Nancy Balbirer was wearing flip-flops when she walked by Bergdorf Goodman on a hot summer day in 2003 and happened upon a serene Yoko Ono.
“I never would have imagined my reaction to meeting Yoko Ono would be thus: ‘OH MY GOD YOKO ONO! I LOVE YOU!” the author recounted recently. “And I threw my arms around her.”
Ms. Balbirer, 43, was sitting at a table in the Chelsea Market, discussing her new book, Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences, published recently by Bloomsbury. The title refers to how David Mamet – once the author’s acting teacher at NYU – categorized the roles in which women are cast in Hollywood.
“If you had said, “If you ever met Yoko Ono, how would you respond?’ I certainly never would have said I would have thrown my arms around her. I just had this,” she trailed off and paused before finding the only word to describe her predicament. “Yoko.”
Ms. Balbirer is what one might refer to as a funny girl – a tomboy, whatever that means anymore. Her memoir, which opens with her studies at NYU under Mr. Mamet’s tutelage, chronicles her peaks and valleys auditioning to be a star and finding limited success as a solo performer. But Broadway, nor Hollywood, was ever very kind, and Ms. Balbirer admits to even having bored Luke Perry once in an audition. Her descriptions of such events are pithy and insightful, and always funny.
“In my outburst, I said, ‘I’m a performance artist, too!’” she continued, of the Yoko incident. “I seemed like a spazz, and she was really nice.
“Whenever I’ve told this story to people they say, “Well yeah, she was really nice because most of the time she didn’t have people throwing themselves at her, most of the time she was the object of scorn, you know? And, ‘die, bitch’ or whatever,’” Ms. Balbirer said, waving her fist in the air for effect.
And those sentiments might not be far from the author’s experience, either. Among many close encounters with Hollywood’s rich and famous, one juicy chapter in Take Your Shirt Off And Cry divulges the story of how a young actress she befriended later burned her when said famous actress had her fired from the immensely popular sitcom on which she starred, the same day Ms. Balbirer got the part.
But all in all, these are not tales of woe. They are tales of failure, from which eventually success was redefined and made. Ms. Balbirer shines the light on her own path, using it as a teachable moment for those who might define success for themselves on the terms of others, something the author is familiar with, having constantly sought her parents approval.
“Success, for me, is being able to look at something that was a so-called failure and embrace it completely,” said Ms. Balbirer. “This is something I was really afraid of for so long – it’s the one thing I did own on my own was my own failure. No one wants to deal with you on that, its kind of the big elephant in the room. Everyone will leave you alone with that – people want a piece of your successes but your failure you get to have on your own.”
Without regret or even a bitter taste in her mouth, this author bares her soul to the world with a memoir that is a humorous warning against a manipulative and self-important Hollywood and the mirage of success. The coming of age theme, and Ms. Balbirer’s struggle with sexuality and self-discovery are added bonuses.
“I think if you stay mired in a place of regret it doesn’t allow you to have any hope for a new kind of a future,” said Ms. Balbirer. “It’s like the I Ching: hate binds you to a loved object – I mean, you’re not free if you’re tethered to that regret. It’s not an artificial thing; you have to arrive there. I did have regret for many years. It wasn’t until I was able to see all of these things for what they were. All of these stories belong to me, and that was so exciting.
“And it’s not that it wasn’t hard to write about – it was, terribly – I feel like it did something to me physically, it changed my chemical make-up in some way that once I was able to turn it into an expression – that I’m using my life as the back drop, using show business as the back drop – to really explore these themes.”
Ms. Balbirer was raised in Connecticut by a Brooklynite father and Manhattanite mother, and knew early on that she wanted to be an actress. Her father initially forbid her from attending NYU, but eventually reconsidered the opportunity for his daughter to learn and explore the city he had fled a decade after the Dodgers did. His Yiddish interjections lace the chapters of Ms. Balbirer’s life.
Though the author says she felt prepared to enter NYU, and understood the competition she would be up against, she didn’t give the same thought to her exit from college, after which she broke down emotionally.
“I got out of school I didn’t know what the fuck to do,” she said. “Once I got out of school, I thought, ‘Am I supposed to go get an MFA now? ‘ I was very angry about that; I felt like I was ready to work. I also felt sort of duped by my school experience.
“It is absolutely imperative to have a support system and that was one of the things I don’t think I really had. I always felt that my success, or lack thereof, was so terribly important to the other people in my life that it gave me very little room to just experience whatever the exhilarating moments or the terribly sad, disappointing moments as my own thing. I was too busy being worried about how it might affect my dad if this job didn’t come through.“
It’s something that perhaps many young Brooklynites can relate to today: a vibrant New York City arts scene, a city full of tremendously talented young people living in shoddy apartments and spending the last of their dollars on frivolities.
“For me, are there things that I still wish for? I guess, but I seriously don’t have any regrets. I think it was all so meant to be.”
These days Ms. Balbirer lives in Chelsea with her husband and daughter and enjoys the niche that she’s built for herself. Her husband Joel is the owner of West Village eatery Pasita, where she is known as the restaurant’s doyenne. It’s there that she runs a monthly salon with close friends in the literary scene.
All in all, Ms. Balbirer is a success, without apology, and so I asked her, if given the opportunity, what words of wisdom she might share with her 22-year-old self.
“You need to like yourself more, and you know, you’re a lot cooler than you think you are, and you don’t need to put up with the things you need to put up with,” she replied. “And you really should write.”