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Rolling Stone (US)
June 25, 1998
Tori Amos - Her Secret Garden
by Steven Daly
You are Tori Amos. Year after year you've opened a vein for your public,
serving up for their consumption every painful detail of your personal life,
including your own rape. Despite the fact that your very own father is a
Methodist minister, you've stared down the Christian patriarchy and offered
listeners the escape of a mythical, pagan, faerie world. You have given till it
hurts in interviews and sung your lungs out in hundreds of live shows a year -
critics call you "sensuous," "electrifying" and "possessed," and fans flood
backstage for your healing touch. Yes, you're all that, plus tax. You're
sometimes dismissed as an ineffectual sprite, but you've managed to rally major
corporate funding for your charity, RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National
Network. And despite having been assured that your girl-and-her-piano shtick
will never, ever play, you've become, as one observer put it, a "moon child for
lost souls and misfits" with a million devoted followers worldwide.
Next thing you know, your hard-won success is opening the door for a new
generation of rock ladies with personal revelations of a more polite nature.
And here they come: the Joan Osbornes and the Sarah McLachlans, the Paula Coles
and Shawn Colvins and Jewels, mild-mannered Pottery Barn poets who, one by one,
get all the multiplatinum albums and pop-radio play and Grammys that have
always eluded you. Then there's this little piano-playing glam freak Fiona
Apple - a teenager, yes - who even has among her music-journal entries a song
about being raped. The press. being the press, gives her the benefit of the
pout. What's a girl to think?
"Isn't it great, all this diary stuff?"
gushes the real Tori Amos. "So much better than it
was a few years ago, when record companies had a quota of, like, ten female
signings a year. I'm so uncompetitive, really.
"You can't control your popularity; I know I'm
an acquired taste - I'm anchovies," Amos explains with typical
moon-child exuberance. "And not everybody wants
those hairy little things. If I was potato chips, I could go a lot more places,
but I'm not. On my second record I thought that way, like with that song 'God':
'Why don't people want to hear about God getting a blow job?' I thought those
born-again Christians would love that. But then I realized that even my sister
wouldn't buy my records if I wasn't her sister - to her, I sound like the
psycho in Reservoir Dogs, Mr Blonde. She says, 'Why do I want to listen to that
on my way to work?'"
The erstwhile Mr. Blonde is presently cooking up her latest sardine platter
down among the gentle quilted hillsides of Olde England. The county of Cornwall
is England's most westernly and independent-minded and also its most mythical:
The wind-swept province, with its own language and culture, was the setting of
the Tristam and Isolde fable, and, according to legend, King Arthur convened
his Round Table here. Among the scattered possessions in Tori Amos' playback
room is a shopping bag full of books from the King Arthur Bookshop in
It's all appropriate that Amos has elected to record in Cornwall, being
something of a far-out, mystical type herself. Boys for Pele, was named after a
Hawaiian volcano goddess, and Amos rarely forgets to thank "the faeries" on her
liner notes; her publishing company is called Sword and Stone. And asking her
the most straightforward question is liable to produce a radical and unnerving
detour into any number of ancient cultures or religions - show the slightest
unfamiliarity with names like Osiris or Persephone or Demeter, and Amos will
simply fix you with the indulgent smile of a grade-school teacher addressing a
If there's one well-known mythical name you would expect Amos to drop, it's
Lilith, the figure of ancient Jewish lore, adopted by the defining event of the
femme-rock era. Surely the uncompetitive and surprisingly well-adjusted Amos
must find her spiritual home in the pagan bosom of the festival for which she
is the unofficial den mother. Then again, maybe Amos is not quite that
well-adjusted. "Well, I would have a good bottle of
wine with Sarah [McLachlan, Lilith Fair's founder] any night of the week," she allows. "But my shows are theater, and I've worked a long time to
get them to this point. This ain't just about eating some chicken and hearing a
few of your favorite female singers. You walk into my show, you walk into a
world - it's a film every night. I can't impose that on Lilith and vice versa.
"Plus, I'm not into that all-male, all-female
thing," says Amos with growing agitation. "Where's
Dionysus? Where's Hades? You can't cut out the testosterone. And we need some
pansy-ass people, too, like little camp Hermes. Even though I'm sure some of
those women have more testosterone than Hermes," she adds with a
slightly unsisterly roll of the eyes.
As she speaks, Amos clasps in her hands an Eeyore tea mug. In between sips,
she presses it to her jaw to ease the discomfort of a bone deformity that's
troubled her for two decades.
"When I was fifteen, I thought it was a brain
tumor," Amos says ruefully. "Well, of course
I did!" The condition is sufficiently grave to give Amos headaches she
compares to the pain of a tooth abscess. Surgery is not an option, and since
painkillers do not agree with Amos' constitution, she simply gets "Tiger
Balmed-up" backstage before every show and iced down afterward. The condition
is "a little, tiny handicap," according to
this ethereal survivor. "It's so boring for
everybody - and I hate to bore people."
To make her new record, "From the Choirgirl Hotel," Amos has convened her
own high-tech round table in a converted barn that distinguished from its
neighbors by the modest satellite dish on the roof. Behind a door with a
scrawled sign that says "rock factory" lies Amos' inner sanctum, the airy room
where she communes with her muse. It is, like the rest of the premises, bare,
enlivened only by a Bosendorfer piano and a nineteenth-century Russian chaise
lounge with elaborately carved dolphins on each arm. (The $12,000 piece is one
of what Amos calls "Tori's follies," the
other one being the moat around her spread in Ireland.)
The one-lane bridges and sheep-congested backroads that greet visitors who
make the five-hour drive from London would certainly act as a handy deterrent
to any record-company suits who might fancy checking in on their investment. "They could pop in before Little Earthquakes did well,"
Amos says with a glint of steel. Since that debut album took off, she has
enjoyed such complete control of her career that she can now smugly utter the
statement, "Mess with me and you will not survive."
Scratch the space cadet and you'll find a starship trooper underneath. Amos'
accomplices on the Cornwall mission are a group of well-trained engineers who have
come to understand her uniquely exacting ideas about "sonic geometry." If she
asks them to make a track sound like, say, a desolate scene from the movie
Fargo, they will spend as many hours as it takes to make it so.
Tori Amos was creating her own world around her long before she was taking
thirty-strong bands of "pirates" on world tours. At the age of five, her
imagination inflamed by the Poe, Dickens and Faulkner her mother would read to
her, Amos could conjure up a whole playground of pals. "I
would get lonely sometimes when other children didn't want to come and play
with me," recalls the bib-overalled artist as she sits outside watching
her neighbor's cows feeding at their troughs. "I
had millions of friends from the other world. As a little girl, you play with
who you can, and if they're not in human form, they're still very real to you."
The habit persists to this day. "Let's put it this
way," Amos says. "It's never lonely in my
Amos reads avidly about arcane imaginary worlds, taking eminent mythographer
Joseph Campbell as her lens and prism. In his 1949 book, The Hero With a
Thousand Faces, Campbell ties together the world's mythologies into a
"monomyth," tracing each story back to a universal archetype. The common theme
among all myths, the author posited, was a hero taking on an adventure, then
suffering in an unknown land before returning home, triumphant and enlightened.
By the standards of The Hero With a Thousand Faces - which, incidentally,
inspired Star Wars - Tori Amos' own life has all the makings of a pretty decent
Born in North Carolina to a Methodist preacher and his part-Cherokee wife,
Amos was, at five years old, the youngest-ever student at Baltimore's prestigious
Peabody Conservatory. Expelled at eleven for musical insubordination, Amos took
to playing piano in bars in her teenage years; a week after her twenty-first
birthday, Amos decamped to Los Angeles to pursue her own musical vision and,
after numerous strange side trips, had a painful fall from grace. Only after
she was exiled to England did Amos ultimately find redemption, returning home
triumphant and, yes, somewhat enlightened.
Physically, too, the thirty-four-year-old Amos has something of a mythic aura.
She is a tiny creature of Tolkienian aspect, with an Irish Spring complexion,
piercing gray-blue eyes and a pillowed lower lip on which rest her prominent
front teeth. It is no great surprise that the English comic-book artist Neil
Gaiman was able to use Amos' appearance and persona to shape Delirium, a
character in his epic, labyrinthine Sandman series.
"I remember congratulating Tori after a show in Minneapolis, and she said,
'Now we must jump up and down and down, and dance around and around,'" says
Gaiman, who met the singer after she namechecked him in her lyrics. "And we
did! She has that wonderful un-selfconsciousness that allows one to say exactly
what one thinks. That moment at the end of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' when the
child stands up and tells everyone that the emperor is actually naked - that's
very Tori. The mistake people make is thinking that's all there is to her."
How low can you go? How about "not quite getting it together" to audition as
a keyboard player for Billy Idol? Feeling genuine elation that you managed to
edge out the then-unknown Sarah Jessica Parker for a Cornflakes commercial? Not
mythically low enough? Try working as an extra on a Raquel Welch commercial for
Crystal Light - and being told by the director that Miss Welch would like you
to "tone it down, please."
Finally, after being sneered at by the director of Howard the Duck, you slink
off to your regular gig as happy-hour entertainer at the downtown-L.A.
Sheraton, where you sing "Send in the Clowns" and "Feelings" in your best "Love
is a Battlefield" outfit. These were some of the outrageous slings and arrows
endured by Tori Amos after she moved to Los Angeles, trying to make it as a
singer/songwriter. The sum total of her experience at that point was playing piano
bars in the Washington, D.C., area - here she was, a big-haired hopeful living
in a scuzzy one-room apartment off Hollywood Boulevard, "making friends with the palm trees."
Adrift in Hollywood, sick of day-job degradation and music-industry rejection,
Amos ditched her beloved Bosendorfer to form a pop-metal ensemble called Y Kant
Tori Read. The band, which played but one live show, was signed by the same
Atlantic Records staffer who brought you Twisted Sister and Skid Row.
Billboard used the word "bimbo" in a review of Y Kant Tori Read's debut album,
and the record stiffled. Amos did not leave her apartment for a week. "I cried constantly; I was on my knees," she says.
"From child prodigy to musical joke in twenty years
- how do you reconcile that? So I went back to the faerie world." And to
happy hour at the Long Beach Sheraton.
Amos says she "got down and sucked the big
Bose," rediscovering her self-belief in new, piano-based material that
was to become Little Earthquakes. The songs were a little bit Joni Mitchell and
a lot Kate Bush, but they were distinguished by their striking personal revelations.
Amos' signature track was "Me and a Gun", her stark account of being raped. The
record company wanted to hear guitars.
At twenty-eight, Amos had been down that road before. So she drew herself up
to her full five feet three inches and pulled her American Indian blanket (worn
for "protection and clarity") tight around
her shoulders and intimated that there was another company interested in her.
It was a bluff, of course, but Amos did not blink. The tracks were released in
their original form, and Amos shipped out to London to re-launch her career,
slogging away at the bottom of meaningless bills in shabby little venues.
Amos' Virgil in London's underworld was fellow U.S. expatriot Karen Binns.
"She looked like a teenage bag lady," says Binns, a fashion stylist who took
the late bloomer under her wing, "poor white trash and completely out to lunch.
I didn't know what planet she was on, but it was definitely the right planet. I
said, 'Honey, I can give you a Galliano dress and tell you you're fabulous, but
just keep it real. Reality always sells.'"
Little Earthquakes did, of course, sell. And Tori Amos' judgment was never
again called into question. By her third album, she had Atlantic renting Sunset
Boulevard billboards featuring an image of her suckling a piglet.
Tori Amos strides down a central London street, pulling up her red woolen
hood against the driving rain. Despite the inclement weather and the fact that
Amos' perfectionist ear has found fault with the mastering process of Choirgirl
Hotel, there is a distinct glide to her gait. This could be because she just
The happy event was staged just north of London in a church built on a 1,000-year-old
pagan site. Very Amos, as was the flowing diaphaneous dress she wore. The
Church of England ceremony was no, however, quite what you'd expect from a
sworn enemy of Christianity. "Yes, I know, the religion
that chopped all the women's heads off," Amos concedes, referring to
King Henry VIII, the Church of England's misogynous founder. "I thought I was never gonna get married, but it felt
right. I didn't have a fantasy of this ritual, and I played at so many weddings."
Amos' groom was thirty-two-year-old Mark Hawley, an engineer on Amos' new
record. Her last serious romance was a seven-year union with the co-producer of
her 1994 album, Under the Pink, Eric Rosse. "I like
men on the tech side of things," says Amos. "They
have a different point of view, and I like that - they don't want to be in my
world; they want to be playing with knobs."
Keen Tori watchers might have caught the reference to "my wedding day" on
"Jackie's Strength," an elegant Choirgirl Hotel ballad inspired by Jacqueline
Bouvier Kennedy - a most unlikely addition to Amos' goddess pantheon. "The songs just grab me by the throat sometimes and say, 'We're
coming in,'" Amos explains. "I saw Jackie as
a bride - and I used to think I would never be a bride. I started to look to
Jackie and how that woman held the country together after she watched her
husband get cut down right in front of her."
Choirgirl Hotel's other guests are a motley bunch, indeed, with traditional
Amos piano-based arrangements yielding to a band setup. "The piano pulled me aside and said, 'You're boring me to tears,'"
Amos says. "So I was like, 'Calling all
sailors...'" Amos hired a crew of able seamen, who chop out
vacuum-packed studio funk in the Peter Gabriel mold; there's even some
dance-music dabbling, inspired by Armand Van Helden's abstracted dance remix of
Amos' "Professional Widow," a huge U.K. hit early last year. And there are
plenty of what they call "treated" vocals, the ones that sound like someone is
singing through a toilet-paper-roll. All in all, nothing that Depeche Mode
didn't try five years ago and nothing likely to put her among the popular girls
Then again, applying ordinary standards to Tori Amos' music is missing the
point by a glorious margin. Earthbound analysis can't diminish Amos in the eyes
of the fans who celebrate her freedom to follow her muse all over the map. On
web sites and in fanzines, they breathlessly interpret every line, every nuance
of her records, the baroque time changes, vocal mood swings and loopy metaphors
only deepen the intrigue. While Amos' work certainly taps into the contemporary
appetite for public confession, there is a larger dimension to her appeal:
She's part of a culture that's unloved by media trend suckers. This is the
widespread fin de siecle tendency to obsessively immerse oneself in complex
myth worlds, from Myst and Dungeons and Dragons to Star Wars and Star Trek. And
this - far more than Lilith Fair - is the context to which Tori Amos belongs:
Think of her as the Anne Rice of rock.
A few years back, Tori Amos was sitting in yet another anonymous hotel room,
flipping channels on the TV, when she happened across one of her own concert
performances. As she saw herself writhing on the piano stool, furiously tossing
her mane, the performer had an odd reaction: She was utterly horrified.
"I know when I'm playing passionately, and it's
primitive and it's as old as time," says Amos. "But
I know when I look at myself and I'm in anguish, sexualizing myself. At that
point I was very cut off - I only knew how to express myself sexually through
my instrument. But it left me as soon as I got offstage, so I searched for it
and tried to find it in other people. It's painful when you don't know how to
"I was so torn apart by the pain of not being a
woman. I wanted to experience things I'd heard other women talk about: Like
Pinocchio said, 'I want to be a real little boy.' It's real private..."
Amos adds, trailing off in a rare moment of self-censorship.
Amos began to re-examine her own persona as she was writing 1996's Boys For
Pele. "You would not," she avers, "have wanted to have a drink with me during that record."
The nineteen-song Pele was no bargain for listeners, either. Produced by Amos
herself and recorded in the wake of her split with Eric Rosse, the record is by
some distance the singer's least accessible. To her it may have been like "crossing the River Styx into my own psyche" or "the descent of Ianna [of Sumerian legend] into the underworld," but many nonbelievers heard
only musical sophistry and emotional incontinence. Amos' overeducated fingers
got medieval on your ass, hammering seven shades of Scheherazade out of a
harpshichord, while her keening anima ran wild and free. This unholy union of
progressive rock and self-help literature proved that rock's femme era could
rival, in terms of sheer excess, the strutting cock rock of an earlier age.
Even though she knew she was in bad shape, Amos undertook a mammoth world
tour in support of Boys for Pele. She collapsed from exhaustion. "I didn't cancel," Amos says with perverse pride. "It's not part of my nature to cancel; it's just not what
I do - I play." It wasn't until she crawled from the wreckage of that
tour that she began to get perspective on her relationship with her art - and
it wasn't pretty.
"I think I was in real trouble, and I happened
to be in the public eye," says Amos. "You're
playing your wound - and sometimes you reach your hand in there and it doesn't
feel so good. I see other singers doing this: They're in serious pain, and
they're doing stupid, crazy shit that I used to do. But that doesn't go too
deep. You have to deal with it privately; you have to do the work."
The work, for Tori, meant everything from intensive reading to visiting psychics.
Perhaps tired of being a shrink to the rest of the world, Amos engaged in a Los
Angeles analyst, whom she consults regularly by telephone. "Now, things come up and I have a way of working through them,"
says Amos. "Before, I would write the songs and
never discuss them, except with journalists, maybe. Now I'm more aware of what
I'm writing about - not always when I'm doing it, but after it's done, I'll sit
back and go, 'Oh jeez.'"
To recover from the turmoil of the Boys for Pele tour, Amos took a hiatus at
her Florida retreat, north of Miami. It was there, on December 23rd,
1996, that she encountered her gravest crisis yet. Pregnant by her future
husband, she miscarried.
"You feel death, but you're alive," says
Amos, sitting in a small central- London cafe. "You're
walking between the worlds. I went through many different sides to it. You go
through every question. I even went through a phase where I felt rejected. Then
I began to feel a peace; and the spirit started to take me to another level of
love. Like the Grinch, my heart grew three times that day - I began to feel the
Music was once more the key to Amos' survival, with new songs like "Spark",
"iieee" and "Playboy Mommy" helping her work through unspeakable grief. "I didn't know when I was gonna make another record when
I got pregnant," she says. "I was gonna put
things on hold for a while. But the music became vital again, as it always
seems to. Songs started to come, and they showed me different ways of feeling
and expressing, ways that surprised me. 'Playboy Mommy' dealt with my feelings
of rejection - 'Wasn't I good enough to be your mother, didn't you want me?
Well, don't come, then. Go choose some little right-wing Christian for your
mother.' It's a human response."
Amos orders up a cappuccino, "real milky, like
you'd make it for a child," and when it arrives, she clutches the cup to
her jaw. As the pain subsides, her face takes on a distant look. The spell is
broken when Madonna's "Frozen" comes on the radio. "I
love this song!" Amos squeals. "It makes me
want to..." Amos trills an operatic version of Madonna's spiritual opus,
then clamps a hand over her mouth as Saturday-afternoon shoppers turn their
heads her way.
Tori Amos could have been Madonna. Well, more accurately, she could have been
Tiffany or Debbie Gibson or Taylor Dayne, or any one of those other Eighties
disco bimbos who rolled off the production line in Ms. Ciccone's sacred image.
In a bizarre subchapter of the Amos myth, she was discovered at a D.C. hotel
bar by a pop-soul producer, Narada Michael Walden, who put together some demo
tapes for her. Among the aspiring dance diva's 1982 compositions were
"Predator", "Rub Down", and the implausibly titled "Skirt's On Fire." "You think Y Kant Tori Read was bad - you haven't heard
anything," Amos says with a laugh. She sings a few bars of "Skirt's on
Fire" with admirable commitment. Actually, it's quite catchy.
The following day, Amos is sitting in her favorite restaurant, a little French
boite in London's exclusive Mayfair enclave. Luxury is a necessity for this
cosmic cracker, whose taste for the good life runs from fine wines to Manolo
Blahnik shoes to the $600 Nicole Fahri coat with thick fur collar and cuffs - "That's fake fur, sweetie" - that she's presently
dousing in mussel sauce. ("At least it's keeping my
sweater dry," she notes.) Amos was making $600 a week as a sixteen-year-old
bar-room chanteuse, and she retained enough of her family's Protestant work
ethic to subsidize her artistic flights of fancy. "I
have always been able to pay my bills," Amos boasts.
Kate Bush and Bela Bartok and Jimmy Page are among some of the oft-cited
musical influences who put the wind beneath Tori Amos' wings, but an equally
important character in her fantastic voyage is her paternal grandmother, Addie
Allen. Amos' maternal grandmother was also, she says, a "tough broad"; but it was Allen who captivated the young Myra
Ellen Amos, as Tori was known for the first seventeen years of her life. It was
Allen who seems to have imbued her with much of the strength she needed to
survive as a moon child in a harsh, uncaring world.
The Waltons, Amos has said, where living in luxury compared with the Scottish-immigrant
clan that spawned Addie Allen. As a teenager, Allen came down from the
Appalachians to the University of Virginia to attend summer school and, says
Amos, "could give you interpretations of Byron and
Shelley that would make your head spin." But it was Allen's formidable
toughness that really impressed Amos.
When Amos was just five years old, she became aware that grandma Allen - like
her son, she was a Methodist minister in the Church of God - was taking a
particular interest in her upbringing. She'd see letters in which grandma
earnestly advised Amos' father that his youngest daughter needed "to learn how to love Jesus." Such messages, of
course, only served to deepen the child's intransigence.
"That church is very controlling - I guess
that's why I'm such a control freak," says Amos as she walks back to her
hotel. "I hated her, sure, but you had to admire
her power to walk all over people. She definitely had a mission."
Despite the fact that Tori Amos has escaped the Manifest Destiny of her hillbilly
genes and has wrenched material comfort from the jaws of psycho-religious
turmoil, there is a sense that she, like Addie Allen before her, is still on a lifelong mission.
"Yes, I do have a mission," Amos says
blunty. "To expose the dark side of Christianity."
This judging from Amos' dead on stare, is not just shtick. The woman has few
peers in the God-baiting stakes. Compared with the Amos oeuvre, Madonna's
blasphemous stunts look positively devout; and when this little minister's
daughter starts exorcising the "shame" of her "Victorian Christian" upbringing,
she makes soi-disant Satanist Marilyn Manson seem cartoonish and ineffectual.
(Not, admittedly, an enormous feat in itself.)
Tori Amos wants a piece of you, Christian right, and she knows where you live.
The struggle for self-preservation may have mellowed Amos, but the ironclad
resolve she brings to her own anti-Christian crusade would impress even the
unsinkable Addie Allen.
"Jesus had wonderful things to say, but
Christianity is dickless," Amos asserts as she paces the floor of her
expanisve suite, popping minibar pistachios. "Jesus
was not made from semen, so Christians have been using that conquering sword
[makes phallic gesture] to find that in their religion.
"The problem with Christianity is, they think
everything is outside forces, good and evil. With Christianity there's not a
lot of inner work encouraged. I don't like it that people don't own up to the
fact that every thought we could possibly have, we've all had. That's why kids
get into weird cults - they're desperately searching for the dark side of themselves.
You probably wouldn't do it if you look at it. I think a lot of kids are
starving in high school - they want tools to do the inner work."
Amos' own years at Richard Montgomery High School, in suburban Rockville,
Maryland, were largely anonymous, save for her surprising coronation as
homecoming queen. She still seems somewhat mystified by her rare brush with
peer popularity. "I was kind of a nerd in high school,"
Amos muses. "I never really fit in, but I
had a little bit of status because I was playing clubs. And I got along with
the minority groups really well. I never liked bullies - I have a lot of time
for the nerds of the world, the ones that don't make the cut. I'd hang out with
the science kids - they can blow things up! I mean, what's cooler than that?"
The constituency that voted Tori Amos homecoming queen is probably not too
distant from the "lost souls and misfits" who launched her into the orbit of
rock stardom. It's a public that takes her every word as gospel, heartily
applauding her untethered imaginings, accepting the literal and the oblique
with equal gratitude. One wonders how such complex and occasionally confounding
music can possibly mean so many things to so many people.
"Because the songs are complicated and not so
literal, people get lots of room to move," says Amos. "And I think the songs can become little myths for people.
All the myths are symbolic and representive of something." And anyone
who mocks these myths can expect the moon child to morph once more into the Mr.
"I want to torture the people who don't
understand the world of the faeries," fumes Amos with almost church-lady
righteousness. "You'll get some reporter who
doesn't know what she's talking about, who paints me as some insipid Tinker
Bell character - well, Tinker Bell ain't up my Strasse, baby. I'm not some
shivering waif in the forest. Sometimes I want to grab those bitches by their
hair and take them to the world of the faerie and say, 'Would you repeat that?'
"People can be so vicious toward the imaginary
world, and it saddens me. You kill a lot of little people's dreams that way. You're
no different from Hitler, as far as I'm concerned."
Amos stares her piercing stare. You wait for her to realize what she's just
said and issue a disclaimer or make some gesture of self-deprecation. She does
photos by David LaChapelle
Winner of the 1999 Alfred Eisenstaedt Best Cover of the Year Photography Award
t o r i p h o r i a
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