My whole life, all I ever wanted to do was act.
Yes, it's so typical-cliché girl, I know. But alas, I am a typical-cliché girl. Don't basic-shame me. I was born this way.
And to be perfectly honest, I wasn't good at anything else. I got terrible, terrible grades. (Can't count. Still can't count). I was a sh*t athlete. (Not coordinated. Still not coordinated). And I had zero -- I mean zero -- interest in after-school "clubs" (gag).
When my mother has a few too many drinks, she loves to tell tales of my adolescent failures. Picture a gorgeous blonde eccentric with a posh British accent: "OH, Blake, my SON, was bloody brilliant at sports. Fab student, too. But poor Zara. She was awful, weren't you, darling? I remember thinking, 'Oh sh*t maybe I should encourage her to try ACTING or something.'"
My mother will then swill her champagne around in her tall stem glass for dramatic effect, let out a perfectly timed peal of laughter and snarkily end with a "Poor little thing."
She's totally right (mother always is). I sucked at life. Until I found acting.
Suddenly, I was good at something. When you've literally been a failure at everything you've ever attempted your whole childhood and have been deemed nothing more than an ADHD problem child, finding your "thing" is HUGE.
Finding acting helped shape my identity. There was never a question of what I was going to do after high school. I was going to Los Angeles to pursue the dream, duh.
And my parents, both of whom are glamorous star-f*ckers (I was conceived in Beverly Hills -- I never stood a chance), were extremely supportive of my golden Hollywood dreams.
And lucky for ambitious little me, I scored a role in a FEATURE FILM (straight to DVD, but whatevs!) by the age of 17. I played a vixen cheerleader who tries to kill the "good girl" and accuses a sweet boy in foster care of being sexually inappropriate with her. (She lies. But hey, she didn't have a good family and was just looking for love and validation in all the wrong places like so many of us do, so don't judge.)
And even luckier, I got an agent pretty damn quickly.
I was elated the day I waltzed into my new agent's office on the most gorgeously smoggy LA day and signed the ~contract~.
For the purposes of this article, let's call my agent Gordon Sleazeball*. I wish I could call Gordon Sleazeball by his real name, because I know a lot of other girls whose self-esteem he crushed, but I don't feel like getting sued.
I knew Mr. Sleazeball was a creep the moment I met him. Even as a teenager I had stellar instincts. (Thank God, because I was a child living alone in a city of demonic angels.)
He sported one of those violating gazes: beady eyes fixated on teen-girl chest. Every time I went in there, he would examine me with his rat-like eyes. He looked at me -- my body, my face -- like I was a product. I felt like I was lying naked on a operating table under a bright white light, being examined as part of some dark human experiment.
Which I came to find is totally normal in the entertainment industry. Agents in LA are constantly telling young talent they're "products," not "people." I swear, it's the first thing you will hear out of the mouth of every deadbeat "manager" to whom you pay $500 for a meaningless "career consultation."
If you dare to question this, you will for sure be met with: Hey, you want to be an actress, don't you? If you can't handle being treated like an object from older men three times your age, go back to Kansas, Dorothy.
One day, I was in Sleazeball's office innocently picking up some sides (small little scenes from scripts) for an audition, when I was met with a gasp. He literally gasped at me, mouth ajar, like an 18th-century fair maiden.
"Is everything OK?" I said. I folded my arms, protecting my girl body from his penetrating rape stare.
"I'm going to have to ask you to lose 10 pounds," Mr. Sleazeball said, his pinched face wincing, as if my body were painful to his sore, fragile eyes.
"What?" I asked, genuinely sure I was hearing things.
"Yeah, you're going to have lose at least 10 pounds, maybe even 15. If you could lose it in the lower half of your body, that would be great, because you look really good from the top," he critiqued, carefully emphasizing the word "top" as he lovingly gazed at my 32A chest. There were tiny beads of sweat on his forehead.
He continued. "Yeah, go with 15. Maybe hire a trainer or something? I mean, you're such a pretty girl. I wouldn't want you to NOT GET CAST because of your weight."
Because. Of. My. Weight.
I was 5'6" and 120 pounds. I spent most of adolescence starving myself or throwing my guts up after every single meal. I was only recently coming out the other side and starting to cultivate a healthy relationship with my body.
It had been a battle for me to get to place I was in, and this old dude was telling me to lose 15 pounds? That would make me 5'6" and 105 pounds. You don't need to BMI that to know it's dangerously low.
"Oh, and if you could also sort of lose it in the face. You've got a very ROUND face, which can really add on pounds when it comes to the camera. Girls with round faces often have to get too thin to look good on camera," he said, like he was reading IKEA assembly instructions.
He took a healthy sip of his creamy coffee and licked his thin lips, finishing me off with some delightful words of wisdom I will never forget: "Just don't get an eating disorder or anything."
Thanks, Mr. Sleazeball. I will just get down to 105 pounds the healthy way.
"OK," I mustered, numbing out in order to not break down (a coping mechanism I'de been using since early childhood).
The moment I got into my car, I cried. I sobbed. I broke the f*ck down. I knew I had to go back to my eating-disordered life of counting calories, chronic, obsessive anxiety, self-esteem defined by numbers on the scale and endless dizzy spells that made my life feel like a bad acid trip.
And I did. Don't they say it takes a lifetime to undo bad habits and one hot second to spiral all the way back?
I allotted myself 400 calories a day. It was hard, but I wasn't going to let something as trivial as my "weight" get in the way of my dreams. I loved acting. I wasn't good at anything else. I had hardly graduated from high school. I wasn't in college. I didn't even take the SAT.
Two weeks later, I went back to Gordon Sleazeball's office. I had lost the weight.
"Wow, you look great!" Mr. Sleaze exclaimed after giving me a creepy, lingering hug the kind that's a little too hard and lasts a little too long. The kind where you feel like you're going to pass out from holding your breath.
Then he pulled away from the hug and stared right at my chin.
"I can't send you out on any auditions!" he said, quickly changing heart, his brow deeply furrowed in disappointment.
"Why?" I asked, starting to feel the familiar flutter of panic holding court in my chest. I had lost the weight. I knew I had lost the weight.
"You clearly have a skin problem. You have acne."
I touched my chin with my fingertips. There was a small smattering of tiny pimples scattered across my chin. I was about to get my period, and I was 17. Of course I had a few pimples.
"I'm not sending you out until YOU clear that up," Sleazeball said to me, as if I had was a bad girl who had stayed out past my curfew or something.
The moment I got home, I called my parents in a sheer panic, begging for their help. I hardly had money for gas, let alone a dermatologist.
My parents sent me to the best dermatologist in Beverly Hills. An impossibly thin woman with seemingly poreless white skin gave me $550 worth of pills, acids, and bleaching creams. My credit card was declined. I wrote a check.
The products burned the f*ck out of my skin. My face became bright red and puffy -- twice its regular size (so much for losing weight in the face). Overnight, I lost all remaining remnants of self-esteem. By the third week, my skin had broken out into full-blast cystic acne.
I called the dermatologist in a frenzy.
"Oh honey, it's just your skin purging all the toxins!" she claimed, promising it would subside in a couple of weeks. I didn't have a few weeks. I was meeting my agent in a few days.
The day I had my follow up with Mr. Sleazeball, I caked my young face with Dermablend (a coverup so thick it's intended for medical-grade scars) and prayed for a miracle.
I sat in the waiting room, a pink-faced, 105-pound shell of the girl I had been just a few months ago.
"Zara, I just want you to know we think you're really talented. But we're going to have to drop you. We can't send you out like that. We have developed strong relationships with casting directors and sending them someone like you could ruin our reputation."
I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. Was I so ugly and vile that I could ruin the reputation of a B-level talent agency? I told them I understood and left the office feeling like I had screwed up the one opportunity I had to "make it."
Throughout the next several months I continued to take drastic measures in order to have perfect skin and be the perfect weight. This is what became of me:
I focused so much on beautifying myself that I entirely neglected the craft of acting. I forgot why I had even ever started. I forgot that it had always been about the work -- the rehearsals, the character exploration, the art of it. Until now.
I, like so many women, lost sight of my passion in the thick of Hollywood's beauty standards. I even dropped my acting class so I could afford Beverly Hills-priced skin care. Life is wicked, isn't it? The more sh*t I threw on my skin, the more my skin reacted.
What had started out as a few innocent zits on the chin was now full-on acne. What had started out as losing weight for work was now a full-on eating disorder. What had started out as a passion for the craft was now an obsession with looking "perfect." I had never been that girl before. But I had become that girl.
And this is the thing: When you neglect your passion and get caught up in the ridiculous standards this industry forces on women, it's no longer sustainable. When you forget why you started and obsess over the cheap thrill of physical perfect, you burn out. I burnt out.
Eventually, I had to move back home and regroup.
But holy sh*t, I missed acting so much. I longed for it like an out-of-reach lover. It took removing myself from it entirely to remind me why I started. I had to get back in touch with pre-LA Zara, who was completely and totally besotted with the craft.
I began to act again. On my terms. I did theater. I thrived. I focused on the art of it.
But the more removed I became from Hollywood, the angrier I became. What the f*ck does talent have to do with being physically beautiful? Nothing. There is no connection between beauty and talent. And you know what? It's a massive loss to the art world that we push talented, hungry, creative young people out of careers in entertainment because they don't fit the LA beauty prototype. Who really does, anyway?
I've been in so many acting classes with so many brilliantly talented young women -- women who could have won Oscars and impacted lives with the power of their authentic performances. But these women were immediately pushed out the door in Hollywood. Hollywood the land of the visibly clavicled, waif-thin white girls.
Last I heard, skin and weight had nothing to do with being a great actress.
I will of course acknowledge and applaud the incredible female entertainers who are actively challenging the impossible, crushing standards of beauty. But the message is clear: If you don't fit the prototype, you have to write your own material. You won't get cast in mainstream movies. You don't look like a beachy California babe? Write your own damn script. Unless you can produce, write and act, you're not welcome here.
Look, I get it: My story is boring. A million girls go through this and have the emotional scars to prove it. But that's what makes me the saddest.
Because the truth is that the essence of entertainment is beautiful. Plays, movies, dance and music have started the greatest social movements of our time. Art is the most powerful weapon in the world. It's about uncovering the truth, getting people out of their heads and connected to their hearts. Art is the most rawly human thing I can think of.
It's sad that something so beautiful has been so tarnished by something so superficial.