02.20.09

Live Nude Girl Bares All

Would you take off your clothes in front of a room full of strangers if the money were right? In her bold new memoir, former artist’s model Kathleen Rooney reveals all about being a muse.

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Kathleen Rooney, author of Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object, originally took up modeling for artists as a subconscious means of revenge toward the boss who sexually harassed her. During her senior year of college she worked in an art-museum shop in Washington, D.C. In the book, she writes that her bosses “asked us out despite our refusals, insinuated themselves into the cramped quarters behind the registers with us to give us instructions, questioned us about our sex lives, and bought us unasked-for lunches from the museum café.” After her boss finally fired her for declining to sleep with him, she needed new work.

During the first three years of her seven-year modeling career, Rooney simply told her very Catholic parents that she worked as a “classroom aide.”

She trolled the classifieds for a new job and came across a call for models with the slogan “Be a part of art.” Its rhyme appealed to the poet in her, so she interviewed for the job. In light of her former job situation, she found the idea of being naked, but untouchable, appealing.

The first time she walked into a classroom for a job, she dropped her robe with visions of her ex-boss flashing in front of her eyes, and after 30 seconds of discomfort, which felt “like skydiving” to her, she settled in.

Working as a model for painters, sculptors, and photographers helped pay the bills during her stint as a graduate student poet in Emerson College’s creative-writing program, and later as a new college professor who taught classes on American war writing, personal essay, and autobiography at a variety of schools.

The going rate of $12-$16 per hour for classes or $20-plus per hour for private modeling sessions was more than double what she would have made working retail. “I was definitely in it for the money,” she said.

Modeling had its downsides as well. Standing poses are physically taxing. During one session, Rooney saw another model collapse and the ex-Army painting instructor teaching the class galloped to catch her. The model had locked her knees, which cuts off two major arteries, reducing blood flow to the brain. The instructor explained that green Army recruits fainted while standing at attention for the same reason. To pose with hands above the heart for more than five minutes at a time can make arms numb and breathing difficult, just as crucifixion does. Elaborate poses are often held with the help of pulleys, pillows, and other props.

Although instructors allow models frequent breaks during the average three-hour posing sessions, the job can be boring. While the vast majority of artists are professional, occasionally Rooney came across a creep. She remembers one private session with a photographer who took photos of small glass figurines on her butt and breasts. In the book she writes, “He was not a serious fine arts photographer interested in cultivating a collaborative artist-model relationship; he was an upper-middle-class amateur with money to burn, interested in burning it by taking as many nude photographs of as many young women as possible.”

The places where high and low culture met have always been of interest to Rooney. In Live Nude Girl, the theme shows up as the place where the titillation of nudity meets high art. Her first nonfiction book, Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America (2005), explored the clash between fine literature and the populist Oprah, while her poetry collaboration with Elisa Gabbert, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (2008), combines the influence of Theodore Storm, a high-culture German poet, with the LOLs and BRBs of Internet speak. An accomplished poet, Rooney won the Ruth Lily Fellowship from Poetry magazine in 2003, and her poetry has appeared in dozens of journals, including Agni and Harvard Review. Her first solo collection, Oneiromance (an epithalamion), appeared in 2008.

Along with Abigail Beckel, in 2006 Rooney founded Rose Metal Press, a company dedicated to publishing hybrid genres. Beckel prompted Rooney to write about her experience modeling, suggesting she enter an essay on modeling in the Twentysomething Essays from Twentysomething Writers contest. Rooney labored over the essay, which made it into the anthology and led to Live Nude Girl. In an email, she wrote, “But having "finished" the essay, I felt I wasn't truly finished with the subject. I became fixated on how models are so often depicted and represented, but so rarely depict themselves, at least through writing. Not that I somehow speak for models or am necessarily particularly representative, but it seemed like an intriguing subject and a perspective that should be out in the world.”

In Live Nude Girl, Rooney is at her best when she describes the mechanics of modeling and her fraught relationship with her own body in often surprisingly poetic language. In the book’s opening chapter, she writes, “My skinny is what I have always been. My skinny is how I always want to be. My skinny is me. But sometimes I distrust it. My breasts are too small; my nipples too pink. My butt is too big for my frame, curved and fleshy. My ribs are like a xylophone, and the knobs of my spine stick up like ponderous cairns in the landscape of my back. My hips are jutty wings.”

Rooney also delves into the history of modeling, from the ancient Greek tradition of using prostitutes onwards and describes famous models from the early Phryne, who posed for the Greek sculptor Praxiteles, to Simonetta Vespucci, Botticelli’s muse.

Although what she does is “erotic, but ritualized,” Rooney said that it is very different from pornography; the aim of art is an aesthetic experience while the aim of pornography is arousal. Posing empowers Rooney insofar as it works against the traditional conception of women’s bodies as sinful.

Rooney also uses supporting passages from papers on nudity, art, and culture that occasionally bog down the narrative with scholarly jargon, but for the most part demonstrate the intellectual rigor with which she has approached her subject.

During the first three years of her seven-year modeling career, Rooney simply told her very Catholic parents that she worked as a “classroom aide.” When she finally decided to tell her mother, she called a gay friend to ask for tips because “It was like coming out, in a way,” she said. On his advice, she took her mother out for lunch in a public place and told her at the end of the meal.

Rooney’s mother took it well, but made it clear that if Rooney needed money there were other ways to get it. By then, Rooney was in it for more than the money. She modeled because she liked the rush of modeling, because she has always loved art, because she grew up nerdy and skinny and mocked for her skinniness and posing nude in some way validated the aesthetics of her body.

Don’t look for her on the cover of her book, though. She nixed going public in a nude portrait. As she put it, “I felt like that might be a little vain…plus my mom would freak out.” There are limits, even for live nude girls.

Lizzie Stark is a freelance journalist who has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily Beast. She also edits the lit-mag Fringe and is at work on a narrative nonfiction book about Live Action Role Play.