Debutante Shmebutante

On January 11, 2014, I was outed to society.

No, I was not a closeted lesbian that needed to demonstrate my love of poji to the world…

I was more of a normal human being that was forced to dress up, put on loads of make up, style my hair with a gallon of hair spray and take hundreds of photos to appear like a “sophisticated, wealthy, aristocratic young lady part of high society.”

If you know me (which I assume you do since you are reading my deepest, most interesting thoughts at the moment), you know that this description is far from the truth.

One of my life goals is to try to be as humble, natural and un-snooty as possible. My idea of a good time is rolling around a muddy rugby pitch with 14 other girls or volunteering to clean up animal feces or offering my leftover dinner to homeless guys sleeping on the street.

I wholeheartedly enjoy having an un-posh lifestyle, not attending the most expensive clubs/restaurants on a weekly basis, working hard for what I want and not owning 2/3 of Sweden as some of my fellow debutante colleagues have experienced.

Though a quarter of the girls who came out to society with me had a similar mentality as I, they still happily pranced around in their custom designer dresses, felt confident wearing their sponsored tiaras and jewelry, and proudly spent hours primping and taking cell phone selfies to add to their shrine of self admiration.

Perhaps it was my first immersion into this lifestyle of glitz, glamor and grace and therefore, I was uncomfortable and even slightly irritated at the entire process, but I knew that I didn’t fully fit in from the beginning.

January 9th, 2014
From the first day I arrived, I felt out of place. Immediately after arriving from the airport, I was escorted to a large over-the-top hotel suite at one of Shanghai’s most expensive hotels. There, girls of all shapes and sizes (mostly fit and slender) sat around a dining table waiting to be fitted for their custom dresses: 1 colorful evening dinner dress and 1 white debutante procession dress.

When I walked in in casual American attire (fancy wording for looking like a slob), all of the girls stared at me with conviction and judgement seeping through their forced smiles.

To increase tensions, the staff excused my lateness and rushedly pushed me into a makeshift changing room in the suite’s kitchen. The excuse they gave for me cutting the line was because my sister and I were booked for a complimentary spa appointment in a few minutes (a valid reason in a life of glamor, I suppose).

In a matter of seconds, my clothes were stripped and I was left awkwardly naked next to a Nespresso machine as the ultra-thin designer and her minions checked out my body. The first dress that was designed for me was red, chiffon, long and terrible. I looked like a featherless bird with flapping mesh wings that needed to be put out of its misery immediately.

Because there was unsurprisingly no mirror inside of the kitchen, I had to walk through the throng of girls and show off my heightened ugliness. More stares and sneers ensued.

The next dress I tried on was white, strapless, long again with a puffy A-line train. Once the designer strapped me up, I felt like I was wearing a marshmallow. I thought to myself “this is what sitting on a cloud must feel like.”

As a few alterations and changes were noted, I was free to go on my merry way. On my way out, a young British girl told me my red dress was her favorite. I wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or she just has horrible taste in fashion. Nevertheless, I said thanks and remembered that she could be a potential friend.

Though I didn’t at all feel like attending the spa, my sister quickly ushered me into the car with her and her friend who was a former deb and organized this year’s debutante events thanks to her new swanky job at Guerlain, who was a sponsor of the ball.

After an hour facial with too many products added to my skin, we returned to the hotel to get ready for the debutante welcome dinner. There, I had my first up-close and personal encounter with the ball’s organizer, a woman who could easily be mistaken for the Little Mermaid’s Ursula, as well as all of my fellow debutantes.

While sitting across a pasty-white Chinese girl with perfect posture who barely ate any of our 5 course dinner, I tried to make conversation with those around me. Surprisingly, I found them slightly amusing despite my preconceived notion that everyone would be bitchy and snobby. Apparently, we had the better end of the table since the far end was silently brooding and looked too pretentious for my liking.

As the dinner ended, the organizer gave a speech to “welcome” us girls. Like a parent, she warned us that we shouldn’t get too rowdy aka drunk during the preparation days and also to abide by the rules she set aside:
1) be punctual to all appointments
2) no smoking/drinking prior to the event day
3) appropriate behavior at all times
4) no salad/greasy food/sweets during fittings, interviews or photo shoots
5) be accountable for sponsored jewelry/outfits
6) when wearing jewelry, you will be accompanied by security at all times
7) do not leave the debutante area with jewelry on without permission
8) inform the person in charge should you need to be absent from any scheduled appointment

She then said that she was proud of all of us and despite the fact that we all didn’t have to work in the future due to our family fortunes, we were still making a name for ourselves by attending her ball. Then, out of the blue, she thanked me for inspiring this year’s ball as sports themed since all of the girls had a specialty sport: golf, ballet, swimming, tennis, wine tasting, and me with rugby.

Feeling again out of place with my less than dainty sport of choice, I returned to my hotel room and tried to enjoy the evening.

January 10, 2014
The next morning, my make up session began at 10am and my interview/photo shoot (with whom I didn’t even know) was at 12pm and 1pm. With no prior instruction or explanation, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I showed up 10 minutes early to the make up session- keeping in mind rule #1 of punctuality- and the stylists weren’t even present.

When they showed up, they asked me what style of make up and hair I wanted. Much to their surprise, I replied with “whatever you think is best.” In hindsight, that may not have been the best answer as I ended up with 2 inch thick Peking opera singer eyebrows, a teased lion’s mane, and cake fake foundation, but I didn’t care that much…until I saw what I looked like at the photo shoot…

First, I was interviewed by Cosmo China. The reporter was very nice, sociable, and understanding, especially when I needed translation help from English to Mandarin. She kindly praised me for being so natural, funny and normal, which she didn’t expect from a debutante and I told her I don’t consider myself a debutante.

After the interview, she asked her photographer to take some photos of me on the balcony even though it was freezing outside. He asked me to sit in a rock garden with my legs propped open and hand near my mouth- I immediately thought “this is slightly sexual and very awkward so maybe he’s trying to catch me in my natural state.”

Photo after photo, he still hadn’t perfected his shot. Then, the interviewer suggested I take some moving photos since I am athletic (she forgot I was in heels). Fast running, slow jogging, walking, slow sauntering, jumping, looking off into the distance- all motions I perfected during the photo shoot. 30 minutes went by and the photographer still preferred the awkward rock garden shots. He thanked me for my help aka wasting his time and brushed me aside for the next debutante’s photo shoot.

I happily went inside to get warm and tend to the final interviewer of the day. A chubby, slightly shaky metro Asian asked me some random questions about my life, education, idea of beauty, and the debutante ball. I answered as politely as possible in order to fulfill my deb duties and he must have sensed my not wanting to be there so he ended his interrogations quite quickly.

Thankfully, I finished my obligations and told the manager I had a prior commitment in the evening so I could enjoy the rest of the sunny afternoon with my family.

January 11, 2014 (event day)
I began the morning a bit nervous and excited with butterflies in my stomach.

Make up began at 10am and interviews were scheduled for 12pm and 1pm again.

Because today was THE day, all of the girls arrived at once for beauty treatment. Make up artists and hair stylists worked more than 12 hours and hair dryers seemed to be blowing non-stop. When a staff member had a minute to rest, the next girl would appear for a touch up or to get serviced (not sexually, of course).

In addition to make up and hair, we all had to retry our dresses post-alterations and get our rented Chaumet jewelry (another sponsor of the event) fitted in the span of an hour.

With too many girls and schedules to look after, the staff became overwhelmed, irritated and stressed. At first, I along with 5 other girls were asked to change into our colorful evening gowns for the first interview/photo shoot. When we reached the venue, the photographer said we were supposed to wear our white dresses, which meant we had to run downstairs, take off our jewelry, change into our new dresses, put on the jewelry again and go upstairs for photos- all with our stoic, angry Chinese bodyguards dressed in all black following our every move.

While changing into my white dress, the zipper broke and all hell broke loose. This was the second to go that morning and the designer had already returned to the office. Because the photographer was still waiting for us, the staff quickly sewed me into my dress and prayed to the fashion gods that I didn’t make any sudden movements that would result in an undebutante-like Janet Jackson Super Bowl fiasco.

After the photo shoot, I was rushed into an interview with my body still sewn into my dress. I tried to sit completely motionless next to 2 Chinese twins who came from Singapore. As the Chinese representatives of the ball, we were expected to speak fluently, but the twins barely understood the reporter. Every other word, they had to ask for translation help and spoke more Chinglish than anything. Because the staff were struggling, I chimed in more than once to help out, which resulted in some annoyed double side glancing-needless to say, the reporter was confused and tried to move on quickly. This happened for the proceeding interview as well.

With haste, I finished the questions and ran downstairs to change. For me, the designer immediately took my white dress to fix the zipper and I was stuck wearing my bird feather red dress for the rest of the afternoon. While taking off the dress in the fitting room, the scary organizer sat inside and watched. She asked the designer what happened to my broken dress and she answered that I maybe ate too much during the day and the zipper burst, never mentioning that it could be the designer’s faulty workmanship. They laughed on my behalf and my feeling of anger/annoyance reappeared.

Before the ceremony, we had some last-minute rehearsals, group photo shoots, evening make up touch ups and final preparations. All of the girls tried to pass time by talking to reporters or their jewelry security guards, having champagne in their rooms, or taking more selfies but mostly waiting around aimlessly.

As the time came closer to 8pm, all of our nerves started working overtime.

The guests were already sitting at their assigned seats, waiting to begin the meal. One by one, the Deb Delights (male escorts) walked in and stood by their seats. One by one, each debutante walked in, posed for the camera, and sauntered to her seat.

When it was my turn, I steadily walked through the door to have a shining light blind me. I tried to smile the entire time but I still ended up looking miserable and serious on photos. I kept reinforcing myself that I should not trip and successfully managed to sit down without causing a scene.

The next hour of semi-eating the 10 course meal was a blur. The debs excused themselves before dessert to change into our white gowns as our guests and escorts continued drinking. The next duty was the procession or “coming out to society.”

While wearing our white gowns, we were paired by height and sent to the basement of the hotel. The hotel’s many Rolls Royces drove up slowly and each pair climbed inside to get chauffeured to the hotel’s main entrance for planned paparazzi photos. The wait was about 10 minutes and the ride was less than 1 minute- ridiculous and unnecessary.

As the guests gathered around the hotel reception area, the debs walked out again one by one holding bouquets of flowers. If people didn’t know what was going on, they could suspect that 12 very young brides were waiting to be married at the same time by an old rolling ball of human.

Then, the Debutantes of the Year were awarded- one for being a super wealthy Taiwanese tycoon’s daughter and a 17 year old for wanting to be the President of the United States. Both girls are personable but their newly-appointed titles were overrated.

After more pointless talking, waiting around, blinding lights and photographs, our escorts met us by our side and we were forced to dance in front of the crowd. Unmastered waltzing from 12 couples ended up with everyone bumping into each other, putting on happy faces for the cameras ad silently hoping the songs would end sooner.

Finally, as the last song ended, everyone sighed in relief that the ball was over and we were free to frolic back to reality. Everyone changed into his or her party attire and we reconvened at the after party at one of Shanghai’s famous rooftop bars.

Bottles of vodka and champagne were compted for the party so everyone enjoyed themselves to the fullest- some a little too much, but I suppose even a debutante deserves a sloppy bar make out session…

January 12, 2014
The next day, we were invited to a farewell lunch and I made a surprise appearance. I dined with 4 of my favorite debs (the normal ones) as well as 2 bitchy Swedish royals. After talking with the bitchy ones and seeing them up close, I realized that though they made me feel slightly inferior with their mile long legs, skinny figures and possibly ownership of a country, I still had much better skin than them, will age gracefully and have the ability to seem smart and continue a conversation.

Before I left, the organizer stopped me and said that she was taken aback at how I changed from last year. She mentioned that I had an attitude when she first met me, mostly because I wasn’t keen on attending her ball. I retaliated and said that this kind of event was not part of my preferred lifestyle and maybe she should realize that not all decent young girls would want to attend.

Overall, this event was a once in a lifetime experience. I definitely would not attend another ball but for some reason, I wouldn’t want to go back in time and reject my invitation to this one either. Life experiences make us who we are and now I know for sure that I am happy and comfortable in my own skin.

Even after all of this, if you still don’t know what a debutante ball is (which is totally acceptable), you can read about it here: http://www.style.com/stylemap/2014/01/24/debs-debauchees-shanghai-international-debutante-ball/

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~ by pandaextraordinaire on March 3, 2014.

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