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Sarah Hepola Explains Her New Column, The Smart Blonde

By now the name Sarah Hepola should be familiar to you. Not only has she written for us, but she’s been filling up the internet for a while. Perhaps you’ve seen her work on Salon. Beginning with our July issue, Sarah will now write a column for D Magazine called The Smart Blonde. You can read the first installment, about the Dallas big hair myth, here. So what, exactly, is The Smart Blonde all about? Glad you asked. Herewith, Sarah explains her intentions:

The Smart Blonde Manifesto
By Sarah Hepola

Last November, I took two friends visiting from New York to Nick and Sam’s on a Saturday night. I wanted them to have the ritzy Dallas steakhouse experience. What we got, instead, was a glamour parade.

“This is crazy,” my friend Lisa said as we watched the women arrive in various shades of bedazzlement.

“Is it prom?” asked her husband Craig.

We stood at the caviar and vodka bar (note: there was a caviar and vodka bar), unable to stop our jaws from migrating to the floor: A foxy brunette in a mink vest; a blonde in aqua sequins. The men were meh, the men were button-down whatever, but the women, lord have mercy. My eyes stayed glued to one of the hostesses, a 5’10” glamazon in a dress so clingy and short it made me wonder how straight men get anything done, ever. Beside us was a woman in a cocktail dress, who also happened to be on crutches. She had a cast on one foot and a high heel on the other.

“I feel like I’m on the set of the Real Housewives,” Lisa said.

“I feel like I’m on the set of Dancing With the Stars,” said Craig.

I felt so many things: Amused, horrified, invisible and conspicuous at once. I alternated between wanting to make fun of those women and wanting to be more like them. The red-polka dot dress that had seemed so adorable when I left my house — the coy 60s-inspired number that came all the way to my knees — suddenly contained the erotic appeal of a clown costume.

“Is Dallas always like this?” Lisa asked. She’d spent the past decade in New York, a town not known for its subtlety, but she’d never seen a restaurant so over-the-top.

“I think it might be,” I said, and for the first time since moving back, I wondered what the hell I had done.

I grew up in Dallas during the glory days of America’s Team, when even a little girl who placed in spelling contests could think of no greater joy than to shake her delectable rump for the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. That changed, of course. The universe made me less perky pom-pom girl, more flinty artistic type. I discovered my firm middle rung on the social ladder of Highland Park, and replaced dreams of fringe and fan kicks with a posture of sarcasm and eye rolls. I watched from the sidelines as the drill team and the cheer squad flaunted their leggy genetic gifts in spandex unitards. Oooh, how I hated them. Oooh, how I wanted to be them. But I was all Irish frizz and troublesome curves, hearty peasant stock trying to pass among the landed gentry.

I spent most of my 20s in Austin, a pursuit of strong verbs and strong bourbon, and during those years I found new and exciting ways not to care about how I looked. Roomy flannel shirts and scrunchies and clothes picked from a pile on the floor. When I moved back to Dallas at the age of 28, and landed a job as the music editor at the Dallas Observer, I had forgotten how fancy this place could be. Hoop earrings at yoga, heels at Starbucks. And it brought out a surliness I never let fly when I was a 16-year-old in Payless flats. I wanted to fire two middle fingers directly into the heart of uptown. I dangled cigarettes from my mouth and pounded beers at the old Barley House. I dyed my dark-blonde hair auburn and gave it punky white streaks. All of which makes me sound far more rebellious than I was, because I still shopped at Banana Republic and loved sparkly things and ate wildly expensive dinners at Al Biernat’s. But I was doing that thing where you kick off against a city, even as that city shapes you. I had the heart of a nonconformist, and the hot-pink platform flip flops of a good Dallas girl.

When I moved to New York — land of brunettes and black wrap dresses — the Dallas girl stayed strong. I liked the contradiction of being an East Coast intellectual with a kink for Texas glam. I hung up a picture of “Dallas”-era Charlene Tilton in my office. I carried a pink tote bag silkscreened with an image of 70s-era Dolly Parton. I instructed my cool Brooklyn hairstylist to turn me blonde again and cut my hair like Farrah Fawcett.

So I’d made peace with my hometown (mostly). And when I finally had enough of New York, after six years, I was grateful (mostly) to move back. But there were moments when living in Dallas felt like stepping into the sun after a long matinee, and my eyes blinked and squinted to adjust to the light. Nothing did that to me like Dallas women. The nails, the white pants, the wedge heels, just: All of it.

In the month after Nick and Sam’s, I told that story at dinner parties, where women would sigh and nod in empathy: Oh, sister, I have walked in those Aerosoles. It didn’t matter if the woman was old or young, thin or plump, slathered in makeup or sleeved in tattoos — she understood what it felt like to walk into a room and feel so outgunned.

People agreed with me on this topic so often that I was a bit startled when someone did not. This happened one afternoon at coffee with a male friend. I don’t know how I expected him to respond. Probably in the way he responds to most of my stories, which is to laugh, or offer some insight I had not considered, because he is a thoughtful person who believes in the wisdom of good books and dirty jokes. But instead, the look on his face was odd. He looked almost disappointed in me.

“Why do women do that?” he asked. “Tear each other down like that?”

Uhhh. Is that what he thought I was doing? I have certainly hurled my share of poison darts into the lean and spray-tanned thighs of a few Dallas blondes, but that’s not what I was attempting at that moment. I was trying to express my own discomfort in a place that was both foreign and all too familiar. I was trying to be funny and sad and real.

But he was not wrong to spy scorn in my voice: Those Dallas women, with their tiny clothes and their ludicrous bodies. And it just so happened that my friend LOVES those Dallas women, with their tiny clothes and their ludicrous bodies. He thinks they’re gorgeous. Did he really have to choose between them and me now?

“Here’s what I don’t get,” he said, kicking his legs out in front of him. “If you hate the game so much, why do you play it? Why not just drop out?”

Which is a fair question, but a bit of a dismissive one. It had a ring of “put up or shut up” to it, as though I was not allowed to have conflict on this topic, when conflict seemed to be all I had. And the truth is that I had dropped out for years, and I can attest it was not awesome — less like dropping out, really, and more like hiding — and having found a modicum of comfort in my own body, I was still trying to figure out my place in the glamour parade: How much of myself was I interested in tweaking? When did the push to be beautiful tip into desperation? How high should the heel be? How short the skirt? And why was I so annoyed by women who answered these questions differently than I did?

And maybe that’s what my friend was asking, ultimately: Why does any of this bother you? If other women want plastic surgery and hair weaves and stilettos to the sky, what do you care?

Later, he and I would discuss all this over email. He would explain that he felt frustrated by what he saw as an endless female competition to be the prettiest in the room. “That tractor beam that draws otherwise attractive women into unsexy pillow fights for the male gaze is a worthless creator of suffering,” he said. “And women perpetuate it and hand wring over it and attribute it to every man, rather than recognize it and give it a wide berth.”

I wanted to argue with him, but I wasn’t certain he was wrong. “I know women feel imprisoned by beauty standards,” he said. “But many times, I think they walk into the jail themselves.”

Not long ago, I heard Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO show Girls, talk in an interview about the ways “women make each other crazy just by being what the other one isn’t.” She described it so perfectly as “looking at what’s on everybody’s plate and feeling jealous about it.”

My mind stayed in that sunny alcove at the coffee shop long after my friend and I stopped talking. I kept replaying the conversation in my mind, thinking of better, pithier ways to express myself. (I spend a lot of time in my brain, fighting with men.) This went on for so long that I realized I had stumbled into rich writing territory, because I had all these emotions and observations and opinions but so few real answers. And because I am 37, this is a conversation that surrounds me. My friends talk about Botox now, and getting things “fixed,” and it’s not just happening in Dallas — of course not, don’t be silly — but it is happening very close to the surface in Dallas. It is highly visible. And it struck me as a fascinating story about this place that no one was telling, because stories about beauty tend to fall into two camps: Buy this product. Or, This is ridiculous. Those camps are valid, but I wanted to explore something different, something murkier and in-between.

And so, The Smart Blonde was born. (It’s a tricky trick to name a column, but I think Tim Rogers and I did okay here. I’m not sure how smart — or, for that matter, how blond — I really am, but I like that a column wrestling with beauty stereotypes might begin by challenging one of the oldest.) It’s a monthly feature in D Magazine that examines our city’s pageant of beauty from multiple angles. I think Dallas women have a more intense relationship with their appearance than possibly any other place in the country. And I wanted to tackle that from a journalistic perspective, but also a personal one, because these hit at the core of our being. How we feel about waxing, weight gain, skin care products, our thighs — it’s really a reflection of how we feel about ourselves.

I have described my approach as a mix of cultural reporting, personal writing, and anthropology — which usually leaves people staring blankly and gesturing for the check — so I’m glad that I have the first column, about the myth of big Dallas hair, to show people.

In time, I hope this column grows other components: I want to create a podcast, because I love talking to people and because someone has to give those boys at the Ticket a run for their money. I also plan to start a blog, because after years of complaining about the hell of internet comments, I find writing for the print medium to be awfully — quiet. Readers of FrontBurner and D Magazine are incredible sources of information, because they see so much more of this city than I could ever hope to experience. But my blog-building and podcast-creating skills lag far behind my scribbling skills. Maybe I’ll get that going in a few months? In the meantime, I hope anyone with ideas or thoughts or strong feelings not fit for the gladiator arena of online commentary will email them to me: sarahhepola@gmail.com.

Already, in the few months I have been gearing up for this column, I see this place differently. I feel more at home here. I don’t know what changed. Did I change, or did the city change me? It’s a question I’ll be kicking around for some time. When I see old friends from New York, they sometimes blink at me twice, three times, like they are emerging from a long matinee, because they are not accustomed to the woman who once picked her clothes up off the floor arriving in vintage dresses and eyelash extensions (column No. 2, btw). But whatever external shift is taking place has been accompanied by an internal one as well.

The other day I was with my friend Allison at a D Magazine event at the Dallas Contemporary, and I could not stop watching this group of young women. Everything about them was so artfully constructed: The tight jeans in various colors, the bright and chunky jewelry, the long, flowing hair, the scarves draped around their neck. It is not how I would dress, but it was a nice way to dress. I was talking to Allison about this when a guy in line for a beer caught sight of us.

“You two are whispering about those girls,” the guy said. “This can’t be good.”

So I told him exactly what I had been saying: How beautiful those women looked.

On that, we could agree.

23 comments on “Sarah Hepola Explains Her New Column, The Smart Blonde

  1. TL;DR – The crunchy granola phase of feminine fashion never took in Dallas.

    In all seriousness, though, good stuff. Good hire for D – I’ll look forward to it.

  2. Looking forward to reading more. It’s a daily struggle for me, feeling the need to live up to Dallas’ high standards for appearance but wishing I didn’t give a flying fig so I could spend my time and energy on other things.

  3. Love this! As a Dallas transplant by way of Missouri, I am forever fascinated by the Dallas woman and what it takes to keep up with her.

  4. Three years in (by way of NYC and Colorado), I’m still bewildered, amused, and fascinated by the Dallas aesthetic. Looking forward to joining Sarah on her exploration into big D (hair and otherwise).

  5. Great catch — I’ve enjoyed Sarah’s writing for years.

    Still trying to figure out what’s so unsexy about a clown costume, though.

  6. Yes! The women ARE beautiful here. ALL of them. I can’t wait to read more. Good job D!

  7. This is going to be fun to follow. As a third generation Dallas girl, I’m still confounded by these gilded types. There isn’t an ounce of originality in any of them. Not one jot. If you were to line them up along a wall, you wouldn’t be able to identify one from the other. And the older they get, more and more time and money is required to keep up with physical expectations. Eventually this can lead to something very pathetic. Thank goodness my career, graphic design, doesn’t attract much less hire this type. It doesn’t pay enough. Besides they wouldn’t have the right kind of portfolio.

    P.S. I’m always less than nice when the temps are high.

  8. Does this mean Salon.com is definitely a goner? I was hoping Sarah would write a column similar to Courtney Weaver’s Unzipped.

  9. I’m Canadian from waaay far north and really don’t know all that much about Dallas but I’ll read anything that Sarah Hepola writes.

  10. If you want to lose your day in something wonderful, start reading Sarah’s Salon articles. I check Salon every day and had never read one. Once you start you can’t stop!!

  11. Great catch, for all of us, women writers in particular. There’s too much banal and mediocre clutter in the Dallas female writing scene already, too often the predictable product of gullible young wannabes who only become readable through the heavy intervention of a sponsoring editor with an eye out for cheap and ready content, if nothing else. Dallas deserves better, stronger female writing, on every subject, and Sarah is it.

  12. I look back on all this from such distance by now that I can barely remember what it’s all about . But if I were a young man still young enough to be invested in it, I would wonder this: There’s arm candy. And there’s bed candy. Of the two types — totally put together perfect v. scrunchy flannel fly-away hair, which one’s the bed candy? I’m just tossing out a suggestion here. Inquiring not-our-minds want to know.

  13. The writer’s male friend is a fool. His talk of “women walking into the jail themselves” and “why don’t you drop out of the game?” is ignorant and oblivious. Did it ever occur to him that society punishes women who “drop out of the game”? Also, his statements conveniently gloss over the role of men in creating the dynamics that he finds so frustrating.

    I hope that Sarah Hepola has other male friends because she seems thoughtful and smart as heck and frankly, he doesn’t.

  14. I would love to see Sarah take over the Friday “Leading Off,” but I suspect that’s a little under her station.

  15. I’ve never been to Dallas, and will be reading this regularly from New York city. Because I’ll read anything Sarah Hepola writes, and because this reminds me of my guilty pleasure GCB.

  16. I have never set foot in Dallas, and I’m not even sure what led me to this page, but I just have to say, this was a fantastic read, and I’ll be bookmarking this column now just to get more of this smart, engaging voice. Thanks!

  17. Agreed with Buzz about making her the replacement for the Friday Leading Off

  18. I moved to DFW two weeks ago and had no idea what I was getting into. I’m not looking forward to encountering the women Sarah describes; I have enough trouble trying to like what I see in the mirror. We’ll have to see how this comes together, but I’m definitely looking forward to having Sarah explain it to me.