Amelia and RLB Tackle the Hard Stuff, Part One

To kick off 2012 and Real Living Beauty’s focus on Positivity, I sat down with one of the most positive, confident, and accomplished women I know. If you read this blog, you already know her as the woman whose collarbone graces the banner at the top of the RLB homepage (see the full photo below). Aside from having a lovely clavicle, Amelia Ampuero is an actress, an Artistic Director of her own theatre company, and a bad ass vocalist. I’ve directed her twice and worked with her several times besides, and she is always brilliant and hard-working and an absolutely joy to team up with, both in art and in life.

Because of our friendship, this interview turned out to be more like a conversation, with Amelia and I tackling a variety of topics – from the aesthetic pressures put on actresses, to the agency we have over our own bodies, to the pointlessness of douche. Since we covered so much ground, I’ll be posting this conversation in two parts.

An important point actually came up near the end of this conversation that I’ve chosen to move to the beginning. We agreed that one of the main positive messages for women that is far too infrequently advertised, is the idea that successful women can be very good friends. There is a misconception that women are always competing with one another – for jobs or men or the last pair of size 7 boots on sale. Let’s hope that this conversation becomes just one example of many, where two women talk and share their thoughts, not always agreeing, but still always supporting one another, through successes and failures alike.

Amelia Ampuero – Part One

RLB: We always start things off the same way here, so please tell our readers – what are you all about?

AA: Hmm… What am I all about… Well I suppose I’ll tell you who I am, and that will tell you what I’m all about. I am, first and foremost, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Duke City Repertory Theatre. It is my own theatre company, which has been a long time dream in the making. We’re in our second season and I’m very excited about that. I’m also… a woman (laughter). I am the youngest of three children born to Bolivian immigrants who came here in the early 1970’s to follow the American Dream! Hooray.

RLB: Awesome. So, because of what you’re all about, I have a special question for you to get the ball rolling. As you know, RLB is all about creating positive reflections of women in the media. In this heavy information age, it’s become apparent that some people would question whether or not theatre is actually a form of media. What are your thoughts on that? Do you consider theatre to be a form of media?

AA: Oof. That’s a tough question. Yes and No. Yes for me, because it’s a world that I’m so deeply entrenched in that it has a distinct effect on how I view the world, which is I think one of the primary effects of media. It’s not media in the traditional sense of magazines or movies, for example, because it doesn’t reach so wide an audience. Also the stigmas that exist within traditional media… while they exist in theatre, I’d say they’re not as… intense as they are in other media outlets.

RLB: In terms of those stigmas, what would you say your experience as an actress has been – how has your “image” been perceived, and what struggles have you had dealing with that?

AA: It’s funny because as an actor you sort of accept that your body is not solely your own anymore. Working professionally, you come to realize that people are going to dictate what your hair looks like, how much weight you can gain or lose, how you should look when you go places and things like that. So that does exist in the theatre world. For me, back from the time I started acting (in college), I was getting comments left and right from professors such as “You’re going to have a hard time making it as an actor because you’re Hispanic,” or “The problem with you Amelia is that you have this very womanly body, but you have this very childish face. So nobody knows where to put you.” This goes back to a classic casting notion of “Type,” like you have to look a certain way to play a certain part. I’ve worked very hard to smash that idea to bits throughout my career. Then, back to the professional world, as I mentioned before things start to get more and more intense. The scrutiny of what you look like becomes more focused. I’ve been told by directors and artistic directors that I have to lose weight. I’ve worked places that are wonderful places to work, but the focus within the company on the women’s bodies was so much more intense… we were under a much stronger microscope than the men were. The women were all expected to be slim, beautiful, with long hair – which never mattered because we were wigged all the time – but, you know, we were supposed to be these things. And the men in the company ran the gamut of body types. With very few of them being on the “good body” end of the spectrum. It’s one of those things where as an actor, as a woman, I feel like costume designers would rather throw you in a fat suit than have you actually be that body type and say “okay this is what you’re bringing to the role and the project, how do we work with this?”

RLB: Like that designer on Project Runway this season who had to design for the male lead in a rock band – he was maybe 6’4” and oh, 250 pounds – and this tiny, young designer said “I don’t know how to design for, like, fat people. I miss my skinny models.” It was interesting how this young man had so much candor about how inconvenient it was to dress this person who didn’t fit the skinny model demographic, calling him fat and what not when really he was just a big, tall guy. I was happy to see it was the challenge he went home on.

AA: And that’s kind of a thing. If you have anything to do with the entertainment industry, if you’re a public personality, if you have a career that in any way shape or form puts you in front of people, in the public eye, for some reason that’s translated in our society as that means You Lose Agency over your own body, and you no longer have the right to say “Yo, this is the way I look and I’m pleased with it, and it has no bearing on you or what’s happening in your life.” But all of a sudden people feel like they really get to comment on it.

RLB: That’s a great point, and we haven’t talked much about Agency here at RLB, so let’s stick with that for a moment. There’s this idea that as a celebrity or public figure, you have a certain responsibility to the public, so to speak. Whether that’s the responsibility to live a “decent” life, exemplifying a good standard of humanitarianism and what not, or the responsibility to look a certain way. It’s interesting to think about who’s controlling that agency. A lot of people will say ‘if you’re famous well then you’re going to be subjected to scrutiny and you just have to deal with that,’ but who is dictating this standard? Now that Melissa McCarthy is more well-known, will we see her go through a Jennifer Hudson type of shrinking because her “handlers” in Hollywood will tell her she has to if she wants to keep working?

AA: I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened, because she will start feeling that pressure. For some reason, it got into everybody’s minds that… well, let me start over. It’s as though this perception and scrutiny of women’s bodies – because again, in Hollywood you find women under a much stronger microscope than men – so this judgement of women has trickled down into the general populace. Almost as though women anywhere no longer have agency over their own bodies, because whether it’s men or other women, people feel like they have the right to comment on the way a woman looks, on her body, on her appearance. The prevalence of that is leading us to a place that I think is really scary, because then we as individuals are losing our right to say “No, this is my body. I like the way I look, I like the way I feel about myself. It doesn’t matter what anybody else says.” Which is ultimately what the reality should be, for people to be that confident in themselves and how they look.

RLB: Sticking with this theme of actresses and image: As a woman who is very active and works to maintain her health, and as an actress and artistic director who also works really hard at her job – I’d say harder than you work at maintaining any kind of aesthetic – what are your thoughts on Jennifer Hudson saying she is prouder of her weight loss than she is of winning her Oscar?

AA: That’s a tough thing, and I actually read the article where she said that. In the article she says (paraphrasing) ‘I loved the way I looked back then and I love the way I look now. I didn’t look in the mirror and think there’s a problem here that needs to change.’ It’s a hard thing, because I can understand that she has done that work. She has worked hard and she achieved her goal, which was to lose some weight. I don’t feel like that should take away from the professional accomplishments that she’s had. But, it also may be – obviously I don’t know her personally – but she may be very proud of her Oscar and the work she did to win that honor, but maybe she never saw herself as an actress, so maybe winning an Oscar wasn’t even in her realm of possibility. If she had won a Grammy, maybe it would be a different story. It’s unfortunate that she phrased it “prouder of my weight loss than my Oscar,” I wish she would have said “I’m AS proud of my weight loss as I am of my Oscar,” because the ears that that statement is hitting… there are young girls, and women, out there who will think ‘the professional accomplishments that I create for myself are less important than me fitting into a bikini that’s three sizes smaller than what I wear now.’

RLB: Right. That’s my concern as well. Let’s talk a bit about the psychology around losing weight and exercise. What’s your philosophy?

AA: I’ve gained a little weight over the last year or so, and it’s been a little frustrating for me. And the only reason that it’s frustrating for me is because I don’t feel like my body reflects the woman I am on the inside. Having said that, what is inside me is not a super skinny, size 00. But what is inside me is a woman who is strong and capable and powerful. And that’s what I want my body to reflect. I think that’s the mentality that women need to embrace when they start thinking about being healthy or losing weight. You want your outside to reflect who you are on the inside.

RLB: Absolutely. And who the hell had the audacity to create a size called “double zero”? How is 00 an actual size?

AA: It had to be – ah, this is why we’re so screwed up! It had to be created because in the fashion industry they started changing women’s sizing so that women who were a size 10 could fit into an 8 or even a 6 and then “fit” into clothes in the single digits. But that left the women who were a size 4 or 2 nowhere to go, so it must have been, like…. double zero??

RLB: Vanity sizing.

AA: Right, so women will have this false sense of feeling smaller than they are. I mean, more than anything – more than seeing models who are really skinny, or hearing Kate Moss say “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” – more than anything what angers me are these celebrities (Editor’s note: Amelia is about to call some people Out) who have different body types and they say things like “Oh, I’m a size 6 now!” I’m sorry, Kirstie Alley, you are not a size 6. And it’s shitty of you to say that, knowing that there are girls and women out there who will see you and think ‘Kirstie Alley is a size 6 and that’s what she looks like?? That’s what I look like then…’ Or Jennifer Love Hewitt who’s all “I’m a size 2!” No you’re not! You’re like a size 8! And you should say “I’m a size 8!” I feel like it’s grossly irresponsible on the part of these celebrities to try to mask or hide the fact that of what their real sizes are.

RLB: Well, and the vanity sizing doesn’t help. For example, it’s quite possible that Jennifer Love Hewitt can go into Old Navy and wear a size 2. I can go into Old Navy and wear a size 2, and I am certainly not a size 2. I’m more of a 6, sometimes an 8. That’s my reality. It’s extremely frustrating to me that there is no streamlined, standardized system for women’s sizing. One brand of jeans that claims to be a “28” (which I interpret as a 28 inch waist band), fits me perfectly, and another brand that’s a size “28” won’t even go past my things! It’s outrageous. I get so jealous of my husband who can buy anything with confidence that claims to be his size because it will be. It seems like such a simple thing, but we’re denied that. There is nothing in the haphazard method of sizing women’s clothes that supports a woman feeling confident or good about herself. If you focus on sizes, you start to feel schizophrenic about how you look because there’s no consistency there.

AA: The idea that your self-worth would be based on the number on the tag of your dress or your jeans is ridiculous, but that’s exactly what’s going on. It’s where vanity sizing came from to begin with – trying to fool women into feeling better about themselves so they would buy more clothes. When you’re tall and curvy, it’s virtually impossible that you’re a size 2. Size 2 doesn’t accommodate curves, so there’s no way that Kim Kardashian is a size 2. Christina Hendricks would never strut around claiming to be a size 2, because we all know that her giant bosoms would never fit in a size 2 anything.

RLB: And, to her credit, to acknowledge a celebrity who isn’t trying to change who she is, there was an article about her where her… agent or someone was talking about how Christina Hendricks is touted as this “Real Woman,” because of her curves and what not. Then he said, ‘How many women do you know who look like that?? She works really hard to be healthy and stay fit and maintain the body she has, which, frankly, is really unattainable for most women.’ Most women could never look like her or Marilyn Monroe, anymore than they can look like Kate Hudson or Nicole Richie. Your body type is your own, and every woman is a Real Woman. It’s just that very few body types are represented in the media.

AA: Exactly. Right now in Hollywood… Melissa McCarthy is a representation of what the average American woman looks like.

RLB: She falls into that spectrum, for sure. I think, last I read, the average American woman is a size 12-14 (Whatever that means).

AA: Exactly. It’s so weird… When I saw that picture you posted with Marilyn and that really skinny girl on the beach – “this is more attractive than this” – It’s hard because what we as women should strive for is not to move the “acceptable” body model from one unattainable to another unattainable. Women should strive to recognize that you were given – by God, or the universe, or whatever you want to call it – you were given the gift of a body that allows you to live day-to-day and do what it is that you were put on this earth to do. It shouldn’t be “Skinny is Out! Now you Have to Have: Big Boobs and Huge Hips and a Tiny Waist! Ready, GO!” Because that’s just as bad. It shifts the focus from one unrealistic (for most women) body type to another.

RLB: It adds to the expectations that already exist, rather than diminishing them. It’s absurd that there is a single Standard of Beauty that all women are supposed to live up to in the first place.

AA: Exactly.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this lively conversation with Amelia Ampuero (Part Two has all the racy stuff)! In the meantime, we leave you with the full shot of Amelia in all her loveliness, from what we like to call her “dust bowl” photo shoot.

Photo by Elizabeth Dwyer Sandlin

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