• cooper hays

Buy the Stripper a Drink: Costume Change!

Madam Cooper writes about the importance of the proper attire on our state of mind.

Madame Cooper Lyn Hays

We all have issues. Some of us sweep them under the rug and some of us throw a fun hat on them, wrap them in fishnets, and give them a microphone.

I fall into the latter category and 10 months into isolated quarantine, with no stage lights, no full house, no backing band, and nowhere to go has had me crawling out of my skin.

Breaks in show business and gig dry spells are normal for me and nearly everyone in the business, but this extended and relentless dry spell coupled with the daily barrage of bad news has us all grasping for ways to cope.

I was sitting on steps the other night, staring out into the icy cold Alaskan mountains surrounding my strange new home and wondering what the heck I am going to do to stay sane.

How am I going to stay motivated to make art, make a change, or even to get out of bed this winter? My old tricks and habits have not been working. No amount of namaste or white girl food and flower photography can fill this void. No attempts at strict writing schedules or hiking goals, healthy food prep, or self-help on Audible is going to wrench me out of this funk.

Hyper positive mantras and those whiteboard life planners make me nauseous. I do some witchy shit and smoke weed among the crystals sometimes, but I personally do not get any Zen from watching a fabulously fit rich kid in spandex on the screen telling me how to live my best life in the face of all of Hell’s handbaskets coming undone. Online pyramid schemes don’t motivate me either and I’ll skip the fees and influencer inspiration in online “mastermind” groups.

I have to be realistic about how this year of painful awakening has affected me and how I am going to actually be able to process and integrate it each day. We all do.

Being realistic takes self-inventory and reflection. My quarantine journaling attempts have all petered out faster than my sourdough starter. My shitty guitar still sits with a broken string and a thin layer of dust in the corner, too tired and bored of my melancholy to even whisper my name. And worse, a foolhardy flirtation with the booze bottle has had me in its dark embrace on and off.

I’ve faced seasonal affective issues before, I grew up in the ceaseless downpour and drizzle of the Southern Oregon Coast, and just as Keith Whitley crooned about the constant wrestling with the darkness and trauma storms, I too am “no stranger to the rain.”

But these feelings of impending doom would be redundant to describe to anyone on Earth at this moment. While we all ache and try to make sense of the chaos and extended longing, we have to get creative with how we cope.

This got me thinking on that icy step while I sat sucking on a cancerous bundle of burning paper and plant matter and staring into the chilly abyss of the wild unknown place I have landed.

I wondered about some creative ways of coping. Is there something I haven’t tried? Or maybe something I have used in the past but had forgotten about?

A bomb destroyed my old block in Nashville on Christmas day, and that barely made the news during this daily swirling shit pit we call reality.

I thought about how I had dealt with unprecedented challenges in bumpy and traumatic times of my life before. How had I stayed out of the pit? What has worked? What has not?

This got my gears rolling around a bit, fully acknowledging that I am in over my head and have no clue how to face this scary new reality that keeps surging in like tidal waves, but after finishing my smoke, I stood up and realized I was wearing the wrong thing.

I was in a pair of thin sweatpants, a pitted out sweater, and a ratty beanie hat that made me feel dumpy and in the dumps.

I wondered how serious I was about wanting some new ways of coping and something to inspire me. I sure showed up dressed today for the job that my subconscious clearly wanted: Sad sullen showgirl that has lost her spark and drive and cannot be bothered to change it.

I thought about times of stress or depression or seemingly impossible odds. I remembered what I was wearing. Not in some shallow need to be fashionable in a tense situation, but as an acknowledgment of the transformative power of costume.

There is a very intense force in costume that superheroes and drag queens alike are always bringing to our attention in popular culture. Theater costuming courses in college fascinated me with their tricks. I learned the secrets about colors and fabrics and the cuts of wardrobe that could tell an entire story without a single word uttered.

“Dress for success,” they say but I wondered, what else do we dress for? Could I dress for my own healing and self-discovery in these choppy and cold waters of the 20s? Could I costume my way out of this funk?

My best friend Danny and I have always had an inside joke about when life throws you a plot twist and situations arise that spin you around and, sometimes, send you on an entirely new path. We call that a costume change. When shit is getting thick or heated and we see that a new job, or a move, or a new lover, or a new way of being is imminent we yell “Costume Change!” And usually hit the thrift store or a friend’s closet for the threads to match the life move.

It’s no question that the right costume can make all the difference when facing the world for everyone to see. But beware, dear reader, the wrong one can mess you up big time too. For example, I used to compete in pageants that called themselves scholarship programs. The costumes I wore for those spectacles were so important that they could completely change the direction of your entire life. Well, I accidentally dripped a few drops of period blood into a $300 lime green one-piece swimsuit at a very high-end wedding and pageant shop in Portland Oregon.

I was trying on various costume items for the competition. I had been coached on how important the cut and look for the swimsuit was. A bad suit could be a deal-breaker. The right suit could open the doors of glamour and opportunity. Best to choose carefully and wisely. And “you never know till you try it on.”

My period blood chose for me and I had to pretend I was over the moon for this lime Lycra nightmare because I could not put it back on the rack after defiling it in such a way and I couldn’t afford to break the unspoken you-bleed-on-it-you-buy-it rule. I folded it carefully and clutched to it as my pageant director forked over the credit card at the register. We agreed to keep the blood spot hushed and I would just work out extra hard to make up for the square shape it cast across my virtuous young American figure.

The little stain was just a faded pink spot by the time the state pageant rolled around. But it might as well have been across my face and shouting “Noooooope!” at the judges and audience. I felt like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle strutting the catwalk in the costume that my menstrual shame had chosen. Except I had no nunchucks. I did not win any crown.

It might have also had a little to do with how I answered the political questions onstage or the fact that my platform was about preventing teen pregnancy and STDs with education, but the shitty swimsuit didn’t help. The wrong suit can knock you out of your magic and off your game. It can ruin all the fun too.

Having the right costume can turn your entire outlook around and can help motivate and even push you. What I think a good costume does is inspire you.

When I first arrived in tiny Skagway, Alaska a few months ago, I had left all of my costumes in Nashville. Boxes of beaded gowns, cowboy hats, and sparkling heels got shuffled into storage as my show shut due to COVID. It took my separation from them to realize that those things are like weapons for the blues. Throwing on a pair of 6-inch heels and a silk top hat gives me a spark and an inspiration that pushes me to create.

Walking through the backstage hallways covered in feathers and rhinestones gives me a kind of confidence that I feel like sharing with the audience. By the time the band strikes up the first note of my opening number, all my cells are sparkling as bright as the glitter I am donning just aching to be seen, to see, and to share the moment with every sparkly-eyed and thirsty soul in the crowd.

There is not much shopping here in Skagway during the winter and not a lot of use for spiked heels and delicate haberdashery. Still, one of the brightest days I’ve had here so far was when I checked out the brand new charity thrift shop benefiting the Eagles Club. It’s a little volunteer-run spot called The Kitchen Sink.

I had been feeling the inspiration sucking vacuum creeping up and no amount of Vitamin D capsules fired into my gut would be lifting it. What did lift it was a big Russian fur hat.

It was gigantic. Sitting atop a yellowed old mannequin beyond my reach. I asked my super tall husband, Ian, to fetch it for me as a joke. It was preposterous in its size and I thought I’d get a laugh out of trying it on. But, once this giant furball was plopped onto my crown I was mesmerized. Ian stood back and said, “You look like a 70s Bond babe.” That sealed the deal.

I checked the tag and could not believe it was only 5 dollars. This vintage fluff ball that smelled like a grandma’s dusty closet became my new inspiration right there in the middle of a dark and dreary winter in Skagway.

I felt a tingle of excitement. I slogged home in my rubber boots and placed my newest acquisition on the vanity. I stared at it and imagined being a sexy 70s Bond girl out on the snow trails committing espionage in red lipstick and gliding through the forest like a fox. I asked Ian if we could try an afternoon of cross country skiing. Something my short-legged, not so sporty self would never have wanted to do or been motivated to try. But the costume screamed for it. He was game.

I spent the day surrounded by snowy white splendor and got my heart rate up for several hours. A raven croaked as I tried to launch over a hill that even Ian couldn’t make without falling. I am irrationally afraid of bodily harm and when I slipped over and through the hill flawlessly, proving something new to myself, I thanked the raven out loud and touched my magic hat.

I had pumped some feel-good hormones into my dome (effectively staving off the darkness for several days after); a much-needed reminder that if you give me a good lipstick and the proper costume, I can tackle anything.

Ian is a Shotokan Karate master and has told me it is almost impossible for him to get motivated to train hard unless he is wearing his traditional karate gi. My editor told me that he wasn’t able to “become the singer” in his touring band until he put on his “uniform.”

No one can deny the power of the correct outfit but I think we sometimes forget how powerful it is as a tool for healing, for depression, for finding motivation, and for inspiring change within ourselves and without.

I got a gift certificate to an Alaskan shoe store called Shoefly as a Christmas gift. I am hibernating in a cold and very rugged land. I could have ordered some warm boots or a practical pair of Galoshes. Instead, I ordered a pair of 5 inch Jeffery Campbell pumps absolutely drenched in ruby rhinestones. They are now sitting on display on my vanity station and when my heart feels like it is going to implode and I feel the doom creeping under my bed and grabbing at my ankles, I walk over and put them on.

I have no idea when I will get to wear them onstage. I have no idea what kind of footwear this coming year is going to demand of me. I don’t know a whole lot of things. But I do know that when I put on these ruby slippers, I can click them three times and remember that there is no place I can’t survive if I just add the right costume.

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