My singing teacher once asked me: “…if you’re in an audition and you aren’t sure of yourself, how can the people behind the table be sure of you?” For years in my struggles in New York, I came off very unsure. I was incredibly insecure and full of self doubt. Of course that lack of self esteem held me back in so many areas of my life not just my career. I was my own worst enemy at auditions and casting calls, but I was a huge hit doing singing and strip-tease telegrams. Why was I told so many times that I was extremely talented after performing a singing telegram and dismissed so quickly from a casting call? Of course there are many factors that determine why an actor is considered for a role and all of those factors can’t all be covered now. However low self esteem and lack of self respect are two important factors that held me back a lot. It took me years to realize that many important experiences from my childhood shaped me into the insecure person I was for most of my life.
I grew up in Houston Texas but I was born in Dallas. Dallas is my earliest childhood memory. I was two years old and terrified of the dark. I learned to adopt to this terror by telling myself that my doll would protect me. One night the doll was lost and I cried out hoping someone would find her for me. My Dad came in and whipped me for waking him up. I never cried out again and from then on, the doll (found the next day by our maid.) stayed by my side and I kept a tight grip on the dolls’ arm through out the night.
My father had a military background. He was in the ROTC in high school and later joined the Navy as a junior grade Lieutenant. As much as my father liked GIVING orders he hated taking them from his superiors. This was not a good quality to have in the armed services and eventually he was asked to resign. In fact, my father hated taking orders from any employer and lost several jobs. Loosing job after job never stopped my father from giving orders. In fact he felt it was his divine right to give orders to almost anyone. This was especially true for his family. He spent his free time ordering his family with bizarre expectations and demanding discipline and strict attention from both me and my brother. Spankings and punishment were a ritual if we failed to measure up to his standards. My brother was diagnosed with autism., but my father believed he could literally beat the illness out of my brother and I am convinced the trauma of these regular spankings, punishments and demands of personal sacrifice made his illness worse. After the family’s move to Houston, the diagnosis of my brother’s illness changed from autism to schizophrenia. The beatings and stern discipline did not change for my brother. My father’s regular punishments forced my brother to withdraw into another world and he has stayed there ever since. My brother has lived in a living center that treats clients with schizophrenia for over thirty years and is incapable of living on his own. He has a reading and writing ability of a six year old and he is unable to care for himself beyond the basic living habits. I am convinced that his early childhood had a tremendous impact on him and it contributed to the way he is today. He simply feels much safer in his own imaginary world. Little of the outside world is of interest to him.
Because my brothers’ learning and development was so impaired from early childhood, it was thought that there must be something wrong with my development as well. I was put in slower learning groups as a child and I was singled out as a slow learner. I believed others assessment of my abilities and grew up believing that I was a slower learner than my peers. My fathers punishments did not stop with my brother. I realize now that I was supposed to make up for my brothers short comings by fulfilling my fathers unrealistic expectations. For instance at six years old I was taking swimming lessons and when I had mastered the basic overhead crawl my father was not impressed. He insisted that I learn to swim the entire length of a standard racing pool without taking a breath. I worked hard but I could only swim that length by allowing myself one breath. My father was pleased but not thrilled. At least it didn’t get me berated or put down for falling short of his expectations.
I would soon learn that my Mother also had expectations of me. If I let her down, she would imply that she couldn’t stand to have me live with her and might disown me. Because I wasn’t mentally ill, I was supposed to be the kid who didn’t make any trouble for her. My mother in many ways expected me to compensate for her disillusionment with my father and be her emotional support. When I fell short of that, she would become angry and short tempered with me. My mother would often berate me condemn me or put me down. It was also expected of me to anticipate when she was going to be upset or sick. She needed me to understand her signals when she was unhappy or angry. When I fell short of those expectations, she derided me as being the most selfish person in the world. My mother was arrogant and angry. She derided our housekeeper as being too fat She criticized her friends and neighbors for being sloppy or being unattractive. I was suppose to agree and go along with those criticisms. When I disagreed, I was made to feel like I was intentionally being disagreeable and insensitive.
“Write in your diary that you’re a shit!” She once told me. Her behavior was erratic and unpredictable and I would be attacked or criticized when I would least expect it. Only recently have I been able to understand that this behavior was unfair and hurtful. Much of my life I went along with my Mother’s assessment of my constant short comings. My Mother’s erratic behavior was exacerbated by her drinking after my parent’s divorce. It was after I had graduated from college that I learned she was also doing a lot of drugs along with her drinking. I knew she was seeing a lot of different men but she successfully hid the drug use. Because she was successful at it, it was easier to deny she had a problem. Even after she got sober, her rage and anger still manifested itself on me. Once when I came home for Christmas she told me “ God! I’m glad you’re seeing a shrink! You are the most selfish person in the world! You really need a shrink!” Her justification for this tirade was because she accused me of taking something and when I argued that it was not at all the way she saw it, she attacked me with those hurtful comments. She continued her personal attacks on me and they became so hurtful that I left the holidays early. I never again went home for Christmas. To this day, I would rather be on my own than be with my Mother during the holidays. The most difficult quality about my Mother that I‘ve had to reconcile myself with is her lack of humility. She continually blames others for her shortcomings rather than take responsibility for herself. For most of my life she would admit she was wrong only when there was a convincing argument for it but it was always difficult to get these points across to her without also taking part of the blame. Many times she convinced me that I was totally wrong and she was faultless in the matter. Most of my life I berated myself for my shortcomings and took my Mother at her word that I was often shortsighted and selfish. It took me many years to come to the conclusion that my Mom was often mean spirited and shortsighted herself. In the mean time I grew up feeling alienated, alone and incredibly insecure.
My real family was the entertainment community. In fact I consider the world of theater and burlesque and singing telegrams my true family. It was singing and strip-tease telegrams that gave me a sense of belonging that I never got at home. More importantly, was the belief from the owners of these telegram agencies that I could do a lot more than I thought I could. My favorite example is my very first singing telegram impersonating Marilyn Monroe. I don’t look anything like Marilyn Monroe. I have an oblong face and a long body. I thought no way I could pull this off. But Jon the owner of Big Apple Singing Telegrams convinced me I could.
In preparing for my first Marilyn Monroe singing telegram, I did several things. I followed the Marilyn Monroe make-up from a guide in the book “Making Faces” by Kevin Aucoin and I bought the white dress from “The Seven Year Itch” at a costume store in New York. I found the Marilyn Monroe blonde wig at Rockies‘ cosmetic store. Finally, I watched a lot of Marilyn’s clips on YouTube and I emulated the Marilyn Monroe walk and the breathy vocal mannerisms. I then learned the songs she sang in many of her movies. As much as I prepared, I was still apprehensive that I could do a true Marilyn Monroe impersonation. Not only did I pull it off, I was congratulated and rewarded many times over. My Marilyn Monroe singing telegram was a huge life changer for me. Now when Jon gets a request for a Marilyn Monroe singing telegram, I am the first one he calls. Impersonating Marilyn Monroe gave me a sense of empowerment that I never got from any family member. I guess in many ways, Marilyn has been more of a Mother figure in my life than my real Mother. All my life I had placed limitations on myself because I had failed to live up to my parents expectations. Now I realize that I don’t have to let the limitations of others limit me. What if indeed I was more powerful and capable of accomplishing much more than my parents or family members thought I could? For so many years I tried to fit myself in a box meeting others narrow minded views of what it was to be an honorable human being. These confinements also included people’s narrow minded views of talent, art and entertainment. The world of singing telegrams had no such confinements for me. Instead of going in to a singing telegram worried that I wouldn’t measure up to the needs of the people behind the audition table, I would instead go to the job with the expectation that I would have fun and enjoy myself. I experimented with songs and many other costumes and comic takes for each singing telegram. I love preparing for the job as much as I love performing it. While there isn’t much money in the world of singing telegrams, it does provide an opportunity to learn and grow and continue to stretch myself as a performer. My energy and life force have become stronger because of this job and I am grateful every time I perform a singing telegram. I realize now that fame and recognition might be important but what is really more important is being able to serve in a capacity that makes me and others happy. I know I am capable of much more than singing telegrams, but for a part time job this is as good as it gets.
The most important quality I have developed in the last several years is giving myself more credit than I gave myself before. I wake up each morning knowing that my work as an actress and entertainer are good. I also wake up knowing that my qualities as a human being are valuable even if others can’t see it. I realize that it’s their loss if they can’t appreciate what I have to offer. Creating work and allowing myself to entertain without imposing worry or fear on myself has been the biggest personal growth of my life