Cyber Cinderellaby Christina Hopkinson
Izobel Brannigan is an ordinary girl, working a good but dull public relations job, and with a lousy--but slightly less dull--boyfriend. Out of boredom, she decides to Google herself and finds an entire Web site devoted to her, describing a fun, exciting, and glamorous lifestyle that she's certain she's not living. Curious, she starts searching for the mysterious… See more details below
Izobel Brannigan is an ordinary girl, working a good but dull public relations job, and with a lousy--but slightly less dull--boyfriend. Out of boredom, she decides to Google herself and finds an entire Web site devoted to her, describing a fun, exciting, and glamorous lifestyle that she's certain she's not living. Curious, she starts searching for the mysterious admirer who thinks so highly of her, and no one is safe from her questions. Her friends, her coworkers, old boyfriends...even new flames are all at risk. The more she searches, the more her life begins to reflect what she read on the Internet. After dumping the boyfriend and doing some serious soul-searching, Izobel begins to wonder who's more real: Izobel Brannigan the person, or Izobel Brannigan.com?
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By Christina Hopkinson
5 SPOTCopyright © 2004 Christina Hopkinson
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Chapter OneI was bored the day I Googled myself and found the site devoted to me.
Friday afternoon in the office was dragging and I'd run out of other people to Google. So I put my own name into the Internet search engine google and there it was: izobel brannigan.com.
Let's get one thing straight: I'm not a celebrity or anything. I'm sure Britney Spears might occasionally Google herself and find the millions of sites devoted to her. If I had inputted the words "Kylie's bottom" or the "meaning of The Matrix," myriad tributes would have spewed back at me. They are worthy of Web interest.
But not me. Far from being a celebrity, I don't even think I'm celebrated enough in my own life. I'm not one of those people whose birthday is commemorated with a vast surprise party and a postman lurching under the weight of good wishes. I remember other people's names more often than they do mine. I was too embarrassed to put an update about myself on Friends Reunited because I've achieved so little in life. I never have exciting invitations in the post or messages on my mobile.
It's not always been this way. I had thought I would be celebrated, feted, adored. I had so much promise in my early years.
If English single-sex grammar school hadyearbooks, then I would have been "the girl most likely to succeed." At least I like to think so.
But I'm thirty and I organize publicity for other people and not for myself. I'm not even particularly celebrated in the field of PR. No Institute of Public Relations Excellence or PR Week Awards for me. Thirty: what had I thought I'd be doing at this age? I didn't ever think I'd be like my mother and have two and a half children by this milestone, but I might at least have had a career to speak of instead.
Definitely not a household name. In fact, quite literally, I am nameless in my own home. My boyfriend George always refers to me as sweetheart, poppet or angel-girl, a habit he's developed over the years to avoid ejaculating the wrong name in a moment of passion.
So, I was surprised when my name came up upon Googling myself. That sounds rather obscene, doesn't it, to self-Google: something that is inappropriate office behavior. I suppose it is a bit masturbatory, but if clients are allowed to snort drugs in the toilets of this office I don't see why I shouldn't indulge in some harmless auto-Googling.
I remember the first time I heard the word "Google" used as a verb, about a year before. It was at a dinner to force us all to like Frank's girlfriend Camilla a bit more than we had done first time round. It was significant for another reason-I think it was the first time ever that someone had remembered me and not the reverse. I have a kind of inverted amnesia that means I'm cursed to recall all the names and faces of everyone I meet. This should be to my advantage but instead people look upon me as a sort of stalker and feel an innate superiority that they should be more memorable than I am.
"I always Google prospective boyfriends," said Camilla that night. "I Googled Frank and I liked what I saw."
"You what?" asked my friend Maggie, who preferred to goggle and to ogle. "Sounds absolutely disgusting."
Camilla gave that Mitford-girl laugh of hers. "No, I mean Google. You know, put their name into google dot com, the search engine, to check them out and see what things they've done in their life. Nobody in New York would dream of going on a date before checking out their net status. You can find out so much about someone by what their online appearances are."
"Like what?" said Maggie. "You're more likely to get some American name-alike than anything of any real relevance."
"No, really. Googling is like reading someone's CV before offering them the job. You find out when they've been mentioned in the press, if they've spoken at a conference or written a book. Frank's contributed so many interesting articles to periodicals that I'd never have known about otherwise, would I, darling?" Camilla stroked the brilliant essayist's face. "Clever Frank."
"No, clever you," London's leading academic crumpet replied. "No, you're the clever one, with all those letters after your name."
From Google to gag, I thought, as I struggled to keep my food down in the face of the banquet of banality. "I'm not sure," I said at the time. "I think it's a bit creepy. It's judging someone on superficial criteria. It's all about their media profile, isn't it, or what level of fame they've achieved. It's like saying that someone evicted from Big Brother matters more than a cure for cancer, just because more people might be Googling Jezza or Ped or whatever they're called. It's all about a very shallow definition of worth and about ephemeral profile."
"Hark at her, the PR girl," sneered Frank. "Haven't you just described the very essence of your job?"
I ignored him and continued addressing my remarks to his girlfriend. "What happens if you're not a celebrity, if you have none of this sort of fame? Are you devalued? Can your worth be measured by how many sites a search engine can throw back about you?"
"But everyone does feature," insisted Camilla. "Yeah, yeah, fifteen minutes and all that," said Maggie. "No, not that sort of fame," she corrected. "But everyone has a place on the Net, don't they? Every one of us must appear somewhere or somehow. It's terribly democratic. You could always make your own site if you didn't, just so you could be there. And it gives us bits of information that you wouldn't know otherwise. Like ..." She paused and looked at me. "The fact that you and I were at school together."
"Were we?" I was shocked, not just by the revelation that this alien girl with the Received Pronunciation could have hailed from the same provinces that I had, but that she had remembered me, and not the other way round. "Did you find that out online? Wow, I'm sorry, but I don't remember you."
"Well, you wouldn't, would you? You were three years older. You always remember the older girls from school and not the younger ones. You were, like, so old."
"Strange times," said Maggie, "when the older you were, the more desirable you were."
"And anyway," continued Camilla, "I'm just using it as an example of the sort of information you could find on the Net. I'm afraid I didn't remember you, actually, nor did I find you online, just that girl in your year, the one who became a porn star."
"Astrid Tickell. Or Anne as she was then." "I was with the old gang last week, you know, the St. Tree's Tasties as we were referred to by the boys' school. Anyway, they remembered you."
"They?" "Becksy, Kitty, you know, the gang. Amazing that they should have remembered you, your name and everything. Like I said, you always remember the old ones, don't you? They thought you were quite cool. Of that time. They said you were kind of punky. Fancied yourself to be the girl from The Breakfast Club. Good look."
Tinkle, tinkle, tinkly laugh, joined by Frank's guffaw, the one that could project through academic amphitheaters. "I'm afraid I don't think I remember the St. Tree's Tasties. Did you wear, like, baseball jackets with that emblazoned on the back?" I said.
I'm glad I didn't remember them, because they sounded like a bunch of evil little pixies in their bottle-green uniforms, no doubt hiked up to reveal perfect skinny legs. At the same time, I felt grateful to them for knowing who I was all these years on. I was somebody then.
After that night, I'd Google everyone I met and even those I hadn't. I could whittle away whole afternoons in the office in this activity. I Googled George and I Googled his potential replacements. I even Googled myself intermittently and would usually get the unrelated names-the American genealogy sites and conference roll-calls. The search engine would presume that I had spelled my own name wrong and would ask me, "Do you mean Isabel Brannigan?" No, Izobel, I-Z-O-B, as I was already used to saying.
Until the day I Googled myself and there it was: izobel brannigan.com. And, for good measure, izobelbrannigan.co.uk. I know I'm not unique, but the way of spelling my Christian name is. My father insisted on naming me after his dead mother; my own mother insisted on making it differently dyslexic. She had aspirations for me even then.
"Under construction." That's what the page said, and I felt then that it must be about me and my life. "Under construction," ill-formed, incomplete, chaotic, that's me. I'm thirty and I still don't know what sort of woman I will become. A bad-tempered and bored one, certainly, but am I going to be a mother? A career woman? Career woman with children? Or just another woman with a boring job and a good-time boyfriend?
"Hi," I called out to George above the stereo that blared out to the visual accompaniment of the news on mute. "Hello honey, how was your day? Mine was a shocker. I was forced to go out for lunch to taste revolting peanut-butter-flavored martinis. Nuts are not the new gin, I'm telling you; I had to have a couple of classics just to wash the taste away. And a few sneaky lines with John. I tell you, the peanut butter got right up my nose."
"Great." "Still don't feel tickety-boo to be honest. I think you and I ought to go out and wash away the taste with some good Italian," George continued in that 1940s voice of his. "Something happened to me today."
"Really, sweetheart? Why don't you tell me over some supper at Ravioli? And if there are any big launches you think I should be attending. We haven't had a big old launch party for ages. What good is it, a journalist going out with a PR girl, if there are no parties to go to? We haven't had a really good evening at somebody else's expense since that vodka thing."
I sat down and turned the stereo off. George was a decade to the day older than me, but insisted on playing music at loud levels of teenage noise. I could think only in silence and I needed to think now. He poured me a glass of wine. It's one of his domestic fortes.
He was half-bagged but his suit was well cut, ensuring that he retained an ill-deserved elegance. He looked smarter after a hard day's office drinking than most men in their interview suit. With his slicked-back, mildly receding hair and handmade Lobb's shoes, he resembled a Second World War spiv. George has the look of a man who is either upgraded to first class or thoroughly strip-searched by airport customs, never anything in between. "Something weird happened to me today," I told him.
"Weirder than peanut-butter martinis?" "I think so, yes." The wine warmed me, as did George's hand stroking my hair.
"I'm agog, poppet," he said, moving his hand across my chest and undoing my shirt buttons. "I Googled myself."
"Well, hello ..." "I put my name into a search engine and a site came up." "Hmmm." He had graduated to thigh-fondling.
"Don't you think that's weird? There's a site devoted to me. To me."
"I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about." "A Web site. I put my name into an Internet search engine- you know, it's like a directory of the Web-and there's a Web site about me."
"Sexy girl that you are, was it a porn site?" he asked while pushing my bra up so I achieved that attractive four-breasted effect, with the real ones squashed by the empty cups of my north-migrating lingerie.
"Seriously, George." I wriggled away. "It's freaking me out. It's a site. For me, about me, done by someone for me, and I've no idea who or why."
He looked bored. We had the symbiotic relationship of a PR person and a journalist so that when I demanded rather than gave attention, it transcended the rules of our professional lives. "What did it say, then? What did it say about you?"
"It said 'under construction.'" That means it hasn't been built yet, but it's going to be. Someone's bought the address of my name and everything."
George laughed. "Silly sausage, it's probably not about you at all. What a delightful little idiot you are." "But it is, it must be. Why would there be a site registered with my name, with the funny spelling and everything, as the URL?"
"You what?" "The URL, the address of a Web site."
"You mean its e-mail number?" "Don't be disingenuous, George, it doesn't suit you. Do you have to be such a Luddite? Or should I say 'laddite,' given that you're happy to indulge in most things that lads do, pubs and women and the like?"
"Laddite, I like it. Masculine men who rather than going for gadgets and all things electronic are maintaining a stand against the tide of technology. You are clever; I can feel an article coming on." He scribbled the word "laddite" across a gas bill that was my responsibility to pay.
"You're not answering my question," I whined. "Why on earth would there be a site with my name as the address?" "And you're not answering mine. Why on earth would anyone create a site dedicated to you?" Why indeed?
George was right, of course, it had to be a coincidence. There must be someone who did spell their name the same as I did and who had the same surname. I had heard there was a trend in America for giving your children normal names with abnormal spellings, Emalee, Aleksandra, Rayshelle, that type of thing. Maybe Izobel was now one of them and the site was just something whipped up by some expectant parents in the Midwest. It was a more logical conclusion.
"Phew," I said to George. "What a relief. I was really spooked. I thought I might have a stalker or something."
"My poor angel-girl, you're a bit upset that there's no site about you."
"No, of course not. I was really freaked. It would have been terrible, having someone think so much of you as to create a site all about you. God no. Like getting an anonymous Valentine card, should be flattering but it's just annoying and weird. I'd hate it, really I would."
"Well, my darling, you may not have some stupid little site," he said. "But I can give you something so much better." Here we go, I thought, sex as the answer to all, but he surprised me. "Instead of a site, a spa!"
"A what?" "A spa weekend at Britain's finest luxury hotel, courtesy of yours truly. With a Michelin-starred restaurant attached."
"You can't afford that, surely?" I said clapping my hands together with excitement. "When? How are you paying?" "Aha, there's the rub. I'm doing a piece on it for the travel section. Well, I might do, if I can be bothered." He looked at me proudly.
Aha, I thought, courtesy of some poor sap of a PR girl like me who will have proudly announced her coup to her clients. He'd get all this for free and I'd pay for the extras like the bar bill, which would come to as much as I'd ever spent on a mini-break anyway.
"Great. Thanks, George. Much better than a creepy stalky site thing."
I had thought a site dedicated to me might make George reappraise me. We'd been together for both too long and too short a time to make grand gestures. I was even almost tempted to hire a Web geek to make up a site for me so that I could pretend someone worshipped me, that I had one fan, and to show this to George, to prove him wrong and to whip up his ardor. This being, I suppose, the twenty-first-century version of sending flowers to yourself to make the boyfriend jealous.
"George," I asked one evening soon after. "Am I your number one? The most important person in your life?"
"Naturally, darling, my number one grown-up girl anyway. Of course, Grace is my number one number one. I'd be a monster if it were any other way."
Grace. The divine Grace. Beauty, intelligence and saintliness in a pert six-year-old package accessorized by Gap Kids. He'd once said he'd kill himself if anything were to happen to her. "I'd get over you dying," he had said to me, "but one never gets over the death of a child."
That's the trouble with going out with a man with offspring by another woman. The one person who should put you above all others has the most horribly valid excuse not to. And even to question this principle is to be the wickedest common-law stepmother in the history of fairy tales. Stepmothers are very much maligned, generally, I would think, as I'd read another bloody boring story to a demanding child who was not only not mine, but belonged to Catherine, the woman I most resented in the world.
I phoned Maggie. "Do you think you're number one in Mick's life?" "I suppose so, though I don't know for how much longer. When the baby's born, I'm sure he or she will be my number one.
And Mick's. Are you asking who you'd pull out of a burning building first or who you like best?"
"I don't know. It would just be nice to feel like you're number one in somebody's life."
Excerpted from Cyber Cinderella by Christina Hopkinson Copyright © 2004 by Christina Hopkinson. Excerpted by permission.
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