maybe is what brought us very close together. And when I say idols I really just mean Britney Spears.
TF: One time Niko texted me and said, ‘if you were a pop star would your name be Tierney Fin-Star?’ And so that was in 2007 or something, and I was like, ‘yeah....sure?’ I remember I was at a Little League baseball game with my little cousin, not a glamorous reception! And from then on I got a wig, and I would just use a British accent, and we would sit in his mom’s car basically, and we would use Garage Band and we would record covers of Britney Spears songs, and there were just no fucks given, you know?
TF: I’m still like that!
DS: Are those videos on YouTube? Can we watch them?
TF: Yeah, you can still watch ‘It’s Totally Tierney.’ Those were the first videos we were making from that.
DS: Genius. I want that back on the air! I want fresh episodes!
TF: Yeah. I want a highly produced version now. It could happen soon.
DS: Right on, right on!
TF: For most of us, we listen to music to have a feeling, and if you’re into performing, and I think a lot of people are – whether it’s in their cars or whatever, they’re singing out loud. But for me, I try to sing out loud more, because I think it’s weird that I don’t that much. I realized I often didn’t sing out loud that much because I was too busy emoting, and contorting my body and face to be narratively telling the song, which has definitely given me something to do in the mirror and in front of my camera, like my phone. But you don’t have to worry about dialogue or the energy of the scene. The music IS the energy, and I like that kind of freer space.
DS: Right. Again, your experience with music videos and things like that is just so completely different from mine. I was part of the generation where we sat and watched the first broadcast of MTV, and there weren’t that many videos at the time, there were maybe 10 and they just replayed them. We were GLUED. We just sat there and we watched them, and everybody’s parents were like, ‘what’s gotten over them? How can they sit and watch these over and over?’ Because we wanted to SEE them! You didn’t get to see musicians or artists unless you went and saw them perform, or saw them on the cover of Rolling Stone. You never got to really look at Pat Benetar, and what was she wearing, and how’d she tie that thing around her wrist?
TF: And how did she look at that one guy in that one scene and just all of that! Yeah.
DS: And even though there were really quick cuts, and they were all really surreal and crazy. It would be the artist singing, and it would cut to a fish jumping off a thing, they purposely kind of made no sense. Because music videos started off as art projects, like a bunch of kids out of RISD doing crazy video art, and Tom Tom Club, and all that kind of stuff, and the genre of music videos was really born out of that. In fact, the project that we’re doing together, I’m trying to recapture a bit of that. Your roles are kind of the surreal part, and then we’re going to cut it to an ‘80’s song that’s been redone in a sort of modern, minimalistic way...
TF: With the video stuff? The film stuff? That’s perfect because I’m obsessed with one generation looking at the other, it’s really funny sometimes.
DS: Yeah, and with the magazine we put out every four months, it’s always critics from my generation who are very negative about it. They say, “Why do you bother, no one cares!”
DS: And instead I find that the people of your generation are like, ‘we love it!’
TF: Well Niko usually prints out photos that he’s taken of me and he’ll frame them. But I’ve taken a million cool photos, and I have maybe 4 print outs. And I write a lot online, but when I wrote my first thing for a print magazine, just a tiny 250 word little musing on something, I’m just like, ‘oh my god look at my name!’
TF: My mom was like, ‘my baby’s in print!’ There’s just something that’s really exciting about it. And one of my friends, he’s a really good photographer, and he has always put it upon himself to print a really high quality, small zine with photos, and that just came out. I’m in a couple pictures, and it was just so cool to hold it and have an object, and it might not be the reality for everything, but it is cool to make these special things. When that newspaper comes out, I’m super down to see myself on a BIG printed page!
DS: Yeah. I know, in our studio, sometimes I call it the University, because everybody’s in there, everybody’s learning, I’m learning, I’m trying to teach everybody what I know.
TF: I love work for that reason, it’s just these intimate relationships that are kind of long sustaining at times. The groups of writers and storytellers I work with at Mel are different groups of people than I’m used to when I’m making video art or entertainment. But then it’s like, ‘what’s shared?’ And that has just given me a lot more perspective into how much words and stories really do mean to people. And how there really is such room for so many different types of storytelling.
To hear the entire conversation, click on the podcast below: