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Fashion Weak: how I learned to fake it

In the second in his series of self-reflective essays, Alex revisits his transition from closeted highschooler to out theatre major and aspiring reality TV fame whore

This is Fashion Weak, a five-part salacious/spiritual/sometimes sad series of essays about how a former unconvincingly closeted musical theatre major managed to get past the VIP New York City “fashion world” ropes, making a trainwreck of an entrance.

“They think I’m real” I deadpanned with double dead eyes to my best friend and Brit singer-songwriter, Teddy Sinclair, in the late spring of 2014 in the West Village. She’s kind of insane (a Leo) and very salaciously sincere, so we’re a quite dramatic, messy match. But she’s the bona fide star, with bullet points on her resume listing songwriting for Madonna and Rihanna and making tabloid headlines. We both understand, well, deal with, the complexities of crazy. (She has Instagram trolls urging her to kill herself every other day, I’ve got annoying voices screaming while crowd-surfing in my head every other hour.) I’ll express feeling like a poser who’s afflicted with the tormented artist brain, but she’ll shut that shit down. She’ll tell me I haven’t realised my potential, which is so Buddhist of her even though she hates religion because of her formative cult member years. As for me, I forever felt like I was the president of the Imposter Syndrome Club or some psycho shit. In other words, the “they” in “they think I’m real” meant the New Zealand Fashion Week team, because they’d invited little me to an all-expenses-paid press trip where I’d once again sit in my uncomfortable skin front-row next to Kiwi celebrities. I was on the barbed-wire fence, secretly debating in my increasingly cracking cranium if a month in rehab was of more importance. I was already, wait for it, so down under.

“THEY THINK I’M REAL!” my BFF repeated on lunatic loop in a shrill soprano, nearly sliding from a painfully hip coffee shop’s bench onto Gay Street. (We have a penchant for making light out of darkness.) Meanwhile, her Seoul-born chihuahua, Bambi, a very expensive purchase she found via a “smallest dog in the world” Google search, loses its mini-mind in her Vivienne Westwood bag as she convulsion laughs. Teddy (Bambi too) gives nary a fuck about causing a scene. She’s comfortable in her La Mer skin. And then there’s me, panicking that someone, anyone, will notice me and what’s really underneath this perma-Play-Doh-y body.

“Faking the real to publicists, social media friends, editors, et al wasn’t too tough for me. At first. I learned early on to fake it” 

Faking the real to publicists, social media friends, editors, et al wasn’t too tough for me. At first. I learned early on to fake it (and by “fake it,” I mean fake being straight) until I hopefully made it out of public school alive. I don’t know who you clowns are who are all like: “New York City is the realest.” Real was pulling up to my high school’s parking lot in Pittsburgh, with my bad girl crew (cheerleaders) in a hot-boxed Chevy thanks to fat cherry-flavored blunts. Realer was misting my of course I’m straight! XXXL Sean John t-shirt paired with size forty waist Phat Farm jeans with my crew’s Victoria Secret’s Love Spell perfume and/or their boyfriends’ Cool Water cologne, before teetering in Air Force 1s through the school’s much-needed metal detectors while higher than a Mariah Carey whistle note.

Real was what was almost a public panic attack when I was crowned homecoming king. Being friendly, because I needed to be liked, with each and every clique is an additional talent of mine, which in high school included the band geeks, the Hot Topic goths, some jocks who only tolerated me because they wanted to hook up with my cheerleader friends, and a few juvenile delinquents. Edgy. I couldn’t believe I’d won at something. I also couldn’t feel my fingers. Well, the crown didn’t fit my big ass head, squashing my gelled spikes, and the maybe-I’m-not-so-bad thoughts were annihilated when I overheard the football star, who was the first runner-up, whispering that “a faggot won homecoming king” as we were having our photos taken on stage. (Don’t feel bad for me – the homecoming queen overheard a jackass saying she got the sympathy vote because her boyfriend hanged himself earlier in the school year.) My creepily fake smile that would be displayed in the yearbook showcased my impressively white teeth, which had a lot to do with the juxtaposition of my intense tan that I had worked very hard on. Image is everything.

The successful suicide pacts, the locker room bullying bruises (the nightmares remain re: “titty twisters”), the tween me giving a fellow (female!) tween a UTI. All so unfortunately real. I impressively don’t recall being made fun of when cast as a depressed elephant in Seussical the Musical my senior year, though, which found me crooning a ballad called “Alone In The Universe” with anthemic lyrics like “They all call me a lunatic, okay, call me a lunatic. If I stand on my own, so be it!” How prophetic!

The XXXL duds, the scary tan, the discount bling I’d rock around my neck that’d inevitably turn green... My armor was on point. Whether on a stage or losing my straight virginity on a golf course, I was perpetually acting! Literally, too. My audition to get the fuck out of Pittsburgh was a success and I was accepted into Philadelphia’s University of the Arts musical theatre programme. I wasn’t scared to get my ass beat at this laughable liberal arts school, which had a smaller population than my high school and no metal detectors, but the ballet tights were pretty traumatising. I have an affinity for quitting at everything, but this was different. I knew right away that my progressively shaky mental health and I really needed to sashay away to... anywhere but here.  

Here being some Glee Gone Wild shit. I couldn’t stand any of the irritating theatre majors who venomously judged me for not loving the overrated and way-too-poetic works of Stephen Sondheim, and for loving the iconic rock opera that basically was the reason I’d move to New York City known as Rent. I dare you to judge me, if you haven’t already. Over the years, mental health professionals took advantage of my time/money by tiresomely telling me that happiness is all about living in the moment. I had Rent to rock belt that cheesy-but-so-true “No Day But Today!!!” mess to me since I was a spineless tween. Thank the gay gods I never got that lyric tattooed on my foot for my 19th birthday. Allow me to emphasise that I was an unconvincingly closeted musical theatre major, living in Philly’s “gaybourhood” in a dormitory that once was a psych ward (so symbolic).

“New York City is where I belonged. This is where I’d wear the metaphorical masks that public school and theater school provided me, the masks that would somehow in the near future convince my editors that I knew/cared about fashion”

After two years of protecting myself from the demonic divas, one of my favorite individuals in the world suddenly died, so, of course I swallowed down the sad and lept sans ballet tights to New York City. I transferred to another liberal arts school, Marymount Manhattan College, where Tory Burch flats-wearing Gossip Girl types and wealthy children of the famous who were only here because they couldn’t get into NYU would inform me of its monicker: Fairymount Manhattan. And the school’s spot-on slogan: Gay by May. Though I was living in a closet-sized room at a YMCA, I was out of the sexual orientation closet by my second semester, dating-ish a chiseled go-go boy who I had met on MySpace and who had once served in Afghanistan, as proven by his bicep scars. Free of my past. Free to be the authentic me! I’d block out that time at UArts when I was locked in a classroom by my vocal coach who had called up my shrink to “Please get here immediately.” Long story. New York City is where I belonged and where I’d make sure I fit in but also stand out. This is where I’d wear the metaphorical masks that public school and theatre school provided me, the masks that would somehow in the near future convince my editors that I knew/cared about fashion. This is where I’d be diagnosed by five different psychiatrists that yes, believe me, you’re absolutely Bipolar II. And ultimately, this is where I’d reach my fame whore peak.

The last time I'm aware of someone calling me a fame whore was one of my best friends. My other best friend’s response was that "We are all fame whores,” so, thanks, girl. I stress ate pad thai and klonopin while watching this all go down on 2012’s terrible (but also totally ahead of its time!) “docu-series” Gallery Girls, which aired on Bravo. I was cast as the “gay BFF” as scribbled in all caps by a producer on my pro-bono contract. After the first three episodes, I was ashamed, which wasn’t very fame whore-y of me. I’d again allowed my mentally ill millennial-related optimism/delusions – it’d be a smash and I’d nab a book deal, at least 100K Instagram followers, my very own spin-off – to get the best of me. The show was cancelled after one season.

I acted to charm celebrities, to fuck pseudo celebrities. To gain access into whatever the hipper-than-thou downtown boîte was that week. And I’ve always attempted at dressing whatever the cool part was of the moment – the XXXL Sean John (2004-2005), the XL Italian Stallion t-shirt (2006-2007), the acid wash skinnies (2008-2009), the studded biker jackets (2010-2013), the bleached greasy man-bun and cocaine nostrils (2014). I’d mask my burgeoning depression with sex and selfies with gross fox fur-wearing fashion bloggers. I sort of would in the near future act during my phone interview to be accepted into rehab, because I wanted and needed it so badly, until I didn’t. In between staying in bed for days, where I’d recharge the fake, I’d make appearances at fashion parties, so no one would forget the chain-smoking, carefree, crazy-in-a-good-way me, and I’d be so on, rocking my latest mask, falling from bar stools, passing coke baggies to designer-clad messes under tables, who’d say things like “You’re always smiling!” to me. I’d do anything for a party photographer to notice me.

The more I lied on the outside, the more my insides got sicker. I got fatter, my dreams got thinner. A lifetime of self-hate led to behind-the-scenes unfulfilling sex and a barely audible pulse. But, besides the weight gain, no one would notice. The more I partied and dangerously climbed the ladder while shitfaced – befriending this “influencer” and this designer by promising them press – the more assignments I was given from my editors and fancy invites from publicists. Little did they know, I mean, care, but God, I fucking hated myself. I was a cartoon and I wanted to be erased.

My therapist definitely knew and (maybe?) cared – therapists are fantastic actors. (Also, as of late, he’s been creeping on my Instagram stories yet he doesn’t even follow me!) In every painful session, I was forced to dig up my past, unearthing the sad little boy who was afraid of his own shadow, and who freaked out on every birthday, not entirely because I was a brat, but because I never wanted to celebrate me. My alarmingly soft-spoken therapist loved to end sessions with a straight-to-the-gut statement, knowing I’d obsess over his wise Aha!-moment-y words and run back to him with a wad of cash paired with a fragile spirit every week for the rest of my life.

Example: “You want the spotlight so badly and when you get it, you want to hide. Because you’re afraid people will see the real you.”

I could never allow that. They’d think I was really not okay.

Follow Alex on Instagram @acatinheat, and our illustrator João Victor @mirror_dsoul. Stay tuned for part three, coming soon.