“I dunno,” I said, honestly. “Let’s just walk through the process and find out.”
And so we did what we’d been taught to do in school: We built a brand. Branding is something designers think about a lot. You take something like a perfume or a car tire, or butt-flavored bubble gum, and you ask questions about it that you shouldn’t be able to ask. What kind of tuxedo would this car tire wear to the prom? What is this perfume’s favorite movie? You try to end up in a place where you understand a product as if it is a person.
The reverse of this, where people become brands, should be easy, right? They’re already people . . . End at the beginning. Except that really what you’re doing when you brand is a process of simplification. You come to understand the essence of that fucking tire. And so branding a person also benefits dramatically from simplicity. People are complicated, but brands are simple.
Marketing is a lot more about thinking than doing. We had to figure out what Carl’s brand was, what my brand was, and how those identities would be a part of each other. We had to think realistically about the role I would play. I wasn’t going to be the president. I wasn’t going to be a national security or science expert. But how we defined me would be informed by how we imagined Carl. We decided that Carl represented power and the future and the “other.” I would represent humanity and weakness and the world Before Carl. I would balance Carl. For all the “This is huge” and “OMG” freak-outs, I could be a balance. Just a small, unassuming civilian who was handling this new reality fine, so you shouldn’t worry too much either. That was an important role that I could fit into, that would be helpful, and that would give us power.
We basically just followed the advertising-campaign handbook all the way through, but this wasn’t about designing a logo or picking fonts and a color scheme. In fact, we hardly did any of that. What we did have, after a few hours of work, was a plan and three different scripts. The first two were just there to round out the idea of April May. Who she was. That she was smart, kind, and snarky but open to the beauty and wonder of the world. We’d be able to upload them whenever there was time but, more importantly, they defined who we wanted me to be.
In those videos, we put in little bits about Carl that would be hints to his possible origins. That the Chinese and Russian governments had closed down areas around the Carls rather than moving them, possibly because they were incapable of moving them. But they were mostly about me.
Then we scripted the video we would release as soon as anyone caught on to the Freddie Mercury Sequence. A video that would show us working out the sequence, going to the store to buy smoke detectors, and presenting Carl with the fruits of our labor. Then, of course, the script ended, because we had no idea what would happen next.
People would later accuse me of being a careful and calculating marketer using the situation as an opportunity to get rich and famous. I would deny it, saying it was just a bizarre thing that happened to me, but that was a lie. It was a lie that was part of our careful and calculating marketing strategy. If it looked natural from the outside to you, well, then I guess we did a good job. But we were calculating. I liked getting stopped for photos in the airport, I liked getting paid, I liked the attention, and I was worried about it ending. More than worried, honestly, I think deep down I was terrified. At some point that night, I glimpsed my most probable future. That one day, the most interesting and important thing about me would be a thing that I did a long time ago. That I would go on with my life doing boring UX design and people would say, “Oh! You were April May!” to me at parties and job interviews, as if I was once something but not anymore.
That is the reality I was fleeing from. And I won’t say that I didn’t consider what I was fleeing toward, because we were pretty careful, and I think that paid dividends. But one thing that I didn’t anticipate was that, in creating the April May brand, I was very much creating a new me. You can only do so much pretending before you become the thing you’re pretending to be.
By the time we were finished skinning all our social media sites, writing scripts, shooting, editing, writing copy, and eating cold Pop-Tarts from a vending machine, it was 10 A.M.
My phone booped—it was Maya. What’s up hun.
I was too exhausted to respond. I went back to my room and slept for three hours.
We still had our meeting with Andy’s dad, so we got up at 1 P.M. and our useless bodies dragged our even more useless brains to the car that had been sent for us. We slept through the drive and then walked zombielike into the glass-and-steel building where Marshall Skampt worked. He was a lawyer for an agency, which (as I didn’t understand then but do understand now) is a company that turns fame (and ostensibly talent) into money. Agencies have agents, and agents get work for people who are professional entertainers or creators. If you ever meet an agent, here is what to expect (if they’re any good):
You will never meet a more effective person.
If they are talking to you, it’s because you can make them money.
They’re all assholes, but if you get lucky, you might find one who’s your asshole.
Sorry, that sounds weird.
So the meeting with Andy’s dad turned out to be a meeting with Jennifer Putnam, who was apparently a huge deal.
The building, like a news studio, was clearly built to impress. The difference here was that it worked. I imagine it worked on everyone, but it worked particularly well on me because, after we waited for five minutes in the little lobby drinking cucumber-infused artesian well water, a fashionable young man called our names and we followed him down the hallway and I was trailing the group from the beginning, but about ten feet into our journey I stopped because, half dead and tired as I was, I did not miss the Sherman original in the hallway.
I had some inkling that most great art is in the hands of private collectors, hiding in places where only a few people get to enjoy it. I understand that that is part of how art works, and I have no problem with it; it was just abstract to me at the time. Like, I didn’t ever expect to see truly great art anywhere but in a museum or in photos online. But here, sitting right in front of my face, was a photograph that at minimum cost tens of thousands of dollars and was worth every penny.
I imagine agencies make themselves seem impressive to different people in different ways. Maybe some people get off on the in-house movie theater or the embroidered wallpaper. Others might like that every single desk had a large live orchid on it.
This photograph was aimed at people like me . . . to make us think, Oh, OK, this place is legit.
Everyone else, of course, kept walking while I froze, staring at the photo. It took them a while to notice I was gone, but eventually the cute assistant guy came back for me.
“April, I’m sorry we lost you.” His voice was sweet and soft and made me believe it was legitimately their fault I’d been left behind. “What you’re looking at is Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #56, part of her Untitled Film Stills series. Each photograph is of the artist, but she has set herself into various roles with the goal of making it more clear that our culture has constructed ideas of gender that can control us if we let them.”
I knew all this, but I let him finish because I thought it was nice that he didn’t just bark at me for standing in a hallway like a dolt. I figured they made everyone learn a bit about the art so that the whole thing could seem more impressive. Did I mention it was working?
“Thanks,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say. We turned from the photo and started walking.
“The agency has a large collection, some works given to us by clients, others collected by leaders of the company and loaned to us to display. The Sherman, I believe, was provided by Mrs. Putnam.”
As we walked, we passed a number of other extraordinary pieces of art. The walls were gallery white, and every twenty feet or so there was a photograph or painting or mixed-media piece. I estimate that we walked by at least two million dollars’ worth of art on the way to Jennifer Putnam’s office.
All around us while we walked, the business of contemporary show business was happening. This, apparently, meant mostly phone calls. There was also a fair amount of bustling about keyboards and remarkably little chitchat. We walked by a young woman whom I did not recognize but who was very clearly rich and famous. It’s funny how you can just tell, even if you’ve never seen them before. High fashion is astoundingly different from regular clothes, but I mostly knew because the three people walking behind her had a very clear air of “Don’t you dare even think about asking for a selfie.”
And that was the state I was in when I walked into the office of one of the most high-powered agents in the world.
“Robin! You found her! Welcome, April.” Her voice was not loud exactly, just . . . strong. Surprisingly forceful. She was physically nondescript. Short gray hair, average height, in good shape. Her voice was her most particular characteristic. This was a woman who could cast spells on people.
Her office wasn’t huge, but it had a nice view. The shelves were full of books, video games, DVDs, even board games. It read more like a gallery of achievements than a place to store things she liked. Every one of those things was a deal she’d made, and the shelves were full. There was enough room for the four of us to sit comfortably, but a fifth would have been stretching it.