I adjust my mic pack, smooth out my dress, then stroll through the drafty hallway toward the set. Two minutes left before lights…camera… action! “Lucy… you have some ‘splaining’ to do,” one producer yells out to the tech hand nearest me. It’s always hectic during the final moments before going live.
I turn to face a floor-length mirror, glancing over my attire, hair, and makeup one last time before making my entrance. Mirrors and I never used to get along. But today, I no longer see that awkward girl who stuck out like a sore thumb among her peers. A light giggle escapes my lips, and with a sly grin, I slowly eyeball my every curve. “Girl, how did you ever think you were ugly?” Me, ugly? I have a light complexion, light eyes, and strawberry- blonde hair. All through childhood and adolescence, I was the “pale” one, the one who was different.
The other kids were all caramel-skinned,dark-eyed, and dark-haired. Their features, I thought, were so beautifully defined. I didn’t fit in. The stares seemed for me with several spotlights directed my way. Albeit, adoration was not their motive. Couldn’t I just be invisible?
Then there was Josie, the dominant force in our 5th grade class who gleefully attacked anyone she saw as different with her loud mouth and derogatory comments. One time, I was traipsing through the playground when, Ooh, no… there she was! Josie was headed straight toward me with a group of kids who were more than eager to follow and watch her in action. I frantically searched for the nearest escape but ended up directly in her path. She stopped abruptly, paused, and then slowly eyed me up and down. I froze. “What’s wrong with you? You don’t have any eyebrows and your hair is orange! It’s so ugly,” she taunted. The laughter I heard would stay with me and become the soundtrack of my life.
Later that night, as I studied my reflection, I could see Josie standing over me spouting those heart-piercing words. My eyes welled up with tears once more. The worst part was that she was right. My frizzy, strawberry blonde hair, fair skin, freckles, no eyebrows, and a pudgy body made me think of Bozo the clown. I figured I could always get a job with the circus, if I ever wanted. I glared at that ugly girl and let my ghostly forehead drop to my freckled forearm. I really was a freak.
Unfortunately, junior high did not bring an improvement, but rather confirmed the miserable truth. Josie was merely a 2 on the Richter scale compared to the junior high kids. Many wanted to beat me up over my looks. Physical abuse too! It would have been better to wear long sleeves and throw a paper bag over my head. “Don’t rub up against her… you’ll get white.” “I bet they can see you from satellites, cause you glow in the dark, even during the day.” These were the taunts from my classmates.Even the teachers joined in. During a history discussion on WWII, Mr. Jackson talked about the Nazis, Hitler, and the slaughtering of millions of Jews. He pointed at me and announced, “The Aryan race looked like her.” My cheeks burned like fire, and again, all eyes were on me. So now my appearance was also responsible for the death of Jewish people!
The wind blew the tears off my cheeks as I walked toward the town center to watch a parade with my parents. “One cotton candy, please.” Oh, how I loved the sticky, sweet fluffiness… a temporary escape ball of sugar. I rushed off to the restroom.
“What? No! Come on!” I tugged on that zipper for at least 5 minutes, then snap! It popped off, and I stood there with my crotch exposed, wondering how I was going to cover up. My cropped t-shirt wouldn’t do the trick. What could I say? It was the 80’s. My mom, I knew, would have a safety pin. I managed to maneuver through the crowds with a paper napkin covering the area. When I finally found my mom, all she could say was, “We’re going to have to stop feeding you. You’re fat.”
The shame trickled through my veins like poison. I went home and told the ugly girl in the mirror, “They want a freak… I’ll show them a freak.”
First, I used food coloring and dyed my contacts. Then, I painted streaks in my hair with markers. I wore a trash bag as a dress. I could play the role that everyone had designated for me. In fact, if I acted out the part with enough confidence and admitted to the world that I really was weird, inside and out, perhaps feeling accepted would no longer be an issue.
They accepted me all right… the boys, that is. At the time, their compliments seemed sincere, but they were playing to my insecurities. It’s amazing how quickly people learn to manipulate and prey on the most vulnerable. Maybe I just wanted to feel pretty, even once, even for a few moments.
Never mind that their kindness required me to be physical. I ached for the praise and needed to hear it, even if it was a lie. I began obsessing over the things I thought I could control. My mama’s southern cooking, for example, was so delicious, but not the healthiest. Both my mom and dad were overweight, and I didn’t want to end up like them, so I stopped eating. “Oh, I’m going out with friends, so I’ll eat with them,” or “I already ate at school,” and “I’m going to eat this in my room.” I invented any excuse possible to avoid consuming calories.
I knew I had to eat something, so water, black coffee, celery, and carrots became my daily nourishment. I was only fifteen and downing 10-12 Dexatrim per day. This continued for over a year.
Makeup and pills became true and constant companions. They serviced me beautifully.
My eyebrows finally stood out, and my freckles remained hidden. There weren’t many options for mousse back then, so I had to buy Afro sheen, but who cares? It tamed the wild beast on top of my head. I even had a boyfriend, Forrest, who seemed to appreciate me for my true self. High school marked a turning point for me; no more misery, as long as I stuck to the plan.
“Tina,” snap, snap. “Are you all right?” The blurriness slowly dissipated, and the hard, cold tiles underneath my fragile body startled me a bit. A small group of classmates encircled me, but Forrest was right by my side, smiling at me with one hand holding mine, while the other hand held my head. I fainted 2-3 times per week on average. Switching to Slimfast apparently didn’t balance my blood sugar levels, but I could handle the fainting. I could even handle the excruciatingly painful migraines. But when my period disappeared, the real worry set in. Forrest and I were sexually active and certainly not ready to play house.
My parents set up appointment after appointment with every doctor imaginable. They provided my folks with no answers or solutions, because I refused to share any of my secrets. I had made a deal with that ugly girl in the mirror a long time before, and I was not about to dishonor our agreement. I exercised to that damn Jane Fonda video like crazy. The sweat poured out of me as I reached for the ceiling with both arms stiff and straight, then I pulled them back down to my side as I lifted each knee to my chest. “81, 82, 83, 84!…” No giving up now.
“You’re going to exercise yourself to death!” my mom exclaimed. If only that were enough; the only opinion I really wanted was Forrest’s. I could actually spend time alone with him without wearing much makeup, or smoothing out my hair and covering up my white skin. We walked to the park one day, hand in hand, snapping pictures of nature, people, and anything else that interested us. I was not particularly dolled up, but it didn’t really matter. We approached a wooden bench where I plopped myself down and stared up at the sky, silently asking it about my future.
Forrest pointed the camera at me, and I begged him not to take a picture, but he did anyway. “This is totally you.” I was afraid to look, and at first glance, I cringed, but then looked again and saw the playful personality that he had captured. I was silly and completely unaware of who I really was, but he valued me the same. “Hey Tina, I want you to stop what you’re doing… . You’re killing yourself.”
The next day in class, I just sat there very still, completely zoned out, repeating his words over and over in my head. “Tina?” My heart skipped a beat as I realized that Ms. Sain was calling me up to her desk. I wasn’t in trouble, right? No… a straight-A student like me… no way. I hesitantly walked over to her and tried to slow down my breathing and keep my knees from knocking. “You know who you remind me of?” she Asked. I shrugged my shoulders and gave her a half smile. “Lucille Ball,” she told me, and I said, “thanks” and then awkwardly returned to my seat.
Lucille Ball? Was it the orange hair we had in common? Lucille Ball? I Love Lucy… Ricky Ricardo… Fred and Ethel. All sorts of images flashed through my mind as I recalled the many reruns I’d watched over the years. She really was a phenomenal comedian, entrepreneur, and entertainer. Did Ms. Sain really notice any of Lucille’s traits in me? I struggled to accept her sincere compliment.
If that’s what she meant then perhaps, just maybe, I was destined to be somebody. When I crawled into bed that night, I retraced the picture Forrest took of me and began to recognize something else. I definitely possessed a look unlike any other.
But could I actually see beauty in my vulnerability? I met with one more doctor, and this time, something clicked. After asking some questions and doing a quick examination, he gave us his suggestions. I sincerely hoped that he wouldn’t announce to my parents that I had an eating disorder. He never uttered those words, but I can only presume he knew the truth for he suggested a nutrition plan. It ended up being a gift.
There were so many meal options to choose from that I felt like I hadn’t lost any control, but gained a healthy perspective on food. I actually bought a wok and started cooking for my family.
Once I realized that I could achieve my goals in a healthy way, the need to sabotage myself eventually dissolved. I was proud to have turned my life around and have a positive effect on both my parents’ lifestyles. Unfortunately, both of them had left this world by the time that I was twenty-five.
But as much as I grieved for them, their passing forced me to grow up. My mom and dad had been my driving force. When they died, I realized I could feel good for myself and not do things just to seek approval. The universe created a perfect balance so that even though I was losing, I was also gaining.
To this day, I still color in my eyebrows, but who cares? That’s why makeup was created. The point is that I’ve accepted my strengths and weaknesses and can see the perfection in all of it. It took a few minutes to reach this level of thinking, but the switch finally turned on, once certain teachers and high school sweethearts put me in my place.
I’m not surprised I became a comedian, a woman who loves photo shoots, an entrepreneur, an author, a TV personality, and a mother as well. They used to stare at me as a kid… they might as well keep on starin’. Now, when I look in the mirror, I see a woman on a mission who can go out in public without any makeup — and a beautiful woman at that. Thank you, Lucy, for paving the way for us “Gingers” and bringing me back to life.
The applause begins, the spotlight focuses in, and the announcer roars, “AND NOW… TINA MARIE JONES!”