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Eve wasn't a Size 66 and Neither Am I
By Delta Burke, Alexis Lipsitz
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 Delta Burke and Alexis Lipsitz
All rights reserved.
A Little History
A Cat Named Delta
People always ask me about my name. After I was born, on a hot July 30, my mother asked my uncle Jimmy what I looked like — those being the days when the mother was the last person to see the new baby. There had been some whispering about a pointy head, but Jimmy, the jokester in the family, dismissed that. That baby's head is fine, he told Mother, but she has eyes like that cat you used to have, and she's pretty hairy, to boot. Just like Delta (the family cat!). After that, my mom couldn't get the name out of her head. Then, when she saw me, it stuck. Although I wasn't at all hairy, I had blue eyes. Just like Delta the cat.
Growing up in Florida fed my imagination. My mother was a Mississippi beauty, Gulfport's Miss Hospitality of 1951, whose own mother came from a family of seven sisters. My stepfather was movie-star handsome. Orlando, Florida, was quite a different place then. It had a slow-moving, small-town feel amid a lush, bigger-than-life landscape. Our yard was full of fantastical tropical plants, banana trees, and elephant ears. Pink and red hibiscus bloomed all over. The Florida sun never seemed to stop shining.
The house I grew up in sat in a dense forest of live oaks and pines at the edge of town. In one direction was town, in another, cows in a field, and all around me, sweet-smelling orange groves. The house was a farmhouse variation on a Cape Cod–style structure, a little unusual for Florida, where pastels and stucco were the norm. Like me, a little unusual for Florida. Needless to say, it was the only house for miles around that looked like that. An elderly lady had lived in it for years before us, and it was known to the neighborhood kids as the Witch's House. When I was young, my mother had very long hair, to her waist, and loved to do a witch cackle whenever children walked by the house — although she denies it to this day. When friends came to visit me, all they'd see would be a hand reaching out from behind the louvered door to close it, very slowly, very dramatically.
She swears up and down that she did that only at Halloween. Well, it seemed like I heard that witch cackle an awful lot. Every place we went, there always seemed to be a witch on the premises.
My mother was wonderful. We were always visiting nearby parks, where she'd tell me the name of every tree and animal and make up a little story about each one. She delighted in feeding my fantasies, and I had a pretty active fantasy life of my own. I was an only child for seven years, but I had no trouble amusing myself. I spent my days running barefoot in the woods, coming home with purple feet from climbing mulberry trees. My nights I spent in my attic bedroom, where I would happily draw and play-act for hours alone. Even then, I was big on drawing costumes and my pretty ladies.
Mother would come up with elaborate costumes for me and go to great lengths to make them appear authentic. In the fifth grade I played Queen Elizabeth I in a play. For the bodice, Mother covered an old long-line bra in brocade and velvet. She draped a choker necklace onto the bodice and pinned it there and then added rhinestone brooches. For the skirt, she used a real family heirloom, an 1830 tobacco-colored silk skirt. Gold paper from used cigarette boxes was used to make my cardboard crown. I still have that crown!
Because Mother made every event so magical, I clung to childhood rituals long after the other kids had given them up. At Christmas, Mother laid gifts out in the traditional way, under the tree — but then she'd strategically place presents in the fireplace, in the yard, as if they had accidentally dropped out of Santa's sack. We would leave cookies and milk for Santa (like all the other kids did). But then she would go that extra step and leave a bowl of sugar for the reindeer. And as I lay sleeping, she would nibble the cookies, sip the milk, have the dog lick the sugar bowl, and then place all of this on the roof outside my attic window, so that it looked like I had just missed the whole damn thing. At Easter she would make little bunny prints with her fingers in the sand and dirt all the way out the front yard. It still makes me smile, picturing my mother out in the dead of night on her knees making bunny prints.
The Blonde in the Classroom, Part I
The star in my first-grade classroom was a real pretty girl with long blond hair. The boys would make such a fuss over that girl! And I noticed they didn't fuss over me. I wasn't the pretty one. Oh, I had lots of personality; I was cute and spunky, but I didn't feel like the pretty one, in that golden-blond All-American way. I was a Florida gal with dark hair and lily-white skin.
That was my initiation to the power of appearance and the message the way you look sends. Of course, I was to realize much later that if you don't develop yourself in other ways — if you're all sizzle and no steak — you end up a pretty hollow vessel that always tries, but never seems able, to fill up from the outside in. That's what I know now. For a long time, however, no matter how many crowns, all I wanted was to be that pretty blonde in the classroom.
I never really fit in at school. I had been an only child for so long that it made me a bit of a loner. I ran free in the woods and spent hours playing by my grandmother's lake. I entertained myself by drawing, dancing, and play-acting in the attic. I found that creating characters and wearing costumes let me become someone far more dazzling than the girl I thought I was.
Because I was so shy, I was easy to bully and wasn't a good fighter. And sometimes that would come back to slap me in the face. I'll never forget one Halloween when the school gave out costumes to kids who wanted them. My mother usually made mine, so I didn't order one. When the costumes came in, I watched, thrilled and excited, as the kids pulled each costume out of the box. I was so happy for everyone; I clapped and laughed as each box was opened. Finally the teacher looked at me and snapped, "What are you so happy about? You're not getting one." With that, I pulled back and withdrew. I had been so excited: I knew the magic that comes from disappearing inside an exotic costume, becoming a character that was much more interesting than yourself.
As I mentioned, I was an only child and grandchild for seven years. I spent a lot of play time alone. Yet I felt much loved and cherished. Even the arrival of my brother, Jonathan, when I was seven, and sister, Jennifer, when I was ten, did little to diminish my sense of well-being within the family; there were just more people around to play with and love to death. You would have thought with all that attention I'd have developed strong self-esteem. But I didn't. I wasn't into sports, I didn't have any kind of outlet, I didn't really belong to any group. I had grown up with a rich interior life in that attic room. Out of my cozy family cocoon I was painfully shy. By the time I turned thirteen, Mother thought a course in modeling school might nudge me out of my shell and help me feel better about myself. She never pushed me — it was more of a gentle suggestion. With nothing to lose, I agreed.
Modeling school — and the fashion shows and beauty pageants that followed — opened up a whole new world for me. It helped me combat my shyness and allowed me to develop social skills. Truly, that's when I thought everything came together for me.
"She just thought she was the ugliest thing in the world. At that time, I had the other two children, one a baby, one a toddler. So I would take Delta to classes and then go to a soda shop with the two little ones and wait for the class to be over. Me and the family — always driving Delta around in the car."
— Jean Burke, Delta's mother
One little modeling course created a monster. I was named to Montgomery Ward's Teen Board, where a select group of area kids modeled, served as Santa's helpers, and did general promotions for the store. At fifteen, I was "discovered" after I talked my way into a summer job with Tupperware, whose headquarters were in Kissimee, Florida. The company sponsored an annual road show, called the Tupperware Jubilee, where actors performed nursery rhyme skits for Tupperware salesmen. (I guess the sight of actors emoting Mother Goose tales was supposed to drive the salesmen into a Tupperware-selling frenzy.) Nevertheless, my first acting job — when I first got paid for acting — gave me an unforgettable taste of show business. And what a taste: Those Tupperware shows were huge conventions, sometimes even held in football stadiums. The audience participated in some of the skits for prizes, so there was a general atmosphere of mass hysteria. I threw myself heart and soul into portrayals of Mary Quite Contrary and Tinker Bell. I remember getting sick and having to go to the hospital and being unceremoniously stuffed into a car still wearing Mary Quite Contrary's wedding gown, with its giant hoop skirt. I can still see myself lying on a hospital table with that big old hoop sticking way up. No question, I was smitten with show biz. There was no turning back now.
"I thought, How can I let my daughter go? You get all these reassurances from people: Oh, she'll be well taken care of. But of course I was a nervous wreck. And the first thing she said to me when she got off that plane was, 'I know exactly what I'm going to do the rest of my life. This is what I'm going to do, this is it.'"
— Jean Burke
The Pageant Consortium
I entered my first beauty pageant at sixteen. I had heard about it over the school intercom: The winner was to represent the local fire department and promote fire awareness. Miss Flame. It seemed like the next thing to do. I had, after all, taken all those modeling classes. I was determined not to lose the momentum and have all those feelings of self-confidence melt away. Mother and my grandmother Nana were my coaches, cheerleaders, and coconspirators. We were the perfect team, a real pageant consortium. The whole process became great sport for us girls. For my first appearance in the Miss Flame pageant, I wore a brown and white dress that was bought at an Orlando department store for $40. Paying $40 for a dress was a big deal; it made quite an impression on us. It must have made an impression on the judges as well, because I made it to the final competition. For that, I wore a dreamy tangerine chiffon gown — it was the big time. I felt light as a feather in that dress. And then I saw the contestant ahead of me appearing like an antebellum vision in a blue Scarlett O'Hara gown, with a giant hoop skirt and a cascade of ruffles. Oh, boy, I thought. That does it. I don't have a chance. I wanted a gown like that.
Fortunately, the judges were not swayed by regional pride — or that blue gown. Although I was a nervous wreck and acted on instinct alone, I won! My God, I thought, I may actually have a knack for this.
As Miss Flame, it was my proud duty to shimmy down firepoles for a year. After that, I won fifteen out of sixteen pageants I entered. (The one pageant I lost was the Tangerine Bowl Queen crown. I'm still irked about losing that crown.)
My pageant consortium was unbeatable. It became a family hobby, no different really from preparing for a swim meet. Even my father had an influence; he helped psych me up before the contests with his infectious "can't lose" attitude. We spied on the competition; we snooped when the judges huddled together. Nana would trail behind me and pick up what people were saying as I passed, then report back to us so we could analyze what I was doing right and how to fix any flaws. During the Miss "All American Girl" pageant, the consortium learned the identity of the winner even before it was announced. Because I wore a big white chiffon gown in several pageants, I had become known in pageant circles as Snow White. In snooping around, my mother overheard the pageant scuttlebutt, which was that Snow White was the big winner.
People often ask me if I ever felt exploited or coerced into entering beauty pageants, and I have to say no way. For one thing, I got into pageants relatively late, at sixteen, and doing so was all my decision. Getting up on stage, being a ham, wearing crowns — I soon discovered all this was right up my alley. For another, I recognized early on that for me pageants were a means to an end, so in that sense I exploited the heck out of them. Emotionally, they filled me up; they gave me a sense of myself. Finally — a place I fit in! Pageants gave me my identity.
The pageants, the acting road shows, and the modeling all showcased a certain inbred flamboyance. I was always able to play a role. Outrageous costumes and exotic personalities allowed me to become someone else, which at that time made me more comfortable than being me. My theatrics were not limited to beauty contests. Oh, no. A typical day's school outfit might be hot pants and thigh-high vinyl boots — which everyone thought was a damned peculiar accessory in hothouse Florida. At sixteen I remember being politely told that my services would not be needed for a school talent show — my outfit and dance were regarded as a little too risqué. (My act consisted of going on stage in a belly-dancing costume and performing a personally choreographed bump-and-grind to the song "War!")
I may have been shy, but another part of me just went about my merry, flamboyant way, blissfully ignorant of the irony of it. I wasn't interested in real life, and it didn't seem interested in me. We kind of went our own ways. I wanted to be a star. Because my own sense of self was so shaky, dressing up let me become someone more beautiful, poised, and outgoing than I thought I was. It was odd, my wearing sexy costumes to beat the band and entering beauty pageants — yet having little social life and being uncomfortable with my looks and the reactions I got. Granted, I was clueless, but I didn't think the reason for that naïveté was anything more than being shy and sheltered.
All that freedom from the real world changed dramatically at sixteen, when, happily rolling an inner tube down the dirt road leading from my grandmother's house, I got a terrible feeling. The road had always been seen in my mind as the way to the Scary Place, for reasons long forgotten. Only now I remembered why. The memories came trickling in, in bits and pieces — how I had traveled down that same path when I was only four years old, going to visit my friend, and how her teenage brother had "played" with me, and how uncomfortable it made me feel. I remembered going to my mother — and she listened to me. She never scoffed or laughed or accused me of lying. Other things came back to me: the bright lights of the doctor's office, the gloves, and Momma going to their house. And suddenly it occurred to me that it was from that point on that my friend and I were never quite friends again.
I ran home, inner tube and all, and went to my grandmother and asked her if I had dreamed it all. Had my neighbor's brother actually molested me? She looked at me for a long time and then said yes.
I don't want to make too much of this — the fact that my mother listened to me probably helped me avoid major problems later on. But the molestation did have a profound effect on me for a long time. Now I understood why I couldn't deal with people's sexual interest in me. It made me uncomfortable; it scared and frightened me. At times I think I gained weight because it felt safer to be heavier. I could hide behind the weight and be invisible. When I'd get thin, I would have to deal with sexual power again, and I was poorly equipped to do so.
In truth, I think that few of us are prepared to deal with our sexual power when we are teenagers and young women. It was something I would wrestle with for many years.
Beauty Pageant Blitz
I discovered I was good at pageants. In one year, I won ten of eleven contests, a feat one local newspaper described as a "blitz on the beauty contest circuit." Interviews became commonplace and forced me to talk about myself, helping me overcome my natural shyness. I was a popular interview subject, because I tended to be slightly offbeat and a bit more forthright than most other pageant winners. It was all new territory for me, but I could gab with the best of them. "If I ever get to the Miss America pageant," I proclaimed to a Miami Herald reporter, "I just want to make the top ten and be able to show my acting talent on TV, knowing that millions of people are watching. It could help my career." It made perfect sense to me.
Excerpted from Delta Style by Delta Burke, Alexis Lipsitz. Copyright © 1998 Delta Burke and Alexis Lipsitz. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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