I've always been painfully shy. I do my best to compensate for it by being effusive. I remember when my shyness first manifested itself to me as a potential problem: I was about ten, and watching the movie Firestarter (I went through a period where I mostly just read Stephen King novels), and when Drew Barrymore stepped out of that barn and set the government agents on fire using only her mind, I turned to my friend in astonishment. "I could never do that," I said. To which my friend replied, "Yeah, because you don't have special powers."
But I hadn't meant the fire-starting. I was talking about Charlie's pyrokinetic confidence, her prolonged intrepid gaze. I could never stand in front of so many people, even if my escape depended on it.
Are people born with introverted temperaments, or are they made? At age four I was hamming it up in front of the fireplace, performing Anne Murray songs into a Fisher Price xylophone mallet for relatives. A decade later, in 7th grade Science class, I found myself sweating bullets during an experiment meant to test involuntary reactions. I was paired with a ruddy boy named Winbourne who had to stare into my face for a full minute to count and record the number of times I blinked. I became so nervous at the idea of someone looking at me that closely that I didn't blink at all; instead, I focused on a spot just to the left of Winbourne's nose until tears ran down my cheeks, until our data was declared unusable. Something had changed in me in the intervening years between Murray's "You Needed Me" and the introduction of the empirical method.
But despite my reticence, I was always testing the limits of my stage-fright. I landed the role of an Italian ice cream vendor in a middle-school production of I don't remember what exactly. My monologue was an exhaustive catalog of 27 flavors, which I delivered in a mustache and a Godfather accent. I was so afraid of public speaking that my scooper shook when I gesticulated.
I persisted in auditioning for what I knew would terrorize me in performance. In my white Protestant high school I was Lady Thiang in The King and I (Siamese accent) and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof (Jewish accent). I sang the National Anthem at football games, where I'd have to write the lyrics on my hand to remember them; from the bleachers, I must have looked like I was forming a pathetic (albeit patriotic) shadow puppet. In college, I joined an acappella group. Each show, right before the pitch pipe blew, I'd scan the room for exits.
I loved singing, but I loathed performing. How cruel was the world? I switched my major from Music to English because I didn't enjoy being on stage. I assumed the spotlight would never galvanize me the way it does some people.
Last fall, I read Nancy Milford's biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I was surprised to learn that Millay characterized herself in a letter as "thoughtful, intense, involved, reticent & retiring." This was the same poet who once called Vassar a "hell-hole" to the President's face and who basically started a female sexual revolution with her sonnets.
|Vincent's idea of a double date|
In the book, Milford recounts the wonderful story of how Vincent earned a spot at college. Her sister Norma had cajoled Vincent into accompanying her to a masked ball at the Whitehall Inn. This was shortly after "Renascence" had been selected for publication. Although one would think that a young Vincent would want nothing more than to attend a party (boys to kiss! girls to kiss!), Milford writes in her biography that she "didn't want to see people," and Norma Millay concurs: "She was shy."
At this dance, Vincent was pressured by her sister into singing a song at the piano for the entire crowd, and at the end of the performance, turned around to recite "Renascence" by heart. She commanded the room (think Anne of Green Gables and "The Highwayman"). A wealthy benefactor was a member of the audience that night. She offered to send Vincent to Vassar. And just like that, a poet's career was born.
"The Circus Rag" was her vocal selection. Not exactly a pop breakaway hit or a power ballad. But Millay's biography inspired me to tackle a personal bugaboo. Last October, I auditioned for the American Idol show at Disney World's Hollywood Studios. I was traveling by myself for work, with no entourage of support, and I hadn't even been drinking yet.
|Burning the candle at both ends|
More than anything, I was inspired by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I get affected by strong POV. Which would explain my Season 2 Felicity hair.
Disney's American Idol is a lot like the real American Idol, only with actors playing the three judges. I was ushered into a cramped audition room where I shakily, and soberly, belted out Heart's "Alone." There's a reason Anne Wilson doesn't schedule 9AM shows.
|And the morning goes by so very slow|
An assistant wearing an ear piece gave me a number and a pair of headphones and instructed me to listen to "Bubbly" over and over before my second audition. I was really starting to hate "Bubbly." But by this point, I'd convinced myself that Edna St Vincent Millay wouldn't walk away, even if she had to rehearse "I get the tingles in a silly place" next to a nine year old girl gargling from a Donald Duck sippy cup.
|It starts in my toes and it ends in my mouth when I throw up from fear|
But I did it -- I walked into that little soundproof room and smiled my biggest honeyed smile and sang the hell out of "Bubbly." I crinkled my nose and pretended to be tucked in. And these overly literal and self-conscious efforts paid off, because I was offered a spot on the noon show. "Suck it, Sippy!" I thought as I flashed my badge on the way out.
Somewhere between hair and makeup and meeting the fake Ryan Seacrest, panic started to set it. I didn't really want to do this. I was up against a plumber from Mississippi and a jovial mother of two from Britain who was singing "Respect" with a Cockney accent. We did a walk through. The plumber was performing a song from a 90's band like Smashmouth or Semisonic and did a lot of talk-sing accompanied by a strange physical comedy, like he was trying to unstop a toilet. The Brit mom had excellent eye contact with the camera. She made "Respect" sound like a lost number from "My Fair Lady."
|Clay, my vocal coach, who urged me to sing less like Golde|
When it came time for the actual show before an audience of about 700, I thought I was going to lose it. I mean, I thought I would physically be sick when I walked out onto that stage. The hair and makeup lady had flat-ironed my bangs so that I looked like I'd just biked there. I felt winded and weak and whatever the opposite of Bubbly is.
It occurred to me, in that moment right before fake Seacrest pushed me out, that it's so difficult to understand other people's motivations because it's so difficult to understand our own. What compels us to do the very thing that terrifies us most? Is this why Evil Knievel jumped the Grand Canyon? I wondered if Millay was a shy girl who tried on gregariousness like a pair of men's trousers, or if she simply discovered her true self was extroverted. Maybe some people have to dig deeper. Maybe for some it's a lifetime of mining.
The Brit, of course, won. Fake Simon Cowell commented on my stiffness and advised me not to quit my day job. Great, because selling Disney is my day job.
I rode the Tower of Terror five times that afternoon, and with each elevator drop, even though I was expecting the sky to go rushing by, I was surprised. I kept getting back in line.