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Jennifer Richardson

A Self-Portrait

I allow myself to become very attached to people all the time, but I hate the word "love". It means too many different things to too many people. It causes misunderstandings, makes things solidify, stops you just enjoying. You have to have a sense of humour. Well, I do. But my moods change, and I'm still fragile sometimes. I've let many people into my head to have a look around, so there are many people I share a deep bond with, and when I'm with them the loneliness is often, although not always, numbed. There are games we play to entertain and stimulate ourselves - we make plans for the future; we philosophise and analyse; and we laugh so much…til we cry. I love them, and I am unafraid to let them know anything about me, or to know anything about them. But sometimes I wish I could give away more than I'm aware of, because maybe if someone else could understand the subliminal of my character/s then they could pass the discoveries on to me…

It's an odd feeling when you never surprise yourself any more. I used to be baffled by my behaviour - there was a tense thrill in that - but everything is calm now. Everything that can make sense does, and whenever I feel a lack of comprehension or ability I know it is only an illusion that can be overcome. Everything feels more real than ever before, and reality has never felt so transitory. It's only a vivid imagination or memory that makes time dilate, and once you achieve an awareness of that, there is a fundamental sameness/oneness in everything, and it is only in riding on the cusp of the present that experience can hit you to your core (I bet that when I look back on this in a month or two I'm gonna laugh so much…how new age!). I think that is what now makes my life seem both so full and so calm. I am, of course, human, so I still forget to keep my resolve and I still make mistakes, get stressed, get unhappy. But I don't mind the fact that that happens now, because at least it's an experience, and I don't mind that I believe in no god and no purpose, because I choose to have fun and make the most of my time. So I get intense pleasure out of the smallest of things.

Increasingly I feel that anything involving or permitted by language is just a game, and language is the biggest game of all. So I crave sensation. I love feeling heat on my skin; seeing bright light; stretching and climbing; running and dancing. I am a tactile person, and thrive on physical experience. And I think that has a lot to do with why I sometimes feel lonely - lack of physical presence and physical contact. The people I am closest with are heterosexual females, homosexual males or men whose attachment to their partner or partners makes them "safe". I am very tactile with all of them, but we all know it has limits.

I think sexual desire has a lot to do with the way people modify their behaviour around me, and it often makes me somewhat solitary. I used to feel victimised because of this - I was usually seen as a threat, intimidating or obsessed. People find it hard to separate physical appearance from emotion, reason, morality, but I tried to compartmentalise different parts of my life for quite some time. My first sexual experience was forced, and in retaliation I spent the following 5 years cultivating a nonchalant anything-goes attitude towards sex. But I didn't really open up to many people and just got seen as the wild girl, the libertine… I got a lot of attention. But that all changed. I never let myself feel victimised any more. If people have a problem with me for whatever reason, I won't let it bother me so much. I will confront them with it, and usually it will subside. Sometimes I still catch myself using my sexuality to manipulate people, although I try not to. But it was an indispensable skill when I was working as a stripper in London - they didn't even audition me, I just walked into the office and told them I wanted to work there. I loved that power…for a while.

Although I do get a kick from winning people over, if they choose not to like me, I figure they just haven't understood, because I feel I know myself as well as anyone ever could, and I love what I see. If that's what arrogance is, then I'm proud to be arrogant. If people call me vain, so be it. That's just vocabulary. I'm happy. I accept myself.

Working there was one of the best things I ever did. I felt magnificent. It's unlike anything else in the disciplines it allowed me to combine. It was like travelling: I had only myself to depend on; I'd meet hundreds of new people every day, hear a thousand stories; no-one really knew who I was, and nothing shocked me. I was above all an actress. I lived a double life. In London I was Gisèle, the vibrant, life-loving French artiste, whilst in Oxford I was Jen, the girl nobody knew how to label, her own contradiction - insecure and self-confident, sophisticated and childlike, crazy and filled with common sense, calm and fiery. I can't speak for other people, but I'm sure there are many who modify their behaviour according to the circumstances and company in which they find themselves. I no longer do so to such an extent, but for a time I went so far as to assume another name, accent, nationality and general attitude towards sex, nudity and various other attitudes in my everyday working life. Gisèle's persona was born partially of Jennifer Richardson's fear of being identified as a stripper before such figures of authority as her father and college tutors, and partially of a sense of the ridiculous. It made me laugh so much watching people get drawn in by the accent, and seeing how the chauvinistic football-crazed manager offered me sympathy for "my country" during the World Cup etc… - I milked that, made a lot of money. But as my confidence grew, my ability to question social mores and taboo developed, I broke out on my own, felt a new kind of command over my work and environment, and began to fuse Gisèle with Jennifer. That was confusing for a while. Gisèle became half Scottish and Jen half French. Jen's unwillingness to accept sex as a physical expression of emotion became compounded and Gisèle's lust for life spilled into Jen's. Gisèle's accent, once French come Brazilian, became Cockney come European. Both aged 10 years but were lucky enough to retain the beauty and freshness and energy of a 20 year old. They had been the daughter of a diplomat and a dead man; had lived in Kinshasa, Geneva, South Africa…my imagination blossomed.

Acting different roles had always come easily to me. I wanted to be the best at everything so I just acted the role of whoever I felt would excel in whichever field I happened to be involved. I have no sense of national identity to overcome. My Scottish parents bore me in England and raised me in Belgium, where the school of 3000 European expatriate students speaking 11 different languages gave me all accents and none, and promoted an integration of cultures that left me with no understanding of my own. So I adapted. Repeatedly. For a time, people made me believe that I was complicated, lost, lacking identity. But I learned to embrace that. Now I just know that I am what I am in the moment, but because time passes some people think I'm inconsistent. I have so many interests and passions and I explored many of them as a stripper.

Dance was a huge part of that job. It was such a release, and I poured my all into each performance, every interpretation of the music I chose to dance to, using my whole body and my every facial expression, my eyes, to work on the minds in the audience. Before every performance I had to ask a donation off everyone in the club, and as I did the rounds I would build up a profile of the crowd's mood, I would keep track of who was observing what, and the subtlety and efficiency of the manipulation that Gisèle mastered surprised even Jen. I would only then choose what music to dance to. A friend in the industry once wrote, "I am the Scarlet Woman, the alchemist who tries time and time again to turn base desire into pure gold. Me and my kind are ancient. We dare to walk the borderlands and to explore the many levels and realms of the subconscious". Yes we do. There is such elegance, such thrill, such passion in striptease, and there are very few who appreciate its poetry. Most people cannot think outside the bounds of social norm, but my creativity and spirituality necessitate it in order for me to feel fulfilled. In a way this "self-portrait" is a kind of striptease. There's a lot to think about in that…

It's easy sometimes to slip back into a mentality whereby you flaunt yourself to the world rather than simply demonstrate, artistically or otherwise. But since I stopped feeling I had to try so hard to both be myself and to be everyone's favourite, I seem to blend in more. Most of the time I can't be bothered to make myself sound or look exceptional. I know I have my talents, shortcomings, joys and pain, but so does everyone. My story's unique, but it's only as special as any other.

It wasn't always like this. I used to long to be loved by everyone. Everyone. I was timid, imagined people only pretended to like me, that they joked amongst themselves that I was weak. I always felt like the weird kid who cried for no apparent reason, who worked hard at school whilst others could just have fun. I was briefly bullied and frequently teased, and generally took life far too seriously for an eight-year old (I get a bit bored writing about this stuff now - my past - but I accept that there are parts of me that I won't find interesting any more… is this a confession or a performance? Is it a work of art?). Occasionally my older brother, Gavin, would hear a little about this from me, but other than that I kept it all to myself. My sisters didn't really seem to like me too much when they thought I was Dad's little favourite, so I couldn't talk to them (we are very close now). I didn't feel especially close to my mother til later on, and by this stage I had already begun to be someone quite different towards my father. I had observed from an early age that if anything was to be done without heated argument and being confined to one's room for an indefinite period, then Dad had to be on side, or at least had to feel that way. To this day he's the one person I'm reticent to tell the whole truth to, but the reasoning's different now. I don't want to be the cause of another rift in the family. That's the only thing that makes writing this portrait difficult, and no matter what my perceptions may have been in the past or how I angry I still sometimes feel, it's important that I emphasise how much my family mean to me, and how grateful I am to each and every one of them for the support that they have given me over the past few years. To explain who I have become, I must briefly retrace my family life, but for all the hard times that there sometimes were, I wouldn't change them.

When I was eight my family moved to Belgium to avoid my father's being made redundant, and they were having an emotionally tough time (we have never known hardship). Mum was unhappy to leave her life behind, Gavin was depressed, Shona's violent mood-swings were reaching dangerous new levels and causing frequent explosive arguments with our father. It seemed that my parents were constantly at odds, forever arguing about how to deal with all of us (the children). I imagine it must have been tough for them, but that is a story for my parents and my family to tell, and not my place. All I can say is that for me, home was a tense place to grow up. Every day I would see my mother feel just that little bit more crushed, my brother drawing further into himself, my sister rebelling further and my father feeling the only way to secure the family was to rigidly control us. I think that was just his way of doing what he felt was right, but it left its mark. Whilst he seemed to find security in the incessant judgement inherent in the Christain faith as he understood it, religion deeply scared me, and at that time so did he. I became very quiet. I created an entirely other person to show him, to the extent that if I were watching cartoons on TV and heard his footsteps coming I would change the channel just so he wouldn't know what I had been watching. And I remained daddy's favourite, the good girl, excellent school reports, didn't make a fuss about going to Church, friendly and polite with everyone, inquisitive about matters of national interest and the laws of physics. I was churning underneath. This says much more about me than it does of my family. I was an extremely sensitive girl, and always preferred to lock in any pain rather than endure the slightest confrontation.

My closet rebellion took the unoriginal form of frequent drinking binges and occasional drug-taking. That was when I was 12. I lost loads of weight around that time as well, ate nothing but one pastry every day, and sometimes drank a can of coke. I felt fat, ugly, unloved. I wanted so much to feel beautiful, and happy, or perhaps just to disappear. But my school reports were still fine, and I was well-behaved, and all the teachers loved me, so there was no problem. It got a lot worse when I was 14. I started drinking heavily, trying to secretly deal with imposed sexual awareness in the face of my father's religion. I got a lot closer to the rest of my family then. I couldn't cope any more and needed to turn to my mother and older sister. But it distanced me still further from my dad. I knew, or rather I believed I knew, how much he would disapprove of me, and I saw how he felt about the rest of my family for not living up to his ideals, to God's law. I used to want to kill him, and myself, but I cringe to write that now, now that I understand what lay beneath all that anger, and now that I've found the self-awareness to be able to think beyond my own needs and experience.

My later teenage years were still fraught. I was trapped in a mind I hated; Dad and I began fighting, although nothing like he and Shona did; I was depressed, had boy troubles, girl troubles and the usual hormonal imbalance that generally makes that a tough time of life for everyone, but at the same time I found remarkable creative outlet. All my emotions were intense and I expressed them in any way I could - painting, sculpture, theatre, fashion, dance, sex, music, song, poetry… I pushed myself to excel in every field, got involved in every project I could, formed intense relationships. For every situation, I assumed the appropriate persona…and emotionally and physically exhausted myself trying to be all things to all men and women.

I had accomplished some great things, at least in my teachers', parents' and peers' eyes, by the time it all came crashing to a halt. One night things got very bad, and after that I realised that nothing I was doing was making my situation any better. I was bitter and angry about the past, about my family and about others' narrow-mindedness, and was irresponsibly allowing these emotions to override reason and compassion for others, my family in particular. I had never been malicious, and I had generally considered myself a kind and generous person until that time, but I was too self-consumed. I had to learn to take things on the chin. I stopped taking drugs, and didn't drink at all for a whole year then. I came off medication and I started eating healthily. And I stopped blaming other people, started listening to other people's stories, respecting others. I apologised to anyone I felt I needed to, including myself. It was around that time that I first understood peace of mind. I finished school and spent time alone. I met some inspirational people, and even in the face of my deep-seated loathing of religion, I discovered my own spirituality.

My first stint at university was wonderful in that it allowed me to geographically escape all that I associated with a difficult home-life, and gave me the space to develop tolerance and then understanding for my father. But in focusing so much on what I was escaping, I never fully appreciated what I was getting myself into. I never had any burning ambition to come to university, having always imagined I would become some kind of artist or performer without having to actually work too hard for it, and Oxford University was an odd one to "fall into". I didn't apply myself to the work. I found it uninformative and trivial, and preferred to spend my time experiencing new people, dancing, talking, learning about anything I didn't have to learn from a book. But I still felt I had to win approval, and still lacked the confidence to be whatever I felt like being. So when I ran out of money at the end of my first year and began working as a stripper in London, things began to change again.

And that is one of the ways of telling the story of how Jen became Gisèle and then became me. When I began writing this I was almost worried that I wouldn't be able to communicate all of my ideas and portray each and every one of my faces. But of course I can't. This can only be a snapshot, a moment in time, one of an infinite number of possible permutations, and ultimately all that is important to me is that I enjoy it. It's just another game, another means of finding intellectual stimulation, and so unless it is more enjoyable to take it to heart and work myself up about it, I'll just enjoy the experience. If I ever have children, and I'd like to think I will, then I believe my priorities will change, but for the moment what matters most to me is feeling every instant to my core, keeping things calm, staying healthy, taking care of people around me. I can really help people, just by talking with them. That makes me so happy. And it's one of the reasons I love my life.

That's another thing - I have a lot of compassion. I recognise myself as a social creature. I get no pleasure out of malice and I seldom take revenge. I don't see the point. Blame and purpose are concepts I dislike (particularly the former) as they necessitate focus on the past or future, but never on a pure appreciation of the present. I don't think planning for the future is so bad, but I have a childlike wonder at the world at the moment, and I'm aware that no matter what you plan for, you never know where you'll end up. Sometimes I look back on my life and I'm amazed at where it's taken me…and I'm only just 21! I appreciate my youth so much, and I don't regret anything, because I'm happy where I am. The particulars of the more melancholy period of my life are no longer important to me, but remembering that everything once seemed so hard also makes me remember that I learned to accept myself. That gives me a glow. I don't believe there are words that can communicate my calm, but that doesn't matter at all.

I have so much fun these days. And it's simple things that get me going. Dancing. Pole-dancing. Climbing. Cooking. Eating. Joking. Singing in the shower. Dressing in silly clothes. Talking to strangers, every day. Music. I recently had a party to celebrate my 21st birthday, and it was a wonderful fusion of my various lives. I was looking forward to it for months (although I only planned it 4 days in advance…typical me) because it was going to be the time when anyone I knew could get to see many of the different parts of me. It worked gloriously, and I had so much fun.

This needs a soundtrack...