Model Diary: Performance & Objectification

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but after a year of modeling full-time, the mask has started to eat away at the face. What was once a part-time job to support myself through college, has now become a full-time identity, one that I am still trying to navigate. On some days, that is very difficult to do.

I really like my job. Photoshoots are often thrilling and even empowering. I get to travel to places I would otherwise never go, and do things I would otherwise never get to do (like climb naked on an elephant or ride horses on a beach at sunset). And I get paid to do them, which is awesome. All the great things about modeling, though, happen within this dominant structure of an industry that commodifies people, that treats models as beauty objects who don’t really have the right to a voice. Sure, models have ‘tons of personality,’ but it’s a prescribed, performed identity, the parameters of which are determined by art directors, agents, and photographers. The ideal model is happy, eager-to-please, comfortable with her body, energetic, and up for anything. She is never hungry, or tired, or on her period; she is never shy or uncomfortable–on or off camera.

There is enormous pressure to keep up this unrealistic appearance while modeling, and the combination of the two can be corrosive, because it forces models not only to tolerate, but to participate in, their own objectification. The question I keep coming back to is, in a job in which everyone treats me like an object, how can I not begin treating myself as one?

I understand, of course, that being an object is essential to the job. Models are visual tools that are used to sell products. From the moment a model gets scouted, or meets with agencies (and has her measurements taken), she is being sized up as a commodity. This isn’t a criticism; it’s simply the basic reality of the job, and I don’t really have a problem with it (the absurdity of measurements is another story). But, every so often, this fundamental part of modeling becomes skewed, or is pushed just a little bit out of my (increasingly permissive) comfort zone, and yet, I feel like I have no choice but to comply.

The most overt example of this super-objectification is shooting in public. Without the privacy of a closed set, I am forced to tolerate extremely uncomfortable situations in silence, or, depending on the atmosphere of the shoot, with a smile. Recently, for instance, I shot a bikini catalogue in Miami, and was told to pose on public streets in skimpy bikinis, while strangers stood around, cat-calling and making demeaning comments and taking photos with their iPhones. And I said nothing. I have a handful of excuses: We were on a tight schedule, I didn’t want to upset the designer, and I didn’t want to feel upset, either. But ultimately, I said nothing because it seemed like the easiest and most professional response, the one that fit the role of ideal model.

I also thought that I could just ignore the extremely uncomfortable situation, the way that women ignore catcalls on the street, but in a public photoshoot, the catcalling is not just a passing moment, but a sustained assault. The model stands silently in place, as if on display. The aggressors circle around, just far enough to stay out of the photographer’s lens, but close enough to say what they want, and make their comments heard, without consequence. Out of all my experiences in modeling, this is the absolute worst. It’s like the perverted version of being taunted in grade school, except that I’m not even allowed to defend myself. I feel humiliated and threatened at the same time. (Not to mention that I was practically naked on those Miami streets. Talk about feeling vulnerable). Despite my best efforts at remaining ‘professional’, it is impossible to ignore the verbal abuse, and I well up with silent anger and disgust, all the while trying to keep my composure because the camera is still flashing and I’m still supposed to be working. And, for some reason, no one on any production team has ever spoken up on my behalf. The naïve part of me wants to think that it’s because they know it’s pointless – people would still walk by and say whatever they please – but honestly, it’s probably that they just don’t really give a shit, because they don’t see the model as a human being either. By the end of that day (the first of three), I felt like an animal in the zoo. I went back to my hotel room that night feeling so feeble and powerless. It was as though the 12 hours of constant subjection had eroded any real sense of self.

I don’t shoot in very public places often, so those instances of harassment are infrequent. More common, though, are the subtle moments of feeling like an object, like having my body treated as a prop from head to toe; being touched, poked, prodded, rubbed, stripped, and handled, without my say or control. Again, this kind of treatment is fundamental to modeling and, at its basic level, isn’t really wrong. One wouldn’t see getting one’s hair or makeup done, or putting on clothes, as objectification. But these moments also get pushed to the extreme, even more so on a closed set where everyone is supposed to be acting professional, and where I am still playing the role of ideal, eager-to-please model. Indeed, I often only feel uncomfortable about it in hindsight, when I stop playing the role of model and realize the extent to which I’ve given up the right to my own body. In these cases, I don’t feel as much a powerless victim as I do a willing participant.

For the most part, I don’t mind being touched. It doesn’t bother me when the stylist adjusts my boobs, or reaches under my skirt to pull down my t-shirt, or accidentally pricks me with a clothespin. I get good reading done during the three hours of hair and makeup, though I can do without the iron burns, painfully tight topknots, and false eyelashes. Sometimes though, I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I’m being primped, and I’ll feel this jarring dislocation between self and body, this obvious awareness that my body is not mine to control. On a lingerie shoot in June, for instance, I found myself standing naked, except for a little beige thong, in front of two perpendicular, full-length mirrors, my limbs stretched out like a starfish, while the makeup artist and his assistant rubbed bronzer over every last inch of my exposed body. Everyone on set – the designers, the owner of the line, the crew guys, the caterers, the photographer and his assistants, and even the guy whose house we were using as our location – witnessed this. I looked at my doubled, distorted reflection in the mirrors, and saw the MUA rubbing my boobs (and smiled politely at his crude ‘I wish I was straight’ joke), and felt my entire body being worked over in this thick bronzing cream (his assistant was doing my legs, thighs, and butt), and felt completely dislocated from myself. I just turned off.

So far, ‘turning off’ has been the only way that I’ve dealt with these moments of powerlessness or lack of control. Instead of speaking up, I shut down, and let my mind go blank or wander away from the moment, in order to endure the strange requirements of my job. But it’s precisely my silence that makes me feel as though I have begun to treat myself as object. In letting other people treat me as a mannequin – to handle and deconstruct my body as though it doesn’t belong to me – and refraining from asserting myself in moments of discomfort (or even verbal harassment), I’ve really surrendered the capacity to have a voice.

I like to believe that if I was ever in real danger, I would defend myself. Luckily I haven’t been put in that position yet. In this industry, though, there’s no definitive line between good and bad behavior. There are so many uncomfortable shades of grey that come before the obvious examples of real threat, and in trying to navigate those degrees, I end up compromising my feeling of comfort. The intolerable becomes increasingly tolerable.

I keep thinking about this quote from The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing: “To console himself he sat by Maryrose and put his arm around her. Maryrose smiled good-humouredly, and remained in the circle of his arm, but as if she detached herself from him and every other man. Very many as it were professionally pretty girls have this gift of allowing themselves to be touched, kissed, held, as if this is a fee they have to pay to Providence for being born beautiful. There is a tolerant smile which goes with a submission to the hands of men, like a yawn or a patient sigh.” Lessing wryly calls this tolerance of being treated as an ornament a ‘gift,’ but it’s exactly this tolerance that has slowly started to weaken my sense of self, even after I leave the shoot.

I never wanted modeling to change me, but after a year of modeling full-time, I realize that it has. The job necessitates a performance, and in embodying that role of ideal model I ‘allow myself’ (as Lessing writes) to be treated as an object by my coworkers and superiors. Almost like a pull-string doll, complete with stock phrases (“no, I don’t mind” and “whatever you want,” and “sounds great!”), and energetic giggles. With every photoshoot and casting, this tolerance becomes more and more a part of my psyche. How long before it starts to affect other areas of my life? It’s funny, because I’m finally comfortable with telling people I’m a model, but it’s a double-edged admission. I’ve embraced what I do, but I’ve also embraced what the job forces me to do.

Model Diary: Blurring the Gender Line

During a shoot last week, I overheard the photographer discussing what he looks for when casting a model. “Ears,” he said. “I love it when a girl has big ears that stick out.” Fashion photographers always focus on striking and unique facial features—but ears? This was new. It almost sounded as though he was claiming ears—not even on the face—as the next frontier of fetishized body parts. Still curious days later, I asked him to elaborate.

Ears, he wrote in an email, are “so rarely used to indicate beauty. When you’re looking at someone who’s looking back at you, their ears are typically obscured… but big ears or elfin ears, the ones that really stick out…are distinct in a manner that usually seems more alien and unusual than other distinct features (gap teeth, long forehead), which ultimately becomes intriguing in a photograph…when the girl simply looks different.”

His explanation follows the industry’s long tradition of focusing on striking body parts as a way of redefining beauty. Fashion is a visual industry that re-presents rather than represents; it thrives on creating (and selling) something new. The crux of our current fashion culture—the clothes, the hair and makeup, the photographs—is that it explores, challenges, and redefines assumptions about human form, beauty, gender, and sexuality. So it only seems fitting that the models do the same.

In an increasingly media-saturated culture, however, with an increasingly desensitized audience, it also follows that the visual thrill or novelty that moves fashion forward is perennially pushed to the extreme. New technologies in image production allow for photographers to create elaborate fantasy realms or narratives, and the physical features of fashion models follow, moving away from conventional looks and into beyond-human categories, like aliens, or animals, or dolls, or (unfortunately) skeletons. Often these looks are epitomized by specific bodily features—New York magazine’s ‘model manual literally indexes models, both men and women, by the body parts for which they are known (ears is not on the list—yet). The industry has moved away from appreciating unique features, like Gisele’s not-that-big nose, to idealizing extreme, ethereal features, like Lindsey’s and Daphne’s never-before-seen lips. image Most recently, the look that’s been pushed to the head of the vanguard is androgyny. Though androgyny is not new to visual culture or to fashion, former displays of it seem to have been more performance based, grounded in objects like clothing or makeup — everything from Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust look to the blazer, CK One to Comme des Garcons. Now, though, androgyny has reimagined itself not as a sartorial exploration of gender performance, but rather as a merging of both masculine and feminine characteristics in the models — their actual bodies — themselves.

While androgynous models in the past have typically been women who dressed boyishly but still looked feminine, the new androgynous models— headed by male models like Andrej Pejic, David Chiang, or Marcel Castenmiller, and the trans model Lea T—are successfully subverting the gender binary, and simultaneously reinventing sexuality, all without depending on clothing. And they’re not modeling menswear; they’re walking in the women’s shows. The new androgyny doesn’t doesn’t play into hetero-normative gender play, the kind of subversion-lite of women in suspenders and a tie, or men in chintzy drag. These images genuinely force you to look twice, to reconsider.

The fearful questions, though, remain: do these significant trends have an impact beyond the fashion world? Will documenting these trends within the structure of high-fashion art just deepen the chasm between fashion and the world of the consumer?

I think that the fashion industry can and does bridge gender, age, and sexual dichotomies because it’s also selling a sartorial trend beyond the world of the photograph. The models that are redefining the beauty standard might currently only exist in high-fashion, but the trends they epitomize do not. Fashion reaches across a broad spectrum, sometimes without consumers even realizing it, as brilliantly demonstrated by Meryl Streep’s Devil Wears Prada disquisition on cerulean blue. Those trends can subvert normal constructs by including aesthetic elements of post-genderism, which broadens conventional understandings of gender by redefining them. In an industry that’s inspired by the visually uncanny, it’s high time androgyny came to the fore. Models are necessary visual symbols of a progressively post-gender world.

Model Diary: The Politics of Posing Nude

Nudity is to fashion what the banana is to the Nutella crepe: Unnecessary, superfluous to the main event, and innocuously edgy. And, like banana slices stuck to gooey chocolate, so too are tits and ass inextricable from the visual culture of fashion. It’s obvious that nudity, ranging from the subtle to the blatant, is everywhere in the industry, and arguments about the cultural significance of nudie pics — what the photos represent, how they make people feel, what they say about gender roles – continue with the release of each new flesh-baring fashion spread. As a participant in the making of these images, I thought it might be interesting to consider the politics behind posing nude from a model’s perspective.

Being comfortably naked in front of the camera, let alone in a room full of strangers, is a ‘skill’ I had to acquire. I have posed topless several times, and once fully nude (though not full-frontal), and even though I’ve gotten used to the nudity, I still consider the consequences each time I strip down: In what way will I be naked? Which photo will the photographer choose? How will it be retouched? Where will it turn up? Will my name be credited? Is it going to show up on the Internet?

The Internet, in all its reproductive, critical glory, is perhaps the biggest factor to consider, because I have no control over its (lack of) censorship. Personally, I do not like the idea of my, er, goods being visible (reproduced, commented on, zoomed in on, talked about) in Googleville. Since I plan to move away from this job and into a more conservative (read: clothed) profession, I fear that naked photos – topless or otherwise — might hinder my chances at getting into grad school, or prevent me from getting a good job. It’s different with supermodels, who have lasting modeling careers in which their nudity is sought after and glamorized. In posing nude, I’m also consenting to an invasion of privacy. What if old professors or current peers come across such photos, even if they aren’t sexual, and change their opinions of me?

So when it comes to the production and reproduction of a photograph, I still make my best efforts to exercise what little control I have by telling photographers and stipulating in contracts that I don’t want my full name credited in photos involving nudity, and by telling my agency not to put said photos on my online portfolio. So far I’m still, more or less, in the clear.

As an unknown female fashion model, then, is posing nude a bad idea? Is it irresponsible, unnecessary? It’s difficult to answer, because though I can choose to opt out of posing naked, it’s such a staple in fashion, and so consistently in demand, that I am certain I would lose work. Even if I don’t want to model forever, I want to do as best as I can now, and it seems that in order for any fashion model over 18 to do so, she has to at least be comfortable with taking her top off. image This said, I have found the experience of posing nude or partially nude to be empowering. It has made me more comfortable with being in my own body. Before I started modeling, I was very self-conscious about being naked, and though I’m slim (slim, not thin), I was insecure about my body and its flawed parts. But then I had to learn to change outfits out in the open. There was something comforting about being in nothing but a nude thong and no one caring or scrutinizing or even looking at my body. Suddenly being naked had no sexuality attached to it – it was just about stripping down to get into the next outfit. I realized I was just a body. After all, modeling is, essentially, the act of using one’s body, in combination with clothes, as a tool to create form; nudity, if it’s done well, is just a different tool to help create that form. If fashion is like painting, then nudity is like charcoal drawing: A medium used to evoke something raw and minimal.

This, of course, isn’t always the case. There is a lot of intentionally sexy nude photography in the fashion industry. In my limited experiences with posing partially nude photos, some shoots were fine while other left me feelings uncomfortable. Just because I’ve done it once doesn’t mean I’m going to do it a thousand times, though sometimes it feels that way. Since I’m the one getting naked, I am responsible for asserting what I am and am not comfortable with.

Which brings me to the most important factor to consider: the client. If an important or esteemed client wants me to be naked, I’ll do it. That might sound like I’m selling my body for big jobs, but it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Chances are clients want the nudity for something tasteful on behalf of their brand / magazine (more YSL and less American Apparel). And when a model has the chance to work with a top photographer, she will try her hardest to make a good impression. Posing nude, or partially nude, is part of that. Indeed, it’s expected. And complicated.

So for me, getting naked in front of a camera comes down to a decision, one in which I try to further my current career without endangering my future one, or without finding myself in an uncomfortable situation over which I have no control. I generally prefer the Nutella crepe, but sometimes, depending on the situation, it’s great with banana too. That’s not innuendo.

Model Diary: The Business of ‘The Model Agency’

BBC 4 has launched a new show called The Model Agency, a seven-episode, fly-on-the-wall documentary about the goings-on at the offices of Premier agency in London. So far, nobody seems to like it. The show, only two episodes in, has received almost only bad reviews, though some are based on the characters, rather than the show itself. I heard about it from my London agency, which is better than rival Premier. While taking new Polaroids, my booker turned to me and asked: “Have you heard about this reality show that BBC 4 is doing with Premier? It’s baa-a-a-d. Everyone here was shocked.”

Intrigued, and hoping to find something hateful about Premier (they rejected me two years ago), I went back to my flat to watch it. But, unlike my booker, I didn’t find it that shocking.

Yes, the Premier bookers seem more dramatic and less mature than most I’ve worked with, talking shit about their own models as well as each other. But the show itself didn’t convey anything shocking about their fraught job. In fact, Premier isn’t doing anything differently from any of the agencies I’ve encountered. Generally, the show does shed light on a bunch of prevailing but typically misconstrued ideas about the industry. For example, how some models make lots of money, while others work for no pay. Or how fucked up the weight issue can be; one client asks a booker to cast only girls with 31” hips — my jaw dropped at this — and weight, since either being too big or too small is constantly an issue. Or how nearly impossible it is to become a supermodel, even if you have a team of people behind you trying to make it happen. But all this is more or less common knowledge. The only thing that people might find shocking is the fickle, sometimes fraught relationship between model and booker. The relationship between models and their agencies is a business situation. This is made clear by the contract that both parties sign before working together. A model is looked after by, more or less, one agent at the agency, and that agent is responsible for her career. The agent sends the model off to castings or go-sees, negotiates rates with clients, and manages the model’s schedule. In return, the agency collects a commission from the model’s earnings. What makes this business relationship different from, let’s say, that between actors/writers/sports players and their agents is that most models do not choose the job for themselves. They have not felt passionate about it their entire lives and did not train/work their asses off trying to become models. Rather, the job, or the agency, chooses them, thrusting them into the industry before they even consider what it entails. That, and most of them are still teenagers.

What might not be so universally acknowledged as that old story is how the agency (sometimes) goes about choosing their models. In the first episode of The Model Agency, Annie (head of New Faces) and Carol (owner) explain how they do it at Premier: they scout girls when they’re 12 to 14 years old, cultivate them for a few years (a few of the more scathing reviews of the show went so far as to use the word “grooming,” in every child-molesting sense of the term), and then, when they’re 16, they send them to New York to do show castings for Fashion Week. Cue India, one of the spanking-new 16-year-olds who, during her debut at the NYFW castings, is called “too fat,” has a breakdown and wants to go home. Here, the agency tries to manipulate their naïve and all-too-young client: for the rest of the episode, the bookers are in cahoots, devising a way to convince India that she, in fact, really does want to stay in New York and do the castings, for her own good. India insists that she has made the decision to go back to school and be a normal teenager, but, like stubborn parents, the bookers respond by insinuating that if that’s what she wants, then she doesn’t know what she wants.

The bookers are allowed to be upset with India’s decision to quit modeling. They’ve invested a lot of time and work in building up her image and have chosen her as one of the few to represent the agency’s new goods at NYFW. But rather than be honest about the fact that they see India in terms of her financial value, the agents instead pretend to have India’s best interests at heart. It isn’t surprising that they don’t approve of India’s decision; the surprise is that they try to cover it up when talking to her.

While these things are obvious to the audience, in real life, the intricacies of the model/agency relationship are much more subtle, and the manipulation is harder to point out. When I first started modeling, I was scared of my bookers and stupidly did absolutely everything they told me to (which led to one particularly miserable summer in Paris). Over the years, I’ve heard several horror stories from young models who, not knowing anything about the business, have been mistreated by their agency, usually by being overcharged with insane costs of which they weren’t even aware.

I appreciate that now I am outspoken enough to say no when I need to, and to be assertive and inquisitive in the relationship. My bookers and I are open about the fact that we are engaged in a business deal, which makes our relationship that much more professional. They work hard to get me opportunities, I work hard to book the jobs, and (as far as I know) they don’t talk any real shit behind my back (at worst, they say it to my face, which is at least respectful). They’ll still try to persuade me in certain ways, but only about small things, like trying to get me to extend my stay or to do test shoots when I don’t need to, and I’ll listen to their advice — but not necessarily comply.

And, just to be safe, and since I am a businesswoman: I check my account statements regularly, read every contract I sign, insist that they can’t spend money on my behalf without consulting me first, insist on knowing every price, talk to my bookers if I’m upset about something, and make sure that I never feel dissatisfied with my career. And my agencies respect me all the more for it. After all (and never forget this, girls), in the business relationship, the models are the commodities, and the agency works for them.

Model Diary: The Suspension of Disbelief

One aspect of modeling that’s both exhilarating and terrifying, surreal and dangerous, is its suspension of reality — the participation in illusory or fantasy worlds that are created solely for the purpose of the photograph. For each photoshoot, the photographer, working alone or with the client or art director, creates a specific narrative with its own mise-en-scene, characters, and meanings embedded in the photos. My job is to help create — along with the hair, makeup, and stylist team — that story by acting it out.

I do believe that modeling, in its need for performance, is similar to acting. But unlike a movie that has a well-defined, scripted character, the subject of a photoshoot isn’t so clearly determined. I often don’t know what the narrative is or who I’m supposed to be until I’m there in front of the camera, being directed by the photographer. This is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, because I have no control over what’s expected of me. How many times have I come out of a shoot wondering, for better or for worse, What have I just done?

From acting like a spy on the roof of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and taking my clothes off in a setting reminiscent of a Botticelli painting, to kissing strangers and swimming in the ocean in designerwear, I have no time to prepare for — and often not even enough time to consent to — the part before I’m put on the spot and asked to live up to expectations. I usually embrace the challenge, and try to use the context in some empowering, creative way, even if it involves nudity or sexual innuendo. The relationship between photographer and model is similar to that of director and actor: you do what your director tells you. But with no fixed script, you don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into. So what happens when you realize, I don’t want to do this?

Only once has the act of throwing myself into the role, into that suspended reality, made me uncomfortable, and it was when a photographer tried to get with me after insisting that I needed sexy (clothed) photos for my book. I stopped him, of course, as soon as he tried to move beyond the camera and into my personal space, but the fact that I had waited for the fourth wall to break for the sake of a narrative that he was trying to sell me made me feel stupid and victimized. I walked out in that instance. (It was just a test shoot, which I agreed to only because my agency insisted I go work with the photographer, arguing that he takes great shots — when I told my agency that he tried to get with me, they claimed that they stopped working with him. I hope it’s true.) Moreover, on my way out, the photographer asked me to sign a contract saying that he had the right to use any of the photos, in any context, wherever he wants, for however long he wants. The photos weren’t too risqué, but I obviously did not sign; instead I crossed out his contract and wrote that I have the right to approve or disapprove of any of the photos he wants to use (I was only ballsy enough to do this because it was a test shoot and not a job). I still haven’t seen any of the photos, though who knows, in this digital age, images can go public without my say in the matter. This is a risk that comes with the job, and as smart as I’m trying to be about it, I’m hoping that it won’t prevent me from future career plans.

In that instance, I feel like I held my own, but how many other girls hadn’t? I’ve since visited the photographer’s website, on which he shows a series of topless girls rolling around on the floor looking scared. And what if it wasn’t a test, but a job with a top photographer? The ones to whom our agents tell us we must comply if we want them to like us and hire us again? We’ve all heard the Terry Richardson horror stories. In those instances, it’s not just the photographer and model in an isolated space (a position that I refuse to be in, ever again). There’s a crew; a client; a team that a model puts her faith in for the duration of the shoot. When did it become okay to relinquish one’s rights for the sake of success?

Surrealism best describes the modeling experience in general — moving from city to city, acquaintances posing as friends, sleeping in a bed that isn’t really one’s own. Week after week, it becomes exhausting. I’m tired of these suspended realities. I’m tired of traveling, of being ‘on tour,’ as a musician friend once likened it. I’m tired of playing a role. I miss being myself, in a real home, with my real friends, who actually know me, and not just as a character I’ve been paid to portray.

Model Diary: Checking Out Paris Fashion Week

If you thought fashion week made New York chaotic, Paris is that much crazier for couture. All the ‘couture’ models (the particularly giant, emaciated ones) are in town, running around to castings like urban giraffes; museums are suddenly not for tourists, but for shows; and American celebs visit this rainy city, striking poses themselves outside the shows. I don’t get booked for shows for two reasons: one, I’m not that gangly-alien kind of tall, and two – more importantly – no matter how hard I try, I cannot learn how to walk the runway.

Measurements are only so important — many of the couture dresses hide any form or silhouette. But the walk, oh that elusive thing, is crucial. And no matter how hard I try to learn, or how many people try to teach me, I can never do it. I get horrible stage-fright. My feet get clammy and my arms look stiff and my face looks flushed and nervous.

But, as my booker told me on Thursday, when Armani requests you for a show casting, you have to go.

“Fine, but can you at least help me with my walk?”

“Of course!”

So three bookers, all men, began teaching me, yet again, how to walk. But first, they needed to assess where I needed help, so down my agency’s hallway I went. At first, I walked like a drunk driver undergoing a field sobriety test. I wobbled down, paused, and as I wobbled back towards my bookers I saw a look of serious complexity on their faces, like, ‘What are we going to do with this one?’ So we started from scratch. They even made a line down the hallway with duct tape so that I’d stop veering off course.

From what I gathered, it’s supposed to go something like this: lean all the weight of your lower body forward, on your tiptoes, while leaning back with your upper body to balance yourself out. Put one foot directly in front of the other in a straight line. Keep shoulders back, but arms loose. Make a sexy, angry face, and don’t look like you’re thinking — at all.

It took a lot of practice, but two hours later, I felt more confident about my walk than ever. I went to the Armani casting early Friday morning. When I arrived, there were about thirty girls in front of me, all extremely tall and thin, with more models pouring into the offices every minute. But my confidence wasn’t broken. We gave our names and our cards to a man in charge and he crossed us off of a list — a list that ran about 8 pages long.

The casting was quick. Change into a pair of shoes they give you (surprisingly not that high), walk in front of the casting director, pose for a photo, leave. When my turn came, I was surprisingly not at all nervous. In fact, I was pleased to find out that there was, by the accident of two pieces of paper running the length of the floor, a line that ran down the makeshift runway. The shoes weren’t too high, and on the way back, I could see my reflection in the glass wall, which helped me adjust my walk as I went.

I wasn’t great, and I knew I wasn’t going to get booked, but I was happy that I wasn’t horrible. When I went back to the agency that evening, exhausted from my whole week and looking forward to the weekend, I said to my bookers proudly, “I didn’t suck!”

They weren’t too enthusiastic. “That’s great Dana. By the way, you have a casting tomorrow morning at 9 am.” “I’m not going,” I said jokingly, even though I was being very serious.

“It’s with Pat McGrath.”

“I’ll be there at 8:30!”

There are makeup artists, and then there is Pat McGrath. Pardon the cliché, but she’s like the Michelangelo of makeup. So even though I was so exhausted that I had planned not to move all weekend, I knew I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to meet her, and maybe even work with her.

The casting was for a makeup trial for the Dior show, at the Dior offices. I did, in fact, arrive 20 minutes early, and was the first one there. But soon after girls started arriving. By 9 am, the lobby had about 10 girls. Then more. And more. By 9:30 (the casting was running late), about 50 girls had shown up. And this was only for a makeup trial!

We were taken in ten at a time. Pat was nowhere around, but three women (who turned out to be her assistants) were there, and they took our cards, two Polaroids of each girl, looked at our books, and asked us to have a seat until the Polaroids developed and Pat arrived. While waiting, I stealthily took some snapshots of all the models lounging about. Eventually they called out about 8 girls, myself included, and asked us to stand by the side. A few minutes later, Pat came in to choose 5 girls from the 8; three for makeup with her, and two for hair, with Orlando Pita. When I confirmed, I felt like I had won a lottery. A roomful of girls, and somehow I got chosen? I felt so lucky.

The other 40-something girls left and the team began to get organized. It was decided that I, along with another model, Alice, were to work with Orlando, which I was happy about because it meant avoiding having to endure heavy show makeup. So, while waiting for Orlando to arrive, I watched Pat work. She’s like a master architect, developing innovative ideas while overseeing the entirety of her masterpiece. It’s so impressive. She had three assistants who did the actual makeup, which allowed her to keep an objective, critical detachment towards the way the style and color scheme evolved, as well giving her the freedom to stay on top of every little organizational and artistic detail. There was also something matriarchal in the way she worked, because she genuinely cared about the well-being of everyone working under her. She took responsibility for them. At one point, while discussing the general chaos and stress of her team during shows, she even used the phrase “the welfare of my people.” I rarely come across such care in the industry, but it is very important, and certainly adds a personable element to her artistic approach. image

The theme for the hair and makeup was based on the work of René Gruau, the renowned 1950’s fashion illustrator who began working with Christian Dior in 1947. Everything was to be illustrative: hard black lines varying in thickness, and bright, painterly color strokes. For reference, Pat had a Gruau book with several pages bookmarked, as well as Gruau illustrations printed out, and on top of that, about ten travel bookcases: including portfolios filled with polaroids of her work for past Dior and Galliano shows, and over a dozen other inspiration books (ranging in topics from Avedon to Marlene Deitrich to Luis Bunuel).

Orlando arrived and began to work on my hair, which he fashioned in paint-stroke-like curves over my head, never mind the actual poster paint he later put in my hair. As they worked, Pat and Orlando shared amazing stories about their chaotic jobs (including one Naomi Campbell gem from Pat). They also kept talking about showing the completed hair and makeup to ‘John.’ If this meant what I thought it meant, I wanted to brace myself. “Orlando, just to make sure, when you say John, you mean…”

“Galliano.”

“That’s what I thought. Just want to get my excitement out now so that I can be professional when we go see him.”

“Yeah good idea, because you never know, you just might impress him…”

When it was time to go down to see Galliano, I put on my heels, because, well, if you’re a model about to meet John Galliano for the first time, why wouldn’t you? Orlando, Alice, and myself went downstairs into his big studio office and there he was, smoking a cigarette, quite calm for someone in between presenting his various collections. Orlando showed the hairstyles, and when he finished, Galliano wanted to see if/how the hair moved when we walked. Oh no! Practicing at my agency was one thing, and even the Armani casting wasn’t so scary. But walking exclusively for Galliano, in a room with only 4 other people? How the hell did this happen? I let the other girl go first. She clearly knew what she was doing, despite only joining my agency last week. Then it was my turn. I could feel my face get hot and my feet get clammy. I forgot everything I had learned. I tried my best, but he was not impressed. At all. He did give me a friendly, sympathetic smile.

So that was my rendez-vous with the Greats – three of the most creative and successful people at the center of this industry, of which I barely touch the surface. They were all friendly, despite their fame and despite the stress of the work. We worked together again on Sunday, which was similar, but increasingly hectic as the hours dwindled away. All the Dior “petites mains” were there, doing fittings on the real runway models. By 9pm, when Pat and Orlando finished and I was free to go, only a third of the models had shown up for their fittings, and some of the dresses weren’t even there yet. It was clear that they were going to be working all night.

I’m still happy that I’m not doing the shows. I don’t think I’d be able to handle the stress, or my own nerves. But being close to it all, even if I was just on the periphery, was really exciting. I felt part of something not only big, but grand.

Model Diary: You Can’t Please Everybody All the Time

Hello from Paris, where agencies always take half your money and castings sometimes take all day. Here in the City of Light, men’s shows have begun, the couture shows are about to start, and prêt-a-porter is the first week in March — shit’s getting busy. If I had it my way, I’d avoid anything show-related, but my agency has already forewarned me that I’ve some important show castings that they insist I attend. I know from experience that these will be extremely embarrassing, so I’ll be sure to keep you posted. At first I didn’t want to come back to Paris. I don’t know many people here, I am charged a heavy foreigner’s tax, and that’s not to mention having to confront my crippling macaron addiction (cf. embarrassing castings). But there’s a comfort in the eternal return. It feels as though I’m visiting a part of myself that exists in Paris alone. Work is also very busy: 24 castings in 3 and a half days and a shoot for La Prairie with Satoshi Sakusa. It’s been great. Well, except for when I found out that the fashion editor of a certain magazine decided to ban me from ever working for said magazine again.

I went to a casting for this magazine as soon as I arrived. I worked with the magazine this past summer, and they had since put me on option for three different jobs, so I thought things were looking good. I was especially excited about this casting because the photographer was someone with whom I have been dying to work. He’s from my hometown, but we had never met because we were always traveling. The casting went perfectly. He and I hit it off, and he even brought up my BlackBook column, telling the casting director and myself that he really enjoyed it.

You can imagine, then, that I was quite shocked when he called my agent the next morning to say that he was very sorry, that they had wanted to book me for the job but the fashion editor refused, claiming that the last time I worked for them, I was ‘in a bad mood’ and that she didn’t want to work with me again. (Thankfully the photographer didn’t believe her, told my agent that she had a reputation for being a bitch, and said that we would work together soon).

I was extremely upset by this news. It’s one thing if a client doesn’t like my look, or even my performance — I’ve learned to handle those criticisms with professionalism. But my personality? My work ethic? This was my first real instance of bad feedback and I couldn’t understand it. From what I remember, the shoot went well and the photos came out great. It was a 12-hour day, so it’s possible that there might have been a higher level of stress (for the team as a whole), but I am certain that there was no obvious hostility. I’m very sensitive to these things and I am sure I would realize and remember upsetting somebody. But somehow, without my even knowing it, I irked her. And now I’ll never work for them again.

I don’t know exactly what she said about me, but her vague disapproval really affected because, like all eager models, I work extremely hard to please my clients. Models don’t only perform in front of a camera – they are also expected to feign cheery, eager-to-please servitude all the time. To take all bullshit with a smile. And I do, even if I hate myself sometimes for doing it. I’m not the world’s perkiest person, but I make a huge effort to be really friendly, easy-going, and optimistic when I work, because that’s what’s considered professional. Learning that I somehow failed at that really stung.

But then I remembered what Susan Sontag said in response to the New York Times’ scathing review of her work: “I understand, of course, that if you’re out there in the world, doing things, you’re going to make enemies, and you’re going to have critics, and I can’t in principle object to that, and I just have to accept that because I know that there are other people who support my work and find it worthy.”

And though my work is far less meaningful than Sontag’s, her words helped ground me while I ran around to my castings, saying to myself, “Shake it off, Drori, shake it off,” and making an effort to be the nicest, happiest person I could be. At the end of that day, when my agent told me I booked La Prairie, I was so genuinely happy that I thought to myself, who cares?

And that was it. I stopped caring. In this cutthroat industry, as in any, there are bound to be several people of varying authority who will bust your balls for no reason. I knew this, but I needed to experience it in order to deal with it. So the moral of my story is this: fuck haters. They will always exist, no matter how much you try to impress them, and they like to make themselves known; but you can’t let them get to you because they’re not worth your concern. Better to care about the people who do value and appreciate your work than the ones who don’t.

Or, as my cliche-loving dad likes to say, you can’t please everybody all the time. One dissatisfied customer ain’t so bad.

Model Diary: Learning to Be a Model Citizen

Modeling is not a profession that does much social good. It can be for supermodels, who use their fame and wealth to promote various causes (like Coco’s media awareness campaign or Daria’s charity), but having neither fame nor wealth, I’ve not had many opportunities to use modeling as way to benefit others or contribute to the common good. So I try to find other ways, however minor, to use modeling in order to help people out; not only for their benefit, but also as a way of making my job feel more substantial and productive, instead of being all about making money.

One of the ways in which my, er, skills have been of use, is to my childhood friend, Joanna, whose family runs a small jewelry line. Her mother, Anzie, after whom the line is named, started making jewelry to raise money to promote awareness about colorectal cancer, for which her husband was undergoing treatment at the time. (He has since fully recovered.) The company has grown, but they continue to sell pieces with proceeds going to several different NPOs. I’ve been shooting the Anzie lookbook for the past few years as a favor to Joanna’s family. The line is still small, and doesn’t have the budget for a major photoshoot.

We shot again this past Monday, and since we see each other so rarely now, working together has become the one chance a year we have to catch up. It was, as always, very low-key and DIY. We shot at their cousin’s painting studio; my hair was uncoiffed; we got the makeup done at the Armani counter at a department store; Joanna’s sister, Jaclyn, who also heads the jewelry line, took the photos, including the one above, a behind-the-scenes shot with their dog, Kramer.

My decision to shoot the Anzie lookbook always comes at the dismay of my agent, who does not like me working with clients, whoever they might be, without his approval. I understand his perspective. Opportunities for commissions aside, he works very hard to build up my status and its corresponding day rate, and if there are photos floating around that might undermine said status, it ultimately undermines his responsibility as my agent. This isn’t so much an issue now that I’ve left Canada (I doubt any top international clients or photographers will come across the Anzie catalogue), but since he’s still responsible for the trajectory of my Canadian career, I understand his frustration when I work without his consent, even if it’s just to do my friend a favor. He doesn’t work with contracts, though, so there’s not much he can do but be upset with me and tell me that “this is the last time.”

Even though modeling is my current day job, and I am doing it foremost to try to make money, I don’t want to wake up every morning for the sole purpose of raising my day rate. I respect, and definitely appreciate, that this is my agent’s goal, but in order to get some substance and self-actualization in there, I need to keep trying to do small things — talking to new girls about the industry, helping a friend, writing this blog — that might benefit people somehow. And keep me sane.

Model Diary: I’m So Glad I Wasn’t a Teenage Model

On Tuesday I worked with a girl who was 17-years-old, new to modeling, and still at that vulnerable point where she takes criticism personally instead of professionally. I had worked with the client before, so I already knew how to give them what they expected from me. She, however, was nervous and self-conscious. I don’t want to sound patronizing (or old), but fuck, I felt bad for her. The stylist and photographer were vicious in their criticism and impatience, which of course only made it more difficult for her to be the bright, cheery, cheesy, teenager they wanted her to be. In the end they reduced her looks by half. I’ve been there. I still am there, from time to time. Actually, I was in a similar position during that Russian Glamour shoot, where I was practically ignored in favor of the scary-thin model who couldn’t look more different from me. I was irked, but I just wrote it off as “well that’s one photographer in New York who probably won’t hire me again.” It happens. But I’m not 17. I wasn’t even modeling when I was 17. I had years to learn how to be comfortable with myself despite life’s assholes, before I even started modeling.

During Tuesday’s shoot, though, this beautiful young girl was just so emotionally affected (and how could she not be, when everyone was so quick to write her off?). During a brief interlude, while the male model was shooting, I threw her a casual “how you doing, girl?” to see if she wanted to talk about it. She did (a good vent is always important). After lending an empathetic ear, I tried telling her (subtly, and hopefully without sounding patronizing) not to care. I wanted to tell her that there are several other aspects of modeling to get used to, aside from being in front of the camera. Extremely critical clients and photographers, for example, who never validate but only ego-bruise, all the while treating you as subhuman (this wasn’t the case on Tuesday, but it is still a reality of the job). I wanted to tell her that it takes several of those uncertain jobs at the beginning of a model’s career not only to practice being uninhibited in front of the camera, but also to develop the thick skin models need in order not to misconstrue dissatisfaction or criticism as a personal character affront.

Most of the time, if photographers are especially harsh, it’s because they’re doing whatever they can to get the best photo. Everyone involved is. I’ve learned that there is a massive chasm of detachment between my posing and the resultant photo. The person in the photo is someone else, and I, like the rest of the team, have to make that person look good. So when I look at the screen and see myself with a wonky eye or looking unphotogenic, I no longer get self-conscious. I am just as critical as everyone else. When I first started, however, that professionalism didn’t come so easily. For one, I had to learn how to model. My early photos are horrible, but success, loss of inhibition, and comfort in front of the camera did come, in my persistence and blind determination not to let anyone make me feel shitty about myself. And even now I’ll still get the boot or feel rejection, because (as I’ve said before) sometimes it’s just a matter of personal taste. Sometimes it’s the team or client’s frustration with the hair and makeup, or perhaps they’re just annoyed that they’re still working two days before Christmas. In any event, there was so much I wanted to tell this new model, in so many different ways. But even the makeup artist said to me on set, “she has to learn.” I wanted everyone to stop being so hard on her, but maybe the best way for her to learn that it’s not worth being emotionally affected by anyone on set, and to learn it fast, is by experiencing it herself.

But if there are any young models out there reading this, who have had horrible experiences on which they can’t stop dwelling, please, I urge you, stop caring! No one should make you feel bad about yourself or question your worth as a person. There are so many clients, photographers, stylists, etc., out there, who will love working with you! Fuck the ones who don’t, it’s their loss.