This story is over 5 years old.


I Lusted So Hard Over Leo DiCaprio in 'Romeo + Juliet' That I Became Him

I longed for a hero in a Hawaiian shirt, cigarette-in-mouth, to risk life and limb to swear he'd love me. But in the end, I became my own romantic lead.
Photo courtesy of Nell Frizzell

"You Make Me Wanna" is a column celebrating pop culture-fueled sexual awakenings—from crushing on cartoon characters to humping pillows while watching boyband videos.

You cannot underestimate the effect a pair of curtains had on a pre-pubescent, sexually frustrated girl in 1996.

When Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet came out, I sat in the hot damp of a small-town cinema, breath stuck in my throat, clawing the seat like a woman with rabies, as the silhouetted figure of Leonardo DiCaprio came on screen. He sat alone on a broken-down fairground stage, smoking, as the late afternoon sun set across a burning Venice Beach. He looked up. I died.


There is, of course, nothing so heady to the teenage heart as a story in which a pair of star-cross'd lovers take their own lives. Death, sex, longing, buzzkill parents, drama, being misunderstood, gangs, fights, wayward cousins, and heartbreak: It was all there 421 years ago. But there was something particularly brilliant about casting 22-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio as the man whose "face be better than any man’s." DiCaprio didn’t look like any man. With his berry lips, rosy cheeks, dewy eyes, cheek-length hair, soft face, and hard voice, DiCaprio was the perfect midpoint between man and boy; woman and girl. He could have been anything between 13 and 30: an ageless sexless training bra of lust and rebellion that would appeal to gay and straight audiences alike. He looked like a boy dressing up in his dad’s suits to get served at a neon-lit off-license buying liquor and cigarettes, which conveniently aligned with my own interests exactly at that time.

Watch: The History of the Vibrator

When I first saw DiCaprio on that wall, squinting into the evening sun, the burning stump of a cigarette in his mouth, I let out the specific kind of noise that happens when your vagina, lungs, and throat all squeeze at once out of lust, longing, and aspiration. At the time, I could often be found stalking the perimeter of my local skate park, dressed in a pair of scuffed dungarees with my sister’s hand-me-down T-shirts straining across my chubby, adolescent breasts, staring at the tousle-haired boys in baggy shirts grinding their way along lumps of concrete.


The corrosive myth of the Bad Boy Tamed by Love had already etched itself into my consciousness; it sort of has to, when you are a young woman surrounded by dope-smoking, affection-shirking men. They may loathe commitment, they may wear underwear bought by their mothers, they may spend their lives scratching together money to buy drugs, but I still believed I could tame a boy like that. I knew I wouldn't get a boy like DiCaprio to swear upon yonder blessed moon that he would adventure to a vast shore washed with the farthest sea for me, but I craved it nonetheless. You don’t get to 12 years old with a pair of constantly separating parents without learning something about the disappointment of relationships. But I had been sold love, true love, infatuation that borders on and leads to violence, unshakeable, unquenchable love and, like a sucker, I fell for it.

Then, 18 years after the film was released, I sat on a vast shore, washed with the very farthest sea, in New Zealand. I spent three months cycling around the country that had produced my father and so, by way of some extremely ill-planned sex, produced me, too. I met my father's side of the family. One day, early in my trip, I looked down. I was wearing a secondhand Hawaiian shirt that, strangely, exactly matched that of my 67-year-old uncle. I had just cycled from Auckland to Piha through the Waitakare Ranges, alone.

Nell and her uncle, in matching Hawaiian shirts. Photo courtesy of author.

I was single, I was 30, I was tanned, my arms were lengths of muscle, my hair was cut by a barber, my cheeks were rosy, my eyes were blue, and I was smoking a Lucky Strike, looking out across the crumbling rocks and towering palms of an unknown country. I was writing notes in my diary and bathing in the late afternoon light. Suddenly, it hit me.After decades of looking to men to fill my gaps, my lacks, and my orifices, I had learned to be my whole woman. I had found happy nights to happy days, albeit alone and often wearing a pair of cycling shorts. I hadn’t found my Romeo—I had become him.