For today’s edition of Schoolin’ Life, we check in with illustrator Carolita Johnson.
When you were in your 20s…
What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?
In my 20s, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I was modeling because it was a time when “ugly” models were a thing, and a few people had liked my odd looks, so that bought me some time and got me traveling internationally, even if it didn’t make me much money. But I was lonely and aimless and not good with people, so after a while I thought I’d do better to get back into studying.
In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?
Well, I lived in Paris, and was an ex-model, and not even a famous one, so people kind of didn’t think I was good for anything, which meant I felt like a big loser, especially once “ugly” models were a thing of the past and I had no more livelihood. It’s bad enough being an old model who no one wants anymore, but being an old model who didn’t even make money, and who wasn’t pretty enough or submissive enough to marry some rich businessman made me a real oddball. I was obviously not fit for marriage, and I had no real idea of my vocation till my mid-thirties. As an expat in Paris, the French regarded me as someone who’d someday leave, so I couldn’t place any roots down. But I did make a lot of expat friends who were in the same position as I was, and from the more successful (emotionally and creatively) ones, I learned to become my own center of gravity.
What was your first job like?
Ha. My VERY first one? When I was 13, I worked at the library after school a couple days a week, shelving books. It was great. I read a lot of books, kind of in alphabetical order. I also stole a lot of books. (Sorry!) If you mean my first REAL job, as an adult? That was awful. I worked for a photographer, as a studio manager in New York, got bossed around a lot, spent all my money on take out food and videos and Polaroid film (nasty habit), ended up 15K in debt, felt burned out, and swore that if I were gonna work full time, it’d have to be in Paris, where I’d get five weeks of paid vacation and national health insurance. It wasn’t that my boss wasn’t nice, it was just that full time work for someone other than myself in New York was a crappy experience.
What was your first apartment like?
After living in garrets for ten years in Paris, my first apartment felt like a castle. It was amazing. I had a bathtub and closets. I burned food because I was so used to being in such a small place that all I had to do was smell the food cooking to know when it was ready. But with the kitchen in another room, I’d forget I was cooking. I’d run around like a little kid from room to room (it was only a one bedroom but it felt so huge), instead of walking.
Did you experience any big life changes?
Yes, I did. In Paris, life was predictable and calm. In New York City, it was a different world almost every day, and you never knew what might happen. I also began doing cartoons and writing, which I realized I’d been waiting to do all my life.
In what ways did your friendships change?
When I quit talking to my mother, my friendships and all my relationships became much healthier. I’m not lucky in my mother, who is a bit of an underminer, for all she’s done that’s positive in my life. Once I cut her off, it was amazing how my relationships improved for the better. I’m a more positive person, no longer a worrier. Perhaps I should worry a bit more, but I’m careful to choose friends who aren’t shy, and who know how to fend for themselves, and who actually like me now.
What did you learn through your romantic relationships?
I learned that American men are way too sensitive and selfish for the most part. In France, I remained friends with old lovers and boyfriends, who even became friends with each other. They’d call me and say, “Hey, it’s your old lovers, we’re drinking to your health!” When I was between relationships, if I had to go home from a party, they’d consult with each other and decide who would walk me home safely. But in America, men would drop me off in a cab and not even wait to see I was in the door! Men wanted me to be the BEST GIRLFRIEND IN THE WORLD but wanted to be the worst boyfriend in the world. Plus, they’d want to have lots of girlfriends but they’d expect me to have only one. I thought they were very unreasonable. In France, I was treated like a queen. Here, in NYC, I was chopped liver. Interesting, isn’t it?
How did your relationships with your family change?
Like I said, I cut my mom off when I realized she was a bad influence on my work and my relationships/friendships. I had to take control of my life, and being in my late thirties and still afraid of my mother’s opinion of me was debilitating. My brothers are lovely men, and very supportive, and my dad, who is an Aspie (Asperger’s) is someone I’m just getting to know, now that he’s in his 80s. I’m only sorry I won’t have that many more years with him, but with a person like him, it’s more about the quality than the quantity of the time you spend with him. So, no regrets, really. I’m not going to be greedy. Some people never make up with their parents. I’m lucky.
How do you feel society viewed you?
Society I think viewed me as a bit of a glamorous woman, because of my modeling years, and my rather crazy stories. That’s fine, it gets me by, gives me a bit of leeway to be a strong-willed and outspoken woman. Sometimes it’s a little weird, when people think I’m going to be a sort of SATC kind of woman, which I’m not. I’m not a girly-girl at all. I’m very practical and humble in many ways. I just started working in a cafe upstate, where I feel really great wiping tables down and taking orders and being part of a healthy, positive and creative team. I’m not sure they know how old I am, but if they do, they don’t really care. They don’t know about my past, which is kind of great. At the most, they think I am kind of cool for being a cartoonist. So, the fact that I fit in with them makes me feel like my identity is more than my past, and I’m fascinated by who accepts me as I am. I try not to wonder too much how they see me and just “be.” It’s a great feeling, and it makes me feel like I can do so much more than I even suspect.
How do you feel you changed emotionally?
I was just saying to a colleague that I used to worry what people were thinking but now I just rely on my instincts. If someone has a problem with me, I figure they have the power of speech and can use it. Otherwise, I refuse to worry. If it’s worth being mad at me, it’s worth piping up, I say! Otherwise, forever hold your peace. I’m not an incendiary person, and I don’t deliberately set out to annoy anyone, so my conscience is mostly clear. I’m always ready to apologize or accept honest criticism. I don’t suffer fools.
How did you change intellectually?
In my second college education, I learned structural linguistics, which taught me how to think. I became very good at software and logic and language. This really reshaped my life and helped me become a really good researcher. For this, I’ll always be grateful. Before, when my education was only about art and the humanities, I was cultivated but lost. I think everyone should study the theory of groups and a little structural linguistics. The PAPY Modern Mathematic books for children are beautiful and they changed my life.
In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
My mom used to only call me Carolita when she was happy with me. The rest of the time I was “Carol.” One day, I just decided that I’d get everyone to call me “Carolita,” and that was that. I was happy all the time! I became a happier, more emotionally self-sufficient version of myself.
How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?
It has not. The world looks pretty much the same to me as when I was a kid.
What was the most embarrassing moment?
It’s pretty impossible to embarrass me. I can handle almost anything. I can’t really recall a thing.
What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?
My biggest disappointment was when I realized that my education in the public schools was really mediocre and that my first college education was also pretty mediocre. In both cases, of course, I had a couple of really good, inspiring teachers, but overall, it was very disappointing. When I was a kid, I thought college would be really rigorous and noble, but it just seemed like a marketplace. But in France, it was what I’d hoped for all my life. I was so grateful for my education in France, and when my fellow students cheated, I was appalled at their wastefulness. I took my studies there so much more seriously than they did. I really embraced my second chance to get an education, and valued every minute of it.
Who was your biggest influence and why?
Many people were huge influences, but perhaps the best influence, because he helped make me a happier person, was my friend, Juan, in Paris. By watching him and emulating him, I learned to navigate the world alone, talk to people, listen to them, hear things and see things that escape most people’s notice. He was a bit of a mentor without realizing it.
Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?
Ah, I now see that we’re still talking about my 20s but I’ve slipped in to my 30s as we went on. I hope that’s alright: I was a very late bloomer, and my early 20s were so depressed that I really needed to stretch into the early 30s to complete this decade of self-discovery. The one experience that defined that decade, however, was being an “ugly model” in Paris. You can’t beat that for a defining experience!
Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
No regrets, ever. I think the only thing I wish I’d done differently was I’d have brushed my dog’s teeth more often and fed her moist dog food. Seriously. Take care of your dog’s teeth!
Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?
The story of when I was on the trolley in Milan, and a guy walked up to me and asked if I was with the “ugly people agency.” I’d been in a brief bubble of thinking I was an ugly duckling that had turned into a swan, and was on the verge of becoming rather full of myself. That snapped me out of it! Made me realize my identity was not going to be that of a beautiful model.