As my ancestors did for centuries before me, on March 14, 1992, I became a Bar Mitzvah. The Jewish rite of passage is often referred to as the time when a boy becomes a man. One of the many differences between me and my ancestors who read from the Torah before me is that I became a man with a picture of Madonna airbrushed on my shirt. In a sense, I dedicated my coming of age to my god, Madonna. And it was so comforting knowing that as I became a man, Madonna was on my back the entire time.
Though I value the tradition of becoming a Bar Mitzvah and proclaiming my responsibility to family, community and a relationship with God, this was not the main reason that I chose to go through years of preparation for the ceremonial rite of passage. Bar Mitzvahs are usually followed by a (themed) reception that could be likened to a quinceañera, a debutante ball or a wedding reception. Truth be told, I became a Bar Mitzvah for the party. The theme of the party is chosen based on the child's hobbies and interests. I've attended countless sports-themed Bar Mitzvahs during my time.
Even at the ripe old age of 12, I knew that the theme could make or break my big day. I was not into sports, movies or action figures like my friends, so the choice was not an obvious one for me. Even during months of discussing possible themes with my parents, I knew what I wanted, and I had it all planned out in my mind. However, I needed to be strategic in how I broached the subject with my parents.
The perfect time was while shopping with my mom at T.J.Maxx. She is always in the best mood when finding a bargain. As we browsed the sale racks of the Maxx, I found a pair of earrings in the shape of Madonna True Blue albums. Perfect, I thought.
"If my theme were Madonna," I said to my mom, showing her the earrings, "we could give these away to all the girls as party favors."
Her response? "If that's what you are really into, why not?"
I was shocked. We bought the earrings, and plans for my Madonna-themed Bar Mitzvah were underway.
As a young man with a flare for the dramatic, I knew I had to make a grand entrance at the reception. The idea came to me while watching the HBO telecast of Madonna's Blond Ambition World Tour for the very first time. "Vogue" spoke to me instantly. Watching Madonna and her dancers strike a pose moved me in a way that I could not articulate at the time. It only occurred to me recently, while watching Paris Is Burning for the hundredth time, what a profound choice it was. In my own middle-class, Jewish, suburban, adolescent way, I was drawn to Madonna's "Vogue" for reasons that are not completely different from why the original voguers were drawn to vogueing in the New York City "ball" scene. My repression did not come close to what the original voguers experienced (for example, racism, homophobia, HIV/AIDS, poverty and other forms of extreme adversity), but as I was discovering my own sexual orientation, I, like them, found in vogueing a refuge from feeling isolated and different.
While my mom and her crew of family and friends planned and prepared every aspect of the reception, I had only two duties: 1) to practice reading from the Torah, and 2) to practice the dance. I vogued for months, and it quickly took precedence over my practice of the Torah. The way I saw it, nobody would understand a word I said in Hebrew, so they would have no idea if I made a mistake, but a failed dance step had potentially tragic repercussions. Every day after school for two months I watched "Vogue" from the Blond Ambition VHS tape over and over again, and every evening until dinner, I practiced my moves with my sister barking orders at me to have stronger arms, sharper movements, etc.
Then, on March 14, 1992, in the Grand Ballroom of the Hyatt in Deerfield, Ill., a (viral) star was born.
My friends and family walked into my idea of heaven: a Madonna wonderland sprinkled with black, teal and silver glitter. Silver-glittered busts of Madonna adorned each table. A giant Truth or Dare banner, which I had begged the owner of a neighborhood video store to give me, hung behind the DJ booth. A picture of Madonna caressing my awkward face greeted guests at the entrance of the ballroom, and each guest received an "I Vogued with Shaun at Shaun's Bar Mitzvah" T-shirt. Each table was named after a Madonna song; I sat at "Vogue," my best friends sat at "Express Yourself," and fittingly, all my elderly relatives sat at "Live to Tell."
After the guests had had time to kibitz (schmooze) while sipping drinks and noshing (nibbling) on bite-sized potato latkes (pancakes), they found their way to their tables. It was time. The DJ announced "the Bar Mitzvah man of the hour, Shaun!" Cue the music. I entered the room with that innocence and naïveté that can only be found in a child (or in a young man who has only been a man for about an hour), and then I was off:
I performed the dance with a lot of heart and a whole lot of chutzpah (balls). The reveal of the air-brushed Madonna shirt that my mom had surprised me with that morning delighted the guests, and the dance went off without a hitch. After I retrieved my jacket and composed myself, I took the microphone for a speech that I had spent weeks preparing. I thanked my friends and family and, most importantly, my parents. If I had known then what I know now, I would have gotten down on my knees and kissed their feet in gratitude for allowing me to be me. I didn't know at that time how lucky I was. I concluded the speech by saying in my prepubescent, 13-year-old voice, "Now strike a pose, and let's get to it." Then we ate, we drank, and we danced the Horah.
For 20 years I was relatively quiet about the details of my Bar Mitzvah. I mentioned it from time to time in conversation, and in 2004 a short essay I wrote about it was featured, along with a photo of the event, in the coffee-table book Bar Mitzvah Disco, by Roger Bennett, Nick Kroll and Jules Shell. But until just a few years ago, the video was hidden deep in the crawl space of my childhood home, where it could not embarrass me. Then I found it unintentionally. I brought it home but kept the VHS in its sleeve for months as it collected dust on my bookshelf. Then one night, when I was all alone, I attempted to watch the video. I could not make it past the finger-snapping opening without running from the room in terror. It took me several attempts before I could watch my flamboyant 13-year-old self strike a pose like there was nothing to it.
I fell in love with Madonna on May 23, 1990, when I was 11 years old. It was the day that her Blond Ambition World Tour opened in Chicago. I was watching the morning news with my mom before school, like we did every morning, and they showed a clip of the opening number of the tour, "Express Yourself." I was hooked immediately. From that moment on, everybody knew about my love of Madonna.
Each time Madonna releases a new album or goes on tour, I become that giddy 13-year-old boy from the Bar Mitzvah video. When it was announced in December 2011 that Madonna would perform at the Super Bowl halftime show to promote her new MDNA album in advance of her world tour, those familiar feelings flooded back. It felt like Hanukkah, and I couldn't get enough MDNA.
At about the time MDNA was released, I started asking myself why, after 22 years, I still idolized Madonna. I had never questioned this before, but I was fascinated with this phenomenon. I started writing about it, and I found that instead of focusing on my love for Madonna, I was writing about my own life and comparing it with Madonna's life and career. I noticed how many times her creative expression had mirrored my inner struggle and development. Madonna's influence on me is significant.
I decided to perform one of the stories I'd written at an intimate event in Chicago on Aug. 15, 2012. That piece, which covered the period from the beginning of my infatuation with Madonna up to the Bar Mitzvah, was the first in a series that I was calling Madonna and Me. The video of my Bar Mitzvah dance was to be projected on a screen behind me as I told the story and vogued along with my 13-year-old self. In anticipation of the performance, I posted the video to YouTube on Aug. 10. I sent the link to a few friends, but I asked them not to post it on their Facebook pages or on other social media sites, as I wanted it to be a surprise at the Aug. 15 performance. However, my friend Scott was eager to share the video. The morning of the performance, the following series of exchanges occured between Scott, me and the Perez Hilton:
Facebook chat between Scott and me, Aug. 15, 2012, 11:13 a.m.:
Scott: Are you ready for the show tonight? Excited. Can I email the link to Perez Hilton?
Me: I guess. Maybe we shld wait until after the show tomorrow.
Me: Ah, go for it. It's not like anything will happen.
Scott: Its madonna's birthday tomorrow - the timing is good
Me: ok - do it.
Scott: you better prepare yourself for fame
Me: hahaha - yeah, right.
Scott: just wait
Scott: I will wait until tomorrow to post it on his FB wall...or should I not wait?
Me: wait until tomorrow - please! I want tonight to be a surprise ok!
Email from Scott to Perez Hilton, Aug. 15, 2012, 11:17 a.m.:
you MUST watch this video...
Email from Perez Hilton to Scott, Aug. 15, 2012, 11:22 a.m.:
Facebook chat between Scott and me, Aug. 15, 2012, 11:23 a.m.:
Scott: SHAUN!!!!!!!!!!!! PEREZ JUST WROTE BACK TO ME PERSONALLY!!!!!!!!!!
Me: shut the fuck up right now
Scott: FORWARDING IT TO YOU
Me: what does that mean?
Scott: he's DYING. from it
Me: I can't believe this. I can't.
Scott: is he going to post it?
Scott: omg omg omg omg
Scott: we will see!
Scott: I'm shaking
Scott: I'm not going to write back, let's just see what happens
Me: sssssstop it
Me: is this for real
Scott: swear to god
Me: what should we do?
Scott: nothing, wait
Me: are you sure?
Scott: omg omg omg omg omg omg
Me: holy fucking shit scott
Scott: ok, let's wait patiently
Scott: still shaking
Me: this is nuts --- NUTS!
Scott: SHAUN!!!!!! LOOK AT PEREZHILTON.COM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Perezhilton.com, Aug. 15, 2012, 11:34 a.m.:
Perez Hilton's Twitter feed, Aug. 15, 2012, 11:34 a.m.:
— Perez Hilton (@PerezHilton) August 15, 2012
Email from me to Perez Hilton, Aug. 15, 2012, 12:16 p.m.:
Hey Perez -
It's Shaun - the Madonna Bar Mitzvah Boy - Thank you so much for posting the video. I have waited 20 years to share this video and I can't believe you posted it - this is amazing!!!!
Email from Perez Hilton to me, Aug. 15, 2012:
You are my hero!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
P.S. Where can I get that shirt????? Ha
As I quipped back and forth with Scott and Perez, my life felt like a dream. I truly had no idea what was about to happen. Within hours of the video being posted on PerezHilton.com, it was picked up by every major blog on the Web. I spent most of the day running in circles in my office trying to wrap my head around it all, as I answered phone calls and messages from hundreds of friends and strangers who had seen the post. By the time I left work that day to do the show, the video had been viewed over 25,000 times.
That night I performed the 15-minute piece in a small, crowded gallery on the north side of Chicago. The room was packed with both friends who knew of the publicity frenzy that had occurred that day and strangers who had no idea. The energy in the room was electric. As I told my tale about the early years of my love affair with Madonna and attempted to rationalize my infatuation, I saw that the story was really resonating with people. I think the crowd responded to the story for the same reason that people have responded to the video. I like to think that it's a universal story about growing up, finding yourself and having a role model to guide you through the dark spots. And who doesn't love a video of an awkward teenage gay boy dancing to Madonna?
When I finally got home that night and lay in bed, my body was buzzing with energy. It was as if I could sense people watching the video and could hear them saying my name. I think what I was feeling was the energy of the universe.
The next morning the video was shown on local and national morning shows around the country. I had no idea that the attention had continued through the morning, but as I was driving to work, I got a call from a producer at Today. They wanted to fly me to New York that night to be on the show the next morning. I hung up the phone and cried. I was so extremely happy, but I really didn't know exactly why. I knew that what was happening was bigger than the video. The universe was somehow leading me onto a path that I was supposed to follow.
The calls didn't stop coming in from media outlets seeking a comment, an interview or an appearance. That day I spoke with producers from Good Morning America, Anderson Live, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and HuffPost Live. As I talked about the video, I found it so easy to discuss the Bar Mitzvah and the decision to post the video. But what surprised me the most was that I found myself discussing a deeper meaning in the video that I hadn't known existed until that day.
I never consciously thought about what my Bar Mitzvah might have represented for people on the outside. For me it was an awesome celebration of my becoming a man. But as I read comments on the blogs, YouTube comments and random emails from strangers, there was so much more. Aside from scattered homophobic rants, I received hundreds of messages of support from strangers. One person commented on YouTube:
Shaun, You ARE AWESOME! Every child should be able to be themselves just as you were. And EVERY child should have parents as open and loving as yours. Well done to you and your folks.
A young guy emailed me on Facebook:
Thanks for making me smile today and helping me feel less alone.
And I received this email from another stranger:
You don't know me, but I had to find you and write you immediately. Thank you for sharing the video of your Bar Mitzvah. My greatest hope is that I can instill in my child the confidence that you had at thirteen. Your video has done what a million "It Gets Better" videos can't do - a true and real representation of inner-strength and pride. I showed the video to my twelve year old son who has been suffering dealing with his own sexuality. As he watched the video, it's the first time I have seen him smile in six months.
Thank You for sharing
As I read that email, it became clear to me: I have a responsibility to share this story.
Follow Shaun Sperling on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shaunsperling