In the year 2000, there wasn’t much in life I loved more than award shows. Not much has changed since then, but the 1999 Video Music Awards marked a pronounced shift in my pop culture trajectory. I hadn’t stopped talking about the show for months and I re-watched it endlessly on my VHS recording. I was dazzled by the spectacle of it all—the boybands and their choreography, the pop princesses and their productions, the celebrities and their bad behavior—and I spent my days imagining what it would be like to perform among them. More than planting delusional pop star fantasies in my head, that show jumpstarted my love for awards shows and ever since, they are immovable events on my calendar.
I’ve been of such a singular mind on the subject that when I first moved to New York, I bought a TV and a cable package before I bought a bed. Why? The Oscars were coming—a bed could wait. A few weeks earlier, when the Grammys aired, my father knew how upset I was over not having a TV yet so he set his laptop in front of his TV and Skyped me the entire show live. The connection was spotty because I was using a pirated internet signal in my building, but I got to see the show. That’s love.
During that new millennium summer, it was at a pre-VBS planning lunch with my friends that we dreamt up an idea for our own version of an awards show. The silly question of, “What if our youth group had an awards show?” quickly snowballed into preshow ideas, performance possibilities, and conversations about what we’d wear. As we talked, we got more excited and began to take the idea more seriously. Once our excitement was past the point of no return, we figured our show needed a larger purpose in order to become a viable pitch. What’s the best way to get the green light for something at church? Missions! Make it about missions! We could charge for tickets and the proceeds could go to Africa or Antarctica or wherever there were missionaries our church supported! Done. Someone then suggested we time the show to coincide with the conclusion of our fine arts season. A second layer of purpose to add even more weight to our pitch! In truth, we were a year-round organization so this layer was a stretch, but between our National competition rehearsals winding down and our Christmas rehearsals beginning to rev up, my co-conspirator friends and I figured this could be a fun change of pace. Fate smiled on us and our director thought so as well. With that, we set ourselves to doing the legwork we promised we’d do as the practical part of our pitch. “You won’t have to do a thing,” we promised.
The Impact Awards—not-so-cleverly named after the title of our youth group—took shape in a matter of days. The turn of the Millennium was a time when youth groups needed singular amorphous names to prove how hip and relevant they were. Names like Impact, Drive, Encounter—single words that looked good on the back of a t-shirt—showed sinners that the church had a place for teenagers to be radical for Jesus. Our plan for a knock-off awards show was also fitting in that the evangelical world at the turn of the Millennium was at its apex as pertains to unashamedly grasping for broader cultural relevance. Appropriating secular culture was highly in vogue, perhaps the most pronounced (and sad) example being Christian t-shirts. Coopting logos and taglines, the iconic red and white Coca-Cola logo would be altered to read “Jesus-Christ. Always the Real Thing,” Subway’s logo was changed to read “God’sWay,” and the ubiquitous “No Fear” slogan was morphed into “Fear Not,” something that was as unnecessary as it was redundant. The Impact Awards fit right in with this trend.
With a date chosen, plans were made for a spaghetti dinner beforehand. Maybe that’s not exactly what Lauryn Hill or Gwen Stefani ate before the Grammys, but this was still a church function after all. A couple nights later over a mound of Taco Bell tacos and burritos, a cobbled together “committee” of teenagers sat down with our director to compile the list of potential awards. Some were inside jokes and others were plucked from categories at the Grammys and the Oscars: Best New Artist, Best Actor, Best Actress, etc. Once the evening was announced to the youth group, the students in our fine arts program would vote and at the show, trophies would be awarded to the winners.
We’d actually experienced a similar evening at church a few years prior. Our youth group leaders sponsored a Make-a-Movie Night in which we teenagers were divided into teams, drew a genre out of a hat and were then given two hours to make a 15 minute movie that included a commercial break and a song. With camcorders in hand, we drove all over the Metroplex searching for locations that fit our story. No post production editing was allowed, just in-the-moment filmmaking made by mostly trespassing on private property. It was raw, unfiltered, and a terrific way to spend a Saturday night. A week later, we reconvened to watch the films. As we walked into the church, large poster board stars lined the sidewalk like the Hollywood Walk of Fame—the names of pastors and inside-jokes “engraved” on them. There was popcorn and pizza and after we watched all the movies, trophies were awarded as voted on by the youth group leaders.
Our film, The End of the World As We Know It, was an alien takeover thriller. We purchased a Swamp Thing action figure for two dollars at a Tom Thumb to serve as our alien and we placed him near the camera lens so he’d look enormous compared to us in the background—something I will go ahead and allege Peter Jackson copied from us while filming Gandalf and Frodo. At one point in the film, someone sang the title song next to the camcorder while the rest of us ran around screaming like banshees in a hospital emergency room parking lot. Near the end of the film, we put raw beef on our faces to show the alien had caught us and tore us apart. We weren’t afraid to bring the gore. We didn’t end up winning a trophy that night but I still have my faux-Academy Award from the following year when my team won Best Set Design for our faux-wildlife documentary starring a Steve Irwin-esque narrator and a bunch of teenagers acting like jungle animals.
My friends and I used those evenings as our template as we worked every day after VBS on making The Impact Awards a reality. We had to be scrappy because our budget was nonexistent and again, we’d promised to do all the work. As such, in lieu of plastic faux-Oscars, we went to Garden Ridge in search of something that might serve as a trophy-adjacent stand-in. After getting distracted by smelling vanilla candles for about 45 minutes, we found some pyramid-shaped candle holders made of glass on a clearance shelf. We argued that from a distance, the glass triangles would look regal and would also reflect the stage lights nicely. It didn’t matter that up close, they just looked like cheap glass candle holders. We used some golden brown shellacked wood one boy found at his father’s workbench for a base, superglued the glass pyramids onto them and proudly called them trophies.
For the show itself, we asked some students to be presenters, lined-up others to put on a few funny skits and performances, and asked one of the senior girls to act as our host. We felt very official and as a team, we were knocking items off our to-do list so efficiently that even Monica Geller-hyphen-Bing would be jealous.
I’d mentally decided at that initial pre-VBS lunch that I was going to perform the opening number at the show. Let’s be honest, it was the driving force behind my push to do the show in the first place. Minutes after we got the green light, I informed the group of my intention and got the go-ahead. I knew that no awards show was without a killer opening number and since I’d become enamored with Britney Spears—it was her VMA performance that jumpstarted my obsession after all—I decided I should emulate what she’d done at our Impact Awards. Our fine arts director and I put together a performance track of “Baby One More Time,” an ill-advised decision without question but one we went for with gusto. I asked four girls to be my backup dancers and I taught them Britney-adjacent choreography in the chapel. We put together their costumes by pillaging their closets—black capris and tank tops were decided on because all four already had them—and we took floor-length skirts made of red crinkled polyester and cut slits and shapes into them. I’d found them on the clearance rack at Marshalls where I worked and bought them with my discount. They cost me six dollars for all four. The girls wore them on top of their capris and we were ready to perform.
The night of the awards, we encouraged the students to dress “awards show ready,” which in suburban Dallas translated to a lot of zebra print, sequins and faux-leather. One boy wore snakeskin-print pants, some girls wore pink cheetah-print cowboy hats, and I donned patent leather pants with a jacket to match. It was absurd, but we were teenagers and to us, it was awesome. After our pre-show banquet, i.e. the spaghetti dinner in the fellowship hall, everyone filed into the sanctuary for the main event.
I stood backstage waiting to make my entrance. I could vaguely see through the curtains we’d set up and I watched as my friends and their parents took their seats in the sanctuary. Three minutes after our official start time—a pre-determined buffer to allow everyone to get seated—the stage went dark. As my intro music began, the dancers walked through the black curtains to get into their spots and I stood ready and nervous. I was about to do the thing I’d been imagining in my head for a year. Sure, this wasn’t the VMAs, but in my mind, this was every bit as important. This was my pop star moment and as my cue approached, I stepped confidently out onto the stage.
I began singing my Spears-parody song, the lyrics oh-so cleverly changed to “Impact Awards now it’s time,” with a head microphone, the same sort Britney used. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my backup dancers plodding through the choreography they’d barely learned and apparently didn’t remember. It was reminiscent of a dance recital for toddlers—each girl looking to one another for their next move but none of them knew it well enough to lead. But that wasn’t the biggest problem. Not by a long shot.
The biggest problem was that Britney danced for a living so dancing her way through a song wasn’t a cumbersome feat. She, much like Janet, JLo, Beyoncé and the other dancehall divas, also used performance tracks to compensate for the fact that they were dancing across the stage. I, however, figured I could sing it live as I did the choreography. This was yet another ill-informed decision as I, an out-of-shape junior in high school, tried to sing and breathe and dance and remember the parodied lyrics at the same time.
To even call it dancing would be a slight against the art form. We weren’t allowed to dance in church—it was too sinful—but our slightly hoppy choreographed arm and leg movements were enough to leave me completely out of breath. Oh I hit all the Britney poses I could. I even pointed at the audience and shouted things like, “Impact Awards! Let me hear you!” But beyond the rare shout I was able to muster between gasps for breath, it’s unclear if any sung words actually came through the microphone. What was resoundingly clear was that it was a mess.
We stomped through the half-baked, under-rehearsed, only partially-thought-out performance and in what felt like a blur, it was over. I’d done it. I done it horribly, but I’d done it. I knew the song didn’t land when the applause was tepid but I didn’t have any time to dwell on it because I quickly began winning awards. What a high that was. I gave my first thank you speech with gusto—thanking everyone I could think of and calling out my best friends specifically. I felt so self-important, so self-validated, and so high-and-mighty.
Turns out, trophies are a bit like tattoos: once you have one, you immediately want another. I sat in my front row seat and watched as other students won trophies for this or that and the desire to be up there again began swelling up inside me like a bee sting. I don’t remember much about what happened between the categories because all I could focus on was my insatiable desire to win. When I won a second time, I realized I’d run out of people to thank. Then I won again and had nothing to say so I laughed nervously and walked off. When I won the fourth time, I noticed the placating smiles on the audience’s faces—smiles that said, “You’re cute but you’re loving this too much.” I scurried off the stage that time. The novelty of winning now felt hollow. As I watched the next category be announced and saw my friend’s face light up when he was named the winner, I had a real Hallmark movie moment. Winning had felt great but seeing my friends so happy felt even greater. Suddenly, all my high-and-mightiness melted away and for the first time that evening, I exhaled and enjoyed the show for what it was: a silly break in the norm and a reason to dress up. The skits were funny, the songs (that weren’t mine) were great and the host was terrific. We’d done well.
That was until it came time for the final award: Artist of the Year.
I’d had my eyes on this trophy since we’d decided to include the category. From the outset, I figured it was mine. I spent my every spare moment at the church working on one performance or another—not to mention I’d been the mastermind behind this whole evening. I deserved that glass candle holder glued onto a block of wood.
I’d introduced the previous category so I was standing off to the side of the stage when the final award was announced. I tried to look calm and like I didn’t care, but the truth was, I wanted that trophy more than I wanted my next breath. One of the pastors served as our final presenter—another key component to a good awards show is the surprise special guest presenter for the evening’s biggest honor—and when he announced the winner for Artist of the Year, it was the evening’s host whose name was called, not mine.
Instinctively, I slapped on my “gracious loser face” and applauded. She was incredibly surprised and said some very kind things to our leaders and her parents to thank them for guiding her over the years. But I hardly heard any of that because of the thoughts ricocheting inside my head like ping pong balls.
Why didn’t they vote for me? I guess she’s a senior so she deserves it. But I put this thing together. I did already win four trophies. But I wanted that one! This night was a waste of time. It was still fun though and that’s what it was about. Screw it, this night doesn’t mean anything anyway. But we actually did raise money to send to missionaries. Whatever, this is probably rigged.
It was when I heard the words “this was probably rigged” chime out in my head that I felt utterly ridiculous…again. All the teenagers in our program looked super cool, had smiles on their faces, and knew this was all just for fun. I, however, I was jealous of my friend standing center stage holding a clearance glass candle holder. I was an idiot having completely forgotten my emotional exhale only minutes earlier, and I made the decision to let it go. This is one of the few times in my life where I can honestly say I did that, but I really did pull an Elsa and let it go. Sure I’d botched the opening number, but the night was fun, we raised a few hundred dollars for missionaries and now we could go to Taco Bell.
With her win and a closing prayer—again, it was a church function—the show was over. As people left, my friends and I mingled near the altars to take pictures in our patent leather getups with our disposable cameras. As we did, the mother of one of the younger students passed by my four trophies that were stacked on the front row and said, “Gave yourself all the trophies didn’t you?”
Hold up. I’d just had this moment of epiphany—of Hallmark Channel Christianese zen—and now someone else’s mother was shaming me? I guess I wasn’t the only one who took this too seriously. I looked over at her daughter standing quietly next to her, the award she’d won in her hands, and I congratulated her on winning her category. I ignored her mother entirely and went back to taking pictures with my friends. I knew The Impact Awards wreaked of trying too hard and over-reaching. I knew it was a fun idea that became mired by own my sense of self-importance. I didn’t need her to tell me that. Sure I got to be Britney for a night, just maybe not the 1999 VMAs version of her I’d have preferred.
After we tore down everything we’d set up, following through on our campaign promise to do the legwork, my friends and I ended the evening at Taco Bell eating tacos in our patent leather pants and animal print cowboy hats. We sat at the same tables where we’d sat two weeks earlier brainstorming the awards in the first place. We laughed about our outfits and about all that had gone wrong. Everyone was happy and had stories to tell. And that felt like winning.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon.