"THE FABRIC OF L.A."
- A lesson in why you should always wear the pants -
The Arizona gambling age was going to change from 18 to 21 in May of 2003. My Eighteenth Birthday was in February, which left me with a little less than three months to join my Grandmother at the Casino for some Bingo. Half way through our first game, I won the jackpot. I cried as the dealer counted out six-hundred dollars in crisp bills, placing the most amount of money I’d ever seen into the palm of my hand. My Grandmother looked on proudly.
“Put that somewhere safe,” she whispered. “The people here are vicious and sneaky.” I looked around at the frail old ladies she was referring to who were casting jealous death stares from behind rows of naked troll dolls and other good luck trinkets surrounding their game boards.
I ended up using my winnings after I'd graduated, to enroll in an acting class I began attending a few months later. Every weekend, my parents drove me from Phoenix to Los Angeles, where they waited three hours for my class to conclude, at which time we’d turn around and drive another six hours back home.
The first time we made the journey, we arrived in Hollywood with a half hour to spare. Not wanting to christen a restroom of the studio I hadn’t yet been in, my dad pulled into a nearby gas station where my mom and I could empty our bladders, and he could fill up his tank. Being from the suburbs of the more rural Phoenix, we weren’t accustomed to having to pay to use a restroom, let alone being denied the opportunity to use one altogether when we asked. We entered the gas station’s market, and the experience went something like this:
Hi! Where is your restroom?
We don’t have one.
What do you mean you don’t have one?
We don’t have one.
How do you not have a restroom?
We just don’t.
You don’t have a restroom?
(refusing to be of help)
(not missing a beat)
Then where the hell do you go?
Our restroom is for employees only.
So you do have a restroom, you just won’t let us use it.
On our way back to the car, I listened as my mom went on about how it couldn’t possibly be legal to deprive someone of the basic human necessity, especially when public urination is illegal. She immediately instructed my father to stop pumping gas and find another gas station that would cater to paying customers and appeal to civil human decency. This exchange, no doubt, influenced me years later to piss in the parking lot of a Hollywood CVS after they refused to let me use their bathroom one night. It’s still one of my proudest moments.
My mom had never been one to shy away from calling someone on their shit or putting a stranger in their place. In fact, it was something she did rather frequently thanks to her stroke. Now, I’ve come to revere it, but growing up... I always found it somewhat embarrassing. Regardless of the situation or who was in the wrong, I always felt the need to apologize for my mom’s confrontational demeanor, as I worried people might not like her, or, worse, they might not like me. So, as a result, I was adamant in handling my experiences the complete opposite of how she always had.
Consequently, for the next ten years of my life as a young adult in a city consumed with consuming others, I’d: over-apologize unnecessarily, keep my mouth shut instead of holding people accountable, and give people the permission to take advantage of me. And although it often makes me cringe to recall, I can’t help but acknowledge how it also made for some pretty great stories and even better life lessons. I didn’t know it then, but it all started that very afternoon after we walked out of that gas station, and I walked into that acting class a.k.a. - the school of hard knocks.
Dan Epstein was my new acting coach, and the first gay queen I ever met. Being from Arizona, I hadn’t yet met an openly gay person, or a person gay enough for me to take notice, so I was hardly familiar with the divisions of gaydom that stereotypically define a person in the community. Nor did I yet understand how to interpret a lot of the things Dan said. I was expecting him to criticize my performances but, what I wasn’t expecting were his critiques on my parents earned income and its’ correlation to how I dressed.
It was mid-Fall when he called me into his office one day, shutting the door behind him and pulling out a folding chair for me to sit on in the middle of the room. He slid up in his Eames, positioning it across from me.
“Sweetie, I’m very concerned about you,” he said with the melodic vibrato of a Broadway Thespian. “Are your parents poor?”
I was confused. “Did their check from last week bounce?” I asked. They had taken over my class payments once Dan had taken over my Bingo jackpot, and I found myself feeling guilty and wondering if they had been scraping the bottom of the barrel to keep me in something I already knew they couldn’t really afford.
“No,” he said, “This isn’t about that, it’s about… this,” he extended his arm out toward me, flexing his fingers and waving his hand around in a circle to reference whatever I was wearing that day. “You dress like a poor person!”
I was immediately hurt and wanted to defend my parents. He had no idea how hard they worked to invest in something that was my dream. My father was busting his ass in his mid fifties pulling three jobs, while at forty, Dan sat in an Eames chair that for its price, should have busted his ass in a very different way. It seemed all he did was judge people’s appearances while collecting upwards of $300 a head every few weeks, presumably so he could afford to spend a night at Abbey and ultimately get head from someone else.
But, my impressionable teenage mind responded to his inquiry about my parents tax bracket with a meager, “I don’t think so.”
“I do! Look at you! You’re wearing corduroys for God’s sake!”
“What’s wrong with corduroys?” I asked, earnestly.
“Everything! What’s the problem, Sweetie? Can your parents just not afford to buy you nice clothing? Because I’ve got to tell you, you’ll never make it in this town if this is your style.”
I sat there dumbfounded, too insecure to shrug it off, yet too polite to imagine telling him to fuck off. Here I was thinking he was going to help me start my career when the only thing he seemed concerned about was my aesthetic. I considered telling my parents and dropping out, but I didn’t want to make them feel any worse about their financial situation than I was sure they already did.
“I know!” Dan said, unclasping his hands and rolling backwards in his chair toward the office door. He pulled it slightly ajar and called out, “Carmen will you come in here for a minute?”
Carmen was a lanky and lithe model in our class who lived off sporadic print campaigns and her significantly older husband’s money. She drove an expensive sports car and despite mediocre acting chops, was Dan’s prodigal student. I suspect it was their mutual love for superficiality and narcissism that connected them.
She popped her perpetually sunkissed face inside. “Yeah?”
“I want you to teach Rachel how to dress, can you do that? She dresses like a pauper. Look at her - in corduroys!”
Carmen mustered a sympathetic laugh for what might as well have been an injured waif sitting in front of her. “Yes, I can help her.”
“With her make up, too,” he added. “And hair. See, Rachel? Carmen will help you.” As if I had come to him with the concern myself. It was like I’d been standing in Rockefeller Plaza with my gay bestie who'd volunteered me for an ambush makeover I didn't know I needed.
The following week, Carmen brought in a shadow palette and applied eye make up to my lids. She advised me to invest in a straightener and thermal spray (whatever the hell that was), and gave me a brief verbal rundown of how to dress - just before showing me some reference photos she’d brought along with her. Not so surprisingly, they had been taken from magazines where she shamelessly included her own ads. She threw out words I didn’t yet understand like Manolo Blahnik, Stuart Weitzman, and Gucci, then sent me on my way.
I wore jeans for the remainder of the year.
Despite how Dan had ultimately helped find me representation, I didn’t stay in his classes very long after. Over the years he and I would occasionally run into each other on the street, catching up in the artificial way most people in Los Angeles often do - their only real interest is comparing their success to everyone else’s. I like to humor these people by downplaying my accomplishments and remaining vague, as I enjoy observing the smugness it creates in their sense of superiority.
Our paths collided most recently at the party of a mutual friend. I heard his unmistakable voice booming from across the room. “Rachel?! My God, look at you! You look fabulous!”
“Thank you,” I said, though all I could think about was how I wished I wore my skinny cut corduroys to the party. I wondered if he even remembered the exchange that had managed to cut me so deeply, nearly twelve years prior.
“Do you remember when you used to wear corduroy?!” I guess that answered that. I watched his flexed palm move around in front of his chest, as if it were punctuating his words. “My God you were so lost!”
Below are two posts from Sincerely Jules and Who What Wear, two very successful fashion blogs. Lost? Hardly. Ahead of my time? Absolutely.
Whenever people ask me for acting advice, my sardonic side is always aching to tell them what I paid Dan to tell me: corduroy is not an acceptable fabric in Hollywood. But, the real advice I have for aspiring hopefuls is this: people in this business will always make you question yourself and your instincts by insisting they know more than you do, and whether it’s because you’re impressionable or less experienced, you’ll likely put more stock in what they have to say than what you feel. Don’t. Wear the pants. Trust your instincts. Trust yourself. It will pay off. And immediately after it does, after you’ve proven them wrong, they’ll support you as if they always had, even to the point of taking credit for what you fearlessly defied. That, my friends, is the real fabric of LA.