How 15 minutes of fashion fame put me in my place
All the misgivings I’d had about walking in a fashion show fundraiser paled in comparison to the cold, car-accident jitters that gripped me an hour before runway time, when I was taken to hair and makeup. In the basement studio beneath Fashion Show’s main concourse, I was seated with six other women and girls along a counter facing a brightly lit mirror wall. None of them had yet seen their mid-20s (one looked like she was still in middle school), while I’d just celebrated my 49th birthday two weeks earlier. A Paul Mitchell salon-school trainee named Jessica picked out chunks of my straight blond hair, doused each one with a spray that smelled like Grenadine and drew a narrow flat-iron down it while rocking her wrist left and right, creating what she called a “beach wave.” It completed the ridiculousness of the picture: Middle-aged lady surrounded by youthful beauties desperately tries to recapture the carefree look of her L.A. years.
“Dear Heidi,” the invitation two months prior had read, “In recognition of your thoughtful, conscientious coverage of sexual assault, the Rape Crisis Center invites you to walk the runway in your finest denim during the Denim Day Luncheon on Wednesday, April 26.” I would be a “media champion,” joining others, as well as survivors, in what was described as the “inspirational portion” of the program.
How could I say no?
Here are a few reasons that crossed my mind: (1) Journalism ethics discourage participation in branded commercial events; (2) I dislike being eyeballed generally and abhor being ogled by strangers; and (3) It was taking place in a mall, temple of irresponsible consumerism.
And yet, this was an honor, not an endorsement, so my editor approved. I was to have control over what I wore, so I figured I could dress myself according to my comfort level. And, c’mon, sometimes I just need to get over myself.
Still, from the moment I accepted the invitation, I was roiled by an internal war between my feminist and humanist selves. Consider the fitting. The fashion consultant at Macy’s style office picked out clothes for me to try on, and then studied me slowly from the neck down, pinching a too-loose swath here, tugging on a too-tight hem there. The first outfit she brought me — designer jeans and a drapey gray blouse — made me look like Disney’s Dopey dwarf up top and a squat Kardashian from the waist down. And it cost what I make in a week. (We didn’t have to buy the clothes, but I looked at the tags anyway.)
Also at that fitting I met Katy (not her real name), a high school-age survivor who was walking in the show. When the consultant pressed Katy on wearing a denim skirt rather than her preferred jeans, the teen replied, “I don’t want to show my legs. I have scars.”
With event day looming, I grew overly sensitive to other people’s feedback. The only thing that annoyed me more than being reassured by a couple female acquaintances, with whom I’d shared my reservations, not to worry, that I was pretty enough to pull it off, was a male acquaintance’s assessment that the event was inappropriate for the cause because the fashion industry sexually objectifies women.
The day of the show, my discomfort took on a physical dimension. After having my hair pulled and face rubbed by strangers (albeit kind ones), I donned my chosen outfit: a fuschia, off-the-shoulder top and fitted jean skirt. Here’s the thing about fitted skirts: They prevent you from taking strides of more than about six inches. Add to that the high-heeled beige wedges I’d chosen, and I was forced to walk like I was desperately staving off a pee. Here’s the thing about off-the-shoulder shirts: In order to stay up, they have to have some sort of elastic ring around the top. The designer of my shirt opted for a wide, stiff band that gripped the fabric in bulky pleats. Attractive though I’m assured it was, it was either riding up towards my neck or pinning my arms by my side, boa constrictor-like.
My grooming and dressing done, I waddled out to the luncheon to join my husband at the media table, where various TV journalists sat, looking exactly like they always do. Of course they didn’t need the mall’s hair and makeup services. They have their own.
“Oh, my god,” my husband said, “you look so beautiful.”
“Thanks,” I replied, wondering how much damage smiling and eating would do to my Chanel makeup job (approximately three days’ salary). “I have a headache.”
Around that time, Rape Crisis Center Director Daniele Dreitzer welcomed everyone to the event. She gave the history of Denim Day: Eighteen years ago, the Italian Supreme Court overturned a rape conviction because the justices felt that, since the victim was wearing tight jeans, she must have helped her rapist remove her pants, implying consent. The following day, women in the Italian Parliament wore jeans to work to show support for the victim. The symbolic act took hold among sexual assault advocates and has been repeated around the world each April since.
“Huh, I didn’t know that,” people murmured.
After managing a few bites of Teriyaki salmon and soba noodles, I was herded backstage with the other “models,” and we were lined up in order of appearance. The nervousness among all — TV journalists excepted — was palpable. I turned to the young woman behind me, a 20-something survivor named Yazmine that I’d met earlier, during catwalk rehearsal.
“You’re going to be great,” I said to her. “This is your day.”
She shuddered, then said: “I have an idea. As you’re coming back, give me a high-five.”
“That’s a great idea!” I said, and we spent the next few minutes working out the logistics: Which hands would we use? Which side would we cross each other on?
Then came the big moment. A headset-clad producer lifted a black curtain and pushed me onstage. There were millions of people, half of them holding up phone cameras. As I walked (faster than instructed) down the runway, I realized that the bright lights must be illuminating my legs, which I’d run out of time to shave that morning. I was having trouble holding my head upright, and a sudden facial paralysis prevented me from smiling. After pausing at the end of the runway to wave at an imaginary friend, I turned and stalked back toward the stage.
But my awkwardness vanished the moment Yazmine and I connected hands in a perfect high-five; indeed, the entire experience crystallized in the moment she emerged from backstage. I knew I would never again wonder why I agreed to walk, or whether it was worth all the stress and trouble. I’d just remember her big, confident smile.