“Beauty’s where you find it
Not just where you bump and grind it
Soul is in the musical
That’s where I feel so beautiful
Magical, life’s a ball
So get up on the dance floor…”
— From “Vogue” by Madonna/Shep Pettibone
I started this entry with a basic question:
Do you remember the last time you felt beautiful?
It was my intent to deconstruct that specific moment when you knew you could express yourself without fear of being called out for being “different.” It’s that version of yourself that is obfuscated by societal norms or misguided attempts from our parents to “protect” us from a judgmental world. This post was not supposed to be about outward beauty, although that is a prison of different making. As for the rest of us who haven’t scored big at the genetic lottery, we tend to water down the impact of the word “beauty” to its most superficial definition. What do we do with the concept of having a bold personality, of being able to express a powerful sense of verve when we’re young? Why do many of us spend much our adult lives, countless dollars and more trying to coax that child back into existence in the end? Does that qualify as being beautiful, too?
As I discussed this post with my boss and best sparring partner, I found myself unable to defend my position on what I felt meant being beautiful. He kept leading me outside of the boxed context of what I insisted was the point of this piece. He led the debate beyond what is “pleasing to the senses or mind aesthetically.” Before I could even begin to write about “beauty,” he insisted, I had to dig deeper into the complexity of this word.
Greek philosopher Plato maintained that beauty is a universal construct. We may not always recognize beauty through our senses. Each individual’s reaction can be triggered through a different means: sight, sound, smell, etc. Perhaps when we acknowledge something as being “beautiful,” it is because it is a potent reminder as to how our souls possess a wonderful sense of mystery.
The late English art critic John Berger opined that “seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” When we do begin to learn how to speak and we start amassing a vocabulary, we also start learning how to use these words to build declarative statements and opinions. These bloom into judgments, influenced and curated by those around us. From that point, how we “see” things in inextricably affected in the end by what we learn and by what we think we “know.”
Bridging Plato to Berger takes a bit more than the foundation I am laying here. Yet, I can see a link to a key moment in my childhood. Addressing the issues of the consequences of being bullied and the body dysmorphia/food addictions that continue to haunt me, which remain a key focus of this diary. So, my initial to my question was:
“I haven’t felt or deemed myself as being beautiful in a long time.”
I reference that hat glorious Spanish summer of 2014. I felt in control of my self and my soul. I felt powerful and limitless, just like I did up until the 4th grade when I became aware of what I saw as being “me” was “different” from the rest of the pack. More, once I understood the hurtful words and opinions hurled at me through elementary school junior high from those who rebuked me mercilessly, I opted to hide much of what made me “me.” And I hurled those same words back to others weaker than me with decided force and intent. My concept of beauty, the image of myself, has never been the same since.
I think about the moment I thought I understood what beauty could mean. Given my middle class life, of course it was built around media. As I discovered much later, I wasn’t alone in my nascent gay self, pouring over Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Interview and New York magazines, drawn to the light of these glossy pages like a pilgrim making the journey to Lourdes. It is no coincidence that I hid here as much as I did in the literary and musical testaments to cafe society that I regularly snuck into the house from the library. Dad worked in textiles, which first opened a window into fashion, then all things New York City, for me. It didn’t take much to to begin whispering the names of photographers, editors, models and designers with solemnity of a prayer during Sunday mass: Avedon. Penn. Elgort. Newton. Scavullo. Saint Laurent. Givenchy. Dior. Lacroix. Lagerfeld. Halston. Versace. Ellis. Dovima. Turlington. Evangelista. Campbell. Tilberis. Vreeland. Wintour. They were all what I deemed as being “beautiful.”
I felt so superior in thinking that no one knew who they were in Pico Rivera. In reality, this world shielded me from those who tormented me in the hallways of South Ranchito and Meller Jr. High. I knew one day, I’d be able to move amongst them, the ultimate smalltown boy revenge. What it really meant was that I had capitulated to bourgeois materialism in the guise of being cultivated.
Looking back at this now, was this fascination (obsession), really the best definition of “beauty?” Wasn’t this realm of artifice derived from fashion and fashionistas merely examples of what is simply “pretty?” Did it fall under the tenets of beauty attributed to Plato? What did it reveal about me at a young age, chubby, acne’d and peculiar in terms of my own personal code of aesthetics? Was I merely wading into this pool of superficiality, engaging in a clichéd game of middle class rebellion because I hated NOT being one of these people? Perhaps. Oh yes, perhaps. Misguided or not, memorizing the pages of Judith Krantz’s “Scruples” or Jackie Collins’s “Hollywood Wives” left me breathless and eager to get the hell out of the SGV as soon as I could. Needless to say, I sold myself short.
It is no irony that I became a publicist, that messenger of all things glittering and glamorous. I battled with never being as cool as the message, even at the peak of years at 20th Century Fox. I lived and died at the altar of the Hollywood experience. I needed not have bothered. What we should find is truly beautiful is not always the thing we see outwardly. Yet, we continue to bandy about with words that act more as hyperbole than being catalysts of profundity.
I continue to grapple with long cycles of depression, excess eating and overindulgence, which includes the manner I continue to spend my money on material things. It would be easy to fault a steady diet of glitz and glitter as the source of my demons. I won’t, because I still admire the craft of couture, which is a true art to me. I knew what I was doing then and now. As to when I’ll take firm control of those urges, I won’t ever stop trying to compartmentalize them until they torment me no more. Yet, after the debacle of “Fatlanta,” I am still faced with that blasted question: “Do you remember the last time you felt beautiful?”
Now that this conversation has started, I realize I have much to learn and understand about what is “beautiful.” It is more than my long held ideal of becoming a gentleman in the style of my cinematic hero Cary Grant. As for the current state of fashion and fashion magazines, the joy is less apparent in this renewed era of status mongering and greed. Nor can my definition be something on par of Madonna’s exquisite paean to other icons of film glamour, “Vogue.” But a singular truth can be found within these beats, “beauty is where you find it.”
As I begin to redefine my own standards of beauty, I realize something is happening at long last. I am finding myself again in these discussions that stir my collective senses. I am learning again thanks to an evolving family of friends who choose and want to think beyond what is accepted or acceptable. This time feels so much like Spain. The arrested development that I’ve allowed to set in has no place in this quest for wellness. Perhaps what makes us beautiful is believing in the desire to grow and to be challenged by a world, even one in flux.
Given our current political state of ugly at the moment, we have to train our eyes to see beyond what lies what ahead or even what we think we’ve learned about people, even ourselves. Perhaps beauty is the possibility afforded by being better and stronger and willing to accept our flaws, to finding the willingness to build them into strengths.
Only when we allow for acceptance and tolerance can we best repel the rhetoric from people who dare keep us asunder in a state of homogenized hatred.
Only when we begin to understand the true nature of beauty will we be able to say, “Life’s a ball!” and just fucking dance already.
We are forever accountable for our journeys and decisions. Perhaps that’s what I’ve come to finally learn:
Be your true self. Be beautiful.
Cary Grant photo by Richard Avedon
Dovima & Ray Bolger photo by Richard Avedon
Kristen McMenamy & Nadja Auermann photo by Richard Avedon
– From “Come Go with Me” (Lewis A. Martineé), performed by Exposé
I’m going to set the origins of this little journal entry to the past on the sodium bomb from the Slurpin’ Ramen Bar consumed in April in Koreatown. (Excellent place, fyi). Yeah, I did feel a little “up” afterwards. Also, I was correct in predicting that my date for the evening was going to cancel on me –again — so it is better to shift focus onto something a bit more joyful and avoid the desire to man bash. I was truly bloated, bothered and bewildered, the perfect state of mind for journaling!
It’s taken me awhile to shape this into something worth reading and I’m still not sure if I’ve cracked the code. I have to give credit where credit it due. Earlier this spring, my sister NanyG, sister-friend Helen and I were in the midst of another hi-larious confab, this time at the Pico Rivera Shakey’s Pizza, a cherished location located within our shared cradle of youth. It was a carry-over from ANOTHER HelJor outing (as we refer to ourselves), this time with our childhood compatriot, Anne. And yes, if you’re a member of those days at South Ranchito Elementary/Meller Jr. High/ERHS, we probably DID talk about you.
What I love most about our get togethers is the chance to look back with a clearer vision as to what it was to come of age in the 1980s. Some of the focus is starting to slip into a tepid glow as we have move on through our teen years into our sure to be golden era of 50+. (Well, I can’t speak for myself. I remember way too much, but surprised to know how much I never saw what was often going on right in front of me. I see the roots of my self-absorption are very much showing.)
Being a teenager. Oh, that’s a weighty subject. (Zing!) The pudding days of Meller, when I was stout, pimpled and experiencing a woeful state of style were replaced by something a lot cheerier, leaner and taller by the time sophomore year began at El Rancho. Sitting here with my lap top, it makes me smile to understand how the realities of life’s experiences hadn’t yet taught us how to deconstruct or process our motivations. Everything was so AMAZING until your find out years later that it wasn’t. The struggles we deal with as adults are variations of those classic adolescent tropes. We were the last of the Breakfast Club generation, spicier incarnations of the Princess, the Athlete the Criminal, the Brain and the Basket Case. In some cases, we were probably all five.
Some of us were wonderfully clueless. Others were – and, surprise, remain — mean girls and boys. We had our groups, our nicknames, our juries, our judgments, our hierarchies, our first loves, our first pains. And as divided we ultimately became as life lead us to our chosen paths, for a small group of us, we remained steadfastly united during the 12 years we followed each other to the edge of 18.
The time isn’t ripe yet to pen that “Whatever Happened to the Class of 1985,” but it is starting to germinate. Something happened to me during that transition years of childhood. I first embraced my peculiar sense of being a boy, only to quickly shun it thanks to bullying and the inner shame felt as a teen. I hate that it happened at all, compromising my true self in the vain attempt to be liked and popular.
But that’s a story for another time.
Right now, I want to remember what it meant to be young in Pico Rivera, where youths were a microcosm of the bigger trends happening inside of LA and out. Everyone had their fiefdoms of rule within the school and outside the city limits:
Poseur Cali Preps
The mods were growing in numbers as Madness and The Specials dominated the powerful KROQ playlists, stealing club time at Marilyn’s in Pasadena.
The punks were a smaller contingent, but followed X and Black Flag to Madame Wu’s in Santa Monica.
Poseur preps, the ones that had turned up collars along with their classist noses had the most money, bigger houses to match their attitudes and Atari consoles.
The heshers, most of whom were in band, were a fiercely loyal bunch that sported their KMET and KLOS stickers as badges of courage and pride.
Urban surfers held fast to their Jeff Spicoli uniform of Vans, OP and Lightning Bolt shorts.
Morrissey. Enough said.
As for the rest of us?
It was a sea of teen dreams and mall made looks. Girls had their fast fashion trends of jelly shoes, bolero hats, plastic purses and other styles culled from department stores or Judy’s, Contempo Casuals and Miller’s Outpost. God, those damn belts that rivaled the WWF championship bling! Some tried to rock the Mod look with tights that had the feet cut off under long tartan skirts and flats, but it rang false. Maybe it was because feathered hair can’t ever replace an asymmetrical bob?
The cookie cutter style of the boys was laid upon a foundation of Levis jeans, tee shirts and jean jackets — then and now. Jocks will never die out if letterman’s jackets are still able to be earned. My memory can’t seem to fill in the blanks here, an era where the Metrosexual, Lumbersexual and Hipster styles would eventually blur the lines of masculinity.
However, one group reigns supreme in my mind when I look back at that time now. I can’t help but smile at these style rebels of my teen years:
CHA CHA GIRLS!
I’ll never forget these hothouse flowers that found access with fake ID’s to such playgrounds as the Florentine Gardens, the Red Onion, Black Angus, Pepper’s & Wings, as well as private parties and any other place they could hold court to the tune of Exposé, Debbie Deb and Stacey Q. They rolled around in packs, each with their own special markings of bangs, spider lashes, streaks and nail tips. They oozed a female sexuality that was true power, which sometimes moved faster than they could understand or control.
(Fun Fact: Exposé lead singer Jeanette Jurado is a former El Rancho Don! Class of 1983. Represent!)
This is one group John Hughes would never include in his white bread parables of teen life. These girls weren’t always pretty, but they loved pink, the brighter the better. They played fast and loose with the rules of the time, carving out their own niche as the 1950s ideal of adolescence began its hasty decline.
How I loved these ladies, feathered, streaked and war painted, wearing heels that were higher than their standards, all squeezed into Technicolor fabrics that stretched with the blind optimism of looking good! I always viewed the Cha Cha aesthetic as a rebellion against the leading tropes of the era. These Latinas were way ahead of the Kardashian brand of flesh as fantasy and in your face womanhood. They were always named Letty, Lorraine or Denise, Nena, Pebbles or Candy. Sometimes you had a Monica, Yvette or an Andrea. Given the immigrant culture that was the foundation of aspirational Pico Rivera life, you might have a Socorro or Maria Delilah in the bunch, but she was always the one you made call her much cooler older brother or sister when shit got real. (“Shut up, Socorro!” could be heard whenever she offered the single voice of sanity.)
The soc’s (the popular girls) looked down on the Cha Cha’s as being trashy, but like all things unbridled, jealousy motivated their feelings. Hallway chatter about some of these ladies was nothing short of salacious gossip, especially if their boyfriends were jocks. This could explain why many of the Cha Cha’s of my era opted to date outside of the El Rancho walls.
Every Friday of my first year at El Rancho, or “The Ranch,” was littered with invites to the weekend’s parties. Mass printed flyers, emblazoned with Nagel girls, were events sponsored by mobile DJ’s that called themselves “The Men of Elegance” and groupies of females known as “The Girls in Freak Position” or worse, names that you know would piss off your parents as they demanded you to “Tira esa cochinada ahorita!” (I wish I kept one of these flyers. If you have one, let a brother know!)
Liquid Gold on a budget
They were the denizens of the house parties and clubs that rocked the San Gabriel Valley, Hollywood and beyond. They were free-style aficionados who ventured to the Mansion, a claque that was strictly “Members Only,” weekend warriors fortified by Shpritz Forté. For some reason, the men were Dippity Do’d and Drakkar’d into shiny and musky sameness. Despite their macho posturing and bantering, they were rather generic in attitude and looks. Most couldn’t grow a mustache to cover their top lip, but it was awesome to see that their girlfriends could!
It was with great delight that I found a short film I created with my one of my best childhood friends, Ed Castellanos. We invaded El Rancho a few years after we graduated, crafted a DIY masterpiece with a VHS camera. Family, friends, students all contributed to this opus, cheekily titled “Fatal Aquanet.” It was meant to be a trailer for a new movie, with audience reactions and testimonials. At 16 minutes in length, we probably could have used some judicious editing.
Our intent was to create something that was fun. The best part were the on-the-street chats with the Cha Cha’s we talked to on Whittier Blvd. one memorable night. This was a harbinger of the life I would eventually lead, of documenting interviews and questions, of capturing the stories of lives in motion with truth and verve.
Our destinies can be revealed at a young age if we just lose the fear. I wish Ed and I went on to document other things together. Who knows? “Fatal Aquanet” will live forever on YouTube and on this blog for a reason. (Ed, perhaps a reunion is in store for us? I have an idea!)
Since those chats with Nancy, Helen and Anne, I’ve been toying with another idea, of fashioning a series of posts around a fictional group of girls, Cha Cha’s all, representing a chapter in my angry, hungry, fat, gay Mexican life. Perhaps I’ll use this device to frame a larger story, of what happened to the class of 1985 through the prism of one group of friends as their gay single friend approaches 50 and faces the prospect of marriage…to someone younger.
Nothing upsets the herd like a seismic shift in the group dynamic, with the rest of the couples questioning their own choices and relationships. Sometimes when we look back, the consequences have an unexpected on the future. Good or bad, it is always for the best. And it would have great style with a soundtrack to beat any mixtape or playlist you could devise.
I don’t know how that particular story will play itself out, but I only ask that you come go with me and find out.