There’s nothing like being on stage. Bright lights. Loud music. Cheering fans. All eyes on me. And they love me. They really do. No matter what I do or say, they can’t get enough of me.
I started singing when I was about 10 years old. Just little church plays and school talent shows. You know the kind. Where all the kids sing off tune or dance like a decapitated chicken or do a magic trick that totally fails. And even then the parents fall all over themselves to get the moment of video. They all think their little darling is the best.
“I’ve gotta get her in singing lessons,” they tell the person next to them. “She’s a star in the making.”
But they’re always wrong. Their kid ends up thinking they’re great, a huge talent. Then the first person who tells them the truth, that they suck, well, that breaks their little tone deaf, two left-footed hearts.
I had real talent, though. When I’d sing the room had a hush about it. Not just because they were listening. No. It was because they were holding their breath. My voice was smooth, clear, ethereal. Even then I knew I was a phenomenon. Nobody had to tell me that. They did anyway.
“Oh, Fiona,” they’d say. “You just have the most natural talent. You’re gonna be a star.”
“I know that,” I’d say. I was a cheeky little brat. It didn’t matter. They still wanted to hear me sing.
My mom entered me into a bunch of talent contests. I only lost once. The winner had a blazing baton. There’s no competing with that. But my mom fought to have the rules changed. No more fire. I didn’t lose again.
My voice started bringing in some big prizes. Well, first, all I’d win were watermelons and year-long memberships to the YMCA. But after a little bit there were cash awards for the top three finishers.
When my mom started cashing those checks she really started to believe in me.
Talent scouts would show up to the contests. They offered me representation. Promised gigs. Swore they’d make me famous.
“You ain’t nothin’ but small time,” my mom said, cigarette hanging from her lips. “We’re holdin’ out for the big time. And you ain’t got it.”
She’d look at me. Right in front of them, she’d rip them apart.
“You see, Fiona, them ain’t gonna get nobody no where. Wanna know how I can tell?”
I’d smirk at them. “Yup. I want to know.”
“That jacket he got on. It don’t match the pants. Man that can’t buy a whole suit ain’t gonna get anybody anywhere. See that weddin’ ring? He ain’t got time for what you need to get big. And that wad of chewing tobacco in his lip. Well, that ain’t nothin’ but a dirty habit. Ain’t no production company gonna talk to a man spittin’ in a beer bottle during castings.”
We’d walk away. It was always important that we left them standing, feeling like fools.
“Honey, we’ll do better if we just stick with each other for now. Can’t never trust no man neither. That’s somethin’ you gotta remember every day of your life.”
We waited. Got a couple gigs singing at county fairs. She even arranged for me to sing the National Anthem before minor league baseball games.
“Just keep plucking along, Fiona. It’s gonna happen one of these days.” My mom would make sure of that.
And one day we were approached. Not by some no count talent scout with a toupee and a polyester suit. This time it was a producer in a three piece suit and shiny shoes. He wanted me to audition for a show. On television. There would be a preteen audience, plenty of chances to sing and a few skits here and there. And, by the way, could I manage to act? Of course. I was never truly me. It was all an act.
My mom got me a new dress, painted my nails, curled my hair.
“The trick is to look like the part they have in mind. That way they’ll see you as the character before any words come out of your mouth.” She handed me a bubble gum pink dress. “Now, act perky.”
“I don’t know how to do that,” I said. My attitude was always a little sullen.
“Just act like you had too much sugar or soda or something. Pretend you’re a cheerleader.”
I did what she told me. The pink dress, bobbing curly hair and spunky behavior won me the role. We packed up everything we had, which wasn’t much. Just a double-wide full of clothes and shoes. The network paid for our flight to California. When we got there they’d bought a condo for us.
“Nothing but the best for our new little star,” the producer said, pinching my cheek.
I knew, right then, that this wasn’t going to be as much fun as I’d hoped.
But my mom cashed the checks and started spending the money. She wasn’t about to let me quit.
The first thing they did was to dye my hair. I went from chestnut brown to golden, caramel blonde.
“The kids love a blonde,” my mom said, schmoozing the producer.
Next, was my name.
“There’s already a singer named Fiona,” the producer told us. “And she doesn’t have the clean reputation that we need for our network.”
“I’m not changing my name,” I said. “Screw that.”
“Well. That’s some pretty adult language for a 12 year old, isn’t it?” The producer laughed nervously. “That’s not something that you’re going to say out in public. It’s in your contract to keep up a good image in your personal life.”
“Trust me, I’ll make sure she’s squeaky clean. You don’t need to worry about that. ” my mom said. “What should we change her name to?”
My professional name was changed to Birdie Leigh.
“Get it? Like a Song Bird.” The producer smiled. I could tell he had those teeth whitened. So white they were almost blue. “It’ll be great. The kids will love it.”
And so, I changed from Fiona Bern to Birdie Leigh. I went from sweatshirts and jeans to all pink, all the time. They even went so far as to get blue contacts to cover the green of my irises.
The show was an instant success. Think Saturday Night Live for the preteen crowd. Sketch comedy, guest performances, me singing and dancing and charming the socks off America. They loved me. And I, in turn, began hating them. It was for them, the fans, that I had to live this life. I couldn’t go anywhere without being mobbed by screaming kids or flashing cameras.
But my mom couldn’t get enough of the money. So I kept playing the blonde haired, blue eyed circus monkey.
It was too fast a life. Photo shoots, promotional engagements, filming of episodes, recording songs, mall appearances. Sleep in the hair and make-up chair. Sleep in the dressing room. Catch a nap on the bus or the plane. And there were no summers off. Summer was when movies were made. Birdie Leigh did a movie a year. Sometimes two.
Live performances, awards shows, talk shows.
“Flirt it up with them hosts on the late shows,” my mom said. “But not so much they think you’re loose. Naw. Just enough to flatter them. Make they think you got a school-girl crush on them. At least pretend to be innocent.”
I made it six years on “The Birdie Leigh Show”. Only 10 shows to film. Then I’d be free. The ad spots for the finale were ridiculous. “We watched her grow up. Now we have to let her fly into adulthood.”
I’m not kidding you. That was the producer’s idea. You should have seen the tears in his eyes when he told us about it. It made me want to kick him in the face.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” he asked.
“I can’t wait for this show to die,” I said. “Then I can just go on with my life. I want to be Fiona again.”
“But, Birdie,” my mom said. Even she couldn’t remember who I was before. “America don’t know you as Fiona. We gotta keep up this image or else you ain’t gonna get work around here.”
All I could think of was how to dye my hair back to dark brown, throw out the stupid contacts and return to being Fiona. Oh. And sleep. The thought of sleep depressed me. How long since I’d slept in my bed? I couldn’t remember.
We finished filming the show. The finale was huge. An hour of me pretending that I was heartbroken. They showed clips from the 6 years. I was supposed to tear up. It was actually written into the script. I seriously considered vomiting when the rest of the cast saying “Wind Beneath My Wings” to me.
“Fly, fly, fly, Birdie! We’ll watch you fly so high!” they sang. Awful.
The after party was packed with celebrities. And, of course, everything was pink. No alcohol, but there sure was a lot of pink lemonade. The CD I released a month before blasted through the sound system. It was one of the worst collections of music ever made. A mish mash of styles, none of which I liked to sing. Music mass produced just to sell, sell, sell. And it did.
Everyone at the party was falling over themselves to talk to me. Tell me how great I was. How much they’d miss my show.
A man approached me. He had a suit even nicer than the producer’s. His teeth, somehow whiter.
“We’d like to make you an offer,” he said into my ear, pushing his card into my hand. “We can take Birdie Leigh to new heights. Call me.”
Then a woman came to me. “You’re going to need some serious representation,” she said. “I’ll fight for more money, more fame for Birdie Leigh.”
The room got really hot, started spinning a little. Agents and producers and directors came to me, one by one. But, no, not to me. To Birdie Leigh. Nobody wanted Fiona Bern, that brooding girl with the pretty voice. They only wanted Birdie Leigh, that bubbly girl with the winning smile.
I realized talent had nothing to do with it. How did it take that long for me to realize it?
The last person to approach me was a girl, about a year or two older than me. I recognized her from somewhere. But couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Hey,” she said. “I know what you’re going through. Seriously.”
“Yeah?” I said. “What would you know about it?”
“Remember Ramona Rae?”
“Oh, yeah. Sure I do. The tap dancing show, right?”
“Yup. That was me.”
“Hey, nice to meet you, Ramona. I miss watching your show.”
She smiled. But it wasn’t a happy or kind smile. More of a sneering smile. “Yeah. It got cancelled. Something about my public image being ruined when I got a tattoo.”
“That’s too bad.” But was it bad? She was still around, going to parties.
“Listen, I know it’s hard to live out here. Why don’t you come with me and my friends after this party cools off. We’ll have some real fun.”
“I’ll have to ask…”
“You don’t have to ask anybody, Fiona.”
She used my real name. I would have followed her anywhere.
“Just meet us outside in half an hour. We’ve got a party bus.” She slipped a small bag into my hand. “Until then, this’ll help you get through the rest of this.”
“What is it?”
“Just a little hyper pill. Don’t worry, it’s totally safe. Take it with a little lemonade. It’ll make the rest of this party go faster.”
She was right. I giggled and tripped my way through the rest of the party. Half an hour later I walked out and into a bus full of people. All around my age. They passed around drinks. They passed around a joint. I didn’t refuse.
And someone flashed pictures all evening long.
I didn’t know what I was doing. Still couldn’t tell you what happened that night. There are fuzzy bits of memory.
But I woke up at home the next morning, still in my clothes, with a bloody knee and throbbing head.
The phone rang. It was the producer.
“Birdie, what did you do?” he asked. No, yelled.
“Chill out. Seriously.”
“All that we worked for, Birdie. It’s all gone.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Get to my office. I’ll send a car.”
“I just woke up.”
“Oh, I’m sure. You didn’t happen to check the news yet, did you?”
“We have a problem.”
My mom and I rode in the car that the producer sent. She was quiet. I was hung over. The driver had to pull over twice so I could barf on the pavement.
“You just had to go and be stupid, didn’t you, Birdie?” my mom asked.
“My name’s Fiona.” I believe I followed that up with some unkind, out of contract words. It no longer mattered.
The producer sat behind a huge desk. It felt like I was walking into the principal’s office at school. He was full of disappointing glares and shaking of head.
“You’re finished,” he said. No flash of white teeth. His lips were drawn tight across them. “We won’t be airing the last season. Security will escort you out.”
They nearly had to carry my mom out. She kicked, screamed, spat. It was humiliating. And, of course, the cameras caught the whole thing.
“You’ve ruined everything!” she screamed at me. “You have destroyed my life. I’m done with you. Don’t come back to the condo.”
“Right. Fine with me,” I said. She didn’t realize that the condo still belonged to the network. They’d be kicking her out within hours.
She’d be fine, though. She had all my money. Every single penny. I had to get some work.
My mom went one way down the sidewalk and I the opposite direction.
My cell phone rang. I didn’t know if I should answer it. But I was 18. I always had to answer the phone.
“Hey, Fiona. It’s Ramona.”
“What’s going on?”
“Oh, man. I am so sorry. Somebody stole my camera and put those pictures up.”
“Whatever.” I tried to act relaxed. “Listen, my show just got dropped and I’m kicked out of my house. You know of a place I can hang out for awhile?”
“Sure. Come over here. I’ve got lots of room.”
Ramona had her own loft. My mom had my things delivered there and agreed to pay my part of the rent.
I found an agent. She got me a few parts in movies and connected me with a recording studio. I made a few albums, but it still wasn’t my kind of music. Those songs required a lot of grinding in the videos, if you know what I mean. All day I’d work, building up my career again.
And all night I’d party. At first it was just alcohol and pot. Nothing serious. There were a few mornings when I wasn’t sure what happened the night before. It was okay. Ramona and I were watching out for each other.
As for being under-aged – well, that word doesn’t exist for young stars like myself. The velvet ropes opened to me wherever I went. But the paparazzi followed closely. My agent said it would be good exposure.
“Any press is good press, Birdie,” she’d said. Yup. Still Birdie Leigh. Nobody would have hired me under a different name. They wouldn’t have known who I was. I hated it when my mom was right.
One night Ramona and I decided to have a quiet party. Just a few friends getting smashed at our house. There was a new guy there. One I’d never met before. He wouldn’t leave me alone. I kind of liked the attention. Late in the evening he pulled a kit out of his pocket.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You never seen this?” He laughed. “Guess Birdie Leigh’s a little sheltered, huh?”
“Seriously. What is that?”
“Aw, baby. It’s liquid gold. Can’t go a day without it.”
“What’s it like.” I was curious, but also scared. But I didn’t know how to use my brain yet. The smart girl would have run out right then. I, however, was very, very stupid.
“Hey, try this,” he said, offering me a needle. “You’ll never be the same.”
“I’m not sure. It’s not a good idea.”
“I swear, the needle’s clean.” He came closer. “Just try a little. I promise you’ll like it.”
Ramona called over from the other side of the room, “Fee, you should do it. It’ll be a good time.”
He put a rubber band around my arm, made my veins pop out. It wasn’t hard on my too-skinny arm. He drew out a little blood then pushed the liquid into me.
It felt like spinning, but dull, too. Then the world looked different. Everything seemed okay. And so very beautiful. It was as if I’d become part of the music. That I tripped along the notes. I sang. Who knows what I sang. But it felt good. Like honey from my lips.
I spent the next four years trying to get that high again. What you don’t know when you first shoot up is that that is the best high you’ll ever get. It won’t get better. But you still try and try and try to feel just like that. It keeps you up at night, makes you feel crazy. And then, after awhile, if you don’t use something, anything, you get horribly sick. I mean, frothing at the mouth, puke your guts out sick.
But when you’re young and you’ve got a couple platinum albums and a tour bus with your name on it, well, let’s just say certain things aren’t so hard to get. Most junkies have to scour the streets for money and to find their dealers. All I had to do was tell my assistant. She’d get it for me. How majorly messed up is that?
Rumors spread throughout the media pretty quickly that I was an addict. Not out of concern. Oh, no. The magazines only published the articles to make money. They got the worst pictures possible of me. And America just ate it up. They mocked me, condemned me, turned the eyes of their children away from the television when I was on the screen.
“She’s gonna die a early death,” my mom said in an interview, faking the tears. “All’s I gotta say is that it’s what’s comin’ to her.”
That was my mother. Keeping it classy.
I became the stumbling, tortured artist. The one who had incredible talent but pissed it away on drugs. Birdie Leigh couldn’t perform like the old days. But it sure was entertaining. Although I hated to admit it, I knew that they were right. It occurred to me that I was far gone when I looked in the mirror.
Red, puffy track marks down my forearms. I didn’t even try to hide them anymore. Vacant look in my eyes. Skeleton for a body.
And yet I still sang to sold out crowds. My albums kept selling. But what they didn’t know was that I didn’t give two farts about the fame or the success. All I cared about was getting enough money to get my next fix.
But here’s the thing, I wasn’t a bad person. And even through the drugs I could feel heartache. Every time a tabloid slandered me, it was a cut. And I felt it.
The little secret that nobody wants to admit is this; addicts are people. Addicts struggle and fight their drugs. They despair because sometimes there is no family to help them. Some addicts don’t get an intervention. Because nobody cares enough about them to lend a hand.
It’s just easier to gossip about them. And so I kept using. Because nobody really had a vested interest in me living. The record company would make double album sales if I kicked off. My mother would get a book deal or even an after school special. Not to mention the talk show circuit. And the media wanted just one more fatality to prove their point. That drug abusers deserve death.
It just seemed easier to put more poison into my veins.
The first four years that I used heroin was all about feeling good, getting that high. The last three years were spent just trying to keep myself from coming down. It wasn’t a cheap habit. I still have no idea how much money I shot into my arm.
One morning I woke up. My bed felt like it was sideways, as if it was on the wall. As I became more and more aware I realized that I was sitting on the floor, my back against the wall. On the other side of the room from my bed. I must have passed out there. Why hadn’t anyone moved me back to my bed, I wondered.
“Hey!” I yelled. My memory was failing me. I couldn’t think of my assistant’s name. It must of been the drugs. I’d had the same assistant for years. “Hey! I need some help in here.”
She came in. There was no worry in her eyes, no alarm. She must have been used to me calling out to her. “Do you need something?”
“Yeah. Could you help me get to my bed? And get me my medicine?”
I’d called it that for the last few years. Medicine. I guess I was trying to fool her. Thought she didn’t really know what was in that syringe. She reached into the bedside table. Watching her hold the lighter under the bowl of the spoon, turning a solid into a liquid made my heart quicken. My body couldn’t wait to feel it go into my blood stream. She couldn’t have gotten it to me any faster.
“Where do you want it?” she asked, drawing the liquid into the syringe.
“My arm.” I slapped the skin on my forearm. “Get the band. I’m going to need some help with the veins.”
“Do you want to shoot it?”
“No. You can.”
She wrapped a leather belt around my bicep. No veins popped up.
“Try the other arm.” I held out my right hand. “You ever try a little of this?”
“No. This stuff’ll kill ya.” She looked up, shocked, realizing what she’d said.
“Don’t worry. I know it will. It’s okay.”
She tried different spots in my arms and legs. The veins were hard. They wouldn’t let the needle break through.
“Where else should I try?”
“Go for the vein in my neck. We haven’t done that one in awhile.”
We tried for hours. Nothing worked. I started getting sick. Sweat beaded on my skin. I felt like a crazy person. But, then again, that’s exactly what drugs will do. They turn a completely normal person insane.
“Can you drink it or something? Inject it under your tongue?”
“No. I don’t know. Just give me one of the rocks.”
I ate one. Anything to keep the edge off. It took almost an hour for it to do anything. And then it was just a buzz.
“Give me some more. I need something else.”
“Sorry. That was the last of it. I can go find some more.”
“No.” I stood up. My head felt empty and yet somehow heavy. I tripped and stumbled my way to the door. “I’ve got to get some air.”
Outside it was so cold. And bright. The sun beamed into my eyes. It felt like a nail being pounded into my brain.
“Birdie! Birdie Leigh!” The paparazzi were waiting for me. I should have known. “Birdie! Where’ve you been? You’ve been in there for a month.”
“Don’t take my picture!” I screamed. “No!”
The shutters of their cameras kept opening and closing. I could hear nothing but clicks and my fake name yelled over and over.
“I said no!” I pushed one of them down. “Don’t you dare!”
They kept taking pictures. Raping me with their intrusion into my life. I’d said ‘no’.
I fell. The concrete jarred my body. There was no more cushion on me. I was just lanky bones and flappy skin.
The photographers stood around me, capturing my bloody knees and my anguished face. Not one of them tried to help me. Not one asked if I was okay.
“She’s so high, she don’t know what’s goin’ on,” one of them said.
The others laughed. Mocked me. I felt like I was spinning. So fast. I barfed. They took more pictures.
“Hey, all you boys,” a voice called. “You stop. Leave that girl alone.”
A woman’s voice. Southern accent. Warm like fresh baked muffins.
“Now, just git away from her, hear? Let her be.”
“We’re just doing our job, ma’am,” one of the paparazzi said.
“No, you just tryin’ to make a couple thousand off a girl’s hardship. Not git. Or I’ll call the police.”
They walked away. Their cameras held plenty of marketable pictures. They’d done a good day’s worth of work. and all it cost was my dignity.
“Now, honey,” the woman said, kneeling down next to me. “Let’s go get us a cup of coffee, huh?”
How could I have refused? She lifted me to my feet. Wrapped her jacket around my waist. Apparently, I’d forgotten to dress before leaving the apartment. Fortunately my assistant always put me in a tank top.
“What’s your name, sugar?”
“Fiona.” I gulped. It felt like a lie. “What’s your name?”
“Miss Baker. Now, how about we have that cuppa in my apartment. Might be more comfortable. I promise, they are no cameras where I live.”
Her space was fresh. Like the country was brought right into the city. Yellows and creams and small touches of bright color comforted the eye.
“I love your apartment,” I said. “Who’s your designer?”
“Little old me. I can’t hardly abide the thought of hiring that out.” She poured me a cup of black coffee. “You coming down off’n something?”
She was direct. It made me respect her.
“Yeah. I ran out of my medicine.”
I nodded, sipping my coffee.
“What been so bad in your life that you aim to kill yourself?”
“I don’t know.”
My father killed himself when I was 3. My mom used me and threw me out. No one cared who I was. I hated myself. What else? Maybe that I ruined my life with one night of partying.
“How we gonna get you off that junk?”
“We? I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Listen, sugar, you ain’t bad. You’re beautiful. And you’re talented. Don’t think I didn’t recognize you. But I knew that you weren’t no Birdie Leigh. You’re something far better than that.”
“I just don’t feel like I’m worth anything.” I started to cry. “All I’m good for is a morality lesson for kids. ‘Now, children, don’t do drugs or you’ll end up like that Birdie’.”
“Well, we can’t let you feel like that.”
She sat next to me on the couch. “You should have seen me 20 years ago.”
I turned toward her, folded my leg up under me.
“I went for crack back in those days.”
Could this sweet little lady have been telling me that she did cocaine? I couldn’t believe it.
“You’re surprise, I see you. I didn’t have no sense in those days. Just snorting and smoking and shooting up. It seemed like all there was in the whole world.”
“I feel that way,” I whispered. “All the time.”
“I know you do. But you can quit it. If you don’t you won’t live another year.”
“How? I don’t know what to do. I just love it too much.”
“I did, too. But I knew it had to be over. So, I quit.”
“How did you do it?”
At first I thought she was cussing. The only time I’d heard that name in my adult life was in a string of curse words. But she smiled. So warm, so gentle. I knew she was talking about the guy. That Jesus that I didn’t even know.
“I don’t know him.” It was embarrassing. A 27 year old not knowing who Jesus was. “I mean, I know he’s what they talk about at church.”
“Oh, sugar! It’s time to listen. First, I gotta pray that you can stay healthy enough to hear the Word.”
She told me all about Jesus. What He did for me. What He could do. She prayed over me, sang a song. Her voice was shaky, thick. But beautiful.
I still felt sick. My body ached and tugged and screamed at me to get something to shoot into my blood. I shook, felt cold then hot then cold again. Mrs. Baker took me to the hospital. Then to a detox center. She stayed with me through it all.
It’s a year later. I’ve put on weight. Had to buy all new clothes. The paparazzi doesn’t care about me anymore. Now that I’m clean, I’m boring. I’ve been in the “worst body” section of the tabloids. It made me pretty proud.
A year of sobriety. A year of asking forgiveness. A year of mending bridges. Of changing my outlook. A whole year of Sundays and Wednesdays in church. Say what you will about Christians. They may have made some mistakes. But knowing about those errors made it a whole lot easier for me to know they’d accept me. But, careful, when you tear apart the Christians, you’re talking about me now.
That’s right. Born again Jesus Freak. It’s the only way I’ve made it this year. He’s the only way I’ll make it next year and the years after that.
There’s nothing like being on stage. My voice raising the praise for the mercy I found in Him.