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As I walk into the latest callback with a casting director who I’ve known since I was 15, she stops me.
“Wait,” she says. “I know I haven’t seen you in a minute, but I love this look on you! You look fantastic!”
She takes her seat at her desk while the casting associate sets up the camera, and I look down at my outfit. In my latest iteration of “Well, fuck it, I’m going to be comfortable,” today’s look is my Wildfang button-up black romper and a pair of sneaker wedges. My platinum blonde bob is in waves with one side slicked back, and I’m wearing Jenna-Lyons-thick black glasses. I not only feel ready for this audition, but I’m so comfortable in my style and in my skin that I truly do not care if I book the role. I’m here to have fun and be me, and I already feel victorious.
I wasn’t always this confident. Growing up in Oklahoma, I went to a prep school with uniforms that were uncomfortable and itchy. Once a month, we’d have Free Dress Day, which separated the Cool Kids (not me) from the kids who had the crap kicked out of them (me). Abercrombie and JNCO jeans were all the rage, and while I wanted to wear the pale pink polos and the flared bell bottom jeans my classmates wore, I rarely fit into them. Instead, I’d usually wear jeans and tees from Old Navy (they carried up to size 20) and I wore my hair very short due to the hot Oklahoma summers.
One year, when I came back to school from summer break, a girl came up to me and said, “Hey Kylie, we all agree you look like an ugly fat boy.” I cried in the bathroom between lunch and recess, praying my hair would grow out quickly.
My only saving grace was going to my dance studio and to play rehearsals; I could be different people, and more importantly, I could be Not Me. If I didn’t like a costume, I could take it off — problem solved. It became my escape. When I was 13, my mom and I flew to Los Angeles so I could sign with my first agent. I wanted to try this acting thing on a larger scale than just community theatre, and my mom was incredibly supportive. I started auditioning and booking work as a teenager, flying between Los Angeles, Oklahoma, and New York at a moment’s notice and living out of a suitcase for the majority of the time. I was truly in my element, and my confidence was growing every time I was at work. Sure, I owned a skirt or two (so when I’d audition for “American Dreams” for the umpteenth time, I’d fit the style of the show), but otherwise, when I was at work or doing red carpets, I wore pantsuits and jeans and tees. I owned a couple of Juicy Couture tracksuits (it was 2003, it was inevitable), but I was still the same fat tomboy girl, and I felt confident in my style and my body for the first time in years since I was accepted and embraced for who I was in the industry.
That all changed the day I discovered YouTube. I made the mistake of entering my name in the search bar and stumbled onto a video of a grown man tearing me apart in a “review” of the first movie I was in, mostly about how fat I was. It was a catastrophic blow to my newfound confidence as it was a reminder of how cruel people can be. The video imprinted in my mind the moment after I hit stop, and it constantly played in my head for months after. Every time something good would happen in my life, that image of someone telling me how ugly and gross I was and how “unbelievable” it was for someone like my co-star “to like me” would autoplay, like I wasn’t worthy of anything positive.
This feeling only got worse when I entered college. During my junior year at USC, between midterms, rehearsals for the mainstage show I was cast in, and my undergraduate research project, I felt incredibly underprepared for most of my juries. And once, a professor called out everything I was afraid of.
“You see, Kylie,” he said in a one-on-one conference, “you have the talent, you have the voice and the skills. But this is not television. You don’t have your shit together. Maybe if you actually did something about this —” he gestured at my clothes, soft dance pants and an oversized T-shirt and my messy up-do bun, “you might actually do a lot around here.”
Yet again, a moment burned into my psyche; this idea that I wouldn’t be taken seriously unless I looked a certain way all the time. From that moment on, every time I’d belt my 16 bars for auditions on campus and off, I wore a dress and heels, and I dyed my long hair from the burgundy I loved to dark brown, which I kept for six years to look more “castable.” At every TV and film audition, I’d look as Wholesome All-American Perfect Girl as possible.
I spent a few years trying to fit this mold and steadily booking work because of it. Then, finally, when I was 23, I was cast on a series where there were constant appearances, interviews, and real-time fan and press interaction. The mounting pressure to be perfect only increased. I’d look at red carpet photos and videos where I wore a blazer or a nice flannel and cool pants and saw the attention and publicity my friends and peers were getting for wearing dresses. The comments were all about how hot they were, while I’d be virtually ignored. I felt too loud, too large, too ugly, and too me. I wore a dress to my next appearance, and from there snowballed. You’d see small slivers of me — a leather jacket, shorts and ripped tights, a messy up-do bun, maybe a flannel — but between my media training, constant unsolicited advice from people in higher levels of power, and my own war with myself, I just gave up trying to fight it and let it consume me. I buried that feeling of complete dread because it was work; I had a job to do, and I kept telling myself it was like putting on a costume.
This time, though, instead of the costumes I could take on and off as a child if I didn’t like it, I had to keep it on, which only made it worse. It also didn’t help that around that time I began to realize I was bisexual, and between trying to figure out if my feelings were real (and not just getting wrapped up in the queer characters I played) and having to cultivate an image of Cool High Femme Chic, I retreated further and further in the closet, using my clothes as a shield.
Due to a medical nightmare shortly after I wrapped the series, my long hair had been ravaged thanks to medications and illnesses and I had to chop it all off. The moment I did, a switched flipped. I started wearing clothes that made me feel more androgynous and less 1950s prom queen, and I began acquiring tattoos. To my surprise, I started having more meetings and booked more work, like the universe approved. I began to embrace the tomboy style I had missed so dearly, and when I felt comfortable in my expression, it became apparent in my work. Everyone told me I looked the most relaxed I had been in years. When I stopped trying to play a game where there were no winners, I actually won. I still feel like I stick out like a sore thumb when I go to an audition and I’m wearing black ripped jeans and a short-sleeve button-up with boots and everyone else is wearing bodycon dresses with heels, but I’m me, and I’m not sorry.
And even though I didn’t book the call that day, the casting director called me in the following week for another show, and keeps doing so to this day.