Dawn Goes LA LA – part two

DAWN O'PORTER : 22 JUNE 2010
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How I ended up in LA in the first place…

My 29th birthday was significant in many ways. I have always looked forward to being 30, as I always dreamed that on my 30th birthday my struggle would be over and that I would be able to plateau into a calmer state of mind. I hoped that I would have achieved success, made friends that would be with me for life, and had enough fantastic experiences with the world and the people in it, that I would never be able to look back and say I hadn’t made the most of it.

I felt like if I got to 30 and was able to say that then whatever happened next was a bonus, and judging by how I was feeling at 29, it looked like I was totally on track.

However my 29th birthday party was also my leaving party. One week later I was moving to Los Angeles to start a whole new life.

The two years leading up to this moment had been eventful to say the least – it all started rather strangely, like all good bedtime stories do…

All in the name of entertainment I had made my TV debut as a cripple on Channel 4’s cult comedy show Balls of Steel, written an outrageously saucy book about meeting people on the Internet, starved myself for two months in my quest to become a Hollywood size zero, driven on an open top bus full of naked women around Central London, attempted to become a lesbian, helped deliver a baby, tried to find my perfect man, and most impressively of all I had run up and down Baby from Dirty Dancing’s steps AND done the lift. Despite none of these options coming up in my career advice sessions back at the Guernsey Grammar School in 1998, I had – thus far – been rather pleased with my professional achievements.

But it would seem I wasn’t done, as just 6 weeks before my party I had been asked to move to Los Angeles to film a new series for Channel 4. I was being trusted with hours of prime time television to look in to the age-old question of how women find love and live with men. Not far off discovering the meaning of life, this fascinating project sounded like my perfect gig, as I had always been fascinated by the concept of monogamy and whether or not we were brought to this social norm by nature or nurture. Therefore, being given the opportunity to investigate what other weird and wonderful options were on offer when it comes to love was intriguing. Not only was I drawn to the job itself, but when I learned that to make the series I would have to be based in LA I did what any totally irresponsible singleton in her late 20’s would do and screamed, ‘YES YES YES’ to everything. I was in an orgasmic state of abandonment from the moment I got the job to the moment I left London. Forget Meg Ryan’s carry on in When Harry Met Sally, I was the real deal. And then some…

The offer came from an English TV producer called Simon Andreae (aka TPG – Tall Posh Guy). When TPG called I was curled up in front of the TV in my Maida Vale apartment with my cat on my lap and my best friend Louise by my side – it was a Tuesday night in early November and it was raining. We were watching some inane British soap opera and relaying a negative commentary about every person that graced the screen. We were also bloated and pinned to the couch after eating a rather heavy dinner of fish and potatoes. My phone rang and displayed the words ‘Unknown Number’. I usually ignore these calls and see if they leave a message, but for some reason on this occasion, I answered it. And thank goodness I did.

‘Hello, Dawn?’ Asked a mature sounding voice that was terribly posh ‘my name is Simon Andreae, I hope you don’t mind me calling you at home?’

‘Nope, that is OK’ I replied with confusion in my voice.

‘Great’ He said ‘I have been wanting to talk to you for ages’.

He went on to tell me that he had been searching for a young, ‘hot – but not too hot’, ‘clever – but not too clever’ female journalist, to make some quite brave and risky documentaries. He asked if that was the sort of thing I wanted to carry on doing. I of course said yes, but asked him what he meant by ‘not too hot?’ Humpf!

I was in a slight state of shock, and wasn’t entirely sure that it wasn’t a friend playing a nasty trick on me. Seeing as he was bypassing my agent it all felt very strange and a bit clandestine, but because what he said wasn’t remotely funny or that off the wall, it didn’t take long for me to realize it was a genuine request for my talents. Yippee!

Having been the Commissioning Editor of Science at Channel 4 for five years, TPG moved out to LA four years ago and now has his own production company out there called simply, The Incubator – which to me sounded a bit like a straight-to-DVD movie starring Micky Rourke and Vinnie Jones. From being schooled at Eton, to writing books about sexuality, he is an anthropologist and sexologist who is the perfect mix of crazy scientist, creative genius, and exceptional negotiator. I was told by many of his brilliance; so making the commitment to him in America wasn’t a professional decision I needed to question.

Prior to taking Simon’s call I had been experiencing a pretty horrendous time financially, and often wondered if it would be better to ditch the biz that we call show and get a proper job instead. Unfortunately the idea of a 9 to 5 job bought me out in hives, so sticking with it was inevitably always the only option. I was looking for constant stimulation, new challenges and new chances to really stretch myself, but there were times when I felt like pursuing this dream of mine was never going to be worth the strain. Ironically when Balls of Steel had aired, and my first book, Diaries of an Internet Lover was released I had never been so broke. There I was on the telly every week and with a book in WH Smiths but I hardly had enough money for a round of drinks and a taxi home. It didn’t feel like I was living the dream, to be honest it felt like the joke was on me. Instead of driving around in a Range Rover with blacked out windows and lighting my fags with fifty-pound notes the reality was somewhat different. I was cycling around on a pink bicycle sponging drinks off friends – I think I got paid something like £500 in total for Balls of Steel, and my book deal basically just covered my rent.

It is a weird scenario because everyone thinks you are loaded because you have been on TV and been published. The truth is that a lot of the time you do the job for love not money, and have to put some serious time and legwork in to get the Jonathon Ross pay packet. It was as much of a shock to me as it seemed to be a massive disappointment to everyone else – my finances were suddenly an open debate topic. At dinner party’s people would ask me how much I earned, but if I came right back at them with the same question I was seen as being rude. When I admitted that I was worth less than ever they lost interest and treated me like a failure. The world still seems only able to measure success in financial terms – which in terms of this industry, is quite unsettling.

I used to sit at home for days on end pounding away on my computer writing rubbish, longing for a call or email to tell me I wasn’t going to be poor forever. I lived on jacket potatoes and baked beans, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to cycle into Soho at lunchtime from my flat on the Edgware Road, just to borrow money off a friend to buy cat food for Lilu (my Siamese nemesis). I don’t know if you have ever heard a hungry Siamese ask for food, but it’s as stressful as being stuck on a long haul flight with a screaming child. Yet the child has a megaphone and scratches holes in your furniture if she doesn’t get enough biscuits. And she has a tail.

Lilu and I used to lie on my bed for hours just staring at each other. I would feel desperately guilty that I couldn’t offer her more in life and I promised her that as soon as I could I would feed her smoked salmon pate for breakfast; but as our stomachs shrunk our only comforts were cuddles. As two attractive and intelligent young women I couldn’t believe the situation we were in – surely, I told Lilu, this wouldn’t go on forever.

That said Lilu showed no signs whatsoever of trying to build a lucrative feline-based global business empire so, yet again, it was all down to me. Cats eh?! Things were not looking good for us – we were renting a room in my friend Tara’s apartment in Marylebone at the time – it was luscious and more expensive than I could really afford but because her parents owned it and were kind enough not to demand the rent monthly I was able to pay it in more infrequent installments. I will be eternally grateful to them for that, as monthly rent could have forced me out of London. However, after struggling to meet the rent for over a year I had to eventually give in and move out.

Before I had even plucked up the courage to ask her, Louise offered to take Lilu and me in. Louise was living in the warehouse conversion in Hackney that I had shared with seven boys the year before. The very same warehouse conversion that I had stood on the doorstep of for the last time and vowed I would never go back to. Yup – that one. This wasn’t an insult to the lovely boys I shared with because actually we had a brilliant time and I loved them dearly, but when I got my book deal and moved out I thought I would never need to live like that again. It was communal living with great people but stinky kitchens and lots of noise. Boys have much to offer society but being good cleaners, tidy uperrer’s and washer-uppers are not among their plus points, and after a while that stuff really matters.

I am progressive by nature – I like to keep moving forward so moving back into the warehouse felt like I had back-tracked in an almighty way, but as I said, writing a book wasn’t the lottery ticket I had hoped it would be and I was actually the poorest I had ever been. I had to set pride aside and do what was necessary to keep my furry little noise box happy.

Louise was amazing to us, especially when you realise that she didn’t even have her own bedroom. She slept in a curtained off section of a lounge, and happily shared it with Lilu and me while I worked hard on finding my big break. I never felt uncomfortable about letting her take care of us because I never doubted that one day I would be able to do the same for her. I think Lilu felt the same but it was sometimes hard to tell.

I think as friends we get a genuine kick out of taking care of each other. Louise is a natural mothering type, of Italian decent she was born to make babies and cook huge family meals and be the most fabulous mother ever. However, I take more of the manly role (in a pretty way). I want to be able to support her and treat her to things. I used to scrape pennies together to buy her fun little presents as thanks for keeping my tummy full. I would have funky earrings, and vintage hand bags for her when she got home from work, with notes saying, ‘I love to decorate you, but you could never be prettier than you are’

The space consisted of two large flats that were next to each other but that we treated as one. A bit like in Friends, but without neurotic Monica to keep the place clean and far less commercial breaks. It was a good space for Lilu, as at the time she was an indoor cat and there was room for her to run around and lots of people to play with and cuddle. But I did worry about her eating the food scraps that seemed to lace the kitchen floor, as her tummy was always a little bit upset. We lived like this for 7 months. When we all moved in there three years before we sacrificed one half of one of the lounges and made it into a bedroom to bring the rent down even more. It was in there that we were three in a bed; me by the wall, Lilu in the middle (head on pillow, body under covers), and Louise nearest the curtain that partitioned the lounge from the kitchen. The flat was loud and smelly because of the amount of people living in it but it was home, and I will be grateful to Louise forever for saving me and my very domineering snob of a puss cat from starvation and being homeless. It is times like these that you realize that good friends are the best thing you can have in your life.

Weirdly we had a really great time. We would chat while she got ready for work every morning, then Lilu and I would get up, tidy our room and write all day. Then when Louise came home we would all have dinner together, then go to bed and read and talk. I guess that is what a real friendship is all about. We knew it wasn’t forever, but in some ways it could have been. There were lots of problems in my life at that point but when I look back on it all the memories are not bad at all. I just remember being determined not to give up, and feeling like I had the best friend on the face of the planet. I still do.

After about 7 months things really started to change for me. My book had been translated into a few different languages, I was doing lots of freelance writing, and I had just got the Super Slim Me gig with BBC 3 – (where I tried to starve to a size zero). The three of us deserved more than what we had, so I forked out pretty much everything I was earning on renting a nice flat in Maida Vale. This was my turn to play mother hen and to pay Louise back for her faith in me. I felt proud that finally we could have somewhere that Louise and I had a room each, and where Lilu could enjoy her smoked salmon pate in peace.

It was perfect. We had everything we needed, but I spent most of the time petrified that the work wouldn’t be constant and that I wouldn’t be able to support my little family. I never believed it wouldn’t be OK long term, but I signed up to a year in a pretty expensive flat, and even though it all panned out fine there are many sleepless nights associated with acting on impulse because you have money for the first time in your life.

However I needn’t have worried, as over the course of the next year I made six documentaries; Super Slim Me, Dawn Gets Naked, Dawn Gets a Baby, Dawn Goes Lesbian, Dawn Gets her Man and Seriously Dirty Dancing. I also wrote a lot of articles. I had money, a beautiful home, a best friend, and success. Those four things had always been at the top of my priorities. So I felt like I was living the life I had always dreamed of. Finally! I was happy, really happy, but something inside of me was always yearning for more. In fact something was always inside of me yearning for more. I do sometimes wonder if that will ever go away, but if it doesn’t, maybe I should learn to ignore it. Or just get another cat.

Fourteen months after moving into our new home Louise, Lilu and I were curled up on the sofa watching TV, when the final call from TPG came in. I had obviously wowed him enough to get the gig, and I was off to be ‘hot – but not too hot!’ – urgh! The gig was mine. I turned to Louise, who was salivating with anticipation as to why I had made her turn off the TV while I grinned like a maniac throughout the entire phone call, and said ‘Jesus baby, I think I am moving to Hollywood!’

Anyhow – TPG talked to my agent, sums of money were discussed (a reasonable amount but still a million miles away from Jonathon Ross), contracts were signed, I smiled even more and, before you knew it Christmas flew passed and like a flash we were on the roof of Soho House celebrating my birthday, drinking Champagne, and wondering where life was about to take us. Louise was moving in with her sister in a cool loft apartment in East London, and I was moving to LA. Neither of us could quite believe that we wouldn’t be living together anymore, but the idea of me going to LA excited us beyond reason. After ‘The Call’ from TPG, whoever woke up first each morning would go into the others bedroom and simply say ‘did that really just happen?’ Then we would burst out laughing and role around giggling for a few moments before we got up and got dressed. We couldn’t get our heads around how much life was about to change. For the better we presumed.

‘I will get to know as many people as possible, and make sure that when you come to stay, we get invited to loads of pool parties’ I would say. Yes, I was that shallow about it.

Lou gleefully nodded and neither of us thought anything but that we would be double dating George Clooney and Brad Pitt within a year – if not sooner. In LA…I did mention I was going to LA didn’t I?

My party was wonderful. All my closest friends were there – it was as if my whole world had crowded into one room. I looked around the room and had a moment of pure love for all the people who had helped me get to this point over the years. There was my sister, my dad, my aunty who raised me (long story), and of course all of my closest friends. Ed, my best friend throughout my university years was there, Oli my last serious boyfriend – who has now morphed into being one of my favorite people on the face of the earth, Katherine, the star from my lesbian documentary who nearly managed to turn me, and many many more. Each holding a huge place in my heart with a special little story of their own. It was a room full of memories and history and I loved everyone in it. It was perfect. I felt loved, supported, and ridiculously emotional. I drank too much, cried too much, and flashed my knickers one time too many. Well, if I was going to embrace celebrity I needed to start behaving like one. If flashing your fanny is what it takes to make it in Hollywood, then I was right on track! It worked for Britney anyway.

I initially was going for six months but something told me it would be longer. I am adaptable by nature, and as much as I often find leaving things tortuous at the time, I usually forget about them in five minutes when I get settled into my new life. Some would say that was fickle, but to me that means life can always be exciting and endlessly rewarding.

I remember leaving Liverpool, where I went to drama school. After a three year BA (Hons) degree in Acting, I had three debt collectors after me and an overdraft that was well beyond my comprehension. I didn’t even have enough money to get the train to London to stay with my sister when my course was over and it felt as if everything was telling me I shouldn’t be leaving. I loved my final year, had great friends, and wasn’t ready for it to end. When I did manage to persuade my uncle to lend me the train fare, (actually, I still owe him that!) I left Liverpool kicking and screaming determined to be back within a week. As it turns out I haven’t been back since and I have to remind myself to think about it at all now. As much as I love London I was presuming I would have a similar experience when I got to LA, so even though six months was the plan, I had a pretty strong feeling that I was going to be away for a while longer.

It was the 5th of February when I finally closed the door of my empty Maida Vale Apartment for the last time. I was going to stay with some friends in Clapham for a few days to settle Lilu into her new temporary home. I kept telling her that if she played her cards right and behaved I could come back and get her. A big part of me thought I should have just taken her in the first place, but that would have been irresponsible. I had to go and test the water first.

Two days later I said goodbye to her and left for the airport. I looked back and waved as I took my place in the taxi. She sat on the doorstep unaware that this time, unlike all those times in the past when mummy had left the house, I wouldn’t be back for a very long time. I felt guilty, sad and worried. Would she remember me when I eventually come back to get her? And more importantly, would that day ever actually come?

With two huge pink suitcases, and tears pounding down my face I said goodbye to London and life as I knew it. Who knows if I would ever be coming back? Who cared? Actually, I thought as the taxi pulled away, for the first time since the offer came in, I really did care.

I was excited, but nervous. Knowing that I had given everything up, I had no choice but to embrace my decision to move to LA. I knew it was the right time in my life to be taking a step like this. Sure I was going to miss my friends and family, but I had no one reason to stick around in London at that time. I was so irresponsible (apart from Lilu), I didn’t own a house, I didn’t own a car, I only had a few boxes to store in my friends attic, and I certainly didn’t have a special someone to keep me tied to the UK. I was the epitome of young, free and single and so there was every reason to go take on the world and see what was out there. So that was it, I went.

The next two years were not quite the ‘Hollywood dream’ I imagined.

Next installment of Dawn Goes LA LA coming soon….