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I am a freelance journalist who was based in Los Angeles for eight years writing about the entertainment industry for the likes of Vanity Fair, Variety, Vulture and other publications of that ilk (not all beginning with V). Two years ago, I put my belongings in storage and began the life of a digital nomad, writing personal essays, travel pieces, cultural and human interest stories and adventurous tales for BBC Travel, Departures and more. Now, I've added "student" to my CV again and I'm in London completing my Masters in Creative Nonfiction.

Riding the Highs and Lows with My Mom

Illustration by Homestead Studio

Valentina Valentini | Longreads | August 2019 | 16 minutes (4,092 words)

I hadn’t wanted to go up there in the first place. Topanga Canyon only seems fun when you’re with hip Angelenos who say, “Let’s do something different this weekend,” like they invented being different. But my mom was in town — as she often is, despite living across the country in Massachusetts — and, in her words, needed to get out. She was staying at my sister’s in Marina Del Rey and was on a rigid schedule of driving the kids around to their multiple extracurricular activities, after which she might sit and draw dragons for an hour with my niece, or build rocket ships with my nephew, seemingly blissfully, and then text me complaining about how she never gets to do anything for herself when she visits, and begging me to accompany her on an outing. Or sometimes she’d hit a threshold and borrow my brother-in-law’s car to go out on her own, dancing until the wee hours of marine layer cloud-covered mornings in downtown Santa Monica.

She was 72 and I was 30, but I often felt as if I were her parent.

In Topanga, acoustic guitar and whining voices were surely in store. It would be the kind of friends my mother had when I was growing up, the ones who made their own hummus at spring equinox gatherings or encouraged her to bring her young kids to a sweat lodge to purge demons. The friends she should have had when she was in her early 20s, but instead was too busy (too young) raising her first three daughters with her alcoholic former high school beau in a suburb of Boston.

Every year on my birthday, my mom likes to recount my traumatic underwater birth: I came out of the womb into a Plexi glass bathtub, with the umbilical cord wrapped twice around my neck and knotted once; I had to be resuscitated, all while being filmed for an NBC evening special. Even moving cross-country didn’t stop her — she became prolific at texting and emoji-emoting on my special day. On my Facebook wall she’d splash phrases like, I remember moments before you crowned, when we were still one. (Heart emoji. Baby emoji. Kissy face with heart emoji.) Except that we were two. We were always two — me separate from her. But so often our roles would be reversed, and I wasn’t sure who was supposed to take care of whom.
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A Clarifying Dose of Reality (TV)

fox broadcasting

Valentina Valentini | Longreads | April 2018 | 9 minutes (2,320 words)

 

After 16 hours, 5 hot dogs, 2 nacho bowls, 3 sodas, and 20,000 people, I felt more like an idiot than an idol.

***

Walking down the steps to Qualcomm Stadium’s field level, I wondered how I’d gotten there. Four days prior I was tuned into my go-to San Diego radio show, “AJ’s Playhouse” on 99.3 FM, when they plugged upcoming American Idol auditions. I cursed aloud to no one, because two years earlier — as an even younger and more attention-hungry woman — I’d promised myself that if they ever came to the city I was living in I would audition.

Ten years later, as a supposedly mature 34-year-old, seeking 15 minutes of fame is very low on my list of priorities, far below items like “find a great yoga studio” and “figure out which hair dye covers grays best.”

But back in 2008, there I was on that Saturday morning. I arrived at 9 on the dot to stand in line, eager. It took two hours — just to register.

***

I met sleek Barry and cherubic Rory while waiting in that godforsaken first line. (If only I had known what was to come.) They were a couple from Hillcrest, the epicenter of San Diego’s LGBTQ scene, hopping with gay bars and the city’s annual Pride Parade. Barry was auditioning, and Rory was there for support. I’d come alone, so my two new besties were a welcome addition to a morning crowded with narcissists. (Not including us, of course.)

Lacking for distractions in line — these were the days before cell-phones-as-mobile-entertainment-centers — we formulated theories about how it was all going to go down. Would we meet Paula and Randy? Would Simon deign to set foot in a stadium if he weren’t the halftime entertainment? Would it be filmed? Who were the crazies going to be? You know, the ones whose auditions are so ridiculous that they get aired for that reason alone.

We were excited — in retrospect, naïve is more like it — and never imagined the cattle call that was to unfold over the next 24 hours. The mastery of producing a show like this is to never let them see the wizard. But we were the wizards — all 20,000 of us, hundreds of thousands if you add up the people for all the other cities — and in my case, the wizard was a beaten-down twentysomething, mascara mixing with sweat, hopes of stardom ripped out of her sticky-with-junk-food hands.

Two years earlier — as an even younger and more attention-hungry woman — I’d promised myself that if American Idol ever came to the city I was living in I would audition.

After (finally) successfully registering, we decided to meet at Barry’s house at 3:30 a.m. — yes, a.m. — the next day to head to the stadium. I was glad to have joined up as Three Amigos and thankful that Barry and Rory were so welcoming to a near stranger. The rules explicitly said no camping, so we were confident there wouldn’t be too big of a crowd by 4 in the morning.

There were 5,000 people.

Someone with a loud bullhorn told us we’d be shuffled in by 8 a.m. They didn’t use the term shuffle, but I assure you, we were shuffled. And it wasn’t until 9 that the line — a disorganized mass, 20 bodies wide, each only centimeters from the next — began to trundle forward. Some cheered as the prospect of getting into the stadium became a possibility. The sound of those whoops coincided with the moment when excitement began to bleed out and embarrassment began to creep in.

Forty-five minutes and 50 feet later, we were at the front of the line. They were letting groups of about 100 through the side gate to the outer ring of the stadium, making us duck under a rope. Oh the horror of it. It felt like the start of the Boston Marathon, except these competitors were caked in makeup, some balanced on heels, some carrying pillows and curling irons and banjos; some with big hair and some with greasy faces. One person had even brought their own music stand. And as the cameras closed in on the overtly gregarious ones — answering our question from earlier as to whether or not this would be filmed — I wanted to be peppy like them and give a gorgeous smile for the camera. But the sinking feeling that I was a cow being prodded along just made me want to give the finger instead.

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