Child versions of gay boys always mimic famous women. If you were born before 1970, you’re probably mimicking Carol Burnett mimicking Gloria Swanson (like the Canadian illustrator Maurice Vellekoop). If you were born after 1990, you’re probably mimicking Britney Spears. If you’re me, you’re mimicking Barbara Walters.
Huh? Does Barbara Walters sing? Does Barbara Walters dance? Does Barbara Walters have a music video?
Oh, how I wish. As much as I love music, back in the middle of the Reagan-eighties, before I truly discovered American pop music, my reigning sonic diva was none other than Barbara Walters, then the co-anchor of the television news show 20/20. I wrote a bit before about my learning English through television as an immigrant kid; all the soap-opera and sitcom-watching I did was a more or less absorbent process of learning. That is, if my brain was filled with the glorious writing of Esther Shapiro (creator of Dynasty), I couldn’t quite, in my awkward ten-year old tongue, roll off the spew of bitchy dialogue. What I became obsessed with sincerely imitating, however, was a little petit-four of a speech: “... I’m Barbara Walters. And this is...twenty-TWENTY!”
Imagine, if you can, a tiny little Korean boy with a bowl-cut, walking around the house chanting “I’m Barbara Walters and this is TWENTY-TWENTY!!”
Who know what my parents thought, but they never stopped me from my vocal emulation of a sixtysomething blonde Jewish newscaster. What was it about her that I loved so much? Between the ages of ten and probably fourteen, I was obsessed with Barbara Walters. I watched 20/20 every week, as well as every one of her Specials. Like any good diva obsession, a part of it was certainly Walters’s physicality. I found her completely glittering and enchanting. I was not like Geraldo Rivera, who professed to having a huge crush on Walters, but I could certainly understand why a heterosexual boy—especially one who was much younger than her—would. Walters has great cheekbones, a great sharp profile, acquilne--but not too acquline (gift from her Russian-Jewish heritage...those Eastern Europeans!!) and fabulous taste in clothes and hair. In the past few years, the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar has run a feature called “Fabulous At Every Age” featuring images of celebrities of varying ages wearing the same themed looks—bohemian, long tunics, whatever. My sister and I love scanning these junky pages, and we always go to the sections for “40s,” “50s,” and... “60+.” Much more interesting to look at pics of Vera Wang or Kristin Scott Thomas than those of Cameron Diaz and whoever is on MTV's "The Hills" I think Madame Walters has appeared on the “60+” section more than any other woman, and she looks great in each pic.
But for me, in the end, it’s all about the voice. That raspy voice that is pushed out of her throat and skull while her cheeks are sucked in. Every word that she pronounces looks like it should rhyme with “O.” And the wacky, waltzy cadences of her speech rhythm: Barbara Walters veritably swings!
And the accent that is the source of the infamous caricature created by Gilda Radner in the late seventies on Saturday Night Live: Barbara Walters became BABA WAWA.
Walters’s inability to produce “R” sounds—she pronounced it as a “W”—was a great part of the vocal charm of Walters for me. This vocal in/disability was a remnant of her Boston childhood, but when coupled with her smooth newswoman speak, it came off as a weird affected accent, a cross between a 1930s Hollywood starlet, a robot, and a Korean immigrant lady. This is probably what I cathected on to. Koreans have a problem with “R”: our “R” sound is very tough and hard, closer to a Spanish rolling “R,” so when we pronounce the letter R, we say, “AAAH-RRRUH.” To my ten-year old ears, then, Madame Walters’s stylization of her mispronunced R was a glamorizing of a speech pattern that was stigmatic of a Korean-immigrant status. She made something that was embarrassing and shameful into something sleek and showy. But then along comes Gilda Radner, (may she rest in peace) to undo that very vocal feminine veneer, ripping it apart, making fun of it. For the record, Walters never had problems pronouncing “L” sounds. Interestingly enough, when Radner adds this fictional element ("WaLters" becomes "WaWa"), she’d psychically caught onto my identification with Walters: it is another speech-tic of Koreans to mispronounce “L” as “R.” I remember the embarrassment I felt as a child, some twenty years ago, when my mother tried to buy some film for her camera at a drugstore in Iowa City: “Could I get some fee-rum?” The stupid hick clerk replied, over and over, “What? What?” Even though she was working at the film-developing section of the store, standing in front of an entire wall of fucking Kodak. I was, I think, eleven or twelve, and totally embarrassed, unable to stand up for my mother with her broken English. This memory flashed in my brain when I came to the following moment in Walters’s recent memoir, Audition:
Audiences found her [Gilda Radner’s] mimicry of my pronunciation of l and r as w hysterically funny. I found it extremely upsetting. I was feeling so down that I probably wouldn’t have found anything funny. But everyone else loved Gilda’s impersonation.
Every first or second generation Korean kid understands this terror/ shame of being made fun of for your accent. When Radner creates a “Barbara Walters” that confuses “L “and” R” (for “W”), she is creating a Korean Barbara Walters. Barbara Walters, too, had broken English--which she felt was a performance of professional femininity, that others misread as a speech impediment. I understood Barbara Walters’s hurt, because it’s a hurt I felt for my mother. The shame I feel now is for that child self that couldn’t yell at the drugstore clerk.
This retroactive shame-guilt seems to be an appropriate reaction for reading Audition. I know that most people are yakking about her affair with the African-American Republican senator, and yes, that tidbit was very juicy and actually touching, but I was more into the vulnerable, "broken (English)" spots that Walters revealed. As I was finishing the book on the longass flight from Providence to San Francisco a couple weeks ago, I wrote the following capsule book-report on its endpapers: “Barbara Walters: Guilt-ridden!! Indecisive!!” And I meant that affectionately, as gesture of sisterly understanding and empathy. Walters begins the book by saying that she almost titled the book “Sister” because of the great impact that her mentally disabled sister had on her life...contributing a lot to the aforementioned guilt and indecision. While I love the title that Walters eventually chose, I think “Sister” could have worked as well. Barbara Walters has always been my Korean soul sister.