What I Learned at BlogHer '13
I have a confession: I have a slew ofimaginary friends.
We may never have met in the flesh (you see, they live in my iPad) but if there’s anything I’ve learned this past year, it’s this:
kindness and compassion don’t need flesh and bone to be felt.
Funny bones can be tickled via keystrokes.
Friendships can be built out of pixels.
In July, I made the epic (nearly 30 hour) journey to Chicago from Australia for the annualBlogHer ’13 Conference, the biggest blogging conference in the world with close to six thousand attendees from around the globe. I had never met, in the traditional sense of the word, anyone who was going. Friends and family commented that I was so brave, so bold, to be going there alone and wondered how I’d pluck up the courage to walk in and face thousands of strangers. I tried (in vain) to explain that I wasn’t going alone, that I wasn’t going to be facing strangers at all.
Quite the contrary – I felt like I was heading off to a grand reunion with some of my best friends.
I was going to finally be able to hug the women who had always been there by my side, offering virtual hugs when I was down. I was going to finally be able to laugh out loud (notLOL) and banter face-to-face (in more than 140 characters) with some of the funniest women I’ve had the pleasure to meet. I was going to meet the flesh and blood incarnations of my so-called imaginary friends – my “internet friends”.
These are not “friends”, they are friends. No need for inverted commas to render them less legitimate because they’re somehow not IRL (in real life) friends. They ARE real life friends. In many capacities, they have been there for me in my real life as much as those friends I can see and touch.
Meet Val Curtis.
When Val first contacted me, it was as Editor-in-chief of Bonbonbreak.com because she wanted to feature one of my posts.I screeched as I read her email and decided I had indeedarrived. We became friends, colleagues and mutual fans and in the lead-up to BlogHer ’13, we wasted many post-midnight hours passionately sharing links to
online shoe sales intellectual concepts.
The morning we were to meet in person, I was insanely excited and admittedly nervous. What if she was different in person? What if I didn’t like her in ‘real life’? Worse – what if she didn’t like me! What if, what if, what if. I was snapped out of my reverie by a tap on the shoulder. I blinked and there she was – unpixellated. We girly squealed (there was a lot of that at BlogHer ’13), hugged and hugged and hugged some more. Then I stood back and looked at her and said “Oh, good! You’re wearing the maxi-dress you showed me – it’s gorgeous! Ooooh, and the shoes your mom got you!” She laughed and commented that she was so glad I chose to wear the long-hair wig because it was her first choice (I had conducted an online poll). Then the weirdest thing happened: arm in arm, we walked and talked and went about the rest of the day. Like we hang out all the time. Like old friends.
My internet friends, my blogging friends, my imaginary friends are not strangers. Not by a long shot. We do hang out every day. We share our concerns, we work together and – more often than you’d imagine – we help one another.
Another long-time friend I was itching to meet was Chris.
This incredible woman inspires me every day with her “Today I love…” Facebook posts. Despite debilitating health obstacles, Chris is one of the most positive, vibrant and laugh-out-loud funny people I’ve ever met. And not in a tooth-rottingly-sickly-sweet way. This woman is real. She is gritty and she is a hundred kinds of wonderful. You’ll love her. Follow her blog and stalk her Facebook and thank me later. On day one of the conference, as I sat at the Newbie Breakfast, listening to the keynote speaker, wondering if Chris was at the conference yet. I tweeted her:
I realised I was at a table in the second row from the back. I turned around and looked at the table behind me and – no word of a lie – in this room full of women, there she was! We mimed our excitement by flapping our hands wildly and then clapping our hands over our mouths to contain the shrieking that was fighting to escape. I quickly turned back to face the front (and the VIP speaker) and frantically tweeted:
To which she audibly squeaked and replied:
We just about died trying to remain quiet and well-behaved for the remainder of the speech…
…then leapt out of our seats and we flew toward each other, slow-motion-drama style (cue Oscar-worthy soundtrack) and were finally able to release those long-trapped girly-squeals. For the remainder of the BlogHer ’13 conference, we non-stop grinned at one another like crazed Cheshire cats.
Ellie is gorgeous, funny and surprisingly goofy. She may be a brilliant psychologist and level-headed mother of the most beautiful boys I’ve ever met on FaceTime, but what I didn’t expect was her nutty side. She is fan-bloody-tastic. Her blog, Musing Momma, is one I have been following for a very long time. Yes, folks, I was stalking Ellie online (unbeknownst to her) well before we became friends. In the blogging world, not only is this not creepy, it’s a compliment. I strongly suggest you stalk Ellie too. Go on, you can thank me later.
Together, Val, Chris, Ellie and I laughed, misbehaved and somehow managed to miss the closing keynote address completely (presented by Gale Anne Hurd – this was an event I’d been desperately excited for since deciding to register for BlogHer ’13).
Why did we miss this once-in-a-lifetime event and more importantly, why wouldn’t I change anything about that night? Because we spent the evening planning world domination via social media mastery while scoffing deep-dish pizza, laughing at my ditziness as I spilled an entire bottle of cider onto Chris’ lap and into my handbag, shrieking like schoolgirls and behaving entirely inappropriately for a group of women in our late thirties and – ahem – forties. It was one of the best girls’ nights out I can remember. Now, to plan the next hangout… on Google+.
Another out-of-the-blue encounter happened when, mid-conversation one day at lunch, a strange woman walked up to me, aggressively grabbed my face with both hands and planted a smacker of a kiss on my cheek. Blinking, I said, “Thank you! Um… who are you?” Bemused by my – ahem – interesting reaction, my long time friend, Lucy Ball, revealed her identity. This is a woman who, with an open heart, has given hours of her time to helping me to help my son with his reading (she’s brilliant). I may not have recognised her, but this stunning woman was no stranger.
Keesha Beckford is another friend who finally stepped from the imaginary realm into real life. She first reached out to interview me (little me!) for her blog, Mom’s New Stage. She writes from the soul and speaks to my heart. Keesha sealed our friendship by agreeing to let me ship a box to her address in Chicago that I needed for BlogHer ’13. Keesha, I’m so sorry and owe you forever and will always be mortified about this. Why was this so mortifying? Because Keesha is a vegan. And the box was full of Australian souvenirs, including a large volume of kangaroo scrotum purses, kangaroo scrotum keyrings and kangaroo scrotum bottle openers. Can you say Faux Pas? Not only did this classy woman not hate me but she forgave me (maybe not entirely, but I’l take what I can get). Keesha is a class act and her blog is stunning. Stalk away. Just don’t send her novelty items made from the genitalia of National Animals.
Fortunately, the kangaroo scrotum souvenirs (proving, once and for all, that Australians are a classy nation) were met with unbridled enthusiasm by my other blogging friends and heroes.Stacey Calvert, film-maker extraordinaire and the most welcoming person I’ve ever met, loved her token of my friendship (gifted to her over a tray of matzo ball soup and pastrami on rye at Manny’s Deli). She also bore witness to Keeshagate and was highly entertained by my failure to remove my foot from my mouth.
I shamelessly handed out scrotii (it IS a word – I made it up myself) left and right to my favourite peeps (how to win friends and influence people, Aussie style). Skippy’s family jewels in hand, I found the courage to approach bloggers who, in my mind, were unapproachable giants. I’m not ashamed to say I was starstruck when faced with meeting some of the incredible women I’ve followed for so long online, writers who have made massive successes of their blogs and forged enviable careers in this field.
Rebecca, from Frugalista Blog, is one of these giants. (Rebecca, if you’re reading this, I really was kinda twinkly-eyed and starstruck by you. Did I pull off the nonchalant, I-am-totally-not-freaking-out-because-I’m-meeting-REBECCA act?) Those of you who follow Frugalista Blogneed to know this – Rebecca is unassuming, friendly and the opposite of arrogant. She is the anti-asshole and thank goodness, because I wasn’t ready to stop adoring her blog. She is also as nuts in person as she is online. Here’s a little clip from inside a blogger-filled, booze-infused limo:
Another Giant Big Deal, who I was sure was going to look down on me and flick me away like a bug (because OHMIGOSH she is talented and funny and Very Important) was Leslie Marinelli, the writer behind The Bearded Iris and Editor in Chief at In The Powder Room.After attending a session she led with Suniverse (another Huge Big Deal Blogger), I gathered my balls (literally) and went up to say hi. I may have mumbled my name and declared my love and incoherently rambled on about her gecko’s penis (I blanked my part of the conversation out, due to the trauma brought on by my extreme lack of cool). Imagine my surprise when she lit up with a giant grin, enveloped me in a hug and said, “I was hoping I’d get to meet you! I can’t believe you came here all the way from Australia!” Amazing. She had no idea that the pedestal I had her standing on even existed. Another friendship was forged and another lesson was learned: we are all just people.
This lesson firmly entrenched, I boldly sought out and approached other writers on my VIP list.
Arnebya Hendon, of What Now and Why was humble and warm and so appreciative of my feedback. Melanie Coffee made me cry with her beautiful words as she read her Voice of the Year piece and met my tear-filled declaration of passionate adoration with quiet grace and warmth.
Alexandra, of Good Day Regular People is so down to earth and LOVELY that I was friends with her for two entire days before I realised WHO SHE WAS. This blogging goddess is so humble that I had no idea that I was hanging with someone I’d been loyally following in awe for years.
This was BlogHer ’13. This gathering of talented writers and entrepreneurs was largely without ego. Sure, there were divas. Of course, there were the judgy, bitchy girls that took me back to my high school days. It wasn’t all kumbayah around the campfire. But, on the whole, I couldn’t have felt more welcome. I was in the company of friends, new and old.
I arrived in Chicago with pixellated friends, a gut full of apprehension and a box full ofkangaroo scrotums. As the days went on, I exchanged business cards for new friendships and did so with steadily growing confidence. I watched my imaginary world merge with my reality. I witnessed the dissolving of self-created pedestals. I was even faced with the unforeseen struggle with accepting and finally basking in the unexpected love from people who wereexcited to meet me and had built pedestals upon which I had been placed. Mind successfully blown.
It was the Voices of the Year Reception (hosted by none other than Queen Latifah) that really brought home to me that I am worth it. That I was honoured in the same category as the amazing women who read their pieces was beyond humbling. If you have the time, watch this clip, listen to these women and you’ll understand the enormity of this honour for me.
Imagine my excitement when I heard that Queen Latifah was going to be MC at the Reception – the event where (the email from BlogHer explained) as a Voice of the Year Honoree, I’d get to sit at a special table in the front, followed by a photo on the stage with Queen Latifah. Just the thought made the 30 hours of flying seem like a walk in the park.
Imagine my disappointment when I arrived to find no tables (nada), no special seating (zip), no honorary anything at all. Zilch. Zero.
Did I care? Not at all. I was riding high and enjoying every minute. Besides, there was still going to be that photo opportunity at the end, right?
Not so much. There weren’t even steps leading up to the stage.
At the end of the show, Queen Latifah said goodnight and that – folks – was it.
The pre-Chicago-sweet-accepting-polite-well-behaved me might have accepted that but now? Na-ah. Stilletto shoes, evening dress and all, I sprinted to the stage, skewering people’s toes as I went. When I got there, I hitched up my dress and climbed on that stage. Did I care that my boobs nearly outed themselves and that the my bum was quite possibly on display to the whole audience? Not even a little.
And it was worth it, because here’s the official BlogHer ’13 photo of Queen Latifah and the Voice of the Year winners:
Clearly, something needed to be done. I had practiced approaching scary strangers all weekend – I was going to approach Queen Latifah and GET THAT PICTURE. As I approached her, a giant meaty hand grabbed my shoulder. I looked up…up…up. Eventually, I met the eyes of the giant bear of a man who acts as Queen Latifah’s bodyguard.
Huge bodyguard: Queen Latifah has a plane to catch. No more pictures.
Me: (fluttering eyelashes) Pleeease! I’m here from Austraaaaaylia!
Enormous bodyguard: Sorry Ma’am. No photos at all. Queen Latifah – time to go!
And, suddenly, there she was. This majestic, Amazonian woman who has been a hero of mine for a long time – right behind me. I couldn’t believe I was this close and I was going to miss out.
No. This was unacceptable. I was going to get my photo.
So, I did what any five foot two, out-of-her-depth, jet lagged woman would do. I shoved my iPhone on to that garagntuan giant’s chest, compelling him to grab it, then jumped into Queen Latifah’s arms and said:
“I am here from Australia and I need this photo!”
To which she grinned, pulled me closer (fist pump!) and said:
“G’day!”, then looked at Mr Bear and said, “C’mon! Take the photo for my Aussie friend!”
I smiled like the cat that got the…ahem…Queen. Mission accomplished.
What did I learn at BlogHer ’13?
I learned that we are all little people. Even the big people.
I learned that pedestals are built from perception.
I learned that the biggest stars are the ones who shine their light on the path that leads to the success of others.
I learned that this sandbox is more than big enough for us all to play in.
I learned to not be afraid.
I learned that women, arm-in-arm, are powerful beyond measure.
I learned to accept compliments, with a thank you and a smile.
I learned to be open to anything and have faith that amazing things are going to happen.
I learned that it’s okay to put myself first, sometimes.
I learned that I am a lot more than wife and mummy.
I learned that those novelty kangaroo balls were really a crutch. They gave me courage to approach intimidating people. They gave me street cred. They made me the funny girl. And when they ran out, guess what? I was just as brave, just as cool (apparently my South African/Aussie accent is cool in Chicago – who am I to argue?) and just as funny. Who knew!
Biggest take-home from BlogHer ’13? I arrived in Chicago with Skippy’s balls and left with a giant set of my own.
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