It's difficult for me to envision what a typical 13-year-old is like because, for the most part, I think we were all pretty fucked up. Teens in the early aughts were perhaps more complicated than our forebearers, what with Angelfire pages to maintain and AIM profiles to update all while battling the hormones thrust upon our chubby, acne-ridden faces. Personally, it was a time of self-loathing, acute sleep apnea, and listening to "She Hates Me" by Puddle of Mudd on repeat.
I wasn't bullied at school but I probably should've been. I wore my brother's hand-me-down Tazmanian Devil graphic tees, which were remarkably dissimilar to the attire of the popular girls, who wore Juicy velour tracksuits and Limited Too training bras. I wore a Limited Too training bra for a few days once until a popular girl named Jen told me I didn't need to. A low blow to my budding adolescent ego for sure, but ultimately she was right.
Luckily, I found an escape from Jen and her gaggle of rhinestone-encrusted minions. Her name was Stephanie.
Stephanie had it all—double Ds, an active sex-life, and a lucrative modeling career that was sure to take off at any moment if it weren't for her nuisance of a younger sister, 13-year-old Zoë. Stephanie and I were definitely different, practically opposites. Which is a bit strange, considering I created her.
In the beginning, she wasn't an extension of who I was, or even a representation of the person I wanted to be; her only role was to protect my precious tween identity on the internet. Over time, being Stephanie turned into an obsession, an opportunity to sidestep the training bra bullshit and be someone who was better than me, someone who even Princess Jen would be envious of. No one online knew that in my time offline I was going to Hebrew school to study my torah portion and no one in 7th grade knew I spent my evenings moonlighting online as a Hispanic model for The Gap.
I joined the site Habbo Hotel in 2002. It was perfect timing for me. My clinical depression was on the up and up and I had finally outgrown Neopets. Well, maybe I was banned, but that's neither here nor there. Habbo is a glorified chat room, where people (probably mostly teenagers lying about their age) can create avatars, walk around a virtual world, and have cyber sex with each other. In other words, it was fantastic and everything I could have possibly wanted.
I'd log on a couple times a week to check in on my new buddies, and explore the inner depths of my avatar by letting strangers comment on my google image search-sourced "b00bs." It was quite the thrill, so much so that I started doing it more and more. Sooner or later, I began making friends—a natural consequence of spending all my free time in the same place—and my fascination with being Stephanie only became stronger.
At the time my tweenaged counterparts were beginning to discover themselves and what made them happy, I had already completely given up on improving Zoë and was 100 percent focused on creating somebody new. Over the next two years, I was entirely committed to perfecting Stephanie and did everything in my power to make sure no one found out she was the diluted fantasy of a prepubescent Incubus fan.
Stephanie became an "it" girl on Habbo. When she walked into a room, people would wave. She was friends with moderators, had a "job," and a British boyfriend, Chris. Chris was 21 (or so he claimed) and blissfully unaware that he was cyber-touching a 13-year-old. Stephanie had a long history of emotionally abusive exes (a trait I added to explain my skepticism of men) and she was happy that a good man finally respected her. At six months, Chris is still the longest relationship I've ever had, and I definitely learned a lot about sex and human (avatar?) anatomy from him. So thank you, Chris. I have vivid memories of Googling phrases and words he said to me over MSN messenger, learning how to best accommodate his eBoner as we went along.
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I knew "Stephanie" was becoming serious when I started communicating with people from Habbo on MSN and over email. People would ask me to video chat and I'd explain that I couldn't because I shared a one-bedroom apartment with my depressed younger sister, Zoë, who needed a lot of attention. So, I sent people photos of a random Hispanic woman I found while frantically Googling "Gap model" and would occasionally voice chat in a whisper to obscure my teenage white girl cadence. This act worked well—surprisingly well—and I was impressed with myself that I could maintain a character who was so supremely different from the person I was. Of course, the confidence and validation I gained through Stephanie stayed online with her and in no way improved my actual self-esteem, which was speedily disintegrating.
I felt connected to my Habbo friends. We shared an intimacy I had yet to experience in real life. These people had real problems like cigarette addictions and job insecurities and I found it completely fascinating. I made up "adult" problems for Stephanie: cheating ex-boyfriends, an alcoholic father, and an absent mother. This probably should've served as a warning sign to chill out with the Law and Order: SVU and focus on my SSRI dosage, but I cherished the support I received from Chris and the other faceless friends I had made. They talked me through the horror of having my treasured account hacked and I was convinced they could help me through even worse. I trusted them, and despite my own lies, I believed that they were who they said they were. I desperately wanted to believe them and, in retrospect, I see my naiveté as a symptom of seeking stability and support wherever I could find it.
At some point, Stephanie started transitioning into the teenager I was: emotionally unstable, impulsive, and insecure. The level of detachment I felt from her in the beginning of my Habbo Hotel journey was rapidly decreasing. I remember sobbing in my bedroom after I was hacked. Having an emotional meltdown over a fake identity, a fake boyfriend, and a bunch of fake golden elephants that I spent the past year collecting was not very 18-years-old of me, but I definitely didn't have the emotional clarity to see it that way. I found myself becoming distressed and offended when my "friends" vocalized their doubts about who Stephanie actually was. Chris and others were definitely growing suspicious of her and I expended an absurd amount of energy toward making sure that their suspicions were never confirmed. At this point I had maintained the lie for nearly 18 months and at moments I felt closer to Stephanie's online pen-pals than my real friends. My real-life emotions were becoming too turbulent to hide, even to the strangers I had consistently lied to for so long.
My life as Stephanie abruptly ended after two years when I was shipped off to spend a year in intensive therapy. I never came clean on who I was, but by the end I had fabricated so many lies they were becoming difficult to maintain. I was overwhelmed by Stephanie and her "adult problems" and instead of being an escape, she became just another obligation of mine and so did her issues. It may have been overly ambitious to think I could invent and then sustain an entirely new identity—as it turns out humans are surprisingly complicated. I have a feeling my online friends eventually learned I was nothing more than a confused 13-year-old hoping to someday model for a fashion-forward clothing company like The Gap. Poor Chris.
Zoë Klar is on Twitter.