A Wacky Chick Am I
by Simon Doonan
Who are the wacky chicks? And what makes this new breed of insurgent revolutionaries tick?
Wacky chicks are a burgeoning and highly entertaining phenomenon. Wacky chicks will change the world. Wacky chicks dare to annoy. Wacky chicks empower themselves and others without acting like blokes. Wacky chicks are having more fun than most regular chicks and all men, except maybe gay men. Wacky chicks are disapproval-immune. Wacky chicks are like grown-up Eloises. Wacky chicks are belligerent, resilient, uninhibited, naughty, creative and hilarious—i.e., wacky chicks are B.R.U.N.C.H.
I was raised by a wacky chick: my arch and hilariously contrarian mother.
At the age of eight I suddenly became aware that Betty Doonan was not like the other women on our street: in the 1950’s the average British housewife did not ride a white bicycle down the middle of the High Street while smoking a Woodbine and wearing rubber high-heeled galoshes with glitter flecks in them. "Your mum is strange," hectored my fascistic little playmates, igniting a priggish conformist spark in me. I temporarily succumbed to the cringe-inducing censures of my peers and craved a more conventional parent. My mum’s splashy dirndls, cleavage-enhancing bustiers and overpainted lip-line became an embarrassment to me.
Then, out of the blue, weird things started happening to me: I found myself staring intently, and longingly, at my scoutmaster’s hairy legs and, when my mum was out at work, staring intently at my mum’s galoshes … on my feet! I was exhibiting—albeit only to myself—all the early signs of an enthusiastic cross-dresser. I fought these disquieting impulses for a few months and then gave up. By the age of 10 I knew that I too was different and that my mum and I had more in common than a penchant for Woodbines. We were Glamorous Outsiders whose unconventional tendencies incurred the small-minded censure of the less vivacious folk who surrounded us. My wacky chick obsession results from a deep-seated need to establish that—contrary to popular belief—it’s O.K. to be different. In fact, it is positively preferable and really rather fab.
Amy’s childhood was happy, give or take a gnarly incident or two. At elementary school she slammed into one Bobby Marshall, "an unfortunate kid with a water head." After she banged into her hydrocephalic playmate, the teacher forced Amy to kiss him to make it feel better. "I was repulsed. It was my first kiss—and then when I did it, it wasn’t so bad. He’s probably passed on. Isn’t that sad?" recalls Amy mistily.
Romance aside, a wholesome and almost Partridge Family–esque commitment to singing and performing enlivened the Raleigh, N.C., Sedaris family home. "I was a huge Streisand fan. I could imitate her and make myself look like her. It stopped after Butterfly," chirrups Amy, sounding a bit like an old-school faggot. "Whatever we did, we had to have an audience. When we baked cakes, [writer brother] David and I pretended we were on a cooking show. Counting pocket money? It’s more fun if you pretend you’re a busy accountant. I still do that."
Other miscellaneous portents of the show-biz career to come included spontaneous entertaining at airports: "I used to sing country songs to entertain people as they came off planes." She also played a rooster in a production of Charlotte’s Web, and, "when my yaya was in a convalescent home," recalls Amy, using the Greek word for granny, "David and I used to put on shows to cheer everyone up. ‘Knock ’em dead,’ we would say before every show."
A beneficent theatricality was emerging, but so was another more ominous side: a fascistic love of order and uniforms. "When I was a senior in high school I was still a Girl Scout. I loved the camping and baking Girl Scout cookies, and, of course, cheeseballs and muffins. I used to wear my Girl Scout uniform everywhere. I fell in love with uniforms." From her Brownie uniform and her Winn-Dixie, Amy has accumulated a spectacular uniform collection, each reflecting a different period of her life. She is meticulous about the cleaning, ironing and accessorizing of these beloved garments. On first arriving in New York, she took a food-service job at Gourmet Garage: "They wanted me to wear a baseball cap and I wanted to wear a hair net. They said, ‘No way,’ so I gave two weeks’ notice."
Uniform-lovin’ Amy showed no desire to go to college. The only subject that interested her was criminology. She toyed with getting a job at the local prison. "Just because you like crime doesn’t mean you have to go work at the prison—just read about crime," said brother David, giving her a copy of what must surely be one of the most horrid crime books of all time, The Basement, by feminist writer Kate Millett. This grisly account of the actions of torturer/murderer Gertrude Baniszewski only served to fuel Amy’s dark fascinations.
Amy, it must be pointed out, is not unusual in this regard. Many w.c.’s with whom I spoke had watched and cringed their way through the Jeffrey Dahmer trial on Court TV, though most prefer lighter fare: an evening spent watching COPS or America’s Most Wanted, or a film noir classic with a malevolent heroine like Phyllis in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. While generally law-abiding, w.c.’s enjoy the comforting frisson which comes from reading about gruesome crimes that didn’t happen to them, or about anybody who is clearly more appalling than they could ever be accused of being.
This column ran on page 1 in the 4/21/2003 edition of The New York Observer.
Read the full Amy Sedaris chapter: "Vermin and Cheeseballs"