About a month ago, there was a popular question on Facebook sticking out among the usual summer feed of pedicured toes before breaking waves and pastel drinks with teeny umbrellas.
“What’s something you’ve done that makes you confident you’re the only person on my friend list who has done it?”
Some answers were appropriately confident with uniqueness: “Won the Showcase Showdown on 'The Price is Right with Bob Barker',” “Drove my car through Jackson Square right up to the steps of the cathedral,” and my personal favorite, “I was given a baby anaconda by a tribal leader in the Amazon in exchange for a lock of hair.” Girl, you win!
Others were more obvious and involved celebrities: “Hung out with Alec Bladwin at F&M’s,” “Sat next to Mick Jagger at Tipitina’s,” and “Gave Keanu Reeves a ride down Canal Street.” Apparently, New Orleans is THE place for random celebrity encounters. And also, what’s the story behind how Keanu got in your car anyway? And, did Alec order the cheese fries? I need more deets.
My comment was also celebrity related: “I was introduced to civil rights icon Rosa Parks by the famous opera singer Kathleen Battle.”
My answer provided a respectable assumption of distinctiveness, but I left out a next level tidbit. I had completely forgotten what I was wearing when I met them until days later when someone posted a picture of me at Senior Prom in a strapless gold lamé dress with matching neck scarf--the same dress I wore a month later when at a leadership conference Kathleen Battle walked me over to Rosa Parks. The dress was as one-of-a-kind as the experience of hobnobbing with two cultural giants because the dress was designed, built, and fitted by a talented, local seamstress, who would later be known as Bianca Del Rio, winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race and one of the most popular drag queens in America.
It was Spring 1996 and I was dead set on leaving high school with a bang and what better place to make a final statement than Prom? I’d just watched “The Barkleys of Broadway,” an MGM classic with Ginger Rogers in a gold lamé gown with a harem hem that seemed to drip and swirl around her with liquid fabulousness. That was what I needed, and there was only one person in town whom I knew who wouldn’t question a girl’s sincere desire to go to Prom as Ginger Rogers.
At the time, Roy Haylock was an up-and-coming costume designer in New Orleans. He had positively wowed audiences with his work in True Brew and Southern Rep Theatre’s productions of “Ruthless! The Musical.” From the happy homemaker Judy Denmark, to Ruth Del Marco, the haughty stage sensation, with every wig, fringe, and feather, I was hooked on his command of camp. He had the skills and flair to do Ginger Annie justice, but would he?
Enter big sister Lizzie, a queen’s muse and dream come diva. She can sing like Babs, dance like Debbie Reynolds, stop a show like Elaine Stritch, and wear anything...with enough padding. Lizzie and Roy had met working on “Ruthless” together and she set up our dress date--with one caveat. He could take my flat-chested, Gap-wearing suburban simpleton self and transform me into Ginger Rogers, but only the morning of. Not a stitch before.
Holy hell. Wearing camp to Prom isn’t for amateurs.
Lizzie drove me, and there in a costume shop off of River Road, the magic took shape. Roy worked quickly, flawlessly, and without a pattern! I walked in at nine and was out by noon. The matching scarf was necessary. The matching clutch was his surprise, along with a tiny label in the back: “A Roy Haylock Original.” I was the proud owner of an original and it achieved everything I wanted. It dripped in all the fantastic fabulousness I’d hoped for. It was bold and brave and the loudest “don’t fuck with me” piece of clothing I would ever own. And I only wore it twice - once to Prom, and again in Sun Valley, Idaho, where, for the record, Ms. Battle wore gold too.
I didn’t realize when I hung the dress in my closet, and in all the years that followed when my hand would graze the shiny fabric as I reached for a jacket or a blouse, that when I attempted to turn my style with that flashy number, I was building a memoir. That dress marks that time I went to Prom as Ginger Rogers and later met two icons in a dress made by an icon. But it meant much more than that. I kept it for another nine years because it wasn’t stuff. It was a part of my personal fabric, a chapter in this life and this story. It went the way of Katrina as did so many other stories we now keep only in our memories but which were integral to our memoirs.
And of course, that’s why we cling to so many inanimate objects-- because they are an extension of ourselves, almost like family, though they have no feelings of their own. Last on my closet rod today is a red dress I wore in London that I will never wear again because it’s way too sexy for my regular life, but it reminds me of a feminine side to me that I often overlook. Skintight Annie. She’s in the memoir. Warrior Annie is an important chapter too. In my jewelry box is a pair of navy blue earrings I wore to my father’s burial in honor of his years as a Navy Lieutenant. Each time I put them on, I remember I’m stronger than I think. Annie the Clown. She’s one of my favorites. Tucked away on my top closet shelf is a fuzzy black hat that I wore to a girls trip two years ago. Every time I see it, I smile and remember laughter - copious, side-splitting laughter - from rich friendships. And the young Annie in gold lamé is a favorite--"unfuckwithable” and emboldened by that magic moment when fashion meets fate.
I know enough to know that there is more than one way to build a memoir. It’s tempting to let our eyes wander and compare ourselves to others. Her life is so charmed, we say. Or, Look at everything she has done. My life doesn’t compare to her glamour. But the truth is, you and I are just as special. Our closets tell tales that make us distinctive. You HAVE done things that make you remarkable and this is what you wore when you did them. We are the choices we make, and sometimes the best example of who we are can be found reflecting back from the mirror. We need to remember that the next time our eyes wander. Sometimes the reflection won’t always be pretty. Girl, the Mom jeans suggest you’ve forgotten that once upon a time you were, in fact, “unfuckwithable.” But if our choices are inspired by a narrative we write ourselves, our memoir will always be appropriately confident with uniqueness.
And that’s how a queen becomes The Queen, one who can straighten her wig and serve with diva realness, “Not today, Satan. Not today.”
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.