Getting over Audrey Hepburn: I was pressing pause on my womanhood

Growing up is hard. I will never overcome the fact she didn’t marry Gregory Peck

I came across her beautiful, soft-focus face on RTÉ One on rainy Saturdays when there was nothing else on but the matinee. Photograph: © Courtesy Everett Collection/Getty Images

I came across her beautiful, soft-focus face on RTÉ One on rainy Saturdays when there was nothing else on but the matinee. Photograph: © Courtesy Everett Collection/Getty Images

 

What do you see when you look in the mirror? Who looks back at you from the reflection in a window? Do you recognise yourself?

I have long been fascinated with the way people present themselves in photographs and images, on film, in selfies. As a young child, I was completely in love with the stars from the golden age of Hollywood. I came across their beautiful, soft-focus faces on RTÉ One on rainy Saturdays when there was nothing else on but the matinee. How romantic and quaint that seems now. How innocent. We watched whatever was on and grew to love the ritual.

I remember in particular, The Ghost and Mrs Muir, The Harvey Girls, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Some Like it Hot and my absolute favourite, Roman Holiday. I distinctly recall watching it for the first time with my little sister, gazing hungrily at a black-and-white yet still sun-soaked Rome, further adorned by the waiflike charm and elegance of Audrey Hepburn. Magnetic, beautiful, doe-eyed Audrey Hepburn, a princess who longs to live a normal life. And how lucky she was to bump into Gregory Peck! I fell absolutely and completely, and hopelessly, in love with them both.

Years later, when I was writing the poems that eventually became my first poetry collection, Eat or We Both Starve, the spectres of movie stars past came back to haunt me, shimmering and always just out of reach. I recalled how obsessed I became with Hepburn’s perfect monochrome skin and how I wished that I too could look flawless. How even as a young child I felt inadequate in the shadow of her beauty, so much so that I prayed every night that I would grow up to look like Hepburn, or Greta, or Grace. I remembered long night-time car journeys coming back from relatives houses after dinner, or at Christmas, and watching my small round face reflected in the glass as we whizzed by, the flattering and compelling orange glow from the streetlights, and for a second at a time I was transported – my face catching those shadows, cheating those cheekbones. It made me sick with longing to be that two-dimensional double.

I projected that anxiety on to an unthreatening star

But how can a chubby adolescent from east Cork emulate an icon? She can’t, certainly not back then. There were no filters, or Facetune. We had a Polaroid camera and that was the closest thing to achieving the look I wanted, more permanent than my fleeting face in the car window. I liked the hollow-eyed, smooth-skinned look it gave me. As if I didn’t have any features at all.

When writing the poem that became an important part of the collection, Prayer to Audrey Hepburn, I resurrected those feelings of inadequacy, the sense that I would not live up to this extreme version of womanhood to try to understand my obsession with Hepburn, and the rest. One memory from that time stood out to me, I raided my mother’s fashion magazines because I knew they had photo features on classic movie stars when an anniversary came around, or when one of them finally passed away. They were breathtakingly old, some of them. I used the kitchen scissors to cut around their faces and bodies and I carefully arranged them on the wall across from my bed. They all went up there, dripping in jewels at glamourous Hollywood premieres, or caught in a moment of great emotion in a still from one of their movies, their faces frozen in exquisite suffering.

Victoria Kennefick has been shortlisted for both the the TS Eliot Prize and the Costa Poetry Prize
Victoria Kennefick has been shortlisted for both the the TS Eliot Prize and the Costa Poetry Prize

When I switched off the light at night, I could see them still, staring down at me, representing everything I could never be. The gloss of the paper caught the hall lamp’s glow, made them wink. My beautiful, perfect, flawless, angels watching over me, always. Their huge, glassy eyes never blinking, with Audrey at the top of the hierarchy. How I fervently checked my reflection for cheekbones in the morning after an intense intercession to Holy Mary (I didn’t think God would be interested or empathetic to my plight). Finding more puppy fat. In the poem drafts I write about Hepburn. I write and I feel as if I am encased in glass. Even then.

Sometime later I attend a writers’ workshop in Sarah Lawrence College in New York. It is an immersive week-long course and my tutor, Gregory Pardlo, has just won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He is a brilliant and enthusiastic teacher. He writes sentences on the board and asks, “Is this poetry?” He patiently listens to our responses, the sentences become more bizarre. Sometimes there are shapes, cartoons. Then he tells us, “It’s all poetry”.

We have a few one-to-one meetings. I have never spoken so intensely to anyone about my work before. He listens without looking away. The cicadas on campus are clicking, the air is thick with heat. He asks me to tell him about myself. I prattle on nervously about the history of the Kenneficks in Shanagarry. He stops me and asks what pictures I had on my bedroom walls as a child, and why. It was Hepburn, I try and explain. I get teary, panicky. He tells me to slow down but keep going, keep reaching. I realise that this is something I haven’t really explored truthfully before. That the desire to emulate these women was a way to press pause on my burgeoning womanhood. That if I was projected on celluloid, I could predict the trajectory of my life, that my narrative would, mercifully, be already written. That I hid the shame and fear about my body in my desire to transcend it. Greg smiles and says, “Victoria, you’ve got to rip Audrey down”. I am shocked but giddy. It takes me a while to catch my breath.

I go back to my dorm, lightheaded; the air conditioner hums a lullaby and I think about my uncle sick at home. Unbeknownst to me he dies while I am there. He loved Natalie Wood. Poor Natalie Wood. Poor Audrey Hepburn. I read about her, the real her, and am initially disappointed to learn she is human, and feel guilty. I demand perfection from her, from myself, which is clearly not working because I always fail. However, I admit that I will never get over the fact that she didn’t marry Gregory Peck.

Growing up is hard to do. I projected that anxiety on to an unthreatening star - so clean, so contained, allowing me to mask the horror I felt at the changes taking place in my body. So, I rip her down from the walls of my psyche, not harshly, rather I look at each picture in turn with compassion, fold it up, and file it away. I write the poem, fashioned from these scraps, a collage of her and of me. I feel free. I finally meet Audrey in the stanzas of my poem and we can’t stop laughing.

Now when I look in the mirror, I see myself, albeit with thick, winged eyeliner I just can’t quit. I hope Audrey would approve.

Prayer to Audrey Hepburn

O Blessed Audrey of the feline eye-flick, jutting
bones, slim-hipped androgyny of war-time rationing, I’ve missed
your nightly visitations. I summoned you, carefully cutting
around your monochrome face in mother’s fashion magazines,
pointing the scissors away from myself as I had been taught,
your name an incantation on my lips. I stuck those pieces
of you to my pink walls with rolled-up sellotape, and waited.
You came, sheathed in black with the posture of a reed.
Hypnotised, I prayed to you for grace, that I could sew
my mouth closed like a doll, be a sculpture made of skin.
Years later and there’s a person growing in my uterus,
my body a building-site. I intercede to you again, snip around
your slinky silhouette. In scissors’ blades I see myself,
thirteen, when you fall out of the shadows. Oh Audrey!
Can’t stay, you hiss. You stare at me with saucer eyes. I am hungry, you say. Hungry, like you. I can’t help but laugh – I am too big to be a woman.
You lean over the bed; I am conscious of my pudgy belly,
my rat’s nest hair, but you take my face in your hands, kiss me hard,
pushing your gorgeous tongue across the length of mine.
Afterwards, our seams popping, we shriek with laughter.

Eat or We Both Starve is published by Carcanet Press and has been shortlisted for both the the TS Eliot Prize and the Costa Poetry Prize, whose winners will be announced next month

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