Pop princess, p.1
Boston’s original pop princess
Shades of Blonde
My life as a pop princess began at the Dairy Queen.
I could tell you that at the time, I was your average fifteen-year-old girl with slacker grades, dysfunctional family, bad hair days, and a love for singing out loud to every pop song on the radio. But that was the Wonder Blake who appeared doomed to live out her junior year as a social oddity at her new high school on Cape Cod.
The other Wonder Blake, the one who slaved away at the DQ every afternoon, she sang aloud to every song on the radio in order to drown out customers’ voices so her mind could focus on her real ambition: escape. Sing-aloud Wonder dreamed of escape from Cape Cod, escape from high school, escape to Somewhere, Anywhere (okay, preferably New York or L.A., though London or Paris would probably do, as would any dark steamy Latin American beach metropolis like in the telenovelas on the Spanish language channel). She also longed for escape from parents whose marriage was on nuclear meltdown, escape from the sorrow that had overwhelmed our household since my sister’s death. In whatever glam city happened to be Somewhere, Anywhere, the other Wonder Blake would go and reinvent herself, become a sophisticated emancipated teen with a hot bod and ridiculous confidence. She could be like some Presidential Fitness teen ambassador; she’d have a kick-ass designer wardrobe and a smile that could light the world on fire. That chick would know how to make new friends like that and she would have guys lining up to date her, instead of the regular ole Wonder Blake, who you could tell guys thought was kinda not bad-looking but why’s she always by herself staring out into space, and anyway isn’t she the girl who used to be on TV, what’s her deal, how’d she get stranded here?
The regular ole Wonder Blake had two years of high school left to go, two more years trapped in sleepy Devonport, Massachusetts. Escape for now would have to come from singing aloud at her job at the Dairy Queen, passing the time in her own reverie.
And so it happened that I was discovered by Gerald Tiggs, the powerful talent manager, at a chance meeting at said DQ. Tig (as he was known) walked into the DQ at the end of my shift late one Saturday evening. I was mopping the floor, using the mop as a pretend microphone as I strutted across the wet floor, a Discman on my ears as I sang “Smells Like Teen Spirit” out loud—very loudly. My rendition of Kurt Cobain was closer to down-home gospel than to grunge wail. I had no idea a customer was lurking until Katie, my one friend in my family’s new hometown and also my DQ coworker, practically knocked me over, sprung the headphones from my ears, and shouted, “Wonder! The guy’s trying to talk to you!”
I looked up. Labor Day had passed, taking the Dairy Queen’s late night customers with it. Yet here was one standing before me at 10 P.M., clutching a chocolate-dipped soft-serve cone, his teeth flashing so bright in the flickering strobe lighting I thought I saw my reflection in them. He said, “Don’t I know you? You look familiar.”
Of course I recognized him. Who could forget those killer-shark eyes and the fine Italian tailored suits he wore even during 99 percent humidity? I told him, “Think a little harder.”
He did, and then he knew. The killer eyes turned sad when he made the connection. “You’re Lucky’s kid sister.”
“That’s me.” My big sister had been dead almost two years, yet it seemed I would always be known as “Lucky’s kid sister.” I wouldn’t have minded having my name legally changed to “Lucky’s Kid Sister” if it had meant I could have even one more day with her.
“I didn’t know you sang too.” He paused, as if he was seeing me for the first time, even though I must have met him several times before, with Lucky. His eyes looked me up and down, slowly, as if he was appraising me, not in a scamming way, but more like I was a piece of fruit. “You were a B-Kid also, right?”
I nodded, embarrassed. That was my old life, when we still lived in Cambridge, when my parents still liked each other. Back then, my sister and I trekked every Saturday to a television studio in Boston to tape Beantown Kidz, or B-Kidz as it became known, a kids’ variety show that developed a cult following throughout New England. In the time since the show’s cancellation, several B-Kidz had emerged to become major film, television, and music stars. My sister Lucky had been slated to become one of those B-Kidz alums.
“Do you have a demo tape?” Musicians and singers struggle for years to hear a major talent scout ask them that question. I got it over a mop and pail with no desire for it whatsoever.
“Oh sure,” I said. “I made one while I was singing in the shower this morning. Let me just have my people FedEx it over to you.” Katie, who had been watching the whole scene, busted out laughing. Everyone in the small town on Cape Cod where my family had recently moved knew that our house was one in chaos—and on a downward monetary slide.
Tig raised his eyebrow at me, then he laughed too. “Wanna make one?” he said.
“What, do you have a karaoke machine handy?” I asked. Ours was a small town made up of rich people’s summer homes and working-class people’s regular homes. Lights, camera, action was not what you would expect to find in Devonport, Mass.
Tig said, “No, but I’ve got a little recording studio setup in my summer house on the beach, and I’ve got a soon-to-be ex-wife back in Manhattan that my lawyer has advised me to avoid for the next couple weeks by just laying low, so what better way to hide out than by discovering a new pop sensation during the off-season? C’mon, it’d be fun; help an old guy have some fun in this beautiful boring town.”
The conversation would have ended there, with the “You must be crazy” I was about to offer Tig, had my mother not arrived at exactly that moment to pick me up at the end of my shift. “Tig!” she cried out, which was funny—my mom, the ex-law librarian, frumpy dresser with the bad perm, getting down with the hep nicknames. “How long has it been? What are you doing in this godforsaken town? Do you summer here?”
When my mom is nervous, she babbles. When she is intimidated and nervous, she babbles moronically.
“Ah, Marie,” Tig said. His shoulders appeared to slump and the sheen cast off his glossy teeth smile dimmed, like maybe now he was remembering the other side of dealing with Lucky’s family. “Long time.” He gestured toward me. “I was just thinking your other daughter here should make a demo tape. Looks to me like she’s got the same qualities Luck—” He stopped himself from saying her name. I was used to that by now. People around me acted like they couldn’t use the words “lucky,” “death,” “die,” or “accident” in a sentence for fear I would fall apart in hysterics on the spot.
“Wonder would love to!” my mom blurted out.
“Anna!” I corrected her. “My name now is Anna!”
“It so is not,” murmured Katie, who thought her name was boring but that “Wonder” was exotic and interesting. Since we’d moved to the Cape, I had been waging an unsuccessful campaign to be called by my middle name, Anna, a perfect name in my opinion: “a” followed by “n,” then the “n” and “a” in reverse. Nice. Normal. Girl next door.
My parents had been told they would not be able to conceive children. They had been married seven years when my sister Lucky arrived to prove that medical wisdom wrong. Two years later, their second unexpected wonder arrived, Wonder Anna Blake, me. By the time my little brother arrived less than eighteen months later, my parents no longer believed in miracles. They named him Charles.
Tig asked, “Which is it? Wonder or Anna?” He answered his own question before I could respond. “It’s Wonder—of course it’s Wonder. That’s the name to sell records.”
My mother nodded knowingly at Tig. I could see her large chest rising and falling rapidly. She hadn’t been this excit
“Our Wonder has a lovely voice,” Mom said. “She used to be an incredible dancer.” Mom stopped herself, and I knew what she might have liked to add: Wonder had been an incredible dancer back when we lived in Cambridge, until . . . you know . . . and since then Wonder has let her body go to hell and she’s stopped caring about her God-given talents. Wonder was a B-Kid too, you know! Tig, can you save her?
Tig looked at me like I was a puppet whose strings my mother would pull and I would dance on command. Not. I couldn’t imagine how Mom could possibly embarrass me more. I did not want to find out. I whined, “Ma, I thought you were going to wait outside for me after my shift.” Please, I thought, please don’t let anyone from Devonport High walk in right now and witness this scene. It was bad enough that Katie was seeing it.
Tig scribbled a phone number on a napkin. He started to hand it to me, then appeared to think better of it and handed the napkin to Mom instead. “Let’s talk,” he said. “I’ll be in town through the end of September.” He walked outside, and we heard the beep of his Mercedes’ car alarm turning off.
My mother’s eyes were bright and her cheeks flushed. Since Lucky’s death, the day didn’t pass that Mom’s complexion didn’t appear gray and her eyes dead. Seeing Mom liven up, I knew it would be hard not to let her persuade me to take Tig up on his offer. On the plus side, perhaps I could score a few days out of school over it.
Mom patted the top of my head, then reached behind me to loosen my hair from the DQ hair net. My light brown hair fell around my shoulders. Mom touched the bottom of my chin gently. As she gazed into my eyes I knew she was looking through me, trying to see Lucky.
She said, “I knew you could be a star, too. Like, you know . . .”
“I’m not Lucky,” I whispered to her.
“Tig thinks you could be,” she whispered back. “He would know.”
In my list of ambitions, tripping into a pop princess career did not register. That had been Lucky’s deal, not mine. When I wasn’t plotting fantasy escape from Devonport and I was dealing in reality land, my ranking of ambitions went like this: (1) save enough money to get my own car (please a Jetta, please), which would allow for (2) a better-paying job at a mall in the larger Cape town of Hyannis, which in turn would lead to (3) a major cash stash that would finance a post-high-school yearlong trek to like Norway or Madagascar or Tasmania or some place way far Far FAR from Massachusetts, an ultimate adventure from which I would emerge (4) totally in love with some hot foreign guy and then maybe one day, I would (5) have a career as, like, a veterinarian or a travel book writer or a professional chocolate taster. Easy.
First I had to survive high school. Two years down, two to go.
My freshman year, the year Lucky died, had flown by in a haze of C-minus grades from teachers who felt sorry for me, and crying jags in the bathroom between class periods. I had no real friends; I didn’t think I knew how to make good friends. Lucky had been my best friend, and our friends had been other B-Kidz or girls from our dance classes. Those friends had either graduated or were in private school. Money was getting tight in our family, so I went to public school. I wouldn’t be making friends through performing either: Beantown Kidz had just been canceled, and I stopped going to dance class, the one area where I actually excelled. Performing was out that year, anyway. It hurt too much without Lucky. I’d only been a B-Kid because I wanted to do whatever my big sister did. As for the grades, the parentals let the issue slide that year. I’d never been a star student like Lucky, and nobody expected me to start now.
On Labor Day before sophomore year Dad sat me down for The Talk, the “You’re such a smart girl, if you’d only apply yourself” speech. I responded that while I didn’t aspire to be some airhead twit, I really didn’t care if anybody thought I was smart and a good student so would it be okay if I just dropped out of school and got a job? The big fat answer was NO.
My GPA improved to a staggering C-plus average that year, which didn’t impress my parents at all, but what really sent them over the top was the new gang of girls who let me hang with them, more because I had been a B-Kid than because they actually liked me. With these girls, I was caught smoking in the bathroom; with them, I got busted for skipping school and hanging out in Harvard Square cafes, flirting with college guys and pretending we were college girls highly in need of invites to their keg parties.
Mom said, We’re moving; I won’t tolerate this behavior. To Mom, it didn’t matter if I explained it was one cigarette—my first—and I didn’t even like it, didn’t matter when I said I was just skipping school because it was all one big bore, I never actually went to one of those keg parties. Mom said, My therapist is worried that you’re a follower, you just go where the wind blows. You need direction. Lucky had motivation and drive—don’t you want that for yourself?
Dad said, We’re broke. We can’t afford to live in Cambridge anymore. We’re moving to a quiet, safe place where my children will have nothing better to do than study.
Bye-bye big city, hello small town with the sea breeze and fresh-cut grass and white lace curtains at every house. Yawn. Whatever.
No one said what we all knew: No move could bring Lucky back, and no change of scenery was going to make us forget our loss.
We’d been living in Devonport, Cape Cod, for three months now and the most exciting thing that had happened was Gerald Tiggs coming into the Dairy Queen.
I had been planning to remind Mom that a music career was not an ambition of mine, when the morning after our encounter with Tig, I walked into the kitchen and found her telling Dad and Charles about it.
“Wonder could have a record deal within a month, with Tig!”
Dad’s face had not adopted the newfound glow on Mom’s. He sat at the kitchen table, not looking up from his newspaper, his fork absently moving around pieces of scrambled eggs he likely would not finish. In the two years since Lucky died, he’d lost a lot of weight, and now stood tall and skinny as a rail, his hair completely gray. I think Mom ate for him: Her wardrobe had graduated from black career suits to poly-stretch pants from Target.
Dad said, “Unless those grades go up, Wonder can forget about it. The agreement with Lucky was a 3.5 or higher GPA if she wanted to pursue the music career. Wonder clocked in at, what, 2.5 last year? As it is, unless there’s a marked grade improvement at this new school, she can kiss the Dairy Queen job good-bye.”
That comment really pissed me off. I could feel my disinterest in Tig’s offer turning into Just try and tell me I can’t make a demo, Dad.
Our dog, Cash, was wagging his tail at Dad’s feet, waiting for the leftovers Cash knew Dad would be discreetly discarding. The condition of us getting a dog had been that Dad got to name it. He named the dog after his favorite “pop” star. Cash was my man in black, the most gorgeous black Lab/poodle mutt mix you ever saw.
Charles said, “Stupid fucking record people. Don’t do it, Wonder.” To Charles, “record deal” equaled “death.” On that terrible day, Lucky and I had been walking down our street in Cambridge and Lucky was giddy: She and her two best friends, Kayla and Trina, were close to signing a major label record deal for their girl group, Trinity. Mom and Charles were across the street waiting on the porch for us to return with the groceries she’d sent us out to buy for a celebration dinner. Mom waved, Lucky waved back. Lucky was all Trinity this, record deal that, and in her excitement, she stepped out into the street without looking. A car ran a red light and hit her. Drunk driver.
Two years later, our family was just starting to get on with our lives, but we were all going through the motions, as if we expected that at any moment our lives could again change in a random instant: irrevocably, horribly. The two years of litigation with the family of the driver of the car that killed Lucky had ended with the driver in jail, but that brought us no satisfaction. Lucky was still gone, and my parents’ love for each other seemed to have gone alo
“No cursing at breakfast,” Dad mumbled after Charles’s use of the F-word. Charles kicked at his skateboard under the table. Cash growled at Charles.
“But it’s okay at dinner?” I asked.
Dad looked up at me. He almost smiled. “Only on alternating Tuesdays in leap years,” he said.
Just then we heard a crash in the living room. Cash barked and ran to the door, tail wagging. We ventured into the living room to find that a small piece of the ceiling had cracked and fallen, knocking over an antique lamp and spreading debris over the shabby, worn-out wooden floors. Our home was on prime oceanfront property, but the house, built by Dad’s grandfather, was falling apart everywhere, and we had no money to fix it.
Since Dad, a college dean, had been placed on “sabbatical” by the university in Boston, and the only job Mom had been able to get in town was as a cashier at the grocery store, my parents had barely enough money to pay for our move from Cambridge to this ancient rickety house my father had inherited. Dad was supposedly going to use the profit from the sale of the Cambridge house to support our family while he used the peace and quiet of the Cape house to write a great novel that would make us rich beyond our wildest dreams. I think Cash was the only family member who believed Dad could do it. Cash sat at Dad’s feet every day while Dad stared at the blank computer screen, usually playing solitaire or surfing the Net when he thought we weren’t looking.
“Please let me call Tig, Wonder,” Mom said in my ear. “Please.”