One of the more interesting aspects of being a sidekick to Ana is that life tends to be full of surprises. Like that time when we were in Los Angeles for an event being conducted by her sponsor and I returned from a quick coffee run to find two massive, shirtless, muscle-bound specimens of humanity sitting on the sofa in the hotel room.
I have a vague memory of making a dash for it towards the lobby, where I intended to cower behind the front desk, and would have, had I not nearly run into Ana, who held in her hands two cans of orange juice.
“Going somewhere?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
I arrested my stride inches short of a potted plant, panted for a few seconds, and then babbled incoherently for a while, which led her to transfer a can from her right hand to the left and smack my arm.
“There’s two scary big guys in our room!” I said, “I don’t know how they broke in, but we need to tell the hotel security! And the cops! And get as far away from here as possible!”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Percy. That’s just Peter and Bobby. They’re also fitness models. They had come to say hello and I went to get them some O.J.”
“But…Ana…one of them has these really dangerous-looking tattoos!”
“Yes, that’s Bobby. Sweetest guy you’ll ever see. Now come, I’ll introduce you to them. And you can explain to them why you ran like a scared little girl.”
I shall gloss over the introductions and explanations that followed. Let’s just take those as a given, and clarify that sometimes, the scary, muscular black man in your hotel room is actually just your girlfriend’s co-worker.
A couple of hours later, I was in the backseat of Peter’s Mazda, as we drove to the L.A. Fitness gym where the signing and associated hullabaloo was to take place. I’d been to a couple of such events before, and fully anticipating that I’d be sitting idle while people formed lines to get photographed with Ana and the others, I was carrying my well-thumbed copy of The Prince and the Pauper.
Minutes ticked by, with little excitement other than when someone accused Ana of not having proper form when she did kettledrum lifts, which led to a heated exchange between them. Though they spoke English, it might as well have been Hebrew as far as I was concerned, so I was drifting back into the fascinating story of Edward Tudor and Tom Canty, when I felt a tug on my shirt sleeve.
I looked up, and found myself looking at a very pretty girl, black-haired, brown-eyed and dressed in a bright red sponsor tank-top and black trackpants.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Yes…were you – have I seen you before?” she asked.
“Quite unlikely,” I said. “Unless you work on the Office of the Currency Control or something. I used to have dealings with some people there.”
“Oh no,” she laughed, throwing her hair back. “No, I work at a Starbucks in Chinatown.”
“Ah, then I might have seen you there yesterday. I did drop in for a caramel latte,” I said, putting away the book.
“I never forget a face. Especially a handsome one,” she said.
I looked around to check who she was addressing, but saw no one. Girl needs to wear her glasses, I thought, getting up.
“So you’re into the fitness scene, are you?” I asked.
“Wanting to get into it,” she admitted. “Huge fan of Ms Sagra over there. Wanted to take a photo with her, but the line’s just too long and I have another shift in an hour.”
She had those big, expressive eyes that I was sure got her more in tips than most.
“Oh come on, I know her. I can probably cut you in,” I offered.
I led her across the gym floor, passing Peter and Bobby posing for photos with star-struck women half their size to where Ana was flashing an unwavering smile arm-in-arm with a long-haired person whose gender I would not commit to identifying.
“I say, Ana, can you spare a moment for Miss….”
“Grace,” said my pretty companion. “Grace Moonweather. I’m SO pleased to...this is like…”
“Hey, you’re cutting in!” it was the woman who was next in line, a blonde woman in her early twenties who was overflowing out of a blue tube top and white shorts.
“I’m sorry, I really am, but I must be going and…”
“Won’t take a second,” I said.
“Percy, you really shouldn’t try to cut the line,” said Ana, though she smiled pleasantly at Grace. “Very unprofessional.”
“I’ll leave,” said Grace. “I’m sorry to cause any…”
It was at this moment that the woman in the tube top pushed me, hard. Never possessed of a particularly low centre of gravity at the best of times, I toppled over and might have hurt myself had Peter not been passing by and caught me before I hit the ground.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” asked Peter.
“He’s got no business bringing in his floozy to cut the line!” she said imperiously.
“I’m not his floozy,” said Grace, alarmed.
“I’m his floozy,” said Ana, indignantly.
“What’s a floozy?” asked Peter.
“Some sort of derogatory term for a woman,” I explained.
“Nonetheless, I think you should leave, ma’m. You can’t just assault people! Bobby, get the security guys here, would you?” Peter spoke in a calm, but firm tone.
“I am not leaving. I have questions to ask Ms Sagra here!”
“No, really. You need to leave before I have someone throw you out!” Peter was indignant.
“It’s all right,” Ana said, with a light touch on Peter’s arm and a winsome smile on her face. “Tell me, Miss…?”
“Biden. Chloe Biden. Now you listen, I want to know what are the things I should look out for if I become a fitness model. How do I get a contract, what sort of contract should I be looking at, can you have separate deals with the nutrition companies and the clothing companies? Approximately how much do these pay?”
Ana looked befuddled at the barrage, but opened her mouth, presumably to respond, when Chloe Biden, who had seemingly only stopped to catch her breath, resumed,
“What about the gym memberships? Do they pay for them or do you pay yourself? Give me some tips on posing. Will breast implants be mandatory? Who pays for those? What about social media? How important is a social media profile? Do you recommend Instagram or Snapchat?”
“Well, answer why don’t you? Or do you want to keep secrets? I hate how people are just not open and transparent. What are you worried about? You have your small close-knit group of models and you won’t let a new person in!”
“If you would stop talking…”
“Fine, I’ll stop. But you better give me a straight answer.”
“Right. I will. Regarding the contract, you should have a lawyer or accountant look at it. It doesn’t pay all that well unless you become really famous. And you can have separate deals for clothing and nutrition, but again that’s a legal matter. Regarding the implants, that’s a very personal decision and whether you choose to do that or not is up to you – did I cover everything?”
“This isn’t helping at all!”
“Look, I’m sorry,” Ana said, adjusting her cap, “But that’s the best I can answer your questions. If I knew any more than that I would…now do you want a photo taken?”
“You’re just useless like the others! All this I already know. I want to know how YOU got your contract and what YOU do for apparel and nutrition and whether YOU have implants, and…”
“Listen, like I said, it’s not a one-solution-fits-all sort of thing.”
“Bitch.” It was a muttered expletive, but Ms Biden had clearly not reckoned on Ana’s sharp hearing (which can, however, get rather hazy when she wants it to).
“Ok, listen, Chloe. All your questions are pointless. Do you know why they’re pointless? Because to get a contract as a fitness model you need to BE FIT! And you’re clearly not!”
“Excuse me,” was the response, in a tone of exaggerated politeness.
“Look, all I’m saying,” said Ana, raising her right hand and pointing it, palm upwards towards where Ms Biden’s love handles spilled over the waistline of her shorts, “Is that the main requirement to be a fitness model is to be fit. And you’re carrying at least twenty pounds more than you need. I’m not even talking about form and toning right now – it’s…what are you doing? Cart before horse?”
“How dare you! How dare you body shame me?” her face was red, and getting redder.
“I am not!” protested Ana. “But honestly, Miss, you walked in here and you want tips on fitness modelling! How can you be a fitness model without having – look at those shoulders! Flab! Legs – no toning! Do you exercise? Do you measure your intake of calories? I don’t see your abs. Where are your abs? You should – you should work on those things!”
“You nasty, supercilious, horrendous…” Chloe was sputtering now, indignation dripping from every adjective.
“And as for implants and all that – yes, it helps, you work out, you lose body fat and that does not look good, but that’s NOT the point at all. We work out because we love to, we love our bodies, we want to be healthy and athletic and build up our stamina and take part in sports, go hiking in the mountains, play soccer and hopefully to live a long life. Modelling – look, it’s great, it lets someone like me do what I love – which is about building my body for it’s own sake, not because I need to fit a standard of beauty. But it’s the journey I love – which we all do, I like to think – and not the expectation of someday winning a contract.”
“You’re a hypocrite!”
“No – I really – do you know most of us have second jobs? We are lifeguards, nurses, football players…and yes, some of us win competitions, we win Mr or Ms Olympia or an IFBB competition and that’s great, but even then – it's validation by your peers, the achievement is in being in the best shape you can be. The hard work – sometimes it only shows here,” - she pointed to her abs – “and not in my Bank balance. And to us, that's what counts, not to look good for someone else or by someone else's standards.”
“You’re sexist. You’re an enemy of your own kind. All women are beautiful! It’s sluts like you with your talk of perfect bodies that make me sick! It’s inner beauty that counts, and your attitude, Ms Sagra, stinks.”
Ana took a deep breath.
“I am not being sexist. YOU came here and asked about being a fitness model. FITNESS. Of course, you’re beautiful, if that's what you want to be! If you want to act, or sing…I don’t know, model for plus-size clothes or something, I’m sure you can do that…but look, you need to be able to run to win a race, and you need to be fit to even think of being – well, where I am today.”
At this point, Chloe Biden committed the mistake of trying to impose her point by shoving Ana.
A grave mistake, because unlike yours truly, Ana is an exceptional athlete with biceps that, while not bulky, are hard as iron bands, and legs that always, naturally, seem to find a balance. Must be all the boxing she does. So where I had fallen like a ton of bricks, Chloe’s shove only ended up leading Ana to take a back-step and, almost like a choreographed dance, come back into position.
“Ms Biden, come on, that’s enough. You can’t physically hurt…” began Peter, but Ana shushed him.
“Chloe, you need to work on your body if you want to be a fitness model, it’s true. You need to pay for a gym membership, make a diet plan and stick to it, to work your ass off, and maybe in a year or more likely two, you’ll have a body and the strength, to push me off my feet.
“But if you want to be a part of this industry, you need to also fix your mind. Do you know how it is to stand in a bikini in front of four halogen lamps while a strange man applies a fake tan on your upper thighs? When a judge looks at you, standing alongside five other women who are just as beautiful and toned as you are, and decides which of you is the best? When that person is NOT you, and you’ve worked so hard, and killed your appetite for days on end, and gone through things only YOU know about, only to end up third-best? It’s a decision that judge, or that modelling agent made in five seconds, though it took you five weeks to prepare, and five months of a diet plan, and five years of never missing a day at the gym.
“A girl needs a strong mind to put up with that, Chloe. Nerves of steel, before you think about buns of steel or abs of steel or whatever fitness product they’re advertising now.”
“See. Now you’re just making stupid emotional speeches…”
Ana looked at me.
“Percy, is she still talking?”
“Yes, darling, she is.”
“Can you make her stop? Because this can’t be real.”
Grace, who had been watching the proceedings, as bemused as the rest of us, finally spoke up, in a voice that could not have been more soothing had it been an angel’s.
“Oh, floozy? What do YOU want?”
“Come, Chloe. Let’s have a coffee and cinnamon roll while we discuss how horrible fitness models are.”
“Let’s get you something to eat, come. Get you some free snacks. Horrible people these models, aren’t they? Such body-shaming! Horrible!”
And with much such cajoling and the promise of free cinnamon rolls, Chloe Biden finally left the building.
I ran into Grace again, the next day. When she got off from work, I walked her over to our hotel gym to meet Ana, whose first question was about the fate of Chloe.
“She did rant for a while more ” admitted Grace. “But I’m glad I got her out of there. She was being a total nuisance. Sat her down at a Dunkin’ Donuts for a while and packed her off home.”
“The woman is an assault charge in the making. Any longer and I’d have knocked her out myself!” exclaimed Ana.
“So I saved you from that. What’s my reward?” grinned Grace.
“What would you like?”
“Fitness tips and a selfie with you and Percy would be fine,” said Grace, suddenly shy.
Ana seemed to ponder for a while. My panic must have been manifest on my face, because she then said,
“I can do you better than that. Come to the gym today evening and I’ll get you a really special selfie!”