The Evolution of Ape-Face Johnson

by Carolita Johnson

Three things informed me about my physical appearance when I was a little girl. First, my mother used to grab my ponytail and, observing how thick it was, say,”Thees ee’ wha’ they call een Ecuador ‘reech girl hair.’ Because ees nice an’ theek.” The second thing was when a creepy neighbor, looking at my five-year-old legs admiringly, informed my father that with those long legs I’d “grow up to be a tall beauty one day.” And last, when I was in the first grade, a little girl named Yoriko and her friend, another Japanese girl, came up to me in the cafeteria blushing and giggling, and said, “You have … big … NOSE!” Whereupon she and her friend covered their mouths, giggled, and ran away.

Each of those moments in my little-girlhood stuck in my memory, but in a neutral way. What it added up to in my little girl’s mind was this: I was going to be a tall girl with a big nose and plenty of hair. I could live with that. I’d checked my nose in the mirror and agreed that it was, indeed, on the big side, especially compared to Yoriko’s. But so what? It looked OK to me. I sat on the floor in my parents’ bathroom, assessing myself in the mirror. I had bangs and I thought they looked good on me, went well with my big nose. I remember thinking, I’ll never have to decide what to do with my hair again, because it’s so simple: Bangs look good on me. I moved on with my life fully confident that I’d never worry about my appearance again.

Fast forward to my first day of junior high.

The words “hey, nigger-lips!” ring out. My first thought is, “Wow. I hope none of the black kids heard that.” Because that word had been engrained in me as one that should never be pronounced, never even be thought. I was shocked, and even a little scared for whoever said it. But nothing happened. No race riot in the schoolyard. So my next thought was, “Gee, I wonder who that was for?” And I remember the feeling that came over me as it dawned on me that those words were, in fact, directed at me.

Now, if the kid had just been like Yoriko when she gave me the news about my big nose and said, “you have big lips,” I probably would have checked them out myself and said, “Wow! I’ll be darned,” and figured they went well with my big nose and bangs. Even if that someone had said, “Hey, your lips are ugly,” I could have responded to it with aplomb, or by shoving the plum in my lunchbag down their throat. But it was obvious that the racism in the comment was meant to single me out and slap me down, as is any racist remark to anyone. Racism isn’t about aesthetics or even DNA, though both are unfortunately employed as excuses to indulge in it — it’s about people deciding if you belong or not, if you have the same rights as they do, and I was being told I didn’t belong. That much any kid would understand, and that’s what hurt me. But if this were just a story about how someone hurt my feelings, it’d be a waste of time. I’m writing it, in all its uneasy detail, for the same reason I eventually wrote to the poor, never-named “Armadillo-Face” [more on that later]: It might be a good thing for people to recognize what they’re capable of, ask themselves why, instead of just excusing themselves as having “just been kids” (or later, “just drunk”) and just maybe prevent a repeat in either themselves or in their children one day.

So, dazed by what this remark portended about my teen years, I spent the rest of the day in one of those dreams where you’re walking around naked in public hoping nobody will notice. I remember reaching up and gingerly touching my lips when no one was looking, and wondering why someone would say that to me, hoping their had been a mistake, that further self-questioning would be unnecessary. (Who needs that at age 13? Maybe everyone, now that I think about it.) I stayed calm but preoccupied until the dismissal bell, then hotfooted it home to the bathroom mirror, and there they were. Lips I’d never seen before. Oh, yeah, they were big. Really big. But how was it that I’d never noticed them? I’ll tell you why, and I only dimly saw why back then: The moment they became the target of bullying and ridicule, whatever they really looked like? — they blew up like big, pink inner-tubes on my face.

My new self-image as of autumn ‘79.

A fleeting hope that black classmates outraged by the blatant racism might eventually make it all go away was soon quashed when a black girl in my homeroom used the same words to slap me down for talking to her, making it clear in spurning my attempted camaraderie, that I was a freak to her, too. Saying something like: “You think you can be friends with me just because you have those [insert the offending epithet here]?” And so it was brought fully home to me that what those words really meant was: You don’t belong anywhere.*

Luckily (and I use that word loosely) “Ape-Face” soon replaced the racist phrase as common currency among the general population, probably because of its interactive possibilities. Boys could act like apes while they said, “Look at me! I’m Ape-Face Johnson!” Girls usually saved the racist remarks for when they thought nobody else was within earshot, possibly in anticipation of having to fake total amnesia when I would find them a few decades later through and ask, in the spirit of amnesty, what they were thinking. They liked “Ape-Face” too, though. Ape-Face would do in a pinch.

My mother came up with two different strategies to try to help. First, she instructed me to examine the people who called me those names and see what I could make fun of in them. For example, “Tha’ gir’ in you class ees Jewish, eesn’ she? She must have a beeg nose! Call her Jew-nose!” I rejected that idea categorically. Yes, she did have a prominent nose (till she was 16, anyway), but so did I, and I was not the type. The racist type, I mean. And “Armadillo-Face,” inspired by her super-dry, wrinkly forehead due to overuse of benzoyl peroxide, seemed too cruel, and also too … Ecuadorian. She might not even know what an armadillo was. And what if she did? I couldn’t bring myself to say it if it might make her cry.

My mother’s alternative to racist retribution was cosmetic improvement. For my birthday she presented me with something like a steamer trunk full of makeup in multi-level trays from Elizabeth Arden, and told me to use dark lip-liner to minimize my lips using something like an outlining and cross-hatching/blending, shadow-creating method. The gift reminded me of the [still legendary among kids from my first grade] 44-color magic marker set that my dad equipped me with on the first day of elementary school, only he did that because he thought I had artistic talent, not because he hoped I could hide any perceived flaws with it. Indicating the lip mezzanine of the trunk, this was what I should make the most of, she told me, until she could save up enough money to get me plastic surgery to reduce the size of my lips if need be. Apparently that kind of surgery existed.

How to make your classmates stop noticing your humongous lips, as per Vogue.

Every day I tried not to cry on my way home from school as boys barked at me, calling me a dog, and that only because they didn’t know I was “Ape-Face Johnson” yet. I was a dog. I was an ape. I learned to suck my lips in close to my teeth and spent hours in front of the mirror practicing smiling, learning to feel without peeking whether my lips were spreading over my teeth, looking fat, while I fake-laughed. I developed a way to curl my lips under and against my teeth when I smiled. Sort of like the way Dachshunds smile.

Sometime in 1982. My mother seemed to think I looked better like this. Makeup by Elizabeth Arden. Results cannot be blamed on Vogue’s make-up tips, as they did their best to help.

Then one day, after all those tears and heartache, and prayers to god that my lips would not grow bigger — all those hours spent in front of the mirror drawing on my face with lip-liners to no avail — nothing could hide my lips, nothing, nothing, nothing — I opened a magazine with Nastassia Kinski on the cover, and, dutifully turning to the makeup tips page, saw that instead of instructions on how to make my lips look smaller, there were instructions on how to make my lips look FULLER.


And not long after that, on the last day of junior high, the usual jerks were calling me Ape-Face, and stretching their lips over their faces to make them look big, making ape sounds and laughing at me, when a boy in a snazzy white suit with a black shirt and gold chains on, John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever style — a “cool” boy I’d never noticed before — walked right up to them and declared, “I think Carol Johnson’s lips are voluptuous.”

And that stopped them dead. It stopped me dead, too. I didn’t know what the words “voluptuous” and “lips” together in the same sentence meant. Turns out it meant that later that evening, those mean boys would be on my front lawn, acting awkward and asking me if I wanted to be in their band. They were calling me “Flute,” instead of Ape-Face, the way my orchestra teacher used to do in class. (“Flute! I can’t hear you! Flute!”) It was, “Hey, Flute! Wanna be in our band? It’s called Quadrophenia. You could play the flute.” I just slammed the door.

I. Was. Furious.

I’d cried all those years because of fickle fools like these? Yesterday I was ugly and today I’ve got “voluptuous lips?” Even more ironically, in the next few years, as the likes of Brooke Shields, Nastassia Kinski, and Kelly LeBrock became the rage, the girls who used to call me that racist epithet, or the ones who’d never stood up and defended me from those who did, would look at my class pictures and actually say stuff like, “You’re so pretty, Carol. You should be a model.”

What kept going around and around in my head was this: But I never changed! I looked at school pictures of myself, and I didn’t see any huge difference in my looks. These people were all crazy! I had cried brokenheartedly over the opinions of crazy people! What an idiot I’d been. And my own mother would’ve paid a plastic surgeon to mutilate me to conform to their norms? Unbelievable.

I became a very angry, big-lipped girl after that. In college, I actually wore red lipstick. It was so red that a ticket booth worker in Penn Station said, after selling me a ticket, “Take that lipstick off, girl. It’s too much.” “FUCK YOU,” I said. Fuck the whole world. These are my damn lips.

Introducing… the angry, big-lipped girl! (1986, outfit by Comme des Garçons, inner rage, model’s own.)

And then one day, I was asked to do a fashion show. And another fashion show. It gave me ideas. I went to a modeling agency I found in the Yellow Pages, who sent me to a photographer to get some pictures taken, for a fee. Their verdict after seeing the photos? Maybe I wasn’t cut out for modeling after all. Thing was, I’d already started thinking I could do it. So I went to other modeling agencies with those pictures. And they all said no, thanks. One guy with a beard at one of the biggest agencies of that time, said to me in his French accent in the chic black waiting room, “I’m gonna be hoh-nest wis you. You’re a nice, pretty girl. But you’ll never make it. You don’t have what it takes.” And this I took as the gauntlet thrown down. If that man had never said that I was a “nice” girl, I’d never have persisted. Because the fact was I was NOT A NICE GIRL. Just ask my mother: I was a nasty, grouchy, bitter, awful girl with an awful attitude and a mouth that was ugly because I was “ugly inside.” Well, this guy was so obviously wrong in his assessment of me as a “nice girl” that I knew he had to be wrong about my ability to be a model, too.

My first “comp card.” London, 1987. Photo by Adrian Fiebig.

The next agency I went to, they said there was no interest in New York, but that there might be something in Europe. They got back to me later, saying two agencies were interested in me after seeing my pictures, one in Milan, and one in London, but I’d have to pay my own air fare over there.

The day I came home with my passport, my mother took one look at the passport photo, looked at me with utter pity, and said in a sorrowful voice: “I’m going to tell you deh truth because I’m you mother and I love you. You aren’ preety enough to be a model. Look a’ this picture! Look! Loooook! They are playing a treek on you. They just wan’ you money. How much are you paying them?”

When I showed up at the agency in London that had supposedly expressed interest in me, they had no idea who I was, but they found me a room and started getting me jobs here and there, mostly as the model clients got when they couldn’t book the one they actually wanted, and sometimes with no forewarning or choice in the matter. On these jobs the client would often pull the stylist or makeup artist aside and ask if there wasn’t “anything that could be done about those lips.” But when I finally made it to the big time, doing a Jean-Paul Gaultier spread for The Face and started doing his shows, it was because of my lips. Everyone knows Jean-Paul loves big lips.

Photo by Andrew Macpherson, for The Face. This is the shoot that made Jean-Paul Gaultier notice me and book me for his show. I had no makeup on except for lipstick and powder.

Everyone, that is, except me at the time. I thought this man, my knight in the shining French sailor shirt, had finally hushed the babble of the insane world, and said “Look: Here is that OK-looking girl with the big nose, thick hair, and long legs,” the one I’d always thought I was since I was a little girl. I thought Jean-Paul Gaultier had given me my rightful self-image back. For one brief shining moment the world seemed to tilt back to its original, benign angle for me, no longer that crooked alternate reality where boys once made faces and shrieked like monkeys whenever they looked at me.

At the shoot that “made” me, the makeup artist and I sat around waiting for something for so long that I finally asked, “what are we waiting for?” She answered, “the model.” (She thought I was the hair stylist.)

And then one day, riding the tram in Milan en route to a gosee, a fashionably dressed man approached me, babbling something I barely understood. It sounded like “Oglypippel? Blablabla, oglypippel?” I was just like, “Whaaa? What are you saying? Are you speaking English? Italian? I…uh… what?”

“Ugly People,” he said, in English. “Are you with Ugly People Agency?” Haughtily, while something crumbled to pieces deep inside of me, and in a voice a bit like Tippi Hedren’s at the closing scene of “The Birds” I answered, “NO? No! I’ve never even heard of such an agency!” and turned away from him, with the following words whispering in my head: “But I’m beautiful now! I’m a model!” Which made me laugh to myself a little, because I realized I kind of meant it.

I walked alongside the tram tracks wondering what had just happened. Ugly People Agency? Yes, a dim memory of having heard of an agency called “Ugly People Agency” began to come back to me. But I had never given it a thought, any credence. It was like a legend. A legend like the legend among sheep, of the truck sheep would disappear into one day and never come back to the farm from. But… I was with Elite — right? Elite, who everyone knew was a huge, corrupt, sleazy agency (the best!), wanted me, had asked for me, which must mean I’m not ugly. Right? But after that, I began to notice for the first time that at each gosee I went to with my book, famous photographers like Paolo Roversi would say apologetic things like, “Thank you for coming all the way out here. I really like your photos, but … I’d forgotten how STRONG your face was.” Some wouldn’t say anything at all, simply handing me back my book, barely able to suppress a smirk, if not totally indifferent.

It turned out I was indeed an ugly model. That the only reason people wanted to book me for anything was because I was, well, ugly. Meaning, I didn’t look like a model. I hadn’t known it at the time, but in the late eighties, models who didn’t look like models were “changing the face of beauty” (to use magazine-speak), and that was the donkey I’d ridden in on, not realizing it. When I did, it was just like walking into the schoolyard on the first day of junior high, all confident, all, “I’m a long-legged, big nosed, perfectly OK-looking girl with a lot of hair,” and hearing that record scratch and the music stop, all over again.

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth, styling by Lorina Crosland, for Harper’s Bazaar. I’m doing my Mick Jagger imitation. Like, “Hey, you know Mick Jagger? He’s got huge lips like this!”

Now, every time I got booked for a job, which wasn’t often, I’d think: It’s because I’m ugly. One day, a photographer who consistently tried but failed to book me for Marie Claire shoots confided in me that he was routinely shot down for proposing me, and that the editor in question had finally asked, exasperated, “Why do you want to work wis zat Carole Johnson? Eet eez a mir-acle she even worked once.”

Eventually I had to stop modeling, because I’d break out in hives every time I had a gosee, thinking how people were going to have to decide if I were ugly enough to book as an ugly model or simply not pretty enough to book as a pretty model. One day I just didn’t call my agency anymore, let them keep the last thousand or so francs I figured they owed me, covered all the mirrors in my little Parisian garret, and let my eyebrows and armpit and leg hair all grow out in a bid to see what I really looked like without makeup and artifice, and started drawing and writing.

I got into a French university, determined never to go back to the fashion world, but ended up back in modeling during school breaks, only not for photos or runway this time. I worked right across the street from the library I studied at, as an in-house showroom model for the next seven years, for Jean-Paul Gaultier (my knight in shining sailor shirts, still, and the cleverest, nicest man in the fashion world). They called me “La Petite” because I was short and skinny for a showroom model. I used to drink protein shakes prior to every fashion week, and learned to hold too-big pants up in the back with one hand when I was showing clients the front, then deftly switch the hand posed on my hip around to pick them up from the front while turning to show the back. They just liked me, I guess, even let me messenger my essays to my professors when I had to skip class sometimes to work.

One day I had to run off early to take an exam and told Jean-Paul as much, and he quoted a famous French poem to me: “Le bonheur est dans le pré. Cours-y vite! Cours-y vite!” (Happiness is in the meadow. Run there quick! Run there quick!)

I still remember the day they called me back to that world. I had to shave my armpits, legs, and pluck my eyebrows, all of which had grown in fully for the first time in my life, seeing as I’d started shaving and plucking from the morning of day 1 of puberty. They’d grown into little furry pets. Goodbye, armpit hair, I thought, nice knowing you. Plucked my eyebrows. And back into the world of modeling I went, but this time with perspective.

Later, doing showroom work at JPG during my studies. Yes, I went back to bangs. Because bangs always went well with my big nose, remember?

Because during the year that I didn’t model at all, I had became a tall, relatively pretty girl with a biggish nose again. It was amazing, actually. By the time I’d quit “real” modeling because of photographers and editors wreaking havoc with my already sketchy self-image, my looks were no big deal anymore. The envelope of models-who-don’t-look-like-models could only get pushed so far, if only because once you take people who don’t look like models and make them models, they become the norm, and begin looking like — guess what? Models. Eventually some don’t even seem unusual enough to make up for not being particularly beautiful and, like me, have to just fade away and become the striking or just normal, OK-looking young women they once were again. The good thing about it? By the time it was all over, there were a lot fewer “ugly” girls in the world.

What awes me to this day is the power that popular opinion can have over someone as confident and unselfconscious as I was the day it all started. I’d crawled through the longest spanking machine ever, through the legs of a hundred mean kids, fashion editors and photographers, letting them paddle my butt as I made my way from one end of the tunnel to the other. What the fuck, eh?

Drawing and writing are much kinder on the ego. As a cartoonist, 98% of what I submit to The New Yorker, for example, is rejected. Some people think that’s rough. But after the Ape-Face and Ugly Model years? I can take it. I marvel at other cartoonists who agonize over rejected material. They look to me like puppies crying at night in a cardboard box at their new owner’s bedside. Me? Jesus, I’m just grateful editors don’t reject my work and yell, “and you’re ugly, too!”

Sometimes I still catch a glimpse of myself in a reflection and think, “Looking good, Ape-Face.”

*Credit must be given to the brave souls who eventually did make friends with me (and take crap for it) in junior high, even if it was at least partly because for a while they didn’t really belong, either: We were in good company.

The source of my big lips: my grandfather, the luscious-lipped John Johnson from Sweden.


What I do now, as Carolita Johnson:

(for The New Yorker), and, for Oscarina:

Carolita Johnson’s cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland, as well as in books like The Rejection Collection 1, The Rejection Collection 2, and Sex and Sensibility, and her illustrations appear in The New Vampire’s Handbook and The Power of No.

She’s also appeared in person on The Rejection Show, telling the story of Ape-Face Johnson, drawn and painted live on stage on The Steam-Powered Hour, and performed in Joe’s Pub’s “Happy Endings.” A delightful interview about what got her out of her parents’ house can be found on NPR’s Studio 360 “Aha Moment” segment.