Last night I was writing about how I have gotten very forgetful about this blog, and I thought to myself, I must write something tonight... or tomorrow.
Then later, as I was watching TV, mindlessly flipping through the channels, I saw that the Miss Universe pageant was on. I watched it in its entirety. Miss Venezuela won, for the second year in a row, the first time a country won for two years straight.
I used to watch the Miss Universe pageant as a kid. And although the pageant has changed for the worse (last night's pageant was a horrible, vapid, rushed spectacle-- the whole format of the show sucks compared to the suspenseful, involved competition it was in the '70s and '80s) some things never change: the final 5 are always dominated by Latin American super-contestants (last night it was Miss Venezuela, Miss Dominican Republic and Miss Puerto Rico) just as they were when I was a kid. Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, be damned.
Anyway, last night's Miss Universe pageant gave me an inspiration. Why write a new post? Why not just copy and paste?
You see, last February I met a former Miss Universe, and I wrote a long, loooong piece about it. It has been sitting in my Windows documents for 6 months now. I figured I'd dust it off and paste it below. So here it is....
Friday, February 13, 2009--
Before I write about my brush with Miss Universe yesterday, let me start out by saying that I am not a star-struck person. In addition to living in Los Angeles for over 3 years now, I lived in New York City for 15 years, and during all this time, I've seen, in person, a large number of celebrities, usually with me in a service capacity... presenting them with a tray of hors d'oeurves, waiting on their table, assigning them a table to sit at, checking their coat... but also on "equal-footing"... walking past them on the sidewalk, in line with them for coffee, eating at a table near theirs, waiting with them for the "walk" sign at a corner... even marching slightly behind them in a parade.
I've seen in person Woody Allen, Kathy Bates, Alec Baldwin, Uma Thurman, OJ Simpson, Anthony Hopkins, Tony Bennett, Donald Trump, James Franco, Drew Barrymore, Tobias Wolf, Claudette Colbert, Ethan Hawke, America Ferrara, Ice-T, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Brendan Frasier, Leonardo Di Caprio, Judge Judy, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Sean Leonard, Martha Stewart, Kyra Sedgwick, Gloria Steinham, Adam Sandler, Lee Grant, Julie Haggardy, Michael Douglas, Spike Lee, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Smits, Benjamin Netanyahu, Glenn Close, Maggie Smith, Ann B. Davis, Kathleen Turner, Richard Dreyfuss, Salman Rushdie, Marsha Mason, Al Franken, Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart, Jackie Chan, Patrick Swayze, Andy Garcia, Eric Dane, Bernadette Peters, Rick Moranis, Chris Farley, Mary J. Blige, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rudolph Giuliani, George Pataki, Ed Rendell, Rick Perry, Chuck Schumer, Chelsea Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Laurence Fishburne, Roscoe Lee Brown, Christina Aguilera, Kristen Chenoweth, Barbara Walters, Marni Nixon, Astrud Gilberto, Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, Bob Dole, Mariah Carey, Lauren Bacall.... and many, many more who have slipped my mind.
I never was that awestruck by seeing celebs, even at the beginning. Only thrice have I ever asked for an autograph. Only once did I tell one that I admired his work. And as time passed, I became so not-awestruck that I wouldn't even look thrice at them. Sure, when Lauren Bacall handed me her coat to check, I thought, Holy Christ, that woman has had sex with HUMPHREY BOGART, but it's not like I waited with baited breath for her to return later and claim her coat. Lauren Bacall? She's another person, that's all... a rather legendary one, but still, just a person.
I don't say this to brag. Rather, I say this so that you won't think, as you read what follows, that I am some star-eyed hick who freaks out at seeing a minor celebrity, if even a celebrity at all.
Well, I think that former Miss Universes fall under the category of "if even a celebrity at all". Yet to me, being Miss Universe, and Miss USA, is a very big deal. You see, I'm originally from Texas, and in Texas, beauty pageants are a very big deal. I don't mean to use that as an excuse. There are many Texans who don't give a shit about beauty pageants. It's not an excuse, it's a reason.
When I was a teenager in the '80s, five--count 'em--FIVE Miss Texases won the Miss USA title. Not only that, but they won the crown five years IN A ROW. Back then, I thought it a very big deal that my state was winning Miss USA every year, and during those five years, I was profoundly disappointed on an annual basis that none of them won the Miss Universe title. Miss Chile won it one year, Miss Thailand another year, Miss Holland another… but never the five annual Miss USAs from Texas--not once--five years in a row. Winning Miss Universe, I learned, was no easy feat.
As a kid, Miss Universe was always my favorite pageant. There were many pageants... Miss Texas, Miss USA, Miss America, Miss World... but Miss Universe was the one not to miss. My family used to gather in the living room every year and watch it as a big event... my mother, father, sister and I. There was always a finalist or two from a Spanish-speaking country, and as Cubans, I suspect my parents felt a sense of pride, because if Miss USA was not in the finals, we'd root for Miss Venezuela or Miss Colombia or Miss Puerto Rico or Miss Spain or Miss Quien Sea.
I remember once asking my mother why there was never a Miss Cuba in the competition, and she said, “Because Fidel Castro is a cruel dictator and will not let Cuban girls compete.” My heart sank just thinking of this injustice. “That’s Communism for you” added my father. You may think my parents’ reply silly, but you will notice that Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, a commie Fidelista if ever there was one, has not stopped Venezuela from competing in the Miss Universe pageant. There would be an armed uprising from the masses, and Hugo knows it. Stereotypically, Latin Americans take beauty pageants very seriously, and my family fit the stereotype.
The earliest Miss Universe pageant that I remember is from when I was like 6 years-old. The first runner up was Miss Haiti, and the winner was from one of the Scandinavian countries; I forget which. I just remember being shocked that Miss Haiti, a black woman, and very black at that, made it so far in the competition. When it got down to the final two contestants, I thought, Miss Haiti CAN'T win! She can't! Miss Blond HAS to win, she's BLOND! Not Miss Haiti… not Miss Haiti… not Miss Haiti.... Then the emcee said, “And the first runner-up is…. MISS HAITI!” and I felt relieved. Whew. Miss Haiti didn’t win. Then I felt guilty for feeling relieved. It was my first encounter with racism, and it was self-induced. Gimme a break: I was 6.
A couple of years later I redeemed myself, because a black contestant was in the finals, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman that I had ever seen. I guess I evolved from age 6 to 8, because I didn't care about her race. She was Miss Trinidad and Tobago. I remember this because I asked my mother how one woman could represent two countries. To me, a “Miss Trinidad and Tobago” was the same as a “Miss France and Germany”--nonsensical. My mother told me that Trinidad and Tobago was one country, not two--two united islands in the Caribbean. Well, whatever her national status, she was absolutely lovely, like an angel. I wanted so much for her to win, and was thrilled when she did. We have a black Miss Universe! Hooray! I was cured of my beauty queen racism.
The following year, Miss USA was in the finals, but it didn't matter. I thought Miss South Africa was more beautiful and I wanted her to win. She was white, though. I couldn't understand why a contestant from an African country would be white. So I asked my mother, "Mom, why is Miss South Africa WHITE?" and my mother said, "Because in that country there are a lot of whites, and the whites rule the government, and they don't let blacks have equal rights. The blacks have to drink in separate water fountains and go to separate bathrooms, just like here in this country before you were born. So the blacks probably aren't allowed to compete in beauty pageants South Africa".
When the coronation came, the previous year's Miss Universe, the black woman from Trinidad and Tobago, put the crown on the white woman from South Africa's head. I wondered if she knew how people of her race were treated in South Africa, and if so, how she felt about crowning a white representative of South Africa. I also wondered if the new Miss Universe would have wanted the old Miss Universe to sit in the back of the bus.
Yes, the Miss Universe pageant figured large in my youth. It was anticipated annual event, like the Oscars.
Which brings me to yesterday's audition...
I had an audition for a Target Commercial at Casparis Casting on Beverly Blvd. I had had one of these before some months back, where I walked down an imaginary runway to the beat of some hip music. Well, when I got there, I asked if there were any sides ("sides" are sheets of paper that have the dialogue that you will be saying in the audition). The guy told me that there were no sides, no dialogue, that I would just be walking down an imaginary runway to the beat of some hip music. Huh. Like the last time, I thought.
With no sides to review and attempt to commit to memory, I was free to sit in the waiting area and read my current book. However, I was unable to read more than a few pages, because soon my name was called.
I went over to the guy. He gestured me to sit on one of two stools, along with the girl I was to audition with. He also told me to do something that was unusual. He wanted me to hold one of my headshots AND one of the girl's headshots, and she was to do the same with one of hers and one of mine. Usually, you just hand your one headshot to the person running the audition, and never handle another actor's headshot.
"Hi" I said to the girl, and handed her one of my headshots as she handed me one of hers. "Hi" she said, and sat down. I sat down next to her. There we sat, side by side, alone in the hall, waiting to go in and audition.
Normally, it would be during this waiting time that the two actors assigned to audition together would go over the sides and rehearse. But since there was no dialogue, there was nothing left for us to do but kill time with small talk.
I've noticed over time that pretty female actors generally don't like talking to male actors at auditions. They usually seem rather reticent to engage. They're friendly and cheery, yet stand-offish. I think it's because after so many auditions with so many actors, they are probably used to having actor guys talking to them in an attempt to give or get a phone number, and really, what could possibly be more unappealing to a young woman than a struggling actor? So they keep their distance a bit and tend to keep extended personal conversation to a minimum. The prettier they are, the more stand-offish they seem to be, and understandably so.
Well, this girl was very pretty, so I didn't want to bother her by engaging her in conversation, for the aforementioned reason. She was pretty in an innocent, Emmy Rossum way... perfect complexion, high cheekbones, with very exotic yet wholesome, innocent good looks. There was nothing intimidating about her beauty. She also had a nebulous ethnic look to her. She looked like she could be Spanish mixed with Amerindian, or Polynesian mixed with Italian, or Filipino mixed with Korean, or Persian mixed with Arab... perhaps her ancestors are from India or Sri Lanka... or they could be Eskimos... the ethnic role casting possibilities for this girl were endless.
I had her headshot in my hands. Unlike most headshots, she didn’t have her name printed on the photo or under it. I wanted to turn the headshot over so that I could look at her resume', thinking that perhaps her surname might give me a clue to her ethnicity. But I didn't, for fear of looking nosey.
We sat there, silently staring off into space for a few seconds. The silence was awkward. I ventured to speak.
"I think I've auditioned for this casting director before," I said, "I remember an identical Target commercial at this very office a few months back."
"Yes, she does Target", she replied, "This is like my 5th audition for Target here. There's never any dialogue. Just walking down the runway, then dancing"
"Yeah, that's what I did the last time, too. As though I were a runway model"
"Target is trying to save money. Models are more expensive than actors, so they've been cutting costs by using people like us, who are not that beautiful"
I turned and looked at her. Not that beautiful? How could she say that about herself? She was really quite beautiful. Sure, she wasn’t sexy-beautiful, but she was My-mom-will-love-you beautiful, and how. I gave her a perplexed look, but I guess she misunderstood my expression, because she said,
"Oh, I didn't mean that you are not beautiful. It's just that you and I, we're just not as unrealistically and absurdly beautiful as fashion models are. We look like real, normal people, not perfect."
I shrugged and looked across the hall. There were three tall, thin blond girls waiting to audition for a Virgin Atlantic commercial. I said,
"Those girls over there are models, huh?"
"Gee, d'ya THINK?" she said, "Whatever gave you that idea? Could it be that they are 6 feet tall and weigh about 60 pounds each, or could it be that they are hardly dressed, despite the fact that it's only 60 degrees today?"
I chuckled. Then I sighed. Then I said,
"I hate commercial auditions"
"Really? Why?" she asked, with a tone of surprise.
"Because it seems so little to do with how I perform. It's so much more about how I look, and if someone else is more of what they're looking for physically, my performance becomes irrelevant"
"Oh, okay. I know what you mean"
"I've given great auditions and not gotten a callback, and then I've given lousy auditions and gotten callbacks, on-avails and even bookings"
"It's a lottery" she said, "It's totally like playing the lottery. If your number's up, it's up. It's an odds game--the lottery."
At that point I started to get the feeling that I had seen her somewhere before. This happens often at auditions, because the actors may have been in commercials that you have seen, or have had a one-day role on a TV series. That's how I was feeling with her after talking to her-- I knew her from somewhere, but where? I wanted to hear more of her voice because it seemed to be her voice that gave me the impression that I knew her from somewhere.
There was a woman down the hall holding a newborn baby in one of those cloth slings. I said,
"Aw, look at that baby. It looks so comfy in that sling"
"I could never carry my son in one of those" she said.
She has a son? She looks so young, I thought.
"You have son? You look so young" I said.
"Well, he's only a year old"
"And why can't you carry him in a sling?"
"Because I'm paranoid. I need something made by a manufacturer,” she said dryly, “so that if my baby falls, I'll have a company to sue."
I laughed. "So how do you carry him then?"
"Oh, I don't carry him anymore. The kid can walk, so no more carrying. That’s it. No mas. But when he was little, I would carry him in one of those backpacks that goes on your front instead."
I think she sensed that I was totally ignorant of the real names of baby-carrying devices. I said, "Well, you women have nature's baby carrier: your hips. You can perch a baby effortlessly on your hips."
"Yeah, that is true."
"I remember being at the zoo when my younger niece was a baby. I tried perching her on my hip like my sister did, but she kept sliding off. We men have non-existent hips. It's nature's way of saying that women should be the ones to carry babies"
"A lame excuse" she said.
And then the chit-chat abruptly ended, because we were called to go in and audition.
We handed the guy running the audition our headshots and stood on the line made of masking tape on the carpet, to the right of her.
He pointed the camera at me and said, "Slate your names".
I looked into the camera and said, "Larry Nodarse, and I’m willing to shave", referring to my goatee.
He said, "Left profile. Right profile” and I turned to my left and my right.
Then she slated her name: "Brooke Lee" she said, and then showed her profiles.
Suddenly, a bell went off in my head. Brooke Lee... Brooke Lee... Brooke Leeeeeee..... MISS UNIVERSE! She was Miss Universe! THAT'S where I've seen her before!
It kind of freaked me out that I knew her name, because while I used to watch the Miss Universe Pageant annually as a kid in Texas, I've rarely watched it again after leaving Texas in 1990. Maybe three times, tops, in the 18 years since then.
After we slated, the guy started telling us what to do in the audition, but I didn't hear a word he said. Instead, I looked at her, and saw a humongous crown on her head with 80 international beauty queens who lost, standing behind her, clapping with forced smiles. I saw her walking down the runway, with a bushel of flowers in her arm, waving at the crowds as the tuxedoed has-been emcee grandly announces her prizes and new responsibilities as the new female representative of the universe. She was the girl from Hawaii, wasn't she? The one who at Miss USA or Miss Universe made the radical feminist comment that beauty queens can gain a lot of weight and still be beautiful? Wasn’t that her?
"Larry..?" said the guy, "Did you get that?"
SHIT. What am I supposed to be doing when the camera rolls? I missed everything he told us because my mind was elsewhere. Stop thinking about Miss Universe... "Yeah, I got it, but could you repeat it though, just to be sure that I got it right?"
He sighed and said, "Okay. AGAIN: this is the 'runway', you are a runway model at a Target fashion show. She'll do it first, then you. The first time you do it sly and sexy. Stop at the first mark on the floor, look at the camera. Walk to the second mark on the floor. Stop. Look at the camera. Walk to the third mark on the floor. Stop. Look at the camera. Walk back to the second mark. Stop. Look at the camera, and then walk directly to it. Then walk back to the second mark, and then to the first mark without stopping. Then SHE will go a second time and do the same thing she did before. Then you go a second time and do the same thing you did before, but this time with a spring in your step and to the beat of the music, and with a big smile, just like her. But at the end, instead of walking out-of-camera, stop at the second mark. She’ll come out and join you, and you two will dance together for a minute, and that's it. Got it?"
"Can we walk through it first, rehearse it?"
"Okay, I got it. I can do it."
Miss Universe and I stood against the wall side-by-side as we waited for him to tell us to start. She’s not very tall… she’s barely taller than my shoulder… aren’t all Miss Universes supposed to be very tall...? She elbowed my arm and whispered, "Don't worry, it's easy. You’ll be okay. You'll see."
"Yeah, it's the same as the last one I did here. No sweat."
The music came on and she started her fake runway walk. How times change, I thought, looking at her. A few years ago, she was walking down a real runway in a glamorous evening gown, and a mountainous crown on her head, and a hedge of flowers in her arms, in an immense theater full of applause, with an international television audience watching her. Now she's here, in this harshly-lit little room, in a gray sweater with her hair in a ponytail, walking to masking tape marks on the dreary carpeting, with mere ME. How times change...
My turn. I went. I walked down the imaginary fashion runway. Sly and sexy, sly and sexy, sly and sexy, cool cool cool....
I finished and stood against the wall, and she did her runway walk a second time. I watched her and thought, How can she say that she's not that beautiful? Not so 'absurdly and unrealistically beautiful'? 'Real, normal' looks? She was Miss UNIVERSE. Doesn't that mean extra-ordinary beauty? Not even Miss World, but Miss UNIVERSE... meaning she’s even more beautiful than women on OTHER planets. Miss UNIVERSE of all people has low self esteem when it comes to her looks? And what year did she win, anyway? I've only seen like 3 or 4 Miss Universe pageants since 1990. So is she my age, then? She looks so young...
She returned and stood against the wall. My turn again. Out on the 'runway' I went. A spring in my step, beat of the music, big smile… spring in my step, beat of the music, big smile… spring in my step, beat of the music, big smile… playful 'n cool, playful 'n cool, playful 'n cool....
I stopped at the second mark, and she came out and joined me, and we danced together. I'm dancing with Miss UNIVERSE, I thought. Then out of nowhere, I heard a loud female voice, seemingly coming from Heaven:
"Can you have him do it over again? He's walking way too fast, and I'd actually like to SEE him. All I see is a blur. He needs to slow down."
I looked around, trying to find where the voice was coming from. Miss Universe said, "It's her" meaning the casting director, who was obviously watching from another room on a TV set, and speaking on an intercom, like Charlie in Charlie's Angels. Wasn't Farrah Fawcett a former Miss Universe? Or was it Jaclyn Smith…?
The guy said, "Let's do the whole thing over again. Man, you gotta slow down. And another thing, both times you didn't stop at the first mark, and walked right past the camera's focus to the second mark. Stop at the first mark, like I said."
"Okay, sorry" I said, but he kept talking...
"You know, I teach a commercial audition class, and the first thing I tell my students is to LISTEN. That's why mistakes are made, because actors DON'T LISTEN. The simple key to a successful audition is LISTENING. You weren't listening. Stop at the FIRST mark before stopping at the subsequent ones, okay?"
I felt like telling him that I normally DO listen, and I never flub the directions, but this time I did because was distracted by imagining Miss Universe here, in her towering crown. Did you know SHE was Miss Universe? I did not tell him that, however.
“Slate your names again” he told us. Miss Universe walked back to the camera to slate. I felt like an idiot being the cause of her having to do it again.
After re-slating, we started the whole routine again. She did her walk, and I did mine, this time without a hitch. I watched her as she did her “runway” walk and thought, She surely won the swimsuit and evening gown competitions, no? That’s runway modeling, and yet she may not even get a callback for this lousy commercial. Some girl who has never even competed in a local beauty pageant may book this gig over her. I am such a geek. I need to get a life. Why am I even thinking these things? It was my turn to do my second walk. When I finished, she joined me in front of the camera and we danced. I’m really dancing with Miss Universe. No big deal--not the waltz or the tango, we’re not even touching, but still, I’m dancing with Miss Universe. I never would have dreamed this as a child in Texas... Jesus Larry, big deal. Get a life.
“Thanks guys. That was fine. That’s all” he said.
“Okay, thanks, bye”, she and I both said.
She walked out of the room, and as I was about to walk out, he stopped me by saying, “Hey man, I’m sorry if I got a little harsh with you about listening. Nothing personal.”
“No, no problem” I said, “You must have to put up with that a lot. I understand.”
When I walked out into the hall, I was surprised to see that Miss Universe hadn’t gone off already. She was there waiting for me.
She said, “Don’t worry about her telling to repeat what you did. If she stopped the audition like that, it means that she liked you and wanted to make sure you came out well on tape. She’ll call you in for future auditions, you’ll see.”
I tried to act cool, like I couldn’t have cared less, and jokingly said, “Woo, I’m thrilled”
I think she took my sarcasm the wrong way, because said flatly, “Okay. Well. Bye”.
“Bye, Brooke” I said, “It was nice to meet you” and without looking back at me, she put on her winter coat, walked out the building very quickly, and was gone.
She MUST have originally been Miss Hawaii, I thought, looking out the front doors where she had exited. Why else would she be wearing a thick coat like that in 60-degree weather? Only a Hawaiian could think it’s cold today.
On the drive home, I listened as usual to liberal political talk radio on AM 1150, but I wasn’t really listening, because I was too busy thinking, lost in my thoughts… Michelle Pfieffer competed for the Miss California crown, and didn't even win. Halle Berry won Miss Ohio, but didn’t win Miss USA. She was first runner-up... She didn’t even get to compete for Miss Universe, and now she’s Halle Berry, an Academy Award winning actress, a top box office draw, starring in major motion pictures… Laura Harring did win Miss USA… yet she didn’t even get to the finals of Miss Universe, but she starred in Mulholland Drive, one of my favorite films ever… she was directed by David freakin’ LYNCH, for God’s sake… and Brooke Lee… well, she won Miss USA and Miss Universe… and now she’s auditioning for TARGET COMMERCIALS…? Not pre-cast, but auditioning for a sans-dialogue commercial…? It shows you just how little these pageants mean... Well, give her a break… maybe she’s not even pursuing acting. She could be pursuing commercials and the hosting and emecee-ing of television shows… she’s probably not an actor, so how can I compare her to Halle Berry? Why was I so impressed by meeting Brooke Lee, anyway? It’s absurd… I’m such a dork… I’ve seen so many real celebrities in person, so what’s the big deal about auditioning with Brooke Lee…? Hmm… it’s childhood. Childhood is a hard thing to shake off, isn’t it? If, as a child, something is a big deal to you, you can be 40-years-old and it still impresses you… after all, of all those big celebrities that I saw in NYC, I only asked three of them for an autograph, all three of them after I had seen them perform on Broadway. The first was Maggie Smith, the second was Glenn Close, and the third, and most important, was Ann B. Davis… of course she was the most important of them all… of course she was… she was ALICE in The Brady Bunch…. I adored her as a child… I didn’t know who the hell Maggie Smith and Glenn Close were when I was in 3rd grade, but I sure knew who Alice and Miss Universe were… I’m surprised I didn’t get into a car accident on the drive home, so distracted was I by my thoughts.
Of course when I got home, the first thing I did was sit at my computer, get online, go to YouTube and type “Brooke Lee” in the search box. The first thing I noticed was that her name is spelled Brook not Brooke. That surprised me. I had just assumed that every female with that name would naturally spell their name like Brooke Shields. With an “e” on the end, the name brings the lovely Brooke Shields to mind… without an “e” it brings to mind a creek or marsh…
I watched clips of her winning the Miss USA crown and of her winning the Miss Universe crown. I watched clips of her in the interview competitions, and saw that funny, smart, somewhat sassy woman that I saw at the audition an hour before. I realized that what won her those crowns was her smarts more than her beauty; good for her.
I realized that for all the glamor and swirl of winning such a competition, it only represents a moment in time, and the one consolation for the probably 200 women that she defeated for the Miss Hawaii, Miss USA and Miss Universe titles, is that, like them, today she's a normal mom, living her life pretty much un-noticed, going out for interviews when a job possibility arises. I learned that winning one of those crowns, really, amounts to pretty much nothing (unless you are Venezuelan, where they make you a senator for life).
I guess I didn't realize that because I haven't given the topic any thought since my youth, so I was thinking as a youth... well, until I met the lovely Brook Lee yesterday.
That was loooooong, huh? Anyway, it's funny that I mentioned what happens to a Venezuelan Miss Universe winner, because last night, Venezuela got a new, pretty, senator for life.