Supermodel Carré Otis — who rose to fame on numerous fashion magazine covers and married actor Mickey Rourke — recounts challenges and triumphs in her new memoir "Beauty Disrupted." Here's an excerpt.
Chapter 1: False Starts
Barely of Age
I could feel my sixteen-year-old breasts bouncing against the cool, soft silk camisole I was wearing, the whiskey I’d just downed burning in my throat, and my knees nearly buckling with every step I took down the rickety tabletops lined up to form a makeshift runway. Phil Collins’s “Sussudio,” the sound track for my walk, was pulsing to the beat of my heart and even shook the platform beneath my feet, making my gait even more unstable. My face was flushed with the realization that I was too young for men to be leering at my body, too young to be in this godforsaken bar. This runway was no place for anybody, even for a runaway scraping to get by.
Twenty bucks, I reminded myself. Twenty bucks, and tonight, for the first time in weeks I can eat something that hasn’t been salvaged from a Dumpster. That thought kept me focused as I pivotedawkwardly in my kitten heels and made my way back down theline of tables. With every step I took, I dug deeper to find my dignity.I pulled myself taller, hoping my face reflected a calm I didn’tfeel inside. Through the smoke, the blaring music, and the jarring catcalls, one thought pushed stubbornly past all the others: How inhell did I end up here?
Every life is filled with turning points, decisive instants that determine the direction we will ultimately take. Many such moments had already led me to this bar and my first modeling gig. And as I started to think back to where the journey first began, my mind flashed to a time a dozen or so years prior and a dozen or so miles away, back to San Francisco, the summer of 1973, and what was the original turning point.
I was sprawled out on the grass in the little yard behind my family’s Clay Street flat, staring up at the gray sky. The lonely sound of foghorns echoed throughout the city. Almost everywhere else in America, August is hot, but in my hometown it was invariably dreary, cold, and overcast. I daydreamed as I lay there, fantasizing about a place my parents had talked about all summer, the sunny place we were moving to. It was somewhere, I was sure, that my family would be happier. Somewhere called Marin County. And though I hadn’t ventured there yet, I’d already invested a lot of hope in that place.
We were going to see our new house that day for the very first time.
For my parents Marin symbolized success. A short drive north of San Francisco, it’s where many affluent Californians live. Almost all the other attorneys where my father worked commuted from homes outside the city, as the suburbs were warm and bright, the schools were top tier, and the streets were safe. As I neared kindergarten age, my parents wanted to give my sister and me a chance to grow up away from the crime, the mist, and the cramped apartments that were the norm in San Francisco. Moving to Marin meant giving their children the best — more than they had been given. And it meant giving themselves and their marriage a second chance, too.
My parents were both from the East and had moved to San Francisco only so my father could go to law school there. I was born in 1968, just eighteen months after my sister Chrisse and just one year after Dad passed the bar exam. Money had been tight during those early years, which caused all kinds of stresses, but by 1973 my father’s career was finally starting to take off. In Marin we could have a house of our own, big enough for my sister and me to each have a room and secure enough for my parents to lay down roots. That sounded like heaven to me.
When Mom was ready to go, I slipped from my momentary reverie, clambered to my feet, and ran to the car. We were off to check out Greenbrae, a town right in the heart of Marin. We drove Mom’s yellow Volvo across the Golden Gate Bridge and up through the rainbow painted tunnel on the other side. Every time we passed through that tunnel, Chrisse and I would count to three and inhale dramatically, competing to see who could hold her breath all the way to the other side. But on that August day it was as if we’d taken the whole ride with bated breath. The whisper of promise in the air actually sent a tingle right through me. I thought about the new friends I’d make and all the open spaces in which I’d have to play. I thought about feeling warmth inside and out. And in the Volvo, as we climbed up a winding hill and turned onto Corte Lodato, I knew that my mother, father, and sister were deep in their own fantasies, too. Their silence told me that.
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Chrisse and I both squealed with delight as the car rolled to a stop. There was a small knoll dotted with low-hanging oak trees in the center of the street; to get to the house, you had to drive slowly around it, making a wide circle so as not to clip the curb. I leaped from the backseat and raced to our door. I reached up and lifted the brass knocker that was shaped like a smiling dolphin.
I rapped on the door with that dolphin several times, until my mother said, “Carré, that’s enough!” I exhaled impatiently, fidgeting and listening for footsteps approaching from inside the house. When the door swung open, the owner greeted us. Introducing herself as Martha, she flashed a broad smile. She had pink frosted lips that twisted in a strange way every time she spoke. Chrisse and I were fascinated by her to the point of distraction, like Charlie Brown listening to his teacher, unable to understand a word she was saying. We were finally given permission to explore, while my parents stayed behind to talk with Martha. Chrisse and I raced through the house and bolted out onto the back deck, where we were surprised to see an enormous yard, so much bigger than any yard we’d ever seen in San Francisco.
From the deck I could glimpse the pool my parents had promised. Separated from the house by a grove of oak and eucalyptus, it was in the shape of a kidney bean. As I ran toward it, leaving Chrisse behind, I saw that an old cover lay over the top, partly submerged in what looked to be murky brown water. The closer I got to it, the scarier it seemed. I felt a weird sense of dread as I inched nearer still. I circled the pool warily, my footsteps loud on the concrete that surrounded it. Taking a deep breath, I lifted the cover — and just as quickly I gasped, dropped it, and fled. The corpses of bugs, mice, and birds floated and bobbed in the filthy water below. The stench of death was overpowering. All the optimism I’d felt in the car ride there left me instantly. I didn’t like this place at all, with its cold, dark interiors and its foreboding pool.
But the deal was already done. We were moving. This was to be our new home.
By the middle of September, we were settled in. I’d gotten the room my mom had promised to me — the one with an orange shag rug. It had a bunk bed, a bookshelf my dad had built, and a desk situated near a set of windows that overlooked a small garden alongside the driveway. From there I could easily see who was coming and going. I had one of those old reading pillows with armrests built into it, a soft yellow blanket and a tattered but much beloved, stuffed rabbit. I pressed rainbow stickers onto the ceiling next to images of shooting stars and flying unicorns. I had made the space my own. When I fell asleep at night, my new digital clock radio glowed, its steady green light offering reassurance from the darkness. I would have this clock for many years, its light a dependable guardian against whatever frightened me and its clicking a reminder that, like the hour, all fears ultimately pass.
One of the great draws to Marin County was the famed Marin Country Day School in nearby Corte Madera. MCDS, as it was called, enrolled students from kindergarten to the eighth grade and was one of the few private schools in the area. It was a mark of status for a family’s child to attend MCDS. But that wasn’t the only reason so many people, including my parents, struggled to pay the steep tuition. In addition to a great academic program MCDS offered students all the attributes of a close-knit community. What it didn’t offer, however, were the resources needed to deal with troubled kids. And my troubles at school, as it turned out, began very early.
With the start of our first term there, Dad headed back across the bridge every morning to a new job at a prestigious law firm. And when Mom wasn’t shuffling us off to MCDS and preparing for the birth of my little brother, Jordan, she worked part-time at Dominican College in San Rafael. Meanwhile Chrisse and I were adjusting in our own manner — and growing steadily apart in the process. Each morning when we were dropped off at school, we’d head our separate ways, a sadness befalling me as she’d quickly run off to greet her new friends.
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Chrisse was almost instantly popular, whereas I was the complete opposite. And the comparisons that put a wedge between us didn’t stop there. She’d been a beautiful baby, but as she got older, she developed a bad overbite that had to be corrected with the infamous headgear of 1970s orthodontia. My teeth were better behaved, and so in the same way that her popularity made her my rival, my smile made me hers. We were close enough in age to have bonded very tightly when we were small and close enough to become intensely competitive as we got older. Bad overbite aside, Chrisse always had an easy time making new friends. I was beyond shy, painfully introverted, and willing to do whatever I could to remain unnoticed. While girls like my sister slid easily into and out of cliques, I would break into a cold sweat just thinking about the prospect of speaking to anyone I didn’t know. From the very start, my days at MCDS were filled with schemes to get out of class. I’d fabricate reasons to go to the nurse’s office — or, if necessary, do something that assured detention. While Chrisse was affable and excelled academically, I was angst-ridden and withdrawn to the point where my grades soon began to plummet. We seemed to move in tandem, just in opposite directions. Each of Chrisse’s successes was matched by one of my setbacks.
In retrospect I understand that we didn’t fall into this strange rhythm because we were close in age and were trying to define our individuality; we did so because we had each internalized our dysfunctional family dynamics in different ways. It was pretty obvious to all of us during those first few weeks in the new house that our move didn’t hold as much promise for my parents as we had secretly hoped it would. Their tensions still remained. As Dad drank and Mom found her own ways to check out, Chrisse turned stress and anxiety into performance. The worse things got at home, the better, more productive, and more accomplished she became. What drove her to succeed was the same thing that left me feeling overwhelmed with despair and sadness. She got A’s and made friends easily, while I slipped further and further into my own world, shutting out everyone and everything else.
However, there was one very real reason why adopting Chrisse’s strategy for coping couldn’t work for me: I had dyslexia.
The signs had emerged early. From the time I started school, it was clear to everyone that I wasn’t learning at the same pace as other kids. I just didn’t process information the way they did; I could learn quickly through song and rhythm, but the typical academic setting didn’t provide the opportunity for alternative methods like that. Things that other children seemed to understand readily went over my head. My teachers became increasingly irritated with me, assuming that I wasn’t trying hard enough — or, worse, that I was deliberately attempting to aggravate them. As it became more obvious that I was different, my shame and humiliation grew.
I can still recall that awful day when I was asked to stand in front of my first-grade class and recite the alphabet. It is so seared into my memory. I was terrified. I had no choice but to try. I made it through the beginning but then I began to make up the rest. The order of the letters simply eluded me. The classroom erupted in laughter. The childish jeers followed: “Carré doesn’t know the alphabet!” “Carré, you’re so dumb!”
I burst into tears. After that, I did everything possible to avoid being put into a humiliating situation like that again. I grew fiercely sensitive and even shyer than I’d already been. The last thing I wanted was the kind of attention that might lead to my being mocked. If I could disappear by hiding in a group, so much the better. This is certainly not a quality one expects in a future model.
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It was my father who first discovered that there was a problem. He, too, had struggled with dyslexia as a boy, and he still has trouble with spelling as an adult. (That’s the story behind the unusual spellings of both my name and my sister’s.) One day he sat me down and gently asked a few questions. In a calm and encouraging voice, he walked me through the general concepts that he knew other kids my age were grasping. My answers confirmed that something was seriously amiss. So he took me to see the MCDS headmaster, Malcolm Manson. Mr. Manson arranged for a battery of tests, which ultimately revealed dyslexia. And on the advice of the learning specialists, I was told that I would need to repeat the third grade. It was a devastating blow.
That diagnosis marked me as a problem child not only for the school but for my family as well. Though my parents assured me over and over again that I wasn’t stupid or slow, I sensed that my dyslexia was now a stigma on all of us. We were no longer the perfect family. We never had been, of course, but the revelation of my disability somehow seemed to bring our imperfections out into the open. My problem had a name, and that name was on everyone’s lips. The most frustrating thing of all is that no one else’s problem had a name yet. But my parents’ problems were just as real as mine.
Thankfully, we recognize today that almost everyone’s family is dysfunctional in one way or another. And except for extreme cases of abuse, it’s usually not worth arguing about whose family is unhealthier. As is true for most people, my family’s particular dysfunctions shaped my life and the choices I would make for many years to come. I don’t hold my mom and dad fully responsible. They, too, had their own memories of childhood pain, complex memories they carried with them into their marriage and into their parenting. Of course, I knew nothing of that then.
My father, as I later found out, was the son of a man who’d narrowly escaped the Holocaust, though this truth about his Jewish heritage was hidden from my dad for years. My grandfather saw his Jewish identity as a liability and did everything he could to disguise that aspect of his being and of my father’s, too. Known by the very American-sounding name “Lee Otis” until the day he died, my grandfather never addressed the subject once, not even with his son. Sadly, instead of teaching my dad about his roots, my grandfather unwittingly taught him how to hide from the things that frightened him most. But what my grandmother did hurt even more.
My grandmother came from the Appalachian foothills of western North Carolina. Her name was Augusta Bay Young.
Bay, as she was called, was a devout Christian Scientist, having converted to that faith when she was very young. Followers of this religion are most reluctant to see doctors or to be treated in the ways of modern medicine when they’re ill, preferring the power of prayer instead. Perhaps as a result of her refusal to seek medical help, two of my dad’s eight siblings died in infancy and one, Colleen, died at age seventeen.
Colleen had been born with cystic fibrosis, which in the 1940s meant near-certain death at a very young age. Miraculously, she lived until late adolescence, but due to Bay’s Christian Science beliefs she was barred from taking any medication and subsequently endured years of unnecessary agony. My father and his siblings were torn, desperate to alleviate Colleen’s suffering while fearing that to do so would be to go against their mother’s wishes — and against God.
I have come to believe that a huge and unnecessary burden of guilt associated with his sister’s suffering and death, coupled with the legacy of hiding one’s true self, was at the core of the alcoholism that ruled my father’s life until he finally became sober in 1988.
While my mother’s family was small by contrast — she grew up with just one brother — oddly enough she lost this beloved sibling at a relatively young age, too. My uncle Ray fought in Vietnam and came home suffering from a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder. In time he died of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which my mother always believed was brought on by exposure to Agent Orange. But my mother’s hardship didn’t begin and end there. My maternal grandmother, who went by the name Moonga, was mentally unstable throughout her life. She engaged in serial infidelities, was deeply depressed, periodically suicidal, had terrible boundaries and was estranged from the family for a long period of time, all of which left my mother perpetually yearning for something more.
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As I see it, both of my grandmothers did tremendous damage to their children.
It is no wonder that when my parents met in college they fell in love very quickly. My father was just twenty-two years old and my mother only twenty. Both were truly longing for stability and happiness, and both wanted to raise a family very differently from the ones they’d grown up in. But what, more likely than not, attracted them to one another was a hint of familiarity each saw in the other. (My mom has often said that my father and her mother were two of the most depressed people she’s ever known.) So there they were: a young couple, both of whom had been reared in an atmosphere of silence, secrets, and inexplicable rules that had to be obeyed no matter what, trying to navigate an adult relationship. My father’s drinking and my mother’s withdrawal from him were predictable strategies for coping.
They simply didn’t have the insight or the tools to change the dysfunctional blueprint upon which their marriage was built. But as dramatic as their stories are, they weren’t so unusual in Greenbrae, California, during the 1970s. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Taken from "Beauty Disrupted" by Carré Otis and Hugo Schwyzer. Copyright © 2011. Used by permission of Harper Collins.
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