Heroin UK: How heroin-chic culture came to the high street

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The Independent Online
THE SWOOPING, wailing sax of Charlie "Bird" Parker in the late 1940s was the first product of heroin-influenced popular culture that the West, albeit unknowingly, had heard. And like modern jazz itself, which has enjoyed more revivals than Abba, the drug keeps making comebacks on the hip scene.

In a youth culture where image is all-important, the fact that the drug has recently been associated with glamour as well as grunge has had a significant effect on how it is has been taken up. The controversial government message from the 1980s that "Heroin Screws You Up" has now been progressively obscured by more positive images of the drug.

The film Trainspotting, and the Irvine Welsh novel it came from, succeeded in looking both ways at once. While on one level it had a strong anti- drugs message, showing decline and death among the Edinburgh smack scene, there was much justification for taking drugs which younger viewers accepted just as easily.

In Pulp Fiction, the fact that John Travolta's character could be a fully functioning hitman while hitting up on screen gave the drug further anti- heroic status. The heroin-related death of the singer Kurt Cobain also provided a cult martyr for disaffected youth.

The BBC was criticised for putting the novelist Will Self on the comedy quiz Have I Got News for You after he snorted heroin on John Major's aircraft during the last general election campaign.

When the fashion industry picked up the image, and sanitised it to sell street clothes, the latest version of "heroin chic" had arrived. Starting in British magazines such as i-D and The Face in the early 1990s, the style featured waif-thin models with lank hair and "realistic" faces devoid of make-up. In America, darkened eyes and pellucid skin were added.

Two years ago the drug overdose death of Davide Sorrenti, a 20-year- old photographer who specialised in pictures of emaciated models slumped in bathrooms, prompted an attack from President Bill Clinton.

Mr Sorrenti's mother, Francesca, herself a well-known photographer, sent an open letter to magazine editors and advertisers in America and Europe saying: "Heroin chic isn't what we are projecting, it's what we are. Our business has become heroin chic."

Fashion had already moved on, but the message had been uncritically accepted by some young people. Now, with pounds 5 wraps of heroin almost as common as cans of strong lager in areas, the chic has become commonplace. And a change of direction here will be much harder to achieve, with or without celebrity support.