believe that there’s nothing wrong with a person changing his name if it doesn’t fit his identity, his sense of himself and the culture of which he is a part. Today’s
praising name-changes—not, however, for the purpose of better expressing one’s identity, but for the purpose of
one’s identity and wiping out one’s history. In Alina Simone’s treatment, name-changing is a kind of liberal sacrament through which we re-invent ourselves.
Want a New You? Change Your Name
By ALINA SIMONE
IN June, my band performed at a party at a Lower East Side boutique that specialized in wool ankle cuffs and sheer tunics. A few weeks later, we were playing in Brooklyn when a man approached me and said, “I just thought you might like to know that a friend I brought to your last show changed her name to Alina Simone.”
I laughed and said something like, “Well, I hope that’s working out for her,” but the news was a strange revelation.
Twelve years ago, I changed my own name to Alina Simone. (I used to be Alina Vilenkin, until I swapped my father’s last name for my mother’s.) So I know that whenever someone changes her name, a body gets stuffed in the closet. When I think back to my old self, I think of an entirely different person, not altogether likable, whose singular distinguishing characteristic was the chronic inability to follow through with anything she said she would do. I picked up and abandoned projects with great regularity back then, careful to always avoid the frightening terrain where my true ambitions lay.
Then I changed my name and it changed me. In my new incarnation as Alina Simone, I had no reputation, no history of unmet expectations, nothing to lose. I started singing; I formed a band. I poured my best self into my new name.
I wondered if the new Alina Simone would do the same. I started dropping the Alina Simone story into conversations with friends. Reactions ranged from amusement to horror.
“Is she parked outside in a white van, staking out your apartment?”
“You’ll have to start calling yourself ‘Alina Simone Classic,’ like Coke.”
“Ha ha,” I’d say, feeling a little defensive about the other Alina Simone.
As the year wound down, I found myself thinking more about her. Who was the woman who walked into my show that night? And who was the new woman who left in her place? I decided to find her. With the help of a mutual acquaintance, I reached out to the guy who’d approached me in Brooklyn, and he immediately put us in touch. A couple of weeks ago, Alina Simone and I had coffee.
Poised on the cafe’s threshold, I had a flashback to a scene in “Being John Malkovich.” John Malkovich enters a restaurant and is escorted to a table where another John Malkovich is waiting. He opens the menu to find that every dish is named “Malkovich.” Perhaps Cameron Diaz was, at this moment, crouched in a tunnel, staring through a hole into my head.
Alina Simone was blond, trim, Brazilian and a lawyer at a Midtown law firm. She hadn’t changed her first and last names, but rather her first and middle names, retaining her own maiden name as a last name. She told me she would officially legalize the change in January, but that her family and friends already called her Alina, and so that’s what I called her too.
If I harbored any hopes that the change had anything to do with me—say, with the awesome power of my performance—these were dashed. She’d already been looking to change her life and shopping for a new name when she came to my show, and she homed in on mine before I’d even opened my mouth.
“I always liked the sound of Nina Simone’s name,” she added, twisting the knife.
She’d had—to put it mildly—a tumultuous year.
In January, Alina woke up from a nap, wandered into the kitchen and discovered her husband Skyping with a woman. He closed the computer as soon as she entered the room.
“Just some business,” he said.
To which she replied, “It’s Saturday morning.”
That evening, he suggested they end their 11-year marriage; the fabric of her life came apart in the space of one day.
But even as she described the darkest period of her life to me, I was reminded that unless you are a recent inductee to a witness protection program, changing your name is essentially a hopeful gesture. As everyone who has moved to New York City from someplace else already knows, anonymity gives you courage. When I became Alina Simone, I also became a singer. The new Alina Simone told me that when her husband left her, she didn’t know who she was; she had never really been left alone to find out.
But in the last few months, she has moved into a new apartment she loves, started volunteering for charity and run the New York City Marathon, finishing in four hours and 40 seconds. “I ran straight through my life,” she told me. “Past the old condo in Brooklyn where I lived with my husband, to my new home in Manhattan.” She has also become an American citizen. “That was my new birthday,” she told me. “That’s when Alina Simone was born.”
Before I left, we took a photo by the cafe’s Christmas tree together. Thinking of Alina’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder at how quickly a life can change. In the morning you are married; by evening, you are not. There is no way to know ahead of time how strong you are, how capable of beginning again—the survival mechanism is an entirely hidden apparatus.
It was only on the train back to Brooklyn that I realized I’d forgotten the sole piece of advice I could possibly offer her—one Alina Simone to another—on the art of self-reinvention: When people ask whether you borrowed your name from Nina Simone, tell them she was born Eunice Waymon.
Alina Simone, a singer, is the author of the essay collection “You Must Go and Win.”