Yesterday, a lovely woman obliged me by telling me she followed, and loved, my blogs. "But I wasn't sure, from the blogs, what sort of a person you were. You sounded a little sad, a little bitter..." She shrugged.
Bitter? Sad? MOI? I think I actually gasped in horror. All this time I thought I was being cutely irreverent and funny.
Being a model, certain assumptions about me are immediately made: I have rooms full of fabulous clothes, spend my days dieting and at the gym, and never have a bad hair day. Actually, not a bad day, period. I'm probably kinda dumb, but these days there is room for doubt, after all Cindy and Tyra and Elle and Kathy have built empires in their names. But funny or goofy is not often associated with fashion models. Lord only knows why, because we certainly are a funny lot. (Snarky remark alert for those of you who think I just sounded bitter!)
Models make it easy for people to make assumptions. You get to know us as one-dimensional creatures, flat and perfect. You can look into our dead paper eyes and ascribe them any personality you'd like: A sunny surfer girl surely has a dazzling sunny laugh; the elegant beauty must have perfect diction and manners, and the sexpot speaks with a sultry accent and has a temperament to match. We visually represent clichés of women our society has deemed beautiful.
Unlike clichés though, this assumption is mostly wrong. The sexpot may be as sweet and bland as baby cereal, the sporty sunny girl is a heavy smoker and the lady swears like a truck driver. My particular blessings were -- I was told -- elegant, icy features, popular in the Eighties after the sunny blond Seventies. Estee Lauder put their money where my mouth was, and lived to regret it. They hired me despite my outspoken reputation in the press, probably hoping a nice paycheck would check my personality. After all, I looked right. But instead of turning into the lady I appeared to be, I just modified my beauty advice from "Sex and Water" to "Sex and Water and Estee Lauder." I don't think they were amused. I couldn't have cared less. Anyone could buy my body and my face; no one, I was determined, should be able to buy my soul. I told the truth as I saw it from the moment I was first asked for an opinion.
In my first interview at the advanced age of seventeen, I was asked how I liked modeling. "It sucks," I responded breezily. In my mind, I was being truthful and slightly provocative. And funny.
"Modeling sucks, Porizkova says," was the headline. Ever since, I've been trying to elegantly backpedal (if such a thing were possible) without losing face. Even I have to admit modeling is preferable to such jobs as cleaning sewer pipes or public bathrooms in parks (which were all recommended by irate readers of the article). But, it is also considerably less important than, say, teaching or healing, and garners considerably more attention, money and fame.
Generally, you haven't done anything to look the way you do, it's a bunch of strands of DNA interweaving in just the right way and then one day, about fourteen or fifteen years later, a bunch of high-powered likeminded people spotting the above-mentioned genetic mutation and deciding to glorify it. There. You are a Topmodel. (If you want to add the "super" you also have to acquire the public's good opinion -- or at least attention -- something that can be done by dating an actor or a rock-star or fighting crime in your spare time.)
It does seem a bit undeserved.
But as you surely already know, this series of events that lead to stardom is as rare as lightning repeatedly striking a pedestrian who's just walking down the street minding his own business. And likewise, it has no input from you.
To the uninitiated, this tall, goofy-looking teenager will suddenly be elevated into an exclusive, enviable world where her work consists of getting massaged, pampered, flattered and beautified. Dressed in the most becoming fashions, she will step before a camera, jut a hip and a fantastic photo will remember the moment for all posterity. It's like little girls believing that all it takes to be a ballerina is a pink tutu, point shoes and pretty music. But in the comparison to a ballerina the model will suffer, for the ballerina, the adult will note, has to study dance, and dance for hours on end and destroy her feet to make it all look so effortless. They deserve their short little burst of incandescence, their little breath of glory! Well, if there is ONE single skill a model must posses, it's that very same pretense that she is gloriously happy, even if her foot is stuck in a paper shredder. There is an old joke in the biz that goes: A model is posing. Accidentally, one of her arms gets chopped off. "Turn to the other side," says the photographer.
Besides this one skill, the actual personal qualifications required of a model are few. She can have the grace of a water buffalo, the brain cells of an amoeba, and the personality of rabid dying dog -- although preferably not all three at the same time -- and she can still get work. (Yes, there are names and no, I will not name them.) Attributes such as education, patience, honesty, persistence, integrity, intelligence and humor that are in-demand in every other workplace, are by themselves of no particular value in modeling. This is why people often assume that all models are stupid, because we can be and still work. But so can sports stars, and although one doesn't necessarily think of sports people as completing PHD's in their spare time, "stupid" is not the first adjective used to describe them.
So, is there no such thing as a great model? Well, yes, there is. But, the paradox of a great model is that by the virtue of her greatness she disappears. These women are models who have acquired, or were born with, a phenomenal physical awareness. Like a dancer, or a gymnast, this woman knows her musculature intimately -- often because she once was one as a child. She has additionally expanded this knowledge to the tiny muscles of her face. This of course means endless hours in front of the mirror (and a vanity or self-absorption beyond the normal) of actual training. Yet, all of this skill will be completely and utterly pointless if it's not housed in the right vessel.
Only a few of them ever reach the supermodel status, and that is in part because they obey the rules of fame and do slightly scandalous things around other famous people. They are a sort of a well-kept industry secret: the girls that one hires if one has a whole lot of hideous clothes to showcase. (By the way, I've never been one of them.) They can, and do inspire photographers, and sometimes conspire with them to make some amazing photographic work. But a fresh faced, clumsy 14-year-old who never even wanted to be a model can, and often does, unseat them faster than you can change your pants.
The combination of just the right amount of freakishness, youth and body control is rare indeed, a veritable chupacabra. That's why shows like America's Next Top Model have, after something like 500 seasons, yet to come up with a top model. Despite Tyra Banks' insistence that a girl can somehow "deserve" a top model spot by "by learning, by improving, by wanting it most," this is in fact complete bullshit. The only thing that truly matters is what the girl looks like and if she is in the right place at the right time.
If it truly were about merit, most top models would be drag queens.
Ru-Paul has the best modeling show on air. His "girls" can sew, paint, do hair, move and transform like no other models I've ever seen. Good thing for us uninspired girls that modeling doesn't require anywhere near the creativity of a reality drag-queen TV show.
It is also assumed that if you model high fashion clothes you must love fashion. Not so. Most models, myself included, dressed for comfort, a sort of clean grunge, but something like ten years before anyone had ever heard of grunge. There were also a few frugal JCPenny devotees, regardless of the money they made, and of course -- the exceptions to the rule -- the well dressed models who got their stuff for free from famous designers when the designers realized the advertizing potential. (It was, sadly, after my time.)
The actual work, the bread and butter of modeling, is usually all about catalogues. Pulling on forty elastic-waist pants and polo shirt combinations a day is as inspiring and fun as doing a Christmas photo with 15 of your closest family members, all of you dressed in itchy acrylic reindeer sweaters, the heater in the living room turned up way too high, your Uncle behind the camera in a foul mood trying to get the kids to behave and the family dog not to pee on Grandma's leg.
Just so we are clear: no one actually hands you a million bucks and wishes you "a nice life."
Another assumption you're likely to make is that when you're called beautiful you FEEL beautiful. This is also bullshit. First of all, models aren't so much beautiful as extraordinary looking, and by extraordinary, I mean exaggerated, different. They are giraffes in a herd of cows. And while the mental aspect of being dissected and criticized for breakfast lunch and dinner may be quite painful at thirty, it is completely earth shattering when you're fifteen.
Imagine being put in front of the class by the blackboard and then systematically destroyed from top to toe by a bunch of teachers gathered for that very purpose. Then you're failed and sent home, told to find another school, all because your nose has a slight bump, your ears stick out and your knees are fat. Your identity becomes a chorus of other people's complaints. If every time you go to work you're told your waist is too fat, you will come to believe it even if your waist is 20 inches. After all, your livelihood depends on what other people think of your looks. Sexual harassment is called "compliments" and you come to believe that unless you're constantly propositioned, you must be getting ugly.
In your early twenties, it is communally understood you're getting old and if you haven't made it yet and met your special bad-boy rockstar/actor/, you will be conscripted to modeling limbo. And I'm talking the biblical, not the musical one. The one in which most models must, at the advanced age of twenty-plus, be relegated to model in cheap adds for medical insurance companies, and if they get to be featured on a cover, it's one for ironing boards. By thirty, they must accept defeat, the death of their dreams, and the slow dissolution into normal women/tallish soccer moms.
The supermodel, however, lives on: often divorced but still fabulous and perpetually youthful. And -- this is where I really mean to strip you of your assumptions about models -- by staying married and aging. And while I am at it, allow me (with hindsight of age forty-five) to amend my previous one-liner.
Modeling is a phenomenal opportunity, a great job, and a shitty career.