An Icon Took Me In
After I hit rock bottom, I went from living in my car to moving into a generous celebrity's mansion.
It was 2005 and I first spotted all five foot nothing of one of the world’s most famous faces during the break of this behemoth AA meeting held in a synagogue just off of Sunset Boulevard. She was wearing a black cocktail dress, her hair a bright fuchsia color as she ran, barefoot, like a Haight Ashbury hippie, to the courtyard.
I ran after her and tapped her on the shoulder. "I hope you don't think I'm a stalker,” I said. “I just want to introduce myself and tell you that I worship the ground you walk on." As those stalkerish sentences came out of my mouth, I had second thoughts about approaching this writer/actress/icon. Why would a woman who was best known for playing a role in a series of blockbuster movies in which she who wore a bikini of a golden variety want anything to do with me?
At this point I smelled—like body odor, cigarettes and mildew. I'd been living in my car in the two weeks that had passed since I’d left the all-female Prop 36 rehab I’d been in for three months.
I had once smelled like Chanel Number 19. I had lived in a lovely two-story townhouse in Pasadena with a Zen garden. I was highly educated and had worked for one of the richest men in the world. In other words, while everything looked great from the outside, on the inside I was dying of alcoholism. I was married to a guy I’d met when we’d both worked at a Hollywood studio—a guy who’d courted me, had sporadic and lousy sex with me for three years and then married me, at which point we had no sex at all. Yes, I went through two different presidents without my husband probing my Department of the Interior.
I had been eclipsing myself by bright lights for a long time.
My best thinking back then was that everything would be fine if I could just fix my marriage and get pregnant. Of course, it would have required an Immaculate Conception to knock me up and if I somehow had managed to get pregnant, I would surely have only given birth to a giant Xanax.
I tried to quit drugs cold turkey and found myself driving down a one-way street the wrong way, after which I checked myself into rehab. After being fired from my high-powered job for my previous work ethic (turns out that it’s frowned upon to throw work into a drawer and take naps at your desk), my husband had kicked me out. The car it was.
The combination of detoxing, talking to the icon and the crisp spring air caused me to break out in a cold sweat and for my hands to shake. But the icon just put her small and soft hand onto my shaking ones before slipping a cigarette in my mouth and lighting it. She touched my black sweatshirt like a caring mother. I wanted her to be my mother. I wanted her to save me.
My story—about being fired by the billionaire, about my husband denying me access to our joint account, about sleeping in my car—tumbled out of my mouth. I was hoping to elicit some empathy, which would make her like me and I was desperate for her—or anyone else's—approval (a character defect I still struggle with).
"Why aren't your parents helping you?" she asked point blank. It was a good question.
"I think I'm not exactly the daughter they wanted,” I told her while I prying my greasy ponytail off the back of my sweaty neck.
Then she announced that she knew my ex-boss and invited me, without hesitation, to come live with her. I had the feeling it was a political move on her part—a way to get back at my ex-boss—but wasn’t exactly in a position to say no.
The next day, I pulled the Camry that had been my home onto her private dirt road. On a hill sat a sprawling ranch house with an expansive deck holding rocking chairs and swings. As I drove further up the driveway, I noticed a massive crystal chandelier hanging from the oak tree in the front yard. Where the dirt road wound left, there was a side house and garage. I pulled my car in front of a parking meter and a green-and-white road sign that said "Dildo." It was quirky to say the least and I loved it.
I got out of my car and retrieved the three black Glad trash bags full of clothing that was all I had left in my life. Dragging the plastic bags out of the car, I proceeded up the windy rocky path to the side house.
When I opened door of the side house, my eyes were immediately drawn to a picture of a Japanese woman with long wavy hair and a very wide face that was hung above a set of black-and-red drawer chests. To the left was a huge flat screen TV. You could say that the room had a bit of an Asian motif, as the rest of the wall space was decorated with Asian movie posters of the icon in her blockbuster role.
The Japanese woman in the picture was the famous mother of the guy who had occupied this room before I came along—and who would continue to occupy it when he wasn’t on tour or out of the country during the months I was there, when I would move to the TK house. His father had been in the Beatles and, if you must know the truth, yes, I did use his soap on my nether regions just to have some Beatles DNA on me.
The first night that I was there, I went up to the icon's room in the main house and we got into bed together, watched old movies, ate ice cream and chain-smoked cigarettes. We did that most of the nights I was there, and this is what I cherished most about the experience. We talked about our gay ex-husbands, our mothers (who were scarily similar), our fears, sex and writing. We had a true kinship and bond, which helped me tremendously with my sobriety. I didn't feel so painfully alone anymore—in fact, I felt like I was truly a part of life, the close friend of an icon, a far cry from the anesthetized mess I’d been before.
This icon was incredibly generous and always taking in stray dogs like myself; the only problem with this is that if one of those stray dogs happened to be another celebrity, I would be bounced from the side house to the pool house to her bed to a walk in closet.
As the icon got busier with work, we spent less and less time together, at which point the inherent problems in the relationship—the fact that when we were out in public together, fans and entertainment industry people would literally push me aside or flat out stand in front of me to get to her—were exacerbated. I had worked for celebrities before and was used to being shoved out of the way but this was different. I wasn’t working for her. I was her friend.
All those feelings I’d had growing up feeling neglected and insignificant came back to me in spades. I was in the midst of doing a massive fourth step and it contained glaring example after glaring example of me hiding behind powerful bosses, celebrities and men. I had been eclipsing myself by bright lights for a long time. I came to the realization that the only illumination I needed or wanted was God's and with His help, I could shine brilliantly on my own.
I had been looking for work the months while living with the icon but not until I came to this realization did I find a job. It didn’t pay much but it allowed me to move into my own place. And slowly, little by little, I’ve been able to build a life back up. I would love to say that the icon and I are still close but we’re not. We simply lost touch. Still, I will be forever grateful to her for everything she has done for me. She truly is an angel—one who eventually taught me that I didn't need live in the shadows any longer.
My current philosophy on life if that it’s one great dinner party and that I can sit at the big fancy table on my own. And if I have any message to give those in early recovery who feel "less than,” it’s this: you’re not. Take your rightful place at your dinner party. And may the force (or your Higher Power) be with you.
Mara Shapshay is a writer/comedian/performer who has a BFA from NYU Film and an MFA from the American Film Institute. She is a stand-up comic who performs regularly at The Comedy Store, Improv, Laugh Factory, and many other venues. In addition, Mara writes for The Huffington Post and Glamour Magazine. This is her first piece for The Fix.