Hello, Nomi: How “Showgirls” opened up my world

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The year before I turned 17 was a curious one. I had been embroiled in a months long war of silence peppered by bursts of rage with my mother, and had all but shut my father out completely. He thought I was crazy, she knew I was angry, and I didn’t know how to deal with any of it. A truce of sorts was called when my mother and I were both cast in the musical Nunsense; she as Sister Robert Anne, and I as the nun with the puppet, Sister Amnesia.

Also cast were two young women in their mid-20s (we’ll call them Tiara and Becky) whom I gravitated towards with barely concealed admiration. Becky was tall and curvy, with full lips that I found myself starring at whenever she spoke, instead of her eyes. I followed them both around like a puppy, as they taught me things about being a woman that I certainly wasn’t learning at home, or from the nuns at my Catholic all-girls high school. I was a late bloomer, and just listening to them talk about their love lives and respective boyfriends, was mind-blowing to me.

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During all of this time, I had been sneaking into the queer bookstore a few neighborhoods away to flip through the pages of any gay and lesbian magazines I could get my hands on. A particular spread that caught my eye was that of Gina Gershon and Elizabeth Berkley promoting a new film called Showgirls. Much had been made about the movie’s NC-17 rating, and I burned with the fire of a thousand suns to see it. The thing is, I didn’t know how to tell anyone why.

Earlier that summer, I had gone away to show choir camp (yeah, I know) and had fallen quite hard and fast for one of our counselors. Thankfully, she was very kind and treated my confession without judgment or shame. I liked a girl, and it was OK to like more. Tiara and Becky were among the first to know of my secret, which they treated as a golden gift. It was Becky that suggested we all take a post-rehearsal field trip to see Showgirls on its opening night.

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Please. I was ecstatic. The night we went, my stomach was full of butterflies. When we approached the ticket booth, I was dealt a heavy blow: No one under 18 allowed. Much to my dismay, many theatres had adopted this rule to keep teenagers (like myself) from seeing the explicit film. Tiara and Becky decided to see the film anyway, leaving me to walk back to my car alone and disappointed. I actually cried. My desire to see the film was unlike anything I’d experienced.  I needed to see it and no one was going to stop me. For a kid who typically perished the thought of stepping out of line, I did everything within my power to see the film. I was rejected by five theatres before finally finding one with a more lenient policy. I saw a matinee performance of Showgirls, in a nearly empty theatre. The next three hours would change things for me tremendously. First of all, there was this.

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Gina Gershon as Cristal Connors. I had not, up until this point, seen any movie with a queer/bisexual leading character. It was as if Cristal Conners took her perfectly manicured nails and sliced my heart right open. Out flooded a feeling that I had yet to truly experience: Desire. The thing about desire is, once you know it, it stays with you forever. It cannot be undone. It’s a life force. Not unlike Nomi, who was baptized by Cristal with holy water (OK, champagne), I felt christened into a world that had always felt just beyond my reach. That day in that lonely theatre, I was reborn.

No one cared that Cristal wanted Nomi. Sexuality was such a non-issue in Showgirls that it gave me hope that the world would one day embrace me, too.

Cristal may have opened my eyes to the world of desire, but Nomi tapped into another feeling all together. Nomi was so angry. At people, at herself, at cars and french fries.

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I was so angry, too. In 1995, there weren’t exactly many films where a leading lady could be so goddamn pissed off. Nomi had a reason to be angry. She’d been taken advantage of, used and abused. I was just a lower middle class kid from Detroit who went to private school, and I didn’t feel entitled to it. But somehow her anger spoke to me. Nomi taught me to own it. When Nomi sought revenge on Andrew Carver for the assault on her best friend Molly, I felt hot tears in my eyes. My dear friend had told me earlier that year that she had been assaulted by a boy she was dating. Whenever I would see his smirking face, I would feel so helpless and so fucking angry. I understood Nomi’s rage.

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I decided to no longer swallow my anger, and somehow, anger loosened its grip on my heart. Anger is funny like that. After seeing Showgirls, I began to come out to my friends. By the end of fall semester, I was out to the entire school, and dating a sweet, funny girl from the Pom Squad. Maybe all of that would have happened organically, but I’d like to think that Showgirls helped showed me the way.

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I wont pretend that Showgirls is a good movie. It’s not. It’s dreck, with lots of boobs and moments of brilliance. But to me, it was so much more than the sum of its parts. It was my way out of shame and the dark clouds of anger, into the neon lights.

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Bye, darlin’.

Since the comments section is temporarily down, you can talk to me about “Showgirls” or your thoughts on this piece on Twitter: @danapiccoli

 

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