The Life and Times of a Frightened Performer
Part I: Yes, I can!
There I was again, sitting at the bus stop in Bethlehem- half of me mentally preparing for the day ahead, and the other half of me chastising myself for signing up for something that was seemingly so far out of my league that it was almost hilarious.
Let’s do some backtracking. My chosen form of performance is acting. I’ve done a good amount of theatre, and in recent years I have branched out into film, which is my ultimate career goal. Sometimes I chuckle at the fact that 9 out of 10 things I sign on to take part in terrify me, and wonder why it is that I never developed a passion for something less…glittery. A couple weeks prior to the day of the fashion show, which was on March 26th, I was having somewhat of an existential crisis. I was thinking about my passions, and the sometimes half-assed way I pursue them. I thought hard about the plans I’ve set in motion to make my goals more attainable (a story for another time), and whether or not I was really willing to go all in for what I want. After all, in a field where the success rate vs. failure rate is kind of like sitting a ping pong ball next to a watermelon to compare, you either need to make your sacrifices and do it, or find something else to do with your time. In that period of reflection, I realized several things about myself.
- The rejections I’ve faced have actually done some real damage, and it’s time to work through it and move on.
Anyone, including people who want nothing to do with the entertainment business can tell you that the industry is 90% rejection. While I’ve done some growing up over the years and learned to accept who I am and play to my strengths, there are still shadows of failures past looming over my head. The times in high school when I, an almost 6 foot black woman with awkward legs and adult assets, would audition along side my not yet developed, petite, waifish, pale. and beautiful female friends and get sidelined every single time for the fun parts. I was always cast as an adult..or a some kind of downplayed black stereotype. I kept going. I did my best at every rehearsal..in every performance. I kept auditioning for any role I set my heart on. I was even pulled aside by a director once and told that I was denied a part, simply because I aesthetically didn’t blend with the others in the group of principle actors. I was crushed, and immediately started drowning in the river of self doubt. “If I can’t get lead roles in high school. why even bother? There are way more talented people out in the real world. Time to get comfortable being in the back.”
- Confidence is key
Be confident in yourself. Easier said than done, am I right? I realized that I have been letting past experiences, the fear of being bypassed over my appearance, and the bitterness of not being one of the lucky few with higher ups for friends or parents working in the industry get in the way of being confident enough in my actual skill.
Needless to say, I started thinking of ways to branch out.
One evening I was doing the usual half-hearted Facebook scroll when I came across something that wasn’t pictures of food or cats. Someone posted a status update saying that a friend of hers, a Pratt Institute fashion design graduate was seeking models for a fashion show in New York along with the name of the line (LoveLorn Lingerie), the contact info, and some other random information.
I think that may have been as far as I read into the post before I decided I was going to do it, no matter what. I immediately got in contact with the Designer, Jessica, and after a brief exchange I was chosen as one of her models.
Part II: …No. No, I can’t.
I was initially very excited, but as the next few days rolled by, I became increasingly more anxious.
“This is a fashion show, and it’s a fashion show in New York, where fashion is right up there with oxygen on the importance scale.”
“You’ve literally only done this once, and it was a small scale show in a tiny building in Philadelphia. 2 or 3 years ago.”
“You realize that you’ve only worn high heels about 3 times in your entire life, right? Ever see a baby giraffe try and walk for the first time?”
“She’s only seen you in pictures. What if you arrive and she thinks you’re too fat to model her lingerie? What if she doesn’t care and you literally ARE too fat, and just go on looking like a lone grapefruit amongst celery sticks?”
At the end of that week I had decided it was time to stop shooting myself down and get something accomplished to feel more confident.
I had been working on weight loss fueled lifestyle changes for months at that point, so I was already working out every other day. Since my bigger issue are my eating habits, I eliminated snacking, stopped eating by a decent hour in the evening, and since I already cook 6/7 days in the week, I tried to eliminate some of the more carby things that I prepared.
With three weeks to go, I tightened food intake and workout regime security. My bi-level apartment is mostly carpeted, so I made the commitment to give up my barefoot, Tarzan-like ways and wear heels anytime I was going to walk down the hall or spend time in the kitchen. After a few days of fighting the discouragement I felt every time I jammed my archless size 12’s into my heels, I finally started to break some ground. My boyfriend started coming home to an almost creepy June Cleaver version of myself, as he began finding me washing dishes, mopping, cooking full meals, and doing dishes in 4” stems. He even stopped chuckling at me after a while, so I knew I had begun to not look so strange while I walked.
Anyone who knows me can tell you that aside from the fact that I enjoy playing with makeup and hair extensions, I’m a relatively low-maintenance gal. I am usually barefoot and barring being out in public, usually wearing minimal clothing purely for comfort reasons. My boyfriend loves me just the way I am, and that’s all I need. However, at this point I was beginning to feel like I had accomplished something and I was enjoying this journey through a new sector of my femininity. I looked forward to being able to say that I can wear my chucks and combat boots and then turn it out in some heels if I need to.
Part III: Fuck it, we’ll do it live!!
In addition to the venue being worked on so they could construct the catwalk, Jessica (thedesigner) found herself buried in work. She has a pretty demanding job, so that piled on top of needing to sew and fit 2 different outfits for 5 different women meant that we ended up not having time to schedule a practice day. I scheduled my fitting for the Sunday before the fashion show.
Two weeks to go. I felt some small semblance of relief in the fact that I didn’t have to go practice my walk in front of the other girls, who, undoubtedly were all seasoned models.
“Thank God…more time to practice.”
However, there was a more responsible part of me that really wished I’d gotten a chance to see what it would be like on the day…
The week wore down to the last few days, and I started to notice that the pseudo-confidence I had spent the last few weeks building, and seemingly holding together with staples and tape, was seeping out of every pore and open space on my body. I didn’t really seek help or someone to talk to, because honestly, this seemed like such a dumb problem to have. I internalized. I told myself, and other people when they started to notice I was acting strangely, that this was the most “first world problem” problem that I’d ever had and to just ignore me.
That’s where I went wrong. Anxiety, self doubt, and fear of embarrassing yourself and other people aren’t “first world problems”. They’re human being problems, and had I recognized that and sought counsel from friends or family, I probably wouldn’t have ended up having the full-fledged meltdown that I did the night before the show.
Part IV: Red Leather Pasties
My nerves were beat back a bit when a good friend of mine agreed to drive me up to Brooklyn for my fitting. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief when I realized I wouldn’t have to spend 3 hours hyperventilating my way to the city alone.
When we arrived, we were greeted by a very busy but smiling Jessica, which was a far cry from the gasp of horror I was kind of expecting. Her line was luxury items, mostly consisting of leather harnesses, bralettes, and various lace or silk cover ups. She explained to me that the green room for the show would be full of people, and that between changes she would be there to strip us naked and put us into our second outfit, so I needed to be comfortable with nudity. I could tell she was kind of worried because I was being sort of timid when I first arrived, and was kind of hinting at the fact that I also needed to be naked right now.
In typical Melissa fashion, I said “Can do!” and silently had a heart attack as I started to strip naked in front of Jessica, whom I had just met for the first time about 5 minutes prior. I could feel the anxiety creeping up my spine as I undressed from top to bottom, trying to predict what she might think of me as I was exposing body part after body part. She didn’t cringe. She didn’t look away. In fact, she didn’t seem phased at all. She fit me into the beginnings of a beautiful black leather bra harness, and begin working on one for my hips as well. By the time she was done, I was fully strapped in leather and feeling like I might actually fit in with the other girls. She perfectly matched my measurements, and I finally felt the anxiety of our first meeting wash over me and dissipate. She wasn’t finished with my second look yet, but showed me a sketch of a lovely mesh gown and collar I would be sporting.
“All that’s left to do is finish your second look. OH! Also, all the ladies will be equipped with red leather pasties to accompany the harnesses.”
I looked at her and then down at my size 38 G’s. I thought back on all the times I’d seen women in pasties and remembered tiny, symmetrical “handful-sized” breasts. I decided to trust her judgement on this one instead of adding it to the freakout pile.
I left New York that day, renewed in my resolve to put myself out there, keep practicing in my heels, and give it my all on Thursday night.
Part IV: MELTDOWN
Remember that time that Britney Spears found herself amid a whirlwind of crap and ended up sitting in a chair, sporting sweatpants and a creepy smile as she shaved her own head in the mirror out of sheer, frenzied sadness? Well, I think I finally get the gist of what was going through her head that day. Wednesday, March 25th was by far one of the craziest days I’ve ever experienced.
First of all, I decided I needed extensive heel practice. I arrived at the mall at 7am, went in through a service entrance, and had the entire mall to myself. I popped on my tallest pair of heels and slowly sauntered across the full length of the first floor and up the stairs to the second level. I was doing really well for the first stretch of level one, and the rest of the trip was an absolute nightmare.
My knees were buckling. My feet, where my arches would be (if I had any), were killing me. I sat down in the nearest chair and did what I do best: start figuring out a way to pull this one out of my ass at the last minute.
I proceeded to spend the entire day stress eating. I powered through anything I could get near my face, and no matter how much I ate, I couldn’t feel satisfied. I didn’t work out. I didn’t pack for the trip. Anything that resembled a vegetable got the boot, and I made my boyfriend and I giant 1lb burgers and steak fries for dinner. I spent most of the evening disconnected and quiet, aside from the occasional comment about how delicious whatever the current food item in my mouth was. Eventually my boyfriend got me to sit down and he expressed the fact that he was terrified by my temperament and asked me to talk it out with him.
In about 3 seconds flat, I burst into tears. I could barely get words out. My tears quickly turned into hyperventilation. I dry-heaved my way through all of my insecurities for the following evening and my devastation for the fact that my other half, the one who can handle my manic personality and calm me down from my worst was unable to attend because of work. He tried his best to calm me down as we talked, and I repeatedly switched between funeral worthy sobbing and cynical, maniacal laughter at how screwed I thought I was. I wish I could say the evening ended on a high note, but it didn’t. After extensive coddling, I Benadryl’d myself into the ground before bed and then prayed for a miracle as I drifted off to sleep.
Part V: You Betta’ WERK
This ride up to New York was way different than the other. Call time was 2pm, and the show kicked off at 8:00pm.
Anxiety sure passes the time. I spent the day sitting down and decided I would keep my heels off until right before I hit the runway. That way I could rest, and turn the fierce on when I needed to without being in pain from wearing them for too long.
Before I knew it, I was in hair and makeup. It was getting late and since we all had harnesses and various strappy items, the director suggested we practice our outfit changes. Hilariously enough, we ran out of time, and I was only able to get into my first outfit. The building was packed from the front door to the edges of the catwalk. It was go time.
It’s 10:30pm and it’s finally time for LoveLorn to hit the runway. We lined up.
I fought back the vomit, put on my shoes, and put on my best bitch face.
“You know what? This is it. There are at least 100 people out there. This is being recorded, and there will be pictures. You’re the only non-New Yorker here, and the only plus size model in the entire building. Your hair is huge, and I’m almost positive your right boob is a little bigger than the left. You betta’ WERK, bitch.”
..And off I went.
The flashbulbs were blinding. I mustered up every ounce of attitude I had in my body and sashayed my ass off down that runway. I looked down at the faces of the crowd the first time out. I saw many faces. Some stunned, some blank, and many cheering me on. ME. I hit my pose at the end of the runway, and noticed a pack of drag queens in the back who were shouting all kinds of wonderful things at me, and a bunch of curvy women throughout the room who were so excited to see someone their size working the same stuff that the thinner girls were modeling.
Aside from some fumbling on my part to get into my second outfit amongst the sea of naked, frenzied women backstage, the rest of the night went off without a hitch. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so empowered– As a woman, as a plus size model, and as a performer. I’ve also never felt so wrong before. I counted myself out from the jump. I don’t think there was a solid day that I believed I could do it, and I absolutely turned it out.
In that first moment, half naked in front of over 100 strangers, I realized that I can do whatever I set my heart on in this world. I feel like that experience, while just another show for many of the people that were there, changed my life. I will always try my hardest and continue to push myself to new heights.
To anyone else out there reading this while in pursuit of their vast and wild dreams, I offer you the two biggest lessons I learned from that evening.
-If you find yourself lucky enough to have people in your life who are willing to be there to support you, trust in them to do just that. More often than not, chances are, your fear of being judged is unwarranted.
-Alternatively, you cannot just rely on the reassurances of others for validation. Unfortunately, sometimes during your most challenging moments in life, all you have is you…and that’s okay!
Learn to be your own biggest fan, so that in your darkest moments, you are never truly alone.
special thanks to my two friends, Kage & Lyndy for driving me to New York!
photos: Tumblr, etsy, LogoTV, geometriaTV, me!