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the camera flashes make it look like a dream

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            “Isn’t it strange how it all happens? All my life I dreamed about ... the bright lights, the big city. You know, they tell you it’s going to be glamorous, and that you have everything … they tell you that you’re lucky. But no one tells you how lonely it’s going to be. And they don’t tell you, when you’re twirling in front of the mirror as a child, what the papers are going to say about you someday. ‘Cause they don’t tell you they’re building you up, just to try and knock you down. But they haven’t yet.”

 

            She spoke mostly to herself, aware of the movement behind her, the crowded room full of cameramen, a makeup team, assistants and sound technicians. Her publicist was there, and her manager, everyone chattering as they called out orders, checked mics, made sure the blinding lights were bright enough to light up the comfortably staged looking area set up for the interview. Two brown wingback leather armchairs were angled towards each other, a low table set before it with two mugs of water, and a vase of freesias adding some colour. A Persian rug sat beneath it all, with the backdrop of one of Lena’s built-in bookshelves giving it a cozy feeling. It was the perfect setting to give off a natural air of ease once the cameras got rolling, but so many people in her apartment was making her antsy.

 

            No one even paid her any attention as their voices filled the room with a loud cacophony, the voices indistinct as they melded together, and she put her back to it all, staring out of the tall window, taking in the miserable grey skies outside. It was due to rain, and already a few stray speckles wet the windows as she watched, dressed casually in a plain white shirt tucked into stonewashed jeans. Even the outfit was intentional, to give off a relaxed vibe, down to the thin silver necklace with the paper plane charm, the two rings on the middle finger of her right hand, and the neutral makeup. Her dark hair waved slightly, not quite her trademark curls from her younger days, but making a return from the short, chemically straightened style she’d been sporting.

 

            “Hm?” her assistant asked, acknowledging that she’d spoke, “were you saying something? Do you want more water?”

 

            Turning away from the sight to give her a thin smile, Lena shook her head. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

 

            Wringing her hands, she looked down at them, taking in the neatly cut nails for her guitar playing, painted with a clear nail polish, and the rings on her right hand, nervously twisting them as she waited for everyone to finish setting up. Drawing in a shaky breath, she turned back to her assistant, giving her a strained smile.

 

            “Hey, Eve, actually, do you mind getting me some water? Thank you.”

 

            Giving her a warm smile in return, the shorter woman gently touched her on the arm, before walking off to get a bottle from the fridge. The camera crew had their own with them, but Lena stocked a specific brand for herself, and she gratefully took the bottle from Eve when she reappeared a moment later. She wasn’t particularly thirsty, but her mouth was dry with nervousness, and she needed to do something .

 

            “Lena? Where is- oh, Lena, it’s time for a mic test, can you come here?” her manager, Mercy Graves, called out, waving her over as she located her over in the corner, far away from all the activity.

 

            Sighing, she handed Eve her unopened bottle of water and gave the assistant a grateful smile as she wished her luck, before walking over to her manager. Arm going around her shoulder, Mercy ushered her towards a man holding a tiny little mic. It was a lapel mic, which would clip onto the collar of her shirt and snake underneath it, connecting to the black transmitter clipped onto the back of the waistband of her jeans. She stiffly stood there as she let the man clip it onto her jeans, while she attached the mic to her collar and slid the wire inside her shirt, untucking the bottom and pulling it out the other end.

 

            Letting herself be hooked up, she bit back a sigh as her makeup artist came over to run a brush over her face again for a few finishing touches, while her hair stylist ran a wide tooth comb through her dark waves. It was getting quite long again, Lena mused to herself as she let herself be poked and prodded by numerous pairs of hands. It didn’t even bother her anymore; she was so used to it that she sometimes forgot what it was like to have some resemblance of privacy.

 

            Her interviewer was loudly laughing with the guy attaching a mic to her as well, her platinum hair waving down to her shoulders, the black suit oozing easy confidence, and Lena found her stomach twisting uncomfortably. Leslie Willis was one of the most high profile talk show hosts for the time being, having started out an early career on radio, before picking up traction and earning herself her own screen time on cable TV. Lena had been a guest on her show nearly every year since the show had been airing, sometimes even twice a year, and was friendly enough with Leslie to entrust her with the interview. The other woman was witty, with a dry sense of humour and the ability to carry someone through even the most awkward interviews, and Lena felt a little bit better knowing that no matter what, at least this one wasn’t being aired live. They could always cut things, she’d been assured of it. Part of her terms for doing it had been the final say in what was included and what was edited out.

 

            Still, she found a cold sweat prickling the back of her neck and her lower back, her heart hammering in her chest as she drew in shallow breaths to keep herself calm. Her mother’s voice seemed oddly distant as she asked her if she was okay, and Lena numbly shrugged. It didn’t matter now anyway, she couldn’t back out now. Well, she could , but so much effort had gone into readying everything, starting with a five o’clock wake up for Lena, although it wasn’t like she’d slept much anyway. The shadows beneath her eyes that the makeup couldn’t quite completely cover were a testament to that.

 

            “Just … remember your interview lessons,” Lillian quietly told her, a troubled look on her face as she looked down at her pale daughter.

 

            At the wide eyed look of worry on Lena’s face, Lillia softly sighed, reaching out to pull her into a hug, and Lena buried her face in her mom’s shoulder, smelling the familiar fragrance of the perfume that stretched all the way back to her childhood as she limply wrapped her arms around her and hugged her back. Her mother had a way of making her feel small again, and Lena wished in some ways that she’d never grown up. She’d been the victim of such a crime for a while now, as was everyone else at some point, and there were days when she wished more than anything that she was still seven, still naive, drinking chocolate milkshakes and still needing her mom. She’d learnt that growing up didn’t mean that she had to give those things up, that she had to stop loving the things she’d loved, but there were days when she sprayed the perfume she used to wear in high school and revived a flood of memories from those times when things had been easier. From days before the fame.

 

            Letting go, she gave Lillian a warm smile, and stepped back, giving Mercy a nod and walking over to one of the sofas. She opted for the one on the right, having been told on numerous occasions that it was her good side, and her publicist, Rhea, shadowed her, speaking in a quiet voice as she ran over a few things with Lena. It was the same as always, things that had been reiterated hundreds of times over the years, at press events, in interviews, on red carpets. As Lena relaxed into the soft leather of the armchair, one of her favourites to read in, she nodded, Rhea's hand on her shoulder as she hovered over her, speaking in a low voice.

 

            “If she says anything provocative, don’t lose your temper, don’t be snarky, just give yourself a moment to come up with something witty, something dismissive. You’re in charge here, if you need a break just give me a nod and I’ll get them to cut. Remember; nothing is off the record, and even when the camera’s are off, they’re all looking at you. Anything you say - anything - will be published if it’s something worth selling. This isn’t a puff piece, I know you have a lot to say, but just … be conscious of your words.”

 

            “Right,” Lena murmured.

 

            Giving her shoulder a squeeze, Rhea gave her a convincing smile as Leslie took a seat in the other armchair. “You’re going to do great,” Rhea told her, a slightly anxious look on her face as she pulled back, retreating beyond the well-lit space for the interview, to stand in the shadows with Lillian and Mercy.

 

            Sitting still in her chair, Lena let her makeup artist ensure that her nude lipstick was perfect, swiping a little bit more blusher on her pasty cheeks so she didn’t look too washed out beneath the lights, while Leslie made a quip about all the hard work being done to make them look good as her own team fussed over her too. There were a few quick tests with the mics, camera tests and adjustments of lighting angles, before they were finally deemed ready to begin. Feeling her palms turn clammy, Lena ran them over the thighs of her jeans, conscious of all the people in the room, despite the illusion of privacy everyone else would see on screen.

 

            It was like being in a bubble, just her and Leslie inside the spotlight, ready to enjoy a nice afternoon chat while rain pattered against the window, giving off the ambience of a peaceful autumn day. But beyond the two isolated chairs was a row of shiny lenses, blinking lights and dark figures hunched over screens and soundboards, standing behind the various cameras, holding the fluffy mic boom above them and large halos of light making her eyes water. At least two dozen people were crowded into the spacious living room, some of them spilling out into the hallway, other lingering in dark corners as they waited to be summoned for a task. It was all achingly familiar to Lena, and she found herself tired before they’d even properly begun.

 

            “Nervous?” Leslie quietly asked, leaning across the arm of her chair to give Lena a curious look, a smile playing on her dark red lips.

 

            “A little,” Lena admitted, a sheepish smile flitting across her face, before rearranging back into a blank mask.

 

            Waving her concerns aside, Leslie pulled back, lounging in her chair as she stared at the camera, even though her words were for Lena. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine once we get the ball rolling.”

 

            “That’s easy for you to say,” Lena said, giving her a sidelong glance as she smiled, “you’re not the one spilling all of your darkest secrets for the whole world to hear.”

 

            With a quick laugh, Leslie gave her an amused look, before the director got their attention. Both of them sat up straight, trying to look composed, yet relaxed, and Lena listened to Leslie go into her spiel about Lena, talking about her accomplishments, her critically acclaimed career so far, her young success and world renowned fame, before she looked at Lena, a genuinely warm smile on her face as Lena met her eyes.

 

            “So, this is exciting!” Leslie said, a glimmer of eagerness in her eyes as she shifted in her seat, getting comfortable, “this is the chance to ask you all the questions that people have been asking you for years .”

 

            Quietly laughing, Lena gave her a wry smile, easily slipping into the familiar rapport of being interviewed by Leslie. “If you’re lucky, I might answer them too.”

 

            “I’ll go easy on you, I promise,” Leslie assured her, “but first, how’re you feeling about this? I mean, this is … well, you came to me about this interview and pitched it as a tell all, and that’s something that you’ve never done before. What happened to make you want to be so candid with the world?”

 

            Softly sighing, Lena bit her bottom lip, a thoughtful look on her face as they lapsed into silence. She was highly aware of the sounds of other people in the room, the bright lights and shifting cameramen out of the corner of her eyes, and she looked down at her lap, frowning slightly as she tried to pick her words carefully. With a tight lipped smile, she looked up and gave Leslie a steady look.

 

            “The thing I’ve learned about people over the years is that … we think we know them, but the truth is that we only know the version of them that they present to us. To every person they know, they’re different. They’re different to their best friend, their lover, their mum. We might hear rumours about them and choose to believe them, and then when we meet them, we feel stupid for believing baseless gossip. I’ve been in the public eye since I was fifteen years old. On the lovely side of that, I’ve been so lucky to make music for a living, and look out at the beautiful crowds of people supporting me, and I’ve always wanted one thing in life, and I’m not going to be that person who gets it and then complains, but … on the other side of the coin, my mistakes have been used against me, my heartbreaks have been used as entertainment, and my songwriting trivialised.”

 

            She paused for a moment, a serious look on her face as she frowned slightly, fiddling with her fingers in her lap, even though she knew that Rhea would scold her afterwards for fidgeting. “I guess I just- … I wanted to tell my side of things. Not the made up stories in the media, or slanderous comments off people who don’t like me. This is my chance to be honest, to tell everyone who I am, and then-”

 

            Pausing, she bit her lip, and Leslie gave her a prompting look, an intrigued look in her eyes. “And then?”

 

            With a tight smile, Lena tilted her head to the side, a satisfied look on her face. “And then … there’ll be no further explanation.”

 

            Cocking her head to the side, Leslie gave her a suspicious look, thinking hard as she pursed her lips slightly. “There’ll be no further explanation … you’ve said that before, haven’t you?”

 

            Lips curling up into a smile, Lena nodded, “in the letter on my last album. There will be no further explanation. There will be just reputation.”

 

            “And what does that mean for you, now, in this context?”

 

            Slowly breathing in, Lena licked her lips, a pensive look crossing her face as she let her eyes wander around, before she let out her pent up breath, seeming to deflate slightly in her seat. She took pride in being an honest person, even if she was as private as her high profile life allowed her to be, but this was the true test of her candour. This interview was the moment of complete transparency for her, to rid herself of all the guilt, fear and wrongdoings she'd wrought to keep her secrets. There was almost an air of relief about her as she relaxed slightly into the familiar rhythm of the interview, the standard question and answer relationship, and she laced her fingers together as she stilled.

 

            “I think for me … it means that I’ll come clean, be honest and truthful, from my own perspective, and then … it’s up to everyone else what they make of it. It’s up to them what reputation they give me. I’ve had many of the years. The good girl, the slut, the liar, the heartbreaker. But none of them know the truth. Not really. Once I present to everyone the version of myself that I see myself as, then I won’t have to explain myself any further, and the reputation that honesty gives me … well, that’s a matter of everyone else’s opinion.”

 

            Falling into silence for a few moments, Leslie let the effects of Lena’s words sink in, for the benefit of the audience who would watch it in the future, before she gave her an expectant look. “So, where do we start?”

 

            Nervously laughing, Lena rubbed the back of her neck as she shrugged, giving her a sheepish smile, “well, I’m a storyteller by heart, and like all good stories, you have to start at the beginning.”

 

            “And where’s that? Where does your story begin?”

 

            “I think for me … there’s three beginnings to my story. There’s the day I was born, the day I got signed for a record deal, and the day I met the love of my life.” She watched as Leslie leant in at the last part, feeling the tension in the room as everyone registered her words, the silent eagerness to hear more, and she smiled a coy smile to herself, having caught her listening audience, hook, line and sinker. With a gentle sigh, she let her eyes wander off to a far point, watching rain quietly batter the windows as the storm rolled in. “But to understand completely the series of events that led up to this moment, to fully explain all the things that’ve happened in my life, it’s important to go back to the very beginning.”