*Inspired by the song “White Dress” by Lana Del Rey.
There are three kinds of girls in their late teens/early twenties. Girls who waitress. Girls who retail. And girls with trust funds.
When I was 19 I was a girl who retailed.
Here’s the truth about teenage shop girls. We hardly make any money. We skitter like subway rats across marble floors in stiff patent leather pumps for eight consecutive hours. We have spider veins.
So why do we do it? Why do we furiously swipe credits and simmer beneath vile fluorescent lights and destroy our young bodies if not for the money? Because we’re either too uncoordinated to tend bar, or because we’ve been told that folding cashmere sweaters and sanitizing lipsticks and graciously accepting verbal abuse from glamorous women twenty years our senior will pry open the iron doors that block us from entering our ~dream~ careers in the fashion world.`
See. 19-year-olds who work retail are style-obsessed. Fashion is religion and Kate Moss is Jesus Christ and hunger pangs mean you’re doing it right.
Sometimes we try and leave retail and do something more lucrative with our lives but it’s hard to escape because we’ve got style Stockholm syndrome. We stay remain stuck inside those stuffy department stores, broken-down boutiques, and bad-vibe beauty counters long after our souls have expired. Because we simply can not fathom an existence without the stellar designer discounts we’re granted in lieu of a livable salary.
My credit card might’ve declined while buying tampons at the gas station but who cares? I’m nineteen and wearing Marc Jacobs.
I was nineteen when I moved from Hollywood to Santa Monica.
My brother Blake and a Brazilian artist named Thiago were my roommates. Our apartment was cinderblock and the downstairs toilet never worked. The whole place stank of stale cigarettes and damp towels and anxious, adoloscent ambition. My brother and I fought with the intensity of low IQ anti-maskers pumped up on Adderall and misdirected rage.
“How dare you wash the dishes with my DERMALOGICA cleanser!” I’d scream after busting him using my brand-new thirty-dollar face-wash to sanitize a cracked glass teeming with boxed wine and ash.
“THERE WASN’T ANYTHING ELSE TO USE BITCH!” my brother would scream back pounding his fists against his chest like an ape.
“STOP FIGHTING, PLEASE!” Thiago the sensitive resident artist would wail as he furiously splashed paint against a canvas.
Everything was intense at nineteen. Life on steroids. Borrowing a sock without asking was a deep, painful betrayal. Getting hammered at a dive bar was the most glamorous event in the world. A meaningless late-night hookup was a modern-day love story.
Before I worked retail I did what a lot of wannabe young actresses hot of the tanning bed do in LA. I worked part-time as a promotional model — which is arguably the lowest form of modeling.
A typical promo modeling gig consisted of handing out free twenty-calorie granola bars to orthorexics emerging out of a spin class in Beverly Hills. In all truthfulness, I didn’t mind it, but it was inconsistent.
“You should do extra work,” My friend Kyle told me on my 19th birthday. We were at a Nine Inch Nails concert in San Diego. My boyfriend gave me too many painkillers and I could feel the color draining out of my face. I could feel the life draining out of my body. But mainly; I worried about the money draining out of my bank account. There was no safety net at 19.
“Okay,” I said, numb of Norco (the new narcotic of the nightlife). I snuck away to the back of the stadium and crawled into fetal position as I willed myself not to puke.
Even though I was sweating chemicals I never puked. My mind controlled my body at 19.
Right after that, I started to pick up steady work as an extra on movie sets. This rendered me suicidally depressed. I was young and aspiring; fiercely talented with the unwavering work ethic only granddaughters of war acquire — so yes. I absolutely — indeed — thought it was me that should be starring in the movie over whatever bird-boned blonde had scored the romantic lead — but that’s not what made me want to jump off the roof of the Pacific Design Center and splatter into a pool of blood and guts on Santa Monica Blvd. What made being an extra so deeply, viscerally, spiritually intolerable were the other extras. The extras un-ironically referred to themselves as “background artists” and did so with straight faces. They waxed poetic about their fake agents and fake auditions and fake managers. They were always high and belives their own lies. And considering we were treated like cattle and were served tap water we lapped up out of a communal trough — they acted as if they were the most coveted movie stars in all of LA. To this day I’ve never witnessed greater delusion. Even at 19, delusion dragged me down into the dumps of despair.
“How long have you been in the ‘industry’?” a bro with blonde bangs and a poorly concealed Mid-Western accent asked me on my first day.
We were sitting in the middle of a steaming hot parking lot in Chatsworth, California. Chatsworth is deep in the San Fernando Valley. “Chatsworth? That’s where they shoot all the porn movies.” My drug dealer who was about to become a famous actor known for his erratic behavior and booze abuse, warned me the night before.
Chatsworth was full of brown dust and smelled like used condoms and the kind of unhealthy semen that’s never shared a body with a piece of broccoli. The climate is so dry, tiny crow’s feet form around your eyes when you step inside. Even at 19.
I didn’t want to talk this bro about anything — let alone the “industry” — but this was long before internet feminism taught me that I don’t have to talk to boys if I don’t want to.
“Um. I just wrapped my first movie.” This wasn’t a lie, but in hindsight, I should’ve just said I was studying to be an accountant or something — anything — but an actress.
“Cool. Yeah. This is my fortieth feature,” blond-banged bro murmured coyly, his parched eyes begging me to feed him, to ask him more, to bestow him with a surplus”oh my gods” and “wow are you famous”?
I was 19. I was caught in the crossfires of sarcastic snark and furious ego-stroking. “Wow. Forty movies?” I smiled and turned my head. With my back to him I rolled my eyes so hard I could see the New York skyline.
“Yeah. Forty movies. No big deal. I’m from a small town but always knew I was destined for great things.”
Right as I was about to hurl my residual shame for this sad creature all over the Chatsworth concrete — a raven-haired girl with tattoos caught my eye. “He’s been an extra in forty movies. Not the same as starring in them,” she whispered under her bubblegum breath. “These people are the worst.”
The raven-haired girl with the tattoos was right. Raven-haired girls with tattoos are always right.
Not only were the “background artists” the most insecurely ego-centric characters I’d ever witnessed, but there was also a cold, dark energy that followed them around like a shadow. This chilled me to the bone. They all had the same look in their eyes. Like today was going to be the day the big movie director finally noticed their vibrant movie star sparkle and would immediately pluck them out of the crowd and make them a STAR! An overnight STAR despite having no real on-camera experience and despite just moved to LA six months ago from Des Moines, Iowa — but hey. That doesn’t matter because they killed it in their high school production of “Guys & Dolls” and everyone knows — everyone knows — they’re special and destined for BIG THINGS. IT WILL HAPPEN.
Right? RIGHT? RIGHT?!
Yeah, I couldn’t handle it. Desperation is contagious. I had worked too hard too move to this town to get sick so soon.
Which is how I ended up a retail girl.
19 having a coffee interview outside of Fred Segal, an aloof, celebrity-laden retail store, notorious for both its thousand-dollar sweatsuits and for banning Mischa Barton.
(“Fred Segal is hell. It’s high-end generic. It’s not made with any love,” Barton mouthed off in an interview with Elle Magazine. In retaliation, Fred Segal allegedly informed Camp Barton they were barred from entering the LA fashion institution.)
I had applied for a job working in the quasi lingerie section of their (now shuttered) Santa Monica store. The two girls who managed the lingerie section appeared to be only a few years older than me. Daddy had purportedly invested in the quasi lingerie section of the store. Who’s daddy? I’m not quite sure.
“So, like, um, where are you from?” Mazy* a ginger with thick straight bangs and a dead eyes vocal fried to me.
“I just moved here from New York,” I purred doing my best to sound sophisticated. I wanted this job. Bad. I was a fiercely loyal reader of Us Weekly and there were always big glossy pictures of a Hilton dipping in and out of Fred Segal, mega iced latte in hand. I thought it was so chic.
“Cool. So like what will you do for the holidays? Won’t you want to go back home? How can we trust you?” Jessie, the other manager asked, her pale blue eyes wide with paranoia. I could smell the Adderall on her breath.
“I don’t need to go home. I want to start a life here anyway,” I practically sang, fluttering my eyelashes, hamming up the whole “Bambi in distress” act. The girls didn’t react. 19 was the age when I first started to understand that feigning innocence works gorgeously with men, but not so much with women.
“You can’t wear a crop-top to work,” Jessie snapped.
I felt like I’d been hit on the back of the head with a spit-ball. I looked down at my outfit. I was wearing a long-sleeve, pale yellow maxi dress that fell to my ankles. I looked so prim I could’ve passed for a Hassidic Jew with an eerily believable wig. What about me screamed crop-top?
“We looked at your MySpace,” Mazy said, popping a piece of Juicy Fruit into her mouth. “You are wearing a crop-top in your profile picture.” She began to chomp on her gum so aggressively she sounded like a show-pony devouring hay after a competition.
“Oh, yes. Well, I would never wear one to work!” I said enthusiastically.
“You have to wear stuff from the store. ONLY from the store. And you need to pay for it yourself,” Jessie trembled. She looked like she was on the verge of a mental breakdown. I understood. I’d popped too many Adderall’s a few too many times in my day too.
“Okay! I love the clothes from Fred Segal! It’s my fav —”
“We need to know that you can WORK,” Jessie said, slapping an imaginary fly off her emaciated thigh.
“Oh, I can work!” I hooted like I was auditioning for the Cheerleading Squad. At 19 I was still stuck in that strange space where the more someone rejects you, the more ravenous you are for their approval.
“It’s eight dollars an hour and you have to pay for your own parking,” Mazy said, releasing a loud, melodramatic, rude as fuck YAWN from her suspiciously plump mouth. I could see the tiny piece of faded pink gum resting softly against her cherry red tongue.
“I CAN DO THAT!” I belted, trying a new tactic. I imagined instead of cheerleading I was auditioning for a bad community theatre musical. I saw myself tap-dance around with full jazz hands. Let me work for you! Let me work for you! I’m a JEW, I’m smart, I’m full of art, I’ll set myself apart from the rest, I’ll be the best! I sang in my head as I broke into a pas de bourrée.
I felt Mazy’s eyes hone in on my black manicure. “Well, we have a LOT of other girls who want this gig. The girl we’re interviewing next is a model. By the way.” She kept her eyes fixated on my nails. “How old are you?”
“19,” I said hoping, hoping, hoping, hoping they didn’t think I was too young to represent the most relevant retail conglomerate of the US Weekly generation.
“Oh.” Mazy tapped nervously on her skinny iced blended latte. “This girl is seventeen. I thought you were younger. Most girls who work here are still, like, in high school.”
Welcome to Hollywood. Where you’re a used up broad too ancient to work in a trendy clothing store at the ole’ age of nineteen.
“Cool, well I look forward to hearing from you. Good luck today!” I managed to squeak before skittering away. By the time I made my way to my car there was a big, fat parking ticket for $80 sandwiched in my windshield. That’s more than I have in my bank account. Visions of being a career background artist haphazardly danced through my head, like a drunk Lindsay Lohan whipping her hair up and down at a trashy discotheque on the Mediterranean.
Exactly three days later I found myself having sushi on Sunset with my bitchy new bosses and the seventeen-year-old “model” who was to be my coworker. The teenage model was at least six feet tall, thin like a razor blade, and had a shimmery-brown mane of hair that was so long it kissed the top of her exposed hipbones.
“Zara this is Jaq, she’s from France but was raised in Bel Air. You’ll be working together,” Jessie said. I could see little black RX symbols stamped in the whites of her amphetamine eyes.
Jaq the Bel Air teen took a confident sip of her Sauvignon Blanc. “Where do you go to high school?” She asked, sizing me up with a smile, LA style.
“I’m actually not in high school anymore. I graduated last year. I study acting but want to get into fashion.”
“Are you, like, from LA?” Jaq asked. I studied her face. It didn’t house a single pore. I felt my own pores expand on the spot.
“She’s from the midwest,” Mazy said darkly.
“What? No, I’m not. I’m from New York.” I clarified, feeling the hot fire of rage creep its way up my chest. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the midwest, but there wasn’t — and still isn’t — anything “midwest” about me. I am a Jewish/British hybrid who wears cocktail dresses to sports-bars.
“Really? I thought you were, like, from somewhere rural in the Midwest.” Mazy slurred, swishing back her Martini, her far away eyes slinking further down the road of being brutally bombed.
“I told you I was from New York,” I said fighting off the urge to stab her in her scrawny thigh with a chopstick.
“You have a midwest vibe,” Jessie said her amphetamine eyes gleaming mean.
“Yeah, you do. Like, totally.” Jaq the teen model giggled. Mazy and Jessie joined in. Their laughter smelled like their insides were rotting.
“May I please get a glass of wine?” I asked the waitress.
The waitress looked as if I’d just barged into her living room and demanded she makes me a cocktail. “Do you have ID?” she asked sweetly.
“Forget about it.” I sighed.
I was back in the seventh grade.
Only unlike my seventh-grade suburban cohorts these bitches weren’t sporting Kate Spade mini-backpacks over their tennis-toned shoulders. Nope. These bitches proudly rocked protruding collarbones and quilted Chanel clutches.
I detested everything about working at Fred Segal. I detested the fact that I had to shell out twenty bucks a day to park my car in a private lot, so it wouldn’t get towed. I detested the slew of $500 teeshirts with hideous rose and skull graphics that seemed to be all anyone wore in the entire store. I detested the bitchy gay guy who asked me if my Balenciaga bag was real. When I told him it was (it wasn’t) he insisted on counting the stitching.
I detested the wannabe It Girls that frequented the store in comically large sunglasses, pretending to shield themselves from the Paparazzi — because surely, the Paparazzi had been tipped off that a 22-year-old who had three lines on General Hospital two years ago, was in the wild, shopping.
But mostly, I detested my bosses. I’d been dealing with mean girls all of my life — but these girls were on a whole different level. They were a special breed of mean. The kind of mean being only being young and hungry and hopped up on speed, and royally pissed because you didn’t get into the VIP section of the night club even after blowing the portly promotor, can make a person.
I ended up quitting after six months and getting a far less glamorous job at New York Film Academy in Burbank. I was a night receptionist and worked with all film nerds with beards so bushy I’m fairly certain they housed small birds on their chins. Everyone smoked cigarettes and wore no-name black jeans and dirty vans. Conversations were obscure film references. We all partied together but never at Hollywood clubs — we’d gather at someone’s one-bedroom in the Valley where we’d get high as a kite and debate the genius of Adult Swim. I did a lot of mind-numbing filing and faxed endless documents and scanned student IDs. The girl who worked next to me was a dyke who wore second-hand flannel every single day. We got on like a house on fire. I loved her and I loved everyone else at that job. I even secretly loved cleaning the classrooms at night armed with a fresh bottle of Windex and a small broom. I made fifteen bucks an hour and the boss let me park in his spot since I was usually the last to leave. I was nineteen. I was happy. I was finding my way in the world. Finally.
Years later I would find myself back in retail. I’d discover that I belonged behind the beauty counter encouraging freshly heartbroken women to try bright lipstick for the first time. That I loved. But I learned a major life lesson at 19. I learned that I don’t need to work in a glam job in order to feel valid in this world. I learned that all I need my work environment to entail is a family of creative, weird, kind, and most pressingly; real entities in order for me to love my job.
F*ck the glitz. F*ck the bullsh*t. F*ck the image. F*ck the ego. I’ll smile as I file all day with the bearded boys if it means I can laugh and be myself.
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