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Are you happy, Honey?

In Treasure Island, Karla Harris struggles to sleep at night as she worries about her daughter. In New York, Michelle, too, is alone in the dark as she sits in the Hairspray audience night after night.

By LANE DeGREGORY
Published December 8, 2005


photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Karla Harris fights back tears in her Treasure Island apartment as she watches Michelle perform scenes from Hairspray as part of her senior class project at Gibbs High. With Michelle in New York, Karla often watches the grainy, parent-taped video. “I always cry,” she says.

  photo
Just after midnight, Michelle and her mom sit on the fire escape outside Michelle’s Manhattan apartment so Karla can have a smoke.
Hear audio from Michelle Dowdy's Gibbs High performances:
Michelle Dowdy sings Good Morning Baltimore and I Can Hear the Bells
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Fourth of six stories.

Mornings were miserable. Now that her baby had gone to Broadway, Karla Harris had no one to wish "Good morning" to, no one to drive to school.

Afternoons were worse. Karla had always looked forward to catching up on Michelle's day, taking her to play practice, making her dinner. Now she didn't even feel like coming home.

"The other day, I started bawling so hard I couldn't see," Karla said when asked how Michelle was doing. "We've never been apart this long."

Three weeks had passed since Michelle Dowdy left for New York. At 18, she had won the part of understudy to the lead in the musical Hairspray. Karla worried constantly about where her daughter was sleeping, what she was eating. She couldn't imagine Michelle's new life.

At night Karla curled up on the sofa in her Treasure Island apartment, just as she always had. She couldn't move into the only bedroom. That was still Michelle's room. Alone in the dark, Karla watched videos of Michelle's high school plays.

It was the only way she could fall asleep: listening to her daughter sing.

* * *

The only place Michelle was performing was on her mom's TV.

The directors had told her she would be ready to go on by July. The lead actress would take a night off and she would get her chance.

But now it was late June and Michelle hadn't even run through the entire show. She had rehearsed her songs exactly once and practiced her dance steps a few times, but that was it. The director told her to watch the show from the audience, so she did.

Twenty-seven times.

"They put me on the back burner," she complained to her mom. The directors hadn't told Michelle, but they had been negotiating to bring in a new lead actress, pushing Michelle down to second understudy. There was no need to rehearse her yet.

"I'm not even running lines," Michelle said.

She was still excited about New York, but she was overwhelmed, too. She had run out of money for hotels, so for two weeks she had been hauling her suitcase around, crashing with friends who had moved to New York for college. And even though she had spent her college savings - $3,000 - on an apartment hunter, he still hadn't found anything she could afford.

Over the phone, Karla asked Michelle about her laundry. Michelle had never done laundry. "Baby, you don't have a funky pile, do you?"

She did indeed. She kept recycling the same four outfits. Finally, she took her clothes to this "groovy little dry cleaner," but when they were done she didn't have the $15 to pick them up.

Karla wanted to help, but her last long-distance bill had been $402. So she borrowed money from her own mother and mailed a check to the theater, the only address Michelle had.

Michelle had always longed for the glitter of Broadway, and Karla had always hoped she would get whatever she wanted. But now that Michelle had made it, Karla wasn't so sure she was okay.

One night she asked, "Are you happy, Honey?"

It wasn't that simple.

* * *

The broker finally found an apartment on the East Side, a two-bedroom with a rusty fire escape. Michelle moved in the last day of June with a friend from high school. The apartment leased for $2,000 a month - four times as much as Karla's place in Treasure Island.

"You should see it!" Michelle told her mom.

Part of Karla - the part that had once been a teenage girl - knew Michelle didn't really want her mom around all the time.

The rest of her was going to New York.

"I'll be there next weekend," Karla said.

* * *

When Karla landed, she took a cab straight to the theater, where Michelle was watching the show. She stood outside the stage door, waiting.

Karla had never seen a Broadway show. The theater looked old and important, even from the outside. And her baby was working here. Soon, people from all over the world would see Michelle onstage.

A crowd had gathered outside the door: 70 autograph seekers wielding cameras, posters and programs. Karla couldn't believe how dressed up everyone was. She tugged at her long, faded T-shirt, the one with cats on it, and wished she had brought shoes instead of flip-flops.

Just after 10:30 p.m., the stage door cracked and Michelle emerged, smiling and waving.

She looked so thin. That was the first thing Karla noticed. Michelle, who had been hired to play a fat girl, had lost 10 pounds because she wasn't eating. "C'mon!" Michelle called, pulling Karla toward the stage door. "I told everyone you were coming. They all want to meet you. And guess what? I met Jeff Goldblum today!"

Backstage, Michelle introduced her to the cast. The actor who dresses in drag to play Tracy Turnblad's mother insisted on having his picture taken with Michelle's real mom.

"I can't wait for you to see the show tomorrow," Michelle told Karla as they left the theater.

Karla was dying to see Hairspray, but how could she? "Sorry, Honey," she finally said. "I can't afford a ticket."

Michelle pulled an envelope from her purse. Good news: She had started rehearsals, so her pay had shot up. "Look," she said, grinning. She showed her mom the check: $1,579 for one week. "I bought you this," Michelle said, handing her a $100 ticket to the next performance.

The show would have given Karla a ticket in the balcony. But Michelle wanted her mom in the front, right beside her.

* * *

Michelle's apartment was almost empty. The only furniture was a sagging futon and a torn leather armchair. "Can you believe someone was throwing it out?" Michelle asked.

Karla laughed and shook her head. Ah, the life of a diva.

Well after midnight, an old high school friend came by to take Michelle out for ice cream. "I'll meet you downstairs," Michelle told him.

Then she took her mom's hand and led her down the hall. "This is it," she said, showing Karla an inflatable mattress.

Karla still didn't know when she would see her daughter on Broadway, but it felt good to be with her, to know she was okay. She kicked off her flip-flops and lay down. Michelle spread a blanket across her mom and tucked her in.

ABOUT THE SERIES

It is based on six months of reporting. St. Petersburg Times writer Lane DeGregory and photographer Cherie Diez met Michelle Dowdy and Karla Harris in May. They interviewed Michelle and her mom, as well as Michelle's teachers, friends and relatives in Florida. They also made three trips to New York City, where they interviewed the producer, stage manager and musical director of Hairspray and watched Michelle at work on Broadway. Most of the scenes described were witnessed by the reporters. Others are based on people's recollections.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com Cherie Diez can be reached at (727) 893-8048 or cdiez@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 7, 2005, 15:48:26]


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