I was already 10 minutes into my weekly prison class when a white woman stormed in in a huff, muttering so we all could hear that she was supposed to be released that morning but the court had apparently fucked up her paperwork. She got a little bit too close to me as she walked past and it was the first time I felt the slightest bit unnerved by an inmate.
“What are we supposed to be doing?” she asked, somewhat resigned that she wasn’t in fact, at least for the time being, going anywhere. The other women filled her in and continued doing what they had been asked to do.
As per usual (and I’m going to switch this up a bit going forward), the women are asked to tell us about something we’d be surprised to know about them—something that would dispel the way people sized them up as “junkies,” “losers,” and bad mothers.
This woman was eager to share:
“I was a professional model and did runway shows for really famous designers in the 90s. I was Miss Teen USA in (the late 80s) and we didn’t know that the judges were all professional model scouts. I got signed to Elite the next week.”
“REALLY?” I practically squealed. “Who did you do runway for?”
“I did Versace. The best thing about him was that he always let you have one piece of his clothes. Christy Turlington stole a pair of my leather pants. “
“Yep, she’s a thief.”
“Oh my God! She’s my favorite!” I said in disbelief. CHRISTY, yoga guru, peace activist, holistic skincare creator? Say it ain’t so.
She went on to say that she and some other big-named supermodels of the time started a support group for young models to keep them away from the cocaine that was all- too available to them by the industry to help keep them thin.
I realized by looking around at the rest of the women that this side conversation was a bit lost on them and was taking up way too much of their time.
She went on to say that she was held hostage for 4 years by a human trafficking ring and once released she helped to form an “underground railroad” for Asian girls to help them escape the sex trade.
At this point the other women were amazed, awed by the things she had done to help others. When, at the end of class, she handed me her paper, she wrote that she had published poetry and had some pieces of art shown at some very reputable Boston galleries. She wrote her name at the top so that I could Google her to see her Miss Teen USA photos and whatever other modeling shots I could find of her. I was excited to see what she might have looked like before she became a self-admitted drug addict, with unwashed hair, bad skin and a prison uniform.
After class I ran up to the woman who runs the program and asked, maybe too excitedly, if she knew that the woman was a RUNWAY model in the 90s?! I told her that she had written down her name so I could look her up online. The program director pulled me by the hand and said, “We’re doing this now.”
We went into her office and used every search term we could use to find her. Nothing.
“She totally lied to you,” she said, understanding my disappointment. “These women are some of the most manipulative women I’ve ever known. They have to be to live on the streets and do what they do to make money to support their habits and lifestyle.”
“When I get home I’m going to keep searching," I said. I SO wanted this to be true to prove that someone could not randomly pick something so specific, giving me what was purported to be her professional name so that I could see her in all of her glory. Was she feeding into whatever I may have been putting out there in my excitement? Did the vapid starfucker in me come out?
Truth be told, she didn’t have the features that models have. She was only 5’10’’ a teeny bit shorter than most runway models. I searched obsessively for her for over an hour. I found the list of Miss Teen USA contestants and winners since its beginning and her name wasn’t among them. I combined every possible first name, middle name and last name that she gave me with “model”, “Versace,” “Elite,” and the only thing that came up was a woman who was burned at the stake in 1620 for being a witch.
Something very similar happened to me at my first job with a disenfranchised population: Without any training, I answered phones at the largest AIDS organization in New England for newly diagnosed people with HIV and AIDS. Even though the majority of the clients we served were gay men, it was just seeping into the addict population. One day I picked up a call and a woman had me in tears with an incredible and seemingly genuine sob story about stolen money, eviction, lack of food and medication. I told her to come to our offices immediately so I could get her the frozen food we had on hand and some free legal and housing advice. When I told my co-workers her name, they just laughed and told me that she was an addict and made these types of calls weekly to take whatever it was we would give her. I had been played.
I know people who get caught up in their own lies, who like the inmate above has probably convinced herself that she had done all the things she claimed. Was that her purpose, to make her feel worthy? Was she trying to impress me and the other inmates? Why was it so important to me that the things she claimed were true? I don't want to be hardened to these women. I want to take what they choose to share at face value. I'm not sure I have the instincts to know what is true but I fear that if I start looking at what I'm doing with skepticism it could take away from an experience that has changed my life.