on my failed modeling career
I have a wedding on Thursday. When I picked up my sister from the airport, she asked what I was wearing, and I said a suit. She said, “Oh.” Then, “You mean a suit or a suit.” I clarified that my pre-pandemic clothes don’t fit right yet but I have another wedding coming up so I bought a new coat. I then explained my butch tax theory.
If you’re not familiar, there’s a femme tax wherein everything costs more—hair, nails, dresses, etc. But I think there’s a butch tax wherein someone like me walks into the men’s section of Nordstrom and has to throw myself at the mercy of the first gay boy who offers to help. And he will help. He knows I’m lost. He saw me looking at all the wrong ties. He knows I don’t even know where to start. So he finds a coat he likes, asks if I prefer white shirts or a color (this is the only choice he allows me to make), and sends me to the dressing room with a coat and shirt while he finds ties. He talks to the tailor for me. He sets out in search of pocket squares while the tailor chalks the coat. He won’t let me leave looking like an idiot. This is his job and he truly cares. But he also knows when he’s done his best and tells me I look handsome, I am his goddamn puppy and I will swipe the Amex without even looking. Because when he says I look good, he means it. That’s the butch tax.
While this bit answered my sister’s question, it’s not at all what she meant. What she meant was, “Are you dressing like a man.” I didn’t understand the question because I really thought we’d settled this shit 20 years ago. I somehow forget that my being a lesbian is in any way remarkable.
To be clear, I have two older sisters. My other sister called to iron out wedding details, and I mentioned the conversation with “your sister,” (it’s always “your sister,” “your mother,” “your brother,” when we’re irritated). She laughed and told me when she was getting married maybe 10 years ago, Mom told her she really should ask me to wear a dress. She told Mom I’d look ridiculous. Which, yes.
But I was thinking about the difference between the two exchanges. How my sisters view me, or my brother for that matter. My brother will see me in a suit and tell me “nice knot, dude,” by which he means, “nice knot.” My nieces and nephews are unfazed. My dad might tell me I should get a pair of cowboy boots, much more comfortable than dress shoes. But my oldest sister, and her mother will, at best, shake their heads.
My mom wanted me to be a model. She was a model, in Argentina and Dallas, and later, in Japan. She says she did modeling to support us when money was tight, but if her career had ever taken off beyond catalog work and a few commercials, she’d have forgotten religion entirely. Either way, when we were in Japan, she signed my brother and me up for a modeling agency. Blond and blue-eyed was really all that was required. My brother was better at it. He could look natural on camera. I looked… Well I looked like this:
I had one smile in every shot. When they told me to laugh, I looked like I was having a seizure. I didn’t hate modeling. Just being out of the home for a day was reason enough to enjoy it. The makeup process was annoying but there were always queers around who were funny and usually kind to me and there’d be a craft table with all sorts of amazing sugary snacks I’d never be allowed to eat at home. But I wasn’t great in photos. Where I got the most work was runway shows. Even at 11 and 12, I was tall, and skinny. And somehow I could walk in heels. My mom was thrilled.
When I shot up in my teen years, and stayed skinny no matter what I ate on account of I couldn’t stop growing, my mom’s dreams of turning me into a model grew into something like an obsession. The modeling agent in Amarillo didn’t think I had talent or the right look. My mom called her a backwoods idiot and told me inspiring stories of models who were discovered just walking around the mall. I didn’t tell her the likelihood of a modeling agent cruising Westgate Mall in Amarillo for undiscovered talent was less than zero. I got older and her dreams of my perfume ad in Vogue faded. But she’ll still lament that I had what it took, if I’d only… I don’t know what. Moved to New York to walk around shopping malls and be discovered?
My older sisters were spared the modeling push because they lived with my dad. Their daughters hear it though. So far they seem immune to my mother’s sales pitch. My brother’s kid is especially impervious to admonishments like, “if you’re going to be a model, you need to work on your posture.” When my mom gave her that line, the kid responded by saying “Grandma, this is how a model stands” while posing in an extreme slouch, hips jutting forward like a forgotten marionette. Dead-on accurate. My mom gave up, for the day.
But my mom’s never given up on her core complaint about me and who I am, which is, “lesbians can be pretty too, Lauren.” She’s said this often enough that my older niece and nephew say it to me as one of their favorite jokes, a close second to “and then she died, Lauren. She died.” The people who died are people who didn’t put antiseptic on a minor cut or didn’t wash their hands after handling chicken or ignored a suspect mole.
The pretty lesbian statement’s usually the coda to a story that begins something like, “there’s this girl at work, Lauren, a lesbian. She wears makeup and earrings and has the most lovely hair.” This is a direct quote. A few years ago, she pulled this shit at Christmas. My nephew, the kid whose wedding I’m attending on Thursday, was 18 or 19 at the time, sitting in the overstuffed chair in her living room, playing with his phone, probably stoned out of his mind. My mom and I were in the kitchen, washing up. Usually I can ignore my mom’s crap on the subject. But I wasn’t in a great place. So when she got to, “I’m just saying lesbians can be pretty too, Lauren,” I said “I know, Mom. I fuck them.” My nephew nearly fell out of the chair laughing. My mom dropped the subject for a few years. And truly, I thought we were done with it. Then my face was in magazines, and not for a Calvin Klein ad, but because I wrote a book. So she mentioned, helpfully, that I could’ve worn a little makeup, tried a little.
It’s strange to me now, knowing all this, being all too familiar with my mom and her insistence that if I just tried a little harder, a little makeup wouldn’t hurt, grow your hair out just a bit, you have such lovely hair—I don’t know how it never occured to me while I was standing in that changing room, sorting through the ties a gay boy chose for me, that my mom is going to have an opinion. And I will hear about it.
I don’t know why it doesn’t really bother me more than it’s fucking irritating that we’re still doing this. Maybe it helps that when she does strike, I’ll find my niece or nephew or brother, who’ll tell me, “Lesbians can be pretty too, Lauren.” My brother will tell me about mom’s new diet of an apple and a can of tuna. My nephew will bring up the Christmas incident. And we’ll laugh about it because, goddamn.
I was thinking, until the conversation with my oldest sister, that the reason it doesn’t bother me anymore is because it’s just lost its sting over the years. My mom mostly accepts me, she just can’t fathom that anything about my look might be intentional. But when I realized my own sister still can’t figure it out, I had to adjust the working theory.
Now I think maybe I’m only immune to the venom because the rest of my family has seen it, and, in the case of the younger generation are completely fucking baffled by the lunacy. Having them to laugh about it with, to make our jokes only we find funny… I guess what I’m saying is it helps, when your mother’s completely insane, to have witnesses who can affirm that yes, you’re not the problem here. And it really only works with family. I mean if you tell me she’s crazy, I have to kick your ass. I guess what I’m saying is thank fuck for my brother, one sister, and the generations after us. Because goddamn this shit would be exhausting otherwise.
My dad’s alright too.