writing

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Petra is a native New Yorker who began writing quirky songs (in Japanese) with the weekend band she started, Gaijin à Go Go. In 2003, the band was signed by Sony Music Japan, and became overnight hit on the international pop scene. They were featured on NPR’s The World, on Japans' Tonight Show (Fuji TVs' Waratte Itamo), in The Japan Times and the cultural magazine: ブラウンズブックス (translation: Barfout!).

This story became the subject of short film she wrote and produced, Xmas Cake—This American Shelf-life, nominated at The Tribeca Film Festival in 2019. The film is now the basis for her forthcoming autobiographical novel. She holds a BFA from Cornell University and is a scholarship winner from the Aspen Writers Foundation. She currently writes for her newsletter, podcast, and live storytelling series The B/sidera movement to reimagine a meaningful groove in life “after hitting the top forty.”

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Excerpt from XmasCake book, an autobiographical novel by Petra Johanna Hanson

Hours before the show, I lay across my bed, arms splayed, eyes staring at the wall. I’d tossed and turned for the previous few nights, unable to settle my first time stage jitters. I had French songs coming out of my pores. After I’d thrown up my dinner from the sheer anxiety, I took a shower, humming “Ford Mustang” and begging the hot water to calm my nerves. Every part of my body twitched and zapped, like a live wire in a storm. Then I wrapped myself in a towel and shivered past my roommate’s door, down a narrow hall to my bedroom. My friend Andre, a hairstyling wizard, had arrived while I showered. He had already put my costume in order: the borrowed minidress hung inside a garment bag on the door and a pair of white ankle boots that zipped up the back sat on the green throw rug. Andre was from Milan and spoke to me like an Italian mother. He sat me on a stool and began brushing the knots out of my damp hair. “Mia Bellaaa" he purred, "You need to get a hold of yourself,” he clicked his tongue. I closed my eyes and drifted into a dreamy state as he massaged volume-boosting-detangling gel into my scalp. I trusted Andre. If he wanted me to look like I stepped off a runway, he’d give it his best shot. “Relax. You still look like Veruschka,” he’d tell me over and over again, referencing the 1960s model and icon from the movie Blowup. Yeah right, I thought, counting the blemishes on my forehead. I knew it was his job to make every woman feel good about herself, but I’d been to enough fashion shoots and runway shows to know the difference between the pros and the mehs. Professional models were tall, thin, and flawless. I once saw Linda Evangelista up close in a dressing room, and I scrutinized her impossible beauty: wide set cat eyes, genetically engineered bone structure, and porcelain skin. Standing next to her, my complexion looked like pottery. And where were my cheekbones? Yes, I was freakishly tall, but I’d never been cover-of-Vogue pretty. At best, I was more like the-girl-who-gets-sawed-in-half-by-a-magician pretty. I realized my rank on the beauty food chain at an early age. It was around the time a fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields come-hithered in those infamous Calvin Klein jeans ads, and I wanted her life on a huge billboard, wearing “nothing but Calvins.” I was as tall (or taller) than all the supermodels, with a bony frame, so I thought I might make the cut. I practiced seductive looks in a mirror, preparing myself for an imaginary cover-girl camera click. Then came the outer forces of encouragement. Once a photographer wearing leather pants at a bat mitzvah party I attended approached me with his card. My heart pounded against my training bra, convinced it was my big break. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but I talked my mom into letting Gerard Malanga, from one of Andy Warhol’s hodgepodge squad of poets, photographers, and random pervs, shoot me in Central Park wearing high heels and a red tube top. I was twelve. I sent my pictures to Brooke’s agency, Ford Models, and I was sure I’d be on the next billboard wearing my Calvins: “You can quit your job now,” I told my mom, licking the stamp, “I’m going to support us.”I sent new photos out regularly until I left for college. Year after year, I was rejected by every modeling agency in New York, and the reason they gave? I was “too tall”. I later discovered that was code for: you’re just not pretty enough. Andre whipped out a brush shaped like a fan and stroked it along my cheeks. He worked quickly, without saying a word. My eyes zeroed in on the bridge of his nose holding steady near mine. One friend skillfully applying makeup to another is an intimate thing. I felt every flaw exposed. As he dabbed the final touch of gloss, pinned a wig to my head and fluffed it out, I braced myself for what I was about to see in the full-length mirror. Part of me was expecting to see the face of a girl who was never pretty enough, with pimples and too much eyeliner, but when I stood before my reflection, I was taken aback. Andre had transformed me into a towering Brigitte Bardot. I examined myself carefully from head to toe: My hair was tucked neatly into a white headband and the ends flipped into a perfect curl. Andre had adorned me with pretty fake lashes and frosted pink lips. My swirly patterned go-go mini hugged my bony hips like second skin. I was a six-foot Swinging Sixties chickadee come to life. Now, I just had to sound like one.