‘She Doesn’t Smile Much’

“So tiny dancer, beware – we’re medicated and scared
This smile is so hard to wear
So turn away from the ones who hurt everyone
I can tell by your smile you’re coming undone
And you’re fading with every day…
There’s so much left in the air,
So much to tell from your stare.” -Seether

It was my golden birthday – when my age matched the day of the month, and I was seventeen years old. I usually liked to seek nature on the morning of my birthday, to greet the summer dew with my bare feet and watch the sun rise, returning to my bed for the traditional breakfast-and-gifts in bed. I couldn’t do that today, because at 7 a.m. I was hungry, the sun was up, and I could hear the reality TV producers and cameramen talking to my family upstairs.

I put on a blue dress that rather resembled a nightgown but would look good for the cameras. I put on makeup, though I never liked makeup. The sound guy knocked at my bedroom door and it took me a moment to find an answer, because I was so unfamiliar with answering a knock. My parents and siblings usually just walked in.

He smiled and apologetically asked for permission to wire me for sound. He left so I could hide the wire under my dress and clip the mic onto its collar. I made sure it was on, and hid the black control box under my sheets. Because I could be heard, I steadied my breathing and told myself not to absently talk to myself.

Something in me was sad and angry. I wanted to go to Disneyland with my brother because our golden birthdays were five days apart. We’d planned it out and tried to budget and save, but mom and dad said it was too grand a scheme – we wouldn’t be able to afford it; we didn’t have time. Then we planned another reality TV show. The birthday I’d looked forward to for years wasn’t going anything like I’d hoped.

It wasn’t that bad, I told myself while propping myself up on my pillows and carefully keeping the microphone hidden. I shouldn’t feel disappointment, I shouldn’t complain. Disneyland was such a common dream, anyway. I did what I always did: I smiled. Alone in my bedroom, I forced myself to grin, and let my mom’s phrase run through my head: “If you smile, it sends the message to your brain that you’re happy, and you’ll be happy.”

The frustration, the disappointment, the feeling that nothing was right about my lost opportunity at the birthday I wanted, and the fact that I had to look good for the cameras, melted away behind my smile.

I was “ready with a cheerful spirit” when my family opened my bedroom door and started singing the happy birthday song, carrying a now-cold breakfast, and followed by two cameramen and a guy with a boom pole.

—–

I get asked less often these days. “What is it like to be on TV?”

Usually I’d respond with a wry grin, trying to sort out the flood of memories. There was some good – I always thought the producers, cameramen, and other crewmembers were neat people. They were different from the people I knew. Some had tattoos or wore low-riding cargo pants. My parents often talked about how we should “witness” to these people, and tell them about Jesus. They celebrated when one assistant producer said that after filming at our house, he was thinking about having kids.

I gave my consent to be on TV – I don’t feel like I was coerced into it the first time. That’s why for the Kids by the Dozen show, I gave myself loads of screen time. To this day, I get messages from people saying that even at 14, I was witty and well spoken. The Secret Lives of Women, filmed a few years later…wasn’t something I wanted.

Other than disappointment about my birthday, I don’t really know why I didn’t want to be on the show. I liked the attention. I liked the publicity. I liked how great my family looked on screen. I just couldn’t find the motivation within myself to care. The walls weren’t breaking down yet – I was still wholeheartedly a member of the purity movement and the Rebelution – but it was difficult to perform. What I was feeling, I now realize, was the impact of suppressed emotions.

There’s one thing I also tell people when they ask what it’s like to be in the spotlight: the Internet is never the same.

Before 2007, if I Googled my own name, I’d generally find people with my rare last name, “Jeub,” and I could make a family tree. That was about it. After 2007, I could find what my dad called “hate mail.”

Dad and I could handle what Google produced – mostly forums and a few bloggers talking about us. Mom refused to read it, saying it was too painful.

I could laugh at some things, but most of it was bothersome.

Many people thought my dad seemed mean and narcissistic. A lot of people said it seemed hypocritical for mom and dad to kick Alicia out for getting pregnant out of wedlock, seeing as mom had had Alicia out of wedlock.

People asked, “Is Lydia Jeub gay?” because my straight and androgynous little sister, even though she had long hair at the time, was clearly athletic. They also asked if I was more controlled than my siblings because I wore dresses. I actually just liked wearing dresses, and I still like dresses.

It’s normal and common for people with a taste of fame to have mixed feelings about how the Internet treats them. In fact, my level of notoriety is just enough to be rather tame.

What made my experience with the Internet different was that it wasn’t really hate. These people weren’t trolling. They were giving their honest, compassionate responses to our family.

“It bothers me that the older kids raise the younger kids,” I read on various forums, and it made me get defensive. Sure, I helped out around the house, but it’s not like mom and dad were absent. They were around. My mom spent over an hour on the phone nearly every day, and went shopping every couple of weeks for six to eight hours at a time, but I was convinced: I wasn’t raising my siblings.

One line will always stick with me, from a forum about the 2009 Born to Breed show: “Cynthia Jeub made an interesting impression on me. The girl doesn’t smile much, does she. Maybe she’s just shy, but who knows.”

I am shy, but that comment made me think that maybe my performance on my birthday wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. If anyone asked me what was wrong, or said I looked sad, my response was to cheer up. I never stopped to ask if there was actually something wrong. I couldn’t. I was taught that if something is wrong, the appropriate thing is not to react. I was level-headed and did not get angry and I did not cry. Changing the situation was impossible, but I could change my attitude. Complaining was out of the question, especially when there was nothing to complain about, and clearly there wasn’t.

I wouldn’t trade the life experience I got from Reality TV, because it told me the one thing I needed to know in my teens: my life was strange, and people were curious about it. Most of all, it gave me the first hints that my lifestyle was not normal.