This story was written for The Moth in Los Angeles January 10th. The theme was ambition. My name went into the hat, but sadly didn’t get pulled. So here it is for the internets. Enjoy!
In 1996, at the age of 7, my parents plucked me from my cozy life in Asia and thrust me back into the “normal” world of an Australian childhood. I’m Australian born, but since the age of 2 weeks old, I had lived my life up until that point in Macau, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumper. We had maids, we had drivers, my friends were all weird international kids from Germany, or America, or they were half Thai half Finnish, or they were some kind of crazy human milkshake that their heritage was obscure. The schools I went to were all very inclusive, there were no cliques because there just weren’t enough of us, and everybody moved so much anyway, friendships were fierce and fleeting, and everybody belonged because none of us did.
Australian school was different. The kids were loud, and boisterous, and they cared about this thing called Aussie Rules or “Footy”. That I had never heard of. They like TV shows I didn’t know. As a child, I had always been the loud one that stood out, with my bright white blonde hair and my mouth that stretched so big it went to the other side of my face. I never had to try to stand out. In the places that I had lived, I already did.
And the kids at Australian school didn’t care to know me. I wasn’t a new interesting person in a small pond of expatriate kids, I was just another kid, with a funny name.
I so wanted to fit in and be liked, but also, I just wanted to stand out and be noticed.
After a few years at a public school (in Australia…still VERY NICE) my parents transferred me to a private school, with uptight uniform rules and straw boaters for the boys, Panama hats for the girls.
About a month into life at this new school, now aged 9, with no friends and nobody to sit with at lunch (always the new kid), my class 4B was told that our class was going to do a play. The play was The Emperor’s new clothes, and we could sign up for an audition, which would happen in front of our class and teacher.
Are you familiar with the tale of the emperor’s new clothes? It is the story of an Emperor who loves fashion, and is swindled by two tailors by the idea that anyone too stupid or not fit for office can’t see the clothes. Everyone goes along that they can see the robes, even the Emperor himself. Until finally, he “wears” the clothes, and someone says that actually, he is naked. But the Emperor proceeds as if isn’t, head held high.
Well the role of the Emperor really spoke to me as a nine-year-old. Someone with that much confidence and power, that could convince an entire town that he was wearing the raddest threads ever created, and that the joke was on you, ya big idiot, if you couldn’t see them. Well.
So, I approached my teacher Ms. Bashir about playing the role, and I put up an impassioned nine year olds version of Oprah’s: the time is now speech about how the role could easily be for a girl, it could be the Empress’ new clothes and we could just change the words around.
Ms. Bashir told me I had to audition like everyone else.
And this is the first moment I remember when ambition really bit me in the ass. I wanted nothing more than to play the role I made up, of THE EMPRESS in the Empress’s new clothes. I think at the time, I convinced myself, that if I was the star of the show, then everybody would like me, and I’d be popular and cool and someone would let me play marbles, pogs and Pokémon cards with them.
So, I actually rewrote the script myself. We had been given ONE PAGE, and I crossed out in pencil, all the places it said “him” and replaced it with “her” and I even made some additional dialogue that made the Emperor look like this total simpering moron. And my Dad helped me photo copy my pages at his office, and on the day of the audition I handed my lines to a confused Ms. Bashir and I just went for it.
I had read the story over and over. I tried to imagine WHY the Empress wouldn’t admit she was wrong, and HOW she carried herself naked down the street, and WHY the swindlers would do that to her. I had my Mum recite the lines with me five times before bed before the day of the audition. I wasn’t just off book, I mouthed the directions and the other parts too. I labored over the props I would bring and how I would hold them where I would put them down.
And I got the part.
Not just, I believe, because nobody else auditioned.
I like to think that Ms. Bashir really saw the ambition, and the strength in that performance. Maybe a spark that she wanted to nurture in me?
Or maybe it was just because I was a loud mouthed, bossy, pushy precocious new kid who had no friends and she wanted to give me a break.
The role did not win me the popularity and instant stardom I so hoped it would. In fact, I was kind of a weird kid who marched to the beat of her own drum. In later years I would join sports teams, and grow boobs, and do my hair in that obnoxious two drips on your face way, so that I fit in. And then we moved back to Asia four years later where I suddenly had to pivot and understand who I was as an awkward thirteen/fourteen year old all over again.
But the thing that always stuck with me about the Empresses new clothes, and is something that I’ve carried through my years in the entertainment industry, especially here in LA, the city of always trying to be noticed, is that you fake it til you make it, whether that’s your invisible clothes or your career on social media, or your acting credits on IMDB. If you can see the colours and patterns on the Emperesses new clothes and you walk down the street with pride, then who the fuck cares what anybody else thinks?