At 36, Christina Simpkins captures rich, though not always pleasant emotions on film as she documents daily struggles on her road to recovery from addiction and self-loathing. Pictured above is "Vanity's Shadow,"

Not just a girl

Photo self-portraits chart
an arduous quest for renewal by
a former stripper and drug addict

By Nadine Kam

Few feminists would welcome being called a girl, with its connotations of frivolity and naiveté. To be a girl is to deny the knowledge and strength of being a woman.

Yet at age 36, Christina Simpkins claims girl status with pride. It is one way she can reclaim years spent as a woman lost to fear, vice and vanity.

Focusing a camera lens on herself, Simpkins created a series of photographs for an exhibition entitled "A Day in the Life of a Girl: A Journey Through Emotions," opening Thursday at Photo Finish Hawaii.

In the photos, Simpkins expresses moments of happiness, weakness and uncertainty -- emotions and thoughts that required no acting ability for the former stripper and drug addict as she battled her way back to "decent" society. While there was a deadline for the show -- partially intended to address issues of change and resiliency in light of Sept. 11 commemorations -- the journey itself is a work in progress.

IN MANY WAYS, Simpkins had the ideal childhood in Alberta, Canada. Her parents doted on her, and she was the dutiful older sibling to a brother and sister. She learned she had a knack for photography at age 4 when she recalls snapping her first photo.

"It was of my mom and dad kissing. My mom was pregnant with my little sister, and it was taken from a child's perspective with her big belly from bottom up.

"My dad loved it and he praised my 'journalistic' ability," she said. It was something Bill Simpkins knew about. He was a photographer for the Calgary Herald who later became the newspaper's editor. While he was a photographer, Christina would sometimes accompany him in the field.

"In Alberta it's winter 10 months of the year, and in the spring we'd go looking for robins' eggs. It was like a treasure hunt, capturing the first sign of spring," she said. "The more disturbing aspects of his job -- he never took me. I discovered that on my own."

An eye for detail extended to sensitivity to others' behavior toward her. "One time these rotten kids put swastikas on their hands and held them up to me and said, 'We hate Christina.'"

"Sliver of Hope,"

To this day, the memory brings tears. "Why did they do that? It gave me self-doubt."

Adding to Simpkins' fears of being disliked, when she became an adolescent, her mother started pulling away from her. Although she now recognizes her mother's bouts with depression, at the time she remembers feeling unwanted, and by age 16 she had run away from home, though her father tried to stop her.

With her blond hair and slight frame, Simpkins imagined she could become a model and actress. At one point she found herself going to an audition in a hotel room.

"Well, they just saw dollar signs when they saw me, so they were very welcoming. I hate to think that girls are still lured that way, but they didn't have all the mean girls picking on me. Instead they had all the other girls who were rejects."

Simpkins' need to feel wanted outweighed any fears of taking off her clothes.

"These people were very clever. They were clean-cut. They were business people running reputable business clubs. I wanted to become an actress, and they told me about the money and how it was a way to break into entertainment.

"They were smart enough to keep me away from big cities until I was of age. Then they brought me back to Calgary, and by that time I was numb.

"My parents found out about it because they saw my picture in an ad on the sports page, a club advertising 'Come see our new girl.' It broke their hearts."

She tried to return home one Christmas when she was 19, only to find the house empty. That year, her family went to Molokai for the holidays. At that point she gave up and retreated to her world of drugs, alcohol and men she didn't respect.

"One of my old high school teachers showed up, and he asked me, 'How can you do this?' and I was like, 'How can you be here?'

"I got to see people in a different light due to the experience, and learned people are not always what they appear to be."

Christina Simpkins turned her camera on herself in this image, titled "Broken," from her show "A Day in the Life of a Girl: Journey Through Emotions."

FROM THE STAGE, Simpkins never stopped viewing her world as a procession of freeze frames. "When I was dancing -- I still call it that but it's stripping -- everything I saw -- angles, textures, lines, the forms of women's bodies, the expressions of the men -- it was like I had a camera in my mind, always going off."

She came to Hawaii 16 years ago for a nude pictorial that ran in a European magazine, and stayed, working in hostess bars and trying to work up the courage to get sober and go back to school. "I'd go into sweats just thinking about it," she said.

She admitted herself into a substance abuse treatment program, but it took 10 years of walking the perimeter of the Kapiolani Community College campus for her to enroll, with the help of her dad. "I felt like a child with my father taking me on campus."

Her first class was geared toward acquainting nontraditional students with the higher-education process. The instructor, she said, was like a friendly drill sergeant.

"I can't remember her name but she was great. She'd say, 'You think you've had it hard. Get off your ass!' That was great to hear because I didn't think I was contributing to society. I was just taking up space."

Simpkins continues to work toward a psychology degree while employed part time by an organization dealing with at-risk and autistic children, and doing volunteer work for several women's agencies.

She also picked up on photography again, taking classes at the Academy of Arts. Although her favorite subjects are nature and women of all ages and dimensions, it was her self-portraits that drew the most accolades from teachers, friends and fellow students.

"I didn't mean to take self-portraits, but sometimes I didn't have anyone to photograph. When I found myself in a state that would make a strong photograph, I'd just find a book, put it on a bookshelf, put my camera on it and turn on the self-timer."

The resulting photographs show a gamut of emotions, including moments of pain and lightness. Optimism is expressed in "Surrender," in which Simpkins' toes float above water as she soaks in the tub.


"We're all like whirling dervishes running around, not knowing where we're going sometimes. We're assaulted by sounds, media, but this is like a little surrender to pleasure at the end of the day."

There are also photos of Simpkins' mangled breasts, the result of a breast job gone awry after a taxi she was riding in was hit by a car two years ago.

While she never intended any of her self-portraits to be seen by the public, she could not deny the humanity depicted. Ever impressionable, she became an American citizen on Sept. 17, six days after the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists, and she believes her show offers a message of hope, resiliency and appreciation for what beauty and goodness surrounds us.

"I think my heart came by the idea before my mind did," she said. "We all find ourselves with painful emotions brought on by changes in our lives. There was a time I felt I could never leave dancing. I was told, 'This is who you are, this is who you'll always be,' and I got out, but I also learned you can't fix the outside and expect the inside to be better. You can have a new car, new husband, new breast job and still be in pain.

"I got sober seven years ago and I've made progress, but sometimes I hit a wall -- it's so damn hard -- but then I realize other people have it worse than I do."

Two weeks ago, as she rushed to get publicity photos printed, Simpkins was struck in a sidewalk by a hit-and-run driver. Although her injuries were superficial, it was another setback that kept her in bed for a week. But rather than cry for herself, she cried over her broken camera. "I had to ask myself, 'What is the message here? What is going on?' I was so discouraged."

Then she breaks out laughing. "There's that irony. It's so damn funny sometimes. The show's about suffering, right?

"It just shows that when something bad happens, you have to pick yourself up, even if it is after rolling on the asphalt after rolling off the hood of a car. I've tried to do the right thing and keep going forward.

"If I could have done anything different I would have liked myself better. I would have been kinder to myself."

On view

What: "A Day in the Life of a Girl: A Journey Through Emotions," photographs by Christina Simpkins
Where: Photo Finish Hawaii, 1142 Bethel St.
When: Opening reception 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday; continues through Oct. 15
Admission: Free
Call: 521-5617
Note: Photo Finish is one of eight downtown galleries participating in an open house, "The Downtown Gallery Hop," from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 22.

September is Women's Health Month, and Simpkins will be among the participants in the "Healthy & Hapai: Look Good, Feel Great! Day" at Ala Moana Park's McCoy Pavilion Sept. 27. The event will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to provide pregnant women with a day of information, education and pampering, including makeup sessions, haircuts and trims, breast-feeding consultation and support, and smoking cessation consultations. For more information, contact the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Hawaii at 951-5805.

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