Once, at ten, I cut a tuft of my hair with a pair of craft scissors. I had just re-watched The Parent Trap and was mesmerized still by that red-headed pair, whom I'd heard though the mechanics of this made no sense to my pre-adolescent mind was in fact a single actress, preternaturally cursed with charisma. I studied the bald spot in the mirror, the chubby black boy reflected back. And I smiled.

By then, I'd already spent years of my life watching white girls the way they moved, spoke, acted and attempting to mirror their manner. At basketball practice, in the multipurpose gym of our local Baptist church, I was mocked somewhat relentlessly for that intangible quality, a damning deviation from our Southern black milieu. It wasn't just that I was an effeminate child but that the way I spoke suggested a proximity to whiteness that was itself something queer: an effete, bourgeois refinement, read often as a betrayal to the tribe of my race and sex.

I suppose that now's as good a time as any to confess that the premise of this piece is stolen. I know I am not the first black gay to pen purple prose on the white girls who raised him, but indulge me, for while Hilton Als found his models in Vivien Leigh, Louise Brooks, Truman Capote "white girls" of refinement, intellectuals and ingénues those who plastered the walls of my adolescent mind were ripped straight from the tabloids in grocery aisles. Lank-haired, lean-limbed "bimbos" pictured exiting cabs and clubs in each other's company. Pop stars and heiresses and that one uninsurable actress, dressed down by the press who had vaunted them. Revered and then reviled, they were sold to us as a uniquely Y2K poison, and one that sours my bloodstream still. So, when I say "the Hiltons," I mean Paris and Als. I will always take what's useful.

I must've been in eighth grade the first time I stumbled on PerezHilton.com. And even now, some twenty years on, I feel the ghost of that thrill, watching those girls flayed open. While the straight boys from my school were scavenging porn, I was scanning party pics, minutely tracking the DUI days of the early 2000s. On TV, I watched their proxies Marissa Cooper and, later, Serena Van Der Woodsen leading lives of operatic proportion, proof of what that golden triad of whiteness, wealth and beauty could offer. From then on, I longed to be the kind of girl men ruined their lives to entertain: beautiful, damned, and bored about it. You could see it in their eyes shadowy, sedate, daring us to look away. I couldn't, because, well, I loved them. Their bone-slim sadness, the way they resembled prey. And any time I felt invisible, I pictured life beyond a long-range lens, buying Starbucks or baby tees at Kitson.

That summer I grew six inches and returned to school to a shock of new attention, peers in awe over my Burtonesque frame. Flattered even by concern, I was learning new ways to earn attention. I fell in with what were then called the hipsters: a melange of Ivy-bound aspiring intellectuals and burnouts who chain-smoked "cowboy killers" at the edge of Senior Lot. Some of us went to parties; I never did. Instead, I'd waste whole weekends on Tumblr, scrolling until dawn on the family computer, lusting over faraway lives. These nights were an education: a moonlit curriculum, tracing screenshots like bits of bread back to their roots: Araki, Bertolucci, Coppola, Corine.

I devoured them and found new white girls to worship Mena, Chloe, Courtney, Kate girls who embodied my "queer sophisticate" sensibility.  At school, I sought their surrogates. Some day, some year I can't recall which in wandered a girl who caught my eye. Waifish with waist-length strawberry hair, she'd transferred in from "public school" (someone said, scandalized), and so bore the appropriately exotic air: side bangs and camisoles and skirts of forbidden length, evidence of her disinterest in our Barbour-clad frivolity. She was dangerous, and I wanted desperately to be her friend. 

White girls may not have invented melancholy, but my god, did they perfect it. See: Sylvia. See: Sofia. See: Lana, Lacey, Lynn. See: lens flares and loose hairs and her neon violet room, where we'd splay out on the big bed and blare Nirvana, scrolling side by side in silence. I've always been drawn to doomy girls who wear their sadness like a skin but, beneath, burn with a kerosene charm. So soon ours was a kind of twinship, two names spoken in one breath.

We were, in the social hierarchy of Southern prep school, difficult to categorize: neither popular nor irrelevant brazenly "miscellaneous." She dated an older boy whom I remember being in a band, though perhaps that's mere embroidery, and wrote slit-wristed poems that inspired me to write my own. Her life, to me, seemed cinematic, reminiscent of the outsider glamor found in the books and films we were so self-consciously modeling ourselves after. Midnights at Rocky Horror; Saturdays slumming at the mall. We were in her bed, but she was in my feed. Moody photographs taken by her Tumblr-famous friend went routinely viral on the whims of internet strangers, who saw in her what I did: the indie teen dream. I'd hit repost and there she was, among all the others. In those moments, she'd cease to be my friend and become pure image an idea, an idol - and in me yawned open some old, ugly desire to slip into her skin. 

It was the first time in a long time I'd felt that particular hunger, but it would not be the last. In the years that followed, I'd meet other white girls some wealthy, some not; some pretty, some not; indie girls, sorority girls, society girls and, through the steady ingestion of Baldwin and Fanon, I'd build up my defense. A phalanx of black theory, I thought, would make me immune to the thrall of the white femme ideal. But in lucid moments, catching my lilt on a particular word or the way I performed disinterest, I'd see plainly the evidence of every white girl I'd cannibalized to become myself. 

And, in time, my life would look a lot like the pictures. I'd see the sights and buy the clothes and befriend some of the beauties who'd once lived on my blog. I would meet Paris in New York, and would sit, at the pandemic birthday of an Indonesian socialite, several plates from her sister and the billionaire she eventually wed. I would speak, at a mutual's Fashion Week presentation, to a slender ginger who'd smile after mentioning his famous elder sister her spitting image and say "guess who." And I would see, in the tabloid coverage of my best friend's death, the glare of that merciless light. But I'm not sure I'd ever learn to look away.


There's this picture of Lindsay I love.

In it, she glares at the camera, or whoever's behind it, an acrid scowl souring her once cherubic face, now angular and bare. With a sapphire pipe in one hand and a middle finger erect on the other, she telegraphs more than anger, more than anything a kind of exhaustion with being exposed, yet again, in the throes of tabloid vice. And yet, the photo's a lie. Because, behind her, barely in frame, is another girl, hand draped on Lindsay's shoulder, who appears to be smiling, posing, suggesting that in the split second it took to stage, Lindsay selected this posture. She is still acting, still playing the bad girl well. Which, to me, says everything about the era those aughts-end days when I was coming of age and absorbing a lesson about beauty, and glamor, and youth: that even when it is excruciatingly constant, it is better to be seen to be plot instead of set dressing an intuition for what would manifest in the subsequent years, as all of us on the internet would opt in to that surveillance and its merciless scrutiny as the cost of admission for a record of having lived. 

Rob Franklin received his MFA in Fiction from New York University. A Kimbilio Fiction fellow and finalist for the NER Emerging Writer Prize, he has published work in New England ReviewThe Rumpus, and Prairie Schooner, among others. His debut novel, Great Black Hope, will be published next summer by Summit Books. @robfrank__ is his handle on Instagram and Twitter