Los Angeles gets a lot of grief for being home to an inordinate number of celebretards, pseudo-celebretards, star fuckers, and vain VIPs. Although the city is thusly stereotyped, it’s also home to a thriving population of unique and noteworthy people whose pursuits add diversity and depth to a seemingly shallow pool. LA’s Better Half profiles distinctive Angelenos doing something remarkable and original. This week: Raise your hats to Pleasant Gehman, AKA Princess Farhana: LA’s Underground scouring, short story writing, punk-scene chronicling, belly dancing queen–er, princess.
Call her “Plez,” call her “Princess,” call her “Your Highness.” Whatever you call her, Pleasant Gehman is sure to respond with warmth and laughter–pretty remarkable for someone who spent her youth hanging out with the likes of X, the Go-Go’s, and Joan Jett, and who started publishing in magazines like CREEM and Circus at the tender at of fifteen. She’s been called “Hollywood’s baddest bad girl” by Salon.com, been a regular contributor to the LA Weekly, a member of the Ringling Sisters and the Screaming Sirens. She’s appeared in films, recorded spoken word albums–she even had a recent hit single in Europe, a track that ended up above Madonna on the BBC charts. Her MySpace page describes her with, “Hollywood Icon, Glitter Addict, Deposed Royalty, Post Modern Showgirl.” If you get the sense that all of the above doesn’t even come close to summing up Gehman’s many accomplishments, you’re right: The list goes on and on.
Despite her Icon status and numerous talents and gifts, Gehman is incredibly down-to-earth, and as sincere as they come. I met with her a few weeks ago to talk about coming of age in punk rock Los Angeles, remaining independently creative no matter what, and most of all, becoming Princess Farhana.
It seems almost unfair that one woman be blessed with so many gifts. Pleasant’s stories and articles are vibrant and sharp, and I love her spoken word as much for the poetry as for the quality of her voice: vulnerable, but not weak; sweet, but not saccharine. She’s an artist in the truest sense, and perhaps her only curse is that of too many blessings: When you’re so damn good at everything you do, it’s hard to invest fully in one craft. Then again, Pleasant–or Princess Farhana, as it were–has focused passionately on her belly dancing career for over fifteen years. In addition to having produced a line of performance and instructional belly dance videos and DVDs, she has performed and taught all over the world, and her writings on Oriental Dance have been widely published. Since the beginning, she’s been a regular dancer at Hollywood’s Moun of Tunis Restaurant on Sunset.
“The first time I ever was going to take a class, if you would have told me that sixteen years later, or even ten years later, that I would have been teaching it and performing around the world and putting out DVDs, I would have laughed. Who starts a dance career at 32, you know what I mean? It was absurd, it was a hobby. I hadn’t had a hobby in a long time.”
This is how she describes her accidental and totally random entrance into the world of belly dance. So, how does a fanzine and chapbook-creating, spoken word-recording, punk band-performing, LA Times bestseller-book-publishing, rock-clubbing scenester become an internationally acclaimed belly dancer?
Poof, that’s how.
One fateful night in the early 90s, Pleasant was in the ladies’ room at a club when a random woman approached and asked if she was a belly dancer.
“No,” said Pleasant. “Why?”
“Because you move like one,” said the random woman.
“Really?” Asked Pleasant. “Are you a belly dancer?”
She was, and in that strangest of moments, she launched Pleasant on a new path.
Her first teachers were Zahra Zuhair and Zein Al-Malik, who Pleasant cites as her true mentor. Al-Malik encouraged her aesthetically, showing her movies from Cairo and making her mix tapes. He was the one who got her the job at Moun of Tunis. Later, she trained further with Raqia Hassan in Cairo.
Within six months of beginning her training, Pleasant was performing. She barely knew three steps at that point, and it’s not something she recommends, but she says that her experience performing in punk bands for so many years left her very comfortable on stage.
In those days, Pleasant couldn’t go out without hordes of strangers shoving demos into her purse, talking to her and asking if she’d write something for them.
When she started belly dancing, it was like passing through a portal into another dimension. She adopted the dancing name “Farhana,” which means “happy” or “pleasant” in Arabic, and started going to Arab clubs. There were a lot of them in Los Angeles back then, and she says that they made her feel “like a spy, anonymous and undetected.” She wondered what it would be like to start looking like a girl on an Egyptian CD cover and not like a punk rocker–it was an experiment in identity.
A long-time lover of Los Angeles, Pleasant discovered this “totally crazy part of LA” just when she “thought she’d seen it all.” Belly dancing opened up a “whole new treasure hunt” in the city, and she started dancing in and just attending these Arabic clubs with Zein. She was often the only person there who wasn’t bilingual and didn’t speak Arabic.
The Arabic clubs that used to exist in LA were totally different than any other club she’d ever been to. The men were much more reserved in their approach of women–if they approached at all. People dressed to the nines, waiters wore tuxedos, there was bottle service at the table and insane amounts of food, live orchestras performed and fresh flowers filled the room. Children would be sprawled, asleep on piles of coats in booths.
Most of these establishments are gone, now. They were expensive, for one thing, and the high price coupled with younger generations wanting be more American and do their own thing drove them out of business. She remembers that one club resided on Magnolia Boulevard, in the valley, and another at the corner of Lankershim and Ventura. Still another had its home at the corner of Cahuenga and Franklin, where Shag now resides.
Cabaret Tehran, a Persian club, is still alive and kicking in Encino. There’s also the taXim belly dance showcase hosted at Studio Iqaat in Eagle Rock on the first Friday of each month, with live music and guest dancers. Mostly, though, that’s a faded aspect of an ever-changing city.
I ask if she anticipates becoming passionate about any new hobbies in the near future, and she says she’s been interested in magic for a long time, and that one of her life goals is to “get sawed in half.”
She’s also interested in learning tap dance.
Somehow, it requires no stretch of the imagination for me to envision Princess Farhana of Hollywood performing a hybrid mix of tap and belly dance whilst performing sleight of hand. That, of course, is what’s so awesome about Pleasant Gehman. She does what she loves, and isn’t limited by outside ideas of what’s standard or customary.
“I always just felt like if I started something and failed it would be better than if I didn’t do it.”
Everything she’s made a living doing–other than the odd temp job here and there in years past–has been fun and something she enjoyed.
“Our country is so stupid to artists,” she says. “It’s not encouraged, and any kind of creativity is squelshed.” Still, she’s never doubted her ability to do anything she wanted, although she said that comprehending and conceiving of her own unique talents is something that took her a long time–not fully clear until she was in her late 20s.
Although she’s been a longtime resident and lover of Los Angeles, she says that the city has changed more in the past five years than in the previous thirty, and only recently has she begun considering the possibility of a future move. She’s happy about the urban renewal aspect of things, and happy that streets like Cahuenga, which used to house just a couple of adult book stores, have evolved into such hopping, fun places, but the fact that it costs $20 to park in her neighborhood disgusts her, and she keeps wondering to herself, “Where did all these people come from…?”
“Anywhere you try to go, there’s a line,” she says.
Real estate options are another incentive to get out of L.A. She tells me that in places like Austin, Texas, and parts of North Carolina that she’s seen and liked, she could buy “a three or four bedroom house, with a den, and a hot tub, on an acre and a half of land, for $80,000 to $140,000.” It makes her wonder what she’s still doing here.
“Sometimes I look at LA, and it’s like when you’re in an abusive relationship, and you think ‘Oh my god, but it’s so good,’ because you’re thinking of how great it was at the beginning. I’m sadly starting to think that about Los Angeles.”
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to know that this city just wouldn’t be the same without her. Pleasant Gehman isn’t an Angeleno–she’s the personification of the city, the embodiment of everything that’s wonderful and weird about it. If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and pick up some of her books and DVDs here and here, and make a point of going to see her at Moun of Tunis. If you’re really brave, you could even drop in on one of her classes at Silver Lake’s Studio with No Name, when they resume at the end of the summer.