"I heard through the grapevine that she may have slept her way into whatever she is trying to do in Hollywood."
I can laugh it off now. In fact, I somehow find it highly amusing. My first thought upon reading dogtown dba's comment on a message board last week was that I certainly didn't sleep with the right people, because if I had, I would like to think I'd be a lot further along than I am now. And my second thought was, well, if he's going to assume I did sleep my way through Hollywood, then I sure hope I can be linked to some amazing, good looking guys. Ryan Reynolds, perhaps? George Clooney? Ben McKenzie? Not to be picky or anything.
Anytime anyone has ever done an interview with me, the story goes something like this: I was the original Ugly Betty ... I had three learning disabilities ... I was always made fun of because I didn't fit in ... gained confidence when I went to college ... the so-called ugly duckling became a swan, etc.
It's a great story. Especially for those that have seen any of my yearbook pictures from back in the day. They laugh and say, oh, it wasn't so bad. We all looked like that. Everyone was mean growing up. It takes everything in my body not to yell, "don't you dare compare my life to yours. You have no idea what I went through."
It was that bad. For most of my adolescence, it was a struggle just to get through the day. I was teased -- relentlessly -- from my bowl-shaped haircut with too short bangs, to my perfectionist work ethic to my love of Hello Kitty. Kids whispered and spread rumors. About what? I'm still not sure. But it was so bad that I felt the only way to stop the harassment would be to disappear altogether. I took my lunches to the bathroom and ate in stalls. I was too afraid to ask questions in class, so I stayed after for extra tutoring. I was told I'd never amount to anything in life. When I would approach classmates, they swiftly walked away. And I always lied that family was in town during homecoming weekend to hide the fact that no one would ask me out. Everyday I was on the verge of tears. Everyday I felt my self-confidence being chipped away at. Everyday I wanted to yell and scream at these kids who took pleasure at my expense. Everyday I wanted to know if there was something so wrong with me that I somehow deserved this kind of treatment. Yeah, it wasn't so bad. It was worse.
Yet, I am one of the lucky ones. I'm still here. This week is National Bullying Prevention Week. Ironically, it comes on the heels of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi's death. While Clementi was engaging in sexual behavior with another man, Clementi's roommate and another student taped the act and webcast it on an Internet chat site. It can only be assumed that the embarrassment, shame and betrayal stemming from the situation caused Clementi to take his own life. And now, teachers, celebrities, advocates, politicians, mothers, fathers, etc. are taking to any forum they can to expose the dangers and heartache of bullying.
Ellen DeGeneres took to the airwaves last week to express her anger and sadness following Clementi's death. She urged kids in similar situations to remember that she was different growing up too, and things would get better. There are people who can help. There are resources that you can turn to. Ending your life isn't the answer.
My fear though, is that people will look at all this bullying and attribute it only to a problem that gays face. Parents of young sons and daughters will think, my child will never do such a thing. "I've taught them better than that." The truth is, what have you taught them? When I was growing up, parents were often horrified to learn that their child was responsible for someone else's pain, and yet, they had no idea how to do anything to change it. How could they when they didn't even know it was happening? The fact is, bullying has no race, no gender, no sexual orientation.
I'm one of the lucky ones, you see. I had amazing parents who told me never to give up. They told me how much I was loved. If it wasn't for their support, I know for certain that I would not have had the strength to get through such a difficult time. I also had a coach/therapist who specialized in learning disabilities and taught me that things would get better -- that I would grow into who I was supposed to be. I just had to hang on. And I had an inner resolve that somehow gave me strength and courage even in the darkest hours. After all, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And that's what became my motto. I knew that I had two options in my life: I could let these kids destroy me and slowly fade away, or I could prove them all wrong, show them that they messed with the wrong kid, and get back at them by being happy, successful and confident.
It was a long road though. A very long road. The physical transformation (contacts, no braces, figured out hair and make-up) was far easier than the emotional one. For too many years after high school, I was the world's biggest people pleaser. After being harassed for years, all I wanted was to be liked. And so, once I was everyone's favorite friend, I then had to relearn what it meant to not be walked all over and to value yourself. I had to retrain myself to go from thinking that I'm never going to be good enough to I'm more than good enough. Saying it was one thing. Believing it was another.
I wasn't gay. I wasn't of a mixed race. I wasn't any of the things you usually hear kids are bullied for. I was just an innocent, naive kid with an outdated haircut and a penchant for Sanrio characters.
When I recently attended my 10-year high school reunion, I'll never forget what happened when I walked into that room. I'll never forget the gasps, the look of amazement, and the embarrassment on my peers' faces. I'll also never forget the most popular girl in our class being so annoyed that I stole her thunder that night that she ignored me all evening even after I tried to say hello. Some things never really change. As one former jock told me later that night, "I'm so sorry for what I did to you. You didn't deserve it. It was awful what we did to you. I'm just so glad that things turned out well for you and you look absolutely amazing now." I'm not sure if he really meant it, or if he was trying to take me back to his hotel room.
Regardless though, it was one of those full circle, Romy and Michele moments that Hollywood loves to turn into Drew Barrymore movies. And since I'm being extremely open here, I'll admit that I took some serious satisfaction from his admission. Unfortunately, one apology couldn't (and wouldn't) erase years of heartache and self-doubt. It never will. But you see, I am lucky. I'm still here. Tyler Clementi isn't.
So when that blogger took to the message boards last week, it was the first time in my entire life that I truly realized how far I had come. Sure, being named Most Changed at my high school reunion helped. Yes, I got a kick out of St. Louis Magazine naming me one of St. Louis' Top Singles. And it was totally awesome when I got cast on a TV show. But nothing compared to when I read those message board comments last week and my first reaction was to laugh. Of course, my parents and friends didn't find it funny. They were outraged at what was being said. (One of my faves: "I used to think she was cute until I found out she wrote for The Huffington Post. Now she's ugly.") Maybe I should have been too. But now all I could do was laugh. Laugh at the absurdity of what was being said, and the knowledge that this was coming from people who don't know me at all.
That didn't mean I didn't not think about some of the comments long after I had read them. They were mean and obnoxious, but I could handle it. I obviously wouldn't have gone into the entertainment industry if I couldn't. But many years ago, I wasn't sure if I could. I didn't know if I could take any more of the mean-spirited comments and the we-all-know-what's-wrong-with-you-why-don't-you? looks. That's why we need more resources and more involved parents to really take a good look at their children and open up their eyes to the kind of person they are raising. It's something I'd like to think everyone who went to school with me and now has kids will do.
Bullying will never stop. We know that. But we can work to be more aware, more available, and more attentive to those that need our support.
If for no one else, do it for Tyler. And that little girl with the bowl haircut who loved Hello Kitty.
Because it really does get better. I'm living proof.