Monday, November 9, 2009

Confessions of a Stage Mom

Today, I finished my day at work, ran out the door to grab my son, Max, and pulled him by the arm to the car so that we could make it to the train station in time to get him downtown for a modeling job. He’s been modeling in Tokyo for three years, so we’ve played out the rapid departure from school scene many times. Today, as usual, a million questions ran through my head as I zipped through yellow lights in a race to catch the train that the Jorudan Train Finder website claimed was my last best of hope of getting to his job on time. First, there’s the big question. What is my motivation for doing this? Max is a trooper about it, but he didn’t beg to become a print model three years ago when I took him to Sugar and Spice. Never, among his four-year-old ambitions did he list fashion model or child star as an aspiration. Even now, at seven, he lists movie star right below generic, catch-all “scientist” as his profession of choice. He’s more intellectually suited to the latter, but I keep him dabbling in the former. It’s just so easy to get kids into modeling in Tokyo, and I succumbed to the temptation.

I didn’t always think I’d be this kind of mom. I remember, years ago, when my husband and I were living in Costa Rica, there passed a bizarre series of circumstances that included a missed ferry and a stranger with a shark bite story. During the course of these events, we met River and Joaquin Phoenix’s father, a really decent, friendly guy who was living under a pseudonym on the ranch that River had bought for him. He didn’t share any stories about his kids or the family’s history, but a close friend of his confided that when River was young, while the family was on a Christian mission in Venezuela, Apparently, God told River’s father that he needed to get River to Hollywood immediately, that he was going to be a big star. As fate would have it, there was a ship leaving for California shortly thereafter. We all know how that story ends. I heard this tale while I was young and didn’t have kids of my own. I remember thinking that it was so tragic that a father’s choice could lead to such disaster. In hindsight, I may have been a bit unfair in my judgment.

Anyway, it seems ironic that here I am, ten years later, doing whatever I have to do to keep my own son working. I resist the urge to pull him from school to work, but I’ll gladly blow a whole Saturday dragging him around Tokyo. I catch myself rationalizing dry spells, deciding that it’s just his age or his height that isn’t in high demand at the moment. I was the one who coaxed him through the first jobs and tried to keep it fun so he wouldn’t want to quit. Ultimately, I have to admit that I’m the one who is fascinated by all of this.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a pageant mom. I meet pageant moms at these shoots, and I am so not a pageant mom. I don’t put mascara on my two-year-old daughter, even though she loves my make-up and says that she wants to “get some beautiful on me.” I don’t take Max to auditions because he finds them to be pointless. He’s either got the job flat out, or we’re not interested. I’m not envisioning a life on the red carpet for my children, and if you ask me, I’ll tell you that I’m just doing this to bolster his college fund.

With that said, I love this stuff. I love walking into a studio and seeing the equipment and cameras. I’m fascinated by how many people work on the set of a photo shoot for 7-year-olds. There’s the make-up person, the person who dresses them and adjusts their clothing between shots. There’s a photographer and an assistant whose entire job is to run around and click the light meter every time a cloud passes over the studio window. And of course, there’s the extra person whose job seems to be to wrangle the strays. Some kids get antsy and literally run off. This person’s job is to chase them down and get them back into the shot.

I love the chaos of location shoots. If you gather up four to eight kids under the age of eight in any setting, along with their parents and a full photo crew, there’s going to be chaos. Now, put them all on a bus and drive them around Tokyo from site to site for different shots. By then end of the day, you will see unrestrained children swinging from the luggage rack of the bus, trashing displays in Agnes B, and wiping their noses on a six hundred dollar Roberto Cavalli sundress. And that’s before they get cranky. By afternoon, half of them will decide that they hate the clothes that they’re supposed to wear and throw a full-blown tantrum while their desperate mothers try to wrestle them into eighty dollar Benetton sweatpants. It’s fantastic. Little divas in the making, every one of them. Or perhaps, more accurately, they’re just normal kids with a highly unusual job.

What else do I love about it? I love Tokyo style. It’s great fun watching how the clothes are combined into outfits in ways that could only work in the land of Harajuku Girls. Purple plaid pants and a yellow floral blouse? No problem. Just grab a pair of pink cowboy boots off the rack to balance things. You’ve got the perfect outfit for a 7-year-old boy. It’s all good.

I love it that my son will sit and let a total stranger do something wild, like airbrush his face. When he’s modeling, he’s at work and follows instructions with this beautiful compliance that both his first grade teacher and I wish we could bottle. (Of course, his teacher and I aren’t paying him a hundred bucks an hour.) He usually hates the clothes, but knows that he doesn’t’ have to wear them home. He can be pretty goofy on set and sometimes pushes his luck making monkey faces for the camera, but it’s all digital, so it’s not like he’s wasting film. I must say, that Max has a much clearer idea of professionalism than I did as a first grader.

However, none of these things are what I like best about modeling.

Ultimately, I love it that when I see my son on film, he becomes this being who is separate from the kid who takes 10 minutes to put on his shoes and forgets to take his backpack to school. On film, he becomes otherworldly. Honestly, I think that the emotion I experience on set transcends pride. I’m not religious, so I don’t really know what reverence feels like, but I can imagine that it feels kind of like seeing your child’s image captured in perfect light and detail.

As I mentioned, most shoots are digital, so there’s a moment after every outfit change when the crew huddles around a computer to see if they got the shot. They flip through monkey face pics and shots of him with his fingers in his nose or his ears in an attempt to make everyone laugh. Then, in the midst of the madness, there will be that single click of the mouse that reveals the frame that makes the entire crew gasp just a little bit. Invariably, it’s the shot in which he’s looking directly into the camera; dead on with those deep blue, almond-shaped eyes that are surrounded by thick, dark lashes. The perfect symmetry of his face is endlessly fascinating to me.

The crew gasps, but I’m no longer surprised by this image. Nonetheless, I’m still hypnotized by the profundity of my child’s beauty. Parenting is such a train wreck much of the time that we need these moments to balance out the snarky ones, which sometimes seem to outweigh all else. Even on the day of a shoot, the mother-child dynamic is very much at work. At today’s shoot, he was in an especially patriotic mood, and as we changed him into the navy blue nylon jacket that he was modeling, he said that he wished the jacket had a big American flag on the back. I told him that he looked like an DEA agent, and that would have to do. I know I’ll still bitch at him on the train ride home to stop kicking the people sitting on either side of us. I’ll still be sympathetic, but secretly annoyed when he wants to change trains because an old lady is looking at him. I think it’s good for me to occasionally just stop and really look at the face of this incredible little person and be awestruck that he exists and that he’s mine.

So, I’m assuming that my friends will have comments to offer about appreciating my seven-year-old for his mind. I do. Honestly, he such a bright, inquisitive, loquacious kid that there aren’t many opportunities for quiet reverence. There are few chances to just observe him while he’s awake and marvel at how positively gorgeous he is.

So, do I have my son modeling for the college money? Sure. Is it so that I can have a glimpse into a world I might never otherwise see? Probably. And yeah, I love seeing my kid in a 500 dollar Burberry coat and thinking, “Yeah, baby, that’s my kid in a 500 dollar Burberry coat. How you like me now?”

But, ultimately, it comes down to that single second, that moment when his perfect face appears on that screen and everyone in the room catches their breath. Right in that moment, I’m completely enraptured by the wonder of my own child.

I guess I can teach him about inner beauty later.

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