LAKE STEVENS — In December, Danica Esau started to complain about sore breasts and feet. The Lake Stevens High School senior ate pickle, tofu and banana sandwiches for lunch in front of her grossed-out classmates. She just craved them, she explained.
Over the weeks, as her belly grew, she traded jeans for elastic maternity pants, evading classmates’ questions as long as she could. Are you going to keep the baby? When are you due? What does your boyfriend think?
In February, she broke down and told everyone she was pregnant.
Then last month she told the truth: It was all a hoax.
“I just wanted to see what it would be like,” said Esau, 18. “I’m very dramatic, so this was perfect. It was like a big Danica play for four months.”
Every day, she wrapped T-shirts around her belly to create a baby bump believable enough to fool friends, co-workers at Target and strangers she passed on the street. She rarely went out without it.
People who knew her were shocked. A student leader, active in several school groups, Esau also is a very vocal, and controversial, supporter of safe sex.
Known as the “condom lady,” she takes orders for prophylactics and delivers them in brown paper bags to boys and girls at school. She gets the condoms free from a sexual health organization she volunteers with.
“I’m a condom dealer,” said Esau, pulling a condom out of her gray clutch purse. ” ‘Danica Esau,’ at my school, is related to free condoms and free information about sex ed.”
District policy on sexual education is abstinence based, spokeswoman Arlene Hulten said. Administrators did not know of the fake pregnancy, or that Esau was handing out condoms at school, something they now will tell her to stop.
“Our procedure does not warrant providing condoms for students,” Hulten said.
During her fake pregnancy, Esau was always acting.
A veteran of school plays, she consulted Web sites on how to fake pregnancies, learned to sit and walk like a pregnant woman and ate salt to make herself bloated.
She shopped with friends for maternity clothes when the baggier outfits wouldn’t do any more. She ran to the bathroom when anyone walked by with strong perfume. When she missed school because of laryngitis, she said she “had appointments.”
Some friends were really excited and offered to organize baby showers.
“One of the first things I said was, ‘I’ll totally baby-sit,’” said Tatiana Bogdanoff, a senior who believed the ruse. “It wasn’t like everyone was talking about it, but it got around.”
Others talked behind Esau’s back or confronted her boyfriend.
Senior Kyle Alford agreed to play along because his girlfriend was so excited to try her experiment. So he’d rub her belly in class and said he kept the truth to himself.
He didn’t think it was a big deal, until his family complained that people were questioning them about the pregnancy. That put an end to the ruse, which Esau originally hoped to carry to full term.
“I have a younger sister, and she was hearing crap about it,” Alford said. “Lake Stevens isn’t that big of a town. It spread quickly. My dad works in Lake Stevens and people would confront him about it. Since he’s my dad, he went along with it, too.
“Eventually it got to the point where my parents weren’t too happy about it,” Alford said. “It brought unneeded drama to my family in general and unneeded attention.”
Bibiana Esau said she couldn’t walk outside without people questioning her about her daughter’s pregnancy.
She struggled to keep her mouth shut when parents of girls who had grown up with her daughter offered sympathy.
She believed in her daughter’s cause but feared retribution. Their home was egged last summer after Danica wrote a letter to a local newspaper about sex education.
“When this first came up, it took the wind out of my sails,” said the divorced mother of two. “I thought, ‘What are you trying to do to our family? Do you want the house to get burned down?’ But I had to back her up.”
Bibiana Esau was unmarried and 20 years old when she had Danica. Her pregnancy scandalized her neighborhood, and she remembers the pain well.
Danica Esau said she now understands her mother’s distress. While she didn’t find much overt discrimination, some people treated her differently and shot her dirty looks.
Since she’s come clean about the pregnancy experiment, Esau said she’s lost friends and had people accuse her of trying to get attention or of mocking pregnant teens.
“I don’t want people to look at it as an attention-getter,” she said. “There’s so many other ways I could get attention than to be bad-mouthed for three months.”
She insists she staged the pregnancy to help girls who are going through the real thing.
In 2006, 4.2 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in the U.S. gave birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pat Paluzzi, president and chief executive of the Healthy Teen Network in Washington, D.C., said this is the first time she’s heard of a teen faking pregnancy.
Paluzzi liked the idea.
Though federal law prohibits schools from discriminating against pregnant students, some schools encourage pregnant girls to transfer to alternative schools or don’t give them desks big enough for their growing bellies, she said. The Healthy Teen Network, a national teen pregnancy organization, has tried to study this discrimination but has struggled to get reliable data, she said.
“If she really thought she was seeing discrimination at her school and she really wanted to see and experience that firsthand by going undercover and deceiving people — if that was her intent — I don’t suppose that’s a horrible, horrible thing,” Paluzzi said. “I think it’s kind of interesting and I’d like to talk to her.”
Students do sometimes get pregnant, and Esau’s experiment has the potential to shed some light on the issues those teens face, said Micheal Furoy, who teaches TV and video production at Lake Stevens High School.
“I kind of saw it more as a story that would be a great story,” he said. “People will try to be African-American or they’ll try to be white if they’re African-American and try to live in each others’ shoes. I thought it was kind of interesting.”
Esau plans to film a documentary about her experience for Viking TV, the school’s internal station. Standing in her bedroom, Esau, a fan of MTV’s “The Real World,” filmed video diary entries about her pregnancy.
Before faking her pregnancy, Esau envisioned herself giving birth early and becoming a young, chic mom.
Being a fake teen mom was difficult enough.
She’s not ready for the real thing.
Reporter Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.