The song, “Time Warp,” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show changed my life. Seriously.
Let me backtrack. I wasn’t popular in high school but I wasn’t a loner either. I had a few close friends and managed to be outgoing around them, but in class, I was quiet, anxious, and always nervous that I would say the wrong thing. I couldn’t leave the house for school in the morning until I looked “perfect,” not a curl out of place. For reasons unknown to me now, I really cared what people thought of me. So I waited for graduation day, when I could escape to my dream college and have a fresh start.
College was where I’d become the person I’d always wanted to be, according to all the teen movies and YA novels, at least. I had this idea that I was going to be the version of myself that only lived in my head. I’d gone to school with mostly the same people since kindergarten. In college, there would be a pool of 7,000 new faces, and not one of them knew a single thing about me. I could be a rockstar, a mystery, an outgoing social butterfly. As an anxious teenager, I’d always pined to be someone who stood out from the crowd, but I never had the courage to do anything bold.
I’d long had a secret desire to be a singer or actress (something I now know is not my calling). So when I got to college, I went on an audition for the first time in my life: a shadow cast production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or a live cast that would perform the musical while the 1975 film starring Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon was simultaneously screened behind them. When I got cast, I squealed with glee. They liked my rendition of “Damn It, Janet!” They liked me!
The show was produced by a misfit, student-run theatre club on campus. I bonded easily with people in the cast at our first rehearsal, some of whom were also in the sorority I had just joined. I began to open up late at night in whichever empty classroom we rehearsed in, watching the movie over and over again and bouncing off ideas for what the audience could yell at the screen—a tradition of these interactive performances. The more vulgar and wacky it got, the more I felt like I belonged. No one in that room cared if you were strange. In fact, they preferred it.
I hadn’t been on stage since I was Pirate #3 in a third grade production of Peter Pan, so I was a little nervous. It was a risqué show, after all. But by opening night, I was in character, dancing in heels like I’d been doing it my whole life and yelling sexual phrases at complete strangers. I felt free and fearless. The show was such an environment for weirdos that I knew my actions couldn’t be judged.
I felt safe in my fishnets, garters, and scrap of cheap black polyester.
I was a freak. And it was awesome. Those four vulnerable, raw, and over-the-top nights on stage were exactly what I needed. It was an experience that taught me to carry that vulnerability into my everyday life. If I’d learned to feel comfortable with attention while I was at my weirdest, then I probably shouldn’t care what people think about me on a normal day either. I liked being this confident, bold, and new version of myself too much to go back.
After that semester, very few things could throw me off my game. I had gained too much happiness with myself. I decided that if someone thought I was weird, then it was their loss. The only opinion that mattered was my own. Whether it was eating an extra plate of fries in the cafeteria or going to class sans makeup, if I was happy with my choices, then it was all good. I learned to take myself a little less seriously. I had academic meltdowns, sure, but when it came to my sense of self, I was solid.
I didn’t participate in the show again because there were so many other on-campus activities, and as much as I wanted to be a performer, I learned that it just wasn’t for me. Sitting in the newsroom working on the school newspaper was much more my speed.
Still I went to Rocky Horror every year on Halloween and yelled from the audience, bringing new friends to the show with me each time. Even in the audience, I felt like I belonged. Like I was home.
At the time that I was on the cast, I was learning about my sexuality without realizing it. My love for Rocky Horror gave me the freedom to explore my sexuality since that is such a big part of the movie. It is a show where the misfits, the LGBTQ+ community, and the outsiders come together. When I find new people who like the show, I know that we’ll get along. I may not go to live performances, but I still watch the iconic film on Halloween every year. I’m reminded of how it brought my freshman self into her own.
Following that pivotal performance during my first year of college, whenever I was scared to do something—like submit an op-ed about mental illness to our school newspaper—I thought of Rocky. I told myself that if I could go on stage in a revealing costume and have that much fun, then I could go out on any limb and it would be worth it. So I wrote the op-ed, took a deep breath, edited it five times, and hit send. I was nervous that writing about my mental illness meant I would expose myself as “abnormal.” But then I thought, “Screw it.”
Vulnerability means acknowledging that something is scary and still taking the leap. If I didn’t take the leap, I would never know where I could land. Bravery and confidence cannot exist within you until you learn that you can handle any outcome. Everyone learns that inner strength differently. I just happened to learn it by running around on stage in my underwear in front of both friends and strangers, and yelling the lyrics to “Time Warp” at the top of my lungs.