Mia Knows Best

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Dear Hunter: From, Your Public Image

There’s thirty seconds left in the first half and I’m up three to two. Biting down on my lower lip in concentration, I dribble the ball past two defenders and pause to size up my shooting options. My heart is racing, there’s sweat dripping down my forehead and I can hear the crowd chanting my name. planting one foot on the ground, I swing the other foot back to shoot once I’ve planned out the ball’s trajectory, following the arc of the ball through the air, over the head of the last defender and….and the television goes dark.

Jolting up straight on the couch, I fix a fiery glare on the exasperated middle aged man standing in front of the device he’d turned off seconds before. “Hey, I was about to score!”

“From what I hear, you’ve been doing quite a lot of scoring,” Bennett, the band publicist, retorts, matching my glare with equal frost, his graying hair looking as though he’d spent a good portion of the last few hours tugging at it in exasperation. Which was probably the case, seeing as he has our band as a client.

I pretend I have no clue what he’s talking about, tossing the video game controller to the side and slouching back into the couch, my ankles still crossed on the coffee table to my front. “What does that mean?”

He’s not buying my innocent act, but he is prepared to counter it, tossing a tabloid in my lap and waiting for me to take in the front cover. The picture is just a candid of me exiting the hotel a few days ago, but it’s the headline that probably has Bennett pulling his hair out.

Hunter Caldwell’s Dirty Little Secret

“60 women in 60 days,” I read off the subtext, thinking there’s no way in hell anyone actually believes this shit, “Wow, they’re giving me a lot of credit.”

We’ve literally only been in the city for sixty days, trying to get all of the writing and recording for our next album done before we head out on tour for the current one because putting an album together while touring makes an experience which should be exhilarating completely exhausting. I’d have to work pretty fast for that headline to be true. It’s amazing the kind of time and energy these people think I have.

Bennett sighs, crossing his arms over his chest. “This isn’t funny, Hunter.”

“It’s just a little funny,” I offer, wanting to lighten the mood. Bennett has a way of sucking all the air out of a room when he’s tense. Though I guess I can’t really blame him. After all, his job is to make us look good and my apparent escapades around the city don’t exactly make that easy. Even though the stories aren’t true, it’s still a headache for Bennett to handle.

He’s having none of my attempts to be adorable, his gaze, if possible, becoming even more steely. “It’s a PR nightmare, is what it is.”

“That magazine is trash and you know the article is bullshit,” I point out, tossing the magazine to the side to emphasize my opinion. I give zero fucks about what some gossip rag says about me. The majority of their headlines are entirely made up just to pull in readers. I know what’s real and that’s all that matters.

He’s not convinced. “That may be true, but it doesn’t mean this won’t hurt your public image and in turn hurt the band’s reputation. Do you have any idea how this makes you look?”

“Popular?” I suggest, knowing exactly where this conversation is headed.

“Like a womanizing asshole,” Bennett shoots back, not bothering to spare my feelings. And why should he? He’s right.

“Fine,” I sigh, giving in. Because maybe there’s a chance Bennett actually does know what’s best for me. “What do you want me to do about it?”

All joking aside, I know the situation is serious. Because as much as I don’t give a rat’s ass about my own public image, I realize that eventually, everything written about me in the tabloids will start to affect the band’s reputation, and if there’s one thing I will never do, it’s put my best friends’ dreams in jeopardy.

We started this band, making music, as a way to escape from our lives, if only for a few hours at a time, wondering if just dreaming of making it big was the closest we’d ever get to performing for a living. But then the right people saw videos posted online of us performing and next thing we know, four school friends from the suburbs are playing sold out stadiums. And the most miraculous part of all of this is that, nearly a decade later, we’re still going strong and we’re still best friends and still, more than anything, all we want is to write and perform music.

This is more than any of us could have dreamed and I don’t intend on being the reason it disappears. So I lower my feet to the floor and listen intently as Bennett details his strategy.

“Well, first off, you’re going to go that New Year’s Eve party tomorrow night,” he begins, mentioning the party our label is sponsoring. The same party I’d rolled my eyes at attending when Bennett brought it up two weeks ago. Not it seemed it didn’t have a choice, “and you’re going to be on your best behavior and schmooze your ass off with all the media execs in the room and at the end of the night, you’re going to come back alone.” He pauses to make sure I understand how completely serious he is in his need for me not to bring anyone back. “I mean it, Hunter. I don’t wanna wake up to another tell all in one of the tabloids because you couldn’t keep it in your pants.”

To be honest, his tension is kind of hilarious, but he also seems like he’s on the verge of having a nervous breakdown and I don’t want to make things worse, so I nod in agreement. “Got it. Anything else?”

He hesitates before he continues and I know he’s going to say something I don’t want to hear. “I’m thinking we may need to go the publicity stunt route.”

“A set up?” I crinkle my nose in disgust at the suggestion. “Oh, come on, man. Please don’t make me pretend to date someone I don’t even know.”

This isn’t the first time Bennett’s suggested one of us get into a relationship for the pure purpose of publicity and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Apparently fake dating is kind of an art when it comes to celebrities, a fact that both terrified and intrigued me. And although I’m sure I would enjoy the company of whichever up and coming actress or model Bennett found for me to date, the whole idea of entering into a relationship with someone for the sole purpose of looking good for the public seems so…shallow.

And it’s not as though I’ve ever considered myself a hopeless romantic, but surely romantic relationships should begin because there’s a connection and a desire to get to know the other person better, not because you’re forced together out of contractual obligation. There’s so much about the entertainment industry that I feel I can’t trust and I don’t want that to be the case in my close personal relationships as well.

“We might not have a choice,” Bennett admits, “We have to prove to the public that you’re capable of maintaining a romantic relationship for an extended period of time.”

Currently, I’m the only single member of the band, which of course means that the eyes of the press are on me more in terms of the people with whom I spend my personal time. But it’s not like finding my soulmate when I typically don’t spend more than twenty-four hours in one place is exactly easy. So when I do enjoy the company of women, it doesn’t usually last longer than a few days, because honestly, it’s just not realistic.

Apparently realism isn’t at all a factor when it comes to public perception, though. I’m in my twenties and dating, which is completely normal, but because I’m in the spotlight, it’s scrutinized to the point of absurdity. And even though my personal life should have no bearing on the band’s reputation, it does, and how people think of me affects how they think of 5 Seconds of Summer as well.

So maybe Bennett is right. Maybe I do have something to prove. And maybe a set up really is my only option.

“Fine,” I sigh, slumping back into the couch once more. Just because I agreed didn’t mean I had to like it.

Satisfied with that response because he knows it’s the best he’s going to get, Bennett nods once and turns to leave the penthouse suite we’ve been renting out for the past two months, nearly knocking over the band’s lead guitarist on his way out the door.

“Yikes,” Ian says as he plops down on the couch beside me, stretching his legs out on top of the table beside mine, “what’s Bennett so steamed about?”

Leaning to the side to grab the magazine I’d previously discarded, I toss it into Ian’s lap. “See for yourself.”

It takes him a few seconds to absorb the headline, his eyebrows furrowing in confusion when he lifts his gaze to meet mine. “I mean, Bennett doesn’t actually think this is true.” He says that as though it’s a fact, but a few seconds later, he drops the volume of his voice and leans towards me. “It’s not true, is it?”

I know he’s asking purely out of curiosity and not because he has any intention of judging me for my answer, so I shrug as I respond. “I don’t know. I don’t count.”

I’d be lying if I said that I’d been completely celibate the past two months, but I’m not skeezy enough to actually keep track of the number.

“Fair enough,” Ian responds, throwing the magazine onto the table and leaning back into the couch, folding his arms behind his head to rest on them like they’re a pillow. “So he’s pissed at you?”

That’s an understatement. “He wants to set me up with a fake relationship.”

“Gross.” Ian wrinkles his nose in disgust, much like I had done when Bennett suggested the idea a few minutes ago.

In all fairness, Ian’s never been in this position, so he just thinks it’s gross in theory. Back when we first started the band, no one really cared about our love lives. Of course, we were still asked whether or not we were single in interviews and any time we were seen interacting with a member of the opposite sex, there was speculation surrounding the nature of our relationship with that person, but it wasn’t a public spectacle. But then one by one, the other boys started getting into relationships and soon enough I was the lone single person and all of a sudden, all of the press’s attention was hyper focused on me.

So maybe a relationship, fake or not, is what I need right now. There will be a lot of buzz about it when it first starts, but the longer we’re together, the less people will care and eventually, maybe the press won’t write such ridiculous articles about me anymore.

“I know,” I say quietly, “but he thinks it’s the only way to prove that I’ve changed.”

Because he’s my best friend and we’ve always been in tune, Ian understands that I mean I think I have to do it too. Shooting me a closed lip smile, he reaches out to squeeze my shoulder comfortingly. “Well, then, I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.”

“I guess so.” I whisper in response, coming to the realization that for the next few months, my life isn’t going to be my own.

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