Jewel Discovers Beauty From Within
In this fifth in her series of exclusive blogs for The Boot, Jewel goes back in time to a painful place … She was struggling to make a living off her music and dodging critics about her weight. Read below, in the celebrated singer/songwriter’s own words.
So there I was, Somewhere USA, in a bathroom stall of a dressing room in a crappy bar, kneeling over the toilet and crying. Was I sick? No. Well sort of – but not sick to my stomach. Well, I had a stomachache, don’t get me wrong, but it was purely self-induced. It wasn’t the flu – it was cake. A whole cake. Has this ever happened to anyone else? Has anyone ever eaten an entire birthday cake by yourself? No? Just me?
Let me start by giving you a little background. I was 20 or so and I was tired. I had recently been “discovered” two years earlier. You all probably know the story – I was homeless for a year when I was 18 because I had a boss who asked me to sleep with him one day. When I turned him down, he didn’t give me my paycheck, and when I couldn’t pay rent, I was kicked out of where I was living. My solution? Live in my car until I got a new job, and I could save enough money for a deposit on a new apartment. Well, it didn’t quite work out like that. I had sick kidneys, and kept missing work at new jobs because I was sick, and so I kept getting fired. Then the car I was living in got stolen … which sucked.
In fact, I became dangerously ill in the parking lot of an emergency room that turned me away due to my lack of insurance. But great things can happen, and there are good people in the world, and a kind doctor came out of the emergency room to my car (where I was throwing up) and gave me his card and some antibiotics for my kidneys. He was a very nice, Christian man, and he treated me for many years for free, until I got on my feet. (Thank you, Dr. Bodenstab.)
It was hard times and I needed cash, so I went back to doing the only thing I really knew how to do – sing. I picked a coffee shop that would let me keep the door money if I ever got people to actually walk through it.
Me at The Inner Change Cafe, where I sang while I was homeless. Yes, those are plaid pants. My best attempt at wardrobe irony.
San Diego was the best town for a homeless singer-songwriter because: a) it was really warm and a pleasant place to be homeless, and b) there was a great scene of local singer-songwriters that were all really supportive of each other like Steve Poltz, Gregory Page and many others.
Soon I built a loyal following and a bootleg ended up on the radio, and the next thing I knew limousines were pulling up to the tiny coffee shop I sang at, offering me recording contracts. It was beyond surreal.
Flash-forward a year. My first album was flopping. I mean, going nowhere FAST. I was terrified I was going to end up living in a car again. I was a songwriter that was folksy/country and I was living in a world of grunge-dominated radio charts. I opened for the Ramones, Peter Murphy, Deep Blue Something, Belly… and finally I went out and did some club dates with Edwin McCain, who was also on my label.
My album had been out for a while, and had failed to produce a single. I was frustrated and so road-weary. I was doing my own shows for high school kids at 8am, then doing in-store appearances at local record stores for about 3 people, then doing shows for radio stations, and then going on in bars and honkytonks solo acoustic – which is not easy. I did all these miles in a rental car, which was tiring as well, as any time I wasn’t singing, we were driving ourselves before the glamorous days of GPS, and trying to keep up with bands that had a tour bus and a professional driver.
This particular day had been a rough one. We had driven all night in our rental car, and I had arrived in the city of that night’s show in time to do a live on-air radio station visit. Here’s something about me you may not know: I’m a bit pithy. Especially in the morning. I can be acerbic and caustic and my sense of humor is more parched, than dry. And this was the height of the “shock jock.”
I feel I need to further explain myself before I continue here. I was raised on a ranch with all men, and I was raised bar singing from age 8, and I was living by myself on the streets. All this adds up to a slightly suspicious, untrusting nature, and a damn quick tongue. I mean, survival skills die hard, and the lewd comments of shock jocks were not met with the usual giggle and chuckle that the hosts were used to from other bubbly ingénues. With me, they had a very tired writer on their hands, who did not yet grasp the concept of politics, and was ready to go toe-to-toe if I felt attacked in the slightest. I’m certainly not proud of this. It’s just the truth. I was far from smooth around the edges. I was an untamed, aloof survivor. I cringe thinking back to it.
For example, I remember one DJ began to make fun of my teeth on air. This was everyone’s favorite go-to move – make fun of the snaggle-toothed girl who dragged herself in with no sleep and unbrushed hair. So when he made fun of my teeth I said, “Well, I can always get braces, but you can’t fix bald.” To which the DJ just looked at me, shocked, and shut the interview down as he ran a hand over his crumbling comb-over.
Ok, enough stalling. So, this had been a hard day that started with a radio visit with a DJ who welcomed me into the studio very warmly. He explained we would be live on air in a minute, and we made small talk until the little red light came on and he changed his voice into that very excited and animated tone and began “Welcome back to KXYZ. You may have heard me describe my next guest as a large-breasted woman from Alaska… JEWEL, how are you?”
I was stunned he said this, and I was aware that my label really wanted me to make friends with radio and not to piss anyone off, as we really needed them to play my song … But before I could even think about it, I blurted out, “Oh, you must be that small penis man I have heard so much about from (whatever city we were in).” I thought it was pretty funny, myself. Fair was fair and I wasn’t offended, and thought we would both laugh and continue. I was wrong. The guy was more mad than a nest full of hornets, and I saw the little red “live on air” light go off, and I was asked to leave the station right then and there. My label was so upset with me. Why couldn’t I just behave?
I arrived to the venue, and did a set of highly sensitive folk songs to a crowd of drunken bar patrons who were there to hear the soulful full band sound of Edwin McCain, and they talked and laughed during my set – especially when I played ‘Pieces of You.’ In a word: I tanked.
I went to the dressing room and an employee asked me if I had seen what he was holding in his hand. It was a picture from a local paper, and it called me a “chubby Renée Zellweger, with a snaggle tooth.”
Chubby? Maybe. A little. Yeah, I wasn’t exactly as thin as I would have liked, that was for sure. I was maybe 10 pounds heavy, plus I had a baby face still – chipmunk cheeks, I believe one newspaper described me as having.
And that Renée, she was Calista Flockhart thin – and EVERYONE wanted to be Calista skinny. Well, I couldn’t help my damn snaggle tooth, but I could fix chubby, right? I pondered that question over what was left of some birthday cake left in the dressing room. I kept thinking about it as I kept eating. “Surely…” chomp, chomp… “I could control…” chomp, chomp… “just one thing…” chomp, chomp… “as simple as my weight…” chomp, chomp. I tried to make myself feel better with frosting. Shockingly, it didn’t work, and after the high of the sugar wore off, I was left with the crash, guilt and self-loathing only drug addicts and Senators who lie about their sexual orientation must know. I was disgusted with myself.
Like every girl, I felt amazing pressure to look like the popular girls, but no one told me the popular girls were all air brushed in magazines. In fact, I avoided magazines because they made me so anxious. I saw the girls on MTV and I knew I wasn’t like them at all. I was Renée Zellweger’s fat doppelganger. If she ever played in a movie where she needed to be fat, apparently I could be her stunt double. I went into the bathroom to wash the sticky sugar off my hands (there hadn’t been a fork, OK?!) and I looked in the mirror. It looked as if I had been romantically linked with a Smurf; my lips and tongue were stained blue from the blue piped frosting that spelled “PPY THDAY FFREY” on what was left of the cake when I found it. I was disgusted with myself. My life seemed to be spiraling out of control. I was failing at everything. I couldn’t get my album to sell, my single was failing at radio, and I kept getting kicked out of radio stations, and now I was a blue-tongued cake snarfer that lacked the self-control to starve myself like a proper chick singer ought to. Well that was it. I decided to take fate into my own hands. With all the wisdom of a sugar addled addict, I declared, “By God if I couldn’t be anorexic, I could still be bulimic.” With a marked determination, I marched to the open stall, kneeled before the watery Cyclops eye of the toilet bowl, and poked a finger down my throat. Nothing. I tired again. Still nothing. My eyes watered, I gagged, but dammit, I couldn’t make myself throw up. Apparently I had no talent for it, either. It was at this point that I began sobbing, “I’M TOO WEAK TO STARVE MYSELF AND I’M A FAILURE AT THROWING UP!!! WAAAHHHH!!!!”
Tears were hitting the calm waters of the toilet bowl, making small circles that grew to ever larger circles, and it reminded me of throwing rocks into the McNeil River as a girl. I suddenly thought of where I was from, and how far I was from it now, and I began to sob a little harder. I used to ride my horse along the beach, and hear his hooves hit the hard sand, as I laughed in the sunshine and the clear mountain air. I was a long way from Kansas, Toto. I was an Alaskan girl that was raised to be self-sufficient and strong, and there I was, on the other side of a failed brush with bulimia, kneeled over a toilet in some dirty club, by myself. The idea of my form bent over in this silly predicament suddenly struck me as ridiculous. It’s at this point I began to laugh. My whole body began to shake with laughter. I had what my husband calls a “gut check.” This was a moment that tested my Salt, but by heavens, I was gonna lick it. I wasn’t going to give in no matter what. I wasn’t going to end up homeless again. And if I had to sing in a million bars for the rest of my life, then darn it, that is what I was gonna do. I would not be stopped. I decided that when it came to trying to handle my insecurities, I should adopt the motto of DO NO HARM. Yes, I was a little chubby, I was neurotic, and a bit of a mess, but I would just have to deal with it until I found a healthy way of handling it. Anorexia and Bulimia are not options, and they don’t fix anything. They make things worse. I had to fix the problem: liking myself. No simple task.
In my job, I was around so many drugs, so many anorexic aspiring singers and so many unhealthy habits, that I knew I was in danger of trying to find a quick fix to make myself feel better, and to make myself get instant results. But I thought, hell, I survived the first phase of my life without it killing me, I could go ahead and face the next part too. For those of you that live the Western lifestyle, you know it’s something my husband calls TRY. It means you give it 110 percent, and don’t give up – ever. It meant if I couldn’t get played on the radio like other artists, by gosh, I’d outwork them. I would not relent. I would not be made to feel inadequate or less because I looked like I ate Renée Zellweger. Honestly, I was a normal weight, and I may not have been as polished or shiny or talented as everyone else, but I’d try harder than any of them If I could. I doubled my resolve. Do no harm to myself; TRY to do the best I can. TRY to forgive myself, my many failures and shortcomings, and take notes along the way. Someday I would look back and write about the whole thing and laugh.
I picked myself off the floor, wiped the bar scum off of my knees, walked out of the bathroom, greeted Edwin and his band as they got off stage and entered the tiny dressing room. Instead of trying to hide it, I showed the paper that called me Renée’s chunky sister to the guys, we all had a good laugh, and when they asked where all the birthday cake went, I remembered my little talk with myself – and I lied. I looked right in their eyes and told them I had no idea, and hoped they didn’t notice my teeth were blue. Well, growth was a process, right? One step at a time.
AS A SIDE NOTE: When I finally got to meet Renée, I did tell her I was mistaken for her a lot, although I left out the fact that I was mistaken as the “fat” her. Although I guess she will know now. She is as nice as she is beautiful, by the way. Also, I gradually lost the weight naturally by learning about my body and good nutrition. It comes and goes, just like for any woman.
Eating disorders affect 8 million Americans and claim the largest mortality rate of any mental illness. If you or someone you know suffers from one, you can find information HERE on how to help.