I was nine years old and walking myself to school one morning when I heard the unfamiliar sound of a prepubescent boy calling my name. I had heard my name spoken out loud by males before, but it was most often by one of my brothers, my father, or a teacher, and it was
usually followed up with a shot to the side of the head.
I turned around and spotted Jason Safirstein. Jason was an adorable fifth-grader with an amazing lower body who lived down the street from me. I had never walked to school, had a conversation with, or even so much as made eye contact with Jason before. After lifting up one of my earmuffs to make sure I had heard him correctly, I nervously attempted to release my wedgie while waiting for him to catch up. (A futile effort, as it turned out, while wearing two mittens the size of car batteries.)
“I heard you were going to be in a movie with Goldie Hawn,” he said to me, out of breath.
Sh*t. I had worried something like this was going to happen. The day before, I had forgotten my Language Arts homework, and when the teacher singled me out in front of the entire class to find out where it was, I told her that I had been in three straight days of meetings with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, negotiating my contract to play Goldie Hawn’s daughter in the sequel to Private Benjamin.
The fact that no sequel to Private Benjamin was in the works, or that a third grader wouldn’t be negotiating her own contract with the star of the movie and her live-in lover, hadn’t dawned on me.
“Yeah, well, that was kind of a lie,” I mumbled, recovering my left mitten from in between my butt cheeks.
“What?” he asked, astounded. “You lied? Everyone has been talking about it. Everyone thinks it’s so cool.”
“Really?” I asked, quickly changing my tune, realizing the magnitude of what had happened. It occurred to me that this was the perfect opportunity to get some of the respect I believe had been denied me, due to my father dropping me off in front of the school in a 1967 banana yellow Yugo. It was 1984, and my father had no idea of or interest in how damaging his 1967 Yugo had been to my social status. He had driven me to school on a couple of really cold days, and even after I had pleaded with him to drop me off down the street, he was adamant about me not catching a cold.
“Dad,” I would tell him over and over again, “The weather has nothing to do with catching a cold. It has to do with your immune system. Please let me walk. Please!”
“Don’t be stupid,” he would tell me. “That’s child abuse.”
I wanted my father to know that child abuse was embarrassing your daughter on a regular basis with no clue at all as to the repercussions. Word had spread like wildfire through the school about what king of car my father drove, and before I knew it, the older girls in fifth grade would follow me through the hallways calling me “poor” and “ugly.” After a couple of months they upped it from “ugly” to “a dog,” and would bark at me anytime they saw me in the hallway.
Our family certainly wasn’t poor, but we lived in a town where trust funds, sleepaway camps, and European vacations were abundant, along with Mercedes, Jaguars, and BMWs—a far cry from my world filled with flat tires, missing windshield wipers, and cars with perpetually lit CHECK ENGINE lights.
The idea that showing up at school in a piece of sh*t jalopy led to me looking like a dog didn’t make much sense in my mind. It really irked me that had to be punished because my father thought he was a used car dealer and insisted on driving us around in the cars that he couldn’t sell. I wanted to tell my classmates that I didn’t like his cars either, and I certainly didn’t like being called a dog. I hadn’t had a low opinion of myself before then, but after being called the same nickname for six months straight, you start to look in the mirror and see resemblances between yourself and a German shepherd.
If it had been mild teasing, I think I probably could have handled it. But it was incessant, and started from the moment I got to school until the moment I left. After awhile, most of my friends in the third grade would avoid being seen with me in the hallways because they didn’t want to be blacklisted too. My best friend, Jodi Sapperman, was the only one who would walk with me to every class and defend me when the fifth-grade girls would come over to our table in the cafeteria and ask if I was eating Alpo for lunch.
“Well, I shouldn’t have said ‘lie.’ That’s the wrong word,” I told Jason. “I’m having trouble getting the trailer size I want. Goldie’s being pretty cool, but Kurt is so mercurial. He doesn’t understand why a nine-year old needs a Jacuzzi and a personal chef,” I said nonchalantly, with a wave of my mitten. “These types of things always take time.”
“You get your own trailer?” he asked.
“Yeah, you know, your own little house when you’re on set. Every actor gets one. There’s sooo much downtime in movies, you really need a place to unwind. In my opinion, it’s not nearly large enough to live in for three months, but it’s my first major role, so I’m willing to settle for a little less than the crème de la crème.”
My vast knowledge of movie-making at the age of nine came from spending every free minute watching television, movies, and reading any book about the filming of The Breakfast Club I could get my hands on. I think when you grow up in a house surrounded by a driveway filled with cars from the previous two decades and parents who insist that ten dollars for a pair of jeans in 1984 is excessive, you have no choice but to immerse yourself in a world where money is no object.
“I didn’t even know you were an actress,” Jason said. “How did you get the part?”
“It’s ‘actor’,” I said, correcting him. “The thing is, I was in a little off-Broadway production with Meryl Streep.” I took a long pause, allowing him to interrupt.
“Meryl Streep?” he asked. The one from Sophie’s Choice?”
“Is there another?” I said, rolling my eyes at his naivete. “Anyway, she and I really clicked. She recommended me to the director of this movie. That’s how Hollywood works—one thing leads to another, blah, blah, blah. But they’re having a ton of creative issues, so who knows if it will even go.”
“Go where?” he asked.
“If the movie will even be made.”
I could tell Jason was disappointed and I didn’t want to lose his attention, so I hurried to keep him interested. I had always dreamed of becoming romantically involved with an older man and thought Jason not only had the makings of a wonderful lover, but also a dedicated father to the two black twins I had planned on adopting from Ethiopia. “I mean, it will go, but it could take months. Maybe you can visit me on set.”
“Really?” he asked, his eyes ready to pop out of their sockets.
I had to think of something quick to recant my offer after realizing I would never be able to pull it off, so I quickly added, “Well, I mean if your parents will let you fly to the Galapagos Islands.”
“The Galapagos,” I said, trying to come up with a reason they would be shooting the sequel to Private Benjamin surrounded by turtles. “They have a ton of rare animals there, so the movie’s going to be more of her roughing it in the water with jellyfish and sea horses. It’s basically a cross between Splash and Private Benjamin.”
“I loved Splash!” Jason screamed. “This is so cool!”
“Darryl’s a complete mess,” I told him, shaking my head.
“Don’t even get me started,” I snorted.
Once we arrived at school, I played it cool and left Jason with his mouth agape, as I told him I’d talk to him later and went on my way. It felt great to get attention from Jason. Even if our star signs didn’t end up being sexually compatible, he was cute, popular, and it would definitely not hurt to have him as a friend. He could be the perfect ally to help get the evil fifth-grade girls to show me a little respect.
By lunch, almost every person at school had asked me about the movie. Not only did the fifth grade girls skip their daily harassment, one of them even said “hi” as she walked by. Not one person had made fun of me or barked at me all day. Before Jodi and I could even sit down to eat lunch, kids were scrambling to come up to my table.
“What’s Goldie Hawn like?” one of the boys in fifth grade asked me.
“Tiny,” I told him. “We’re practically the same size.”
“Really? She seems so much taller in the movies.”
“She’s like a mom to me. We totally get each other.”
Once we had a minute to ourselves, Jodi finally confronted me and said she knew for a fact I hadn’t been in a play with Meryl Streep, never mind the off-Broadway version of Sesame Street, which by lunchtime I had cleverly renamed, “Sesame Streep.”
“I know Jodi, but look at it this way: This is the first day in months that I haven’t been called a dog by the fifth-graders, and I’ll be honest with you, it feels pretty sweet.”
“I know,” she said, “but what are you gonna do when they find out you’re lying?”
“They’ll forget about it,” I said, loving the attention. “I’ll just tell them it shoots over the summer, and by the time everyone gets back next year, they’ll have forgotten. Plus, all the fifth-graders will have gone to middle school by then, so they can suck it.”
“Yeah, but what about everybody else?” she sked. “Isn’t there a way you could actually get to meet Goldie Hawn and at least get a picture with her?”
“That’s a great idea,” I told her, as I unbuckled my Ms. Pac Man lunchbox to find a peanut-butter-and-cream-cheese sandwich. “What the hell is this?” I asked, unwrapping it and then slamming it down on the table. “My parents are the worst.”
Jodi and I had been friends since kindergarten, so she was used to this kind of mix-up. As sweet and loving as my mother was, she had the organizational skills of a sea lion, and could never remember to make me lunch. So every morning, I had to tell my father to make it for me. He in turn, had the culinary skills of a sea lion, and no matter how many times I repeated the phrase “peanut butter and jelly,” he always somehow managed to f**k it up.
“Do you want half of my sandwich?” Jodi asked, offering me the other half of her ham and cheese. Had I not kept kosher my entire third-grade year, I would have dove into it headfirst.
“Just forget it,” I said, skipping the sandwich and taking a bite out of one of my Ding Dongs.
The day grew more and more insane as well-wishers and new fans were approaching me left and right, prying for information. One first-grader even asked me for my autograph. By the end of the day, not only were we filming in the Galapagos, but Soleil Moon Frye, a.k.a. Punky Brewster, would be playing my sister in the movie. Then I realized that her dark hair and freckles were in stark contrast to my blonde hair and blue eyes and quickly made her my stepsister instead.
By the time school let out, everyone who lived in my neighborhood was racing to get one-on one time with me, and I walked home with eight other children. The great thing about this attention was that it was coming from all the older kids, who I always believed were my core demographic. I always felt older than the kids my age, and I would get so frustrated when the other third-graders showed no interest in trying to help me figure out what really went down during the Nixon administration a decade earlier. I remember having this feeling early on, during my second day of kindergarten. It became apparent to me that all of my classmates had the necessary faculties to play a serious game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but had no designs on how to forge a late note from their parents.
I constantly had visions of skipping a grade or two, becoming a trailblazer of sorts, and possibly inventing something along the lines of Cabbage Patch Kid “Plus.” Once patented, it would look and feel like a regular Cabbage Patch Kid, but would also be able to help you with chores around the house. It would be able to speak different languages like Spanish and Farsi, and if you poked it in the eye, it would sh*t out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on rye.
I walked into my house that cold December day floating on air. “Hi, Mom!” I said, as I triumphantly threw my backpack on the ground and skipped into the kitchen.
“Chelsea, sweetie, your father just got off the phone with your principal, Mr. Hiller.”
“What kind of meshugas is this, Chelsea?” my father asked, using one of his two favorite Yiddish phrases. “You’re shooting a movie with Goldie Hawn and flying to the Galapagos?”
My whole day deflated in a matter of seconds. “Mrs. Schectman was making a big deal about me not doing my homework and the Goldie Hawn story was the only thing I could think of,” I told them.
“Well, why didn’t you do your homework?” he asked me.
“Because, Dad!” I wailed, bursting into tears and stomping my left foot. “It was the season premiere of Charles in Charge! Are you out of your tree?”
“Chelsea, sweetie, you don’t have to make up such far-fetched lies,” my mother said in her ultracalm tone. “Couldn’t you have come up with something a little more reasonable?”
“I know,” I told her, defeated, and walked over for a hug. My mother was always a softie, and once I got over to her, I knew my father would cease being such an immediate physical threat. “But everyone started to believe it and all the older kids were asking me about it and I got carried away.”
“Well,” my father said dismissively, “you’re just going to have to go back to school tomorrow and tell everyone the truth.”
The problem with being the youngest of six children is that my father had me when he was forty-two years old, resulting in what I like to refer to as “severe generational gappage.” That, coupled with the fact that he was born without the embarrassment gene, left us little in common. It would have seemed completely appropriate to my father for me to hold a press conference in the school’s auditorium the next day, wearing a helmet with a maxipad stuck to my forehead while announcing into a microphone that I’ve been a “bad, bad girl, and I’ve also been known to sh*t in my pants.”
“Melvin,” my mother said, “that is going to be extremely humiliating.”
“Well, she certainly can’t go on pretending she’s going to be joining the army with some Hollywood hotshot.”
“The sequel isn’t going to be as much about the army as it will be about sea creatures,” I corrected him.
“Chelsea, what are you even talking about?”
“I can’t tell the truth. Then the older girls will go back to calling me a dog.”
“Listen to me,” my father screamed. “We’ve been over this before. If those girls are going to make fun of you because of the kind of car your father drives, then they’re not worth your time anyway.”
“That’s nice, Dad,” I told him. “But it doesn’t matter if they’re not worth my time or not, it’s a lot more pleasant going through the halls at school not getting growled at.”
“How many times do we have to tell you that spending money on material things is not important? What is driving around in a Mercedes or a BMW going to teach you?” he asked.
“I dunno,” I said, still clinging to my mother. “That I want a Mercedes or a BMW?”
“Chelsea,” my father repeated, “you cannot just make up lies.”
“You lie all the time,” I reminded him, and then ran behind my mother and wrapped my arms around her waist to shield me from any impending wrath. “You tell all the people who call about your cars that they run great, or they have no leaks, or that that they’re in mint condition. Half of them need to be jump-started on a daily basis.”
“Listen to me, you little mouthpiece. I am the father,” he said, heading over in our direction while I buried my face in my mother’s ass. “You are nine years old and you are going to have to do what I tell you for the next nine years, whether you like it or not. As long as you’re living under this roof. Do you understand me?”
I wanted to tell him that I had no problem looking in the want ads for an apartment to sublet, but knew the reality of me getting my own place was months away.
“Yes,” I said, in order to avoid getting b*tch-slapped. “I understand.”
“That’s enough, Melvin,” my mother told him. “Why don’t you sit down and I’ll make you some porridge.”
Even though porridge is a perfectly appropriate meal for a bear, I couldn’t resist asking my mother if we were having Goldilocks over for dinner. My father was still in earshot as he headed over to the living room couch, where he normally took his three o’clock feeding. It took one look from him to send me airborne in the direction of the staircase, which I took two steps at a time.
Once safely inside my room, I weighed my options. I could either tell the truth to all the kids at school and endure that embarrassment, or go for the more palatable option—enroll myself in a performing arts boarding school.
Instead, I got out some loose-leaf notebook paper and started a letter to Goldie Hawn:
I am a third-grader from New Jersey and consider myself to be a huge fan of yours as well as a compulsive liar. I made the mistake of mentioning that I would be playing your daughter in the next installment of Private Benjamin. (A fine performance if I do say so myself. I have seen a lot of movies, and can pretty much, without a sliver of a doubt, tell you that your range far outweighs the likes of Robert De Niro or, my personal favorite, Don Johnson.)
Anyway, it would be of great help to me if you could either come to my school in New Jersey and pick me up for lunch, or send me a personalized autographed photo that reads:
My Dearest Chelsea,
Working together has been a dream come true.
Goldie, (your second mom)
Once I sealed the envelope, I spent three hours trying to get to her agent on the phone. The furthest I got was to an operator at William Morris who gave me the address for fan mail. I was convinced that not only would she get the letter, but in my estimation, it wouldn’t take more than a week for her to respond. I then walked downstairs into my father’s “office,” found a stamp and an envelope, and placed it in our mailbox.
The next morning when I got up, I found a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich in the fridge with a note attached from my mother saying, “You are not a dog.” My father, of course, was the only one up, and was sitting in the kitchen reading the paper. Without looking up, he said, “Don’t forget to tell everyone the truth today.”
I wanted to scream at him and explain to him the magnitude of the situation. I wanted to tell him that there was a better chance of me shaving my head and walking to school with a dog collar and a leash around my neck than there was of me admitting I had lied.
I walked out the door and it was a beautiful spring day. I had a feeling of hopefulness and excitement that I hadn’t had all year. For the first time, I was excited to go to school instead of dreading it the whole way there.
With that wave of confidence came the feeling that I was, in a way, impenetrable. I was the same exact person I had been the day before, but now I was being treated better and the older kids wanted to be friends with me. It didn’t matter if I was in a movie or not, I had made these people laugh when they asked me questions. I had found myself engaging, charismatic—even sublime at times. I had all the charm I believed a true movie star to have. Who cares if I had lied about starring in Private Benjamin Returns? In the midst of all the commotion, I truly believed something magical had happened. I had burst into womanhood, and never felt more alive. I decided right there and then that I was going to tell the truth.
As I descended the hill where we lived, I spotted Jason at the bottom, standing on the sidewalk in front of his house. There was a part of me that felt bad for him for allowing himself to fall in love with me so quickly, and another part of me that was annoyed that he had such little self-respect. Hadn’t he ever seen a Woody Allen movie and realized how to play it cool?
I decided I was going to have to break the news to him first. “Hey,” I said, as I reached his house. I knew he’d be disappointed, and I wanted to let him down easy. I didn’t want people to ever look back at Chelsea Joy Handler and say she was a fibber.
“Did you hear anything about the movie?” he asked.
“Well, Jason, I have some bad news,” I told him. “Goldie broke her collarbone in a hang-gliding accident. It looks like it’s been postponed till summer.”
“Wow! What a bummer,” he said.
“Yeah, but the great news is, I’m in talks to be in one of Madonna’s new videos.”
“Yup,” I told him. “Which means I’m going to have to be on a grueling workout regimen.” I had very little control of the things that were flying out of my mouth. All I knew was that it felt better than confessing. Plus, the idea of getting imaginary rock-hard abs was intoxicating.
I knew then that Jason and I could never really build a solid partnership, mostly because our relationship had been based on inconsistencies.
I spent the rest of the week confirming one ridiculous tale after another, and by Friday I was exhausted. Although the benefits of my newfound fame outweighed the burden of coming up with one celebrity tale after another, I was so disgusted and bored with myself after a week, I was ready to throw myself out of my second-story window. I spent upward of an hour contemplating whether or not the fall would actually end my life or just severely injure an ankle. Then I thought of maybe jumping out of one of my father’s cars while in motion. This seemed the better option of the two, because not only would I be putting myself out of my misery, I’d also be making a political statement.
I knew if I ever came clean, I would look like a complete ass, so Jodi and I made a pact. She would confirm all my lies, and then after Christmas break the following week, we would slowly plant seeds that I was leaving the business. “I had had enough!” was the phrase we agreed I would use.
The teasing from the older girls had come to a screeching halt, and now when I walked down the halls, almost everyone said hello, and a couple of kids even curtsied. Surprisingly, Principal Hiller never called my house again. Jodi’s estimation was that he probably thought he had a psychopath on his hands and felt it was safer to take himself out of the equation.
The Friday afternoon before I was to return to school after Christmas break, Jodi and I were in my sister Sloane’s room trying on her training bras when my father yelled my name.
I ran downstairs wearing my sister’s bra and a pair of parachute pants when my father handed me a manila envelope without looking up. “You got something in the mail.”
I opened the envelope and nearly climaxed. I ran right up to Sloane’s room and jumped up and down. “Jodi! Jodi! Look at what I got!” It was a signed autograph from Goldie Hawn. She hadn’t inscribed it the way I had requested, and obviously I would hold that against her in any future negotiations, but it was made out to me, and it was signed by her.
Jodi and I were jumping up and down like a pair of newlyweds. We ran into my room and grabbed a Sharpie. Luckily Goldie’s handwriting wasn’t very legible, so I added “Mom” in parentheses at the end, and, after much discussion, since I didn’t want to continue with the lying but wasn’t willing to tell the truth either, Jodi and I agreed to leave the note open-ended. This is what I added: “My collar bone is on the mend. Can’t wait to start working with you, if the movie ever gets made. Aaargh! You’re a star!”
“Well,” she said, “it would sure take a lot of guts to come forward now.”
“You’re absolutely right,” I told her, putting the signed photo in my backpack. “Don’t let me forget to make copies of this to pass out at school.”
After the picture had made its way through school, things started to die down, and only once in awhile would someone mention my movie-star status. In those instances, I made sure not to overembellish the fantasies that played out in my head. I would downplay my role as a Hollywood starlet by telling people I was becoming more and more interested in behind-the-scenes work, and what I really had my eye on was directing.
The lesson I learned that year was a valuable one. If you’re going to make up an enormous untruth, make sure you tell it to people you are not spending the rest of the school year with. I can only imagine what Clay Aiken has to deal with on a daily basis.