When my father, Les, who is Jewish, learned I was chosen by People magazine as one of America’s most beautiful women recently, he said, “Mazel tov, my ziskeit shayna maidel! But tell me, when are you going to be on the cover of the New Yorker?”
My Japanese mother’s reaction was different but similar. “That’s wonderful my little musubi,” said my mom, Sumiko. “But couldn’t they have chosen a more flattering photo in which you look more Asian?”
Oy, miso verklempt!
It’s funny any way you look at being Russian-Jewish and Japanese-Buddhist, and believe me, if I didn’t laugh, I would certainly cry.
Having a sense of humor is my secret to looking “not so shabby” and living life to the fullest. I have also given up guilt, which is not easy for a Japanese Jew who grew up with double the angst, a buffet’s share of neuroses and the pressure to be a perfect intellectual beauty while never being allowed to take the credit.
In the May 7 issue of People, billed as the “World’s Most Beautiful People” issue, I turned to page 97 and saw my face under a two-page spread headlined “Real Beauty at Every Age.” The women were arranged by age, from 20 to 59, and there I was — the “most beautiful” 48-year-old. For some reason, the spread is not online.
I had entered the contest on a whim, after renewing my daughter Rosy’s subscription and subsequently seeing a notice that People was searching for “natural beauties” from “coast to coast.” I sent in a professional photo, which People put on a website where people could vote. I was surprised when People called for some more information about me, but beyond that, the editors wouldn’t reveal the vote count or the winners. I had to wait until the magazine — with Béyonce on the cover — hit the supermarkets at the end of April to see if I had made the cut.
I had already decided on my last birthday that being considered a beautiful woman might not be the crime of the century. And as the mother of three daughters, and an investigative journalist and reporter for nearly two decades, I was ready for some fun.
Barely a day goes by when I am not asked, “Where do you come from?”
As many people who are from a mixed-race background, I have often tried to belong to one culture or another, without ever feeling accepted by either.
Life was no piece of sweet kugel growing up in the 1970s as the only half-shiksa in an all-Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles.
On humid days when I woke up with a Jewfro that even Art Garfunkel would be envious of, I was voted president of the debate team and taken seriously by ultra-liberal teachers when I made incoherent arguments about capitalism being more empathetic than socialism.
But on days when the Southern California weather was dry and my hair was “oh-so-Japanese-straight and shiny,” I was quite popular with the successful Jewish boys on the playground — you know, the ones who were already accepted to med school or had produced their first film by age 8. On those days, I came home with Twinkies and Ho-Ho’s from their lunch bags. I am sure their Jewish mothers curse me to this day.
I remember Japanese girls in high school telling me I was not one of them because I was not pure. And to this day I am not accepted by many Jews, as my mother is not Jewish. I have even received cruel emails in response to my published work about how I have no right to call myself a Jew.
So in a big way, being accepted and considered beautiful by People has turned out to be a pretty good thing for this Japanese-Jewish princess who finally feels she owns that title.
And it’s better than when I was asked to be “Lox Beauty Queen of the Month” by a local deli owner when I was 16. Let’s just way that I ate pretty well for 30 days and 30 nights.
The question I am now most often asked is “What is your beauty and anti-aging secret?”
My answer is, “Laugh about yourself and life, embrace your real age without acting like it, perform as many mitzvahs as you can, and appreciate your family and whatever culture you happen to be blessed with.”
Francesca Biller resides in Benicia. A third-generation Hawaiian of Japanese heritage, she is an investigative journalist who has contributed to CNN, CBS and the Wall Street Journal.