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FIRST PERSON

If She's No Longer a Girl, Where Does That Leave Him?

May 02, 1996|PHIL BERARDELLI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are many ways you can mark your advancing age and your approaching date with mortality.

For instance, the arrival of adulthood for your children.

Or the progressively younger faces of those highly paid professional athletes, seen close-up on television.

Or--fans of the Grateful Dead aside--your growing indifference toward rock 'n' roll music.

Or the twinge of indignation you feel any time you see someone younger who is more successful than you.

C'mon. Admit it.

Whenever such signs manifest themselves, I take them in stride, because I usually feel good about myself. I eat right, exercise every day and to make sure I'm getting enough iron, I take. . . .

Well, never mind.

Still, something happened recently that came as close as anything ever has to making me feel suddenly much older. It was a Rip Van Winkle experience, as if I had instantly and irretrievably lost a sizable chunk of my life.

I was watching television one evening, minding my own business, when a commercial appeared. It was for some investment company.

On the screen, a woman explained, with appropriate respectful sadness, how her dear departed husband had left a generous inheritance for her, made possible by his investments in the sponsoring company.

I usually don't pay much attention to commercials. That's another sign, by the way. TV advertisers don't care much for people my age, because I'm pretty well set in my ways. I established my brand loyalties long ago. Besides, I can't afford a new car, I'm not about to switch my long distance telephone service, and I drink almost no beer or soft drinks. Not much else is left.

Nonetheless, I was subconsciously drawn to this ad. There was a certain familiarity in the voice that was delivering the pitch, something that reached back into the mists of my memory. So I glanced up from my newspaper, which I use as a refuge during commercial breaks.

That's when the bolt of recognition hit me.

I swear, if any of my neighbors were within a hundred feet of my house, they would have heard me through the walls, exclaiming: "Holy [not smoke]! It's Joan!"

*

Alittle background is in order. Years ago, I attended a university in Washington, D.C., that shall remain nameless, except to say that it is now a perennial national basketball power.

Also, the current president of the U.S. went there, two classes ahead of me. Only met him once, when he was campaigning for some student office. But that's another story.

Anyway, back then we had this girl--which is what we used to call women--who was extremely attractive and popular. Every guy on campus knew of her. Only a select few got the chance to date her.

It was Joan.

About a year out of school was the first time I ever uttered the phrase, "Holy [not cow]! It's Joan!" That was also in front of a TV screen, but my exclamation was shared in a chorus with several of my former classmates, who were watching the tube with me.

There she was, her freckle-faced alluring self, her full dark eyebrows presaging Brooke Shields by at least a decade, in a breezy, flowered frock cut above the knee. Her long black curls trailed behind her as she glided across the deliberately informal set, bounded atop a stool in front of a makeup assistant and, flashing a bright smile at the camera, introduced herself.

"Hi! I'm Joan . . . and I'm a model."

After our initial outcry, my friends and I were speechless. We sat in silent awe as this handsome female, who used to walk in our midst and sit in our classes and seem somehow both accessible and unattainable, was now on television. More than that, she was representing that icon of youth and beauty, Cover Girl makeup.

*

It was just the beginning. From then on, every so often, we would see Joan in a new commercial, sometimes alone, sometimes part of a group. I even saw her in a movie once, in a bit part as a TV news reporter.

I can't remember the movie's name. But it was shot in New York. That's where the top models go, and that's where Joan settled after school.

Forget Bill Clinton. For me and many of my classmates, Joan has been our resident celebrity.

Over the years, her TV image changed and evolved, as her roles progressed from fresh young thing to working woman, mother, successful businesswoman and so on. Whatever products she sold, from hair-care preparations to eyedrops to soup for the kids, she always projected vigor and enthusiasm.

And she always appeared her real age. Even a few years ago, when she was in a laxative commercial. OK, I thought, anybody can become constipated.

But this new image was jarring. Joan appeared elderly and subdued. Her temples were graying. Her face, though still quite pretty, seemed to have lost its youthful luster. There was a wrinkling process at work.

All these years, Joan had been my personal video demographic. Through her career, as she navigated the stages of modern American life, she provided a barometer for my own status. (Wow! Joan's wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase. She must be doing well.)

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