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By Katie Marshall
Do you remember Paris Hilton? Of course you do. While we were consumed with mocking her in the early 2000s, she was busy building an empire by hand, brick by brick – one she now resides over. Everything that we loved to hate about her – the baby voice, the outfits, the stupid “That’s Hot” and “What’s Walmart?” one-liners – it was all an act. In real life, Paris is deep voiced, business-minded, and finds her passion in music and philanthropy. She fooled us good, laughing to the bank as she paved the way for every reality star after her. She pulled a Marilyn.
Mitchell Sutherland articulated this concept recently, and left me personally smiling in that “You got me!” kind of way reserved for unexpectedly impressive magicians and small kids with articulate rebuttals. The article explains that it makes no difference whether or not we accept someone else’s performative living. It makes absolutely no difference to Paris because she knows that what she built is solid. She knows who she is and what she’s accomplished. She doesn’t need you to approve of her. God and her little Chihuahua know that we’d fall for her act again the second she started speaking in those upper octaves.
The ability to play to exactly what the audience is looking for is an art form. You’ll hear it regaled as talent when utilized by men but deceitful when used by women. Everything from makeup to charm is an unfair advantage in the eyes of many from both genders. Maybe it is. But when I think about women like Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez, and Lady Gaga, I can’t help but feel impressed with their efforts to become something bigger, something glowing and shiny and golden. They employ “The Marilyn” where they play a part that we, the global audience, wants to see, and they do it so well that they became an act in real life while also maintaining their true identity at home. They create a persona. As Jon Banville described her, Marilyn Monroe was, “one of the 20th century’s great clowns, whose clowning was intended not to make us laugh – though she was wonderfully funny – but to lose ourselves in fantasies of longing and desire.” Pulling a Marilyn, as Paris did, means that she was able to convince millions of us to get lost in a fantasy.
One of my favorite stories about Marilyn comes from Amy Greene, the wife of Marilyn’s personal photographer Milton Greene:
“I’ll never forget the day Marilyn and I were walking around New York City, just having a stroll on a nice day. She loved New York because no one bothered her there like they did in Hollywood, she could put on her plain-Jane clothes and no one would notice her. She loved that. So as we we’re walking down Broadway, she turns to me and says ‘Do you want to see me become her?’ I didn’t know what she meant but I just said ‘Yes’ and then I saw it. I don’t know how to explain what she did because it was so very subtle, but she turned something on within herself that was almost like magic. And suddenly cars were slowing and people were turning their heads and stopping to stare. They were recognizing that this was Marilyn Monroe as if she pulled off a mask or something, even though a second ago nobody noticed her. I had never seen anything like it before.”
Women are powerful. For more reasons than I can count. We have lived for centuries as secondary – everything from unequal pay to unequal treatment – and we have not only survived, but thrived in large parts of the world, though we are regularly brutalized in many places to this day, in both big and small ways. I don’t believe that these trials and pains made us more impressive; I wish more than most things that women were treated with the same respect as men around the world, and by that I mean all women in all shapes, colors, sexual preferences, and histories, each of which have varying degrees of tribulation that deserve their own respect. Each woman has a unique story to tell. To love one woman is to love them all. I could write endless pages about the power of women, but I’m interested in today in our secret super power that, when employed, enables us to “become her”: sparkling and shining, captivating in a way that is intimidating but enticing, booming yet melodic. Kaleidoscopically beautiful.
When women “become her,” as Marilyn did, we are powerful in strong and soft ways. I don’t intend to say that women who don ball gowns and blow outs are the only ones who employ this power. The real life Jessica Jones of our world, the comediannes, lecturers, porn stars, tribal leaders and everyone in between all share this ability. Glamour and power exist in a myriad of forms. Regardless of location or context, there is something beautiful about women. Even through the mistreatment and the period cramps and being underestimated on a regular basis, beauty prevails.
I thought for a while that this becoming, this beyond-human beauty, required a mask or even a full body suit. Maybe a magic wand. Perhaps women were so captivating because they painted over their flaws and fissures, blurring out any mistakes or removing them entirely like mistakes deleted during a round of edits. Maybe we found ways to cut off the bad parts of ourselves and stored them home, tucked away in our closets to be reattached to our hearts at the end of a long day of performing. But that couldn’t be true. Even the most amazing women in the world, such as Meryl Streep and my mom must have flaws and past mistakes stored somewhere. They don’t blur them out. They don’t paint over them. And they don’t perform beauty. They are beauty.
Maybe that shining, sparkling aura comes not from hiding the flaws, but from embracing them, even celebrating them. Just like Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with golden lacquer, perhaps our power comes from treating our breakage as part of our history, even as something to be celebrated, rather than something to disguise. Perhaps the real shine comes when we fill our mistakes with gold, anointing them as important and real.
When we forgive ourselves for not being perfect, when we forgive ourselves for being woefully human, even average at times, we allow ourselves to shine. When we discuss it out loud, verbalizing the fact that we make mistakes and learn and keep going, we become more than an act. We become more than “her.” We become ourselves. Sparkling, shining, and golden.