When I was a very little girl, I spent a lot of time looking at my mom’s bookshelves. Most of the books were too mature and advanced for me – I learned to read very young, but I wasn’t some child prodigy. I just read voraciously from the first day I could sound out a sentence, so I was always hungry for more books, more words, more trips into other worlds.
Down in our basement was a heavy black coffee table book called “A World of Movies.” It was published in 1985, two years before I made my debut. I looked through it quickly, curious, and was instantly captivated by the beautiful pictures inside. So I lugged it upstairs, and in my bedroom it stayed. I would lay on the floor turning the pages, going from Jean Harlow to Marilyn to Brando to Scarlett and Rhett. I knew their faces before I knew any of their work. It was years before I watched a classic Hollywood film that wasn’t “Wizard of Oz,” which is still my favorite movie even at 26. I thought Claudette Colbert in her slinky costumes for “Sign of the Cross” was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
I grew up in a small town, a little slice of the Midwest. I always knew I didn’t really fit in in my tiny farming community with its accompanying school. I didn’t have any interest in sports, and I spent my days bored out of my mind in classrooms while my classmates learned to read and write. It wasn’t that I was smarter than them; I was dreamier, restless, bored. I knew, even as a little girl, that I was destined to do more than live in a town of 360 people. That was not gonna be my happily ever after. I wanted the life I saw in my Hollywood book.
Growing up in a small town is great. It’s safe, because you know everyone and they all know you. It’s nice to be a kid in a tiny town. But it’s also incredibly limiting when you’re a girl like I was. I had no room to stretch. I didn’t have the space to raise my voice and say what I was thinking for fear of someone spreading rumors, talking about me, gossip spreads like wildfire in a small town. I’d look around at my peers when we were in high school and I would think, “Wouldn’t my life be different if I had grown up somewhere else? Who could I have been in a different place?” In my teens, all I wanted was to escape.
And so I escaped through Hollywood. I immersed myself in books about the period; in one summer, I devoured countless biographies of Harlow, Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Bogart and Bacall. Marilyn was my favorite, but I wasn’t picky. I read about Gable and Lombard, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh. I kept the local libraries buzzing with my requests. I ordered books and DVDs, because I didn’t have TCM. I loved the way the starlets talked, rapid-fire. Their voices were so elegant and of another time. I wasn’t hearing anything like that in rural North Dakota. They were strong, beautiful, living dramatic, stylish lives. In my little town at the age of 16, I was stifling.
Old Hollywood was my much-needed dosage of the glamour I so craved. I had always loved dressing up and wearing makeup and pretending to be someone else. With a little lipstick and some thrift store dresses, I could pretend I belonged at MGM in the ‘30s, too. I pasted their photos all over my room and my school supplies. Glamour like that I saw onscreen was my ticket out. I knew that I could cultivate myself into someone just a little more glamourous, taking cues from these beautiful women, and make a different life for myself somewhere else.
And that’s what I did. I moved to the city when I graduated and the Kara I presented there was far more composed and confident than I ever thought I could be. I always had my Hollywood icons nearby when I needed a boost; they were right there on my computer screen and on my nightstand. I still inject that Old Hollywood glamour into my daily life; it’s not just my platinum blonde hair and my pointy, long red nails. It’s the little things, from the bias-cut drape of my favorite silver dress that I bought last year while Jean Harlow dreaming. It’s the way I approach men. It’s the beautiful things I collect to decorate my life with. Old Hollywood and its stars shaped me from the minute I cracked open the spine of that book.