How I "made up" the Biggest Lie of my life...
A friend who's known me for many years recently threw out this casual remark: "You used to be so pretty, Sylvia. I mean, you were really stunning."
He didn't hurt my feelings. Actually, I laughed. I was never beautiful, or even cute. I aggressively, desperately, painstakingly camouflaged my natural homeliness with makeup. Ha, ha, Fred: I fooled you!
Beginning in my mid-teens, and continuing through my mid-40s, I embraced a career as a fine artist. Each morning, I approached the bland, blank, quite icky canvas of my face, and painted upon it the most striking portrait I could muster. From sun-up to sundown, I was in "full regalia," forging through life disguised as good-looking girl. My time-consuming labors served me very well. I got pretty much everything I wanted.
If you are perceived as ravishing or alluring or "hot," you live in a parallel universe from everyone else. Believe me: I've been in both universes. It still shocks me how much impact one's appearance has on virtually every aspect of one's "public life." Beauty is transformative. It's so unfair! But I think our response to it is hard-wired. We are drawn to it like the proverbial moth to the flame.
So, to accommodate this inconvenient and stressful reality, my life essentially became a masked ball (most of the time without the ballgown). I looked out at the world from behind a multi-layered bas relief of protective coloration that enabled me to hide in plain sight behind the illusion of beauty.
Every morning, I applied a rich, smooth foundation to my face, to obscure all those grotesque flaws, and then, with my trusty palette, I spent at least 30 minutes remodeling that plain, coarse expanse of flesh into a charming landscape of color and light. I held up the mirror, and what I saw was not myself. I saw a Creation, an artifice. I have to admit that I was impressed, despite my misgivings about the fundamental dishonesty involved.
Anyone who is vain or insecure enough can learn to do this kind of portraiture quite easily. As you become more confident, you can experiment with all sorts of tricks and styles that will render you endlessly intriguing. Using your best Machiavellian instincts, you can employ color and shading to sculpt as well as paint your features, seeming to change their shapes and sizes. It's diabolical! It's thrilling! You can lose all track of time, as if you were writing a short story, which you kind of are. Good fiction.
Despite what shoud have been the impermeable and immovable nature of my fake face, I monitored it neurotically all day, to be sure the mask of glamor was intact. I added blush or powder, and freshened my lipstick repeatedly. I kept a mirror in my central desk drawer, so I could take a quick peek at myself every 20 minutes or so to see if any erosion had occurred. If I was meeting someone for drinks or dinner, I arrived at least 15 minutes early, so I could fortify every element of my "beauty" to be sure my true self didn't start bleeding through before the evening was over.
Then, I bent over and brushed my shoulder-length hair upside down, threw it backward, and watched as it fluffed and shone majestically. I wasn't just an artist -- I was a con artist.
THE CAMOUFLAGE CLUB
I guess my bald-faced tomfoolery put me in good company. Look at the adorable Jennifer Aniston, for example:
So if such a likable person as Jen can delude the world without guilt, should I be feeling so bummed out that I did it? And what about Beyonce?
But wait -- there's more:
THE BEAUTY IMPERATIVE: IT'S NOT AN ADVENTURE - IT'S A JOB
Don't hate me because I'm dutiful! I was reared with the unswerving expectation that I must be attractive, one way or another. It was a family tradition. It was in the air! It was in the water! Be intelligent, too, of course, and at least try to be nice, but honey, you must take pride in your appearance. You can be as pretty as any cover girl, if you set your mind to it. It is a kind of public service, this bestowing of a delightful visage upon the rather drab and harried tumult of everyday life. And we all want to feel good about our looks, dear, because that is our springboard to greater things.
It was a major childhood pastime, studying fashion, styling my hair in various ways, learning "secret" makeup tricks from early 1960s teen models, years before I was allowed to wear makeup. Thank you, Colleen Corby, for your generous advice! Your tip about how to make my nose seem more shapely basically saved my life -- and the wide-eyed, suprised-doe look (in contrast to other models, who squinted coolly into the distance) spared me from getting crow's feet.
I'm certainly not the only person who chose to "fake it to make it." I did make it, and I'm glad I got to have that experience, despite the moral compromise involved.
But my life was shadowed with guilt as well as fear. There's a big psychic price to be paid for living a lie. I often felt a kinship with fair-skinned black people who, in the "olden days," tried to "pass for white," just as I was trying to "pass for pretty." It was surely scary and demeaning for them. In that era, they were risking their lives, praying all the while that they wouldn't be "found out." So was I!
Ironically, I have been investigating fraud and deception for much of my adult life. It's a good thing that no one ever investigated me. I would have been so humiliated to be "unmasked" that I would have been forced to commit hara kiri.
THE ROLE MODEL WHO DIDN'T HAVE TO PLAY A ROLE
It all began with a beautiful mother. From my earliest years, I saw how much her life was opened up and illuminated by the pleasure people derived simply by seeing her face. Her beauty seemed to create around her a sphere of magic. As a plain, scrawny little girl, I looked up in wonder as she generated ripples of admiration wherever we went. My mother had so many outstanding qualities, but what everyone always said was, "She is beautiful." A suspended animation occurred as she entered a room, and the act of staring took over everything else. It seemed that the waves parted for her, everywhere she went.
She never acknowledged it. She was modest and gracious. But it was clear to me that because she had become valued so widely and intensely for her looks, they took on an importance in her life that she would never have freely chosen. The importance was imposed on her. Like most people who are constantly flattered about their attractiveness, she became emotionally dependent upon it. She had to be beautiful.
Unlike a lot of other stunning women, she wisely cultivated many other qualities in herself, and she remains the most interesting, complex, responsive, generous, energetic, thoughtful -- and beautiful -- person I know.
But she has been haunted for as long as I can remember about the specter of losing her beauty. At the age of 95, she is still beautiful, and still afraid. She was, and is, terrified of being repulsive.
I don't know where that irrational fear came from, but she passed it on to me. I have been chronically braced for someone to look at me with disgust, or to look away in horror, since adolescence. This has been a very painful affliction, although my mother has suffered far more from it.
Ironically, I am somewhat prejudiced against beautiful people. I assume, until they prove otherwise, that they are vain, superficial, ruthless and conceited. I love the song by the Tubes: "Don't Fall in Love -- She's a Beauty." That seems like good advice. And then there's that other song, "If You Want to be Happy for the Rest of Your Life, Never Make a Pretty Woman Your Wife." Makes good sense, generally speaking, even though there are millions of exceptions, of course, probably including you.
SIMPLE PLEASURES FROM SIMPLE TREASURES
Some of my best friends are unbeautiful. In spite of my fear of being revolting, the sight of a plain face, or an unsightly face, or even a grossly disfigured face, elicits no revulsion in me. I enjoy looking at anything that's beautiful, including a person, but I like regular people. I trust them more. They seem more solid, sensible, authentic and competent. I think they have character and range that most beautiful people feel little need to develop. They must have better priorities, because they don't spend a bunch of time getting dolled up to make themselves the center of attention.
I feel good about the fact that, over time, everyone becomes beautiful to me. Even really ugly people. Even people I don't particularly like. Even people with scarred, smashed-up faces and terrible teeth! "You are so beautiful to me," as Joe Cocker sang in 1974. His raw Woodstock performance in 1969 was unforgettable:
Ultimately, I see what a lover would see: A visage that elicits tenderness and wonder. God's handiwork, I guess, if you believe in that sort of thing.
Beauty can stunt you and warp you in so many ways. It can lead to arrested development, for sure. It often makes you as insecure as you'd be with a cleft palate and a club foot. And acne! You become paranoid about the next crop of luscious girls who might knock you off your pedestal at any moment. You resent the attention and achievements that other women earn, and you seriously contemplate sabotaging them, so they can't take anything away from you. I wanted it all, (I didn't realize there was enough to go around), and I assumed my insatiability was a permanent state. Thank god, it wasn't. I finally got enough to last forever.
But until I did, I couldn't bring myself to join the ranks of everyday people. I was compelled to "live the glamorous life." Even in my twenties, I knew it was just a game, but I had to prove to myself that I could be a "player."
BEING CUTE: THE GATEWAY DRUG TO RAGING VANITY
At the very beginning, my plunge into the world of deceit-by-cosmetics was not motivated by the wish to be beautiful. I didn't want that, even if I had thought it were achievable, because I had learned that it came with its own set of problems. I didn't want to be prettier than other pretty people. I just wanted to fit in, to be accepted, and to be regarded as a pleasant sight as I walked down the halls of high school.
So I disguised myself, with considerable effort -- and studious attention to Glamor and Seventeen magazines -- as a nice looking teenage girl.
I was "popular," and that meant everything to me.
Why wasn't everyone engaging in this charade? I didn't get it. How did they muster the courage to come to school with those plain -- and in some cases quite unsightly -- faces, when they could have impersonated a pretty person by simply applying a few layers of paint? It seemed to me that they were both negligent and admirable.
When I turned 21 and moved to New York City, I was armed and ready for that battlefield of the super-beautiful. The word "slaughter" kept coming to mind. That's not very nice. But I was too greedy and needy to be very nice at that time.
For the first several months that I lived there, I washed my face every night, and then reapplied makeup before going to bed. My theory was that if some disaster occurred, the "first responders" were more likely to work hard to save me if I looked good. That's how bad I was! On weekends, I couldn't bring myself to walk to the corner for a newspaper unless I blew half an hour painting my face. You never knew who you'd run into in New York City. It would be just my luck to look horrible when Woody Allen or the president of NBC News happened by. I would miss out on becoming a star! And anyway, I didn't even want the news vendor to see the real me, or the dear bodega owners and Off-Track Betting regulars who always greeted me as I passed by. I didn't want to make them puke.
THE GLAMOR GIRL'S PARALLEL WORLD
The doctor is more attentive to a shiny-haired ingenue with raspberry-scented lips. The stylist works harder to do a good job -- that's so unfair -- if you look good to begin with. The physical therapist works with you longer, and with greater urgency, to "restore you to wholeness." Handsome young lawyers, roaming the grocery aisles, seek your advice on selecting the best soy sauce, and then ask if you have dinner plans. If you seem a bit confused on a city street, people rush to your assistance. If you happen to be struggling with a 25-pound watermelon, someone -- actually several people (take your pick) -- is certain to insist on carrying it home for you.
The Times reporter who interviews you about a project you're developing invites you to a party, where you meet a national magazine editor, who asks you out for Sunday brunch, and urges you to submit an article for consideration. Two months later, it's published, and your big-time career is on its way.
Then things really get rolling. Dinner at Le Cirque and La Caravelle. Christmas in Puerto Vallarta. Summer weekends in the Hamptons. A three-day wedding extravaganza in the Poconos. A ball thrown by the Brazilian Embassy. Dinner (for two) at Benjamin J. Sonnenberg's legendary Gramercy Park mansion.
A reception at the Rainbow Room hosted by the publisher of the Washington Post. Drinks with the literati at the Algonquin and the Plaza Hotel's Oak Bar. Dancing under the stars at the St. Regis roof garden, intoxicated by a new cocktail, the Rusty Nail. A magical afternoon at the sprawling estate of the District Attorney. Broadway premieres and nostalgic evenings at the newly refurbished Copacabana. Dinners with writers and advertising magnates I studied in college. Being offered jobs for which I hadn't even applied. Never picking up the tab for anything.
Did I feel guilty? Sure, but there must have been bazillions of other girls pulling the same con. I wasn't paying much attention. I was too busy keeping my own charmed life chugging along. And worrying that it could all come crashing down if the truth were known: I was ugly.
I disagree with the rousing 1984 song, sung by the gorgeous Sheila E and writtten by Prince:
Even in the summer time
Everybody knows from the coy little wink
The girl's got a lot on her mind
And a big brown Mercedes sedan
What I think this girl, she really wants
Is to be in love with a man
She don't need a man's touch
She wants to lead a glamorous life
Without love, it ain't much, it ain't much
Men told me I had an "angelic" and "classical" face, and that I radiated "serenity."
Good god! I knew I was playing a role, but I hadn't dared aspire to play it so well.
IT WAS LIKE 'SEX IN THE CITY' WITHOUT THE SEX
I felt like I was the iconic "Charlie Girl," striding through Manhattan:
Or "That Girl," who also piled on the cosmetics to conquer the world:
Or that "other reporter" -- Mary Tyler Moore --who aspired to "make it" in the Big City:
Don't give up - the world is waiting for you
You're gonna make it after all
At parties, you at some point realize that you aren't just talking to that nice law professor anymore: A large circle has formed around you, of people plying you with questions about your life. On airplanes, you are asked to leave your seat and come with the stewardess. What did I do? "We had an opening in first class. Here's some champagne. Have a nice flight." Why me, out of a whole planeload of people?
It used to be nicknamed "war paint," for good reason. You win. You win so much! It's one little (or big) victory after another for a "high-class piece of ass" (yes, that phrase was used) in the Big City.
Within days and weeks after moving to a new city, you will have been adopted by any number of store proprietors, waiters, and neighbors who engulf you in affectionate familiarity. If you are interested in a man, either look him straight in the eyes or ignore him. Either way, he'll approach you.
JUSTICE ISN'T BLIND -- IT'S HORNY
During my college years, I got out of several speeding tickets when the cop got a good look at my totally-fake "pretty little face." On the other hand, I wound up in jail one day in Denver, and I have no doubt that things would have turned out much differently if I hadn't made the huge, stupid mistake of walking out the door before having my shower and putting on my makeup.
Being treated like an ordinary person, who is subject to the laws of the land, can be quite a shock to the system, when you're used to getting a wink, a "warning" and a "have a great day!" (http://kronstantinople.blogspot.com/2011/06/i-am-not-crook-almost-always-never.html .)
In Europe, I stumbled into a police station, filthy, bloody and in tatters. I was the victim of a serious crime, but I was clearly not a cute victim, and I was treated like crap. I was treated like a stinking homeless person! No one, including stinking homeless people, should be dealt with like that. The officers were cold, indifferent, somewhat skeptical. It was an assault in itself.
THE ENSLAVEMENT GOES ON, DESPITE OUR 'LIBERATION'
The vast, glittering cosmetics counters in department stores everywhere, and the gorgeous magazine ads for one new product after another, make it clear that women are still falling prey to the promise of beauty in a bottle, despite those seemingly forgotten values we embraced during the Women's Liberation Movement.
Why is this? I believe it's because we are, all of us, drawn to beauty -- whether it's a cloud, a kitten, a rose, a sparkling skyline, a waterfall, a Renaissance masterpiece. We can't help it. And our celebrity culture makes us all feel that fame and notoriety are within our grasp, if we can just get noticed. Notice me! Look at these boobs! Look at this ass! Look at how white my teeth are!
A beautiful woman gets noticed. She stops men in their tracks, causes them to drop their forks when she enter a restaurant, impels them to risk their jobs and marriages for a "please, just once" hug and kiss (or something).
Beauty is power, and it's not surprising that women should go for it. I didn't want power, per se, but I wanted a magnificent New York City life, and I had to finagle my way to the front of the pack to get the cool jobs and fancy friends I desired at that young age. I slipped into my disguise, and then I went out and made the magic happen. At the time, I thought that's what life was all about. I regret that now.
THE ABOUT FACE
Then one historic day, I threw the beauty out with the bathwater.
I stopped wearing makeup.
It was swift and dramatic, with no withdrawal symptoms or relapses, no panic attacks or moments of doubt.
They say that breaking up is hard to do. I guess it depends on how bored you've become with your lover. My breakup with makeup was a breeze.
I apparently had outgrown both my need to be attractive and my fear of being unattractive. Or maybe I just got sick of the charade, or lazy.
I came out of the closet. It had a cleansing effect on my spirit -- the way apologizing, confiding and confessing do.
It happened in a way that I think is interesting. I was in my mid-forties, working at the newspaper, and still getting glammed up every day with my colorful face, colorful ensembles, colorful earrings and scarves and highlighted tresses. Everyone said I looked at least 10 years younger than I was, and I agreed with them.
One day, my best friend at the office -- an older man who was way too elegant and intellectual to be in the news business -- said to me: "You must get up awfully early to look that good at 6:30 in the morning."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, it's obvious that it takes a lot of time and effort to create that face. You're very concerned about your looks -- that's clear to anyone."
I could look at myself all day! I practically did!
I was speechless. I was aghast. How could I have been so stupid? Without realizing it, I had been assuming all those years that people thought they were seeing the real me. It never occurred to me -- how could it not have? -- that I might be perceived as what I really was: a sad and silly painted lady. I had believed I was viewed as a "natural beauty." Sh*t!
The notion that my vanity (actually, my insecurity) was so evident really shook me up. I felt that pain of being the last one to know.
It's true that I had sought the spotlight in my youth, but not for being good-looking. I wanted to "make it," like my Mama told me to. I wanted to be a star: a respected writer, a lively and knowledgeable conversationalist, and a compassionate friend. I wanted to be successful and well-known. I wanted a mind-blowing, amazing, memorable life. The makeup was to get me in the door, and it did the job. And I had that life, and I can't say I regret it, even now. It was foolish, but it was fabulous.
But I guess when I got a taste of the power my appearance could confer upon me, I got greedy. I took things too far. I do regret that.
I'M GONNA WASH THAT FACE RIGHT OFFA MY FACE
Good heavens, it feels good to have clean, naked skin. Even though it's been clean and naked since the mid-90s, I am still feeling the refreshment of it each day. I can't believe all the crap I used to pile on myself. It seems so suffocating. It didn't back then: I felt like Helen of Troy, launching countless ships in the roiling Sea of New York City.
I can have it all
Now I'm dancing for my life
Take your passion
And make it happen
Pictures come alive
You can dance right through your life
Why didn't someone tell me that when I was an adolescent, instead of buying me a subscription to Mademoiselle magazine ("Surefire tips for pouty, kissable lips!")? I could have been dancing through my life instead of curling my eyelashes.
Oh what a relief it was to dump all my cosmetics into a garbage bag, and experience a much more bearable lightness of being.
It was kind of like ripping off a corset and letting everything loose. Ahh, sigh, swoon, fart -- an era has ended. If you don't like what you see, just look away, I'm done.
These days, people don't so much look away as not looking at me in the first place. I have become a nonentity, an undistinguished blur among the plodding hordes.
Occasionally it bothers me, especially when cool young people -- with their tats and bod mods and turquoise mohawks -- look right through me. I like them. Sometimes, I wish they would like me. I feel like handing them my resume and my head shot and saying, "I AM somebody! Or anyway, I used to be! Could you just acknowledge my existence, please?"
But this is rare. In general, I feel great about being a speck in the ocean. By the time I reached my mid-fifties, I liked my face for the first time in my life. It's wasn't pretty. It just seemed like the face of a decent, observant, substantial, well-balanced, mature person.
Oh my heck, my face was as deceptive as it was when I wore makeup, even though this time I wasn't trying to be! I am an immature and highly flawed person.
But the deception is over: The real me is evident in my face. I look unwell. I look pretty wracked and sad. Luckily, no one pays me any mind. They used to say, "Are you OK?" or "Things can't be that bad!", but not anymore.
Invisibility is relaxing. It's good to exit the spotlight, which can become exhausting after a few decades. When you're on stage, you've always got your public out there, staring and assessing, waiting to see what your next trick or treat will be.
I no longer have a public. I barely have any privates, either (have any of you other older ladies experienced a similar entropy? I think it's quite nice to lose the bloom on that particular rose.)
TAKING ON A SUPPORTING ROLE
Once I stopped needing to be the star, I learned how rewarding it is to play a supporting role. I loved being the adviser, the mentor, the comforter-in-chief, to young ladies who strove for success. One glam girl, who had known me for many years when I was still a glam girl myself, was very direct in her curiosity about my new attitude. I was working hard, editing a manuscript for her. I was doing everything possible to make her look good. I would be getting no credit for my work, and when she won an award, she didn't even mention me in her acceptance speech. Her heavily made-up face was perplexed about why in the world I would do this for her. I understood her perplexity. When I was an up-and-comer, it always shocked me when an attractive woman helped or befriended me, rather than seeing me as a threat.
But attractive women are no longer a threat to me, as I explained to my pouty, perfumed underling. "I have everything I want," I told her. "I am free of desire and envy." I was blessed with a magical, eventful life, and I am still so full from that era that I am honestly happy to help others have their "day in the sun."
Think how much better it feels to enjoy the beauty and the achievements of others, rather than having your amygdala fire up and spew venom. I wish I could always have been so generous.
I had felt threatened for most of my life. It's so destructive: It tears you up inside. Now I am just happy for people who achieve what they desire.
When I was still in my chronically threatened mode, my then-boyfriend and I had dinner with his mother, Della, and her new boyfriend. I will never forget what she did: A gorgeous waitress appeared at the other end of the restaurant, and instead of trying to keep her boyfriend from noticing the hot chick in the teensy skirt (my approach), Della declared, "Oh honey, look at that darling girl over there! She is the sexiest little thing! Don't you just love her?"
"What can I get for you?"
I admired and envied this woman so much for being able to do that. It dumbfounded me. It was inconceivable to me, at that time, that a woman could feel so secure. I was so frightened of everything that I didn't want my boyfriend to notice glamorous, flat-tummied mannequins in the department store! When we watched TV ads that featured radiant, energetic women, my stomach clenched. My cortisol spiked. It was a sick time.
(This same boyfriend once said to me, when we were on a camping trip, "You're more enjoyable without your makeup. You laugh more." But he expected me to be in full Cosmetics Mode when we were together in public. "My woman has to be a knockout," he told me. "If I'm not proud to be seen with her, forget it.") (To quote Cee Lo Green, "Forget You!")
"I really hate your ass right now."
I love to look at other women now, and I relish their various styles of beauty, and I compliment them all the time. I am not at all reluctant to approach a stranger and say, "You have a gorgeous face." I love your hair. Your skin is flawless. Your posture is so elegant. And on and on. I'm "giving back to the community." I despise that phrase, but I really feel obliged to "pay it forward" after all the good vibes that have been sent my way. And I have found that paying a compliment is at least as enjoyable as receiving one.
And I say to my boyfriend, Joe, "Look at that girl over there. God, she is so gorgeous. She's perfect!"
When I add, "Don't you want her?" he replies, "No -- you can have her."
Isn't that the sweetest thing he could possibly say?
But what if I got a telegram informing me that I had been named "Miss Blogger Universe," and inviting me to accept my award on a global TV extravaganza? Would I be wearing makeup, as I strode to the podium in my designer gown? The truth is, I've become so shy and socially inept that I wouldn't go at all. But if I did, I guess I would have to wear makeup (and probably visit a dermatologist for a few "refreshing" injections first). So I guess my "recovery" from makeup addiction isn't complete.
I'd have to hire a makeup artist, though. I tremble quite a bit now. And my eye-hand coordination has totally gone to hell.
The only person I'd trust to take on this "dream-the-impossible-dream" task would be Phoenix-based Stephanie Neiheisel, a veteran cosmetics genius (firstname.lastname@example.org , and www.snmakeupartist.com ). Despite her great beauty, and her immersion in an industry that's all about appearances, she has depth and heart. She is more than talented with cosmetics: She brings generosity, sensitivity, taste and originality to her work. If she couldn't manage to make me look halfway decent, which would be completely understandable, she would give me a hug and say, "Every woman has her own special beauty, even you."
(She could have said, "I Love You Just the Way You Are," but that's the job of my adopted "Save the Children" son, the adorable pop star, Bruno Mars. He calls at least once a week to sing me a song, despite his hectic schedule. My baby!)