My story always begins, “So Tom Cruise says to me, ‘Wow, you’re a real person!’ and I reply, ‘yes’—although I am thinking, ‘Why… aren’t you?’—and I hug him. I hug Tom Cruise. After politely asking permission of course. His leather bomber jacket is on my cheek and I calmly say, ‘And you are wearing leather.’”
This past holiday season, the book publisher Knopf put out a call for a national bookseller display contest to create an original in-store display for the new book, “Oscar Night: Seventy-Five Years of Hollywood Parties” that encompassed the glitz, the glamour and the intrigue of Oscar night. The prize? Two airline tickets to Los Angeles, a two-night stay in a hotel, and two tickets to the VANITY FAIR OSCAR NIGHT PARTY. Perhaps it was an ordinary contest, but certainly not an ordinary prize. I made a last-minute decision to use all of my theater ephemera to create a “backstage dream” of what Katherine Hepburn’s dressing table might look like, an homage to the great actress who never attended the Oscars as a nominee even though she won several times. I dressed up my friend Angela like Katherine Hepburn and took pictures of her legs in front of the display, and promised her that if I won she would go with.
On a blustery cold January day at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, the independent bookstore where I work, a representative from Knopf telephoned with the news that I had won the contest.
The feeling we have crashed the party escalates from the moment my friend and I are the only ladies to arrive via a cab and then enter the long walk on the red carpet. I slow down, let down the train of my dress—compliments of Chicago designers Dame Couture—wave high and slow and project, “Hello from Chicago!” as I enter. The light flashes blind me into invisibility amidst the chants of “Hilary! Halle! Jessica!” Most likely due to stress, a lack of water and excitement, I have acquired quite a large blemish on the left side of my nose. My desire to be perfect for the party is beginning to offend me.
Once inside, how I got to the Vanity Fair party doesn’t seem to matter amongst the glitz and glamour of Paris and Jessica, Beyonce and Janet. They all look more beautiful than I’d ever have imagined and for the most part I think they are as bored as I am. Helen Hunt sends out for a six-pack of In-N-Out cheeseburgers. Apparently the tiny hotdogs wrapped in crescent rolls at the party are not enough for their post-Oscar munchies. By 2:30am, Jessica Simpson is shoveling her face with burgers as well, and in the wee hours Hilary Swank, Oscar in tow, can be seen at a local diner munching on a cheeseburger. They may have removed ribs to get into their dresses, but they are starving for meat. On one of my “trips” around the party I overhear Suzanne Sommers talking to John Waters about “something sacred.” And I am suddenly standing in the center of Janet Jackson, Gwen Stefani and Beyonce. I want to tell Janet her “Control” album escorted me into womanhood, but I can’t interrupt her and Gwen, and suddenly I hear her say, “Excuse me.” And she slips past me, her white marabou-trimmed gown and cleavage just centimeters away from my purple crushed-velvet cleavage. “That famous left breast is so close to me,” I think, and then it is gone and her hand is in Donald Trump’s hand as he kisses it, saying, “You look lovely Janet, have you met my wife?”
Weeks later, I begin to see several pictures of Tom and Penelope (no Katie yet), by a very familiar fake tree, inside Morton’s Steakhouse on February 27, 2005. I realized that this photo was shot just seconds before my meeting with Tom by the back door, as he made his “Elvis is leaving the building” exit.
In that moment, I am taken aback by his casual and easygoing appeal, and so I tap his shoulder and promptly utter, “You are more beautiful than I would have thought.”
I explain, “I’m from Chicago, I won a contest, I don’t know what to say to anyone.”
“You just said it.” Tom says. “That was great! Just say that. Wow! You are a real person.” As Tom smiles from ear to ear and looks into my eyes, I can feel it. He is a “real person” too.
And then he departs, out the back door, on a motorcycle.