Profile: Elizabeth Wildey

 

 

On an entirely average Wednesday afternoon, I enter the Webb University Center to conduct an interview. My subject is easy to spot due to her perfectly straight, shoulder length lime green hair, her eccentric and colorful outfit, and the jaw harp she wears around her neck as jewelry. The interview begins as a pretty standard conversation, but it escalates fairly quickly. Within the first minute, we are talking about sexual assault, and by the three minute mark we’ve reached my three ex-husbands level of intimate conversation. It is immediately evident that this lady has lived quite a wild life.

        Born in Norfolk, VA in 1971, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Wildey has lived in Virginia for the vast majority of her life and considers herself a “a true local” of the Tidewater area, having resided here for the past 35 years.  Wildey has had a passion for music since she was a young child, and she has a gift for memorizing melodies and lyrics that has allowed her to play many instruments by ear, a talent she recognized when she was only about 4 years old. Throughout her childhood, she used music as an outlet for her otherwise inexpressible thoughts and feelings, and recalls getting in trouble for singing at the dinner table and in otherwise inappropriate settings.

        Wildey began her traditional music career at the age of twelve when she received her first instrument: a clarinet, which she still regularly practices. Though, she recalled with a smile, she’d really much rather have played the saxophone, but her brother claimed it first and her family decided it was best to leave the competitive element of band out of the house. Had she really had her way, twelve-year-old Elizabeth would have studied percussion, but her parents were not keen on the idea of a drum set in the home. While telling this story, Wildey added, somewhat smugly, “but guess who has a 16-piece drum set in her bedroom now?”

        In 2008, when Wildey was going through her second divorce, she discovered that her neighbor was an amateur musician and was making rap music in his bedroom closet. She was fascinated and cites this interaction as her first real exposure to another musician in her adult years. Wildey and her neighbor recorded a rap song together, using her lyrics and melodies and his beats and editing. Inspired, Wildey decided to learn how to mix music herself and taught herself how to use to the necessary software.

        Eventually, Wildey found herself in California, where she hoped to make it big or “get discovered,” a delusion which Wildey jokingly refers to as “Popstar Syndrome.” While she didn’t find mainstream success on the west coast, Wildey did release an album, entitled Bare-Ly Lizzy and available on iTunes. She spoke proudly of this accomplishment, telling me that she created it entirely on her own and describing it as “from the heart.”

        When asked how many instruments she plays, Wildey estimates that the total number is around 50, including tenor and alto saxophone, English horn, jaw harp, electric guitar, drums, and clarinet, including vocal talents such as rapping and singing. Wildey is almost entirely self-taught, with the only exceptions being her music education in the past few years at ODU and some minor assistance and insight from her peers and fellow instrumentalists.

        Though music has always been a large part of Wildey’s world, she didn’t truly realize its importance in her life until a few years ago when, following her third divorce, the loss of custody of her children, and a suicide attempt, she realized music was “the only thing [she] had.” Despite the sad direction her story has taken, Wildey recalls with a smile the strength her passion for music offered her in these trying times. “Once [music] is in you and you learn it, it’s always there. No one can take that away. Even if they throw me in jail for missing my student loan payments, they can’t repossess knowledge. I’ll make a jail symphony.”

        Curiously, I ask Wildey how she reached the decision to return to college in her 40s. She giggled a little, explaining that she had no other choice. In August of 2014, she found herself homeless on the beach and worrying as the fall and winter months approached. A friend reminded her that she had an Associate’s Degree that she had earned in the ‘90s and encouraged her to apply to go back to school. She was doubtful, especially since classes began only one week later, but decided to apply and was accepted to ODU. Although her academic journey has been somewhat tumultuous, and she often feels lost, she is grateful to college for getting her off the streets and helping her develop her musical knowledge.

        Wildey explains to me that one of the most difficult parts of her third and final divorce was accepting that the housewife life wasn’t the right one for her. The only life she’d ever known was being a wife and a mom and that had suddenly been taken from her. She wasn’t raised to value education and describes her childhood goals as “[marrying] a rich man and [spending] my life caring for him and his children.” Pausing, she adds “but I failed at that three times. And it can’t be the right career for you if you fail three times consecutively.”

        Attempting to settle into a new identity is never easy, and Lizzy Wildey is no exception. In fact, a large part of Lizzy’s new identity is the nickname Lizzy itself. Wildey went by Beth for most of her adult life, but says that she no longer wanted to be known by the name that “all of [her] husbands” called her. Growing up, she had negative associations with the names Liz and Lizzy due to unfortunate childhood nicknames, but in her newfound independence, Wildey has decided to take ownership of the name and feels confident that this was the right choice.

        Another pretty noticeable change in redefining her identity has come in the form of her ever bold lime green hair statement. When asked why she chose that color, Wildey contemplating for a moment before saying “all the bad stuff I did as the ‘old me’ was with my natural hair color, and I don’t ever want to go back to that.” She says the hair dye was partially in an attempt to distance herself from past failed relationships, and partially an effort to hold on to her relationship with her children, because the mother they had known had that crazy hair color and it may help them to reconnect with her someday.

        Somewhat casually, Wildey also shared with me that during her time in California, she was urged by her then-husband to take some unconventional jobs in order to make some extra money for the family, and that during this time she worked in nude modeling and pornography. “My hair wasn’t green in those videos,” she says with a smile, “so I think maybe it also made me feel better about the whole world having seen me naked.”

        These days, Wildey is living a steadier version of her own wild life. She spends her days in classes at ODU, commuting to and from campus on her bicycle or the city bus, and hanging out with her dog, an exceptionally well-trained chihuahua named Twitch whom Wildey describes as “practically college educated” due to her brains and ability to follow directions. Though she isn’t quite sure where her life will take her next, Wildey is confident that music will play a part in it, and her current aspiration is to compose an entire symphony and play every instrument herself, a wild goal, but one well-suited to a wild woman with a wild life.

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