Almost daily my breath is taken away by my daughter Grace’s beauty, which has absolutely zero to do with me. Huge comfort is taken knowing she won’t inherit my eczema or Canada’s psoriasis, or both of our genetic predispositions to depression and anxiety.
Yet, it’s worrisome that she might develop depression and anxiety precisely because she cannot recognize herself in us. While the Syrian migrant crisis and all those traumatized children rage foremost in my mind/heart, worrying has become my latest hobby, ever since I lost my knitting needles.
Reading about the James Blake police brutality shakedown made this Old Mom worry all anew—not just about racism, cuz that’s the Muzak of our new lives– but about who we resemble and what resemblances can and can’t do for a person.
Canada tried to fly with Grace to Canada alone and the Customs Official asked Andrew for a letter from me stating he’s allowed to leave the US with our daughter. When Andrew asked why, the Official said, “Well, let’s face it, that child doesn’t look like you, does she?” Canada wanted to ask if such a letter would be required if Grace was white but he didn’t want trouble, he just wanted to visit his parents in Calgary.
Since we can all agree worriers are gonna worry, my freshest worry is what life will be for Grace knowing she won’t ever have the security of being instantly recognized as belonging to us. When I realized my fertility window was nailed shut, I mourned the loss of traits and personality flourishes and basic resemblances to dead and living cherished people that we were no longer able to recreate in an innocent victim, I mean baby.
But I also regularly receive photos of her family of origin and I study the faces she most touchingly resembles and it’s humbling. I want my kid to see enough of me in her that she always knows she belongs somewhere, with people who love her ferociously. This is never more apparent than when we visit family and cousins where we all laugh at how much we all know, resemble and love each other as we age into our parents and grandparents.
Now these family trips crack me in half because it’s so tender watching Grace cuddle her cousin Duncan, completely oblivious to the fact that he’s 20 years older than her and white as a sheepskin rug.
While we all know nature doesn’t always nurture, we can only hope Grace will glean the best from us and ignore the worst. And as much as I know that giving her a secure adoring safe environment is more important than resembling us, I also know just how good it feels to resemble someone–even someone I don’t know–because if I resemble someone special, does that make me special-adjacent?
As an art school dropout turned experimental theater actor, I shouldn’t have been terribly surprised that I didn’t get jobs more than I did, but I kind of was. Hence, money, security and a career were those things everyone else seemed to have. And when I realized all this, I was by no means a child. I was thirty. But I was trying to be an actor, so I acted like a child.
One seriously quiet day, my home phone actually rang. A Fancy Casting Director was calling me… on my home phone. Fancy Casting Director was a sweet, kind and cheerful man who never cast me–not because he was mean–but because I was always a nervous wreck at auditions and Cynthia Nixon wasn’t. I quickly wondered if I had left a sweater behind after yet another audition where Cynthia got the part. Fancy Casting Director had an interesting project I was perfect for. Could I come over right away? Oh, I could but first I used my expensive NYU drama degree to act as if a lot of important stuff had to be shuffled around.
Whenever my life seemed destined to glide off course like an unmanned space drone with a faulty signal- I imagined a day just like this. It would begin as an ordinary day of struggle against generalized anxiety disorder, hypochondria and self-doubt, until something occurred that would set my future on a trajectory of Lena Dunham-esque proportions. Was today the day that my Vanity Fair profile would sum up as the “Then, one day, everything changed.”
I bounded into Fancy Casting Director’s office and he nodded his red jewfro vigorously. “Oh, yeah. You really look like her.” All his office girls leaned over desks and murmured approval with much vocal fry. As eager Polaroids were taken of my face, FCD told me Annie Leibowitz was doing a massive pictorial on seminal female artists for Vanity Fair. I almost fainted. Yes, I once was a painter, but I dropped out of RISD after two years of anxiety attacks over what to wear to class or what color pastel to use in Life Drawing 101. As I gasped and wondered how the hell Annie Leibowitz knew who I was, FCD went on. “One of the artists is Cindy Sherman.”
Worried that he could tell I thought it was me, I gasped with excitement, suddenly deciding that if I couldn’t be as good as Cindy Sherman, looking just like her was good enough.
Me: “Cindy Sherman? My Cindy Sherman? I love Cindy Sherman. I went to art school (briefly), and all the art girls worshipped Cindy Sherman and her iconic DIY she-culture-revolution photographs. At RISD, it was practically a contest–which student would name-drop Cindy Sherman first, and would be able to extrapolate the buried feminist intent before the rest of us even knew who she was. I pored over Cindy Sherman’s transformational photos and her film noir shots- where she transformed herself into doomed B movie queens in ‘still photos’ of imaginary films. Cindy Sherman was Meta almost before anyone else knew what Meta meant or how to use it in a sentence. And Cindy Sherman and I both grew up on Long Island! I’ve always felt that I looked like her, but no one else seemed to notice, mostly because Cindy Sherman doesn’t ever really look like Cindy Sherman, she’s always changing herself. So to work with Cindy Sherman, on an Annie Leibowitz portrait is almost too much for me to handle. This is like destiny-adjacent.”
(Not to brag, but I knew all this about Cindy Sherman before Google made cyber stalking far too easy.)
FCD waited patiently and smiled politely until I finished my monologue about how my fandom made me somehow more qualified than anyone else to look like Cindy Sherman.)
FCD: “Yeah, that’s all great. But you really look like her.”
FCD explained that Annie’s concept for the portrait was to surround an unmasked Cindy Sherman with Cindy Sherman look-a-likes, so the viewer wouldn’t be sure who the real Cindy Sherman was. He marveled over my resemblance to Cindy Sherman one last time, then he had work to get back to and I didn’t so, it was time to go.
I floated home. This job was mine. No one was going to look more like Cindy Sherman than me. And even better, I didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t have to do an accent, or look good in a skirt, or make myself look younger. I was the best person for the job simply by being me. This was why I was available! This was so The Artist’s Way! I’d kept the channel open! And I was getting paid to share air with Cindy Sherman. It was the one time in my life where my limited talents and terrible anxiety weren’t going to do me in. This job, of resembling an influential, powerful female artist, was all mine.
Then the phone calls started. ‘Hi, you got the job, congratulations.’ ‘Hi, this is wardrobe, what are your sizes?’ I size-lied like all actors do. I slept deeply that night, confident in my limitless ability to look like someone successful and revolutionary.
The costume fitting was only traumatic in two ways. First, I couldn’t fit into the clothes the wardrobe woman didn’t know I wouldn’t fit into. I had assumed any experienced wardrobe person knew that when an actor says she’s a size four she’s really a six. The wardrobe people were annoyed–someone was gonna have to go back to The Gap. But then it got a little less special as one friend of mine walked into the fitting. Then another, then another, then another.
In my attempts to make all this all about me, I had somehow forgotten that Cindy Sherman was going to be surrounded by Cindy Sherman look-alikes. Plural. But why did I know almost all of them? There was Cathy, a dearly close friend from college, who was equally surprised to see me. Then Robin appeared, smiling as she said, ‘Wow, you really look like her.’ Then a pretty darn good friend (also named Cindy) and a bunch of audition acquaintances showed up and we all eyed each other, figuring out the Cindy Sherman pecking order rather fast. For once, I was the undisputed shoo in.
Then a 12 year-old girl showed up. She might have looked like Cindy Sherman when Cindy was a pre-teen, and served more of the purpose to make the rest of us feel old if content in the knowledge that Cindy was old too. After the fitting I walked home bothered by a nagging thought. Did I make friends who looked an awful lot like me, which would make me an off-the-hook narcissist? Or did I somehow make friends who looked like Cindy Sherman? I couldn’t get over the sneaking suspicion that somehow all this physical similarity between me and women I know and women I don’t know but admire, betrayed a severe lack of imagination on my part.
I arrrived at Annie’s studio embarrassingly early, betraying my Virgo punctuality obsession and severe excitement. Annie Leibowitz strode towards me looking like she just rolled out of Susan Sontag’s bed– messily successful and sloppily secure. Shaking my hand and pretending to remember my name, she complimented me on my extreme likeness to Cindy. I assured her much work went into achieving that goal. She laughed, which lit an Olympian-like flame in my size six belly– to be the best Cindy Sherman Annie ever met, yet also be so much myself that she would be mysteriously drawn to me, and need me to be a model for something that required a woman with a gym teacher’s build. Annie quickly moved on to something else. She was busy. I understood.
Annie’s studio was impressively, massively all white- walls, floors, backdrops, rooms, and staff. Even the sunlight felt expensive. Annie’s camera was big and dramatic and dominated the room like a cathedral crucifix. Annie’s young male assistants reverentially tended to the camera’s mysterious needs, like solemn altar boys. The other Cindys showed up.
One of Annie’s altar boys quietly informed us that they would use only six or five of us on the shoot. Annie would determine who would stay and who would go. It got a little more Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan at that point, but I was Oksana Baiul–because we all knew that no one, not even Cindy Sherman’s sister, unless she was an identical twin, could take my Cindy-ness away from me.
Then Cindy Sherman showed up. She seemed shy, uncomfortable with attention and not at all like a white hot edgy art star. Annie offered her a private dressing area but Cindy opted to dress with the rest of the Cindys. The make up and hair stylists parted all our hairdos to Cindy’s side and made us up to look as much like Cindy with as little make up as possible. The make up artist exclaimed loudly that he didn’t have to do much to me, and as the other Cindys eyed me, I blushed, wondering if this is how royal people feel. Nothing makes you royalty, you just are born into it, but everyone acts like you’ve been placed in a royal uterus by God himself.
Silently I fretted about how to approach Cindy Sherman. I had to say something, I needed her to know how much more important I was because I didn’t just resemble her, I GOT her. While we were sliding on our matching Gap socks and Gap shoes I murmured drily to her, “This must be weird for you.” She chuckled and nodded. I scored but I wasn’t satisfied.
If Cindy knew we were both from Long Island, we’d surely become friends- especially since all my friends already resembled us both. I feverishly tried to give Cindy space, yet not leave her side when we were called to set. We stood in a gym class line, in our The Gap white T-shirts and black pants, resembling cater waiters awaiting assignment.
Annie placed Cindy Sherman alone in front of the backdrop. As Annie scrutinized us Cindy lookalikes, my four years of Experimental Theater training was maximized when I was picked first. I resisted hopping up and down like a beauty pageant princess, but it came as close as I ever have or will be to being one of those.
Everyone and I mean fucking EVERYONE oohed as I stood beside Cindy. We were face- soul twins. As more than one of us Cindys also was a performance artist I made a mental note of who among us might craft a self-rereferential-meta monologue about getting a job due to looking enormously like a prodigiously talented artist.
Once Annie filled in the rest of the Cindy kickline, she started snapping, giving us directions. Cindy was the only one to not look directly into camera. A mirror was behind Annie so that we could hold ourselves like Cindy. Annie repeatedly told me to put my chin down.
My friend Cathy laughed loudly on a quick break. The 12 year-old had turned to her and said “I’m Claire. I’m twelve.” Only years later did we realize that the girl was Claire Danes. She got cut early, on account of being twelve and not looking enough like a 35 year old Cindy. In this moment, and this moment only, I kicked Claire Danes’ twelve year-old ass.
After a while Annie cut more girls. We waved warm good byes and forgot them the instant they left our magical world. We were served an elegant lunch in a church sized room. Us Cindys ate lovely food we couldn’t otherwise afford, made up and dressed like an art darling we weren’t, watched from on high by stained glass portraits of captured stars and their bounced celebrity light. It was inspiring and deflating all at once.
After lunch, Annie settled on the final six. Some girls were switched around, but I never left Cindy’s side–like her maid of honor, or her lady-in-waiting or her body double- the one chosen for the dirty work. I had to be repeatedly nudged to stop differentiating myself from my innate Cindy Sherman-ness.
Near the end, she pointed at one girl, on the end, a skinny dark blonde who really had very little in the way of Cindy about her. Annie told her, “You must be a wonderful actress because you don’t look like Cindy that much, but you’ve morphed into her. And it’s been amazing to watch.” The shoot ended soon after.
Here, in the one thing I was the effortlessly best at, I was outdone by unabashed and unapologetic talent.
Back then I was wasting so much life waiting for someone else to deliver my purpose to me. I was such a fear-based perfectionist, I was afraid to write, because I couldn’t write like Willa Cather. Acting didn’t scare me, but auditions did. Art was hardest of all because I didn’t feel I deserved to have a point of view to convey. I could act, draw, paint and write, but if it wasn’t perfectly perfect the very first time, I’d give up in a heap of self-defined failure. I didn’t know what it meant to fail until I learned that giving up was the only failure. Success is pushing past the fear of failure and making struggle part of the creative process. Nothing seemed worse than trying. Even failure was easier to accept than sheer, sweaty effort.
In the 20 years since, I’ve creatively come to really understand why Cindy Sherman shucked herself like an ear of corn and found a million alternate identities to inhabit. Cindy Sherman didn’t wait for imaginary permission, she simply went ahead and created. She even left the marks of her effort in the pictures. She didn’t make them perfect– what was important was that she made something, flaws included.
That’s why she was the center of Annie’s portrait. That was why the rest of us were hired to resemble her instead of being celebrated for ourselves. Perhaps my tiny refusal to lose more of myself in impersonating Cindy Sherman was my rebellion- my inchy attempt to be bolder than the lottery of mere resemblance.
And now I have a child who in no way resembles me- she is leggy, brown, tall and lean and has the sweetest wooliest hair I love losing my fingers in.
Looking like someone you love is not as important as loving them as if you made them.
All us Cindys were promised a print. I know that two of us did, because they never stopped nagging Annie’s office. I never did get my print. It’s worth thousands of dollars by now, but I gave up when Annie’s office stopped returning my calls. I did get a check, a nice meal, and I got to keep the clothes, which came in mighty handy for future catering jobs.
In the ensuing years people have called me from museums and galleries in Spain and France and England to say they are looking at me on a wall, next to some artist they’d never heard of. And they all marvel over how much I look like Cindy Sherman. Then they ask me who she is and what has she done?
Someday I’ll show the Cindy Sherman portrait to Grace. She might get a kick out of seeing all these white chicks who look like her mom. But not now, not while she looks at me with complete indifference regarding how much we do not resemble each other.
The world tends to celebrate large victories, but small victories are still victories.