This is a blog post about seeing myself called a “cum dumpster” in ten different languages, on fifty different websites, right beside years-old photographs of me taken in a bikini, lifted from the archives of my Instagram. It starts with a 6 a.m. email, read in my best friend’s bed in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.
“They want to serialise the book!” I whisper, wide-awake with a body clock set to London. She rubs her Eastern Standard Time eyes and rolls over. “That’s great,” she begins, hoarse with sleep. “What… what does that mean?”
Serialisation is when a newspaper – their features pages or, if you’re really lucky, one of their glossy weekend supplements – print a section of your manuscript. I’d had my fingers crossed that it might happen. What I wanted more than anything was one of the red tops to pick it up – one of the tabloids. I wanted a paper that middle England reads to talk about BECOMING. An “every woman” paper. I’d already written for a glossy mag and a fancy broadsheet about it. Tabloids were next on my list. My only stipulation to the book’s publicist had been: not the Daily Mail. I will do anything for love, but I won’t do that. I will do anything to tell people about my book, but I will not do a deal with that particular devil. We all know why.
The Sun won. They paid me handsomely enough to have exclusive rights to printing a bit of my story, and the email said, but we need photographs of you. I explained I was in New York, celebrating turning 30 with one who I love most. That’s how it happened, then. That’s how I was told they’d send a photographer to me, could I be at Chelsea pier for three-thirty that afternoon? It felt like the most glamorous direction of my life. Of course I could be there! Of course.
New York women are groomed. Glossy. Far beyond what I can pull off. So I dressed in my very best London style and walking in the sunshine towards the lights and the camera and the action, the birthday girl about to release her very first book, I thought, so this is what success feels like, huh?
But, the features editor didn’t feel about my style how I feel about my style. That’s when the penny dropped on how this “serialisation” would go. “Laura,” she said down a distant phone connection that spanned the sea. “Can we do the photos again? The dungarees, the clunky black boots… it doesn’t really go with the story.”
Ah. From my friend’s car on the three-hour drive out of the city, into the Hamptons, to the furthest point where the lighthouse is and the really good lobster rolls are, I got it: The Sun would be focusing on the sex angle of the book – not the celibacy – and as such, how would their readers ever believe I got laid if I was dressed like a Stoke Newington lesbian on her way to a construction site? “Can we try a dress and heels?” she said.
The short version is that it was funny until it wasn’t. I did another shoot when I got back to London, all curled hair and arched brow and nipped-in waist. When the story got printed they hadn’t so much serialized the book as they had picked the most inflammatory sentences from the steamiest chapters and pieced them together to make me sound… well. That’s not what I meant. I had approved the copy, but then there, in full colour, with that headline and those photo captions, the sum of the parts I’d let happen added up to something so not what I meant it to be. The grand they’d paid me was suddenly not nearly enough compensation. There’s no amount that would’ve been. How does one put a price on self-promotion that feels so shameless, anyway?
In The Life and Death of Sophie Stark there’s a brilliant bit about the “fame” of the main character, who says that people talking about her feels like hearing her name mispronounced, over and over again, until she asks herself, wait – how do I pronounce my name? You start to believe other people know better about you than you.
The story got picked up by the Mail Online by 10 a.m. the morning The Sun got printed, and I watched, intrigued and bewildered and perplexed, as the dominos knocked one another down, bam, bam, bam, the Mail, with it’s millions and millions in reach, hitting the Express hitting the Star, hitting somewhere in the Netherlands, India, Turkey, America. The Italian headline had translated The Sun’s “Around The World in 80 Lays” to “Around The World in 80 Men”, and that was my boundary. That was my limit. I have not slept with 80 men, and yet so what if I had? What, exactly, am I supposed to be defending myself against? It's about the book, not me. Why does this all feel so personal?
That’s not how you say my name.
There’s this notion that men have a future but women are their past. Russell Brand is a playboy who will make such a good father now it’s “out of his system”, and yet in almost all twelve of the radio interviews I did, it was inferred that no bloke would want me now that I am “used up” from an arbitrary number of lovers an editor I have never met decided to tell me I’ve had for the sake of click-though.
“But you said, I could not go to a party, a work event, anywhere, without seeing a man and saying: yes, that one. I will take home that one.”
I wrote those words, yes. But they were sandwiched between 88,000 other words about heartbreak and longing, about not belonging and learning how to find a home within myself. I didn't take all of those men to my bed.
That’s not how you say my name.
It took me five years to tell a story that got reduced to 1,000 friend requests from balding men called Dave in Stockport who thought they’d be in with a chance since I’m so broken I’ll shag anything – even them.
That’s now how you say it. It’s not.
I think it’s the pity that makes me feel most ashamed, though. That people I love and admire and who mean well are cringing for me, all hand-on-the-arm it’s tomorrow’s chip paper, love. Anyone who knows you is laughing it off. I know that. I can rationalize that. I can take myself out for a bowl of risotto and a talking to, watching the rain and saying to myself you are not a girl who had some sex, you are not some chick who reveals too much on the internet, you are a woman who wrote a remarkable book. I can do that.
But what I cannot do is take that look of sympathy.
That’s not how you say my name, either.