Cruise was impossibly handsome and impossibly short. I towered over the man. Our tête-à-tête massaged parts of my ego other celebrities cannot reach.
Yeah, all right, I’ve massaged the truth a little here.
I did meet Cruise at Gare du Nord, along with a hundred other international writers. I did ask him a question about his movie of the day, The War of the Worlds, and he did later reveal that he had proposed to his then girlfriend, Katie Holmes, atop the Eiffel Tower the night before.
But Cruise is rather short. At barely 1.7m, he is around the same height as my wife, a disconcerting comparison because our hugs usually leave my wife tucked under my armpit like a rolled-up newspaper.
Meeting Cruise was another, unwanted reminder that my lanky frame fits nowhere and my gangly features accentuate a comedic look not typically associated with sartorial, cerebral types.
Fashion houses seldom send out a call for a 1.94m-tall beanpole unless they’re after a human hat stand. Production houses aren’t keen on actors who’d occupy a different airspace to Cruise. The only Marvel movie that Cruise and I could make is Ant-Man and the Praying Mantis.
Cruise is short. Ethan Hunt is short. Jason Bourne is short. James Bond is always broad, beastly and balletic. Sean Connery was hired because the producers felt he moved like a panther in a tux. I move like a giraffe in search of a toilet.
Tall, dark and handsome plays Bond. Tall, dark and gangly plays the Bond villain. In school, I was once asked to play Jaws, not the great white shark, but the great white pudding in The Spy Who Loved Me.
"Fashion houses seldom send out a call for a 1.94m-tall beanpole unless they’re after a human hat stand."
Jaws was rangy, clumsy and had dodgy teeth. As luck would have it, I was also rangy, clumsy and had dodgy teeth, fitting the usual stereotype of the tall, white dope.
The kid who played 007, incidentally, once soiled himself in the sandpit. But he was also average height and stocky. So he had to be James Bond—the Spy Who Shit Himself.
Being a beanpole in a world of regular-sized people is a lifelong struggle. As a teenager, I was an immediate target for diminutive, drunken men looking for lanky college types.
For shorter males in London pubs, punching a reedy person is like putting on a pair of platform shoes. The very act seems to make them feel taller.
In Singapore, I am not a target for dwarfish violence, but a freakish display of eternal curiosity. When meeting new people, I’m often bluntly asked: “Why you so tall, ah?”
It’s a hard question to answer beyond giving painfully detailed descriptions of the above-average heights of the Humphreys family.
But to save time of late, I’ve gone with something pithier. “It’s not me. It’s you. Why are you so short?”
To which, extraordinarily, I’ve been accused of being offensive, rude and even racist on one surreal occasion.
Apparently, I was inferring that the woman was short (she wasn’t particularly) and that she was Chinese (she was) and Chinese people were short (her words) and therefore I was being racist (by replying to her question, with the same question.)
Rather like the fat-thin stereotypes, the tall-short labels are no less loaded and seemingly one-sided. Calling someone ‘short’ can be a precarious business (particularly in a London pub). Calling someone ‘tall’, on the other hand, is considered a back-handed compliment of sorts, as if being smacked on the head by plastic handles on MRT trains is something we should all aspire to.
American black men might disagree. According to social psychology researchers at the University of North Carolina, perceptions are only skin deep. Being a tall black man carries negative connotations. The big black male stereotype suggests incompetence and danger.
"But to save time of late, I’ve gone with something pithier. 'It’s not me. It’s you. Why are you so short?' To which, extraordinarily, I’ve been accused of being offensive, rude and even racist on one surreal occasion."
The tall white man, on the other hand, largely came with positive perceptions of confidence, health and corporate power, but those perceptions probably apply to men who want to stand out in a crowd.
I don’t. I just want clothes that fit me.
The greatest crimes committed against tall people involve retail and commerce. A Benthamite economic principle is applied to every clothing store in the world: i.e. the greatest happiest to the greatest number.
Imagine the Singapore government’s utilitarianism at work in your favourite menswear outlet, where every pair of trousers and trainers, every shirt, every arm length and every bloody inside leg cater to the majority, the 70-odd percent of regular-sized people.
And then I saunter in, dragging my orang-utan knuckles along the polished marble, hoping in vain that some poor sod in a sewing factory got their measurements wrong, inadvertently stitching together a shirt that has the chest of a pigeon and the arms of a gibbon.
In Singapore, the average shoe size stops two sizes before mine. The average shirtsleeve falls at least two centimetres short of my wrist and there’s no chance of the average trouser leg ever flirting with my exposed, distant ankle.
But a pair of boxer briefs for the average-sized man fits me perfectly. I just can’t catch a break.
I’m now convinced that Cruise, Daniel Craig and Matt Damon are not Hollywood behemoths for being fabulous actors. They just fit. They fit their wardrobe. They fit inside a camera frame. They fit on screen. That’s it. They fit.
Their conventional body image serves the fashion giants on every cobbled boulevard and the fashion giants reciprocate by serving that conventional body image in every store window.
And the rest of us are left standing on the street, on the outside looking in, gazing at the range of clothes we cannot buy, getting soaked in the rain because there isn’t a shirt available that reaches our bloody wrists.
In such moments, I seek solace by remembering the enlightened, bigger picture. When I stood next to Cruise, he looked like a midget.
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