Friday, May 2, 2008

A Day in Reality

Part I.

I drove to the front of the building and sat in my idling car, amused and somewhat perplexed. Before me, on an otherwise perfectly suburban block in Van Nuys, California stood an old-western town square with a saloon. The rotting, weathered wooden structure with a weak, ornately-carved, second-story balcony sat upon a gravel lot occupied with movie trailers and tents.

Not seeing any other cars on the lot, and feeling sort of silly about walking into the saloon, I remembered the email had said something about crew parking. I drove around the block lined with well-manicured homes and clean sidewalks, and followed the yellow film location signs to the back lot. A young man wearing the standard crew uniform of cargo shorts, sneakers and an earpiece met me at the back door. He asked me to wait at the foot of a concrete staircase near a sign that said "Careful".

"We’ve got another model," he mumbled into the cord hanging around his neck.

Within a few seconds another young man who introduced himself as "Jesse James" emerged from the staircase and prompted me to follow him.

We walked down a short flight of stairs and into a narrow hallway of many doors whose decor was strikingly different than the exterior of the building. The robin blue and gold brocade wall paper, plush, quilted silk panels and garish wall sconces seemed to be making fun of themselves. They boasted a distinctly nineteen seventies take on Victorian Elegance, dated and dirty in both aspects. I laughed and Jesse James looked back at me with a knowing grin. He opened one of the doors and ushered me into a plain room in which several young, fair-skinned white women sat on folding chairs lining the walls.

"Hi!" they chirped.

I returned the greeting and sat in one of the chairs. Jesse James told us we were only waiting on about four more girls, and when we had all arrived he’d let us know the drill for the day. He pointed out the crafts table and encouraged me to eat of its granola bars, fruit candies, and spearmint gum. How generous. I obliged, as I hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning, assuming that in attending a morning call on a television shoot, I would be fed by production. I snatched three granola bars.

"I’m SO hungry," I said, combating my embarrassment with a tone of extremism.

"The show contestants don’t know you girls are here today, and we’re trying to keep that a secret. We don’t want any of them seeing you, so unfortunately I’m going to have to close this door, and if you need to go on a bathroom run or anywhere else, I’ll have to find someone to escort you," Jesse James explained.

I privately regretted leaving my coffee in the car, again having assumed they’d provide some. The door closed and we girls were left alone.

"So, does anyone know what this is? Like, what we’re gonna do?" one of the girls offered. She was sitting in the only non-folding, padded chair. She wore jeans tucked into knee-high, high-heeled brown boots and a white t-shirt, and had her legs stretched on a folding chair in front of her. She was very cute, with brown hair, long-eyelashes, and a strong resemblance to Meg Ryan.

"It’s a makeup show, and we’re all going to be made up," answered a girl with short, spunky black hair. She wore a perpetual smirk and spoke with tomboyish sarcasm.

"Yeah, but, how? Like, all the same way? Or different?" wondered the apparent ballerina with long blonde hair and a long neck.

I joined in, "The notice I submitted for specified women who resemble Twiggy. I wonder if each artist has been assigned a different icon, or if we’ll all be made up to look like Twiggy."

"Yeah, because we all look so much alike," smirked the sarcastic one.

The other girls laughed, and the door opened to a filing in of four other girls, all of whom looked like the rest of us.

Jesse James reappeared and informed us, "Okay, you’re all here, but the contestants aren’t, so I’m going to have to close this door again. Is everybody doing okay? Okay, good." And he was gone.

A round of "Hi!"s welcomed the newcomers and when they were all settled with granola bars in hand, I made the observation,

"We do. All look like Twiggy. I mean, we’re very similar - different heights and hair color, but same skin tone and facial shape."

I got the feeling the other girls didn’t like hearing about our similarities. Instantly commenced a game of How Am I Different Than You, with everyone offering hints of their uniqueness.

Sarcastic girl: "I’m part Mexican."

Meg Ryan: "I’m only 5'2, but I still work as a professional model."

Ballerina: "I got in a car accident and now have a crooked spine."

The Pixie Red-Head: "I have fiber myalgia."

The Smart Blonde: "I only eat raw foods."

All this time, the tallest one of us, and the only one besides Sarcastic Girl who appeared to be a real fashion model, decidedly kept to herself and silently read a book. She clearly wanted to do no socializing.

I debated in my mind the benefits to closing off versus being social. I had brought a book, as well as a notebook and a magazine. I could certainly keep myself occupied, and avoid the self-important trumpings of model/actor talk. Or I could attempt to engage in conversation with these girls with whom I would be spending every minute for the next eight hours. I settled on the latter, and took the route of asking questions and feigning interest.

"Oh, my goodness! When was your car accident?"

"You’re only 5'2! You seem much taller."

"Just raw foods. Wow, that’s dedication. You must be very healthy."

Jesse James would check-in on us every so often, offering bits of information and bathroom breaks. On these breaks, we would line up at the door while Jesse rattled into his neck cord, "Models need a bathroom break. Exiting holding."

We loved the trips to the bathroom, when we got to touch the hallway walls and comment on the bizarre decor.

"Jesse James says this place used to be a porn studio," said Pixie Red Head.

"Oh, totally!" exclaimed Meg Ryan.

"I believe it," I answered, truthfully.

We lined up on the balcony for our turn in the two-stall bathroom. On one such break, I asked if I could retrieve the coffee from my car. Jesse James pointed me to a tent in front of the saloon.

"There’s a crafts table where you can grab a cup."

"Really! Thanks!"

"Yeah. Go now, and I’ll keep an eye on you from up here."

I skipped down the stairs and approached the tent. From afar, I could see the substantial spread of food: bagels, yogurt, fruit, nuts, tea and coffee, all reserved for the crew. I considered my position, and the ease with which I could partake of their goods, but never being one to ruffle feathers, I simply filled a cup with coffee and obeyingly returned to my escort.

"Thank you so much," I said.

We were then ushered back to our holding cell. Several hours continued this way. Long bouts of conversation for the sake of something to do, broken up by trips to the bathroom. Finally, Jesse James told us we could go to wardrobe. The girls exclaimed in excitement.

"Ooh! I wonder what it’ll be? Little mod dresses? Go Go boots?"

"I LOVE sixties clothes!"

"Me too!"

We followed Jesse James down the hallway to a staircase and another hallway decorated in nearly the same way, but with the added absurdity of gold-specked mirrors. One-by-one we were taken into a small dressing room where the wardrobe director fussed through several racks of vintage mini-dresses.

"Ugh. I just want color! No more blacks and whites! Color! Red, Blue, Purple! We need some excitement here! Some GROOVINESS!" she shouted at the dresses themselves.

A dress came flying at me, and I dutifully put it on without asking if in fact that’s what I was supposed to do. Wardrobe emerged from the forest of polyester and clasped her hands in satisfaction.

"That is it! You look incredible. How do you feel? Put on these boots!" She tossed a pair of mid-calf, patent, white gogo boots at me.

"Oh, you look amazing. Your legs! They’re so long in that little skirt! It’s perfect! Is it too tight?"

"It’s a little tight. I can’t stand up straight."

"Then don’t. Slouch! Like a waif! That’s it, you have to wear it, it’s perfect."

She helped me get the dress off, pinned my name to it, and called for the next girl. Jesse James switched us out, and sent me off to set.

Part II.

I followed the man who had greeted me in the parking lot earlier that morning through the maze of ornamented hallways, and into a wood-paneled elevator. I tried to make some chit-chat, but he was stone cold.

“So do you spend every day here?”


“I’ve heard this place is haunted.”


“Have you ever seen any pornstar ghosts?”


The elevator opened up into a tiny entryway designed to look like a cave. The walls were covered in lumpy, red clay and were adorned with electric candles nestled in crevices near the ceiling. There was a closed door to the left, but it had no knob.

I exited the elevator behind my silent shepherd, and had to stand very close to him to make room for the elevator door to close. He mumbled something into his cord that I could not understand. We waited in a silence that I found to be very awkward, due to the cramped quarters and proximity of our bodies. I suppressed the urge to make a joke about the situation or surroundings, knowing he wouldn’t respond.

After too long the door swung open to reveal a sprawling sound stage brimming with lumber, electrical equipment, wires, computers, tools, and ladders. Members of the crew scurried about, speaking to each other only in whispers or low grumblings into their neck cords. This was the wonderous, magical, bustling workshop where reality is made for television.

Streams of bright light, chatter, and commotion poured from the confines of a quartet of false walls forming a room at the back of the sound stage. My silent shepherd led me to a row of chairs in front of the fabricated room and gestured for me to sit down. I did, and there I stayed for nearly forty-five minutes. Every five minutes or so, the silent shepherd would appear with another model close behind him. She would join me on the row of seats, looking as bewildered as I must have when I’d first arrived.

Finally, when we were all present, our silent shepherd gestured for us to stand and line up near the entrance to the false room. Excited about the opportunity to move about a bit, we started speaking amongst ourselves.

“Are we going on set?”

“They didn’t tell us we’d be going on camera without makeup!”

“SO glad I wore a cute outfit.”

The silent shepherd waved his arms wildly, urgently, communicating for us to shut up, and we hushed our exchanges to rapid whispers.

As we formed a line at the entrance, I had a new vantage point into the set. The interior walls were painted Tiffany blue, and the floor was black-and-white checkered linoleum. Victorian chandeliers dripped from the ceiling. Toward the back of this fabricated salon was an area decorated as a sitting lounge, with a careful jumble of Victorian and Modern antique furniture and Baroque and brocade accessories from Ikea and Target.

“We have a very exciting challenge today,” declared a loud, authoritative Australian voice from within the room. “I will be looking for Precision, Clean Lines, and High-Def Quality. Okay. Do you hear me? Those are the three crirea for today’s challenge, and I want you to write them down. Precision, Clean Lines, and High-Definition.”

Another voice shouted, “Cut! Napoleon, I need you to repeat that. Couldn’t hear the word ‘criteria.’ I need you to really pronounce it: CRITERIA. Okay, action.”

The robust Australian voice repeated its script. A crew member whispered to us, “When I say go, you will all enter the space. Two rows. 5 girls to each row. There are 5 beauty stations on either side of an aisle. Walk to your respective beauty station and turn around to face the camera. Okay, girls. Get Ready. And . . . Go!”

With purpose in our step, we entered. Indeed, on either side of an aisle stood two rows of beauty stations, each marked with an ornate gold-framed mirror, and occupied by its own makeup artist. I made eye contact with the artist at the station I was approaching and smiled. She smiled in return, and nervously shook my hand. I turned toward the camera like I was told to do.

In the entrance to the room, against the backdrop of butterflies and initials stood a large man sporting orange-brown skin, spiky brown hair, a shiny goatee, and eyes darkened with smoky liner and shadow. He had successfully concealed the round shape of his mid-section by wearing a boxy French Soldier’s jacket. Hugging his legs were a pair of tight tuxedo pants with white skulls running down the stripe, tucked into pointy black cowboy boots. His legs shot out from under his boxy jacket like darts. I wondered if he deliberately dressed himself to emphasize his name, Napoleon.

He filled his lungs with air, causing his jacket to swell, and pronounced, “These are your models, ladies.” He said “ladies”, but I noticed that not all of the makeup artists were women.

“And here is your task.” He pulled on a drape to his left and revealed a photograph of the model Twiggy. “60’s Mod!” The artists squealed and yelped. “You have exactly one hour to transform your model into 60’s Mod. After your hour is up, they will go to wardrobe to receive the finishing touches and return here for judgment. Like I said, I will be judging on Precision, Clean Lines, and High-Def. 60’s Mod makeup requires attention to every last detail, and those details must read in High-Def! This is very difficult. One of you will be eliminated today.”

“Cut!” yelled the director. “Napoleon, that was great. But Artists, I’m going to have him say that last line, and I want you to RESPOND! Show us how you feel about the possibility of elimination! And . . . action!”

Napoleon repeated himself: “This is very difficult. One of you WILL be eliminated . . . today.”

The artists gasped, sighed, and wailed.

“Your hour begins . . . NOW!”

He spun on his heels and sacheted away through the entrance adorned with his logo. Conversation erupted between the artists and models, and I joined in.

“Hi, I’m Channing.” I said, extending my hand.

“Hi, I’m Lauren.” She had a loose handshake, and I immediately labeled her as unconfident. She pulled a stool out from under her station, and I sat down. She studied my face for several minutes, not saying a word. I expected her to attempt some light conversation and was continuously surprised that she didn’t. She seemed very focused on whatever she was learning about my face by staring intently at it, and I didn’t want to interrupt her. I sat silent, doing my best to keep my expression blank, for fear of breaking her concentration. Finally she lunged for a cottonball and began wiping my face.

“Let me know if I’m being too rough,” she said. I could barely feel her strokes.

“It’s fine,” I offered. “So, how long have you been doing makeup?”

“Never. Not, really. I mean, I do my own, but that’s it. I’m not a Makeup Artist like everybody else here.”

“Oh! So you’re just doing this for fun?”

“I guess. And, it’d be cool to work for a real makeup artist. That’s what we win, if we win. We get to work with Napoleon.”

“Oh, cool. Is he famous in the makeup world?”

“Kind of.”

“Well I hope you win.”

“We’ll see.”

Her lack of enthusiasm made me uncomfortable, and I compensated by trying to be enthusiastic for her.

“What a great opportunity. You’d definitely be a Makeup Artist, then!”

She studied the row of foundations lined up on the station. I sat quietly while she chose one and began painting my face with it. We remained silent for some time, until I got antsy. It seemed like the other Artist/Model pairs were having a great time, chatting, laughing, hugging, crying. They were forging new friendships while my Artist and I grew further and further apart. My eyes sagged not only with the weight of liberally-applied purple eyeshadow and black liquid liner, but with boredom.

“So what’s your favorite style of makeup to apply to someone?” I ventured.

“I guess I like 60’s makeup.”

“Yeah, it’s fun.”

“I don’t think I’m very good at being precise, though, so I probably won’t do well with today’s challenge.”

At that moment, a cameraman thrust his lens into our station.

“Lauren, can you repeat that?” He asked.

“What?” She looked annoyed.

“The part about precision. What challenge does today’s criteria of precision present for you?”

“Ummm, it’s hard for me, because my hands are kind of shaky sometimes.”

“Okay, good answer, but Lauren, say it again but this time put my question into your answer. Like, ‘Precision is difficult because . . .’ See what I mean?”

Lauren sighed.

“Precision is difficult for me because my hands are shaky sometimes.” Lauren repeated, as if she were reading a script.

“Good. Now just continue your conversation,” said the cameraman.

There passed between us a clumsy silence, which I shooed away by saying, “My hands shake sometimes, too.”

The cameraman moved to the next station, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

“I actually really hate doing this,” Lauren said. “I’ve decided I hate being on tv.”

“Yeah, it’s a lot of pressure,” I replied.

We returned to our silence, which by now had become more comfortable than the alternative. We didn’t speak again during the rest of the hour. From time to time the cameraman would reappear and film us sitting quietly. Finally another Australian voice, but this time female, announced that the hour was up.

“Artists, put down your brushes.”

Lauren dropped her powder brush, and I swiveled toward the entrance. There, against the backdrop of butterflies stood a squat, blonde woman wearing a black t-shirt and faded jeans. She wore silver glitter converse and silver glitter eyeshadow to match.

“Your models are now to get into costume, and get their hair done: the final touches to complete the 60’s Mod look. When they are finished, we will return here for final judgement.”

“Cut!” shouted the director. “Good. Models, Jesse James is waiting for you at the door. Follow him. We’ll see you back here in three hours.”

I stood and looked at myself in the mirror. False eyelashes pointed to a wall of purple eyeshadow climbing my eyelids. Black liquid liner rippled into a cat-eye effect. Indeed, it was apparent that Lauren’s hands were shaky: eyeliner should not ripple, and cat-eye liner strokes should point in the same direction. Unfortunately, my left eye pointed up, and my right eye pointed down.