My first words as a homecoming princess were about crowd volume.
Standing on the gym floor in my Converse sneakers, waiting for my high school's teen royalty to be announced at a pep rally, I focused only on not blushing, on smiling in a normal way, on looking like I belonged there among the other nominees—the most popular kids in school.
I thought if I did something wrong, I’d give myself away as an impostor. I thought if I did something wrong, the school would realize they’d made a mistake in nominating me. So I focused intently on not doing anything wrong.
A football coach read all of our names into a microphone. The students in the bleachers, the entire school, reacted for each one. My name was called twice. This meant I won. My classmates chose me as their homecoming princess.
“Could you tell if people cheered loudly for me?” I asked a friend who’d been sitting in the bleachers after I received my crown. “As loudly as they did for everyone else?”
I wanted to be sure it wasn’t a mistake. I needed to know if they really liked me—and if so, how much?
The most popular boy in my grandmother’s high school class—Sealy High School’s class of 1958—was Vernon “Corky” Madden.
“He was nice to everybody,” she told me of her own Texas high school years. “To this day, everybody can’t wait to see him at the reunions, he’s just one of those people you liked. Every girl had a crush on Corky. I had a crush on him!”
Just like my 74-year-old grandmother, if I asked you who the most popular kids in your high school class were, you could tell me. You could tell me their first and last names and some other details—like whether or not they were kind to you, where they sat in the cafeteria, what sort of extracurriculars they did, and other little things.
You could tell me who they were, because the popular kids in high school were beacons of success during a crucial time in our development as humans. The journalist Jennifer Senior wrote about this phenomenon in a New York Magazine story aptly titled Why You Truly Never Leave High School. She references research that says the vision you form of yourself during adolescence is perhaps the one that stays with you the longest. “Our self-image from those years, in other words, is especially adhesive,” Senior writes. “So, too, are our preferences.”
The popular kids, despite all obstacles of puberty working against them, managed to be effortlessly hot, likable, fun, aloof, and cool in a microcosm where coolness is the most valuable currency, if only because it’s so limited. Even if you were secure in your own weirdness, Teenage You wished, just a little bit, you could be one of them. They had it so easy. Everyone liked the popular kids—they always appeared happy, and their crushes were never unrequited.
I wanted to be one of them so badly. The popular kids at my school in the suburbs of Houston seemed so confident and self-assured. My lanky figure, shyness, and love for the wrong kind of books (not Harry Potter) damned me to the ranks of the terminally uncool all through elementary and middle school. I was the weird, quiet girl in the gifted-and-talented classes who carried a small, stuffed monkey to school and preferred playing with roly polies at recess to playing tag—the ultimate flirting game for the popular, because we all knew that “tag, you’re it!” really meant “tag, I like you!”
I wanted to be one of them so badly because, like so many other uncool kids before me, I thought being one of them would solve all of my problems. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I fell prey to the fallacious belief that if all the popular kids appear happy and self-confident, all you need to be happy and self-confident yourself is to be one of the popular kids.
I believed this deeply and internalized it. And from bitter resentment, I harvested a studious obsession for the way they lived—an obsession the likes of which only other uncool kids could understand. I made it my personal goal to climb the ranks and become one of them. I was sure it would make me less lonely, less awkward, less unhappy, less anxious—less whatever it was that sometimes made my mom look at me like I had a problem she couldn’t fix.
This is how I would be happy. If I could be popular, I could be happy.
I worked my way into the popular crowd over the course of freshman year. Puberty was kind to me and left me with curves where knobby joints had been, boobs, and relatively few pimples. Comparatively, I made it out unscathed.
Inept at most sports but knowing all good popular kids participated in extracurriculars, I joined my school’s cross country team. One of the most popular girls in my class also joined. Since we ran at similar paces and shared a disdain for our coach, we quickly became friends. I don’t remember the first time we hung out outside of practice, but I know it must have felt monumental to me.
It was through her that I was introduced to the popular crowd and all its trappings. She had a sister in the grade above ours who was also popular, and on weekends, the coolest kids from both classes would hang out at their house.
Their home was the venue for most of my formative teen experiences. It was where I had my first sip of a sticky Smirnoff cooler, where an upperclassman explained the mechanics of a blow job to me, where I first faked being high, and where I first realized that being popular meant caring about rules a lot less than I did.
Some parts of being popular could be faked. I learned this fast. You could go to the cool parties and hold a styrofoam Sonic cup and then fake being drunk. You could fake like you didn’t care when the popular boy you had a crush on made out with someone else at a party.
But not caring about school—a key part of cool person mentality—couldn’t be faked. I dropped most of my pre-AP classes so I could be in on-level classes with the popular crowd. Feigning a disinterest in school turned out to be the hardest part of being cool. My grades were worse than they’d ever been, but finally, I had acquired social capital.
Only I still wasn’t happy. Popularity wasn’t working. I still felt lonely and uncool and anxious in a way I didn’t think I would anymore. I kept waiting for something magical to happen. I kept waiting for the day I’d walk into the school and really feel like I really owned the place. I wanted my drab-to-fab montage scene. Where was my montage scene? The whole thing felt fake, because it was. That’s the other thing I learned fast.
The big secret is that none of us, none of the shiny, happy popular kids, were as happy as we appeared. We were just as sad and lonely as everyone else is in high school. The smokescreen was the only thing that separated us. Carrying on the ruse was the only thing that made us cool.
At some point, popularity became a distraction as much as it was a quest to be liked.
During my freshman year, the hot summer after it, and the first few months of my sophomore year, things at home unraveled. My parents separated and it was as terrible and messy as any separation can be. I was still on the cross country team, but I had stress fractures in my shin bone from running so many miles and was benched for most of the season, relegated to swimming laps in the cold indoor pool instead of running with my friends. And then in September 2008, just a few weeks before my school elected me their princess, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I remember all of this happening. I remember watching my dad pack up his things and leave our home. I remember being in the backseat of her Nissan Pathfinder when my mom turned around and told me and my brother that she had cancer. And I remember wearing the heavy black fracture boot on my leg for two months. It’s all there—it’s hazy and cloudy now—but it’s all there.
The more vivid memories from that time are the ones I have of jumping fences on my way out of raided popular kid parties and aimlessly texting football players well past my bedtime on school nights. At 15, I wasn’t equipped to deal with the much more adult dramas of my home life, but as one of the most popular girls in school, I was expert at the dramas of high school social circles. Popularity was a game I could not only play, but was good at.
None of my popular friends, except for the one girl on my cross country team, knew what was going on at home. None of us had perfect lives, but the last thing we would ever do is say so out loud. The popular kids were dealing with the same teenage angst bullshit and family problems as everyone else in school. The only difference was that our coping mechanism was a feigned indifference combined with social activities that, somewhere along the way, people decided were cool.
Because none of my popular friends knew what was going on at home, going to school became an escape from the chaos. I got in deeper with the cool kids. I started drinking at the parties I’d only previously attended. I got a date to the homecoming dance and started dating him—he was a boy from the grade above mine, a varsity football player who was undoubtedly having sex with his previous girlfriend. I got my first C in a class—in English, my favorite subject.
And then I got on the homecoming ballot. As a sophomore in high school, I was more popular than ever. This was it—the ultimate coup d’etat for a former loser. An uncool girl doesn’t just wind up on the homecoming ballot. This was an honor reserved for someone who’d truly made it. My peers nominated me, they chose me. They liked me. They must.
But I still felt that familiar pang of loneliness and self-doubt I’d felt all growing up, a feeling I associated with the uncool. Not only was that weird phantom pain still there, but it had grown, intensified under the pressure of being so repressed. Now I recognize this feeling as panic or anxiety. At the time, it just felt like something to be squashed.
It felt like something that a princess shouldn’t have to deal with.
The night of the homecoming football game, at which I was paraded out to the 50-yard line to publicly receive my crown, my parents were fighting. I remember this because they didn’t sit together in the bleachers, and because, just before we walked out onto the field, my dad came up to me to tell me how “proud” he was of his popular daughter—his homecoming princess.
His misplaced pride burned like embarrassment. I was so scared the other kids standing with me would recognize how weird the interaction was and sense that something was wrong. I wanted to let go of my prince’s skinny elbow and run away from the field, from the buzzing stadium lights and the AstroTurf and football players and cheerleaders and social cliques and everything else I’d buried myself in that year.
I felt, for the first time in a long time, the sensational urge to disappear, to be as obsolete as I felt before I wormed my way into the popular crowd.
But like a good teen monarch, I stayed linked arm-in-arm with the prince, faked like the incident didn’t bother me, and walked onto the field. I put on my biggest, brightest, popular girl smile and received my crown—the symbol that marked me as the most liked girl in my class. I’m sure people in the stadium bleachers cheered and yelled. I don’t really remember now.
I do remember going home that night and feeling alone. I remember putting my dad’s old copy of Abbey Road on the turntable he left behind in my bedroom and crying through the skips he’d worn into "Because." I remember feeling less like a homecoming princess and more like a scared 15-year-old girl who was sick of faking it—and who knew she couldn’t maintain the smokescreen anymore.
I know I’m not the only sad homecoming princess. My friend Allison wrote a beautiful essay last year about her own experience as the saddest homecoming queen in Ohio, and her struggle with depression as a teenager and adult. “Being homecoming queen did not solve everything (surprise, surprise),” she writes. “The sparkly fake diamonds on the tiara did not have the power to zap away sadness. The sash did not function as a shield that could protect against a broken heart.”
The crown was a nice distraction, but it only worked for so long. A few weeks after the homecoming game, I started therapy and began treating that phantom pain I tried to hide from in the cozy glow of the popular crowd. It was anxiety that had grown worse with the problems at home. Something that wouldn’t go away with a million homecoming crowns.
Toward the end of sophomore year, I started dating the boy who’d been my prince—the quarterback of the football team. We eventually broke up because he couldn’t understand why the homecoming princess from the broken kingdom was so sad all the time. My mom was newly in remission and my parents were going through a lengthy divorce, and I was out of energy for faking smiles. I was ready to hand over the crown to the next girl.
I fell out of the popular crowd after that. I rejoined the AP classes and started hanging out with other kids who had played with roly polies at recess. I stopped going to parties. I quit the cross country team. I still kept what was going on at home mostly private, but my close friends knew and were kind to me and my family. They didn’t avoid me for being difficult or complicated, which I guess is what I’d feared before.
By the time I graduated in 2011, the fact that I’d won homecoming princess as a sophomore felt like a weird fluke in my record. If the research Jennifer Senior references in her piece is correct—that our identity is formed mostly in adolescence—mine must not have formed until I was 17 or 18, after the crown and after the popularity.
The image I have of myself now, at 22, is less that of a shiny happy princess who fakes that everything’s okay in order to be liked, and more that of an angsty girl who blasts sad songs for catharsis and wants to feel her feelings carefully.
When I'm feeling very alone, I still play my dad's copy of Abbey Road—now with even more skips from my own repeated plays over the years—which I keep on a shelf in my bedroom in Brooklyn. My homecoming crown and all other evidence of my brief venture into popularity stayed in Texas, where it belongs.
Hannah Smothers is a reporter for Fusion's Sex & Life section, a Texpat, and a former homecoming princess.