I’ve been on television with Diane Sawyer.
It was my face, on a screen, a few inches to her left as she talked about cyber-safety for teens.
If you weren’t standing in front of the television in my living room watching Good Morning America on August 11, 2009, jumping up and down and double-checking that 9:15 AM hadn’t somehow slipped past us, you probably missed it.
I was there, silently looping every 30 seconds, along with photo and video footage of the other 19 girls selected for an online safety council partnership between Microsoft and Girl Scouts of the USA. We were the faces of a new campaign to teach teenagers about the threats that came with new technology, like sexting and extortion, hacking, and cyber-bullying.
This was a role for which I was wholly qualified, as my mother had practically cyber-bullied me into applying, emailing me the application every day for two weeks until I caved.
I wrote about what online safety meant to me and lied through my teeth about having a Facebook account (Mom was proofreading!) - and it wasn’t until I was accepted to the program that we found out I’d be getting a free roundtrip ticket to Seattle.
(Let’s journey back to 2007 for a millisecond: The first iPhone had just been announced by Apple. Google Streetview became a thing. Dropbox and Tumblr were created. Microsoft released Vista and Office 2007, which is still running on your grandma’s desktop computer.)
20 teenaged girls hopped on planes around the country to spend a week in Washington.
We shuttled back and forth between our hotel and Microsoft headquarters, talking to internet privacy and security lawyers and brainstorming solutions to the issues that mattered most.
My fondest memories of this trip involve the catered box lunches (Not an insult! I am deeply passionate about turkey sandwiches!), drinking a lot of soda and staying up past our normal bedtimes.
We needed headshots for our profiles on the website (where we’d be part of conversations with other teens about online safety), so we even got to have a Model Moment™.
Of course, the goal was to present us a relatable but wholesome young teens - so our wardrobe was made up of modest neutral-toned sweaters and cardigans, and our makeup department was a woman who made us scrub our faces clean and then allowed us to put on clear lipgloss.
“Hi, I’m Laura. And you’re watching The Disney Channel.”
At the end of the week, we all sobbed and hugged and started an intense group text that we swore we’d update every day.
So a few months later, we were all thrilled to learn that Microsoft was funding our reunion tour - this time in New York City!
We crammed into hotel rooms two blocks from Times Square. We sipped water from the wine glasses at our mini-bar (wholesome girl scouts - remember?), and took absolute delight in dinner at Planet Hollywood and a grungy Chewbacca sighting in Times Square.
We marveled at the cardboard drinking straws at the Hard Rock Cafe (they did it first! Save the turtles!) and marveled as they disintegrated into our sodas (… they still haven’t fixed that?) - and as we were eating burgers and taking selfies on our flip phones, the trip leaders shared that the real reason we’d been sent on this whirlwind New York vacation was to film a 30-second PSA that would air nationally.
As we left the restaurant, I felt a whoosh of stage fright that knocked me into the giant windows of Good Morning America, where in the daytime you would normally see midwestern tourists jumping and waving signs that say “I <3 DIANE SAWYER.” (See? Everything comes full-circle.)
The next afternoon, all 20 of us sat around in a loft apartment fighting over three or four Wii remotes. Trying my hardest to appear like a mature young adult who is filmed regularly, I did not partake in the endless rounds of Wii bowling and instead tried to bring up the modern tilework and mid-century decor with any adult that would pay attention to me.
After visibly upsetting the gay hairdresser, who was appalled that I had gone weeks without properly untangling an enormous knot on the back of my head, I moved on to being stabbed in the cornea with an eye pencil by a makeup artist who greeted me with, “Oh my God, have you EVER plucked those eyebrows?”
Disaster waited to strike until right before it was my turn to shoot.
This apartment had two bathrooms. One that was perfectly functioning, and one that had a sign reading “Broken toilet, DO NOT USE” on the door, which had been propped open so your average high schooler could not read it from the hallway.
Guess which one I picked?
I flushed, washed my hands, and took a few moments to appreciate my fresh hair and makeup in the mirror. I even snapped a grainy selfie with the flip phone my parents let me use for sleepovers and school dances. I was still admiring myself when water started pouring over the edge of the toilet, quickly flooding the small bathroom.
I did what any self-respecting wholesome teen cyber-safety model does when she explodes the plumbing system at a photo shoot.
I screamed, flung the door open, and ran towards the first adult I could see. The guy operating the camera abandoned his post and splashed towards me to shut off the water. In my head this replays like a slow-motion, black and white film reel from a Vietnam war documentary.
The camera guy was probably 25 and not thrilled that his career had brought him to a point where he was filming 14 year old girl scouts talking about internet safety. He shoved me into the hallway, shrugged, and pointed at the guy who had been sitting on his laptop in the corner as we filled his Wii with custom mii characters. “Go tell that guy. He pays the rent.”
That guy leapt out of his chair and ran down the hall, returning with the sheets he had ripped off his own bed. He threw them down in the bathroom to soak up water, yelling “What the fuck did you do?” I had backed myself up against the modern tilework and mid-century decor in horror.
As he ran to get more towels, the doorbell buzzed. The elderly Korean man from the floor below came running in, screaming at both of us because water was now pouring through his ceiling. (I know that there was more than one adult trip leader present at this photo shoot, but I don’t recall if they were in the room or why they didn’t attempt to intervene as I was screamed at in English and Korean by two grown men.)
As the two men continued to argue and wring the water out of a soaked duvet cover, I tried desperately to blend back into the group of girls on the couches. I also tried desperately to will my scalp to stop sweating. It is a grand miracle that I didn’t weep my perfectly applied mascara down my cheeks.
Five minutes later, I was plopped on a stool in front of a white backdrop and told to read the cue cards.
Despite having just destroyed a stranger’s apartment, being called a “stupid bitch” in Korean, and just generally experiencing the most mortifying moment of my life to date, I read well enough to make it into the commercial twice. (Go ahead - watch it. Laugh. I know that’s why you’re really here.)
A few months later, the commercial aired nationally during Gossip Girl, season 2. I know this because a girl in my spanish class asked me the next day, “How do you conjugate this verb? Also, I think I saw you in a commercial yesterday during Gossip Girl.”
I don’t think I ever caught the PSA when it showed on television, but having experienced the harrowing pressures of showbiz and shoddy plumbing all in one day, I was already ready to call it quits on fame, fortune, and any potential I showed of someday becoming an internet safety icon.
This is all ironic - because my advice 12 years later to young girls is “You can cyberbully your way to the top.” (Go ahead. Watch the commercial again.)