Nothing can prepare you for the bright lights of fame. Nothing. When I’m stepping onto a stage, the spotlight is a warm embrace. But when I’m walking a red carpet, the spotlight is cold, the camera’s flashes little daggers of ice, making my heart speed up in turn.
I’m lucky I’m not alone tonight.
Trent is by my side as we pull up to the E! People’s Choice Awards, but it takes him a moment to look away from the paparazzi’s cameras and turn to me. He smiles, his Hollywood-white teeth bright. Deliberately, he puts his arm around me, and the butterflies in my stomach calm down. I feel elevated.
We’re immediately guided from our limo by security people wearing black suits and earpieces. We barely have time to exchange another look before we’re stepping onto the international symbol of fame and fortune: the red carpet.
“Natalie, when is your new album coming out?” asks one of the paparazzi.
“Natalie! Over here!” another shouts. “Are you excited about tonight? Do you think you’ll win Female Artist of the Year?”
“Natalie, over here!”
The trick to posing on the red carpet is to suck in your breath, plaster on your most photogenic expression--for me, an open smile--and ignore everything the paparazzi say. Nobody looks good mid-speech, and this is all about looking good. Force your eyes to stay open, but somehow make it seem natural. You’ll get used to the flashing lights eventually, seeing nothing but white and black dots in your vision. When that happens, only smile brighter.
One foot in front of the other. I can totally do this. Breathe in, breathe out.
I’m wearing a dress with an asymmetrical hem, shorter in the front and flowing down to the ground in the back, lilac tones deepening into purple. The torso is strapless and covered in what my stylist, Erin, assured me were tasteful sequins. The dress is sexy and beautiful, but it doesn’t make me very comfortable--with a flat chest, I’m always worried a strapless dress is going to fall down. My heels are golden stilettos, and I’m glad that at least these aren’t pointy. They’re open sandals that show off my toes painted in lilac to match my skirt.
“Trent Nicholson! Trent!” another paparazzo shouts. “Are you upset you haven’t been nominated this year? Do you think your last movie deserved it?”
Trent’s grip on my waist tightens to the point of discomfort, but I’m too busy counting breaths in my head to look at him. Four seconds in, hold for seven, let go for eight.
Tonight is my night. I have to look . . . perfect.
I glance up at him and watch a frown pass over his face as he hurries forward, pulling me along with him. I hesitate, giving him a small confused smile. What are you doing? I try to telepathically communicate with my eyes. This is the time for my solo shots. Go right along.
Trent rolls his eyes and sighs, but eventually nods.
The Great American Sweethearts.
“Natalie, over here!”
The voices pull me back in, so I let myself drown in them. I turn sideways, showing off my bare back, tilting my head toward the cameras just enough that no belly rolls will show. I have rehearsed this a thousand times. Only turn twenty degrees. Never forty-five.
This is going to be okay. Gripping my Chanel purse close to my body, I repeat the mantra: It’s going to be okay. I’ve worked all my life for tonight. And tonight is the night that I’ll find out if it was all worth it. If I’ve succeeded or failed.
If I’m the Female Artist of the Year, or . . . a nominee.
Not Latin Artist of the Year. Female Artist of the Year, period.
A woman with her hair in a tight bun beckons me forward, and the next person, a hot star from a new HBO series, steps onto the red carpet. And like that, the paparazzi have a new focus.
I keep walking as they scream, “Savannah! Is it true that you’re dating your costar? Savannah!” I’m still on the red carpet before the venue, but here the scene changes from paparazzi to mingling artists and TV cameras with red-carpet correspondents asking who you’re wearing. My stomach turns as I scan the space for Trent.
Away from the flashing cameras, I feel a little safer, but I’m still clutching my purse for dear life. I need some reassurance, some positivity. I need to be told that I look great and that I will win tonight. I need to find my boyfriend.
Finally, I spot his blond, combed-back hair and his Armani suit. As I start toward him, the Ariana Grande song that’s been blaring through the speakers fades out and my latest hit, “Together Forever,” starts playing. My face lights up immediately. It’s a remixed version by my good friend Padma--aka DJ Lotus--and hearing my lyrics blasted over the sound system eases my nerves. People like Trent will never understand what it’s like to walk into a room full of people who are completely confident in their place in the world and feel like you don’t belong. Knowing that they’re all listening to my voice telling them that I do belong, as much as they do? That’s power. And it’s exhilarating in ways I can’t even begin to describe.
I hold my head high as my voice on the track punctuates my steps. I want to get to Trent before the chorus, though he must have recognized my song already.
My steps slow when I see that he’s talking to someone. Reese Brown, the newest Angel, a philanthropist who loves talking about natural beauty on her Instagram and has a huge following for posting no-makeup photos.
Of course, she has an objectively perfect face and has mastered the art of the selfie.
Trent touches her arm, and they laugh together.
Above us, the song reaches its chorus: We’ll be together forever, forever together.
My nostrils flare in irritation. I kind of want to punch them both.
My carefully curated image is that I would never punch someone. But sometimes I feel things so strongly, it’s difficult not to react. In elementary school, I got suspended because I grabbed a girl by her ponytail and swung her around. (She had been calling me names all day.) I remember being so angry, and then later, Mom being even angrier. I got an earful about Latinx stereotypes and how I had to fight against them. Be the Good Brazilian. Set the Example. A lot of capitalized mottos that meant I had to control my emotions.
I was eight at the time, my first year in the United States. Now, nine years later, I channel that tight-fisted little girl as I scan the crowd.
I walk up to them with my brightest smile, interrupting their conversation. “Hi, everyone!” I grab Trent’s arm, leaning toward him.
Okay. It’s not my strongest opening line, but I’m nervous and the strap of my purse is starting to cut into my wrist.
I’m acutely aware of the way Reese is looking me up and down, and how she glances back up at Trent. “Hi, Natalie,” she says slowly.
Trent puts an arm around my shoulders, but it feels awkward somehow. “What’s up?”
What’s up? I mouth at him, cocking an eyebrow. All that’s missing is a bro.
“You know Reese, right?” He points at her, and then winks.
Together forever, forever together.
Four seconds of breathing in, hold for seven seconds, let go for eight.
I let go of his arm so I can hold my purse closer to my stomach.
“Not formally. Nice to meet you, Reese.”
“Likewise,” she says with a short ridiculous bow, and then chuckles.
Narrowing my eyes, I try to think of something clever to say, but right now I’m a little confused. I press my lips together, before my agent Bobbi’s voice in my head tells me that it’ll ruin my lipstick, so I muster all the patience I have, nod to them both, and then turn away.
He’s going to come after me.
Because tonight is my night. He knows how hard I’ve worked for tonight.
Except, after walking for several seconds, clutching my purse so tightly my knuckles are turning from brown to white, Trent doesn’t call out my name or turn me around in a romantic gesture. He doesn’t grab my waist or--
Someone bumps into me, and it’s not Trent.
The impact knocks the purse out of my hands, and all its contents spill on the carpet.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry, I was looking at a meme--” he says, the British accent catching me off guard.
I still choose to ignore him as he kneels down to gather my things. This is so embarrassing. “It’s okay,” I tell him, my tone sharper than usual. But I need my purse, I need my . . .
He takes my inhaler. Not my phone, my keys, my lipstick, or even my little notepad for impromptu lyric writing. He goes for the little inhaler.
My horror doesn’t last too long, because when he gives it to me, our hands touch, and I finally look at him. He has scruffy brown curls and a Victorian nose. He’s white, but not Trent’s tanned California-white. He’s just . . . very white. His cheeks are pink, like he’s flustered, and his eyes are a deep green, with long dark eyelashes.
He smiles hesitantly. And when I snatch the inhaler from his hands, my eyes wide, saying, “This is for somebody else,” he offers me a lopsided grin. I stick it in my purse as fast as I can, looking over my shoulder, but we’re far enough away from the spotlight of the red carpet that nobody seems to care about us.
“Okay. Um, here, your phone,” he says.
I take my phone, but the screen is lit up with notifications, and I realize I forgot to set it to Do Not Disturb mode. My battery’s probably going to die soon. I sigh.
“Are you okay? Your hands are shaking,” he says, his British accent thick.
I shove the phone into my purse, along with keys, lipstick, and notebook, and stand up so fast that I get dizzy. “Yes, I’m okay,” I respond, annoyed and embarrassed and, God, I just want this to be over.
He stands up as well. It looks like his suit doesn’t fit him right. It’s navy blue, but I don’t recognize the cut. I can tell it’s not Armani. He must notice me staring, because his grin goes lopsided again, and he says, “It’s my first time at this, too. But don’t be nervous. It’s a stupid facade anyway.”
I part my lips, blinking slowly.
He shrugs. “It’s so frivolous, just shallow people making believe.” He pauses, his mouth tugging down at the corners. “I wish I weren’t here as well. I bet you can think of a thousand better ways to spend your Friday evening, right?” He chuckles and pats my arm in a friendly manner. “It’ll be over before you know it.”
“Stupid?” I say, taking a step back. The culmination of everything I’ve worked for my entire career? Stupid? Who does this guy think he is? Does he think he’s better than--?
Either ignoring my expression or unbothered by my deep offense, he offers his hand. “I’m William Ainsley, by the way.”
For a second, I consider introducing myself as frivolous and shallow, but instead I stare at his hand, shake my head, and walk away, purse clutched to my stomach.
I take another breath and refocus on my wonderful evening. My night to shine.