I once had someone send me an email, I can’t remember what they were commenting on, but they asked, “Why don’t you include your Playboy cover on the list of your accomplishments?”
My response was, “Because it’s not an accomplishment, it’s a modeling job.” One of hundreds. I flew to Chicago, shot several cover options, was paid my normal modeling fee, and went home. Months later, I got a call saying one of the shots had been chosen for the April cover. I said, “Oh, that’s nice.” No big deal.
Then it came out. It was shocking to me how much everyone else responded to it. You would have thought I had reached some apex, I had this big ‘success.’ It was very confusing to me.
I mean, it’s a photograph, and not even one of my favorites. Yes, I prided myself on being a good model. I was known as one of the ‘smart’ ones. I understood the layout, the lighting, where the text would go, how to create a mood and not just a pouty look, etc. No matter what I do I want to do it well, but to me, that was so much less important than what my sister did everyday. She taught kindergarten. I admired her, and others like her. People like her are the ones who change the world, who make a difference every day. Models seldom do.
All my life, I think I’ve been confused about the way looks and fame are valued by people, for this simple reason; It doesn’t connect proportionately to any feeling of real value inside.
Looking back, I can safely say this is the reason I had trouble with drugs and relationships early on, (not to discount the relationships themselves, I made some bad choices.) I had no allies, no one who really knew me for who I was, I had no real sense of self-value, I was too busy pursuing what everyone else thought was impressive. Bad choice.
I remember, at one of my lowest points at that time, telling a good friend that I was so depressed and lonely, I felt that no one really knew me, that my life was without substance, and his response? “How can you be unhappy? You have what everyone else wants!” My heart fell through the soles of my feet. I was a ‘successful’ model, therefore I didn’t even have a right be sad, to be human. The immediate cure? Another hit, numbing myself for another night.
I had a friend who was a very famous comedian when I modeled in New York, at the time he was often subbing as the host on the “Tonight Show.” We would walk along the street and people would shout out. “Hey Dave! Hey Buddy!” they’d slap him on the back and shake his hand like an old friend. I said to him, “It’s like they think they know you.” He answered, “They think they do know me. I’m in their living room, every night!”
Of course, the comedian who was always ‘up’ and made them laugh was not the whole man. In life, this man was very intelligent, quite serious, filled with old pains, and a gentleman of impeccable taste. He had stayed loyal to his friends from his very poor upbringing because he knew that they were the ones who truly ‘knew’ him and it kept him grounded, with all of his success. It was a valuable lesson.
We all need accomplishments, I think, to be content. And the athlete who wins the medal and the business person who lands the big deal have every right to feel exhilarated by the experience, they worked for it! But what I’ve learned over the years is that just as important, just as real accomplishments are the small things, the felt things.
Oh yeah, I’ve been down, way down. And I’ve had a lion’s share of exhilarating moments. But all these things have passed. And here’s the most important thing I’ve taken from all of it:
I learned so much more from the mistakes. The most valuable moments in my life have been the bad ones. Not the absolute lows, I don’t mean the frustrating moments when desperation weighs on you so that you can’t lift your head, much less get out of bed, but the second right after that, when I made the decision to snap out of it, to buck up, to get over myself and be of service to someone else.
So what is a success to me? Writing a book I’m proud of, certainly, creating a character on stage or film that resonates, of course. Those things take effort, learning and determination, and are therefore more fulfilling than someone thinking you look nice. But more important are the other successes—seeing my daughter fight through a conflict at school, tears streaming down her face, but holding her own against unfairness or bullying, the light in a parents eyes when my charity is able to help their desperately ill child through a terrible time, the level of trust and love that my husband and I have earned, and any moment of gratitude. Gratitude for a sunset, a spider’s web on a hike, the fact that I can skip down my sidewalk from the shear joy of being, the moment I can turn a stranger’s mood around with a few moments of patience, a joke, or even a smile when they didn’t expect it.
That is success to me, because that is what connects to my heart.
As for the ‘success’ of being in magazine pictures? It was living, but give me the triumph of a breakthrough smile from a waitress having a tough day when I commiserate with her over that any time. Playboy cover? Bah. But if I can get my favorite waitress at Coco’s, who is raising four kids and putting herself through college, to laugh about the rude, complaining SOB at table four, that warms me. Her smile makes my day.
Because that kind of beauty connects me to something deeper, truer, more human. That is what’s important. That is a success. It might not appear on any resume, or any website, or any other public forum, but it means so much more to me than any magazine cover.
And I’m trying to pass some of my painful learning experiences on to my daughters. Someone telling them they are gorgeous is very nice, but it is not an accomplishment. Visiting with a child at the hospital and lessening her boredom and fear, that is something worthy they both do. The difference of those values is something I’ve tried to make clear to them.
I’ve also tried to let them learn the hard way sometimes. It isn’t easy, letting your children makes their own mistakes and watching them feel terrible. It’s hard to insist that that they earn their kudos, that they fight for what they think is right, with or without the support of their peers, to value themselves for actually doing something in this world, but it’s crucial to them becoming the amazing women that I know they will be.
What I wish for for them is a sense of value that will carry them through their lives. They will fail sometimes, of course, we all do, it’s what makes us better writers, actors, parents, salesmen, bosses, hell, it makes us better people.
I wish you all the eyes to see that every small kindness you do, every bad mood you work through, every difficult moment that you make better, is a success bigger and far more important than any ‘beauty’ photograph in any magazine.
See how successful you are? Yes, you are amazing.
Shari, December 1st, 2012