Mimetic Theory

Mimetic Desire and Serial Monogamy: the Case of Roger Waters

Love triangles derive from the triangular structure of desire. (Guest post by Mark Anspach.)

A guest post by Mark Anspach

“Did anyone ever tell you that you have beautiful cheekbones?” That was the opening line rock icon Roger Waters used with Kamilah Chavis, the woman he married in October 2021. But it wasn’t her face that first drew Waters to Chavis. In fact, during their first meetings, she kept her back turned to him.

Waters told the story in a widely-quoted 2018 interview with Argentine media outlet Infobae. The reporter asked, “Is Kamilah an artist?” No, Waters replied. “She worked in transportation.” More precisely, she was a chauffeur.

“I actually met her at one of my concerts a couple of years ago,” Waters explained. “She was driving the car that was taking me. I was in one place for two weeks and there were many transfers between the hotel and the venue. My security sat in the front with her and they talked, while I stayed in the back. I don’t know, something about her attracted me…”

There was something about her, but what could it be? It wasn’t love at first sight. Waters spent most of their time together staring at the back of Kamilah’s head. She didn’t even talk to him. So what sparked Roger’s interest in Kamilah? Was it her lovely black hair? The way she held her head? Her entrancing perfume?

Curiously, when Waters recalls the attraction he felt for his future bride, nothing he says is about the woman herself. It’s all about the circumstances: she was driving the car, up front with the security, while Waters rode in back. That hardly sounds like a romantic setting, yet he was mysteriously drawn to her. Why?

Waters gave little clue when announcing his wedding on social media. He said only, “I’m so happy, finally a keeper.” This is less an ode to his new bride than a back-handed slap at his previous wives. Clearly, Waters had reflected on why his first four marriages ended in divorce and identified a common flaw in all his exes: they weren’t “keepers.”

Assessing whether or not a spouse is a “keeper” implies looking at them as a possession. Waters embodies a personality type that my friend Suzanne Ross dubs, not coincidentally, the “Rock Star.” In her book The Wicked Truth About Love, Ross writes that Rock Stars “thrive on being center stage” but “are not as secure as they seem.” To acquire the sense of wholeness they lack, they accumulate outward signs of inner worth such as “gold jewelry, expensive cars, mansions” and treat lovers “like just another prized possession.”

Waters has at various times been the proud owner of a classic Bentley, a Ferrari Daytona, and a vintage Mercedes-Benz. The radical-chic singer has a mansion in the Hamptons and a Manhattan townhouse with nine Louis XVI fireplaces, and he and rock star pal Shakira even bought a Caribbean island. During Waters’ divorce from actress Laurie Durning, the two sparred over who got to keep a $35,000 gold Rolex.

Acknowledging his troubled history with women, Waters offered a revealing explanation in a passage of the interview with the Argentine journalist that English-language media reports missed. After his father died, Roger’s mother raised him without a man in the house. And that, he believes, is why he has struggled to deal with women in relationships. “You need a man who teaches you how to be with them,” Waters said. “I think that is the main reason my love life has been so disastrous. I didn’t have a model to follow.”

Waters admits he was lost without a model. Children learn how to behave from models, and so do adults. People constantly imitate others, even when it comes to affairs of the heart. “Did anyone ever tell you that you have beautiful ______ ?” When the storied Pink Floyd lyricist wanted to break the ice with Kamilah, he shamelessly cribbed a pick-up line countless men have used before.

Parroting stock phrases is a harmless form of imitation. In difficult situations, it is natural to take one’s cues from models. Showing interest in a person one likes can be awkward. But what happens if we let models guide us in choosing whom to like in the first place?

As the late French thinker René Girard demonstrated, imitation extends to the realm of desire. We want the same things others want. This is what Girard calls mimetic desire. If your friends all drive sports cars, then, as Janis Joplin sang, you’ll want a Mercedes-Benz. And if you are a famous singer yourself, then you’ll want a house in the Hamptons because famous singers from Paul McCartney, P. Diddy, Paul Simon, and Jon Bon Jovi to Jay-Z and Beyoncé all bought houses in the Hamptons.

More problematically, if your friend has a glamorous wife, you may want that same woman for yourself. When, out of all the people they know, two friends end up desiring the exact same person, that is unlikely to be the result of chance. Girard shows how love triangles derive from the triangular structure of desire. The third corner of the triangle is occupied by the model or mediator whose desire is imitated.

Before Waters dated Kamilah Chavis, his previous relationship began with a triangle. Waters’ fourth wife Laurie Durning had introduced him to playboy businessman Arthur Altschul Jr. Altschul was married to Rula Jebreal, an Israeli-born writer and television journalist of Arab origin. She asked to meet Waters because of his fashionable Palestine activism. Soon Laurie and Roger and Arthur and Rula were friends. The two couples “had dinner together many times,” a source told the New York Post’s Page Six. But when Waters broke up with Durning, he sought someone new. And this time, he had a model to follow. Arthur loved Rula––why couldn’t Roger love Rula, too?

Roger’s affair with Rula was “the talk of the Hamptons,” the source told Page Six. Nobody saw it coming. Weren’t Roger and Arthur friends? Yet friendship thrives on mutual imitation. Friends follow each other’s example; they cultivate the same tastes; they patronize the same restaurants. Alas, as Girard emphasizes, imitation is a two-edged sword. Things go south fast if one friend copies the other’s choice of lover.

Rula’s husband “found out, and their marriage ended,” the source told Page Six. But soon the Hamptons had something new to talk about. A few short months after trumpeting their affair, the same Page Six gossip columnist announced that Roger and Rula were calling it quits. Relationships based on imitation are built on sand. The glow bestowed by someone else’s desire seldom lasts.

Waters was still dating Jebreal in 2016 when he reportedly met Kamilah Chavis during a California concert gig. Waters is used to having beautiful younger women throw themselves at him. Even the glamorous Jebreal asked to meet him. Yet here he was, sitting behind a woman who had never so much as been on TV, and she didn’t give him a second glance. For two weeks, she shuttled him around with her back turned to him.

When a celebrity is used to adulation, their interest may be piqued by someone who seems aloof to their charms. But Kamila’s back was turned for a mundane reason: she was driving the car. That hardly suffices to explain the mysterious attraction Roger felt for her. Once again, the most important factor is the influence of a model or mediator. We know Waters’ previous relationship began with a triangle. So did his new one. The triangle is less obvious this time, but it is there when one looks for it.

A third party was present in the car: the security man. We don’t know who he was, but he would have been considerably younger and fitter than the aging Waters. And he was sitting beside Kamilah. That is the first thing Waters says when he tries to describe the undefinable something that drew him to her: “My security sat in the front with her and they talked, while I stayed in the back.”

The former Pink Floyd frontman isn’t used to taking the back seat to anyone. He is usually the center of attention wherever he goes. But now, as his bodyguard chatted up the chauffeur, he found himself on the outside looking in. Waters calls the bodyguard “my security.” In reality, the younger man was stirring Waters’ insecurity. He monopolized the lady’s attention while Waters was ignored. For once in his life, the composer of “The Wall” felt like a wallflower.

Finally, he decided to cut in. “One day I said ‘Excuse me’, and she turned around.” And that’s when Waters paid her a trite compliment to signal he found her desirable. As to why he found her desirable, he assumes it was some quality in her that he can’t quite put his finger on. It never occurred to him that someone else might have triggered his desire.

We like to think our desires are wholly our own. It is easy to imitate someone else’s desire without knowing it and hard to recognize the dynamic at work. The case at hand is especially striking. After summing up the three corners of the triangle with uncanny precision, Waters throws up his hands in bafflement: “I don’t know, something about her attracted me.”

A relationship that begins mimetically may still grow into something deeper. For Kamilah’s sake, we can only hope her bridegroom overcomes past patterns and loves her for who she is. That is the only way to keep a marriage going. It is time Roger Waters learns how to be a keeper.

Mark Anspach is an American social theorist based in Europe. He earned a PhD in French at Stanford, where he served as René Girard’s research assistant, and a doctorate in anthropology in Paris. He is the author of Vengeance in Reverse and the editor of The Oedipus Casebook, among other works.