I had to fight to be here, sitting alone in a booth towards the back of an empty Manhattan restaurant, waiting for my date, Natalie Imbruglia, to show up. I didn’t have to fight with her or her publicist, who were quite lovely in arranging the whole thing, but when an opportunity to talk to Natalie Imbruglia comes up, dorky male music writers of a certain age come out of the woodwork to battle for the chance to fawn over their dream woman in person. And me? I’m the dorkiest of them all.
I was 15 when her video for “Torn” came out, and I fell instantly, hopelessly in love with the woman singing it. This was in 1998, a time when you could easily turn on Baywatch and see Pamela Anderson’s comically ample chest bursting the seams of her tiny lifeguard bathing suit in slow-mo. But for romantically pathetic young teens like me, Natalie became a different kind of sex symbol. She was coy and tomboyish in the video, stumbling around awkwardly, unsteady on her feet. Sharp strands of chin-length auburn hair were constantly in her eyes, and she wore baggy pants under an oversized hoodie, the ends of its sleeves clenched over her tiny fists. This was the woman you wanted to call your girlfriend and do all that cheesy relationship stuff with, like take long walks and spend hours talking about absolutely nothing—the elusive manic pixie dream girl type that Zach Braff’s movies would throw under the cultural bus years later.
Natalie Imbruglia seemed like the kind of girl who was too shy to tell you she liked you, but instead had her friend pull you aside and whisper, “Natalie thinks you’re so cute.” And I’m sitting here waiting for her to arrive for our date. Three words keep repeating in my head. Don’t. Blow. This.
I had toyed with the idea of wearing a suit, but opted not to when I put it on in front of the mirror and realized what a tremendous lunatic I’d look like wearing a suit to a breakfast date in a 95-degree heat wave. I also considered bringing flowers, but thought better of it when I imagined finding them in the trash can outside the restaurant shortly afterwards.
I still wanted it to be fancy, though, so I Googled “fancy restaurant in Manhattan for dates.” I called the first listing that came up and made a reservation for two with the manager. “Oh by the way,” I told him over the phone, “if we could get a private table somewhere, because… it’s kiiiind of a date.”
“Oh very nice,” he said.
“Yes. It is nice. So yeah, just something cute, maybe a booth, because it is definitely a date.”
“Right, a date, you mentioned that.”
“Okay, just wanted to be clear that it is a date,” I repeated. Then he had to take another call even though I didn’t hear the other line ringing.
I sit waiting at my reserved table, sipping water anxiously. Suddenly, someone enters, but it’s not Natalie. It’s her publicist. “Natalie is on her way and is actually a little nervous about this,” she tells me, as though it’s a secret. Hooray, we already have something in common! “It’s just that she hasn’t had to promote anything in the US in years, which reminds me, here you go.” She reaches into her bag and hands me a copy of Natalie’s new CD, Male, an album of cover songs originally by male artists, her first musical release in six years. This is a pretty sobering reminder that this may not be as romantic of a meet-up as I’d hoped. She leaves to get Natalie and I go back to waiting. Like so many successful relationships have begun, I prepare by skimming a press release about my date.
And then she enters.
Natalie is unassuming from a distance, but that fades the closer she approaches. I quickly realize why the person who directed the “Torn” video spent the better part of four minutes pointing the camera just six inches from her face. She is stunningly beautiful up close. Like, forget-your-own-name beautiful, with piercing blue eyes, and sharp cheekbones that protrude like tiny cherries, even when she’s not smiling. Her hair has grown out some since her “Torn” days. The brown locks which once promoted L’Oreal flow onto the shoulders of her navy blue dress.
“Woah, is that your party bus?” I blurt out, gesturing towards the blacked out mini-bus parked outside the front window. “Oh, yeah,” she says, sheepishly. “That’s how they make me get around here.”
“I took the train,” I tell her, “which is why I’m so sweaty.” Why, Dan? Why would you open with this?
We sit down and take a look at the menu and she asks what I’m getting. “I sort of want an omelette,” I say. “But I feel like I should eat lighter for a date. I guess you could say I’m a little…” For the love of god, Dan, do not make a “torn” joke. “I’m kind of…” This is the worst idea ever, please do not do this. “I’m conflicted.” Oh thank christ. She agrees, and we decide to split a bowl of fruit and she gets a peppermint tea.
I flag the waiter down. “Hey, Eric,” I know his name because I arrived 40 minutes early and we got to talking. “This is my date, Natalie Imbruglia. We’re just gonna go light for our date today. Can we just get an order of fruit to share?” He makes a joke that we look nice together and we both laugh. Eric leaves to get our order and Natalie and I are finally alone.
“As you’ve probably heard from every man my age, I had, and still have, the most enormous crush on you,” I admit to her. “I’m sure you get that a lot.”
“Really?” she says, surprised. “No, not a lot. I guess people aren’t coming up and saying it to me. It might be true, but I don’t really hear it.” She speaks with a soft voice and a hard Australian accent. I ask her about the “Torn” video, partly because, after 17 years, a masochistic side of me wants to dispel the myth of Natalie Imbruglia in my mind. I want to learn that she was some carefully manufactured product of her record label, deliberately constructed to appeal to gullible 90s alterna-rockers like me, and that no one is as perfect as you imagine them. But the more she talks, the more I think otherwise.
“At the time, I was really insecure,” she says of filming the video at 22. “This was back in the day when they had money in the music industry, and they had these books all over the table of stylists and makeup artists, and you literally could choose. I thought, ‘Oh my god, they’re gonna try to put me in a dress.’ I remember saying to them, ‘I just want to wear my own clothes, is that okay?’ And they just didn’t argue. It’s like they thought I knew something they didn’t. I turned up in what I wore every day which was army pants and Buffalo trainers. Remember Buffalo trainers?”
I don’t, but I smile and nod along anyway, because at this point, I am thoroughly smitten. The Natalie Imbruglia I fell in love with on MTV is the same Natalie Imbruglia sitting across from me. She is authentic and genuine, as vulnerable as she was in that hoodie, only now more confident, more comfortable in her skin.
I do my best to keep the questions and the jokes coming, which seems to be winning her over. “You are adorable!” she tells me at one point. I recorded her saying this and have since made it my outgoing voicemail message.
We talk about the challenges of dating while being famous and (deceptively) 40. “Well I certainly can’t do Tinder,” she laughs. When I ask what her type is, she tells me she likes guys who are funny and kind, which is a huge coincidence since I also happen to be a guy. “My friends say I like pretty boys but I don't think so,” she says. “I think it’s just who you meet and who you connect with. What’s most important is finding someone that’s gonna take care of you.”
“So, you’re Natalie Imbruglia, famous person. Would you hypothetically date a non-famous person?” I ask. “Like, say, a music writer? Or would you have nothing in common with him?”
“A music writer? I’d have everything in common with him!” she says. I’m going to die. I am actually going to die and my obituary is going to read “Man dies after suffering grinning-related injuries on date with Natalie Imbruglia” and I will be fine with that. May it make it into my alumni newsletter.
After a while, the sense of celebrity washes off a bit, and Natalie seems not unlike other women I’ve found myself on dates with. She has a feather tattoo on the inside of her right arm, and casually mentions her spiritual side and meditation habits. She talks about bouncing back and forth between acting and singing, and the idea of following her joy in life. Of course, I’m occasionally brought back to plebeian Earth when I remember that, although she has denied it, she has been linked romantically to guys like Prince Harry. In case it has not been made clear, I am not a member of the Royal Family. In fact, I can only afford to get haircuts from a woman who is technically blind.
“I’m going use the ladies room... is there a back door I can sneak out of in there?” Natalie jokes. Wait, that was a joke... right? Oh my god, this woman hates me. She wants out of this date. She thinks Eric is funnier.
The restrooms are downstairs, where there is also a cozy, empty bar room with colorful wine bottles decorating its walls. I start looking around the space when she sneaks up on me from behind.
“What are you looking at?” she asks.
“Oh, I was just thinking,” I say, “this would be a nice place to have our engagement party.” She laughs out loud. “I could see that,” she says. “I hope we can fit all my friends down here.”
“Yeah,” I continue, pressing my luck, “I’m imagining, for the invitations, a bone white cardstock, maybe a subtle embossment.” She laughs louder.
We find a photobooth down there and decide to get a few pictures together. I pull back the booth’s curtain to reveal a single stool. “Dan, was this all just a trick to get me to sit on your lap?” she jokes. “No!” I say, mortified. “Would you rather I sit on your lap? I’m over 200 pounds though.” Why would you volunteer this information, you fat idiot moron?
We sit for two strips’ worth of photos and laugh about how they came out. I tell her that I’ll keep one and she’ll keep one, and that she can look at hers and remember me. “Yes, I will cherish this,” she says as I hand her the photostrip, and I really believe her.
Back at our table, we say our goodbyes—she has a busy day of media ahead of her. As she is being ushered off to her next appointment, we sneak in a last hug and a kiss on the cheek, and she tells me she had a great time. She leaves, and I sit down with what I imagine must be the world’s stupidest smile on my face.
“Well, how did it go?” Eric asks as he leaves me the check. “Pretty well, I think,” I tell him while handing him some cash. After all, it did go well. I was able to converse for an hour with a talented, gorgeous woman without embarrassing myself too horribly. A success in my book. Then I look down and there is a gut-punch waiting for me. Natalie left her photos behind, casually thrown there on the table.
The sight of the discarded memento suddenly snaps me to my senses. It was stupid to believe that our fantasy crushes can live up to the perfect versions of them that we create in our heads, and it was foolish to think that someone like Natalie Imbruglia would be genuinely interested in talking to me if not to promote something, let alone romantically.
I sit alone in the booth for a few minutes, letting these thoughts sink my heart deeper into my stomach. Then the door flies open and someone comes rushing towards me. It’s Natalie’s publicist. “Ohmygosh, Natalie was so upset—she almost forgot her pictures!” she exclaims, snatching the strip of photos off the table and turning to leave again. “Oh by the way,” she says. I perk up a bit. “Natalie thinks you’re so cute.”
Dan Ozzi can die now. Follow him on Twitter.