Live Through This

I Fake It So Real I Am Beyond Fake

I don’t steal people’s style/know-how/confidence—I channel their very essence.

Illustration by Ana

Illustration by Ana

When I was a teenager, I knew only a couple of things for sure: (1) I felt different from everyone else at my school; and (2) I didn’t know what to do about that. I looked around me and saw a sea of people who all blended together, and I felt no hope of ever connecting with any of them. I was desperate to find my tribe—i.e., the people who wouldn’t make fun of me for my tastes, hobbies, and inclinations—but I had no idea how to find them, nor how to make myself findable by them.

I wasn’t some genre-defying special snowflake. I was a mid-‘90s alternative girl, obsessed with music and sketch comedy and horror novels, and just obsessive in general. I thought constantly, about everything. I thought too much about the fragile ecosystem of high school, about other languages, about how cereal is made… This was me in a nutshell, and I was looking for a home—some place where I could quote a Kids in the Hall sketch and get something other than blank stares in return. I had a lovely family and I was a good student, but I wanted people around me who laughed at the same things I did, who agreed that socks could be worn on your arms. I needed validation; and for validation, I needed friends. I decided to send a message—an SOS, really—to anyone out there who might fill that role: Rescue me. The only way I could think to send that message was through clothing.

First step: I took copious notes. I had notebooks full of lists of looks I had admired on other people: prom dresses worn with Doc Martens in Sassy magazine; the Victorian-goth dancers in Madonna’s “Into the Groove” video; the badass-looking kids hanging out at Pablo’s, the local punk club; the drag queens at the gay club down the street from the punk club. I would bring my lists with me to the thrift store or the leather store or J.C. Penney, where I would try to approximate my favorite looks with what I found there. The result was incredibly messy—fishnet shirts worn with furry vests and old men’s pants—but my hope was that together it would all look effortless and cool and indicative of who I was, whoever that was. (I did not. It looked like when you try to put a costume on a cat—oddly uncomfortable and distrustful.)

I’d always made friends pretty easily, but as I felt the chasm between me and the majority of my school’s student body growing, I wanted to close the chasm between me and the subculture-dwelling teens whose ensembles I was clocking in my notebooks. They seemed interesting, and I wanted to seem that way to them, too. I thought of changing my look as the entrance fee to their club, and my new clothes as a white flag I could wave to show those kids that I was “OK.” It seems a little immature now, but I wanted to make it clear that we were on the same wavelength before I even approached them, so we could cut out the chit-chat of “Do you like the Melvins?” and go straight to being friends. Of course I like the Melvins, I’m wearing a Melvins T-shirt. It was a bonus that my new look also reflected how churned up and antsy I felt inside most of the time.

At the time I felt a little guilty that my style didn’t just hatch from my brain, fully formed and wearing scuffed flower-print boots. If it wasn’t a pure expression, untouched by outside forces, of my inner TRUTH, it wasn’t real. Back then I didn’t have style blogs to show me that even the most original dressers happily gather inspiration from the world around them, so I felt like a bit of a fraud. But the bigger thing I felt in my new clothes was confidence—and anything I that didn’t make me feel good about myself, I stopped wearing. Which was my first move away from rote copycattery and toward making choices for myself.

Over time, I made more adjustments to my outfits based on my body, my comfort, and my preferences. It felt good to get rid of the clothes that made me uncomfortable (pleather pants), and even better to watch the clothes that had been my backbone (short skirts, tights, combat boots, belted dresses) coalesce into something that started to look an awful lot like my very own personal style.

So, I figured out my style by imitating a lot of others. And my strategy worked—I found friends who liked the same kinds of things I did by dressing like the kind of person who likes those things (took me a while to realize that meant I was dressing like me, but we’ve covered that). My new friends and I were teased mercilessly by the other kids at school. They called us communists, gay, and devil worshippers, chased us out of school events, and physically harassed us (at least once a week someone would pull my dyed hair, asking if it was “real”). I was hurt and scared by this, but I couldn’t show it. So I tried out my fake-it-till-you-are-it style strategy in a new arena by channeling the toughest person I could think of. While staring at photos of Kim Gordon in the liner notes of Sonic Youth albums in order to bite her style, I had also subconsciously memorized her body language and facials expressions. Kim Gordon looked badass and didn’t care, so why should I? When I felt threatened or scared or shy, I’d hold my head at the same haughty angle as her. That borrowed physical act gave me a jolt of confidence that was all mine.

Years later, after college and grad school and five years of work as a therapist, I started to feel burned out. I wanted to try something new. But what? I knew only a couple of things for sure: (1) I wanted to be a writer and to somehow work in comedy; and (2) I didn’t know what to do about that. So I went back to my old tricks and started borrowing. First, I read a ton of books to find writers I liked. I also started going to more comedy shows. I found people who appeared to be doing jobs I might want and offered to take them out for coffee in exchange for a chance to pick their brains. (This is a fantastic thing to do, by the way, if you need information about a specific field. People love talking about what made them successful, and if you go in with a list of questions, you can get a sense in about an hour if the daily ins and outs of a particular job appeal to you. Plus, you’ll make connections that might be valuable in the future. One caveat: Do NOT ask for a job during this coffee.)

The next step, actually writing, was way more intimidating. I was scared of failing, of not being worthy of the title “writer,” and of being exposed as a fraud. So I pretended to be David Sedaris and wrote something about my family. (Me Talk Pretty One Day is still one of my favorite books—it’s full of small stories made large by Sedaris’s thought process and his love.) When I was writing as myself, I was paralyzed; when I channeled Sedaris, the words just fell out of me—sometimes gracelessly, but the important thing was practicing until I felt confident enough to write in my own voice. My first piece (and probably 20 subsequent pieces) never went anywhere—they were more for me, for practice, than for the outside world. They weren’t very “good” overall, but I started noticing the tiny parts of them that were: the sentences where I was writing the way I talk instead of trying to sound all writer-y, and the random words that I made up to describe things. These were the little baby seeds of what would become my writing style. At my best I wasn’t as detailed as Sedaris; when I tried to be, it sounded forced and unnatural. I kept at it until most of what I wrote felt like those early tiny moments. Then I started pitching my writing to websites. As I typed my pitch emails to editors, I told myself I was already a successful writer.

Meanwhile I was buying coffee for lots of people who book comedy shows, gathering intel. I went their shows and noticed things that worked (offering drinks and snacks to the audience) and what didn’t (crappy sound systems, not enough chairs). When I felt ready, I started a tiny show in New York with my friend Pete. At first we just copied stuff we knew had worked for other people. We made no money during this practice phase. But soon we started solving problems on our own, coming up with solutions we hadn’t seen before.

These days, I make my living running comedy shows and writing, and I didn’t have to go to school for either of them. Most of the time, I feel confident at what I do as myself, but I’m not the least bit ashamed to say that every once in a while I need the training wheels of make-believe again. Especially in situations where I’m a newbie, pretending that I’m someone else invigorates me. It shows me how it would feel to be that competent, and that confident. And here’s a cool thing: Feeling confident is pretty much indistinguishable from being confident. In meetings, I channel my boss Chris, who is the best businessperson I know—he’s to the point and funny and always advocating for himself. I have a comedian pal who is the master of taking her time to find the funny and acting like the audience is lucky to be watching her; any time I have to speak onstage, I adopt her stance and nail it the best I can. I couldn’t possibly run a development meeting, but my agent friend Christie can, so I mimic what I’ve seen her do. Sometimes I get interviewed on people’s podcasts; to get in the right frame of mind I ask myself, What would Kumail do? and then copy that, because my husband is perfect at being witty and engaging in interviews. I have enough confidence now to imbue these impressions with a bit of my own personality, but I have to tell you, it took a while. At first I was a straight-up copycat. I’ve accepted that as an essential part of the learning process for me. I have to adopt other people’s personas, skills, and self-assurance for a while, until I can figure out which part of me can take over the job. Only then do I take off the training wheels and ride ahead on my own. If you were watching, you’d think I was a natural. ♦

28 Comments

  • alienbabe July 9th, 2013 3:03 PM

    This year I’m a sophmore and I still haven’t found my “tribe” I often think about what it would be like if I was just did everything by myself. Anyway, Great article and the illustration is perf!

    http://sweetandsourstyle.blogspot.com/

  • Erin. July 9th, 2013 3:29 PM

    Random question that doesn’t totally have to do with the article: how do people obsess over stuff? I know Rookie had an “Obsession” themed month last year, but I can’t recall any pieces about how people have obsessions. Like, how do you do it? Maybe my brain just isn’t wired for it.

    Anyways, nice article. I always thought that it takes bravery and a lot of drive to try out different stuff, so even if you’re copying someone else, it’s still yourself creating the drive to do so.

    • sarahf July 9th, 2013 9:53 PM

      Your question about people obsessing: for me, I just do. I just fixate on shit.
      Obsession can be light-hearted like being super into the Police, or not fun and in fact a mental infliction, like being obsessed with some flaw you cannot change, that no one else even notices. Its a lot like having a song stuck in your head, but instead of a song, its a thought (or image, feeling, fear) you can’t shake, or don’t want to (like loving the Police).
      Sometimes totally random shit, sometimes its apparent how the fixation took root.
      And for a lot of people, I think, obsession is about needing control, consciously or subconsciously. Being raised in a very chaotic environment, I learned to ‘feel in control’ by obsessing about shit as a kid. Except its almost completely useless in real life!

      • blueolivia July 11th, 2013 11:55 PM

        i definitely relate- i was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, obsessive subtype. it’s kind of like no matter what you do, your mind returns to the same thing. you can forget it for a moment, but its right back. and you kind of think yourself into a corner. it really blows, honestly.

  • Saana V July 9th, 2013 4:26 PM

    Oh man those first parts of wanting to find friends who care about the same stuff – i’m at that point. Expect that it isn’t plausible for me to find people – and it’s just that i live in a small place and everyone is like the other. And it’s easier of course,you know to be like everyone else, but I’ve decided to really be _me_ and it’s actually pretty hard when my stuff gets laughed at and my dreams get kinda brutally killed or something.

    I have only a few friends who are like me but they are my scouting friends from my patrol, and we have our own patrols to lead so we have like, 2 own meetings in a month and still not everyone is there. I miss them.

    Great article, it made me think about this stuff again and was just A+ anyway. thanks

  • Manda July 9th, 2013 4:43 PM

    Ahhhh, I love The Kids in the Hall! Dave Foley’s monologues were always my favourite.

  • jfate July 9th, 2013 4:52 PM

    I very much related to those parts about finding friends with the same interests as me too because I’m 23 and I’ve yet to find one. However I know it’s my fault because I’m very antisocial and don’t like to put myself out there. In high school I much preferred to lay on a bench alone and nap then anything social.

    I even had people come up to me and ask if I wanted to sit with them and to not worry because I would “fit in”. However a nice gesture, I took it as more of an insult. I didn’t need to fit in and even rejected the idea. It just depends on the person. For me being alone worked and it’s only now that I kinda wish I could have put myself out there more.

    Great article!

    http://jfates-and-fables.blogspot.com

  • Gemma Crockett July 9th, 2013 5:07 PM

    This is fab. I have literally done this all my life! Right now I channel the kind of the ‘I don’t give a shit’ attitude a lot of female rap artists give off and even a lot of feisty bloggers. I’m real shy and sometimes I need to think ‘how would someone else react to this if they weren’t shy?’ It lets me into some really awesome situations I would usually back out of and it stops me from feeling uncomfortable, I love it.

  • Ella W July 9th, 2013 5:16 PM

    I love the artwork for this piece!
    Ella x

    http://gorillalegs.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Scaramoosh July 9th, 2013 5:25 PM

    This is such a great article – it could be called ‘Recipe for Success’.

    I believe PEOPLE help us discover our PASSIONS and reach our POTENTIAL – so we need to follow Emily’s suggestion and look for, learn from and incorporate a little bit of anything we like from everybody we meet.

    Then it’s like blending colours. The ‘red’ you borrowed from one person and the ‘yellow’ you loved about someone else becomes ‘orange’ and original inside you. And there are infinite colors so you’re always creating rather than copying.

    Be open to learn one positive thing from everybody you meet – even if you have to hunt for it! Focusing on the negative is just lazy and it takes your attention away from figuring out who you are and what you love to do.

    http://www.the10principles.com/

  • myy July 9th, 2013 6:17 PM

    Nice article Emily, there is so much you wrote about that I can relate to!

    http://cactusflowerblog.blogspot.com/

  • queserasera July 9th, 2013 6:32 PM

    i remember i’d try conforming to the nonconformists in my angsty daria years but discovered they can be just as nice or mean and boring or fun as the kids who follow the mainstream culture. i think trying on different masks and ultimately getting exhausted and being myself was the best thing i got out of high school.

    http://televiseddinner.blogspot.com/

  • abby111039 July 9th, 2013 7:07 PM

    As I’m currently going through my own little identity crisis, this article really speaks to me. And I really enjoyed what I’m going to assume was a Hole reference in the title. (:

  • HearMeRoar July 9th, 2013 7:09 PM

    im going to be a sophomore in high school this september and although i have some friends, i don’t have any close friends and i dont hang out with anyone outside of school. there are only 3 different types of girls at my school, and i fit into none of those categories. i feel bad because teenagers are supposed to have a close group of friends, right?

  • Sophie ❤ July 9th, 2013 8:01 PM

    This was such a lovely way to introduce the topic of blending in! Of course, it’s good to stand out a little bit, but you know what I mean…
    I adored it!

    http://plainlysophie.com

  • lauraunicorns July 9th, 2013 11:24 PM

    I feel like I’ve used this strategy a lot as I kind of learned who I am and what I like through high school. The whole “fake it till you make it” thing sounds kind of dumb when you first hear it but it actually works really well. And it’s especially nice if you have friends there to cheer you on as you start to break the mold a little. My best friends turned out to be the people who stuck with me as I learned how to be different.

    http://lauraunicorns.tumblr.com

  • Chloe22 July 9th, 2013 11:27 PM

    I started finding my personal style (personality wise and fashion wise) by copying things to oblivion. Eventually, I found my own style. I like mixing neon wigs with snapbacks and knee length socks monogrammed with boy band names. I also love severe black Wednesday Adams dresses.

  • Monq July 10th, 2013 1:05 AM

    This article really speaks to me! I’m currently going through my own little “identity crisis” and being afraid of being exposed as a “fraud”.

    xoox

  • EvaLavender July 10th, 2013 3:10 AM

    omg i just wrote about this!! lol, rookie little reads my mind.

  • KatGirl July 10th, 2013 10:06 AM

    In one part it says “There were no style blogs o show me” instead of “There were no style blogs to show me”.

    • KatGirl July 10th, 2013 10:06 AM

      But this is an awesome article! :)

    • Tavi July 10th, 2013 12:13 PM

      Thanks for catching that!

  • Bumblecake July 10th, 2013 11:12 AM

    This is brilliant, I try and do this. Some-one once told me they saw me in the street but didn’t want to come and talk to me because I already looked so nervous! So after that I started walking and listening to Natalie Kills, Beyonce, Sleigh Bells, M.I.A so that I walked with confidence and didn’t care about what is going on around me and now I don’t need the music to do that!!

    http://www.frankiesimone.blogspot.com

    http://www.frankiesimone.tumblr.com

  • Dino July 10th, 2013 12:59 PM

    This is so great! …I can be really shy, so when I go out or have to do something out of my comfort zone I go, “I am Jennifer Lawrence, I’m Jennifer Lawrence. I can do this. I’m a badass!” And it helps!

  • spudzine July 10th, 2013 5:36 PM

    WOW THE FIRST PARAGRAPH IS BASICALLY MY LIFE RIGHT NOW. But seriously though, I’ve always been guilty of faking it, because I feel like I’m not really me, and that it’s a bad thing. I mean, what happens when I AM me? Will I just go back to being shy and scared to talk to people??? Is being someone else REALLY worth it??? I always ask myself these questions, because I feel like I want to just work on the real me, but I also feel like no progress will be made unless I fake it, so there’s no winning on my end!

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • loonylizzy July 12th, 2013 7:58 PM

    this is so wonderful! i totally relate to the whole alien feeling described in the beginning. thanks for this awesome article :)

    http://www.theflightoftheflamingo.blogspot.com

  • Remiliuh July 22nd, 2013 12:43 AM

    awesome article! i love reading it! i feel like i can relate because.. i’m trying to be some sort of artist.. i’m not sure whether i want to make comics or animate.. and i practice by copying other artists styles (i never upload those pieces onto the internet though) and pretend i am them.. then i try to copy another artists style, and then i mix it all together and add my own personal touches and call it “my style” :P my style right now is kind of like a mix of arne bellstorf (guy who did baby’s in black) and kaneoya sachiko (his art has been flying around tumblr for a while) hee hee. aaah (▰˘◡˘▰)

  • October 26th, 2013 5:18 PM

    Yes! Finally someone writes about traktor spil.