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2:29 a.m. - 2013-11-01
Pretty As A Picture

Wolf's under the impression I grew up in a Dickensian workhouse. Which, truth be told, isn't far off the mark what with the endless cleaning, profiting the owners (Mom) through my labor, and the constant humiliations and reminders of how grateful I should be for being allowed to live, but my childhood wasn't complete unrelenting grimness. Good things happened. Honest they did. Heck, see previous entry about having best friends and our own cool-ass spy headquarters. That was a very good thing indeed.

I mentioned being a nifty little money-spinner for Her Nibs. Starting around my fourth birthday straight on through until I was 10. That's when I tubbed up and the boobs I'd started growing at 9 could no longer be flattened with a strategically wrapped Ace bandage. I began working again at 13 but that was a whole other kind of gig. It's the earlier part of my career I want to talk about. Being a kiddie model in the 60s and early 70s was nothing like today's hypersexualized snake pit. Yeah, my hair was kept bleached and before a shoot the make-up went on with trowels, but the ideal was for us kids to be wholesome glorifications of childhood innocence and vibrant post-war good health. Chubby rosy cheeks, dimpled knees, shiny teeth, and even in our groovy polyester duds we were set up to exude a kind of Norman Rockwell meets Mark Twain (with a dash of Hummel figurine) downhome goodness. Shit, the fact that I looked like a goddamn Hummel was one of my biggest selling points. An All-American Hummel, thankyouverymuch. I might have had that Aryan uber-kid coloring and good looks but my smile was pure Go-Go Rah-Rah "Land a man on the moon by the end of the decade" American exceptionalism. That was my hook. Other kids were cuter or sparklier or had curly hair like a cherub, but if you wanted a 5 year old Rosie the Riveter I was your girl. I did a lot of shoots for outdoorsy stuff. And for some reason...pudding. From ages 6-8 I was the 'It' girl of pudding.

No lie, I wanted to be the girl who posed with the dollhouse under the Christmas tree. I wasn't ethereal enough for that gig though. I wore 'sportswear' and posed with a lot of bicycles and beach balls. I held a lot spoons over bowls of soup (and pudding, of course) and sat at many, many picnic tables smiling my "Give 'em hell, Harry!" smile above a slice of watermelon or an ear of corn.

Aside from the hair bleach and the necessity of never getting an inconvenient scraped knee or badly placed bug bite, I truly didn't mind my job. Getting done up with make-up and hair was a hassle, but I did enjoy the liveliness of a big shoot. Besides the other models (who were usually competitive snoots) the rest of the people on set fell into three categories- the ignore-ers, the fakers, and the honest ones and it was fun to watch them in action.

The ignore-ers treated us like props. They never spoke to us directly, ever. Mostly the ignore-ers were the art directors and the principal photographers, sometimes the lighting guys. At their behest we were posed like mannequins rather than human beings. "Bring the elbow up on #2, okay?" "Get a blue gel in here, they look like crap." "I need a bigger smile from the one on the right." Ignore-ers taught me the most about seeing myself as a product. Who I was was nothing compared to what I was. I was the one on the left who needed to stand up straighter.

The fakers. Man, I hated them. These were the folk who pretended they liked kids and loved their job and were thrilled to be in some dingy warehouse in Rahway, NJ on a Saturday shooting another crap weekly advert for A&P supermarkets. Fakers always spoke in high voices with treacly encouragement and they always asked us what our favorite subject in school was. Blech.

The honest ones, however, made my whole day. They spoke to me as a person. A person with my own mind. Usually assistants, gofers, and sometimes the hair/make-up/wardrobe people. They'd ask about the book I was reading (a new book was my usual treat for working an all-day job) and look me in the eye while I spoke. Sometimes the honest ones were honest about not liking kids and that was fine too. It paid to know who the shitheads were. If an honest one said to us in the kiddie corral, "Look, kids, I wanna be out of here by 3:00, so just do your thing without any crap and I'll make sure you get a callback for next month, okay?" Okay. Worked for me. I didn't have an agent, just a booker my mother kept in touch with. Unlike most of the kids I wasn't there to make the jump into filmed commercials and then onto actual acting jobs. I was strictly adverts and catalogs. The occasional runway gig, mostly in malls. 'Fashion shows' of the lowliest store-specific kind.

My horrible mother, you ask? Once I was checked in and she got an approximate finish time she beat feet out of there. Headed for the nearest bar and a late morning/early afternoon of sopping up gin and tonics and cruising for men. She liked the money I made, but not enough to schmooze with the other mothers and the always hungry agents. (No Mama Rose, my mother, getting me into show biz would have taken too much time from drinking and trolling for her next husband.)

Again, this was no hardship. It was easier for me if she wasn't around. Even at 5 years old I knew I wasn't leading lady material. Too 'sturdy' for one thing. (See above about not being wispy and pretty enough for the truly good gigs.) But mostly because what I did on Saturdays and sometimes on weeknights wasn't my idea. It wasn't my dream. Having my mother there jonesing for a drink and grimacing at me from the sidelines wouldn't advance my career, it just stressed me out. I worked because she told me I had to. So I did. And I was good at it. I smiled on cue. I hefted the beach balls and swung the sand buckets and tossed the styrofoam snowballs. I spooned my pretend soup and pudding. What I got out of it were new books and sometimes interesting conversations with grown-ups who didn't seem to care I was a kid. I got the goofy pleasure of wearing bathing suits and shorts in January and the perverse privilege of pretending it was winter in July.

It wasn't the best way to spend one's childhood, but when I think of the wrecks like Dana Plato or Lindsay Lohan I know I got off easy. My horrible mother could have been greedier, worked me harder, shoved me into jobs I didn't want and couldn't handle. As it was I helped our family get by okay after the divorce and the lack of child support checks. Learning to think of myself as a product rather than a whole human being allowed me to come out of some horrific abuse (physical and sexual) less scathed than I might have been otherwise. I got a whopper of an education in sales and it stood me well later on. My earlier career was one of the reasons I was the region's top grosser when I sold cars despite working in a doinky dealership without a lot of inventory or management support. I learned about accessorizing and making the most of what I had. I got a firsthand look at marketing and the psychological warfare waged by advertisers. But most of all my childhood career taught me what I didn't want for my own kids.

My sons (despite Alex's assertions otherwise) got to be kids. I didn't lade them with the responsibility of being breadwinners before they were in kindergarten. They were allowed to play. And grow their hair its natural color. They don't know from artificial smiles, hot lights, and the pressure to be a 'thing'. They never spent seven hours spooning invisible pudding in a cruddy warehouse on a sunny Saturday that would have been better spent playing frisbee with a friend or fetch with the dog.

Not everything about being a working child was awful, really, but the best thing for me was that my own kids never had to do it.


Looking for the upside as usual, ~LA



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