Debrief

Art expert who made eyebrow-raising appearance on ‘Who Is America?’ speaks out

What happens when an everyday person gets pranked on Sacha Baron Cohen’s TV show? Christy Cones tells all

Christy Cones has had a most interesting introduction to the TV viewers of America. She is a fine art consultant who was featured on the premiere episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? in an interview that was a veritable parade of uncomfortable moments. The most WTF moment of it all came near the end of the interview when Cones clipped a few of her pubic hairs and handed them over to Baron Cohen’s alter ago “Rick Sherman,” a fictitious ex-con who discovered while he was in prison that he had a flair for making art out of his own bodily fluids.

Cones hails from Austin, Texas. She works at the Coast Gallery in Laguna Beach, California, which is where the absurd interview with Baron Cohen took place, and has taught mythology, Mediterranean history and Latin at the University of California, Irvine. She hooked up with Women in the World this week over Facetime for an interview to discuss the experience and the aftermath of being pranked by Baron Cohen. Cones, who is perhaps earnest to a fault, told Women in the World she’s still grieving the the death of a friend and close mentor, Bruce Hopping, who died in May at the age of 96. In fact, she inherited the Kalos Kagathos Foundation from Hopping, which he launched with the aim of raising awareness among youth about the wonders of the ocean, and now runs it. Cones remains conflicted about her experience with the show.

On one hand, as a lifelong art student, she seems to appreciate and even enjoy Baron Cohen’s signature brand of extreme comedy. But on another hand, she feels a bit exploited by the show and its tactics — similar to how Baron Cohen’s more high-profile targets react. She emphasizes, though, that she is just an “everyday American” and not a politician who voluntarily signs up for a certain amount of the spotlight in life. Below, Cones discusses how producers persuaded her to appear on the show, the fears she has about the potential fallout for her career in the art world, the complex meditations on Baron Cohen she’s had — and that unforgettable pubic hair scene.

Women in the World: Tell us about your job as an art consultant. What does the day-to-day look like for you?

Christy Cones: Well my job essentially entails persuading people that a canvas or a piece of paper with some color, perhaps a sculpture, is worth ‘X’ amount of money, which involves obviously a certain amount of arbitrariness. But it operates according to the established norms of the art market. More importantly, and seriously in a way, I just like hooking up people with works of art that they love and hopefully changing their lives and bringing that art into their environment. And, you know, they interact with it on a daily basis. Everybody that interacts with them and directly feeds off it it — it can transform a whole room, it can transform a whole relationship, it can transform a whole life.

WITW: Do people often approach you who are looking to pitch their artwork, along the lines of how you were approached in the show?

CC: Yep, absolutely. We’re the biggest gallery in Laguna Beach coast, been in business 23 years or so, located in a vacation destination so you can be right on the Pacific Coast Highway overlooking the ocean. People come in all the time professing to be this and that and to know these people and those people and to have this hook up. They’re right on the verge of becoming a star and this and that … if they could just get us to help them. It kind of reminds me of whenever I was teaching and grading students’ final exams. They would approach me and say, “But please could I just have a couple of extra points or I can’t get into law school and my daddy won’t buy me a BMW.”

WITW: What made you feel like you could agree to the meeting with the character who actually turned out to be Sacha Baron Cohen in disguise?

CC: From the beginning when I was initially approached, I believe in person first and then through email or maybe through phone and email then in person — I can’t remember exactly but, I was under the impression certainly that something might be amiss and that this might not be your everyday sort of artist walking in. I think once I release the emails that they sent me, it will become apparent the sort of extent to which they were willing to accomplish their subterfuge at the expense of myself, who is just a good ol’ southern girl with a big heart that likes to give everyone a fair shot. I’m going to release those emails later and I’m gonna hashtag it “Christyleaks.” Maybe — if I feel like people care, but I’m not a politician. I’m just an everyday American.

WITW: The producers of Who Is America? went to great lengths to deceive you?

CC: And also convincing and playing on the qualities that in some ways are most conducive to the benefit of mankind, namely my ability to empathize and sympathize and love someone and give them the benefit of the doubt unconditionally. When I release the emails, you’ll see they went out of their way to say, “Hey, this guy — he’s suffered, he’s been through hell.” And then I never even got to tell my side. Like all of a sudden I’m going through all this turmoil in life and I get a phone call one day — and I don’t even know how they got my phone number — and I was sitting there suffering a migraine headache, which doesn’t happen ever — I get a call from a reporter and he basically asked me questions and then he excises everything and creates a story out of it.

WITW: Was the segment you appeared in heavily edited? Or was it a case of what you did while they were shooting is what ended up on the show?

CC: The interview excised seven minutes out of what was about an hour and a half of filming, I think continually uninterrupted — maybe one cut. But we didn’t have cuts. It was very organic. There was a lot of synergy. Maybe if I release my emails they’ll release the full transcript in the good spirit of transparency.

And the key moments, you have to realize, they were doctored very carefully, such as I mean … I gave my pubic hairs away. That’s like totally embarrassing. They didn’t even care — nobody cared — [about] what’s Christy going through.

You just used the word doctored in reference to the pubic hair scene. What do you mean by that? Was that scene dramatized in any way?

The most important point about the pubic hair scene in my opinion is that it has become the center of focus. People call the gallery and make jokes, for example. That is because of our own conflicting, ridiculous (at times) attitudes about sex and sexuality. I mean, let’s face it, there is nothing outrageous about body hair, and the erogenous zone is not inherently taboo. We imagine it is because we are culturally conditioned to feel shame in association with sex.

WITW: You’re a respected member of the art community, you’re an accomplished woman and you seem like a very nice person — did you feel in any way like the show exploited you?

CC: No one will ever probably take me seriously as an art dealer again. I guess I’ll have to find a new profession. Luckily I love the beach so i’ll just maybe just be a do nothing sit around.

As someone from the South, who was raised obeying the 10 Commandments, maybe it’s difficult for me to put myself in a position where I could understand how someone would base everything off of deception. That’s a vice as far as I grew up and so right from the very beginning like I told the reporter the first thing they said was hey it’s going to film on British public television. Small audience, you know, and then all of a sudden it shows up on Showtime after I’m dealing with a friend’s death, just defended a doctoral dissertation and dealing with a foundation. I have so much on my plate and it all culminated in a migraine followed by a phone call: “Hey, did you know you got duped by Sacha?” And I’m like, “Wait, what’s going on who’s this? Wait, I kind of remember and then they just take it and write a story and it’s like you know … I’ll pick up and go forward.”

WITW: Were you familiar with Baron Cohen’s prior work, like his characters like Ali G and Borat, when the show reached out to you?

CC: Well, years ago but … and you know, it’s like he’s a pretty big intimidating fellow when he’s in that character. Did he ever stop to think, “Hey, maybe Christy’s been through certain things in her life that might make her more vulnerable or susceptible to empathizing with someone in that fight”? But no. No consideration.

WITW: How did your family and friends react to it?

CC: I’ve just put myself in a closet. I’m ignoring, pretty much, people who aren’t being positive but it’s kinda hard to do.

WITW: And what about the reaction from your colleagues?

CC: I didn’t go to work for three days.

WITW: Did any part of it make you feel very uncomfortable as you watched yourself on the show?

CC:  They didn’t show the few negative remarks I made about his art where basically he cringes a little. I wanted to put on a show in one sense, and just be fun and have a great time — show that I wasn’t just some bimbo blonde. But on the other hand, I kept wavering back [and tried] not to denigrate people who’ve been in this situation because I’ve dealt with them directly. And sometimes they can be better than other people. But still, I didn’t know if he had a propensity for violence and I just kinda thought in the back of my head — I grew up in a violent upbringing and I don’t like violence.

WITW: Did you find the show to be funny at all?

CC: Throughout time, people repeatedly have been sacrificed on the altar of art and satire and, ultimately, it will lead to a public discourse that will elevate our society I think. And what Sacha has done, albeit outside the jurisdiction of most people’s sense of morality and their ethical compass, I think overall it does benefit humanity and it does move us forward and I sort of thought, as a classicist, maybe I should call him Dionysus in a way, because he essentially shatters all the pre-existing conceptions and sort of the laws and regulations and he makes leaders — political leaders — look like idiots. If you ever saw what happened to Pentheus (a character in Greek mythology who suffered a bloody demise after crossing Dionysus)? And he is also like Socrates in that he just makes people sort of make fools of themselves just by kind of asking questions and inventing scenarios and eliciting responses. So I wanna call him Socronysis or Diocrates. I can’t figure out which, sort of as an amalgam of both. But in any case, you know I got slaughtered. But you know I guess humanity — “hooray!” — moves forward.

WITW: The show stirred up some political backlash among conservatives. Did anything about the content of the rest of the show bother you?

CC: Right. But you only hear about the politicians. Not the everyday people.

WITW: It was recently reported that there’s not a single woman on the writing staff of Who Is America? and not a single woman director on the show. Do you think having a woman, or a few, as part of the creative team would help the show better handle interviews with people like you?

CC: I don’t know about the demographics of the writing staff, but I know that there were women involved in communicating with me and in the filming of the show. Of course, it would make a difference. But let’s make a real difference and let women run politics for a decade. Men have had eons, and what do we have? Division, war, violence, on and on and on …

WITW: You seem conflicted about the experience you had being on Who Is America? Is that accurate?

CC: Yes, very much so. I feel like I am in a blender or tornado or washing machine.

WITW:Are you enjoying the noteworthiness brought about by your appearance on the show? Or are you upset by it?

CC: When people make fun of me, I feel upset. When they say I did well, I feel resolution.

WITW: Do you at all wish you had been visited by one of the other characters on Baron Cohen’s new show?

CC: Well again kind of a singular question, but … I wish he would’ve just …

I wouldn’t wish anything differently. It was perfect, even though poor little Christy [was left] wallowing in self pity. I wouldn’t change anything because our culture needs this discussion. Public discourse demands to recognize that and appreciate and people have to take themselves less seriously and learn to laugh.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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