It started with a nudge from Stephen about four months ago.
“Do you have a cutoff?” he asked gently. “You’ve been at this for awhile now and you’re still not making a real income from it. Do you have an estimate of when you’ll want to move on? You have so many other gifts and talents. There is just so much left to chance in the fashion industry.”
It’s hard for me to write this, knowing it’ll go on the internet. Knowing this will be read mostly by people who don’t know how the fashion industry functions. People who assume models make a ton of money (we don’t). Who ask questions like, “So if your agency tells you your thighs are too big and you need PureBarre, they have to pay for your classes, right? No? But they’ve gotta pay for your haircuts and highlights? No? Jeez, well at least you got to travel for free. WAIT YOU HAD TO PAY FOR ALL YOUR OWN PLANE TICKETS AND MODEL APARTMENT RENT TOO?”
People who don’t know how many test shoots (a shoot that isn’t paid, but helps get you pictures for your book) you have to do before you start booking paying gigs. People who didn’t know that Coco Rocha was $30,000 in debt to her agency even after walking for every top fashion house.
People who don’t know how many models have second jobs. And I’m talking about REAL models, not that one girl from your high school who did a vanity shoot once.
I’m not implying people should know, by the way. I wouldn’t know the ins and outs of their industries, either.
When I was in NYC, I worked a catering job at night, at a fancy Tribeca rooftop venue. My anorexia (I’m no longer referring to it as “semi-disordered eating“) was at its worst in New York. Being around lavish food was tantalizing, dirty, shameful and strangely enthralling. Serving cheese assortments that weighed as much as a 5-year-old child, bussing the melty remnants of a $40,000 wedding cake, carrying food on food on food on FOOD, throwing away precious FOOD, was like torture and pornography and popping an explosive whitehead all at once.
(Metaphorically speaking. My skin wasn’t bad yet.)
A model is an independent contractor. You have to invest in your own 5’10, size 0, blonde-maned, clear-skinned business. You have to keep your schedule free for bookings–whether or not they end up coming your way. A model is also a gambler. You might become Coco Rocha one day or you might end up losing your life savings. Far more girls fall into the latter category, myself included. (And for those of you wondering what kind of savings a 23-year-old had, I’d been working since age 16. I’d sold a 2-year-old Jeep Compass before the move to SF. My parents gave me an extremely generous college graduation gift. Basically, I had a lot of savings for my age. Sometimes I still get upset over how much I lost, but then I remind myself how much I gained.)
Perhaps every human is a gambler, and every human can lose. I don’t regret rolling the dice, and I never will.
If you’re part of the 99.9999% of women who don’t become Adriana Lima, a modeling career can go a lot of different ways. You might say, “Screw this, I’m going back to school,” because–despite being a 6’1 porcelain-skinned goddess–you’re still a no-nonsense German woman who wants to be a physician one day. You might have smoldering, haunted blue eyes as big as saucers and an effortlessly gritty sense of style (the type agencies usually have to train into their girls)… but still become so broke you have to move back in with mom in Long Island. You might be a spritely 16-year-old artist, joyfully boppin’ around Milan for kicks, with no intention of modeling seriously to begin with. You might return to the Midwest, where you’re not discouraged from rocking your jean jacket and WholesomeGirlSmile, where your equally sweet boyfriend puts a diamond on your hand, and you trade in your Big City Dream for the American Dream. You might semi-make it, and roam paycheck to paycheck and photographer boyfriend to photographer boyfriend with just enough to survive and see the world.
One day, while I was looking through his portfolio, a photographer told me, “Yeah, that’s my ex in that picture. She was super famous for a year in the early 2000s and then her agency tried a pixie cut on her. They thought it’d give her an even greater edge, but it backfired and clients stopped booking her. By the time her hair grew back out, her moment was over. She’s married and a mom now.”
He said it like her life was a waste but I could hear a hint of, “I miss her. I miss the plush curve of her breast, captured forever in this two dimensional photograph. Those breasts are warm and real and bigger from having nursed two babies. Somewhere out in the vast, dimly lit Other Than New York City, a heartbeat under that breast beats for another man.”
Wherever you are, I hope your children are healthy and your husband is good to you and your hair has healed. I hope you’re happy. You were so beautiful in that photograph. You are so beautiful.
I started bawling when Stephen asked me that question.
Sweet Stephen who’s endured so much with me. That night in the car, parked outside LA Fitness, I cried for him and for myself and for my absolute lack of control. For wanting something so badly I was willing to drop down to 107 pounds and spend my entire life savings. Heaves of self pity for the 2015 skinny crazy girl who agreed to chop the hair she’d been growing for her wedding–since before she even got engaged. (That was a reference to myself, not the photographer’s ex whose career got ruined by a pixie cut. But you can see why her story stuck with me…)
Blubbering streams of hot snot for the wisp of a woman who got into a MAYBE WE SHOULD CALL OFF THE WEDDING level of argument with her fiancé when he dared interfere with her laser-focus on fashion and starvation and mastering the elusive art of edginess.
I cried like my heart was breaking.
I told Stephen I couldn’t imagine giving up my dream.
I didn’t feel finished.
And, selfishly, I felt like I was still owed something. A $10,000 commercial or big shoot or monumental moment that made all the heartache worth it. Some kind of balm on my ravished bank account. A detangling comb through my scrambled sense of self-worth.
“Don’t believe the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”
This quote, attributed to Mark Twain (although it seems there’s no proof he actually said it) has long been one of my favorites. I realized through Facebook memories that I’ve made it my status twice, about four years apart. I hate to admit it, but I can be a little entitled and self-righteous. I realized I like that quote because I need to hear it sometimes.
Modeling bestowed some amazing gifts on me. My sense of self-worth may be a little scrambled, but modeling is honestly a huge part of the reason it’s there at all. Modeling helped me become more confident, more proactive, more focused, more worldly, and more adult.
That night in the gym parking lot four months ago, Stephen and I agreed that I would try for a few more months to turn modeling into a full-time income. These things take time, we said. We’ll put a pin in the topic for now, we said. We’re doing fine financially, we said. We don’t need to make any rash decisions, we said. Etcetera.
But something shifted in me.
I began to let myself see a new career as a resurrection rather than a death. And, much to my surprise, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time: the magnificent, rumbling force of passion. Of hope. Of worthiness.
Within a matter of three days, I went from tentative mental exploration to full-fledged dreaming.
All of a sudden, I couldn’t stop fantasizing about retiring what’s left of my fashion model career and starting something new. (I say “fashion model” because I still want to prioritize promo modeling on the side due to the amazing people, frequent work, and generous pay.)
What I do want to give up is spending my Monday-Thursday waiting for my Tampa agency to send me a casting email. To stop insta stalking that one girl who’s a little younger and whose thighs are a little thinner. To stop wondering if things will pick up and I’ll start booking more than once or twice per month. To stop feeling disempowered by the same job that once empowered me so much.
They say people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Careers are the same. I used to think modeling was in the “lifetime” category, and that one day I’d be the 34-year-old posing with my model “children” (or heck, maybe even my real children!) in a granola bar shoot, and then the 45-year-old woman in the anti-wrinkle cream ad, and then the silver fox in a retirement home commercial. I loved (love? loved? loved.) modeling so much that I truly believed that.
Stephen is right– I do have other gifts and talents.
I was great in school. I know better than to assume academic prowess is something that automatically translates into successful Real World-ing, but I’m proud of the grades I made, the papers I wrote, the things I achieved back at FSU.
I can write. I can edit. I have experience in SEO and social media marketing.
I can collaborate and analyze and take constructive criticism like a champ.
I can learn and teach and grow.
Now the question remains:
What will I do as a non-model?
To Be Continued….