Giselle Rodriguez-Forté will be the first to tell you, she’s a sneakers girl.
So it was a bit of a surprise when, searching for something to wear to her grandmother’s funeral, she laid her eyes on a pair of peach-colored, astronomically high-heeled shoes and decided they were what she wanted to wear.
Those peach heels somehow gave her strength, though she was dazed and grief-stricken.
“I tell you, I walked effortlessly in those things,” Rodriguez-Forté recalled. “This was crazy because I don’t walk well in high heels. But somehow I did that day, and it was almost like a metaphor for how I was feeling: I had this ability to walk, to hold myself together, to be graceful.”
At the service, she read a poem that her grandmother wrote, and despite being a self-proclaimed crybaby, she got through her delivery without losing her composure.
That experience is the subject of “High Heels,” a short vignette Rodriguez-Forté wrote as a graduate student in the Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. It is part of a collection of memoir-based vignettes about her life that make up her thesis, which she is completing in anticipation of her 2014 graduation.
Rodriguez-Forté delayed her graduation to move to New York City for her dream job: associate producer at Condé Nast Entertainment. Hired in April, she is part of the Vanity Fair production team that recently launched the magazine’s video content site. In addition, she produces content for Glamour magazine and Style.com, also part of Condé Nast.
“There’s a joke around the office when people ask what we producers do,” the gregarious New Jersey native said. “We do so many things, but most succinctly, we make phone calls and write emails all day long. Ultimately I’d like to write and produce my own stuff, so it’s great to be learning the ropes.”
Her trajectory has hardly been linear. As an undergraduate, Rodriguez-Forté studied theater at Montclair State University with the intention of pursuing an acting career and follow in the footsteps of her mother, Marlena Forté, who plays Carmen Ramos in the TNT series Dallas.
Both sets of Rodriguez-Forté’s grandparents emigrated from Cuba with their young children in the early 1960s, not long after Fidel Castro came to power. Her parents were high school sweethearts who had her at a young age and parted ways soon after.
Her mother sought to become an actress and eventually got an apartment in Manhattan, N.Y., so she could live and work in the city. From the age of 12, Rodriguez-Forté stayed with her during weekends and summers and lived with her father’s parents in New Jersey during the school year.
“I am very proud of [my mother],” she said. “She started acting when she was 30 years old, and people thought she was crazy, telling her she’d never make it happen. But she did.
“As a kid I thought it was so cool to visit her in the city,” Rodriguez-Forté added. “She and all her theater friends loved what they did so much and had so much fun, it made me want to do it, too.”
After earning her bachelor’s in theater at Montclair State, Rodriguez-Forté worked as an actor in New York for about six years, mostly doing commercials. But eventually she realized she didn’t love acting as much as her mother and her mother’s friends. Despite her overall success, the auditions and rejections started to wear on her.
“I would see the producers and directors calling the shots and creating, and thought, ‘that’s what I’d like to do.’ I wanted to stay in the entertainment business, and writing was another thing that had always come naturally to me. So I wanted to try and cultivate that.
She moved to Los Angeles, where her mother and stepfather Oliver Mayer, associate professor of dramatic writing at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, lived, and applied to the MPW program.
“I was my own worst critic; I was convinced I wouldn’t get in. I sobbed like a baby when I got my acceptance letter because I really felt like it was a second chance for me and my career,” she said.
She thrived in MPW, her interests taking her from an emphasis in screenwriting to fiction and finally nonfiction. She served as nonfiction editor for The Southern California Review, MPW’s national literary magazine. She particularly enjoyed a memoir-writing class with assistant professor of writing Dinah Lenney, who like Rodriguez-Forté, has an acting background.
“Giselle is passionate and present and wonderfully observant,” Lenney noted. “Most important, having everything to do with her actorly gifts, she has a keen sense of personal truth. She wouldn’t dream of giving a performance-on-the-page that was less than honest and full.”
That comes through in Rodriguez-Forté’s thesis. Her creative nonfiction pieces begin with an account of the day her grandparents arrived in the United States from Cuba. Her grandfather died when she was 11, and her grandmother passed away two years ago, so in order to get a factual framework, she interviewed other family members.
“My dad’s parents are gone, but my mom’s parents are still living; it’s interesting because some stuff I have to piece together and other things I get straight from the source.”
She calls her nonfiction a love story to her grandparents.
“They left everything behind to come here in search of a better life,” she said. “I think it was so incredibly courageous of them.”