Undercover Blues

Rating: NNNNNan invitation into the televi-sion news world of espionage is not exactly what I had in mind when I.

Rating: NNNNN

an invitation into the televi-sion news world of espionage is not exactly what I had in mind when I embarked on a singing and acting career. But when a producer from the award-winning CBC show The Fifth Estate called to ask me to go undercover for an expose on a Toronto modelling school — and record the proceedings Bond-style on a concealed camera — I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to put my improvisational skills to the test.

But very quickly, a whole new set of concerns became apparent: I’d have to keep my real name, but I could change the spelling. I’d have to act naturally but omit the details that make me me. I’d need to alter my reality into bits and pieces, weaving a web of half-truths and quasi-deceit, making split-second decisions while never telling a lie. Everything I’d say or claim would have to stand up in a court of law. I called the phone company to unlist my number.

I was fitted with a camera disguised as a pager, the lens a fake pen, all of which fit nicely in my purse, which would be with me at all times. I was now officially on assignment. Little did I know of the psychological havoc the months of playing make-believe and detaching from my real self would wreak.

Getting hired at said company, located on the second floor of a white aluminum strip mall in Mississauga, was easier than expected.

“I have a good feeling about you, Joanna,” Betty, the woman who interviewed me, told me.

I befriended most of the staff quickly. I easily earned their trust. I was going in every day from 1 to 9 pm and dropping my tapes off the next morning at the CBC,among other duties. It was a 16-hour grind.

My little black bag had a long strap and hung from my left shoulder down to my right hip. I was constantly fiddling with it, whether it was on me, on a desk or resting atop a restaurant bar. I looked like I suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. I did.

The curiosity my little black bag created was often hilarious. That curiosity would later turn to suspicion.

“Why do you always have that purse with you?” someone would ask. “Because I’ve had my purse stolen twice and I don’t want to make it a third,” I’d respond.

“Why do you have that pager?” asked the receptionist.”Because cellphones annoy me,” I’d retort. These were to become my pat answers. Camera angles were always on my mind. Were there heads in the shot? Was the camera on? Maybe I was only filming feet.

Then there were the technical problems. Sometimes the sound wasn’t working. Sometimes the camera went on the fritz. I made frequent trips to the bathroom, where I’d change batteries, test the microphone, switch tapes, squiggle wires randomly hoping they’d stop shorting. The stalls were my place of covert operation.

My purse was eventually accepted by the staff as an organic part of me, an appendage, a newborn child cradled to her mother’s body. But the students were catching on to the scam.

That’s when Betty called me into her office. “You seem to be preoccupied, Joanna.” I was, of course. But I also hadn’t made a sale in a month. “You’re not working up to your full potential.” I was being fired. I had to think quickly and save my job(s). I said I’d brush up on my sales pitch, work without pay. I’d be a slave. I was demoted to booking interviews for the sales team out of a grey, windowless office I shared with a photocopier. I was now cold-calling people from mailing lists, mostly young subscribers to teen fashion magazines.

I had lost the sales staff’s respect, but this actually helped my “cause.” The staff felt sorry for me because I just “didn’t get it.” I could ask a lot more questions without raising suspicions. This was like high school, and I was the neb. I apologized for being in places I shouldn’t be in. I’d get in my car and drive over to Wendy’s whenever they asked me to get their lunch. I’d go salsa dancing with them on a Sunday night. Cinderella was my name and espionage my game. Having a sense of humour helped.

But being a spy was also a lonely experience. When I went out after my “day job,” I wouldn’t reveal anything to anyone I met. Being from out of town furthered my isolation. You never know who knows who. I could never let the mask down. Paranoia was setting in. I was enduring progressive psychological wear and tear.

The concierge at the hotel where the CBC was putting me up became my only “friend,” along with CNN. I was living those on-the-road cliches that make travelling salesmen and rock stars such sad, morbid characters.

This was supposed to be a two-, three-week job, but weeks turned to months. The production had gone on much longer than anticipated and was way over budget, but we still didn’t have the “smoking gun,” as they say in the reporting biz.

Nerves were raw, and friends back home were urging me to pull the plug. There was talk at the CBC that the piece would never run. It was then that I got the call from CBC that Sunday would be my last day. And a surrealistic one it was.

Hundreds of model wannabes showed up for the search. The school was packed, the hallways swollen with perspiring bodies.

“Hey, Joanna. You look like an old lady who doesn’t let go of her purse. You’re going to get back problems!” one of the instructors shouted from across the room. Everyone laughed. “Yeah, what’s in that bag?” taunted another on the sales staff.

I was certain everyone was onto me. My anxiety was heightened further by the fact that the head of the school was on the phone to his lawyers. Apparently, the CBC had called about doing an interview. I called Betty the next day with my “sudden” resignation.

For weeks I suffered from “post-espionage syndrome.” I felt like I was walking 2 feet above the ground — an imaginary buffer zone between my real self and my “spy” self — for a long time afterward. I had become disconnected. Espionage is not for everyone.

I still have dreams about my former fellow employees trailing me in the hallways asking me why I did it. I guess I felt a bit guilty, like a hostage who eventually identifies with her kidnappers. Sometimes, though, I still miss my little black bag, but only sometimes.Joanna Bates is a pseudonym.

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