Coco is approached in a diner by a filmmaker who tells her he is casting a film he plans to shoot in the south of France.
She goes to his apartment for a screen test, but there is no crew. And if you saw the movie “Fame,” this scene is as seared in your memory as it is in mine. Poor Coco Hernandez, thinking she was one cold reading away from stardom and instead walking into the poorly decorated maw of a small time pornographer.
This is the scene I picture when I’m having a terrible audition.
So it was Coco I thought about recently when I auditioned for a pilot based on the popular website, Jezebel.com.
Could you take off your blouse for me?
Are you kidding?
No, he’s not kidding. That becomes obvious. But at this point, Coco has already attached so many expectations to this moment that she can’t walk away.
What's the matter? You're acting like some dumb kid. I thought you were a professional.
Maybe this guy is some fancy French auteur like he says, and maybe a pro would just unbutton her top, so Coco does, her fragile fingers stumbling on the buttons as tears fall on her collar.
Oh, yeah. Yeah. Could you arch your back?
Arch your back a little, Coco. Smile for me, Coco. Come on, Coco. Smile, smile.
I must admit, now that I’ve deconstructed the death of Coco’s dream, the end of her innocence before she pulls her shit together to Sing the Body Electric at graduation, it seems a bit overdramatic to compare my silly audition to her tragic fall. Still, auditions can be a bit degrading, just by their very nature, and some, in particular, have top notes of Coco with a strong porn finish.
Location is really one of the things that determine the Coco-ness of any hosting audition.
Having hosted on basic cable, deep cable and occasionally on network television, I have auditioned everywhere from a massive soundstage to the dusty corner of a warehouse in Sun Valley.
This Jezebel.com thing scored high Coco points for being at a very isolated production company, in a tiny fluorescent-lit back office. It enhances the porn feel when no one at the front desk has heard of you, or the project, and the entire thing ends up being shot on what looks like a phone, but what is, in fact, a Flip-Cam.
There were no executives from Jezebel, from the production company, from the network. “Ah, maybe wait over there,” said the desk dude, pointing to an empty cubicle. And wait I did, for a long, long time.
And it’s not that I’m above cattle calls, it’s just that years of experience tell me I’m the type you might fast-forward right by on a blurry tape of dozens of girls with better noses and smaller pores.
Another feature that determines how much one feels like Coco is the amount of prep required. Fortunately for Irene Cara’s character, she was not asked to prepare anything for the audition, so maybe all she sacrificed was a couple hours picking out her clothes, doing her makeup and heading across town — plus subway fare. The opportunity cost was low. However, when you are asked to prep copious material, like we were for this Jezebel thing, you feel like a real asshole sometimes.
Look, I get it. If someone is hiring me for their project, they want to know if I can hack it. I don’t begrudge anyone asking us hosts to do some homework, or to jump through hoops in the room, but there is a point at which one begins to feel she is unbuttoning her blouse.
At first, because I got the assignments for this audition on a Friday late afternoon and the audition was Monday at noon, I was inclined to say screw it. If you needed to see that much shit, I can’t get it to you because instead of tap dancing for you to love me all weekend long, I need to spend time with my child.
But here’s where I go Coco.
“I thought you were a professional,” the porn guy says to her.
And that’s what I say to myself. That’s this business. If you want a job you have to shake it. For free. You have to hustle. You have to work on the weekend, and if you intend to get the job you can’t phone it in because other people will be Whitney Cummings, and if you aren’t at least a quarter of a Whitney (a new unit of measurement for blind ambition) you will lose.
This Jezebel thing, it was hours of work, for a first call.
Like they asked, I wrote three 1-2 minute essays on the topics they chose. I drove across town, ready to meet the big wigs, only to wait 25 minutes before being herded into a tiny room to see the dreaded Flip. The office was so small, that during my audition I gestured too dramatically and knocked the old-school giant office phone off the desk. I tried to work it in, but it just wasn’t related tonally to the death of Andrew Breitbart.
The woman conducting the audition seemed nice enough.
“So, I’m just going to test out this equipment on you because you are the first one,” she said right as I walked in, kind of apologetically. She set up her camera and did a few tests. I was nervous. And I felt so Coco. And I wanted to get out. But I just let her test out her equipment, taping me as she asked me questions to test her audio.
After the audition, which seemed to stop time, as one would expect when reading five minutes of material to a phone-sized camera in a sunless office space, I mentioned to the woman that it’s always hard, this kind of audition, no one to react and all.
“Yeah, that’s why I try to pay attention. I looked you in the eye. You noticed that right? I always do that.”
You sure did.
A show business opportunity gets the biggest Coco boost from one thing: promise. The bigger the promise, the more hope, the bigger the prize, the more buttons you will gladly undo through your tears. Jezebel.com is a really good site. The writing is so cool and the point of view so unexpected and righteous and clever, you feel like an idiot buffoon for not having come up with it yourself. If Cosmo makes you feel less than for not being pretty enough, Jezebel makes you feel small for not being wickedly feminist enough.
This job, I told myself, could be perfect. I would move to NYC where my child would attend a neighborhood Montessori school but still understand public transit. I future-projected myself into a pair of ice skates at Rockefeller Center this holiday season with my family, a snapshot that would scream LIVING THE DREAM NO MATTER HOW OLD I AM AND EVEN HAVING THIS KID DIDN’T KEEP ME DOWN. I AM SO FUCKING RELEVANT. I would not be the pathetic Coco losing herself to a pipe dream and a porn guy; I would be the Coco full of promise dancing and singing outside the New York School for Performing Arts.
The essence of a Coco moment, feeling used, feeling exploited, feeling dirty and spent and crushed, the most poignantly painful part of being Coco is the part you do to yourself. Sure, poor Coco was naïve and young and easy to manipulate, but once she knew the shot, once it was clear this wasn’t her big break but just a horny guy wanting to see her disrobe, she stayed. She let the pull of the dream lure her into a dark alley, despite knowing, on some level, that it was going to pick her pocket.
Back to me, and my silly little audition.
After putting my toddler to sleep and staying awake all hours to write what they requested, I couldn’t walk away when I realized that this Jezebel thing wasn’t some exclusive opportunity to interface with executives. Something in me, especially after waiting and driving so long, wanted to leave with a parking validation and my dignity, but the Coco in me could not. The Coco in me had to hold out hope, impossible hope, that somehow, these pieces I wrote would be so transcendent that they would overcome me sitting in a desk chair with a $4 microphone clipped to my shirt reading off my little piece of paper to a rapt audience of one bored underling and one outdated Flip.
Just maybe. Just maybe this guy really is an auteur looking for a fresh face for an art house movie shooting in the south of France. Please.
Smile for me. Now take your thumb and put it in your mouth like a little schoolgirl.
In the theme song for the movie “Fame,” Irene Cara sings about lighting up the sky like a flame, making it to heaven, living forever. People will see her and cry. FAME. Well, I’m not trying to catch the moon in my hand, just hoping to keep my AFTRA insurance and continue appearing on basic cable from time to time.
“Don’t you know who I am? (Fame)”
Probably not. But my insecurities and petty resentments will live forever.