Senior Stories

My 15 Minutes of Fame as the Poster Girl for Menopause

Just when I thought my dolce vita was over
Time magazine put me on their cover –
And suddenly my life got a fresh start

It was a sultry summer Sunday not unlike any other. I watered my plants, breathed in the morning air, made a pot of tea, glanced over the papers and checked my e-mail. Browsing leisurely through the news sites online, I suddenly stopped short: Was that my face on the cover of Time magazine?

Ha, I mused. I wonder how she did that. At first, I thought it was a joke somehow orchestrated by Jeannie, a reporter friend who’d interviewed me two days earlier for a Time article on hormone replacement therapy. She knew I’d been on HRT for over ten years, and we’d been discussing the recently revealed risks of long-term use, which had halted a major health study. Millions of women were throwing their pills down the toilet.

“They’ll probably want a picture of you,” she added, apologizing in advance that there was never any guarantee the story would even run. The photographer swept by on 20 minutes notice.

Now staring back at me from my computer screen was the image of a woman on the cover of Time who looked just like me. I blinked twice. The backdrop was Biscayne Bay and Miami Beach, the familiar view from my living room. Emblazoned across her chest were the words “The Truth About Hormones.”

Hormonal at 60

Slowly it registered. I was on the cover of Time magazine. Not because of some momentous contribution I’d made to society. Not because of my long career as a travel writer/photographer. Not because I’d been to the Bijagos Islands eight times or photographed the dragons of Komodo or the Queen of England. At the ripe age of 60, I’d become the de facto poster girl for hormones, the Everywoman of HRT.

To make it palpable, I scrolled down more covers, back to 1985, amazed at the ranks I’d just joined. Then I phoned my mother and asked: “What does your daughter have in common with Albert Einstein, George W. Bush, Jesus Christ, Osama bin Laden, Princess Di, Rudy Giuliani, and Saddam Hussein?” Not surprisingly, she didn’t believe me.

Mercifully, it was a good picture. I cringed to think of an unflattering photo gracing newsstands, airports, and doctors offices everywhere. But when I got the hard copy – 24 very long hours later – it revealed a face flushed under the powerful lights, glowing in the South Florida heat and humidity. Had I known, I would have powdered my face. But then again, had I known, I also might have fretted uncontrollably and glowed to a total meltdown. Some things are best left to serendipity.

In the days that followed, I was besieged with phonecalls, e-mails, letters, books, tapes, scientific papers, and more from long lost friends, colleagues, casual acquaintances, old beaus, doctors, compounding pharmacists, autograph seekers, editors, and women all over the country — and a few beyond — eager to share their personal experiences or concerns. A few were cranks (“This is Debbie in Denver,” said one husky voice on my answering machine, “and I think you’re gorgeous.”) But many more were looking for answers; others offered solutions or promoted products.

“Your life will never be the same,” said a friend who was no stranger to celebrity. “The talk shows will be after you,” she warned, knowing my discomfort with public speaking.

Recognized in New York City

By mid-week I’d had a call from the Donahue Show asking me to appear two days later. It was Phil Donahue’s first week back, after an absence of six years, and his return had been well publicized. Without a second thought, I declined. But the producer insisted I think it over, and friends urged me to “heed the call.”

“You’re on a mission, girl, for all of us who are in the same boat in this HRT conundrum,” e-mailed one. “This is a great opportunity. Don’t pass it up!”

“You have been chosen as emblematic of the many women who followed the medical world’s recommendations to take HRT,” wrote another, “and are now hearing it may have been ultimately hazardous to their health. Millions of women can identify on a deep, personal, visceral level with that.” 

Facing My Biggest Fear

Did I owe it to womankind to face the nation, indeed the world, on a live cable TV talk show? Public speaking was my single greatest fear – I could barely open my mouth at condo meetings. What if my lips trembled or my jaws locked? Pondering my terror, my eyes alighted on my homepage and its prophetic “thought-of-the-day,” this one from Eleanor Roosevelt:  “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…you must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”

Finally, a woman co-producer of the Donahue Show called and sweet-talked me into accepting. “Why me?” I asked. “I have nothing to sell, no pitch to promote.” “That’s exactly why,” she insisted, following a pre-interview. “I really want you.” They know just how to appeal to a person’s ego. I felt special and needed.

After a frantic economy class flight to New Jersey (not as special as I thought), I was whisked to the MSNBC studios where a two-hour wait wilted what spunk I had left. Ours would be the last of five segments, and I was in pieces by the time they got around to me. But when Phil introduced me as “furious,” I bristled.

The Time story had described me several times as “angry,” or alternatively, “confused” and “frustrated.” Had I been labeled categorically as a post-menopausal bitch, a victim of grumpy hormone imbalance?

I had never been coerced into taking HRT and had carefully weighed my risk factors and benefits, consulting rather than obeying my carefully chosen doctors. I rather resented that women were being portrayed as mindless sheep being led to the slaughter. While it’s a tough call, I knew that ultimately I had to take responsibility for my health decisions. So when Phil Donahue asked me about my “anger,” I protested.

Not Really Angry

I wasn’t really angry, I started to say. But then I surprised myself.

Anger spewed out of me, not with the doctors or all the conflicting information on hormones, but with the power of the pharmaceutical companies, their undue influence on the government, on mainstream doctors’ knowledge, on consumers through advertising.

“I don’t understand,” I said, “why consumers should go to doctors and demand drugs they see advertised by some pretty model on television.” I pointed out that billions of dollars had been spent the previous year on advertising to consumers, that New Zealand is the only other industrialized nation in the world that allows it.

My passion was mounting, and I wanted to relate that to the outrageous cost of health care in this country. I had so much more to say – that the health care establishment should pay better attention to women, test our hormone levels, compare different types of estrogens and progesterones, put the statistical risks in context, take life style into consideration as well. But things moved quickly on the show, and Phil had turned to another guest.

While I hadn’t scored a hundred, it was better than zero. I had looked fear straight in the face, and I was so glad it was over.

Worldwide Recognition

That week the Time story was discussed on Larry King Live, on CNBC’s Business Center, and several other programs. I was interviewed by a gossip columnist in the Miami Herald, quoted in Paris Match, and invited on a trip to Paris by an old friend, a film director I hadn’t seen in some thirty years. People in my building congratulated me. Strangers recognized me in supermarkets and drugstores, sent me copies to autograph, stared at me on the street. I discovered that on the Canadian edition of Time, my image had upstaged the Pope, whose likeness was relegated to a small box in the upper right-hand corner. As a former Rome resident for some thirty years, I found it almost embarrassing. An Italian friend suggested I write a letter to the Vatican explaining that I’d had nothing to do with it, begging the Pope’s forgiveness.

Susan’s Hormone Party

A wine-tasting group I had recently joined threw a cover-signing party for me at a local restaurant, which was such a bash it is still referred to as “Susan’s Hormone Party.” At events and gatherings I found myself being introduced as a Time cover girl, leading to the subject of hormones, and inevitably to some playful (and some embarrassing) remarks, as well as serious discussions on everything from menopause to vaginal cream to bio-identical estrogens. I became the center of party conversation and was quite enjoying my newfound fame.

Countdown to Anonymity Interrupted

Weeks later – in a period someone referred to as my “countdown to anonymity” – just when I’d started settling back into a more normal routine, a new issue of Time came out with a string of letters to the editor.  “Our cover portrait of Miami photojournalist Susan Pierres elicited contradictory reactions,” said Time, “proving that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Comments went from “I’m framing the dazzling picture as something to live up to as I near Pierres’ age” to “Pierres has obviously overdosed on Miami sunshine,” and “…needs to wear sunscreen and a hat, get a new hairdo and then have a more flattering photograph taken.” Was this a beauty contest?

A few friends sent soothing messages, but I was not at all distressed. My fifteen minutes of fame had just been extended to twenty. I was simply amazed that in these times of economic disaster and political unrest, facing the threat of terrorism and nuclear war, there were women who would find the time to concern themselves with the physical appearance of an unknown 60-year-old.

When Jeannie had asked to interview me for the story, I’d immediately said “sure.” A sensitive reporter and friend, she’d cautioned:  “You might want to think about it and call me back.” Why?” I’d said. “Why wouldn’t I?” She pointed out that my age would be essential to the story and that many women would hesitate to reveal it.

Suddenly Senior

While I had never really made any secret of my age, it was admittedly a bit of a shock to see it on the cover of Time: “Susan Pierres, 60…”  Indeed, it wasn’t until I saw it there that I fully realized and accepted my age. Suddenly senior, and a single woman living in a community so focused on youth, I wondered what impact it might have on the men in my life – particularly one I’d been seeing who was twelve years my junior. “What’s the difference?” he said, as other men resurfaced or appeared out of nowhere. One of the blessings of being 60 is that your well-being is not dependent on having a man in your life.

Had I known that my age would be made so public, would I have chosen to forego all this excitement? Not a chance. In some ways, the revelation seemed almost a liberation from America’s obsession with youth. Doors closed, but many new ones opened, and I was lifted out of my despondent descent into seniordom by a newfound zest for the future. And while the cover revealed my age, it also fixed me there. Seven years later my most enduring image still portrays me at 60, as it will long after I am gone. And not many nobodies get to join the Time hall of fame.

Susan Pierres is an internationally published Miami-based writer/photographer specializing in travel, food, conservation, and health. Long a contributing editor of Caribbean Travel & Life, Pan Am Clipper, and Birnbaum Travel Guides to Italy and the Caribbean, she covered those regions extensively from former bases in Rome, London, and Anguilla. Her credits span the globe from Italy to Australia, including major newspapers, magazines such as Town & Country, National Geographic Traveler, Islands, People, and most recently Conde Nast’s In a former life she also worked aboard legendary Lindblad adventure cruise ships in Africa, Europe, and Indonesia, as a researcher for the Los Angeles Times Rome and London bureaus, and in the publicity offices of feature film locations from Cyprus to Ireland. She has visited some 180 countries around the world.



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