Be a Kathy Girl!
A SciFi Short Story that Would Make a Great Episode of Black Mirror
My hands were shaking with fatigue and relief as — at last! — I turned the key in the lock to my own door.
I didn’t even bother to change clothes. I tossed my jacket on the sofa and loosened my tie. Then, after mixing a whiskey sour — more whiskey than sour — I plopped down in my favorite chair and turned on the tube.
I was exhausted. I’d worked sixty hours in three days, napping when I could on the small couch in the reception area outside my office. Finally free to get away for a night, I’d found my way out blocked by a ten mile traffic jam — thousands of customers flocking like lemmings to our Downtown showroom, crawling over each other, squabbling like caged rats for their chance to catch a glimpse of Kathy and, consequently, to lap up our new line of spring fashions.
I’d forgotten the big unveiling was tonight — I’d left designing the spring line to my partner, Joe, while I concentrated on negotiating the Red China deal.
“Leave it to me, Old Buddy,” he’d said. “I’ve got an idea that’ll corner a whole market we’ve been missing! We’ll rule the world!”
I was glad Joe wanted it. It left me free to open up another market we’d been missing: China — over a billion hungry consumers with a over a billion pockets ripe for the picking.
So I left the spring line to him, and locked myself in the negotiating room. I didn’t even check Joe’s sketches; with Kathy as our spokeswoman, we could sell them sackcloth and ashes…
I heard the lock turning, again, behind me. I swiveled toward the door just as it swung in and a stranger entered the apartment.
On second glance, it wasn’t a stranger. It was my wife, Jilly.
She was different. Her hair was red, cut into that short, curls-right-up-next-to-her-head style that was so popular in the ’90s. She had a little quasi-duck-tail thing shaved into the back of her neck. I hated it.
“Wow, you look great,” I lied. “I hardly recognized you.”
I expected her to cross the room and give me a little kiss, but she moved instead to the kitchen. I heard the refrigerator door open, jars clanking around.
“You all right?” I called after her. I got up and followed the kitchen sounds. I stopped in the open doorframe, leaning against the woodwork, hands in pockets.
“Hey,” I said softly. “What’s the story?”
Jilly straightened and slowly closed the refrigerator door. She leaned back against the counter, back rigid, arms crossed.
I stared in amazement. More than her hair had changed. It was still Jilly, but it was also somebody else. She’d altered her appearance in a thousand subtle, yet collectively alarming ways. Her eyes seemed smaller, almond shaped. The irises were now green. Her face and arms were lightly freckled, perhaps to go with the red hair. Her lips were thinner. Her breasts were smaller and her hips had been shaved: she suddenly had a stick figure, boy’s body.
“You’re never home anymore,” she said, her voice cold, rehearsed. “You’re always up there…” she gestured toward the living room, meaning, I guessed, Downtown, my office, “… fondling Miss Perfect…”
I hated this particular argument. It was lose-lose for me because all my rational explanations — that being CEO of a multinational corporation requires the kind of hours I work, if not more; that our high class lifestyle, which she thrives on but I hardly have time to notice, requires the kind of money I make from all those hours away from home; that “Miss Perfect,” meaning Kathy, is not only not “perfect,” she isn’t even real — are, for Jilly, just lies, lame attempts to cover my “affair” with the woman every man wants and every woman wants to be.
I don’t blame her. She’s met Kathy. It’s hard not to believe in her, even when you know the facts. It’s hard not to fall in love with her; I’m probably the only man there, besides Joe, my partner, who knows the truth. And he’s no better than the rest — even knowing the truth, having been there from the start, he went ahead and fell in love with her. I guess she took him by surprise. He worships her as wholeheartedly as does everybody else.
So, I guess I’m alone in my freedom from Kathy’s influence. And considering how the rest of the world, including Jilly, views Kathy… Well, like I said, I don’t blame her. In her shoes, I’d suspect me, too.
Over the nine years since we started the Kathy Girl campaign, the Schuester Agency skyrocketed from a nothing, two-man operation — mostly designing logos and magazine layouts, mostly going broke — to the corporate monster it is today, tied into a full line of subsidiary companies peddling cosmetics, designer clothing, perfumes, books and videos, and a chain of complete makeover Kathy Girl spas, now in fourteen countries. The spas are little, glittering cities unto themselves, where women can find the whole Kathy Girl experience — including a convenient, yet discreet, cosmetic surgery clinic — all under one large roof.
Our beginnings had been simple: A failing cosmetics company had hired our failing advertising agency, asking us, basically, to save their butts, commercially speaking.
We went to work. How do you sell second-rate cosmetics in an already flooded marketplace, to women already jaded by trumped up claims and promises from the Majors that never came true?
You make better promises. Not necessarily ones you can keep, just better. They have to be so much better that it looks like a revolution, like something genuinely new is happening. You have to fool the consumer watchdogs. You have to get women outside the industry, women with powerful public images, to back your claims — and not for money, either; anyone can smell that ploy. The illusion has to be seamless, so thorough that actresses, women’s magazine editors, afternoon talk show hosts — with luck, even the First Lady, herself — will use your product and publicly back you because they’re as taken in as everybody else.
The Kathy Girl idea was mine, and I’m proud of it. It was pure genius.
The idea was to create a whole new standard of feminine beauty to place before the buying public — in magazines, on television, in movies — a woman so beautiful, so idealized, so absolutely perfect that no one could look at her without loving her. Without wanting to be her. Without cringing inside with self-loathing for being less perfect than She. Then you simply create in the public mind a direct causal link between your product and this new standard of beauty. If you’re smart, you’ll make them mortgage their homes to buy it.
Now, of course, this approach is not new. It’s been the heart of American advertising for a century, with bikini-clad women hawking everything from soda pop to deodorant to automobiles. It’s our most effective technique, but success is always uncertain — and when you get it, fleeting — for this reason: there is no perfect woman.
People’s tastes differ. Some will get instantly hooked by the image you present, becoming loyal customers, regardless of the product’s actual performance. Others will just crinkle their noses and keep buying Coke or Super-Stay-Dry or Ford because you haven’t hit their personal desires or insecurities hard enough to cause real pain; they’re already addicted to your competitor’s drug, and you haven’t convinced them that yours might offer greater bliss.
So you never get more than a segment of the market, and even that you only get for a while, because tastes also change with time. Eventually, somebody finds a better looking model, thus redefining for the buying public what, in their heart of hearts, they love, what they aspire to be. Your empire crumbles, and you have to start again.
But not with Kathy Girl. If tastes differ, I reasoned, if what people idolize changes, then you have to have a model that differs, that changes. At the speed of whim. And not just public whim, either, but individual whim. You need a model who appears differently to each set of eyes that beholds her, to each aching heart that yearns for more than they were born with. You need a model who can reflect back to each individual, in each changing moment, their own deepest image of the Perfect Beauty they long for, and would sell their souls to attain.
You need a perfect illusion. And for once, the Gods of Illusion were on our side.
We created Kathy on the Morton X-G, a new holographics computer we were hired to advertise for Morton Computers, a two day old, one man company born out of Bill Morton’s invention of this new technology. When we discovered that the X-G was a Morton Company secret — that paranoid old Bill hadn’t even sought a patent yet, for fear of corporate spies — we convinced our cosmetics account to chance their last dollar forcibly acquiring Morton Computers, then quietly liquidating it, then even more quietly erasing all evidence of its ever having existed from the public record.
Joe and I took care of old Bill.
The X-G was a dream, a magic box unlike anything the world has seen since Pandora etched her groove in the Collective Memory. We fed four thousand photographs of the world’s leading models, of famous actresses, of women we’d seen men ogling on the street, even snapshots of Jilly, and Joe’s wife, Sicily, into one end, and FWUMP!, out the other end stepped Kathy.
She looked like Jilly, the way I remember Jilly being when we first met. Thin, deep-set, mysterious brown eyes, straight, dark hair that hung to her waist in back, that fell in two curving crescents in front, framing her large breasts like careless ribbons draped around a just-opened gift.
Joe saw no one of the kind. He saw Linda Terell, a short-haired Olympic skier who, at least physically, he had always preferred to his wife.
We knew we had it. We did a little fine tuning, so the image never exactly matched any known woman, and Kathy Girl, the advertising campaign, was born.
It was as though the buying public, like Kafka’s Hunger Artist, had been fasting all these years because they’d simply never found the food they liked. Suddenly, that food was everywhere — first in 30 second TV spots, then magazine ads, the cover of Vogue, then Kathy made her first movie…
The world spun into a cosmetics-buying frenzy. Our commissions rolled into the millions. Our client owned those first ads, but we, wisely, had made sure only the Schuester Agency owned Kathy. We cut the client loose and began building our empire.
Be a Kathy Girl! we shouted, and the world cried, How? and opened their pocketbooks.
So we offered them makeup, clothing, hair dyes, perfumes, $500 a head Be a Kathy Girl! seminars; then we put it all together and opened the first Kathy Girl Spa, which, within the first week, had a three year waiting list. Mothers lined up for blocks outside toy stores the day we released the first Kathy Girl doll, only $99, backed by the slogan Raise Her Right! Raise a Kathy Girl!
And they did. Nine years later, we’d created a whole new generation of Happy Consumers. As aspiring Kathy Girls got more beautiful, so, in their eyes, did Kathy. They got older; Kathy never aged. They starved themselves eating Kathy Girl Diet Dinners, while Kathy never ate, or had to worry about weight. They pushed Kathy to levels of beauty so far beyond human norms that some began to crack up from trying to comprehend such a vision; Kathy pushed them to states of inner hunger so acute that they simply stopped seeing themselves at all, and surrendered everything to satiating the need.
Some stopped eating altogether, spending the money they saved on more product. They abandoned young husbands, as Kathy was eternally single. Thousands had given in completely, selling all their worldly goods to live quiet, cloistered lives in little villages that had begun springing up outside the Kathy Girl spas, waiting there like cocooned larvae for their Day of Resurrection — the day their appointment would finally come up, and they would be ushered inside.
The work it took to maintain all this was killing me. And my wife would never understand. She believed the lie.
“Look,” I started, “You know damned good and well…”
“Save it, Mr. Executive,” Jilly interrupted. She turned and moved off toward the bedroom.
I heard the closet door slide open, then a thwump! as something heavy hit the bed. By the time I reached the bedroom, she had the suitcase open and was filling it with clothes.
“You know all my arguments, Baby,” I said, switching to the apologetic croon I used whenever she threatened to leave. “Please. I hate it as much as you do. I’d be home with you all the time if I could, but I can’t. You know the score.”
She dropped the blouse she’d been folding, then plopped down on the bed, beside the suitcase. She looked up at me, her expression softening. She was about to cry.
“I know, I know,” she said. “You and your responsibilities… But things have changed, Ron. Look at me.”
I looked. Things had changed, alright — at least her appearance. Had she done this for me? To keep me home?
I crossed the room and knelt before her. I touched her hand, but she pulled it away. She avoided my eyes, turning instead to stare off toward the window.
“I’ve met someone new,” she said.
I pulled her hand to me, held it tight. I felt my cheeks burning.
“And you did this for him? This is what he wants?” I hated her new look, but I hated even more that she might have done it for someone other than me.
She turned now to stare me in the face, her eyes wide with anger or surprise, maybe both. Tears welled on her eyelids.
“What’s happened to you, Ron?” she said, her voice shaking. “Are you really so busy in your ivory tower that you’ve forgotten what she looks like? Have you gone blind?I’m her now. I’m Kathy now!”
“Kathy isn’t real,” I said. “And she doesn’t look anything like you. At least, not anymore.”
Jilly pulled against my grip, and I let her go. She began to rummage through the suitcase, ruining her neat packing job as she dug around for something under the clothing. She pulled out a magazine, then closed and locked the bag. She slapped the magazine into my hand.
“I have to go,” she said. “I have to get to your show before it ends. But you at least deserve a look at your replacement… Since it was you, really, who brought us together. Page twelve.”
She stood, picked up her bag, moved to the door. The tears were now streaming freely down her face.
“He’s so much like you, Ron. Like you were when we first met. It’s spooky.”
I watched her turn away, then listened as she banged her way through the kitchen, then the living room. The door to the hallway opened and closed.
I was alone in the apartment. I sat on the bedroom floor, stunned, listening to see if maybe she’d change her mind, if the front door would open again and she would come back to me.
I waited for hours, watching the moon rise outside the little bedroom window, vacillating between hating Jilly for leaving me, and hating her new boyfriend for… existing. Finally, still sitting there on the floor, I opened the magazine she’d left, ready for a glimpse of my “replacement.”
He didn’t look anything like me, though I could understand why she went for him. He was beautiful; he looked exactly how I’d always longed to look — dark hair, powerful jaw line, cleft chin, sharp, aquiline nose…
Gazing at the guy’s picture, I felt a strange pain growing in my chest, opening like a fiery pit that singed me hollow. If I’d looked like this, the fire seemed to say, then maybe Jilly…
Then I noticed the blurb beneath him, painting the sidewalk under his shoes like God’s own handwriting, like burning letters lighting up a lonely desert sky:
BE A MARK MAN!
Then in the corner of the page, this note: The new spring line for men, from Schuester Enterprises, Inc.
This is going to kill me, I thought. Great idea, Joe.
I stood and crossed over to my own small closet. I slid back the door and began to ruffle through its contents — the suits and ties, the jackets and designer shirts that now seemed so ugly, so hideously inappropriate to the look I now wanted, that I needed…
Yes, this is going to kill me, I told myself again as I slammed the closet shut with an angry thrust.
I felt my hand move reflexively to my back trouser pocket, checking the status of my wallet, my many credit cards. I stopped the hand and raised it to my eyes, turning it before me like some strange, alien artifact.
And, I realized — watching the hand struggle to complete its mission, wondering why I hadn’t thought of this one myself, not sure whether to laugh or cry — I am going to die rich.
Make that richer.
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