The road to self-acceptance is never an easy one. Whether you’re a man or a woman, white or black, young or old, it’s a daily struggle to look in the mirror and be completely proud of what you see. But for women in the music business, it isn’t only about our reflection. There’s a lot more looking back at us: the size of our paychecks, our next gig, the keeping or losing of our recording deals. Every opportunity to move forward depends largely on our appearance, our passibility–that constant checkmate to see if we match what the industry, albeit the world, thinks a “legitimate artist” is supposed to look like. But when those standards are consistently shifting, at what point do you know that you’re officially acceptable? At what point do you finally “look the part?” I sit down with another one of music’s most talented independent artists to discuss the realness of that struggle.
Amber Sauer sits across the table from me at a diner on Ventura Boulevard. A voluptuous beauty at 5’10”, she’s one of those people that immediately gives you the feeling that she’s someone important–a model or actress maybe. I watch her perfectly curled eyelashes flutter while she talks. “I love Adele, but tell me maybe if you find the same thing. Do a lot of people tell you like, ‘Oh you look like Adele.’ Or tell you you sound like Adele? If you happen to have a soulful voice and be of a lighter skin color…It’s like the automatic reference. God forbid I wear red lipstick. I must plan on doing an Adele song that night if I wear red lipstick.” She sips her coffee, wearing only a clear lip balm.
As the only child in a military family, she lived all over the world before settling in Paradise, a small town in northern California just outside of Chico. After a serious health crisis left her hospitalized for three weeks in 2009, she knew it was time to make a move. We talk about her first gig in L.A. “I was put onstage with Natalie Cole at the Hollywood Bowl within a week of me living in L.A. It was terrifying, but I was ready. I was ready and I knew I had done everything there was to do back home. I was hungry, I was naive…I was just like, ‘this is it’.” But like every young hopeful that comes to the big city discovers, it’s never that simple.
As the sun beams down blindingly onto our table, we awkwardly try to adjust the shades at our booth. Amber opens up about her struggles with body image. “I’ve always had weight [problems]… food was like a drug. The issue [for me] started with myself, because I developed a complex with food and developed issues with my self-image at an early age. I can remember someone in high school telling me that I was sooo cute. And I’m like, ‘Oh it’s a compliment.’ Then they said, ‘If you could just lose a little bit of weight, you could be gorgeous.’ Since that time it’s always the same story, and for a few different reasons not just the weight: ‘Oh you’re dope for a white girl,’ ‘You’re dope for a big girl,’ ‘Oh she’s so pretty for a big girl,’ Why can’t I just be pretty for Amber?”
And there it is. That age old, played out, back handed compliment that any girl of a certain classification has heard time and time again, the infamous “You’re blank for a blank” comment–perpetuating the notion that somehow, a woman’s beauty becomes secondary to whichever way society has chosen to categorize her: fat, black, old. In something like the entertainment business, those categorizations are particularly limiting. They drive everything for a working woman in music–the people that choose to manage and represent her, the kind of music she’s allowed to sing, even the clothes she’s allowed to wear onstage. “I’ve always been a thick girl by industry standards, always. But I was like a size 10 or 12 when I got to L.A., which is like normal or average. It wasn’t until I got up to like a 24–and I’m a 16/18 right now–you know that I was like ‘Oh, this is a thing. I’m now the fat girl. I’m in a box.’ That’s how I was viewed.”
Stretching her legs across the booth, her squeaky clean Converses are sharing my seat. “Do you mind If I do this?” she asks politely, flashing a girl-next-door charm. And I begin to get the sense that while she’s come a long way, her journey to body acceptance is still a bumpy one. “It’s a working turning point. If I’m being totally 100, I think I’m way more self-accepting of myself now than what I used to be, but at the same time, sometimes not as accepting…I am probably my biggest obstacle. I wake up thinking about my weight. My body positivity is a conscious effort.”
And with that kind of noise in your head, it’s hard to keep perspective. It’s hard to keep believing in yourself and press on. But when I ask about some of her favorite moments of her career, she shares a story with me that’s always kept her motivated to move forward. “In 2012, I sang on the pre-Grammy stage as an artist. Some people on the bill were Keke Wyatt, Terrell Carter, Faith Evans, and Whitney Houston. This pre-Grammy event was called ‘For the Love of R&B.’ That night I had a conversation with Whitney in the bathroom that I will never forget…2 days before she died. Her bodyguard came in the bathroom and cleared the restroom. I don’t think he heard me or saw me. Two seconds later she walked in, I’m in the stall, when I came out to wash my hands, I went up to the sink, and Whitney Houston is standing next to me in the mirror fixing her hair, and she said ‘Hello.’ In that moment when I was trying to figure out if I was going to talk, she said ‘Hello.’ She kept fixing her hair, then I turned and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m probably not supposed to be in this restroom with you, but I just have to tell you I’m a huge fan of your work. Your work was my life’. She said, ‘Thank you, and I look forward to hearing you.’ She put her hand on my shoulder and she said, ‘Don’t ever give up.’ She said, ‘They’ll try to make you quit, but don’t ever give up.’ At the moment it was pinnacle for me.” Amber pauses. I can see the tears start to well in her eyes. And as an artist, as a “big” girl, I understand her completely. In a business that values pretty much anything but talent, we live for these moments of acknowledgement, especially if they come directly from our idols.
As we wrap up our conversation, I ask Amber her opinion on how the industry can change. “Presence is a definite issue, and especially in our lane, there’s just a lack. We can fix that. We can fix that by banding together, groups of people who do different things from the same culture. There hasn’t been anyone stepping on the scene that’s been laser-focused on that or had a specific intention for body positivity. And I think that we can all probably do a little better repping for this. It’s as simple as that. We need to make our presence known.” With a book, countless gigs both domestic and international, new music and lots of other projects on the way, I’d say that Amber Sauer is doing a pretty good job of that.
“That’s OK (Self Tak)” Official Music Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HVwhnFvo14
Amber Sauer on Instagram: @AmberSauer
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