It’s exciting, at first. You think at first that you’re different, that you have something special to offer, and that can even be true. Then you remember you’re the same person you’ve always been; the only change is that suddenly your picture is every where and columns are being written about who you are and what you’ve said and where you’re going next and people are stopping to look at you. And you’re a celebrity. More accurately, you’re a curiosity. And you say to yourself, I don’t deserve all this attention!”
She thought carefully. “It isn’t you that matters to people when they turn you into a celebrity. It’s something else. It’s what you stand for, to them.”
There’s a ripple of excitement when a conversation turns valuable to us, the feel of new powers growing fast. Listen care fully, Nikhil, she’s right!
“Other people think they know what you are: glamour, sex, money, power, love. It may be a press agent’s dream which has nothing to do with you, maybe it’s something you don’t even like, but that’s what they think you are. People rush at you from all sides, they think they’re going to get these things if they touch you. It’s scary, so you build walls around yourself, thick glass walls while you’re trying to think, trying to catch your breath. You know who you are inside, but people outside see something different. You can choose to become the image, and let go of who you are, or continue as you are and feel phony when you play the image.
“Or you can quit. I thought if being a theatrestar is so wonderful, why are there so many drunks and addicts and divorces and suicides in Celebrityville?” She looked at me, unguarded, unprotected. “I decided it wasn’t worth it. I’ve mostly quit.”
I wanted to pick her up and hug her for being so honest with me.
“You’re going to a famous writer or filmmaker one day,” she said. “Does it feel that way to you: does this make sense to you?”
“A lot of sense. There’s so much I need to know about this stuff. In the newspapers, have they done this to you? Print things you’ve never said?”
She laughed, “Things you’ve not only never said, but never thought, never believed, wouldn’t think of doing. A story published about you, with quotes, word for word, made-up. Fiction. You’ve never seen the reporter . . . not even a phone call, and there you are in print! You pray readers won’t believe what they see in some of those papers.”
“I’m new at this, but I have a theory.”
“What’s your theory?” she said.
I told her about celebrities being examples that the rest of us watch while the world puts tests to them. It didn’t sound as clear as what she had said.
She tilted her head up to me and smiled. When the sun went down, I noticed, her eyes changed color, to sea-and-moon-light.
“That’s a nice theory, examples,” she said. “But every body’s an example, aren’t they? Isn’t everybody a picture of what they think, of all the decisions they’ve made so far?”
“True. I don’t know everybody, though: they don’t matter to me unless I’ve met them in person or read about them or seen them on some screen. There was a thing on television a while ago, a scientist researching what it is that makes a violin sound the way it does, I thought what does the world need with that? Millions of people starving, who needs violin research?
“Then I thought no. The world needs models, people living interesting lives, learning things, changing the music of our time. What do people do with their lives who are not struck down with poverty, crime, war? We need to know people who have made choices that we can make, too, to turn us into human beings. Otherwise, we can have all the food in the world, and so what? Models! We love ‘em! Don’t you think?”
“I suppose,” she said. “But I don’t like that word, model.”
“Why not?” I said, and knew the answer at once. “Were you a model?”
“In Mumbai,” she said, as though it were a shameful secret.
“What’s wrong with that? A model is a public example of special beauty!”
“That’s what’s wrong with it. It’s hard to live up to. It frightens Miss Moviestar.”
“Why? What’s she afraid of?”
“Miss M got to be an actress because the studio thought she was so pretty, and she’s been afraid ever since that the world is going to find out she isn’t that pretty and she never was. Being a model was bad enough. When you call her a public example of being beautiful, it makes it worse for her.”
“But Shilpa, you are beautiful!” I blushed. “I mean, there’s certainly no question that you’re… that you’re… extremely appealing....”
“Thank you, but it doesn’t matter what you say. No matter what you tell her, Miss M thinks beauty is an image someone else created for her. And she’s a prisoner of the image. Even when she goes to the grocery store, she should be all done up, just so. If not, somebody is sure to recognize her and they’ll say to their friends, ‘You ought to see her in person! She’s not half as pretty as she’s supposed to be!’ and Miss M’s disappointed them.” She smiled again, a little sad. “Every actress in the world, every beautiful woman I know is pretending to be beautiful, she’s afraid the world will find out the truth about her sooner or later. Me, too,”
I shook my head. “Crazy. You’re all crazy.”
“The world’s crazy, when it comes to beauty.”
“I think you’re beautiful.”
“I think you’re crazy.”
We laughed, but she wasn’t kidding.
“Is it true,” I asked her, “that beautiful women lead tragic lives?” It was what I had concluded from my Perfect Woman, with her many bodies. Perhaps not quite tragic, but difficult. Unenviable. Painful.
She considered that. “If they think their beauty is them,’ she said, “they’re asking for an empty life. When everything depends on looks, you get lost gazing in mirrors and you never find yourself.”