My cigarettes, my self

by Joanne Laucius
Ottawa Citizen
June 21, 2012

Two Canadian women on smoking - and one who doesn't really light up

Songstress Joni Mitchell has often been photographed with a cigarette in her hand. Women artists and writers have used cigarettes to define themselves. "It is not by chance that Joni Mitchell adopted cigarettes as integral to her artistic integrity," says historian Sharon Anne Cook in Sex, Lies and Cigarettes, a new book about women and smoking.

Mitchell appeared on the cover of her 1976 album Hejira with a cigarette. She has often been photographed with a cigarette in hand and interviewers often mention Mitchell chain-smoking. In a 1995 Vogue article, the writer noted there were two packages of cigarettes on the table "that (Mitchell) makes her way through with Bette Davis speed." A reporter at The Independent noted in 1994 that when Mitchell's left hand stubbed out one cigarette, her right hand was lighting the next one.

Mitchell has repeatedly told the tale of how she took up smoking at the age of nine on a frozen fish pond with a group of friends. Later, she considered herself first a painter and took up music only to pay for smoking while she was at school.

She smoked while she was pregnant with the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1965, and later said she hoped her daughter's bones and teeth were strong.

But Mitchell has been unapologetic about the habit.

"Smoking is one of life's great pleasures," she said in a 2007 interview published in The Telegram.

Journalist and writer Judy Rebick says she took up smoking as an undergraduate in 1965. She was always nervously picking apart the labels on beer bottles and her friends urged her to light up instead.

"I smoked non-stop. I smoked three packs a day," says Rebick, who didn't consider herself to be either bold or sophisticated for smoking.

She doesn't recall worrying about the health dangers, even though growing numbers of health officials were warning about the link to cancer.

"It's part of my personality. I am a bit of an extremist."

Rebick tried to quit on several occasions and recalls working as a clerk in the Vancouver General Hospital around 1973, watching a cancer patient smoking through a hole in his throat. She decided to quit on the spot, but failed. It wasn't she fell in with a man who suffered from chronic bronchitis and quit in earnest.

Rebick started smoking again between 1990 and 1993, when she was president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, to relieve stress.

She didn't let anyone see her do it.

"I was horrified, but I was addicted again," says Rebick. She quit again soon after when she became a visiting professor at the University of Regina.

"I had a vision of myself like the Cheshire cat, sitting on a branch and getting fat."

Singer k.d. lang, while not a smoker herself, used smoking imagery in her songs, include "Don't Smoke in Bed," "Love is Like a Cigarette" and "Smoke Dreams."

The cover of lang's 1997 album Drag shows lang in drag in a pinstriped suit and cravat, with her hand in the cigarette pose, although there is not actually a cigarette between her fingers.

Lang is gay and a vegetarian. Her public persona is rooted in a number of counter-cultural expressions, says Cook.

"Sensitive to the enduring power of symbols, she has made good use of the performance possibilities of smoking while never actually smoking."

In a 1997 interview, lang said she didn't like the taste of cigarettes and she had turned down an offer to do a Virginia Slims commercial in Japan.

The cigarette is "an elaborate metaphor for love and relationships, for addiction and release," lang told USA Today.

"I like the cigarette as a visual stimulant as a prop initiating all this imagery and commentary, both social and personal commentary."

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