In My Own Voice, Redefining Success and Failure

Lauren DePino looks back at her ambitions as a singer, and re-evaluates the rejections she once allowed to define her.

Lauren DePino | Longreads | January 2019 | 21 minutes (5,245 words)

Upon eighth-grade graduation from my small elementary school in suburban Pennsylvania, each of my classmates and I walked away with a personalized memory book, hand-bound and laminated by some of our mothers. The theme, Planet Hollywood, in bubbly red type, sweeps across the cover like a comet, over the image of a metallic blue earth. Out of the iridescent globe jets a star-shaped photo of the respective member of the class of 1996.

To imagine that the best parts of our lives were yet to come felt like waiting for immortality to begin. There was an actualized version of us out there somewhere, living the life we hoped for. We just had to find the threshold. Our moment was there, laid out for us in plain sight — like a new outfit, just waiting, waiting for us to wake up and put it on.

My defining moment, your defining moment, it could be anything. It could be meeting a partner, becoming a mother, becoming a writer. You choose your blanks and you fill yourself in. You choose your questions and your answers. You pick your image.

In my eighth-grade photo, I’m encapsulated by a cerulean star. My smile is tentative behind braces and my chin protrudes ungracefully. I had blown out my bangs that morning, but by the time the photo was taken, they had given in to their natural curl. I was hesitant but hopeful.

The inside pages of our memory books display answers to questionnaires we’d filled out about what we wished to remember and who we wanted to become. On page 12, a thought bubble reads: “In the year 2006, I will be…”

When it came to envisioning the future, nothing felt out of reach. I now realize possessing this kind of incipient possibility is characteristic of privilege — of growing up in an upper-middle-class suburb where our biggest worry was not whether we could land a happy future, but which of many futures we would choose. It was also the height of the self-esteem movement, whereby parents and teachers told children that if they worked hard enough, they could be anything they wanted.

In my class, there were future everythings.

There was a major-league baseball player, a lawyer, a NASA scientist. A geneticist, a famous actress, a teacher. There was an obstetrician, a lottery winner, at least four mothers — but no dads, not yet. Someone foresaw “living at home and driving my parents nuts.” Another waxed: “I don’t think about the future, I just let it arrive.” There were a couple of question marks.

There was a paleontologist, an entrepreneur, an eye doctor. A big-time fashion designer. I wonder how many of us became who we said we would. I wonder how many of us still covet the adult life we had imagined for ourselves at 13 years old. I wonder how many of us can peacefully reconcile who we thought we’d be with who we are.

Mine was this:

Hopefully,
I will be a singer.

It looked just like that: a pyramid of letters, whose hope literally rested on the statement below it. It struck me that the mothers who edited the book chose to have “hopefully” hold its own line. Surrounded by gaping space, the word looked lonely and expectant. Hope is not certain. It engenders hesitation. It suggests anticipation without outcome. Why did I need to choose that word? When my middle sister Shayna saw it, she told me I jinxed my future. I don’t believe she’s right. But then again, all of my future hasn’t happened.

***

I was an energetic, black-haired 2-year-old, wobbling in the back seat of my family’s station wagon, singing along with Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers to “Islands in the Stream.” My tone matched Dolly’s. My vibrato sounded feathery without my having to try. I sang with a little lisp, which I still can’t seem to shake.

I wanted to be a singer…A singer must trust her voice, even when other people tell her it’s not good enough. Eventually it resonates somewhere.

“Andy,” my mother said to my father, “Lauren’s voice is amazing. She’s going to be a star.”

I swear, I remember that car ride. This is not one of those cases when my mother’s constant retelling of the same story inscribed it on the timeline of my life and morphed it into a memory. This is not that. This is a moment I remember living, and deciding that I’d prove my mother right.

***

The word “becoming” has two meanings. As an adjective, it means: suitable, fitting; especially: attractively suitable. As a gerund, it means coming into existence.

The first meaning describes appearance; the second implies reality.

The first indicates a properness, a modesty, a pleasingness.

The second intends life.

The first time I remember my grandmother telling me I looked becoming, I was 11 years old. At TJ Maxx, my mother and I had just found the dress I envisioned I’d wear in the school talent show. I immediately wanted to show Gran. I also knew that if I visited Gran’s house, she’d cook something for me. It was how she showed her love. We called her and she said to come right over.

We arrived to find Gran slicing potatoes. Soon I heard one of my favorite sounds and smelled one of my favorite smells: French fries sizzling in the fryer and rosemary chicken roasting in the oven. I couldn’t wait to eat. I quickly took my dress to my aunt’s childhood bedroom and slipped it over my head. In the mirror, I saw a mini-flapper, clad in red. I draped a matching boa on my shoulders. I had wanted to resemble Mayim Bialik, the actress who played a young C.C. Bloom in the movie Beaches, and had succeeded. Over the course of the film, this unpolished yet resolute performer would grow into a graceful famous singer, played by Bette Midler.

Young C.C. and I were alike. We were gangly and awkward and perceived as quirky and odd. We both anticipated some pivotal moment — some auspicious quintessence — that would change us into who we wanted to become. We both had curly hair, except mine was dark and hers was red.

What fascinated me most about C.C. Bloom was that the saving grace of her life was her singing voice. I saw how it transformed her, even when the people watching didn’t approve. It was her portal to her bravest self.

My voice was my threshold too. I was not in the popular crowd and my crushes didn’t like me back, but I had found a means to feel good about myself that was not contingent on anyone else. The only thing I needed was already a part of me.

When Gran came to tell me that dinner was ready, she caught me, mid-song. I was belting “The Glory of Love,” the number the young actress in Beaches sings, and the song I’d perform in the talent show. Gran’s eyebrows lifted.

“That dress looks becoming on you, Lauren Marie,” she said.

In my mind, Gran’s proclamation of my “becoming” meant the red dress had woken me up. It had inducted me into my long-awaited transformation. Gran, my chance circumstances, and the powers that be had finally deemed me worthy of stepping into the person I wanted to occupy. Young C.C. Bloom was becoming Bette Midler. I was becoming My Someone Else. While all Gran had meant to say was that the dress looked good on me.

After dinner, we migrated to the living room, where photos of Gran’s children and grandchildren bedecked the end tables and walls. I had those photos memorized — their placement and their details. With my eyes closed, I could tell you where Uncle Joey’s image sat, and that his glasses were black. I could tell you that my aunt Theresa smiled in her sleeveless wedding dress against a backdrop of blurry trees.

What I couldn’t tell you about was their process of human change. It wasn’t evident in those pictures; it was not something I could find on Gran’s walls. In the one-dimensional images of my family at different points in their lives, there was only before and after. There was no pyramid of letters spelling out their hesitation and their dreams. There was no “hopefully” adrift on its own line.


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I looked at the familiar photo of my mother as a giant-eyed, round-faced infant, and I imagined her becoming. My mom started out small. But then she grew, she grew, she grew — and her skin and matter expanded until she became a teacher and a mother and so much more; she expanded even more. Expansion does not always mean physical growth. All those years and experiences made her matter, in ways material and abstract. But what makes her real as the mother I know? What substantiates us?

We consume food and knowledge and narratives that fill us in as bodies and fulfill us as minds and souls. See how we grow. See how we become people who exist to each other and ourselves. When did you first feel yourself coming into existence? When did you last feel alive?

***

I wanted to be a singer. And the kind of singer I wanted to be was not only someone who produces musical tones with her voice, but also someone who invokes musical feelings through her writing. A singer must trust her voice, even when other people tell her it’s not good enough. Eventually it resonates somewhere.

In the red flapper outfit, someone better than I imagined of myself had become me. She was bigger. She was more. This version of myself was not anxious or afraid once I let go of the body holding her and just let her become the voice. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t the best. What mattered was that I was the truest depiction of myself. When we immerse ourselves in our element, we use the expression, “lose ourselves.” What we lose is our ego, our limiting self. Our worry of measuring up to what others can do, to what others will think. To the untruthfulness of their judgements. We forget the reasons that keep us awake at night. What we lose is the dread that would hold us back if the hope had let dread win.

***

If the threshold doesn’t come on its own, we must build it. So I staked my identity with my voice. With the encouragement of mentors and teachers, I performed in musicals. I began to sing at weddings and funerals, but preferred the funerals, because bringing people comfort — no matter how small — felt more fulfilling. In high school, I began to write articles for my local county’s newspaper and felt that same crackle of electricity I did when I sang songs. I began writing my own songs. I trusted my voice. I made a deal with my parents and myself: Once I finished college, I could use any savings I had to make a demo of original songs in Los Angeles.

***

By the summer of 2006, I was two years out of college and had become part of a music duo called Almost Awake. When we weren’t playing funerals, we performed original songs — both mine and my partner’s — at cafes and bars. I picked up odd jobs. I babysat, I wrote as a freelancer, I made cold calls for my sister’s communications firm, which serves mission-based organizations. I tutored Spanish, I acted, I poured water and served bread at a fancy restaurant. I unsuccessfully balanced trays of wine and martini glasses and dropped them on customers. I didn’t last long.

I performed in promotional campaigns. I wore short shorts and gave out Axe body spray at baseball games. In a silky brown robe, I handed out Dove chocolate hearts in busy parts of the city. I stood in for celebrities in movies and in television shows. I ran through a field of prickly grass in a skirt as a body double with an industrial-size fan blowing wind in my face. I did whatever I could to afford my bills and set aside as much time as possible to prepare for my recording in Los Angeles.

I decided I’d ignore the rejection. It was too painful to take in. What rejection? There was no rejection. It was not becoming of me, in either sense of the word.

When I suspected I was ready, I invited 25 trusted people to my apartment and dubbed them my focus group. I told them I knew what I loved to do and I saw who I wanted to become — and I had to try for it with all that I had. I wanted to be a singer/songwriter and make a living doing only that. I wanted to write and record songs for the rest of my life and have that carry me. I didn’t need to be rich, I just wanted to afford my life. I told my focus group that I knew all this when I was child and that I still knew it then. I asked them for their constructive criticism. I wanted to do it right.

It felt like a wedding almost. Twenty-five people, my most trusted network, squeezed into my apartment and sat in folding chairs. Their elbows touched each other’s. My parents, my sisters, my friends, the parents of children I babysat. Their children, too. I stood in front, ready to marry my soulmate: my future as a singer. She and I were destined for each other.

I performed 20 of my songs and handed out packets of paper. I asked my audience to rate my songs on a scale from 1 to 10 by category: melody, lyrics, arrangement, radio-worthy, and overall impression. I encouraged their notes. They’d help me choose the five songs I’d record for my demo. These songs would get me a record deal — or not. I’d make a rough recording of them with Garage Band and send them to the producer I would work with in Los Angeles.

The results were unanimous: the first track would be Trance, a song I wrote about my desire to live my most passionate life. The chorus goes:

“Someday I’ll rise above the buildings in this city

And I’ll see what others sleeping cannot see.

I know I can pull myself out of this trance.

Soon I’ll thaw out of dreaming and dance.”

***

At 25, I spent two weeks in Los Angeles by myself. My parents gave me their Holiday Inn points. Most rental car companies charged steep underage fees, so I took the bus. And when I missed the bus, I splurged on a taxi. I ate at El Pollo Loco almost every day.

I am surprised to report that the phrase, What happens if I fail?, was not a recurrent thought. I forgot about the word “hopefully,” too, and the hex my sister claimed I had placed on myself. For a moment, there was no pyramid of letters bearing down. There was no lonely hope or gaping space. Anticipation and outcome had become one. I will be a singer. I will be a singer.

Now I want that assuredness back. Yes, I was young and naïve, but I had taken what makes me come alive and I had braved a giant viable step toward making it my life. I was waking up to myself.

Each day I recorded for 6-hour increments.

I could feel myself becoming. My skin, my invisible skin, which I imagined as opalesque and bright, washed over me like a dress that cast a spell. This was the outfit I had laid out on my bed, but couldn’t put on — until I was worthy of it, until the summer of my 25th year.

In the studio, when I tried too hard, my pitch veered flat or sharp. But I relaxed and found my way back; I let go of the body holding me and let myself become the voice. The producer pushed me to reach for notes and to hold them, which reached me out and held me in a place so close to who I wanted to become, so close, I could see my moment glimmering.

In the next few weeks, I’d listen to the recordings with added lush layers — with live violin; electric and acoustic guitars; and my voice, both background and featured, filling itself out. I opened a new credit card to subsidize one more trip to California to work with a choreographer and ready myself for potential meetings with record companies.

***

It didn’t take long for me to learn that the real story of life is that it is filled with rejection. You can know with certitude what you want to become and how you want to become it and have it all fall away. Whatever it is in you that you know you can’t let go of, whatever it is, you might have to let it go. But be aware — because it might just come around again. Its form may not appear how you first thought it would. It may knock in disguise. But if you open your eyes just right, if you open your eyes — it can become you. You can still become who you want yourself to be.

I ordered 1,000 CDs and mailed hundreds of them to entertainment managers and record companies. The general consensus was that my music wasn’t commercial enough. I was trying to make it in the wrong era. The ‘70s were over. Record deals were essentially obsolete in 2006, and executives weren’t willing to take a chance on melody-and-harmony driven music in the tradition of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. Especially from a no-name like me. My music was too quirky and it sounded too much like musical theater. But then a record producer from Belgium wrote me and said my music was perfectly suited for his label. I’d just have to give up the worldwide rights to my songs. My Los Angeles recording producer told me not to do that, to hold out for something better. But something better did not come.

I decided I’d ignore the rejection. It was too painful to take in. What rejection? There was no rejection. It was not becoming of me, in either sense of the word. It did not fit my vision of life, nor would I let it assume my reality. I had to extricate myself from it. I had to keep trying, keep going. Or I’d become nothing.

***

As it turns out, I am forever linked to that dreaded word. If you google my name and “rejected,” you’ll find an article from the summer of 2006 that features one of my many audition experiences with American Idol. It was the year that Carrie Underwood reigned, and it was just two months after I’d returned from Los Angeles.

The reporter wrote: “Lauren DePino of Philadelphia was a vision in green and white tights offset by green pointy shoes.” For my audition at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in northern New Jersey, I dressed as a Christmas elf and sang O Holy Night to attract the producers’ attention. In a sea of thousands of auditionees, I felt I needed to do more than just sing. That just me just wasn’t enough. I had tried making it as myself and it didn’t work out.

Also, I had tried this costume tactic before — and it did bring me some success.

Just a weekend prior, I had convinced my high school friend Natalie to fly with me to the Orlando, Florida auditions. I called her the day after I returned from Idol’s Washington DC auditions, where I had stood in line for 40 hours to sing for only ten seconds before a judge held up her hand and told me, “You’re not what we’re looking for.”

Natalie and I were both willing to milk what little savings we had — or, in my case, acquire more credit card debt — to spend an impromptu day in Magic Kingdom, and to also see if this fortuitous adventure would magically boost me to superstardom.

Natalie believed in me. She also shared my wistfulness and penchant for romantic whimsy. And while I vacillated between confident and insecure about my own singing ability, I never stopped feeling determined. My dream to build a living as a singer/songwriter had become a fundamental part of me by then, as elemental as my blood, my cells, my voice.

My gimmick involved wearing an authentic Ariel mermaid costume with a red wig and sparkle fins. I sang a parody of The Little Mermaid’s theme song, “Part of Your World,” which described my adventure through American Idol. Natalie blew iridescent bubbles behind me. When the producers handed me that coveted piece of paper that meant I was propelled to the next round, I jumped and screamed, just as you see the lucky few do on television. It wasn’t easy to leap in mermaid fins. Out of 40,000 auditionees, I had made the top 200.

For the next stage, when I auditioned in front of the creators of the show, I wore a jean skirt and a beaded tank top. Since we were advised to not sing original songs, I performed Karen Carpenter’s “Yesterday Once More.” I was told to be myself, not a mermaid, due to copyright issues. This was the stage that could carry me to California.

The verdict? “Stick with weddings and funerals. You can sing a lion to sleep, but you’re too original for us. Not enough of a Kelly Clarkson. More like a Sarah McLachlan. Not enough diva potential.”

Me, as I was, wasn’t enough. Again. I knew I’d have one more shot to audition in New Jersey, but I was getting tired. Tired of auditioning for reality shows that promised overnight pop success and tired of trying out for acting roles in movies and in shows — only to be told no. In my long list of reality shows I auditioned for, which positioned performers on the fast track to fame, I tried out for Grease: You’re the One That I Want, an NBC series whose mission was to audition and cast actors competing for the parts of Sandy and Danny — the leading roles — in the 2007 Broadway revival. I made it to the stage where I sang in front of one of the composers of the musical. He told me my voice wasn’t big enough and that I was too ethnic looking for Sandy.

In my eighth-grade memory book, the word “hopefully” monopolized an entire line. I imagined it crushing the very phrase that held it up: I will be a singer.

Hope is not certain. But neither is it quick to die.

***

You can find evidence of me reaching for my moment if you look for it. In my inbox, on the internet, in expressions I wear on my face. If you watch the film Silver Linings Playbook, and pay attention to the diner scene where Jennifer Lawrence storms out, and you really look, you can see me playing a waitress dressed for Halloween. You can spot my green fins and my purple mermaid hair — which is not red, like Ariel’s, because I had to dispose of the original wig. On the way back from Idol auditions, the bubble solution spilled in my suitcase and I couldn’t get rid of the stickiness.

You can see me reaching in the form of my actual hands in a few movies, such as Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. I was not cast in speaking roles, as I had wished, but I stood in, body doubled, and read lines for lead actresses when they were getting ready in wardrobe. Rachel Weisz and Zooey Deschanel show their faces. But their hands, my tools of action, are mine. The scenes for which I hand-doubled deal with receiving or transmitting an important message, by phone or with a newspaper. My hands do the talking. They are a pathway to my voice.

***

I began to understand that the more I put myself in rejection’s way, the more I put myself at risk to fail. But it was hope that got me there in the first place — not the uncertain underbelly, but its optimistic opposite. That nine-letter word “hopefully,” that never quite made sense to me, that appeared at first tentative and fearful, is really life-giving and solid, even more than in real life. Life is real, but hope is madness. Hope becomes me, you, in every sense of the word. The comma I chose to come after it indicates pause, a first breath. An inhalation of: What if I become who I want to become? What if I can see my moment glimmering? The word stands, the word sings. The word beacons on, even when I’ve forgotten what hope feels like.

There were so many things I hoped to become when I was younger. So many things. It was a painful coming down when I learned that I could not become all of them.

And as it turns out, I can still have hope, and recognize the difference between accolades and achievement, between ambition and doing what I love for its own sake.

It struck me that the mothers who edited my 8th grade memory book chose “hopefully” to hold its own line.

This line, I’ve learned, is standalone because it’s never ending. It keeps leading me back to itself, even when I get lost. Even when I think I’ve lost my grip on it. I keep going back because I can’t escape its circle. I chose it. In return, it keeps choosing me.

My proclivity to hope has granted me the privilege of building a life as a freelance writer. My clients have ranged from advocacy organizations to universities to whomever will hire me. I can’t believe I’m typing this, but I’ve written pieces for the love of writing them — and have seen them published in dream venues such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. I keep my Screen Actors Guild membership up to date and say yes when someone asks me to sing at an event. I make enough money to cover my needs, and for me, for now, that’s enough. I don’t own a house or a car or have much in the way of savings. But I have my creative work. This is my choice. And as a result, I know my voice.

A lot of people from my past look at my life and think I’ve got it all together. They ask for advice on ways to make their lives more creative. They want to write more, to sing more, to do one thing inventive and artistic consistently. To keep them afloat above life’s trance. They don’t know how to fit it in, and I tell them to start, just start. Maybe set aside two hours a week.

My moment, your moment, it can be anything. There is no better or bigger or more important wish. You choose your blanks and you fill yourself in. You choose your questions, your answers. You pick your image.

I see myself, at 36, sitting at a desk writing or at a piano singing. I see myself with the people I love. What I want, where my moments glimmer most, is when I give myself time to do these things.

I dream that my manuscripts will sell and resonate with readers and I hope people will hear my songs and want to sing along with them. Or they’ll want to just listen and feel comforted on a sad day. None of this is promised, but it’s something I hope for.

And as it turns out, I can still have hope, and recognize the difference between accolades and achievement, between ambition and doing what I love for its own sake. The definition of ambition contains the word “fame.” I chased fame when I was younger because I thought it was the only way to make what I love into my life. I thought it was the only way to feel loved. But I was wrong. The definition of ambition also has the word “object” in it, in a Kantian categorical sense. What we seek to become is a means to an end. Our focus lies on the stringent goal, not the curves and winds that happen in the trying. Or even in the success that thrives in moments of unexpected joy such as making someone you love smile. These are the moments I’m talking about. These are the moments where I’m someone better than I imagined myself to be. These are the moments I didn’t write down in my 8th grade memory book. But if I knew what I know now, I would have.

***

Who are the future yous you saw? Who are they? Can you still see them? Or are they different now?

Mine were:

Singer, writer, someone in love, someone who loves.

I am them, not as I first thought. But I am them authentically.

At the end of the article about my American Idol auditions, the reporter writes:

“To DePino, a singer, one day’s failure didn’t matter. Undaunted, she would gladly try again.”

Even though I failed, the reporter saw me as a singer. Even though I failed.

***

When I was as young as 8 years old, and my parents and I found ourselves in the presence of live music, they’d encourage me to ask the band to let me sing a song. And if we heard music in the distance, they’d lead me to it. This happened in restaurants, on the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore, at weddings, and in hotel lobbies. It happened in city parks and on street corners. I thought it was a normal thing to do. So I walked up by myself and asked the band if they knew “Unforgettable,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Unchained Melody,” or whatever old standard I felt like singing. They usually obliged. When I sang, the band members smiled at me and the singer (or I) sometimes harmonized. I was not anxious or afraid once I let myself become my voice. I transformed into my own saving grace — the bravest depiction of myself, unfazed by what other people might think of me.

In my teen years, I started to ask on my own, even when I wasn’t with my parents. Musicians were gracious and welcoming and happy to collaborate.

In my mid-20s, though, I worried that my request might come off as self-important. So I stopped.

But on a recent trip, when my fiancé Alan and I had an hour to waste at Chicago O’ Hare Airport, I saw a pop-up band playing holiday music. Without saying a word to Alan, without even thinking, I walked up to them and asked if I could sing. We launched into “Silent Night” and for a moment, I forgot I wasn’t part of the group. I forgot who I was, where I was. A calm became me. I made eye contact with the travelers and felt that familiar electricity surge through me. There is no single moment, peak, or event that makes us worthy of our own approval. Instead, there are many glimmering chances, an infinite number, if we will reach for them.

I’m still working on making my 8th grade dreams come true. I’m still writing songs and sending them out. I am still writing stories that my voice needs to tell, that my hands need to type.

I still reach for notes and I hold them. I still reach myself out and hold myself in place — so close to who I want become, so close, I can see my moments glimmering, each time, a little brighter than before.

* * *

Lauren DePino is a freelance writer and memoirist. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York magazine, InStyle and other publications.

Editor: Sari Botton