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I was a Mad Hussy

What taking off my clothes revealed —and it wasn’t my skin


It’s true. I was a Mad Hussy.

From my sky-high heels and lacy fishnet stockings to my silky black elbow-length gloves and red satin, black-feathered bustier — I was all Hussy. With a capital H. Photos of me, snapped by men and women, are probably immortalized all over Austin.

M.H. was bold, outrageous, and so damn sexy. She taught me many things — from the smallest skills of stripping while singing to bigger life-lessons that I still follow. She was everything I wasn’t. She’ll always be part of me; even if slippers are more my style now.

Although I left the Mad Hussy behind a long time ago; I call upon her sass whenever I need her.

I was a very shy kid, the kind of child who dove underneath my mother’s skirt when new people appeared. Even as a teen, I shrunk around strangers and felt small in large groups, circling conversations like a small fish looking to swim with the school.

If you met me today, you’d rarely describe me as an introvert. I’m direct. I look people in the eye when I shake their hand. I smile broadly. Sometimes, I’ll stand back and observe. But, when I want attention or to be seen, I know how to direct someone’s focus on me.

Braggadocious, you might be thinking. It’s not that I’m special in any way. It’s just them —

The Mad Hussy and her friend Boom-Boom Bunny. Those entertaining ladies helped me figure it out.

It started at Heart O’ the Hills girls camp when I was seven years old. Alone for the first time, I was selected to be a song-leader. I got to wear bells on my ankles. I had a tambourine. Girls hooted and hollered as I ran around the circle encouraging them to sing chants with me. I stared them down; they cheered me on.

Dressed in a costume, I discovered two things: I liked to entertain people, and slipping into character helped me make friends. In character, I was someone with pep and spirit who felt popular. In character, she could be everything I wasn’t.

During high school, I changed friend groups multiple times to fit in even though I made a few close ones. It was Texas, after all, we all wanted to be part of the cheerleader crew. Finally, I joined the all-male debate team where my lawyer character, a brassy gal modeled after my Aunt, tangled with other pimply-faced teenagers in weekend tournament courtrooms. I felt powerful then.

As myself, random insecurities played like earworm songs in my head. Alcohol and clinging onto my boyfriends helped some. At high school parties, I’d awkwardly look around the room for a friendly face or wait until someone approached me.

When I played hostess and used cleaning up as an excuse, I had a reason to chat with people. Everyone’s mother loved me, or my Happy Hostess character, but I struggled to feel comfortable as myself.

Leaving home for Austin was another arduous drive into the unknown. Most of my friends went to small colleges but I wanted to be a Texas Longhorn.

Like summer camp, joining a sorority seemed like a good way to find a circle of friends. Staring at my pledge picture now, I look like a deer in headlights. All the Houston girls seemed to know each other but I was an anomaly growing up far away from town. They all had cars racing to sorority rush parties; I walked in the rain and arrived soaking wet to pledge night.

Freshman year felt hard. I went home every weekend in the Fall. By Spring, there was another boyfriend to cling to. But even he couldn’t calm the echoing insecurities banging around my head.

The real change started that West Avenue summer of my sophomore year. My best friend and roommate, Susan, was a theatre major. She was also working as a birthday cake and sometimes a sexy cop. Maybe it was her louder-than-life personality I wanted. Maybe it was the $1000 tip she told me about.

Whatever it was, I wanted in. I reasoned that if I was in costume and used my loud song-leader singing voice (which no one but my shower thought was good) I might make some much-needed cash. Little did I know.

Singing Telegrams became my job and also my guide to living boldly.

For an entire summer, Susan and I sang our way into birthday parties, bachelor parties, retirement parties as well as people’s homes, offices, and even crowded bars.

Driving around the twisty hills of Austin at night with just a map wasn’t for the faint-hearted. There weren’t cell phones, GPS or even OnStar back then. We were on our own. Young women heading straight into unsuspecting men’s lives. What were we thinking?

It’s amazing to know that singing telegrams still exist more than 80 years later — even if they’re by ZOOM call now. I doubt the Western Union executive — who created them to stave off competition from this newfangled invention called the telephone — had any idea the business would make millions with multiple franchises.

Singing telegrams are so ubiquitous they’ve been featured in TV and films. Bette Midler performed as a pink rabbit telegram in my favorite cry-fest film, Beaches. Eastern Onion, the company Susan worked for, was the largest outfit back then.

I worked for a rinky-dink company called Monkey Business.

Trying out was easy, it just involved singing a song and learning some tasty tidbits about the victim (read: client). If hired, I’d have to work them into my routine. Standing in the small office, the owner (I’ll call her Melissa) looked me up and down.

I’d grown up since my scrawny seven-year-old days and had even changed since high school. Now, my large breasts announced themselves before I did. Even when I tried to hide them, I was embarrassed by the reactions of ogling boys and older men.

Without hesitation, Melissa handed me Boom-Boom Bunny to try out as my audition. Who hadn’t pretended to be a playmate in the mirror or, at that time, Farrah Fawcett? I aced that character in her office.

Her star performer, though, was the Mad Hussy. This required some real acting skills, but she was the most requested character. Melissa needed an extra hussy. I followed her best girl to see if I was up to the job.

Now, imagine you’re a man in an office, at a party or restaurant, surrounded by friends. There’s a buzz in the room and maybe you’re also a little buzzed yourself. Your wife, girlfriend, or significant other lets a stranger in — an old, crotchety woman wearing an ugly housecoat, smudged glasses, and a hair net.

She’s got on a dirt brown sweater badly buttoned over the dress and a flea-market handbag dangling from her arm. Bent over, this biddy hobbles into the room and makes a beeline for you.

She’s hemming and hawing over not being invited, over the insult of not remembering her (off your shocked face), and then sits in your lap. Some particular secrets are revealed that only you, her (and definitely whoever hired her) could know.

By this time, you may have jumped up and run away. Or, if you figured out the ruse, you might be getting a bit handsy.

Suddenly, the woman stops and shouts, “Tom (or Dick or Harry), maybe I need to remind you who I am.” Then in a loud voice, the Mad Hussy starts singing, “Can you guess why I am here? It’s that special time of year…”

The song continues as the hair net is pulled away releasing long, teased ringlets. Back then, mine was auburn and hot-curled. The song gets louder as the sweater and housecoat are shimmied off, revealing a bustier and fishnets. It finishes with panache and flourishes when a birthday card is read.

The shock, the awe, the applause…I loved every minute of being in control of those unsuspecting rubes, of being both feared and then admired.

The haggard woman felt like the outer skin I’d been living in, but underneath might have been my true self. Watching them “see me” made me believe in my own power. Nothing had changed except seeing myself as they saw me.

Yes, to answer a question you may be forming, was it purely about my outer appearance? For them, maybe. But not for me. It changed everything.

Susan, at barely 4’11”, felt the same way. Being in character was an armor, allowed her to become larger. “I’m extroverted when I put on another persona and want to fit in,” she told me when we reminisced about that summer. “So I morph. It was a very conscious decision.”

Like me, Susan says she wasn’t confident or popular even though some of her friends were. “I think I could go into character really well and put on an act. The minute I got in the car, I would be that character and when I would come home afterward, I vividly remember crying every time,” she said. “I think I probably cried because the real Susan was afraid.”

Like me, Susan says she still uses outfits to become a certain persona. Unlike Susan, though, I didn’t cry at home. I studied what worked. I paid attention to people’s reactions to the Mad Hussy. I understood her power; it was magnetic. And, while Susan says she never took anything to heart from her sexy cop routine, I started to carry a little hussy around with me at all times.

After that summer, anytime I felt insecure, I’d call upon her to help me out.

Social situations became easier if I imagined a red bustier underneath my clothes. It was like my own secret Wonder Woman outfit. Business meetings created less anxiety because I’d found ways to command a room.

With men, I knew how to direct my energy while also standing far enough away to ensure they weren’t looking down my blouse and, for sure, not hugging or kissing me. I could spot those men a mile away. Even when they said, ‘I’m a hugger’ (as a way to excuse their lascivious behavior), I knew exactly how to disarm them. And, in the bedroom, this once-shy, embarrassed young woman found many ways to hussy it up.

All these years later, I still use my inner magnets and that Mad Hussy energy to bring the power. I found my voice, discovered that I’m actually an extroverted introvert and have never felt small since.

Although she’s been retired for quite some time, I still love costumes but now they’re reserved for Halloween and Burning Man. See you out there, hussies!

More on singing telegrams:


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