Why you should care
Because sometimes you can’t help comparing yourself to others.
Caroline Paul is The New York Times best-selling author of Gutsy Girl, published last month. This essay is adapted from her Shebook entitled Almost Her: The Strange Dilemma of Being Nearly Famous.
We shared 100 percent of our genes, but we grew up to have very different lives. By our late 20s, Alexandra was an established actress in Los Angeles, and I was a San Francisco firefighter. Our lives and work affected our looks; we weren’t exact replicas. Alexandra was 10 pounds lighter. My shoulders were broader. Her smile was wider. But two things connived, so that our unintended charade continued. We looked enough alike. Delighted Baywatch fans sidled up to me even when I was in full fire gear. Homeless men pointed, patients with chest pain peered, kids at a school fire drill broke rank screaming when they spotted me (a terrifying sight even for someone holding an ax). The possibility of an identical twin never crossed anyone’s mind. It was easier to believe that the Baywatch star had decided to swaddle herself in a turnout coat and helmet, grab that ax and jump on a fire engine for the day. Was it because people watched so much television? Celebrities were already omnipresent in their lives, and it was just a small leap from the screen to the sidewalk in front of them.
This porous relationship between reality and entertainment was never more apparent than at a second-alarm fire I fought during those years. The street was packed with gawkers when my crew and I arrived. More emerged from shops and nearby apartments, drawn to the smoke pouring from the windows, the screaming tenants, the sirens. One such rubbernecker accosted my officer as he headed to the building. “Is this a real fire?” the man asked. “Or is this a movie?”
My officer whirled around. Was the civilian drunk? Or was he just stupid?
“Of course it’s a real fire,” he barked.
The man retorted, “Then why did the Baywatch girl just run in there?”
When we were 20, Alexandra landed her first big role, as the female lead in the movie Christine. For some reason (call it reckless youth), she decided it would be a great idea to bamboozle the film’s director, John Carpenter. A twin switch. On the set.
I had lost track of which face was mine and which was my twin’s. “Whoa,” I said, gripping the chair.
And so: An assistant spirited me into the makeup trailer. Alexandra was already there. We were dressed in identical corduroys and turtlenecks and then handed to the makeup artists. They rouged and lipsticked and mascaraed. They curled our hair. They lined our eyes. Late in the transformation, I glanced to one side of the mirror, then the other, and felt a sudden vertigo. I had lost track of which face was mine and which was my twin’s. “Whoa,” I said, gripping the chair. I turned to stare at the real Alexandra, orienting. She was there, I was here. OK.
Alexandra’s co-star, the only other person apprised of the charade, arrived at the trailer to lead me to the set. I had imagined a long, silent walk where I would look around imperiously, pouting, tossing my hair, sighing. Weren’t actors supposed to be divas, speaking only to those at a certain imagined tier, shunning all others, unless it was to call for more bonbons and Champagne? This was my acting debut and I was going to kill it, I thought to myself. I lifted my chin, threw my shoulders back and pretended to know where the hell I was headed.
“Hi, Alexandra!” people called from behind lights, and on scaffolds, and by snack tables. Gaffers, grips, assistants, caterers. Some approached and asked me how I was; others smiled, eyes shining, with the delight of someone who has just spotted a kitten. I was bowled over. I knew Alexandra was nice enough, but had not expected this, this outpouring. In my very bones, it struck me: My twin was an exceptional person. Not because she was in the movies. But because of something much deeper. She was kind, generous, good. She was exceptional in her soul, and people loved her for it.
And now I was expected to be her. I could put the makeup on, but more than that, I wasn’t sure. She was radiant, adored, and I was just, well, an impostor. “Hi,” I replied to each greeting, faintly. My Method acting evaporated. I struggled to realign myself. In that moment, I thought: Is it possible to live up to my twin?
There was no more time to ponder this existential crisis, because we were suddenly face-to-face with John Carpenter. I greeted him with all the cheer I imagined my twin would.
“Do you have a cold?” he asked abruptly. My voice sounded different.
I assured him I felt fine, and he murmured, OK, good, and then I clambered onto a bulldozer. The shot was simple: “Just push the clutch,” the cinematographer told me. I nodded, and waited for Alexandra to appear so no film would be wasted and no union laws broken. But now Carpenter was calling for the cameras to roll. Alexandra, Alexandra, I chanted in my head, to no avail. And … Action! Carpenter yelled. What choice did I have? I pushed the clutch. “Cut,” he shouted, and motioned for me to descend from the bulldozer.
Just then Alexandra appeared at his shoulder. “Did you fire me already?” she asked. He turned to look at her. He paled. He jerked his head around to look at me. “What the …” he cried, before the whole room exploded in laughter and applause, suddenly understanding.
I staggered and waddled out, then belly flopped into deep water.
Months later, I was working an overtime shift at a firehouse near the beach. Just as we sat down to dinner, the call boomed over the loudspeakers: person drowning.
I felt a strange connection to my twin, even as I struggled into a heavy black wet suit, not the famous red Baywatch garb. This feeling didn’t dissipate, even when the beach truck moored itself in the sand and refused to move, something too stupid to happen on TV.
Giving up on the truck, I ran down the beach. By now I realized: There would be no music, and the only dramatic slow-motion effects came from the deep sand. When I veered into the water to reach the victim, now being towed in by surfers, I put my fins on, not noticing that the water was shallow for another 15 yards. I staggered and waddled out, then belly flopped into deep water.
By the time I reached the victim and the surfers, this rescue qualified as the most inelegant ever. If it had been filmed, it would have demanded a second take. Oh, and as I waddled back to the fire engine, secretly proud I had reached the victim before anyone else on the crew, an old-timer looked at me, shook his head and said, “You have the wet suit on backward.”
I don’t care what anyone says. Sometimes TV is better than reality.