The original plan was that I would go to Belgium after my junior year in high school as part of a foreign exchange program, to stay with a friendly Flemish family in the small town of Turnhout, near the Netherlands border. Josee and Jean Jacobs* and their two daughters graciously agreed to host me even though I was studying French and had wanted to be matched with a French-speaking family, preferably in Paris; but rather than wait a year for another chance I agreed to this considerably less sexy destination. C’est la vie.**
You’ve probably already guessed that, after months of applications and interviews and finally being accepted into the program and matched to the Jacobs, I didn’t end up going. (I did stay with this family the following summer, but that’s another story. Stay tuned.) Why? In April of that year the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, located in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, experienced a sudden power surge that spiked a series of explosions; the ensuing fire sent 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than Hiroshima and polluted much of the USSR and parts of Europe. After some deliberation my mother decided that I would not be going to Belgium that summer. Quelle chienne de vie!***
I don’t exactly remember how I felt about the change in plan, because that same spring I had become a born-again Christian and my imagination was stuffed full of religious fervor. In a fit of holiness I gave most of my music cassettes to my sister, convinced that the Scorpions, Echo and the Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs, and Tears for Fears were all from the Devil (for the record, no one told me this. I determined it myself). Instead I mooned around the house weeping to the lyrics on Leslie Phillips’ album Black and White in a Gray World. When my sister commented on my strange behavior – I had, after all, logged many an hour at Baskin Robbins to build my music collection – I congratulated myself. My devotion showed! Que la lumière soit!****
Anyhoo. Mom, bless her heart, wanted to come through for me with some other summer adventure to make up for the disappointment nuclear disaster had wrought. And that’s how I ended up in San Diego for ten days of charm school.
John Robert Powers founded his original modeling school in 1923. He wrote a number of books (Secrets of Charm; The Powers Girls: The Story of Models and Modeling and the Natural Steps By Which Attractive Girls Are Created; and The John Robert Powers Way to Teenage Beauty, Charm, and Popularity to name a few) and believed that “there is no such thing as an unattractive person, just some people who do not know how to make the most of themselves.” Where my flaming feminist mother dredged this up, je n’ai aucune idée.*****
There were eight girls that week in San Diego, most of us run o’ the mill in the looks department — and all of us teenagers replete with drama and zits and garishly applied eyeliner and hair fried from too-hot curling irons. That week we not only bunked and ate together, we learned to walk a line correctly and pivot gracefully for the return, setting each foot in front of the other at a slight diagonal so that our hips swayed just so. We submitted to a makeover session that culminated in professional-grade headshots we could use to start our portfolios, and we were coached on what our optimal weights would be for runway work. (Mine? 118 pounds for my already full-grown 5’10” frame.) We were taken around various San Diego hot spots like Sea World and Balboa Park; we squealed and cooed like a bevy of beauty pageant hopefuls.
Talk about cognitive dissonance. (“I was, like, supposed to go to Europe this summer, but, like, there was this huge nuclear accident in Russia, with like, all kinds of radioactive shit, so, like, I’m here at JRP instead.”) I protected myself from my typical social anxiety by writing passionate letters about my newfound faith to Sarah, the charismatic youth leader back home. I lay on my bed during whatever breaks we had and listened to Leslie Phillips. I wrote not-so-cleverly disguised parables that illuminated the Christian story, like the one about a dolphin who was captured and but then was miraculously released from his cage.
Looking back, the whole gestalt shows so clearly my developmental stage and the limits of my empathy. World disaster? Bummer. Charm lessons? Okay. What am I to make of that 16-year-old girl I was — on the one hand, so self-centered and clueless about the reality of suffering, and on the other hand passionately drawn to a faith that teaches (on its better days) God’s enormous, compassionate heart? And all this under the auspices of modeling school.
*Names have been changed because I can’t remember the real ones.
***Life’s a bitch!
****Let there be light!
*****I have no idea, homeboy.
******Pretty fuckin’ weird.