becoming frowsy

Callan Williams Copyright © 2000

Main Entry: frow·sy

Variant(s): or frow·zy /'frau-zE/

Function: adjective

Inflected Form(s): frow·si·er or frow·zi·er; -est

Etymology: origin unknown

Date: 1681

<a frowsy smell of stale beer and stale smoke -- W. S. Maugham>

2 : having a slovenly or uncared-for appearance
<a couple of frowsy stuffed chairs -- R. M. Williams>

I got dressed to go see Phoebe Legere over at The Van Dyck.  She was doing a Valentines performance, solo piano from 6-8, $8.  I wrote to her beforehand, and she suggested I wear a pink nighty with cut out heart-shaped nipples she had seen at Pat Field's.  Not my style.

My goal was to go clown, to be funny and bold for Valentines.  Neon Red Wig, something wild.  I went with that look, detailed makeup and all.

It didn't feel right.  I rummaged around in this huge closet I call an apartment and found what I would be comfortable in, assuming that my comfort was the basis for my performance.  I ended up with a simple black dress, a big heart on a chain, and long, wavy hair, dating from the 1970s sometime.

I looked in the mirror.  With the makeup, from dark lips to false eyelashes, I looked frowsy.  I was a tough older broad, still glamorous, but the bloom of innocence long gone.  No fresh faced child, but a still handsome face that had been around, a body that looked lived in, eyes that had seen it all.

I think there's a reason that great drag personas are often frowsy women. From Justin Bond's Kiki to Barry Humphries Dame Edna Everage, we don't show the firm young fertile females we never were, but the wise, tough and jaded women we are, women who had a bit of a rough ride and lived to tell about it.

Great women, the frowsy broads, walk the line between masculine and feminine.  They have learned how to take care of themselves, to not depend on others, but they still hold the romance and drama of being a woman in their hearts.  They sit at the end of the bar, a highball and pack of cigarettes in front of them, and from there they watch the world go by, always with a sharp eye and often with a sharp tongue.  They are realists, but the dream lingers -- at some point, he will walk in, see them, be smitten and take her away from all this.

It's this living between worlds which gives the frowsy women, more frau than fraulein, their own special brilliance.  They are not the mothers, they are the aunts, the ones just a little too smart and sparkling to easily set down, the ones who used a bottle to wear away the sharp edges of life, the sharp edges of who they are.  They know you can't stop believing in love, but that believing in love is what will hurt you too.  They know that men see what they want to see, no matter how much you long for them to see you. They know that men tend to be players & liars or to be earnest & honest, not a player & honest like a woman who loves drama but has grown up.

To become frowsy is to lose the newness, the sheen, the innocence.  "I have just one word of advice to you younger girls: stay younger," as Comden & Green wrote.

The problem with being frowsy is that you often find it hard to find innocence charming again.  You can look at innocence and see stupidity or look at innocence and see possibility, as Annie Savoy noted when she looked at Nuke LaLoosh.  Annie was a frowsy woman, a well traveled woman with her own life and her own style, but Annie hadn't become jaded, not yet learning to use stupidity to get what she needed after her own bloom had faded.

It was eight years ago that I came up with the idea for "Drama Queens in Recovery,"  a group for women who still had high levels of drama but were learning to let the ingenues stand in the spotlight, only coming out for one fabulous turn.  These are not crones, but women who have turned frowsy, frowsy and fabulous with age.  The package may be frayed around the edges, but the contents have matured and deepened, strong and bright.

This is my center.  Not the babe or the earnest woman, but that frowsy gal, tinged with glamour but well worn, mature, scary and beautiful when you see her for what she is.

I am, on some level, frowsy and fabulous.

A few months ago I was talking with a friend about politics.

"Today, the level of rhetoric is so slick, so polished, so media savvy, that it's hard for someone to just be a human.  The media knows how to push, so candidates have to be like glass, sealing away their humanity for the package.  This is not at all like before television, when candidates were just humans, and we had grace,"

I think they are right.  Media images have had all the frowsy removed. Hillary couldn't think of running for Senate before she had her eyes done, bags and wrinkles removed, so she would look good on camera.

In tight close up, without perfect lighting, immaculate makeup or digital makeovers that remove humanity, everybody looks a little frowsy.  We are a bit worn around the edges, far from perfect, wrinkled and scarred.  Our lip liner isn't perfect, our skin not flawless, our speech not honed to perfection.

The more I have locked myself away from people, the more I have dealt with media images, and the more I see media images, the more I see my own imperfections compared with their professional gloss.

I watch some of the performers from NYC play in postage stamp windows on my computer.  They are visibly, unshakably human, and they unsettle me.  It looks like amateur hour for most of them, and I lose interest quickly.  My expectations are set away from the human, the flawed, frayed and frowsy, and to the shiny, slick and surface.  LA culture has infected me as it has infected the nation, a beautiful package wrapped by a professional capturing my attention more than a piece of good craftsmanship wrapped in homespun.

My tolerance for the human is way down.  I don't want to see a local performer be good when I can see a TV performer be excellent.  In that tradeoff, though, I start to rank myself against the slick rather than the good, and my own frowziness becomes blindingly visible.

How could someone see me as good, worthy, attractive when I don't see myself that way?  How can I believe in the real when my expectations are set by the unreal?

I'm frowsy, as are all humans.  When my life is filled with humans who have had their own frowziness removed though cosmetic intervention, teams of professionals slicking the image, or are only on display for their own frowziness, like on Jerry Springer, I have trouble being OK with who I am.

My unnatural view of humanity, divorced from the real, the frowsy, leads me to see myself other than my own shortcomings, and I wonder how anyone can overlook my own frowziness to see the truth inside.  I know that, for example, audiences in yesteryear were moved by costumes that we would consider corny and shabby, but the expectations are so much higher today. Today, scars are not proud signs of distinction, they are signs of age, and should be repaired.

Maybe I should just go on the antiques roadshow.....

If it has "had its eyes done," it's lost something that showed character. The chipped cup, the faded genteel elegance, a bit distressed and shabby, may not be pristine, but it has character.

Our frowziness shows our losses. Classic Southern grace, where experience made up for winning, is where pride in the strength of character surviving the assault of the new and shiny, can be easily seen.    Frowsy comes from the wounds of learning, the scars of knowledge, and it involves pride in survival and honesty, not in how you look to others.

Frowsy people have seen to much to believe in dreams, but we still see the kernel of a dream in their hearts.

It's not just becoming frowsy, it's becoming frowsy and self aware that will kill you -- being frowsy in a world where frowziness is abhorred.  True frowsy people -- like Quentin Crisp -- learn to be blind to the frowsy and see the story.  Frowsy people live in their own world: they see the "real" behind the facade because they read the history, not just the surface.

"Frowsy can look beautiful, if you ask me. You've stopped trying to outpace or stop the march of time. "  The elderly, the geriatric own frowziness: they know who they are, don't care about appearance.  Frowsy is the manifestation of entropy, the force that pulls at us as we lose energy.

Come to grips with frowsy, take it in stride.  "I look at myself in the morning and say 'This will just have to do.'"

The tradition is clear.  You get older, you get a little bit frowsy.  A few wrinkles around the eyes, a bit less shine in the hair, a little roll in the body.  Your body looks well worn, lived in.

Today, our fight isn't against age, it's against becoming frowsy.  We want to look tight and slick and fresh in every moment, rather than a bit frayed around the edges.  We have fallen to an LA esthetic rather than a NYC city view, where nobody can stay fresh in every moment, or even a London view where the scuffs and wears of age are to be venerated, as in a fine antique.

When I think of the great frowsy broads of the past -- Eileen Brennan comes to mind -- I can't help but believe we have lost something.  There is something charming and powerful about these wizened eyes, that crinkled grin that tells us they have been there, seen it all, and have a deep knowledge. There are women today who by all rights should be the frowsy broads of our generation -- women like Cher -- who invest it all in staying tight rather than showing their rich history on their face and body.

Can we learn to be frowsy and proud?  Do we all have to go all out to look puffed up and fresh, like a young fertile female?  Did Hillary have to have her eyes done to run for NYS Senator?  Would that great frowzy broad Bella Abzug have had her eyes done?  How do we learn to embrace the frowsy when media images don't show us women aging?

I don't think many men can be called frowsy.  To me, frowsy is a special kind of faded glamour, far removed from being frumpy or dowdy -- glamour with some surface wear, some mature age, some rich patina, some signs of a full life.  Frowsy women are not plain, ugly or slovenly -- they are stylish, graceful with an important history.

For me, I find that I am often ashamed of my own frowziness.  I look in the mirror and see the history of a life and want to erase it -- to look young, fresh and flawless.  But I also know that the costs of erasing my own history are high, in physical intervention and in the loss of my own mature power, accumulated over time and with a cost.

Is a touch of frowsy OK?  What does it say to you -- a woman who has stopped taking care of herself and should try to look new and fresh, or a woman who is at peace with herself, her life and her style?