The Fashion Magpie Pageantry

Pageantry.

When I was around six, I decided I wanted to be a nun — no, a teacher — no, an actress.  And then, for many years, I daydreamed intensively about becoming a star of the silver screen, until I reached eighth grade and came to two conclusions: first, that I did not enjoy performing at all, and second, that I was far better at academics.  I had earned exactly two roles across my elementary and middle school career, but I’d gleaned from both experiences that acting was uncomfortable for me and did not play to my strengths.  The first was Witch No. 3 in Shakespeare’s “MacBeth,” which my fifth grade class performed at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill as a part of an annual program in which local elementary schools perform(ed?) renditions of The Bard’s plays.  I had desperately wanted to be cast as Lady MacBeth, but a precocious, mature-looking classmate of mine with a thick mane of blond hair and an outsized, melodramatic personality clambered all over the role once the play had been selected, and I was too shy to throw my hat into the ring.  Even at the age of ten, I knew that she could pull off the hystrionics of “out, out damned spot” far better than this shrinking violet ever could.  Instead, I was randomly cast as one of the three witches, with the starring line: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”  I rehearsed the line four thousand and twenty nine times, varying the way I said “wicked” each time — sometimes in a shriek and sometimes in a snarl.  Of course, no one remembers my performance because showtime nerves led me to rush through the phrase in a monotone recitative, and I don’t know that anyone could even hear what the hell I was mumbling.  I did, however, gain some smallscale notoriety among my classmates because I had managed to memorize not only my lines, but the lines of every single character in the play.  I knew — even then — that my skill in rote memorization was probably better served in the academic sphere than it was in rushing through lines and scurrying, my heart in my throat, to exit stage left.

But still, I persisted in my dream.  I wrote stories about a fictional me, a big time actress me, being interviewed by Entertainment Weekly.  I daydreamed about attending awards shows.  Implausibly, I imagined myself dating Val Kilmer (?).  I swooned over the pageantry of it all.

And then my career as an actress — and any ambitions for celebrity — officially came to a close in an actual pageant in eighth grade.  Every year, the school put on an old-school Catholic Christmas pageant, and the eighth graders were responsible for acting out the key roles of Mary, Joseph, Cesar Augustus, the innkeeper, the three kings.  In the spirit of democracy, the class voted on who should be play each role, and I won — much to my surprise and private delight — the role of Mary.  The casting was especially meaningful to an eighth grade me because the class hunk, Enrique, was voted to play the role of Joseph.  Enrique was a handsome, good-natured boy who looked an awful lot like Benny “the Jet” Rodriguez from The Sandlot, had accordingly been a crush of mine since fourth grade, and had recently started dating the hottest girl in our class, Aline (pronounced ah-leen-ay), who had moved to the U.S. from Brazil a year prior, wore enormous silver hoops and flared bell-bottoms that hugged her perfect curves in all the right ways, had been rumored to smoke cigarettes now and then (the eighth grade me was shocked and impressed), and was overall one of the biggest babes I’ve ever met in my life.  I was flattered that my classmates had voted me in, but I was mainly keen on playing a starring role — even in a religious performance — across from the most eligible bachelor in my parochial Catholic school.  But the principle thing I remember from the pageant?  A deep flush — not from my counterpart, but from the feeling of being watched.  I was painfully self-aware, suddenly wondering whether I usually kept my lips open or closed over my teeth, whether I was blinking more often than usual, whether anyone had noticed the peaceful, faraway look I thought I’d arranged on my face.  I couldn’t wait to shed my blue cassock, retreat into my bedroom, and lay on my stomach on the blue carpet of my childhood bedroom, listening to the Brandy and Monica single “The Boy Is Mine” (I guess I was a repeater then?!) on my Sony Discman.

On the car ride home, I asked my father what he’d thought: “How was I?”

He was switching lanes, and I remember the tick-tick-tick-tick of the blinker as he said: “Well, I don’t know that your future is on the stage.”

I knew he was right — to the degree that I wasn’t even burned by his blunt response in a predictably angsty -teenager way.  I willingly took his feedback on board.  That chapter had closed, and I funneled my energy into a pastime better-suited to my abilities: academics.

It’s funny, though, how things turn out.  Tonight, I will be speaking at a public event, and, in preparing for it, I realized that throughout my career I have consistently found myself on stages of various forms: as a teaching assistant in graduate school, at academic conferences presenting my papers (one such took place in Rome, Italy, and  my parents extravagantly flew out to hear me read my paper — I was a nervous wreck the evening before, barely sleeping an hour or two), then at dozens of non-profit convenings as the executive of two different start-ups in the education technology sector, then at design-centric gatherings presenting some of the learnings from some products I worked on with the design firm IDEO (a whole other story, and one worth telling — perhaps one of the best experiences of my professional career), then pitching the business I built with my husband at a range of pitch events, and, now, occasionally, as TheFashionMagpie.  How can that be, I wonder?

Sometimes I marvel over the symmetry of this particular thread in my narrative, my early aspirations and failures somehow a foreshadowing of what was to come.  You aren’t meant to act, my dear, but you will need to learn to be comfortable on a stage.  How tidy — how kind, really — that life permitted me the space for these false starts, acknowledging in some way that I’ve never been one who thrives on a “jump in feet first” mentality.  The stage had its pull then, as a middle schooler, and it has its purpose now, as an entrepreneur.  I wouldn’t say I’m at home on a dais, but I’ve overcome stage fright by force of will and repeated exposure, and — against all odds — I will admit that I indulgently enjoy being in the limelight now.  I had to first see myself as a somebody, and then acclimate myself with the discomforts and thrills of being a perennial fish out of water, but now, when I stand at the front of a room and tap my glass for attention, it makes me feel as though I have something to say, and that something is worth listening to.

Post-Script.

+One Magpie recently asked me for a few chic, inexpensive cover-up options.  My top picks: this scalloped style from J. Crew, these affordable block-print tunics (which look an awful lot like Roberta Roller Rabbit!), this pom-trimmed variation, and this white lace style, which looks like a Miguelina!

+In need of a last-minute Fourth of July dress that’s not too overly patriotic-looking (and not into any of these)?  How adorable is this (under $50)?!  OR THIS (LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE X 10000).

+Do you ever read “lowbrow” books and feel guilty?  Don’t.

+This jumpsuit is epic.

+Golden Goose sneakers, on sale!

+I’ve gotten a bunch of emails asking about the bookshelves you can see behind me in some of my Instastories at home — they are these, and I am obsessed with them.

+This would be a good solution for a small space with a window and nothing to put beneath it — turn it into a little reading nook, with storage below!

+The monogram on this pillow is TOO GOOD.

+Life lessons from Lee Radziwill.

+Super cute maternity dress.

+For some reason, Amazon keeps saying this is a book I might like…

2 Comments

  1. Amazing post — I love the way you write about childhood memories, and as a would-be theatre kid (during my middle school years) who lacked acting chops, I can totally relate to the emotional memories you evoke above. But enough about that — I hope your event went well!

    1. Thank you 🙂 Middle school and high school were so brutal, and I was so painfully awkward and self-aware. Kind of weird revisiting that time, but there was so much happening!

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