Each year, millions of high school girls go into a hair, makeup, and primping frenzy in preparation for the prom. With the night in sight, senior Christ Romeo’s aced it all, even nail tips, but now she’s up against the Big One: Her dress –it’s, like, a disaster.
By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Photo Editor: Claudia Lebenthal
In hot water
On the morning of the prom, Christi takes a bath before setting out to face four hours of hair and makeup.
At home, she's Christi. Out with her friends, she's Christina. She has long, wavy brown hair, a wide smile, a petite figure, a good tan, a hair appointment, a nail appointment, so much to do. She is 18, a high school senior, ready to embrace the future.
The future is: prom.
She has a prom date, prom shoes, a prom purse, a prom ticket, a prom limo on order, and a bank account just for the prom into which she has deposited her every Pizza Hut paycheck for the last six months.
None of which matters, at the moment. No, at this moment nothing matters. Except this dress.
"The prom dress from hell," says Christina.
She is not exaggerating.
She has had it with Wedding World. "Just had it," she says, pulling up to the store in North Hills, a suburb of Pittsburgh. "These people are on my last nerve." She ordered her prom dress -an elegant, red Jessica McClintock number with fancy filigree on the back- four months ago. She has been calling and calling. "Is it in yet?" Nope, not in. "We'll put a rush on it," they said. "Is it in yet?" she'd ask, a month later, and two weeks after that, and so on. Nope, not in.
Until today. Ten measly days before the prom. Nicole, a manager at Wedding World, presents the dress to her. "Try it on!" she says, all happy, adding, "Pay no attention to that tag." The tag says: Size 13/14. Christina takes a 7. "Don't worry," Nicole says, "they took it in at the factory."
As dog Boris (named for Yeltsin) stands by, Christi alerts boyfriend Kris to the dress fiasco: Her size 7 came back a 3.
"Uh-huh," Christina says, entering the dressing room.
"Um, I can't... well, I can't... um, jeez," Christina is heard saying through the pink curtain. And then she steps out.
"Gasp!" goes Nicole.
"Gasp!" goes a customer.
Gasps go all around Wedding World. This is a sight to behold. This is every girl's prom nightmare.
Christina has her arms out, like she's just stepped out of a vat of slime, like "get this thing off me." She can't get the zipper up. This dress has not been altered to a size 7 -more like to a size 3. And not only that, all the altering seems to have happened on one side. The rhinestone buttons are no longer centered but instead headed down her left breast. The slit up the side is now a slit more toward the back. There appear to be many yards of material swirling around her feet.
"My prom dress!" Christina is saying. "My prom!"
Nicole says, "Take it off." She tells Christina she'll have to go to the Wedding World store in Monroeville, a Pittsburgh suburb many miles away, and see Jeanie, the seamstress. She opens her book, flips through, taps her pencil. She says, "How about next Friday morning?"
"My prom is on Thursday! I mean, I ordered this dress in March..."
For a teenager, she is handling this confrontation with remarkable skill. Her mother would be proud. Oh wait till she tells her mother. Her mother -not the prom type, not even close- has stayed out of this, has stayed out of all of Christina's formal dance decisions. In her lifetime, Christina has been to five formal dances. She has a closet full of ex-gowns and drawers full of photos of ex-dates. In her mind these were all practice rounds, miniproms teaching her the skills necessary for the big one, the biggest event of her life: the 1995 Peabody High School senior prom.
Nicole compromises: 6:30 tonight for the seamstress.
"Are you sure she can fix it?" Christina asks. "How long will it take? Will it be ready by my prom?"
"I hope so," says Nicole. "Heh heh."
Christina goes out to the car, gets in. "This is a disaster," she is saying. She is not kidding. She is not exaggerating. Because in this moment, Christina Romeo confronts and accepts the essence of the prom experience: disaster management.
The $42 for a French manicure included “nail design” with rhinestones.
Her first time with fake nails leaves Christi uneasy: What if they fall off?
When considering why they put themselves through all of this, Christina and her friends, Jessica and Tracy, get stuck. They're not sure why a prom should be such a big deal.
They started prom preparations back in November.
Tracy: "Because everything has to be perfect."
Jessica: "And nothing ever is."
Tracy: "And you cry."
Jessica: "And you fight with your mom."
Christina: "You get hysterical. You scream at your mom. I'm like, 'I hate you!' And I yell at my boyfriend. And my dad's like, 'Calm down! You're out of control!' I get so upset."
Tracy: "Fight with your mom and cry. That's prom."
This exploration into the deeper meaning of prom was carried forth a few months ago, on the way to the mall, before Christina was faced with the prom-dress-from-hell situation. So she was still in a relatively good mood; she had not yet totally entered the spirit of prom.
At the mall, on a shoe outing, the needle on the misery meter was just beginning to quiver.
Christina: "My boyfriend's like, 'A whole shopping night just for shoes?' And I'm like, 'Yeah.' And he's like, 'This is a big project?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, what's your point?"
Tracy: "The guys do nothing for prom."
The girls tried to add up what this dreamy Cinderella night was going to run them: $90 for prom tickets, $110 for a dress, $30 for shoes, $40 for hair, $40 for jewelry, $16 for pictures at the prom, $50 each for the limo (the three girls and their dates split the cost), $20 each for the hotel room they will rent for the after-prom party.
Jessica: "Oh, and tanning. We started tanning back in February. We go once a week."
Christina: "Are you going tanning with me on Friday?"
Jessica: "I don't know. Just page me and I'll see if I'm free."
Pagers. They all wear pagers. They are teenagers; they are busy.
They went gliding through the mall, stopping into California Nails, where they stared down at a case of hands decorated like fruity desserts. Nails! They forgot to add in the cost of nails. That's another $12 for a manicure, $27 for elongating acrylic tips, $3 for "nail design." Jessica pointed to a hand in the case with a French manicure and rhinestones embedded in each nail. “That’s the one,” she said. The others agreed. They agree on everything.
It’s a wash.
A stylist at the Looking Glass hair salon rinses out coloring solution.
At the shoe store, they were efficient. No giggling or joking. They were teenagers; they were busy. They each chose the same shoes, handed in their swatches, gave instructions on dye, headed out.
Tracy lit a cigarette.
Tracy: "It's stressful."
Jessica: "It is."
Christina: "I swear to God, at the prom I'm going to need, like, a pain reliever or something. Just to calm my nerves."
Jessica: "Oh, but prom is fun. It's like, you look at people."
Christina: "You make fun of people. 'My God, look at her hair!”
Tracy: "Or, 'I can't believe she wore that dress!"
Jessica: "Or, 'She looks so fat and her date is so ugly!”
Christina: "That sort of stuff."
After making the cut, Anita Santarcangelo turns her attention to makeup application.
“Mom?!" shouts Christi, bursting in through the back door. "Mom! I need a new prom dress! It's a disaster! You won't believe what happened!"
"OK, let's not panic," her mother, Debbie, is saying. "It can't be that bad. Go put the dress on and we'll look at it."
She puts it on.
"Oh," Debbie says. "Oh, dear."
Debbie, who is a computer systems analyst at a center for victims of violent crime, really doesn't understand much about this prom stuff. She and her husband, Paul, are young parents, in their mid-30s. Debbie had Christi when she was just 18. She and Paul got married before the baby was born and have stuck together ever since. They have another daughter, Jamie, 9.
Standing here in a Michigan Wolverines T-shirt, cutoffs, and construction boots, Debbie thinks it's amazing the way Christi, a very glamorous cheerleader type, turned out. Debbie was not like this. Debbie did not go to her own prom. (She would not have been caught dead at the thing.) Debbie is disappointed about this prom dress disaster on a number of levels; she had planned to rush off to Dek hockey practice. She plays in a league. (Christi would not be caught dead in a Dek hockey league.)
Tan work began in February. As prom nears, tanning-bed time increases.
"Help!" says Christi, looking like a disaster in her prom dress.
Debbie takes a deep breath, says, "OK." She may not understand much about the prom culture. She may have a conviction that her daughter learn to take responsibility for the things she wants in this life, whether it's world peace (it isn't) or a prom dress, but when it comes to her daughter needing her, Debbie will not hesitate to step up to the challenge. And when Debbie steps up to a challenge... well, it isn't pretty.
She picks up the phone, dials Wedding World.
"Hello. And would this be the manager? Nicole. OK. Nicole, how long have you been working at Wedding World? No, I'm just curious. Because my daughter is standing in front of me right now.... This is a monstrosity! What? No, no. It more than doesn't fit her, Nicole. It's an abomination!"
It goes on like this.
"...You agree? Agree? OK, OK, Nicole, I'm not looking for agreement here. That's a little clue about me. I'm looking for satisfaction. I want results. And I want them quick."
While Debbie does battle for her older daughter, the younger, Jamie, begins practicing for her own future. "And would this be the manager?" she says, pointing her finger at Boris, the dog. "I want results! That's a little clue about me..." But Boris just yawns.
Sister Jamie looks on as Carolyn of Wedding World makes last minute adjustments.
On the telephone, Nicole passes Debbie off to Carolyn, the manager of the Monroeville store.
"Hello, Carolyn? Carolyn, let me tell you this... I will be in at 6:30 tonight, and you, Carolyn, will you be in, Carolyn? OK, I just want you to be prepared for myself."
When she is through with Carolyn, Debbie phones a friend on her Dek hockey team to cancel. "Sorry, I gotta go play Mommie Dearest at Wedding World," she says.
"Thanks, mom," Christi says, and just then her pager goes off. It's Kris, the boyfriend and prom date. She knows because her pager reads 45683968. No, it is not Kris's phone number, but the numerals on a Touch-Tone phone corresponding to the words: I LOVE YOU. "We never say it to each other," says Christi. “We just beep it."
Debbie exhales. "No matter how hard you try," she says. "They turn out the way they turn out."
Red on red.
Kris cummerbund and tie are color-coordinated with Christi’s dress.
Disaster, disaster, disaster.
OK, now look what's happened. The Penn Hills department of public works is repaving Lois Drive and Elm Drive the day before Christina Romeo's prom.
"Can you believe this!?" Christina is saying to Jessica and Tracy, the three girls looking out Christina's front door at the corner of Lois and Elm. There are big, awful trucks rolling over oily asphalt. It is prom eve, a day of manicures and last-minute tanning. Everything was going just fine; Christina's dress actually fits now -thanks to Jeanie, the Wedding World seamstress, who "came out of her bottle," according to a very cheerful Carolyn, and worked her magic.
But now this street-paving thing has started, and Jessica has broken not one but two of her acrylic nails off, and what else could possibly go wrong?
Christina: "Jessica is, like, Miss Tragedy."
Jessica: "I am."
Tracy: "Hey, I brought my hair to show you guys."
Tracy reaches into her purse for the picture of the hairdo she will get.
Tracy: "My hair! Oh, my God! I think I left my hair in the trig room! Oh, no! Oh, God."
Christina: "Everything is going wrong! First my dress, then her nails, and now this!"
Tracy: "I lost my hair!"
The three girls hyperventilate as they pile into the car.
Jessica: "Everything is so tense"
Tracy: "But not for the guys."
Jessica: "The guys do nothing for prom."
On prom morning, Christina can't believe how calm she is.
At least compared to Tracy.
"I talked to Tracy and she was like, 'I hate everyone!"' reports Christina. "She's like, 'I don't hate you yet, but I just got on the telephone with you.' I was like, 'Why do you hate everyone?'
"She's like, 'Everything is going wrong!'
"Tracy is on my last nerve."
Thank goodness Christina made the decision not to get her hair done with Jessica and Tracy; she couldn't have taken it. Not that there was any real choice. Because no one in the universe has ever touched Christina Romeo's hair except Anita Santarcangelo. Anita, a hairstylist, is one of Debbie's best and oldest friends. She has accomplished all manner of updo's on Christi -curly her sophomore year, elegant her junior. These were not suggestions on Anita's part; they were pronouncements. Anita is the god of Christi's hair. And Christi's faith is steadfast.
And so imagine Christi's surprise when, on the single most important hair day of her life, Anita pronounces: 'Were going to cut your hair off."
Anita: "Cut it. No more updo's."
Christi: "What? But it's my... prom!"
Anita: "Everybody's going to have updo's. It's time to make a statement."
Christi: "A statement?"
Anita: "A statement."
Christi: "Oh, it's all too much for me. I have to call my mother."
She calls. She comes back. "My mom says I should do it," she says.
"No kidding," says Anita, who then whacks off eight inches. "That was grandma hair," she says.
"Oh, God. I am bald. I-am-bald!" Christi is saying.
Debbie arrives; she wouldn't miss this one for the world.
"You look fantastic!" she says.
"But I don't look like I'm going to a prom," she says. "I mean, I sorta like it, but... no, oh, God, I think I hate it!"
"There's no making her happy," Debbie says. "She doesn't do change well. It's process. We'll ride home and we'll talk about it."
Anita is not worried. Anita knows her work is done. On the scene
Haute hair; Carmella Jones (with boyfriend Leon Reese)
Kishawna Pritchard and boyfriend Michael Talley got glam.
Kishawna took a breather on Michael’s lap. Leslie Ellis is behind.
Leslie Ellis (with Maurice Cissell) in long gloves and ruffles.
Tamicka Jackson, beside Terrell Jones, came ready to cancan.
Andy Munz and Tricia Rorison met while working at Foodland.
Chatel Clinkscale, left, and Keisha Jackson went for aerodynamic an look.
Ebony Giles (with Paul Jetter) looked sleek in an upsweep and choker.
In the car, Debbie tries to be patient. "You look fantastic, she is saying. "Everyone is going to have their hair up. And I know you want to be like everybody. And I know I'm supposed to let you... but..."
Christi: "Does my face look tan?"
Christi: "Do you like my nails?"
Debbie exhales. She is silent for a moment, something gurgling inside.
Christi: "What about the rhinestones? Do you like the rhinestones?"
Debbie: "Yes! And do you know what else I like? I like that this prom is going to be over in 12 hours! And I can't wait! Because we are not saying your name, Christi. Do you hear? We're not going to talk about you anymore, Christi, we're going to talk about... me! Me, me, me! I'm going to wake you up in the morning and say, 'Do I look pretty?' OK? For three days!"
Christi is silent. She calls Jessica on the car phone to tell her about her hair adventure, but news of Tracy is more urgent. "I knew it!" she says. "Did-I-not-say-that-Tracy-would-cry-because-she-hated-her-hair! ?"
Debbie listens without comment.
Christi hangs up.
Christi: "Whew. I-am-nervous."
Debbie: "Nervous? But you're going to have fun!"
Christi: "I'm not nervous about having fun. I know I'll have fun."
Debbie: "So what are you nervous about? I'm just really curious."
Christi: "What are you curious about?"
Debbie: "Nervous? Like, excited?"
Christi: "No, nervous."
Christi: "About my dress. My hair. That I'll fall down the steps... Oh, God, look! Look! How are they going to get the limo up our driveway?"
The Penn Hills public-works department has finished paving Lois Drive and Elm Drive, both of which are now blocked off with orange cones.
Christi: "This is a disaster!"
Debbie: "I'm sorry that we don't have control over when they pave the street, Christi."
There is silence.
Debbie: "They paved the street. Can you imagine that? Just to piss you off. Whew, that's self-centered, Christi. That is self-centered."
Jamie comes running up to the car with a hermit crab question. "Mom!" she says.
Debbie: "Jamie, I just can't take it now. I'm sorry. I just can't take it..."
"Nice suit," Jamie says to Kris, the boyfriend and prom date.
"It's a tux," Christi says.
And so three girls (and three dates), three prom dresses, three purses, three pairs of dyed shoes, and one limousine are now assembled at the corner of Lois and Elm. Christina's dad moved the orange cones.
The air is thick with the smell of tar. Neighborhood kids are trying out the new asphalt with their bikes and stopping by to watch the prom spectacle. Pictures are taken. Grandparents assemble. And as the limo zooms away, Debbie sits on the porch, lights a cigarette, closes her eyes. She is thinking about getting her head shaved next week; she really is.
Christina's hair is, naturally, the main topic of conversation at the 1995 Peabody High School prom at the Riverwatch banquet hall in Pittsburgh.
The girls (and their dates) step out of the limo. There is a roped-off section for photographers. People are cheering. Cameras are clicking. This is... Hollywood!
"Oh my God, Christina cut her hair!" is heard as she walks by.
Some say, "Wow!" And some say, "Why?"
Tracy makes sure to get her own hair into the conversation. "I hated my hair. I cried. I like it now. It was higher. I don't know. I hated it. It looked all right but it wasn't what I wanted. I cried when I walked out. I always cry..."
Soon dinner is served. A plate of twice baked potato, green beans, and chicken with gravy comes to each high school senior while the DJ spins a record: "Sex Me." Most of the girls are too excited -or their dresses are too tight- to sit. There is cleavage everywhere.
After dinner, Jimmy, Kris, and Steve, the three guys who do nothing for prom, nothing, retire outside on the dock and watch the boats.
They look bored.
Steve: "No, we are not bored. This is just prom."
Kris: "I had the exact same prom last year except not as good chicken."
Jimmy: "It's always the same. The girls go their way. We go ours. Until they need a picture. Then they call us over. That's prom."
And so the girls of the 1995 Peabody High School prom run on and off the dance floor, in and out of the ladies' room, skipping between one another's camera frames. They laugh and scream and brag of disasters -Jessica's purse broke, Tracy's camera jammed- discussing who cried and who didn't cry, flaunting broken nails, and missing rhinestones, and sore feet. They are having a totally good time.