I’m a huge fan of high school movies, an art form perfected during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, “The Breakfast Club”, and “Say Anything”, to name a few). One might say, in fact, that the art form “peaked” during that period, and with one notable exception (namely, 1998's “Can’t Hardly Wait”) , it’s been downhill ever since. I’ve often attributed this to the fact that the information culture has diminished the central social role that one’s particular high school plays in their life. Because when anyone, or everyone (depending on your point of view) , in the world is just a few keystrokes away, how small can your world really be?
But whatever the reason, it’s important to note that I wasn’t a fan of such movies when I was actually in high school. Hollywood has never seemed to mind the tragic consequences that hiring actors in their mid-twenties to play the roles in such films might have on the pubescently tardy or pituitarily less-fortunate. I never even pondered such a possibility, primarily because my mind was too busy trying to process the fact that despite these films making every attempt to provide a range of characters which should cover nearly every secondary school stereotype – there weren’t really any kids that looked like me. Of course there weren’t, and unless you went to high school in Laguna Beach, there wouldn’t be for you either. After all, isn’t a universal truth that we all look a little better in our twenties... or at least had better skin?
But to my point, I grew to love these films when high school and its myriad memories, glories and unrequited passions were long in my rear-view mirror. It’s not that time actually stood still and all the sound around you faded out when the impossibly pretty girl you had a crush on (Dea Milligan) opened her locker just down the hall from you. It absolutely didn’t. But that’s exactly how you remember it once you really can’t remember it exactly anymore. Which is when it hit me, high school movies aren’t for high school kids… they’re for the rest of us – who romanticize the memory of our formative years, and put the hyperbole which was then only in our angsty, hormonally-overcharged heads, squarely into the middle of the actual story. I could wax on and on about why we do this – but I’m no psychologist and that’s not really the point of this anyways.
To live in LA is to know the billboard culture well. In a city whose skies are usually clear and bright, it’s no mistake that we’ve covered nearly every visible surface with some type of advertisement. What’s more, as with most things in this town, we’ve no sense of modesty when it comes to the size of such things, as the building-size adverts downtown pay tribute to. As a result, it’s easy to become nearly numb to such bombardment, and process this visual stimulus with no greater interest than we might regard the street signs and traffic signals. A few months ago I was actually impressed with the full-color billboard-sized TV screens around town which changed digital images every few seconds – but after a few weeks, they too faded into the background noise that is life on the streets of the City of Angels.
All of this is what makes the north-facing billboard at the corner of Glendale Blvd & Montana St. just outside of downtown L.A. and my brief love affair with it all the more extraordinary. The subject billboard was part of the Winter 2007 advertising campaign for YMI jeans. (picture included above... and, no I didn’t know that off the top of my head – I had to look it up on Google like the rest of you) It featured the three recently crowned beauty queens, Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA. And from the first time I drove within sight of it I couldn’t take my eyes off of it; and on many occasions, nearly to my own physical peril. This is additionally remarkable because I only take this particular street when I am en-route to the STAPLES Center at which time I am invariably late for my call time and in a serious Loc-Carb Monster-fueled hurry. Nevertheless, I’d slow… and I’d stare.
Now there are beautiful womens' pictures up all over the city’s billboards, newsstands, bus stops, storefronts and many other places I’m sure I’m not remembering. And I walk by them with nary a second glance – much like the sunshine, it’s something we begin to take for granted, living in the prettiest place on earth. But there was something different about these girls; something so not L.A. about them. It was like seeing a polar bear in the middle of the desert. You see, I couldn’t help but stare.
After a little reflection, I’ve determined there are two reasons for this minor obsession. First, during my research for the little ditty I wrote about the tragedy that was Miss Teen South Carolina, I found out the actual winner of the pageant was Hillary Cruz, a young lady from my own public high school in little Lafayette, Colorado. Disappointingly, this makes me now the second most famous person from Centaurus High, but it was still exciting news. (Okay, so CHS has a few other well-known alumni, but I’m the only one throwing girls around on the floor at STAPLES Center, so just indulge my oft-broken ego for a moment... or at least until the end of this piece) Now, there weren’t any girls like Hillary kickin’ around the hallways of dear old Centaurus when I was there (I checked the yearbook), and even if there were, I would have had a better chance of spontaneously bursting into flame than actually speaking to one of them. Suffice it to say I was little on the “awkward” side back then (and by “awkward” I, of course, mean ruefully unattractive and painfully aware of it). Regardless of the obvious social and temporal disconnect (it being a scant sixteen years since I last roamed the grounds with the Warrior-proud), I still couldn’t help but feel a sort of connection with Miss Cruz. And finding a connection to little Lafayette when you’re in a city like LA is rare enough to stop me cold every time.
Second, there’s just something so “All-American” about beauty queens: perfectly curled hair, brilliantly white and flawless smiles, and markedly non-voluptuous figures (And please spare me the “that’s your version of All-American, Mr. Caucasian” – I know that… I’m not speaking for you – that’s why name is at the bottom of this and not yours). And perhaps “All-American” is the wrong word, it’s just the first thing that comes to mind when I’m trying to find a way to describe the opposite of the model-type girls that seem to grace the rest of the billboards and other advertisements here. You know the type I mean, they look about as approachable as a wounded mongoose, and, even if you were to get close, about as fun a really good head cold. There was just something eminently more accessible about these girls – and yes, I realize the irony in saying that since I’m talking about MISS USA here… But I don’t dream in Kate Moss, Heidi Klum and Giselle Bündchen. I dream in Rachel Smith; in my best visions of me, I’m married to a girl like that.
Which finally brings me to my relationship with the billboard at Glendale & Montana. What gives me pause as I pass by these beauty queens’ image is my romantic notions of seeing a pretty girl in my hometown, just like I did back in high school. For a moment, I’m not playing-it-cool, casually indifferent, and trying with all my might not to stare. For a moment I’m not dressed in business casual with my Diesel jeans and $80 t-shirt in a backpack in my trunk. For a moment I’m not fighting traffic as I rush from my corporate world to my secret life as an NBA cheerleader. For one splendidly long moment I’m not thirty-three, I’m not in L.A. and it’s 1989. In reality, it’s 4:45, I’m doing 45, I’m due at STAPLES in fifteen minutes, and I’m still four traffic lights, five turns, one on-ramp and two exits away. In reality, I’ve passed by at least fifty other billboards on the trip (I stopped counting after that) trying to sell me everything from burgers to deodorant. In reality, Centaurus High and little Lafayette are over a thousand miles and nearly two decades away. But for five beautiful seconds, that I could swear stretches into thirty, every time I time I head downtown, I stop, slack-jawed and staring because I could swear that I spot Dea Milligan at her locker in a pair of YMI Jeans... and I still don't say a word.