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Patrizia Chen Headshot

Sax and the City

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In the seventies it took forever to get to Asia. A plane leaving from Italy had to stop first in Beirut or Athens and then New Delhi and Bangkok before landing in Haneda. The arrival was exciting. Italian pilots, particularly sensitive to feminine charms, would invariably invite me to sit with them, flirting until it was time for serious business. Then, the cockpit's sudden silence was broken only by the captain's quiet orders, and counteracted with the same efficient calm by the copilot. I sat still, taking in the marvelous darkness of the night and the gradual descent, wading through the air toward the ocean of blinking light that was Tokyo's airport. When the front wheel of the plane touched down I was always moved by the apparent simplicity of steering that big, silver machine along the curves of the landing strip, a white ribbon unwinding through the runway.

There I was, once again, happy to be back in my newly adopted city, where I adored the food and where friendship surrounded me. Japan was good to me. I was young, a model and the Japanese public loved me: I found myself plastered on billboards and magazines; I advertised fashion, fake eyelashes, department stores, cosmetics and appeared via all possible media outlets. Italian friends who traveled to Tokyo marveled at the sight of Patrizia staring at them from the least expected places.

Working in Tokyo though was fun and strange at the same time. "Oki des, ne! She's really big!" was the phrase used by my booking agent to describe my 49-kilo frame. She wasn't judging, she was just assessing the situation and working from there. Tiny in Europe and towering in the Far East! The fashion photographers, used to Asian features, set their lights just above my head, forgetting to take into consideration my western nose. More often than not, it resulted in magazine spreads where my face was unfortunately obscured by the huge shadow of my schnozzle.

Their innocent brutality knew no boundaries. Once they informed a beautiful western model that she had been chosen to star in a publicity campaign for the Middle East because the market there required really debu, fat, women. Needless to say, she wasn't thrilled.

Italians, famous for wonderful Broadway-inspired fashion shows styled by our best theatre and opera directors, were constantly invited to Japan. Used to dealing with professional singers, actors and dancers, those directors suddenly had to make us perform -- a bunch of young girls rich with beauty but poor in skills. I was, of course, a perfect example. "At the first notes of the sax you have to enter from the right. Hai capito?" Sandro Massimini looked at me, expecting immediate understanding. One of the scariest characters in the theatrical world, he was super-famous, volatile and imperious. "You'll cross the stage and pause here. Wait for the violin and Lia will join you..."

A sax? I had no idea. How could I, in my abysmal musical ignorance, recognize the sound of the sax when several trumpets and clarinets were having a field day in that particular piece of music? Exiting with the violin? That was easy (besides, I would have the Lia clue), but how would I know when to enter? I tried and tried, but always missed what was supposed to be my elegant and solitary entrance on stage. Sandro fumed. I sweated. I envisioned an ignominious dismissal, his finger pointing at disgraced Patrizia-San in front of the entire cast.

I was beginning to despair, and my colleagues didn't help, of course. The Romans had it right: nemo propheta in patria, and it fit with my history. No man is prophet in his own land. Back home the designers loved me, but the other models, with some exceptions, never did. They could never accept that I was booked all the time. I wasn't particularly beautiful, not even incredibly outstanding on stage, and yet, somehow I was always everywhere. My being normal was, strangely, an asset: I didn't glide, I walked; I didn't pose, I paused. And now I was a star in Japan. They couldn't cope with that.

Thank God my still inadequate, but very useful knowledge of Japanese came to my rescue, creating a behind-the-scenes domino effect. Tasukete! Help! I asked the lighting designer, Tanaka-San -- a friend from the local fashion world -- to do something, otherwise my only option would surely have been to commit hara-kiri. He asked another technician, who asked a carpenter, who asked the sound guy ... Bingo! The latter was definitely the person to trust, but he was ensconced in his booth, at the other side of the immense Imperial Hotel Theatre. Shinpai muyō! Not to worry! Completely taken by their new task to help this Japanese-speaking, gaijin model, the entire crew created a gallant relay and, at the right time, I was catapulted on stage wearing a beautiful Fendi coat and my brightest, triumphant smile.

Ignorance should never be an excuse, but hey, a little bit of chutzpah can also be a great help...

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