“Who will buy, this wonderful morning…?” It was my friend Johnny singing a solo in our version of the musical, Oliver called, “It’s a Fine School.” I was in the fourth grade at Yankee Ridge Elementary School. My family and I had returned from Islamabad the prior year and we were back living in Urbana, Illinois. Our teacher, Ms. Blanford, had thought of everything down to the costumes. We all had turtle necks made in either red or yellow, with each of our names printed in white on the front. Everyone in the class wore jeans, but I purposefully chose to stand out and wore a denim skirt. “Consider yourself, part of the family…” I was singing in the front row for one of the group chorus tunes, belting my favorite song out loudly. In that moment, I couldn’t have felt happier. I adored the feeling and exhilaration of being on stage. At the age of nine I was realizing something that would remain with me for a lifetime: to be successful when performing in front of an audience, there was simply no place for worrying about what other people were thinking of you or what you looked like.
I decided right then and there that I would be a singer. Not just any old vocalist, though. I would become a famous singer; maybe even an actress.
It was time for me to shine, and I loved it.
“….where the eagles fly, on a mountain high…” I was singing the Joe Cocker 1982 hit, “Up Where We Belong” at the Sinai Temple Talent show. The performance was extra special for me since my older brother Peter was accompanying me on piano, and my childhood friend Johnny was there to turn the pages of the music Even though I was still two years away from studying voice at Interlochen, the performing arts center in Michigan, I was already a dedicated singer. At home, my dad would accompany me on piano with his repertoire of songs usually from the Rodgers & Hammerstein era . But even without the piano, I was always walking around singing like I was already on Broadway. I would sing on the street. In the car. At dinner. However, not everyone was an immediate fan of my constant musical outbursts. In fact, Peter said my incessant singing drove him nuts (his words). But fortunately for me, he nevertheless agreed to accompany me that night at the talent show. Yet despite my supportive family, I had grown well-aware that my dreams of being a famous performer were hopeless. No matter where I looked, there were no stars who looked like me or who looked markedly different in any way, really. Show business wasn’t for people like me. It was for people like Johnny, who had always had amazing musical talent and no physical difference holding him back. Meanwhile, I figured these few moments on the little stage were going to be the best I would get and so I cherished them.
But for the moment, it was time for me to shine, and I loved it.
“Don’t go changing, to try and please me…” I was home in my bedroom with one of my close friends, sharing a few notes of the song I was to sing this weekend at a Cabaret benefit for our local synagogue. Always the fashionista, I had bought a new dress for the coming event and had really dragged my friend upstairs mostly to show off my new outfit. She took the moment between costume changes to ask, “Meg, did you ever plan on becoming a performer, at least when you were younger?” “Nope, not as far as I can remember. Back then, let’s face it; I didn’t even dare to dream about being a public performer. It just wasn’t possible if you looked as different as I did.” She continued. “That wouldn’t have even occurred to me.” By her expression I could tell she thought, or at least hoped, I was kidding. I wasn’t.
That night, after she left, I checked my email. Waiting for me was a new Kid Flaunt essay from a beautiful eight-year-old girl named Kaylee. Titled “My Beautiful Life,” Kaylee quickly described her difference–that she was born without half of her left arm. A lover of performance, she shared her dreams in her piece. “One day I am going to be Miss America and famous for acting or singing. It would be cool if the famous part came first. But I also want to say God has been with me the whole time. He made me this way for a reason and I am going to shine with it.” When I read Kaylee’s Kid Flaunt, I couldn’t help but get the chills. At her age, I too desired fame through performance, despite my physical difference. In that sense, and given our shared experience looking so blatantly different, I felt I could completely relate to this gorgeous, sweet girl I had never met.
However, unlike me, Kaylee can continue her dreams well past her childhood. When I was growing up, I could never find anyone on television that had any type of dramatic difference. The networks always seemed to need to present the perfect person, the perfect family, the perfect everything. Even though they knew their viewers were far more diverse, I presume the marketers told them what images sold best. Aspiring performers who didn’t fit the physical mold would have a brighter future on radio. When Hollywood did put physical differences into focus, it was usually to tell a specific story of disability, the life and struggles of the characters in “Mask” or “Elephant Man” for example. People with physical differences were not written into mainstream storylines as ordinary characters. They were separate and apart from the norm.
Today, the spread of new media outlets has diminished the role of the old networks. There is little control or restriction on what the public sees and hears. As a result, something really incredible and important has happened.
People with physical differences are not only visible in the public eye; they are finalists on singing shows, like Rion Paige on X-Factor. They grace the Miss America stage as Miss Iowa, Nicole Kelly, did this past fall. And Tyra Banks (who featured an albino supermodel on America’s Next Top Model this cycle) made sure to advise to the hopeful contestants, that models must have a special edge: “You must have something different that sets you apart in order to really make it now in this competitive business.”
As for me, I may not have ended up achieving national fame for my vocal talent, but I still get to grace a stage now and then and sing songs like Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” (which is my song for this weekend’s show).