I'm Not Special.
by RJ Newell
Synonyms for Special: Appropriate, Certain, Exceptional, Limited.
Antonyms include: Common. Insignificant. Unrestricted.
I always wanted to be special.
At 17, I moved to Hollywood because I wanted to be a successful actress.
Ambition got me close enough.
I went to a two-year conservatory and worked my ass off. After graduation, I enrolled in even more classes, workshops and seminars. I lost 80 lbs. I worked out for 3 hours a day to achieve the ‘perfect body’ that so many female roles demanded. I spent thousands of dollars on head shots and marketing materials. I got an agent. I got a manager. I met casting directors. I took producers out for lunch. I wore the right clothes, said the right things, did the right stuff.
It worked, for a while.
That “perfect body” got me a modeling agent. I started booking gigs and getting attention online. In 2014, I found myself in an international beauty pageant… because who was I to turn down such an important-sounding opportunity?
I never envisioned myself a beauty queen, but others seemed to like the idea. Friends from my hometown were overwhelmingly supportive, sharing my work as ‘inspiring’ and ‘motivating.’ I shared my weekly achievements on social media – not because I was proud, but because I had something to prove. I wanted people to know how hard I was working. Their approval was all I had to gauge my own worth.
Shame was my primary motivator. Tunnel vision was my friend. I spent every waking moment working to be special.
It hurt, so good.
The validation was addicting. People I admired told me I was talented. Old classmates said that they barely recognized me, ‘in a good way.’ I looked like the person I wished I was.
But I always dreaded the end of the day when I’d have to face my reflection, alone. It showed me a vulnerable child, who felt too much. She was terrifying; I couldn’t stand to look at her. That soft, sensitive spirit had no chance at winning.
I was determined to squash her.
No friends. No vacations. No fun. Only persistence, pain, and pursuit.
I was hungry, in more than a figurative sense. My self-loathing had manifested an eating disorder. My online persona had morphed into this neutral, pretty person who wasn’t anything like me. I hated her, even as she booked me jobs.
She booked me jobs, she built my following, and she ran me half to death.
I finally got a taste of ‘special.’ It’s an addicting poison.
I steered my life into the shallows of supposed to. Fear was my compass. Comparison was my rudder. I ended up in a world I didn’t recognize.
When I was at the ‘top of my game,’ I felt ashamed to be there. It sounds cliche to say that we ‘reap what we sow,’ but I had worked to forget myself. And I succeeded.
I didn’t yet know that I had CPTSD. And I saw my bulimia as necessary, even smart. I also didn’t realize that my constant need to be ‘busy’ was a coping mechanism to stave off the emptiness I felt. I refused to admit that I wasn’t happy. I lived someone else’s life…because for most of my existence, that was all I knew how to do.
We all do the things we feel will get us love. That’s how the world works. Recognition is power, right?
Unfortunately for me, recognition is only power when it’s supporting something real. Without a sense of purpose, admiration feels like a big a black hole.
Like many people, I had mistaken attention for love.
The world values celebrity. Millions marvel at the next big thing – for a moment. But what happens next? If you want to be a star, you have to keep promoting, reinventing, perfecting and pleasing – or risk being forgotten.
I played that game. It sucked.
I thought performance was my calling, because I was good at it. People noticed me. Friends supported me. Strangers said things I could only have dreamed of hearing. My ego lived for their applause.
But the curtain had to come down, eventually. And when it did, I wasn’t there.
After years of self-harm in the name of ‘passion,’ I no longer recognized myself. My shriveled self-esteem lived on a scanty diet of ‘good job’ and ‘you look so hot, have you lost weight?’ In the end, it didn’t matter what others saw. Words were never enough.
I have a secret for you.
You’ll never see this mentioned in a magazine, or on TV. If everyone knew and lived by this, Hollywood (as we know it) would most likely crumble.
You do not need to be ‘special’ to be loved.
Diminishing your essence does not add value. ‘Different’ isn’t better – not if it means altering yourself in favor of what’s popular.
But the media wants you to chase special. They want you to spend your money in pursuit of unreachable standards.
I say that they’re ‘unreachable’ because they don’t exist.
The world is full of rich and famous people who are dangerously sad.
They’re sad because they themselves will never reach the unattainable goals that they’ve worked so hard to advertise. When you spend your life chasing things that aren’t real, everything of substance withers and dies along the way. And when you get to the end…what’s waiting for you?
Nothing. Nobody. It’s empty.
Anxiety is the worst boss. External validation is the least reliable form of payment.
So I quit. Sort of.
The goal has changed. I’m done trying to sell you the “idea” of my art.
I kind of just want to make art.
This isn’t a ‘re-branding.’ It’s an un-branding. It’s better to fail as yourself, than to succeed as somebody else.
Side note: Acting is wonderful, while it’s happening. I love the stage, the story, the audience, the honesty in performing. But there’s a difference between creative expression and creative marketing. One is honest. The other is anything but. And it’s the same with writing. If I’m publishing something just because I know you’ll like it, then I’m not saying anything new.
‘A good story must liberate itself from its author.’
So let’s get on with it, already.
Here’s what my life is for: Building and demolishing ideas. Making mistakes and poking illusions. Finding truth and sharing it. Growing out, instead of up.
This decision might be stupid. I may read this five years from now and cringe with embarrassment at my clueless little self. So what.
I’ll never be this young, again. Now’s the time to fuck shit up.
If you want to take this journey with me, great. I don’t know where it’s going, but you’re welcome to join me. Share your stories. Ask your questions. I’m happy to have you along for the ride.
And by “ride,” I mean the biggest, scariest, bumpiest rollercoaster ever invented.