This post is the third in a series about my memoir, Paris on Less Than $10,000 a Day. Some of these posts will be about the craft of writing and others will be about the content of the book—everything from fashion and French things to body image and substance abuse.
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Back in 1995, I took a few classes at Santa Monica College to fulfill my basic requirements. At the front of my Physical Geography class sat a beautiful young woman who was frequently absent. I later learned from a friend of hers that the reason she often skipped class was that she had bruises on her face from her boyfriend hitting her.
In 2000 I had the idea to publish a book of interviews with models and other fashion industry professionals. I interviewed 20 models and 10 agents and photographers. I was surprised to learn how many of those models (all but one of the models I interviewed was female) had supported their boyfriends during the years that they modeled, and how many of those boyfriends has been verbally, if not physically, abusive.
Last month I saw An Education, a movie starring Carey Mulligan as an intelligent and beautiful, but naïve, British high school student, and Peter Sarsgaard as her good-for-nothing but charming and charismatic boyfriend twice her age.
When I was modeling in Paris, I dated an up-and-coming French actor named “Alain,” who was nearly double my age. Like Sarsgaard’s character, David, he was funny, clever, and charismatic. Like David, he loved adventure and breaking the rules. Like David, he loved the expensive things in life and didn’t hesitate to steal to get them. Like David, he was unfaithful. Like David, he was abusive.
And I, like Mulligan’s character, Jenny, was charmed by Alain. I was smitten by his cleverness, his humor, his good taste, his wit. Like Jenny, I was willing to overlook his minor transgressions, like the times he stole the cashmere sweaters/knives/binoculars from the department store. I thought it was charming that he jumped the turnstiles at the métro, that he refused to pay his electricity bill, and that he earned his living placing bets at the track. I looked the other way when there was evidence that he was cheating. I ignored the fact that he lied about his age. I forgave him when he punched me in the mouth and split my lip.
Wha? Wha? Wha? “Go see An Education” I want to say, because Lynn Barber, the author of the book on which the film was based, and Nick Hornby, the author of the screenplay, explain so well how a naïve young girl of 18 could fall for a deceitful, good-for-nothing 30-something playboy. For starters, 1) He he’s a good liar, good at hiding the truth and good at creating false realities. 2) Once involved, the 18-year-old girl wants to believe those false realities, doesn’t want to give it all up. 3) Compared to the honest, serious boys back home (in Jenny’s case, an awkward schoolmate named Graham), Playboy is extremely alluring. He’s fun, he’s adventurous, he’s confident, he’s older, he can show the 18-year-old a whole world she didn’t know existed—a world in which she goes on glamorous trips, sips cocktails and smokes cigarettes, and parties in little black dresses instead of spending her Friday nights with her schoolgirl friends studying for exams. My modeling life wasn’t much more glamorous than Jenny’s. Except for the occasional nightclub outing, I spent most of my evenings in the model’s apartment reading books and eating vegetables with rice and pasta—until glamorous Playboy came along and wined and dined me—said, “Get dressed, we’re going out” and fed me champagne, oysters and profiteroles at La Coupole, Les Deux Magots, and La Tour d’Argent. He showed me Normandy, Brittany, Bordeaux, and Provence. He dazzled me with Florence, Venice, and Elba. He introduced me to Cassavetes and Drouot-Richelieu. He taught me the difference between foie gras and rilettes. He dressed well and told very funny jokes.
We’re all familiar with the charming bad guy—Tony Soprano is the perfect example. He’s a horrific man. He murders people in cold blood (remember the guy who’s head he smashed with his foot, afterward pulling the guy’s tooth out of his sock? He cheats on his wife (with hookers, strippers, and car saleswomen), and yet we love him. Why? Because he is charming and funny and smart. Because he is human, and we see ourselves in him—like the time he weighed himself, then stepped off the scale and took his shoes off and weighed himself again. We can all relate to that. Another lovable bad guy? Dexter. He also kills people, then dismembers them and disappears them without any tinge of remorse. He cheats, too (Lyla). So why do we like him? He’s charming, he’s funny, he’s smart, and he has a code. Tony Soprano has a code, too-the code of the Mob. Another likable “bad” guy—Don Draper. He doesn’t kill people, but he cheats, he lies, he’s arrogant, and he’s living under a false identity. And yet we love him. Why? He’s confident, he’s intelligent, he’s ambitious, and he’s charming. He’s going to win in life, and we like to vote for winners. Alain was going to win in life, too, even if he had to stand on someone else’s head to do it.
So when I hear the stories of the beautiful young woman in my Geography class, about the models I interviewed, and about the woman in An Education, I nod because I can understand how someone who is attractive and intelligent could fall for a guy like that. They tend to be overachievers, eager to please and eager to succeed. They may be perfectionists, and often they are likely bored with their lives and attracted to adventure. But how do I get that across? How do I show how Younger Meghan could fall for a guy like Alain, and stick with him for four years, without looking like a loser? And how do I make Alain sufficiently charming that the reader will understand why Young Meghan stayed with him for so long? I think the former problem is the most challenging—understanding the psychology behind the attraction of Meghan/Jenny to Alain/David. I’m looking forward to reading An Education once it arrives in the mail, and I hope it will provide some insight!