After all the crap I had taken about my appearance, I was convinced that maybe, to Australians, I belonged in the ‘ugly’ camp. I’d been turned down for jobs – I was sure, because of my ethnicity and looks, had no friends at my new school, and was spending lunchtimes eating alone, then hiding in the library or wandering aimlessly around the school grounds by myself.
What a stark contrast to my life back home, when I was one of the high achievers for most of my school life, had a boyfriend, and even had a pseudo fan club at one stage in junior high – when a group of students in the year below decided collectively to find me worthy of their admiration.
Somehow, I had it in me to keep applying for work – work meant money, and money meant freedom – freedom from this miserable existence – maybe even freedom to return to Malaysia.
Then, one day, I came across a classified in a major Sydney newspaper – one of the largest manufacturers of hair products in the world was looking for models. They had secured the appearance of the new superstars of the hairdressing world from Scotland – this husband and wife team who’d recently been crowned the best in Europe – and were going to showcase their revolutionary hairstyles at the Sheraton-Wentworth Hotel in the city. They had hired a group of professional models, but needed a few more – apparently, most professional models didn’t like their hairstyles changed too dramatically and didn’t want the gig – so they held an audition for non-professionals to join their ranks. So I went.
I was herded into a crowded room along with a large number of aspiring models. The two hairdressers went around checking out the girls one by one and making notes as to whether they were suitable. Then they spotted me. Maybe my moody, ‘screw you’ demeanor – developed after months of rejection, actually worked in my favour. ‘I LIKE her!!’ exclaimed the wife. I couldn’t believe my ears. For the first time since arriving in this country, my appearance had worked in my favour. I was chosen along with a tall, freckled redhead and an exotic German-Japanese girl – not your typical blonde, blue-eyed Aussie chicks.
We weren’t going to get paid, but we would be given gift hampers of hair products, with the promise of free hair sessions at their headquarters after that. It sounded good enough for me. We would have to spend days getting our hair done at their studio, then attending choreography sessions. And there were professional makeup artists to design our looks and do our makeup at the event. The hair shows would run over two evenings and would be attended by hair industry insiders.
I had a problem – I had been missing school right under my parents’ noses for months, largely because they left for work early and didn’t get home till after school hours – but this time, it would be hard to escape their notice with my new radical hairstyle and the late hours I would be keeping.
I still went for it. I was bored out of my brains sitting for 6-hour stretches getting my hair done. And mingling with professional models turned out to be the most interminably dull experience of my life. There was a lot of downtime during the choreography phase and in between showing off their modelling portfolios, I had to listen to these models brag about their rich boyfriends and their vapid exploits as mistresses to the rich and powerful. They took vacuousness to a whole new level. What’s going to happen when you’re no longer young and beautiful, I thought. You’re irritating now, no-one’s going to be able to stand you then.
I got away with turning up home late with my crazy hairstyle, but not for long. My eldest sister, who would put the Amish to shame any day with her moralizing ways, caught wind of what I was up to. The day of the first hairshow, the crap hit the fan – she’d rung my dad and according to my younger sister, while he hadn’t been too bothered with the whole deal, after hours of needling and meddling from her, he was mad as hell. I was told in no uncertain terms to come home.
I had to do the show. It meant everything to me. It was a small step towards rebuilding the confidence I had lost since arriving in this country. I went ahead and did it. At the end of the evening, I took the crowded elevator down to the lobby. A couple of people who’d attended the show whispered to each other within earshot, ‘she’s my favourite’. Others asked if they could take photos of me.
I was shocked to find one of my brothers waiting for me in the lobby. Grim-faced, he had obviously been sent to fetch me; he drove me home over an hour away, without saying a word. The whole affair had blown up to the point where my whole family had been drawn in, as if I had committed a moral transgression equivalent to prostitution or drug peddling.
My sister was waiting for me at my parents’ home. She ordered me into my bedroom and demanded that I turned around for her to check out my bright orange hair. Told me I looked ridiculous and ugly. What’s wrong with me, she demanded. In my absence she’d even consulted my parents about getting me sent to her place to live with her and her family – to straighten me out. In the end, that didn’t happen, but I was ordered not to return for the second show, scheduled for the next day, so I didn’t, and I didn’t call to let them know.
I feel bad to this day about letting everyone down who was involved in the show, especially the Scottish couple who had given me my break. They had no idea what a big impact it’d had on my psyche. I decided from that day that ‘city’ people didn’t consider me a pariah unlike those in my part of Sydney, and knew that I needed to aim for the city for my future employment prospects.
Dutifully, I returned to school the next day. Minus a can of hairspray and other products, my hair looked stupid. My first class was Extension English. I had been gone several days by this stage. My English teacher (Miss Perfect Match) looked up as I walked in.
‘I like your hair, Jackie’.
‘Thanks’, I mumbled, as I took my seat.