In honor of the publication of Arielle Zibrak’s Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures, Avidly is running a series of essays on “Pleasure-y Guilts” — “The special frisson that comes from leaning in to the pleasures for which the world makes us feel guilty.” Enjoy! — Ed.
It is 4am, midwinter in Chicago, in the middle of another graduate school all-nighter. After drinking a pot of cheap black coffee and spending several agonizing hours trying to write a research paper about working-class opium addiction in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton for my Victorian Lit class, I have given up and am now watching bootleg episodes of Hey Paula on YouTube. A giddy, sleep-deprived Paula Abdul, at the height of her fame as an American Idol judge, arrives at a Starbucks with her entourage in the middle of the night after an awards show. She is wearing a navy blue evening gown and gigantic bejeweled mid-aughts cuff bracelets. She slurs indecisively about what to order. “Why don’t you guys just…come up with something?” she finally asks the two apron-clad workers standing behind the register. They look back at her with faces of stone. The woman on the right, who is clearly the night manager, looks, in fact, like murder. Paula then reveals that she needs someone to pay for her drink. “I never have any money,” she giggles until one of her employees hands her a few crumpled bills.
This scene repeated itself too many times. I’d stay up all night, determined that this would finally be the night I’d finish writing that paper, before losing all will once four o’clock hit and watching Hey Paula until dawn while seething with guilt. Paula never has any money. She always treats the employees like crap.
Hey Paula aired for only seven half-hour episodes on Bravo in 2007. Abdul and her team thought it would portray her as loveable, quirky, and hardworking during a time that she was dogged by substance abuse rumors after a series of incoherent public appearances. Instead, the show’s version of Abdul is entitled, self-absorbed, and remarkably unlikeable.
Everyone around Paula appears to despise her. She is late to everything, causing people to greet her with tight smiles of mingled relief and rage when she arrives. She giggles as she makes her housekeeper clean up a staggering amount of dog poop from her horde of tiny dogs. She is surrounded by a fleet of assistants and complains constantly about their incompetence. She nearly brings one to tears by berating her for packing the wrong pants for a cross-country flight. “Every time you pack jeans for me, you pack the wrong jeans,” she says through gritted teeth. “I’m tired of people not treating me like the gift that I am,” she proclaims as she sits on a beige couch, listing a bit to the side.
Paula is perpetually under-appreciated in the same way she is perpetually broke. She begs cash from employees and strangers alike to pay for a Starbucks drink, to tip the limo driver, to buy a little red bag of Cheez-Its from a vending machine at the Philadelphia Airport. “It’s a conspiracy, I have no money!” exclaims the woman making millions of dollars per season on American Idol as she rummages through her wallet. She seems to think this is cute. Her campy performance of penury is both fascinating and repellant in light of my own precarity: it is the very beginning of the Great Recession, and I start to notice that groceries are suddenly more expensive. As I approach the register at Jewel-Osco, I frantically calculate whether I have enough space remaining on my credit card to cover the items in my basket. Sometimes my calculations are wrong, like the time my card is declined a week before payday. I leave all my groceries at the register with the unamused cashier and trudge back home through the snow, carrying my empty reusable bags and resigning myself to a week of nothing but lentils and brown rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Hey Paula shows Paula overcoming a series of adversities: navigating bad publicity, getting stranded at a hotel in suburban Philadelphia due to a snowstorm, losing the opportunity to write the foreword for Chicken Soup for the Soul because of a mishandled email. The most devastating hardship, though, is when she receives an email on her Blackberry notifying her that her services as costume designer for Bratz: The Movie are no longer needed. “I really scratch my head and I wonder, where’s God when you need him, because this really does not make any sense,” she says tearfully. Two of her assistants are laughing in the next room. “You guys, please, I’m trying to tell a goddamn story!” she wails. She slams her hands onto the table in front of her. Throughout the series, Paula slurs her words, wanders around with half-closed eyes, and appears to be perpetually intoxicated. She swears it’s because she is so busy that she simply doesn’t sleep enough.
I was not sleeping enough, either. I could have just worked on my Mary Barton paper until midnight and gotten a decent night of sleep so I could function the next day. Instead, I repeated those long abject self-defeating all-nighters with nothing to show for it, feeling horribly guilty about my lack of willpower and terrified that I would never finish the paper and fail out of graduate school.
I watched Hey Paula’s seven episodes multiple times, cringing with vicarious embarrassment yet filled with delight. On those long and dark and maliciously cold nights that I was my worst self, making self-sabotaging choices and feeling like I was letting everyone down, Paula was even worse, which comforted me. Both of us were trying so very hard and failing miserably. When morning came, I’d shut my laptop and accept the fact that I’d fucked up again. I’d stop by the campus Starbucks so I could stay awake during my three-hour Victorian literature seminar and put a double-shot soy latte on my credit card, hoping desperately that it wouldn’t get declined. Unlike Paula, I actually didn’t have any money.
Carissa Harris is Associate Professor of English at Temple University. She did, eventually, finish writing that paper about working-class opium addiction in Mary Barton.