She had been standing in line at a carnival in West Hollywood with my sister, Tiffany, who was three years old at the time, when a man approached her and gave her his card. He claimed he was a big children's agent, and said he thought Tiffany was so beautiful she should be on TV. Mom didn't believe him, she always said, but the offer got her thinking. The following week she set out to discover who represented Rodney Allen Rippy, the most famous child actor of the time. Rodney was making a mint hawking Jack in the Box burgers, and Mom convinced his agent to take on Tiffany.
When Tiffany had about half a dozen commercials under her belt, Mom took me with them to a shoot. I was less than a year old. I don't remember the day I earned my Screen Actors Guild membership card. But Mom always described how she bounced me gently to keep me quiet, though I hadn't made a noise. I was too mesmerized by what was happening to my sister. Tiffany was twenty feet away, soaking in a tub, surrounded by lights, practically drowning in bubbles.
Tiffany's long, brown, shiny hair was piled on top of her head, wet strands curling around the base of her neck. She was adorable, but hardly the cheerful toddler the directors were anticipating. Her eyes were wide and timid.
"Me!" I shouted. Mom flushed as the crew turned and looked at us, and she wished she had left me at home. The director walked in our direction. Now I was going to ruin Tiffany's first national commercial, she thought. Johnson & Johnson's No More Tears baby shampoo. Only Gerber had launched more careers.
"Is this her sister?" the director asked.
I smiled, flaunting my two new teeth.
"Yes, I'm sorry," Mom said. "My sitter fell through. I can take her in another room ..."
"How do you feel about putting her in the tub with the other one? Does she sit up well?"
Mom lit up. "Oh, yes! She'd just love it. They usually bathe together, that's why Tiffany isn't smiling." That and the thirty-five fully clothed strangers watching her.
Mom said that before she could finish her sentence, six hands had stripped me down and plopped me in the warm sudsy water. I let out a big laugh and slapped the surface of the water, catapulting a perfectly formed bubble to the tip of Tiffany's round nose. She giggled.
"Please tell me you were rolling," the director said to the cameraman.
Mom always describes it as the moment she knew I would be a star, though I can't swear to any of it, since I was too young to remember. My earliest actual memory is of my first best friend, Brian. Like most three-year-old friends, we didn't choose each other. We had older siblings the same age who went to the same schools. We were thrown into the same carpools and played on the floors at the same ladies' casserole potluck luncheons. I still remember how Brian's mom's brown loafers looked standing next to my mom's tan wedges.
Brian was a great playmate. He let me have whatever I wanted. He was a keeper. He had soft blond hair that fell in his eyes as we spent countless hours together playing house. Even when he wasn't there, I pretended he was. He didn't say much, either in person or in my imagination, making him the perfect match for a bossy, precocious girl like me.
Brian and I went to a little Presbyterian preschool in Granada Hills, California, that we called Turtle School because of the large turtle that lived on the grass-covered playground. We ran into the yard every morning and force-fed the poor beast dandelions until she escaped in slow motion or just recoiled inside her shell to wait out the storm of toddlers.
Brian and I were blissfully joined at the hip until the day his mom decided she was a lesbian and ran off with her girlfriend. The whole family moved away from our neighborhood in Northridge to Chicago or maybe the moon. Wherever they went, it was tough forgetting Brian, even though he was virtually mute and his mom had a girlfriend (the latter hardly seemed like a distinction, though Mom kept mentioning it). He silently hugged me goodbye, and I cried like crazy.
Brian left on the first day of my second year in Turtle School when I was four years old, and I was unusually blue when I got home. I played lethargically in my room in our tract home in the San Fernando Valley. My room was sandwiched between my parents' bedroom and my sister's on the second floor of the house. The carpet in our home was a bright Kelly green, which Mom said made it look as if the perky lawn outside extended inside our home. I liked to trim the indoor "grass" with scissors.
But having recently lost my scissors as a result of some indoor gardening, I wandered down the hall into Tiffany's room, where she was conducting a kindergarten class with her dolls. I had arrived just in time for reading.
The green carpet stretched to the far wall of her room, which Mom had covered with pink and green fabric printed with a repeating pattern of bunnies and farm scenes. She'd made two pillows out of the same fabric to throw on Tiffany's bed. The room was perpetually frozen in a cheerful spring day.
Tiffany raised her eyes to mine. "Why are you pouting? Beth is gone too, you know." Beth was Brian's older sister. I couldn't consistently count on Tiffany for sympathy.
"Here, let's work on my homework." Tiffany was in first grade now and extremely advanced. She went to San Jose School for the Highly Gifted, which apparently meant she was the smartest person in the universe. I thought that made me brilliant by association. I noticed she tensed her shoulders when Mom sang the name of the school to other adults, emphasizing the words highly gifted as if you wouldn't notice them otherwise.
"Sit here," she said to me. "Here are the words in the sentence. Unscramble them." I looked at the words on the page. I knew most of them on sight.
"Here's a trick," she continued with the authority of a flight attendant who knows the location of the only emergency exit. "The one with the capital letter goes first." She pointed at the only word that started with a big letter. Neat trick.
"The one with the period next to it, that dot, goes last. The rest you have to figure out on your own. No more shortcuts."
I looked at the page; there were only two words left! This was so exciting I forgot to grieve over the loss of Brian for a moment.
"Finish your homework and you can play with my toy," Tiffany said.
I glanced at the red Mattel box on the shelf with the picture of Tiffany playing with a car on a ramp on the side. I loved that she was featured on a toy box. This particular piece of packaging was so very special that Mom told us we were not allowed to actually play with it or its contents. But she left the alluring red box on the high shelf in Tiffany's room, so we'd climb up there and get it as a special treat.
You could always hear Mom coming down the long hallway. Even though the hall was covered with carpet, the floor creaked in predictable spots. She'd thundered down it so many times to stop us from wrestling over a toy or making a racket that when we heard the first footfall, we knew exactly how much time we had before she reached the bedroom to murder us both.
This time we were just looking at the toy when the footsteps started. We jumped even though we weren't technically guilty yet.
"What are you two doing?" Mom asked.
"Missy's doing her homework," Tiffany said. Mom looked over at me, sitting on the floor with a workbook open in front of me.
"What's the assignment?" she asked, as though a four-yearold really could have homework.
"Unscrabble the words," I started.
"Un-scramble ..." Mom corrected.
"Yes." I looked at the page. I was easy and was already a big letter so I knew it went first. Book had a dot after it, so I knew it was last. See was there. That was an easy one too. Jackpot!
"I see the book!" I said proudly. Perhaps I was also highly gifted. Tiffany looked pleased at having orchestrated this show.
"Very nice," Mom said. "Tomorrow, though, no one is going to school. McDonald's has booked both of you for a national commercial."
My sister and I were often booked together because we showed a family resemblance without appearing too much alike. Tiffany was always referred to as "the pretty one." With her thick brunette hair and heavy brows, she reminded casting directors of a young Brooke Shields, which at the time was a major selling point. By contrast I was always "the cute one," with my distinctive yellow eyes, a ready smile, and round cheeks. Between us, we had appeared in dozens of commercials already.
We shot the commercial at a fake McDonald's on Highland Avenue. Even though the building sat on a major street in Hollywood, the public couldn't see the production because of a two-story fence that surrounded the lot.
From the outside, the fake McDonald's looked like any other McDonald's, except that it appeared brand-new. Inside, an elaborate maze of greenrooms and production storage bins were set up in the basement to accommodate the constant flood of commercials shot on-site.
When we arrived on set, they let Tiffany and me play behind the counter, using the register and running around the kitchen, even touching the stove. No one moved a muscle to stop us. There was something thrillingly wrong about being let loose in what seemed to be a real McDonald's. I felt like an indulged criminal.
They shot one scene of us ordering at the counter, then one of us sitting with our fake mom in the main restaurant. The latter was much more challenging than I had anticipated. Not only was I supposed to eat a cheeseburger, which I didn't normally like, but the burger was ice cold and doctored with food coloring to look perfect. It wasn't exactly toxic, but it wasn't completely edible either. A grip held a bucket off camera so we could spit out the painted rubbery food after each take. They had stand-by burgers for the rehearsals, and a more realistic "hero" burger for the actual filming
The first time I lifted a hero to my mouth, I grimaced.
"Cut." The director looked nonplussed. Mom called me over.
"You have to smile and look like you can't wait to eat the cheeseburger," Mom said.
"But I don't want to eat it. I hate cheeseburgers." Tiffany stepped up to my side, as if she couldn't wait to see how I was going to get out of this.
"That's why it's called acting," Mom said. I didn't care that much about acting.
"You have to eat it," she said forcefully, with an edge of panic in her voice. The crew and even the wardrobe girl took turns nervously glancing in our direction.
Then she softened and whispered, "Eat it with a big smile and I will take you to Creative Playthings on the way home and buy you anything you want. Anything."
A long tradition of barter was born that day. An extended series of negotiations during which, at exactly the right moment, Mom would promise something irresistible in exchange for my doing something that, ironically, I would usually be willing to do otherwise. But now that I knew there was a potential payment floating nearby, I would extract it. My childish blackmail started with toys and ended with a pony. Naturally. Though by the end, I couldn't help feeling bought and sold myself.
Excerpted from Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter by Melissa Francis Copyright © 2012 by Weinstein Books . Excerpted by permission of Weinstein Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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