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Call me cynical, sceptical (or skeptical, depending on which side of The TransAtlantic Pond you prefer), but this is the hard truth you need to burn into your cerebral cortex or the inside of your left forearm (whichever is less painful.)
People judge you all the time.
And they say they don’t (hear those indignant, self-righteous liberalist bleats) but they not only silently judge you, but they behave accordingly after those milliseconds in which they have, well, judged you.
Let’s begin with a mild example.
I frequent the pasar malam nearest to my neighbourhood. The vegetables are cheaper, and don’t get me started on the Uncle whose kway teow is just moist all the time.
I dress down. No makeup, hair in a ponytail, glasses, sloppy tee and jeans.
I can get a week’s worth of local vegetables for RM10 (I kid you not) when I speak in BM and don’t wear the two thin, gold bracelets that were birthday presents from my mum, bracelets I wear all the time, 24/7 three sixty-five.
But when I cross over to the other side of the square, to the side nearer to the Coffee Bean and the million-dollar apartment, I am charged RM20 for the same, and sometimes lesser, amount of veg.
You think I’m kidding? Try it. Make it your own little Sunday social experiment.
Now let’s go a little more hardcore.
Years ago, in between jobs in Corporate Malaysia, I was lucky enough to be offered freelance work in content (ok, fine: that time it was still called writing.) I pottered along happily for a couple of months, staying low-key, flying under the radar.
Five months later, I was headhunted — not for a corporate job — but for a very lucrative position in a brand-new media venture that promised to give the smug, established players a run for their money and some anxiety attacks.
I had waited eight years for this opportunity.
So I told no-one, bar my parents. I didn’t even tell my brothers.
And when we went live on-air, the adrenaline rush was incredible. I was back in my element, and loving every second of it.
I was sought-out and handpicked for the job, because just two people knew how good I was, but they were the right two people. (Industry insiders.)
Within a fortnight, my phone started beeping with a regularity previously unheard of. Text messages: “Babe! Ohmygawd! You’re back on air! So good to hear you again! Finally!” Or, “Woman! Just tuned in and heard you! I recognise that laugh anywhere!”
And suddenly, my social calendar was more full than a beer keg at a frat house party.
I’d get hundreds of texts and calls wishing me happy this, happy that, merry this, merry that.
I’d get texts from acquaintances I’d met a million years ago, from some obscure work thing or someone who once worked with my best friend’s neighbour’s cousin’s classmate. (You get my point.)
And this continued, despite me still choosing to live a quiet, private life, until, thanks to the Bush administration and the ripple effects of the subprime crisis, the once-bright, maverick media house wound up, quietly, two years later.
The mics were silenced; I was no longer what one of my friends (misguidedly) once called me… a “celebrity.” A what?
(Even to this day, I cringe that she parachuted that label onto our relationship dynamic without my participation.)
I was still the same me. I still had the responsibility to take out the rubbish at home.
Celebrity? Pfth. Please. I didn’t ask for that label.
And how many Merry Xmas or Selamat Hari Raya text greetings would I get after I exited the building?
You think I’m being dramatic.
Fast forward six years later — six years I would spend in obscure bliss as yet another faceless but comfortable freelancer — and again, I am called out of the blue and asked if I would like the head honcho job. Another media house, another very-public, no-running-away-from-the-title Lady Boss position.
My boss, the business owner, warned me over our iced-latte meeting (that was the full extent of the interview — the time it takes to order and down a latte) that everyone would want to be my new best friend. I pfth-ed him.
Don’t be ridiculous, I said, as he walked to his office and we shook hands.
“You’ll see,” he laughed. I went home, looking forward to my last quiet weekend, yet excited to have been handed the dream job without even breaking a sweat.
Was I wrong.
The tsunami of attention, the calls, the constant pings of texts, the sucking-up: it got so bad I had to buy another phone with another line just so I could switch off the phone that fifty PR consultants, clients and their stooges would call and text almost non-stop.
Sometimes even during my dinner time.
It was insanity.
At one point, however, even the strongest and most cynical among us can fall prey to our base vanities.
And so, there came a point when I realised I was selling my usually-lofty standards for the shortcuts because SO MANY OF THEM wanted my approval so badly, and so, I let them ply me with goodies. With easy content I didn’t have to wheedle my team to produce.
It was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Until, of course, burn-out hits you.
And when it does, you have That Talk with the boss.
And when you make that decision to walk away, you do it for your peace of mind, but even when you are closer to forty-five than twenty-five, you are never prepared for what follows.
Sure, you’ve mellowed a bit, and you think,
‘People cannot possibly be that shallow or transparent.’
Well, it turns out they are, in fact, shallow and transparent.
Need I spell out how silent the phone is nowadays?
You can work it out, I’m sure.
I don’t mind the phone being silent. It’s peaceful. I can hear myself think.
My real friends, the ones who knew me before I was thrust into the public spheres of media — electronic and of the printed variety — they still call, text, send me good jokes.
Whether they are in Erfurt, Germany, or in Shanghai or Milan.
They remember my birthday without needing Facebook to remind them (because none of us do social media much any more) and they listen patiently when I whinge about shallow, transparent people.
I should be fair.
I shouldn’t have said people will absolutely judge you a hundred ways to Sunday.
What I should have said is people will only want to be your friend if they think they can use you in some small way, even if it does involve forcing themselves to see you for coffee on Sunday.
(It’s a little known fact that the best time to ask for a favour is in a social setting.)
I don’t think so.
Try it out for yourself and let me know.
When they say invisibility is a superpower, I agree.
It’s when you are invisible to the rest of the world that you know who are the ones who truly see you, and want you to be just as you are. Public figure or pauper.
And that, my friends, is something life will teach every single one of us at some point in all our lives.
I guarantee it.