I wasn’t always Helena Holloway.
Like lots of artists, I changed my name. My parents named me Nicole Helena Holloway, but I legally had it changed to Helena Nicole Holloway when I was seventeen: my first real gift to myself. Nicole Holloway was a name one could see on a tiny little plaque on a gray office cubicle. Helena Holloway was a name one could see in huge letters on the cover of a book.
“Helena” was such an old-fashioned name, perfect for the vintage-dress-wearing, hair-ribbon-using, bay-window-nook-sitting kind of vibe I was going for. You know, like the name of a young woman whose face you’d find inside a vintage locket, rosebud lips turned up ever-so-slightly, as though she had a century’s worth of secrets she was still keeping.
My early life contained the sort of idyll that 1950s America tried to sell to young newlyweds: safe, peaceful, and picture-perfect. I was an only child who lived in Falls Grove, Pennsylvania, in a McMansion with a big front yard and a lush forest out back. My mom was a Wall Street hedge fund manager who left for New York City when the sky was still dark out and somehow managed to come home every day in time for dinner. My dad was a stay-at-home father who drove me to ballet class, helped me with my math homework, and made delicious apple pies for school bake sales.
All my parents wanted was for me to be happy. All I wanted was to be famous.
I couldn’t see what the point of anything was if one couldn’t become well-known, with all eyes on them, media outlets tracking their every move. So what if my house was so big that I had a separate room for all of my clothes and toys? So what if both of my parents tucked me into bed every night? I may have been satisfied materially, but the only thing I dreamed of couldn’t be bought.
Unlike other kids, I didn’t aspire to be a famous actress or pop star. I had pretty bad stage fright, actually. I was cast as a one-line fairy in my fifth-grade class’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I was so nervous that when it came time to say my one line — “Peaseblossom” — “Beesblossom” came out of my mouth instead. My ballet teachers knew to put me toward the back for dance recitals, because I had a track record of fucking up when the stage lights came on, no matter how good I was by myself in the studio.
No, the performing arts were not my forte. I wanted to build my legacy with words, to be the kind of writer whose life would crystallize into legend, like Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, or Hunter S. Thompson.
I learned to read when I was six and rarely went anywhere without a book after that. I devoured anything I got my hands on — the translated collections of Anna Akhmatova poetry collecting dust on the living room shelf, the toilet paper wrappers under the sink, the steamy volumes of male-on-male erotica that I found in my dad’s secret bedside drawer. I was floored by the vivid, nonsensical imagery in those books. Lines such as “Dante could fit all of Eric into his mouth” made me giggle as I imagined Eric’s entire body shrinking as he walked into Dante’s giant orifice. Those slim volumes inspired me to write my own absurdist short stories, which led me to write other stories — romances, murder mysteries, satirical renditions of whatever went on at school that day.
Writing fiction was nice, but what I really loved was memoir. I had a vision of a large book in my head, with wide margins, smooth, cream-colored pages, and tiny serif text. Whenever something exciting happened, I imagined whole sentences appearing in the book, dark lines marching themselves across the paper. I wanted to make that book real one day, and I wanted that book to fix my life story in the minds of others.
Sadly, I didn’t have too much of a life to write about. I longed for a backstory comparable to those of tortured artists I read about in glitzy-covered biographies: Dare Wright, ethereal photographer-slash-artist-slash-model who remained lonely and lost despite her beauty and creativity; Cat Marnell, glamorous beauty editor by day, glamorously messy amphetamine addict by night; Eve Babitz, Hollywood It-Girl turned Hollywood recluse after a freak accident left her body covered in third-degree burns from the waist down. But I was just normal, boring Nicole, with a room full of notebooks and no bad habits to speak of. Falls Grove was much too safe, much too gated, and much too predictable for any sort of sketchy behavior to transpire.
College would be my springboard into the world, my one shot at gaining the kind of recognition I so desired. There was nothing I wanted more than to go away to a prestigious university, cultivate a glamorous lifestyle, and write it all into a book that people would snap up as though they were rabbits around an unguarded tomato patch. After that, I’d use my advance to fund more adventures, write even more books, and repeat until Helena Holloway became a household name. I’d make a living from living.
I could’ve easily gotten into Harvard or Yale or Princeton, but I set my sights on Stanford University. Stanford seemed like a place full of innovation, where people took you seriously for just having an idea. Plenty of young, nerdy, ambitious-yet-bookish kids had gotten their big breaks there. Why not me? Plus, it was close to brisk, hilly San Francisco, with all of its foggy allure and pastel Victorian charm.
Yes, Stanford is exactly what I wanted. Luckily, my relentless graphomania meant that I had a way with words, and what did words come in good for? College applications! I scored a perfect 800 on both the reading and writing sections of the SAT — everybody overlooked the 550 I got in math — and wrote an essay about my lonely childhood that was so poignant that it made my college counselor’s mascara run during a one-on-one proofreading meeting. So what if I’d gotten the sob story off of Reddit? I’d taken a raw thing and told it in my own way, as if it had been a part of the big book in my head all along.
I tore open my acceptance letter on a warm May evening and saw the golden cut of a shooting star make its way through the darkening sky.
Congratulations! The Admissions Committee is pleased to offer you admission to Stanford University as part of the Class of 2018. You have set yourself apart; we are impressed and inspired by your passion, determination, and accomplishments. You will be part of something larger than yourself at Stanford, and your unique perspective will contribute to our extraordinary community.
As I read these words, I realized that everything I’d gone through in life, every book I’d read, every story I’d written, every slight I’d felt and every second I’d spent daydreaming about my legacy was coming together to create exactly what I wanted. I could feel it, that certainty, sparkling in the air around me.
Later that night, I popped open a bottle of 1996 Bollinger La Grande Année — champagne that was as old as I was — as my parents watched, misty-eyed. The alcohol was bitter and the bubbles went up my nose. I tossed the contents of my glass off the back deck when nobody was looking. I didn’t need substances to celebrate the fact that I was leaving shy, quiet Nicole behind in Pennsylvania.
From that moment on, I would be Helena Holloway, beautiful and mysterious and untouchable — the ultimate Cool Girl with a larger-than-life personality, adventures so ridiculous that they’d at first sound like fiction, and the determined wherewithal to write it all down.
If this were just a fictional story, and not my actual past, I would pause the narrative right here and tell that innocent seventeen-year-old straight to her face: Be careful what you wish for.
Back then, I thought that everything about my life was about to change forever, for the better. Instead, my life was about to change forever in sinister ways interlaced with fame, money, and love — things I didn’t know well enough back then to fear.
So, instead of thinking about all the ways that things would go wrong, I looked at the night sky, clasped my hands together, and thought, I wish to be more famous than I can ever comprehend.