Three years ago, I was eating sushi at my desk when my phone buzzed with a text from my friend Jon: "This is so random, but were you in a weird Leonardo DiCaprio documentary? When you were a kid?"
My hand to God: The tuna roll fell out of my mouth. I picked up the phone with a clammy hand and stared at the text, hit with a full-blown flashback. Finally, I replied: "HOW DID YOU FIND IT?"
Before you watch the video, I need you to bear two things in mind. First, I was the kind of 14-year-old who memorized both HTML codes and the entire Original Broadway Cast recording of The Secret Garden. Second, you were 14 once, too.
One afternoon in fair Westchester, where we lay our scene, I got an email asking if I might like to be interviewed for a documentary about Leonardo DiCaprio. When I say that my entire life had been leading up to that email, I am only slightly exaggerating. During the spring of 1998, I spent 80% of my time doing in-depth research and reconnaissance on the subject of Leonardo DiCaprio.
I spent each afternoon in the public library, after my mom had decided that my own bedroom was too distracting for doing homework. It was a fair argument, considering the walls had become an ongoing mural project that grew with each new issue of Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. I had let my Bop and Teen Beat subscriptions expire with the JTT phase. God, how juvenile.
But, the library only enabled my devotion further. Using the dinky, old desktops, I built a GeoCities empire around the heartthrob, where I engaged in diplomatic discourse with adjoining nations also concerned with Leo's favorite drink (lemonade), current girlfriend (Kristen Zang), and what he was like in real life (so down-to-earth, and not fake, and one time, he was at a party with someone's friend's cousin and was SO FUNNY).
Everyone had to stake out their own sub-category of Leo worship. Obviously, Titanic fans made up the bulk of the community, but I considered them also-rans. Sure, I dipped into the occasional "Jack & Rose 4 Ever" photo gallery, but, my site — called Romeo's Dream — was devoted to a far more important film: William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. That's the full title, by the way. Most people didn't know that, but I did, and if you hung around me for more than 90 seconds, then you did, too. Thanks to my LaserDisc copy, with director commentary, I could explain the construction and lighting set-up of the fish-tank scene, the elevator scene, and any other scene (except the ones with only Tybalt, because bo-ring).
There were tentpole sites, like Leomania and Simply Leonardo. Among Romeo + Juliet sites, mine was a moderate hit with my fellow eighth-graders. Adult fans had the time and money to design elegant homepages and update twice a day, but some of us had Latin quizzes to fail. Still, the library gave me time to share banners and build collages in MS Paint. I even set up a separate page for Titanic fans, many of whom had been complaining in my guestbook.
"U love R+J and thats fine but u have to recognize that sum of us are here for Jack. If u rly love leo you will not ignore his BEST role. Sincerely, BlushingRose85"
A week after I put up the Titanic page, I got the email. I'd been concerned about how the page may affect the integrity of Romeo's Dream, but it turned out that this small nod to Titanic fans was what would take me from mere fan to movie star.
Because, documentaries are movies, right? So, Leo would probably see it and think it was awesome, and then we'd hang out, and if he wanted to make out with me, then cool, but if he just wanted to go bowling (he LOVED bowling!), then we could just do that.
The director's name was Rob. He never gave me his last name, but let's just call him Rob McWeirdo. Apparently, he'd been working on the doc for months — interviewing agents, film critics, and former co-stars all about the phenomenon of Leo.
"I'm looking for some young, female fans to talk about Leo on-camera, too. Would you be interested?"
I didn't need his last name. We were on the same page about Leo: He wasn't an actor. He was a PHENOMENON.
My mom was duly skeptical of director McWeirdo, who told me to meet him in room 2204 of the Paramount Hotel and bring a variety of outfits. But, she didn't put her foot down, because this was a time before To Catch a Predator. The Internet was young and untamed, and kids like me roamed there freely. It was a great time to be an eighth-grade fangirl. It was probably a great time to be a predator, too, but luckily, this guy wasn't one of them.
I did not bring a variety of outfits. I put on a black slipdress and a long-sleeved spiderwebby top over it. I spent the night before with a jar of Manic Panic, going for a red, Angela Chase bob and winding up with fuchsia ears.
Mom and I showed up at room 2204, and Rob McWeirdo's assistant, Andy McWeirder, let us in, putting a finger to his lips in a way that I'm sure inspired great confidence in my mother. Rob was over by the window interviewing another young fan. Her hair was swept into a spiky updo, and I watched as she tugged invisible strands behind her ears, saying something about The Basketball Diaries.
Leo 101, I thought. What is this, amateur hour?
Mom and I sat on the bed, because there was nowhere else to sit. Eventually, Rob finished with the other girl and came over to introduce himself.
"Five minutes, okay?" He left the room, and the other girl whispered something to her own mother. We locked eyes, and she nodded at me. I raised a few fingers in a wimpy wave.
"Are you Leomania?" She called from across the room.
"Oh. Do you even have a website?"
"Um, yeah. Do you?"
"Yeah, it's called Titaniacs?"
She raised her eyebrows. I knew her website, of course. It was just as dumpy as mine, but had about nine times the following — probably because she had a whole gallery of naked Leo pics, comprised of screenshots from Total Eclipse, the one film he'd gone nude in. Of course, I'd seen the movie in which Leo played an impish, drunk (and often pantsless) Arthur Rimbaud. But, I wasn't in this for cheap thrills. I was in this because I was truly dedicated. Also, I didn't have my own computer — or know how to take screenshots.
We shot my interview on the hotel roof. I squinted in the blazing sun and launched into the story of how I'd gone from magazine picture-clipper to GeoCities power player, fueled by ceaseless adoration and my parents' dial-up connection. Leaning hard on Romeo + Juliet trivia, I explained the logistical details of shooting the fish-tank scene and the pool scene, but Rob cut me off before I could get to the elevator scene. It's only, like, the most complex shooting setup in the whole film, I thought. But, if that's the kind of documentary you want to make, then I guess we won't be seeing you at the Oscars after all.
A year later, I received a bubble-wrapped package in the mail, containing my own, personal VHS copy of Leonardo DiCaprio: Portrait of a Superstar and a note telling me to tell all my friends to pick up their own copies at Suncoast Video.
I appear twice in the film, which is not so much a creepy documentary as it is just creepy. The film opens with a series of zoomy interview clips, underscored by what sounds like a small children's chorus singing a very long original song called "Looking for Leo." I think that's what it's called. They never released a soundtrack.
I believe I was misrepresented in this interview. The first clip shows me talking about my photo-covered bedroom walls, which is a fact I stand by. In the second clip, I say "...and I started a Titanic website..." The rest of the sentence, which explains how it was just a small, sub-page of my much more important Romeo + Juliet website was entirely cut out. No mention of Romeo's Dream and nothing about the fish-tank scene. I look like just another goony Titanic fan.
When Suncoast Video went out of business in the early aughts, I'd already forgotten about the "documentary" and all its misleading facts about my fandom. So, when my friend texted me to say he'd stumbled across it on Netflix three years ago, you can see why my jaw dropped far enough to release an entire piece of sushi.
It had a slightly different title, but there was no mistaking that tune. One night, I invited my closest friends over for a screening — because there was just no shutting them up about it. Once a cat like this is out of the bag, you've just gotta live with it. The video is currently in Netflix limbo, but anyone with Wi-Fi (so, everyone) could find it in under five minutes.
I'll save you some energy and post it right here (see the infamous Titanic quote at the 7-minute mark), because that ridiculous eighth-grader with fuchsia-dyed ears is part of my history. I was a teenaged superfan at the dawn of the Internet age. I went back and dismantled my empire during college, when I'd long since moved on to more important online activities, like MySpace. GeoCities was already a ghost town and Romeo's Dream merely a crumbling shack of HTML gradually being grown over with new code. And, never was a story of more woe.
But, at least I have this strange, little snapshot of myself, when nothing made me happier than cutting and pasting a new photo collage together and wondering whether Leo might just see it one day. And, maybe, wanna make out.