Listen up, girls: there’s a lot more to Penny Lane than her coat and boots.
Pictured: Kate Hudson as Penny Lane in Almost Famous (2000, directed by Cameron Crowe.)
I remember the days when rock-and-roll was my freakin’ Holy Bible, and I was freshly born-again.
In those first few months studying the scriptures of Dylan and Zeppelin, I saw a photo of cool-girl icon Kate Hudson in the most incredible outfit. She wore an embroidered blouse, painted suede mini skirt, and vintage boots laced up to her knees. She was Penny Lane in Almost Famous; the cult classic film by Cameron Crowe about a boy-genius music journalist. (The main character, Will Miller, is in fact a stand-in for Crowe and his life experiences.) So much of the music I’d just discovered was in this film. Therefore I treated the soundtrack of Almost Famous – and its heroine – like the freakin’ Bible, too. Soon I bought my first “Penny Lane” coat. It started conversations with all the right people, from college lectures to a Bob Dylan show. I was always safe and warm in its sleeves. Not to mention it came in handy: I used it as a sleeping bag once!
The Penny Lane coat is not for the faint of heart and neither is being a groupie.
The Instagram "vintage community" is enamored with Penny Lane. But there’s a difference between “the groupie dream” – what media like Almost Famous has set up for us – and the reality of the thing. We’ve got to break up with the groupie dream. I’ve re-watched Almost Famous, and this is what I observed.
“We are not groupies.”
Pictured: Our first encounter with Penny and her Band-Aids, outside the San Diego Sports Arena.
What exactly is the "groupie dream"? It's the sunshine-and-rainbows view of the groupie lifestyle. You know the one. Pinterest moodboards, curated playlists of stadium rock, lavish clothes sold to us by brands like The Hippie Shake. Dreams of a lavish-er lifestyle with the rock-and-roller of your dreams. It's a fantasy lots of female fans have. As fantastical as Penny Lane and her merry troupe of Band-Aids are, we firstly must remember that being a groupie is very real. It’s certainly harder to be one now than it was in the ’70s. But there are real groupies with real stories.
Penny Lane was allegedly based on real-life groupies Pennie Trumbull and Bebe Buell. Kate Hudson based her portrayal of Penny on Pamela Des Barres after reading I’m With The Band. It’s worth noting the dissonance surrounding this creative decision. Bebe famously renounces the “groupie” label, while Miss Pamela has made it her life’s mission to reclaim it. Penny firmly states the Band-Aids are “not groupies,” but like…they’re literally groupies. A groupie at its most basic definition is someone who hangs out with groups. Dig a little deeper and it’s someone who loves rock-and-roll so much they place themselves as close to the music and the bands as possible. Bingo! That’s Penny and her Band-Aids!
There’s a dissonance within Penny too. She’s a proud Band-Aid. Her states her purpose to Stillwater is to inspire the music. To follow the journey wherever it goes. But deep down, however impossible it is, she wants her happily-ever-after with Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond.
“What kind of beer?”
Being a groupie means having a groupie heart, and groupie hearts get broken too.
As fun as it is to vicariously live through Miss Pamela’s groupie heyday in I’m With The Band, the Sunset Strip wasn’t much a place for love. She recounts many heartbreaks and Zeppelin girlies, I hate to burst your bubble, Jimmy Page didn't treat groupies nice! Though under different circumstances, our dear Penny has a similar heartbreak in Almost Famous. After holding a candle for him for nearly the entire film, Penny realizes Russell doesn't love her when he peddles her and her groupie friends off to Humble Pie for $50 and a case of Heineken. I know she’s not real but I’m still angry for her! When you see rock-and-roll through a groupie's sunglasses, it becomes all too apparent that there are rock-and-rollers who see their fans as property to trade away.
Pictured: “Baby groupies” Sable Starr (left) and Lori Mattix (right,) posing with Dave Hill of Slade (center,) 1973. Photographer unknown. As always, send their name my way if you know so I can best credit this.
Rock-and-roll isn’t all fun and games...or crashing tour buses into venue gates and spilling champagne on hotel room floors. It’s fun until feelings get hurt. As much as we’d like to write it off, when you love rock-and-roll like groupies do, feelings WILL get involved! Dare I say feelings are inherently involved: it's all for the love of the music.
Have you ever cried because you realized your favorite band member will never notice you? Happens to me all the time! For heaven's sake, my favorites are all either in their 70s/80s or dead! There's gotta be some way to shield ourselves from the hurt after rock-and-roll kicks us in the heart. Perhaps...inventing a character? The fearless alter ego never gets their feelings hurt, right?
Almost Famous costume designer Betsy Heimann designed Penny’s brownish-green velvet coat to be her suit of armor.
“She could play her part when she had that coat on. She’d take the coat off and she’d have this little miniature top on and she’d be so bare and vulnerable, but then she’d put the coat on and it’d be, ‘Okay I’m safe.’”
When I read that quote from Betsy's interview with Variety, it was like a eureka moment. To be a groupie is to be vulnerable! It’s being emotionally tender because rock-and-roll moves us just that much. We dress up to keep our truest selves safe while we “play the part.” So when I look at modern interpretations of groupie fashion, I can’t help but feel the original intent – the heart of it all – was lost somewhere along the way.
Pictured, left and right: Just a few from my EXTENSIVE collection of vintage coats. Or my armory, if you agree with Betsy like I do. Keen eyes will spot the feather boa that's all over my Instagram feed; antique, just like the GTO's would wear.
“Like we’re lucky to be with you.”
I chatted briefly with McKenna Kayleigh on Instagram (you may know her from TikTok as well!) before we wrote our respective reality-of-being-a-groupie pieces. During that conversation, we remembered Penny Lane is just 16 years old during the events of Almost Famous. As for Russell? He’s a grown man with an established career and a wife at home! As sweet as Russell and Penny’s scenes together are, I had to step back and ask: what the hell is he doing anywhere near this girl?
I’ve been in relationships with a similar age gap to Penny and Russell. The difference is: I’m an almost-23-year-old adult woman. Penny is not.
Underneath the flashy clothes, Penny Lane a teenage girl with a crush. As much as she believes she's mature for her age, she's not. She's just like any other 16-year-old: thrill-seeking, flighty, and above all, naïve. There's a power imbalance in her relationship with Russell. It's an unfortunate reality of groupie-dom, especially when the groupies are teens like Penny. Or real-life ’70s “baby groupie” Sable Starr for that matter. The rock star/young fan power dynamic burns Penny. Heartbroken after spotting Russell’s wife at a party, she overdoses on Quaaludes after mixing them with champagne.
Pictured: Penny Lane’s vintage Jerry Edouard boots. This shot has been replicated time and time again on Instagram. But I can’t help but wonder if those girls have forgotten this scene shows Penny’s darkest moment.
In In Defense of Greta Van Fleet, I broke down the “economy” of rock-and-roll music. Rock-and-roll seeks youth – and girls – to inspire and buy music. Singing about young girls is a foolproof formula to make cash! What girl doesn't want to inspire a hit? But once the youth is gone, women are no longer valued as we were when we were girls. We are treated like second-class citizens in the rock music scene, though our absence would lead to its collapse. Groupies fall into this economy of rock-and-roll. Many are young. Their next-level love and affection often inspires the music, just like the Band-Aids intend to do for Stillwater.
The rock-and-roll world attracts a certain personality type. It’s tough to deny that. Unfortunately, what I’ve found from dating creative men is a nasty streak of entitlement. Some feel that, because they were blessed with great talent, they’re capital-G Geniuses who deserve recognition. They deserve to be told they’re great and to be treated as such. They deserved to be deified by women. Or girls. Or groupies.
The answer to “what the hell is Russell doing with Penny?” is this: he used Penny’s fan adoration for an ego boost. He assumed she’d always treat him like a god, so he kept her around until she got emotionally attached. Once she showed real feelings, he dropped her like a hot potato; blowing her off to go hang out with Bob Dylan.
Pictured: “What kind of beer?” You won't know the real hurt of this scene until you experience this moment for yourself. I hope you don't have to.
One of my least favorite things about Almost Famous is its use of the “groupie” label. Every time a character utters the word “groupie,” it’s done disparagingly. Like when the Band-Aids scoff at Will Miller for calling them groupies. Or that damn plane scene, ugh! It’s disrespectful in so many ways, not just the way Jeff Bebe refers to Penny as “that fucking groupie!”
What those characters refer to when they say “groupie” is a “starfucker”: women who sleep with rock stars just because they’re famous. Groupies are there for the music, not for the guys. (Don’t get me wrong, enthusiastically consenting women can sleep with whoever they want! But I’m not a huge fan of starfuckers being confused with groupies.)
I don’t think Cameron Crowe intended for his film to do this. But this is the problem with rock-and-roll that Almost Famous accidentally exposed.
Just like it does for the disposal of female fans, rock-and-roll culture fosters the disposal of groupies. As long as there's music to love, there will be an endless stream of groupies. They can answer to every beck and call – and they always fuck off when the wives show up. When the groupies are no longer young, pretty, or as fun? Or when there's some bigger opportunity to be seized? The groupies get stood up for the Bob Dylans. Fuck all the caring, all the inspiring, all the heavy-lifting they did for the bands they loved.
Bottom line: no one is entitled to recognition or greatness. No artist, no man, no rock-and-roll band. And certainly not Russell Hammond of Stillwater.
Alice Cooper said something along the lines of the GTO’s all being unique, special girls with unique, special personalities. I love that. He always gave them credit for the ways they inspired him; Miss Christine taught him how to do his makeup. Frank Zappa loved and encouraged the GTO's just the same. That’s how a rock star should view groupies. They're unique and special girls. Not interchangeable trash.
“A seat by the window, please.”
That got heavy.
So...how do we break up with the groupie dream that was spoon-fed to us, but still keep groupie-dom alive?
Firstly, you don’t have to renounce your love for Almost Famous. Embrace your inner Penny Lane! Wear the sunglasses and the coat and the boots, and wear them proud. Wear your heart and your love of rock-and-roll on your sleeve. But you’ve got to be able to see rock-and-roll for what it really is. It’s not just hopping in and out of limousines! And it’s not the aesthetic of Almost Famous.
Not all musicians are in it just for the music like groupies are. It might be tough to hear, but it's true. Some seek deification; they feel they’re entitled to it at all costs. If you’re young and not able see that for what it is, it can break your heart. Be wary of those who value your youth over you. Don’t treat creative men as Geniuses. They’re just men. Don’t let them put you on a pedestal. That special treatment rarely lasts.
Finally, if by chance you do get close to these guys: know your worth. After her accident, Penny retires the Penny Lane persona. She boards a plane to Morocco as Lady Goodman. She puts herself and her dreams first. And Russell only realizes what he lost when it’s too late. You, the groupie or muse, are just as important to rock-and-roll as the guys are. They’re lucky to be with you, not the other way around.
Be proud of your groupie heart. But beware of the groupie dream.
Pictured, left: Yours truly, in my Penny Lane best. The coat is one of my all-time great scores. Right: Baby me from the art school days. It was the first time I dressed as Penny.