This was a post I wrote for Bleepmag.com; I hope you enjoy :)
I was an ugly kid: pigeon-toed, bow-legged, confined to braces, and somehow lucky enough to have a mullet haircut. One would assume that having a fashion model as a mother would not ease my unfortunate plight, but on the contrary, my mother would make me feel like the most beautiful girl in the world. Our spare bedroom in the house had been converted into the “dress-up” room; my mom would store her old pageant gowns, couture modeling pieces, my tattered tutus, and extra makeup from her Dixie Lee Cosmetics makeup line in boxes all around the room, and instead of furniture, there was a small children’s plastic table with yellow chairs. The sequins, the feathers, the lipsticks, the shoes all became my mask—I could become anyone and anything I wanted, and even though I was swimming in my mother’s dresses, tripping in her shoes, and undoubtedly had a smudge of dirt streaked across my face, I felt beautiful. Being a creative person, my mother always encouraged my sister and me to create stories and plays, and most of my family’s evenings were spent in the living room, being forced to watch me perform my newest princess play around the fireplace.
When my parents first met in Texas on a blind date, my mother was a model, and my father was an ambitious surgery resident from a “dirt poor” family in the Mississippi Delta. My father was immediately attracted to her sense of humor, her ability to laugh at herself even through the toughest situations. A big fan of Madonna, my mother would go to my father’s hospital and do Madonna impersonations for the patients, dressed in lacy gloves and leather skirts—she even had maternity belts placed in her leather pants and skirts, because she figured that there was no reason why she couldn’t be pregnant and look fabulous.
Needless to say, I had a tape deck in my dress-up room, and dozens of Madonna tapes. My favorite song to dance to was “Like a Virgin”, but in my five-year old brain, “Like a Virgin” became “Like a Surgeon”—a clear sign that I am a perfect combination of my surgical father and performing mother. My mother believes in the power of a good tube of red lipstick. “You must highlight your smile, your white teeth,” she would always tell me. My father was a surgery resident whose smile and emotions were always hidden behind a thick dark beard, yet his deep hazel eyes did all the communicating that a smile or grimace could not. While I am sure that they loved each other, it was never about the other person or pleasing the other person. It was instead about filling an emptiness, a hole that they experienced in their own lives. They filled it with each other, but a relationship full of holes can never float.
Once they were married, my mother moved from Texas to my father’s hometown of Cleveland, Mississippi in the deep Delta—a town of approximately seven people. My parents were the golden couple of the four there: if you needed your gallbladder removed, my dad was your man; if you needed a makeover, etiquette lessons, a talk show host, or a modeling agent, my mother was your gal. Our family remained in the spotlight with my mother modeling on the side for small town editorials in the surrounding towns and cities, using my sister and me as props or cute accessories—which I am sure was difficult, considering how unfortunate I was in the looks department. Our cat was even on the front page of the newspaper once because they were having a “slow news day.” What no one knew was that behind the red lipstick and glossy veneer of perfection that my parent’s marriage had become, were ugly secrets that floated in the dark hallway between my mother’s bedroom and my father’s guest room. A common scene for my Barbies to reenact was Barbie threatening to divorce Ken—it was always difficult to maneuver Barbie’s stiff plastic arm, seeing as it had no joints, but I was somehow able to make her capable of slapping Ken.
My father was the only surgeon in town, so his schedule remained packed; he often did house visits or had patients come to our house at night. I have very few memories of him other than the fights that he and my mother had. After they separated and he moved into an apartment on the other side of town, he would see me only on certain nights of the week. Once, on a particularly slow day at the hospital, my father picked me up after pre-school. Upon arriving at the house, my father realized that my mother had changed the alarm code. Our small town only had a sheriff, who happened to be my uncle, so while there was no threat that my father would be arrested due to this intrusion, I remember my father looking so lost and so small. Perhaps in an effort to comfort me, or maybe just to comfort himself, my father took me upstairs to the “dress-up” room—which is the first and only time I remember him stepping foot into that messy space—and asked me to put on a play for him.
It was something he had never done before; due to his surgery schedule, he was fortunate enough to not be privy to my fireside performances. He awkwardly took a seat at the red and yellow plastic table, his frame protruding over the edges of the hard plastic, while I quickly pulled out my favorite costume piece. It was a red leotard with sequins on the top and a red taffeta tutu on the bottom; it had a rip down the back, so there was always a taffeta tail that spun off of the bottom of the tutu; this imperfection was my favorite part of my princess costume, because when I ran with my pigeon-toed feet, it was if I had a flag flouncing behind me, announcing my arrival and declaring my departure. After I had gone through the wardrobe, hair, and makeup department, I performed my “princess play,” which basically only consisted of an ad-libbed monologue about how beautiful and princess-y I was. I remember standing in front of my father, eye level to this sitting man who suddenly seemed so sad and lonely, and trying so hard to yell over the blaring alarm my princess lines, wanting to make him smile, wanting him to know it was going to be okay. In that moment, dressing up and performing was not an attention-seeking act done by a five-year old; it was a means to make him smile—this stranger, this man I had never seen before who somehow looked like my father. I felt older than my father in that moment. I had a responsibility—I had to make him laugh. I did cartwheels, I sang Annie at the top of my lungs, and I had about ten different costume changes. I gave him a crown to be my prince, and I directed him on where to stand and what to do for our two-person play. I screamed and yelled over the alarm, trying desperately to be heard, and trying even harder to communicate with a man I had known to be a father, but never knew to be my father.
For the majority of my escapade, my father remained seated in his yellow plastic chair, his face buried in his hands, his large back rounded over like a roly-poly. Every now and then, as if remembering that he was seated at a child’s table in a dress-up room and noticing that he was in the company of an out of breath and ugly five-year old staring him down and belting “Like a Surgeon,” he would raise his eyes and smile. In the end, my mother came home, found us in the dress-up room, and in one fell swoop, picked me up and carried me out of the room, leaving my father listening to Madonna and the ringing of an alarm.
I am not saying that in that instant my whole five-year old perspective on “play-pretend” changed. I still have moments where acting and performing is a self-centered act of just wanting attention, of just wanting to be told that I did a good job, that I am beautiful and no longer that ugly five-year old dancing on the fireplace. But it was the first time I had wanted to perform in order to make someone else feel something. I think everyone feels lonely and lost, like they are trying to be heard over an alarm and yelling fruitlessly at a world that sometimes covers its ears and shuts its eyes. It is our responsibility as artists to connect with people that we have never met before and show them that they are not alone. Up until that moment, I felt like I had never truly met my father. He was a stranger to me, yet somehow we found a way to connect through our shared experience of the red taffeta leotard, of the tape deck, of the alarm. Of the divorce. My favorite pieces of art are the ones that when I leave, I feel emotionally stirred—I do not feel as lonely or as lost, and I am reminded again that everyone is struggling, searching.
When I am doing my best work, it is not about me, it is about the other person. My parent’s relationship failed because it was not enough about the other person; it remained about their individual needs and desires, and instead of wanting to fill the other, they only wanted to fill themselves. It is a delicate balance of pleasing yourself and pleasing the other, and I strive to do that in my work as an artist. We all wear masks, and we are all actors; we cover our lives in lipstick and facades and act as if there is not a blaring alarm ringing in our ears. We just yell louder. However, it is when I stop screaming and I start performing, when I take off the mask, when I get messy and let the smudges of dirt show, when I remove the lipstick, when I remember what it felt like to be five and vulnerable and responsible for someone else’s happiness, that I am carried far away, picked up in one fell swoop, and taken away from the ringing alarms of the world. Art is a vehicle of growth: it removes the mask, and reveals the truth, even though it can often be ugly. That is why art is so communal—it acts as a leveling factor that bypasses social status, age, gender, sexuality, and race. It unites us as audience members and artists because we all try to hide our flaws, and we all strive to find beauty in the ugliness.
What no one tells you when your parents split is that their divorce is not one specific date; May 26, 1994, was the day my parents’ divorce papers were signed, yet their divorce has lasted for over fifteen years, and it will continue to repeat itself over and over again, a sort of sad reminder of what went wrong in the relationship, and what could go wrong in future ones. I have learned a lot from my parent’s relationship. It taught me how to not fill the holes in my life with another person, how to be strong and self confident in myself, and how to fall in love with the person and not the title; at the same time, it has taught me how to give selflessly of myself, and how you can’t shut out the people you love with changed locks and alarms.
I was an ugly kid. I had leg braces, a mullet, and a fascination with lacy Madonna gloves and tape tracks. But I am learning that those imperfections add character to the often messy roles we play in life. And sometimes you just have to put on some red lipstick and grin and bear it. As my mother would say, “You must highlight your smile.”
The ACTIVE ACTOR
You are probably wondering this blog is about. Well, it's about anything that everything that I find inspiring, helpful, and curiosity building.
Curiosity is my favorite state of being, and I've become a treasure hunter and a trash hoarder, collecting all sorts of articles, artwork, and accessories that fuel my inspiration and creativity.
This will also be a place for me to document my life as an actor and coach in Los Angeles. If performing is your passion, I hope that this blog becomes a place for you to learn from my mistakes, grow from my accomplishments, laugh at my witless choices, and share in this crazy, unpredictable, beautiful, life in the arts.