The irony and deception of beauty

BY DOMINIQUE JAMES

My sister, who is a medical doctor, told me that I almost died. I don’t know if she was serious or if she was joking, but I didn’t believe her when she told me so. This is a matter that you rarely joke about. And knowing her, she’s not the type to make such jokes either. But in any case, I didn’t feel like I was in the verge of dying. There was no indication that I was about to die, you know, the usual symptoms we see in movies when actors act out a scene that they are about to die, gasping for their last breath.

“This is your 2nd chance at life,” she said, almost frantically, as if to drive home the point. She might have read my unbelieving facial expression. Even if I didn’t say anything to her, she probably saw the reaction of disbelief in my face, and she just had to react to it. “You almost died,” she said over and over again. Alright, I believe her.

But, I’m still alive. And I’m feeling fine. But that wasn’t the case early this year. When I returned to my parents’ house in Atlanta from a business trip to California last January, I wasn’t feeling fine. The two weeks that I was in San Francisco, I had high fever and my skin just started to turn red all over. My condition started to deteriorate, and I was increasingly having difficulty to move about. What was embarrassing was that I had flakes that I was covering up and hiding all over. Only my face was showing. Like a burrito, I was all wrapped and bundled up. Good thing it was winter, I have an excuse to be wrapped up as if I were a mummy. My eyes constantly felt hot. It was reddish, and I felt constantly dehydrated and about to vomit. On top of that, I couldn’t walk fast or carry my heavy luggage. My joints were swollen, and my knees felt weak and painful. It was hard even to just stand up from a sitting position. It took so much effort to move.

My mother, who fetched me at the airport, was shocked to see my condition. She couldn’t believe her eyes. On the way home, while in the car, I asked everyone to throw their jackets and cover me. I was feverish. And I was having chills. Everyone was confused and nobody really understood what was going on. It was the first time that something like that happened to me. When we got home, I took some medication, went straight to bed, and tried to get some sleep.

The next two weeks, my condition worsened. I got more and more red, and my entire body turned totally red. My skin was swollen in parts, and like a snake changing skin, I was shedding profusely. That was when I earned the nickname, The Red Man.

Wrapped in thick blankets and comforters, with only my face showing, I would smile at everyone, beatifically, and that got them really worried. Instead of showing a pained expression, my smile was almost calm and well-composed. It’s as if I’ve learned to come to terms with my condition, and I’ve resigned myself to whatever fate I am destined to meet. They kept asking me if I want to be brought to the nearby hospital where my sister was working. I kept saying “no” and they couldn’t do anything about it. They felt helpless. And they kept praying for me to get well.

My mother immediately made an appointment with a dermatologist. I felt really embarrassed with my first visit to the new doctor. I couldn’t walk straight and I was all covered up. And I felt scared. I never liked the idea of consulting with a medical professional, and I avoid it as much as I can. But this time, it was unavoidable. What can I say? I’m just glad that my new doctor, was very kind and understanding. The first time I met her and when she saw my condition, she gave me a kind smile and said with a hint of compassion: “You’re really messed up, huh?” The session was quick, and she prescribed some medication, a routine to clean up, including a twice-a-week self-injection with a new drug. Now, you have to understand, I’m scared of needles. The nurse at the clinic taught me how to give myself an injection. I thought I was going to pass out, but luckily, I didn’t.

Little by little, and after two more visits, my condition gradually improved. My constant fever went away, and the new bath routine, the procedure that covered my entire body with sticky ointment, and the self-injection eventually alleviated my condition. While the redness and skin rashes didn’t completely go away, it was now manageable, and I can easily hide them with my clothes. The “normal” color on my face came back, and I started moving about with ease and comfort. I started going out again, and nobody seems to notice anything unusual. I was back to my old self.

I know I’m doing well because, all around the house, we no longer have to constantly sweep the floors and vacuum the carpet as much as we used to. The flaking of my skin was subsiding, and I wasn’t making as much mess as I used to. While I still have to allocate two hours a day to go through my personal routine: lubricating up my entire body with the thick sticky ointment after every ritualistic bath, I felt I was going back on track, regaining my old self, and moving up and about. My motivation to do the stuff I wanted to do was returning, and I started keeping myself busy all over again, forgetting the fact that my sister, at one time, not too long ago, told me, that I almost died.

If not for my skin condition, and my physical condition in particular, I would have already taken my next trip, to New York City. But because of my medical problems, I had to push back whatever my plans and dreams I may have, and concentrate on getting well. I just had to first work on improving my physical condition before I can go and do anything else.

When I was in Manila, I was managing my skin condition with a medication prescribed by my previous doctor. It was working for me, and I managed to somehow go about my business in the best way that I can. But when I moved to the US, I got “messed” up real good. The ointment that I used to use when I was in Manila wasn’t available in the US, and, the change in environmental condition, the change in weather, and the change in everything, which lead to so much stress, led to the breakdown of my physical condition.

Of course, I couldn’t believe that something like this would happen to me, but it did. And, I survived it. Barely. Because as my sister said, I almost died.

The skin condition that I have, which led to my near-death experience, is medically known as psoriasis. It is caused by overactive production of cells. Not a single doctor I’ve been to, and not a single medical brochure or literature, and not a single research, has told me what is the real root cause of psoriasis, and what is the definitive cure, for this disease. 

I probably have had this disease my entire life, but it started manifesting only some 20 years ago. That was about the time when I started my career as a professional photographer. Somehow, it started to manifest at the time when I started using a particular hair gel product made by a popular fashion brand. As I was using it, I started developing dandruff, and from there, it started spreading all over my body, beginning with my back, then the arms and down to my legs. I can’t understand why it didn’t affect certain parts of my body. It just didn’t.

At first I was alarmed, but eventually, I just shrugged it off and learned to live with it. The first doctor I consulted diagnosed my skin ailment as psoriasis. From then on, and since I’ve been told there is no definitive cure, all I can just actually do is to “manage” it.

I’ve been through several doctors. In turn, and other than the progressively expensive medications each would prescribe, I was alternately told to try out relaxation techniques by meditation, learn and engage in the practice of yoga, immerse myself in the old Chinese tradition of tai-chi, and, enlist and call upon God’s help in prayer. In totality, what the doctors was telling me was: to just “take it easy.”

For someone who has a type A personality, this isn’t an easy thing. No matter how much or how hard I try, I’m always still trying to be on top of things with whatever it is I may happen to be doing, most specially when it comes to my work, profession, and obsession, which is photography. I would constantly remind myself that I will eventually kill myself if I keep up with a frenetic lifestyle and punishing work schedule, but, I only increasingly took on more jobs and more responsibility.

Looking back, I never really paid much attention to my skin condition. While it was bothersome, and it hindered me from engaging in some activities I would have loved to do, I tried my best not to mind it. In most cases, I’ve succeeded because I never actually think about it, that is, unless it feels itchy and it becomes bothersome. But other than that, I normally “forget” it’s there. It just wasn’t really a factor.

My skin condition would worsen and flare up about twice or so a year, and I would just try to work my way around it. Through the years, I’ve learned as much as I can, and I tried to just be even-minded about it, living with it, finding creative ways to make sure that it doesn’t get in the way of the things that I have to do.

Of course, I constantly envied how other people can have such great skin all over their bodies, and I certainly wished I were or I have the same. But these were fleeting emotions and fleeting thoughts. Unless, of course, I am in a situation that makes we wish for it really hard. But then, like cigarette addiction, the desire goes away somehow.

For example, I was in Boracay twice the past two years. I’ve always wanted to go to Boracay but I tried not to go there, avoided going there, or to any beach for that matter, because it is one sure way to make my skin condition obvious. During my two trips to Boracay, I had to do a photo shoot project for a male modeling competition. I would have wanted to just go around topless, with nothing on but a dramatically shaded sunglasses and scandalously skimpy shorts, but I just couldn’t. While everyone was in one state of undress or the other, I was trying to stay and look cool while still all ridiculously dressed up with nothing but my hands and my head showing. Believe me, I even tried not to sweat too much while stupidly bundled up in a hot, tropical beach.

I tried not to think what others might be thinking or saying. I just kept consoling myself that having this condition was God’s way of preventing me from getting into so much more trouble than I already am in. Of course, I couldn’t swim, and the only really sensible thing for me to do was to go out at night when it was cool, and stay indoors during daytime when the heat was overpowering. Anyway, I managed to survive Boracay, but, I’m sure I could have done better. Being all covered up isn’t exactly the most elegant way to be in a tropical island where everyone is barely covered. How I envied those who have good skin!

In most of my photo shoots, mostly in the studio, but also on location, my “costume” would be the usual jeans, shoes, belt. I also wear long-sleeves almost all of the time. I can’t wear shorts, or t-shirt, the way I’ve seen some photographers do, during their pictorials. Because I wear long-sleeves all the time, I imagine that, to others, I look somehow formal and maybe a bit dignified. Although, they would realize that being dignified is just an illusion once I start moving about and talking loudly!

My ensemble is quite simple. If you see me, there’s nothing ordinary or fancy about what I’m wearing or about the way I dress up. Although I photograph fashion a lot, and because of my work, I’m one of the few who gets to peek into what the latest fashion trend is going to be even before it hits the street, my manner of dressing is so simple and ordinary, and you can even say, somewhat outdated. To the dismay of my fashionista friends, I’m about four to six seasons late from the latest. I tend to shun away from the trendy stuff. I’m not so conscious about buying and wearing the latest fashion. And in general, I don’t really shop for clothes or fashion items. When shopping, I’m more interested in checking out whatever latest gadget, computer and electronic stuff that’s out there.

Often, it is my partner who ends up shopping for me. Or, if there are interesting stuff I happen to be photographing in the studio for a fashion catalog, that’s when I shop, “buying” it direct from the manufacturer or client right after the pictorial. But really, unless I’m photographing it, and although I’m very aware of what’s going on, personally, fashion is not my thing. Important I know it is, as an industry and as a way of making an impeccable impression. But as Donald Trump somewhat enviously said in one funny Macy’s ad that features Mariah Carey and Martha Stwart, “How so very shallow.”

And yet, despite all my seeming disdain for fashion and the culture of appropriate, proper and cutting-edge self-presentation, it takes me more than two full hours to get ready every single time! From the moment I step into the bath to the moment I’m all decently dressed, I would have spent more than 120 minutes. It’s a wasteful extravagance! And no matter how much I try to consciously speed things up, I always somehow end up spending more time. Because of this, I just stopped trying. I learned there’s no sense in getting all worked up over this. And the crazy thing is, despite the fact that I spend so much time, probably even more time than Tessa Prieto-Valdez spends in getting ready, I still end up looking quite plain and ordinary. The hours it takes me to get ready just doesn’t add up. Though decent, my looks won’t even gain the second look of most. And certainly, I never receive any compliment for how well I dress or how nice my clothes look like, or how well they look good in me. I don’t experience such things. One time, I asked my good friend and fashion maven, Joey Espino, for suggestions on how I should dress up. I was so excited with the idea of “putting together” a new look. I spent lots of time researching fashion magazines and all. But, it has come to naught. There was even this other time when I decided my look should all be “linen” and I got myself a whole wardrobe of nice linen shirts, but, it was something that I grew tired with very quickly, and not to mention, that it was so “itchy”–not a good idea for someone like me who’s having skin problems.

If I meet you, and if we are locked in the mortal combat of a getting-to-know-you mode of conversation, you might be surprised if I suddenly ask you how long does it take for you to get ready. You might find the question offensive or funny, since it’s actually a personal thing, but please do not take offense because I don’t mean anything by it. I only want to know, and to compare, whether the length of time it takes me to get ready, is the same as yours or most everyone else. I just want to know what is the normal, standard time it takes for most people to get ready. Oh, by the way, because I kept asking, I discovered that for the majority, it’s about 45 minutes. So that’s when I discovered, not surprisingly, that I’m one of the very few who takes a very, very long time to get ready.

Why do I take so long? Well, when taking a bath or when taking a shower, I have to carefully rub myself all over, from head to foot, and I have to do it twice or thrice — from soaping to rinsing to drying. And then, once I step out of the shower, I have to rub myself all over again with a sticky ointment to prevent my skin from drying. It’s a tedious process, and believe me, I always wish there was a faster and easier way. I get really bored by the whole process. I learned to listen to my laptop’s podcasts the moment I step out of the shower to prep myself up before dressing up. This way, I am able to do something “productive” while getting ready. At least, I am able to make better use out of the “getting-ready” time that I have to unavoidably spend every day. If I have my way, I’ll put a water-proof speaker system in my bathroom! I would love to totally eliminate wasted time!

So, that’s the reason why I’m almost always late for my pictorials and appointments. Not because I’m trying to create an impression that I’m a VIP by keeping everyone waiting, but with my condition, which don’t necessarily have to explain to everyone, I really just can’t help it. It takes me a really inordinate amount of time just to get ready every day. I am amazed and I envy those who can get ready in 15 minutes or less. That’s a time-saver! The truth is, I get really excited with all of my pictorials. I look forward to it. I don’t know why, but that’s just how I am. Even with the most simple and mundane of shoots, I get really jumpy. I can’t help it. That is my nature. But I can’t also help being late to my shoots most of the time, because of what I have to go through.

Anyway, almost everyone who has seen me will attest to the fact that I am easily excitable. I love being excited and exciting. And, other than being with my son and my partner, I am happiest and excited when I am shooting. And so, I often forget that I have this terrible skin condition, and I go about the pictorial without thinking about it. Good thing that my photo shoot assistants are constantly aware and alert, because every now and then, part of their job description is to always make sure that I am decently covered while I lay on the floor, hanging on a ledge or on top of a ladder. Whatever position I’m in, on top or at the bottom, they have to make sure that my “slip isn’t showing.” Part of the job of my assistants is watch out for me and keep me decently covered all along.

Still, my assistants can only do so much. While they try to do their best, they cannot forever keep me protected from uncommon eventualities. One time, after completing a particularly difficult but successful and beautiful image layout, the celebrity I was shooting came up to me excitedly,  and started pulling my shirt up and down, exposing my stomach and lower back. I was surprised at what she did that I couldn’t move, and when she saw the red spots in my skin, she eventually stopped what she was doing and let go of my shirt. Good thing that no one was really looking at us, but I felt bad for her because she was embarrassed not so much with what she saw but with what she did to me. I knew she wanted to apologize, but maybe, out of shock as well, she just didn’t know what to do at that time or how to handle the situation.

Other than the surprise with the turn of events, I felt slightly embarrassed at being unexpectedly exposed like that, and I actually felt somewhat angry and frustrated at what she did. But, as I thought about it, I couldn’t put the blame on her, no matter how much I would want to. For one thing, she didn’t know. And another thing, she was just really excited at what we were able to achieve. I just took a deep breath and let it go. This female celebrity is actually very vocal. She’s always in the news over some controversy or an issue. I’ve always wondered if she’s ever going to talk about what she did to me? I guess not. I’m sure it’s something that the public won’t find interesting at all. And so far, she hasn’t. Which is just a good thing. Not that I’m trying to “hide” things, I just don’t see any sense in making this thing public. I’m far from being a “public figure,” and I don’t necessarily quality as a “poster boy” to give a face to the kind of skin condition that I and million of others are experiencing.

The past 15 or so years, and as a professional photographer, I’ve had the most amazing experience and opportunity of photographing almost all of the famous personalities in the Philippines. From entertainment personalities to fashion models and from politicians to socialites, my digital archive is a repository of who’s who in the country. Almost anyone and everyone who’s got a a name for himself or herself, who may, at one time or another, become popular, most likely has an image file in my archive.

I can say that perhaps, there are only two or three other photographers in the Philippines who can claim such a distinction for now. Make that five tops. If you think how many photographers there are today, and putting things in proper perspective, it becomes quite a bit of something. And although the idea tickles me no end, I am surprised that it is something that I actually do not refer to as a point of pride. It’s just a matter of fact. Before I even realized it, and except for Sharon Cuneta and those who are still inside Kuya’s house, I’ve already somehow photographed almost everyone who’s been kissed by fame.

Most of them are beautiful. Absolutely, stunningly beautiful. They have the most beautiful faces. They have the most perfect of bodies. They have the most flawless of skins. I am at awe with their beauty. Every single day, when I get to work, and as I raise my camera to my eyes, I am feted with beauty. My work, my life, has always been about beauty. I can say that I have one of the most interesting jobs. Imagine, all I have to do is to capture and forever preserve that beauty. It’s an amazing job, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Last year, before I left for the US, I mounted my 50th photo exhibit. It was was a solo show held at the Vargas Museum of the University of the Philippines. What an amazing event it has been for me. I was told that it has been one of the most attended photo exhibits in the museum. In a single show, I managed to put together the awe-inspiring and definitive portraits of 50 of the most beautiful women in Philippine show business whom I’ve photographed through the years.

One morning, just before the museum door opens, and as I was walking through the exhibit hall where the almost life-size images of the beautiful women were mounted, I felt my cheeks getting wet. I didn’t realize I was crying. It wasn’t obvious at first why, but, I was crying for their endless beauty. And I was crying for the irony of it all. For the first time in more than 15 years since I turned pro, and since I started photographing the most beautiful people, did I feel the heavy oppression of the irony of it all.

Here I am, photographing and preserving beauty, and yet, I myself do not possess such beauty. My skin continues to be ravaged by overactive cells constantly threatening to kill me if I do not properly manage it. I have to live with the fact, and die with the fact that, despite the beauty of all others that I preserve and create, it is something that I cannot do for myself. This is one fact that I have to live with all my life. It is a fact that I will have to die over. Ultimately, it is the over-arching story of my life and my work as a photographer. It is the heavy-handed and oppressive irony of a deceptive beauty.

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