When I was 8 years old, my mother was watching our local morning television show in suburban Michigan and saw that a New York recruiter was scouting nearby beauty pageants looking for child models. For some time, people had been telling my parents that I was pretty enough to be a "model," so on a whim we drove out to a hotel that was hosting a pageant, just to see what it was all about. One glimpse of a 6-year-old in a bright yellow rhinestone-covered ball gown, wearing more makeup than a cast member of "La Cage aux Folles" (it was the '80s), singing "The Good Ship Lollipop," and we did a 180 and headed for the door.
Former child model and Newsweek and The Daily Beast photo editor Cara Phillips gives her perspective on Thylane Blondeau.
But while we were in the lobby the New York agent spotted us, and perhaps because I was the only child for five miles who did not look like a Texas stripper, she approached my parents. Nothing came of that conversation, but some months later a business associate of my father's claimed he had connections at Ford Models, the most famous agency in New York. So my mom took some snapshots, and he sent them in. A week later I was in New York at the Barbizon Hotel with my mother, modeling for JCPenney. We spent six weeks in New York that first summer, three months the next and a full five months the following year. As a result I had to switch schools and miss the first six weeks of fifth grade.
As a Ford "summer girl," I was never really a proper model like the actress Jennifer Connelly, who was the star of Ford during my time there. I was just one of the legions of kids imported during summer vacations to fill out the ranks of the pros while the industry churned out the majority of children's catalogs and advertisements. And while modeling may sound glamorous to those who have never been a party to it, most of my time was spent carting heavy bags filled with my portfolio, hair ribbons, extra shoes and curling irons, while my mother and I traipsed from one go-see, cattle call or job to another during the hot and steamy stink of the New York summer. Each job was highly sought after, and the mothers were caught up in a competitive frenzy. Each one of their daughters was the most beautiful and talented, and they were always getting robbed of the best jobs.
One of the toughest things for child models when I was working was that the industry didn't spare us many of the harsh aspects of the adult working world. I had to listen to my agent tell my mother that there was not enough space between my nose and upper lip when I smiled, and that my nose would have to be fixed soon. Once, a bunch of us were lined up in bathing suits, while the casting agent walked up and down and pointed out things that were wrong with our little 10-year-old bodies. I was expected to never complain or be tired, sick or hungry. During an outdoor shoot on a very hot day, the photographer had me kneel on blacktop. I tried to tell him through my tears that it was burning, but he "had to get the shot." By the time we were done, my purple pleather pants had melted through and I had a severe burn.
When I would go home to Michigan, I did not exactly blend right back in. In New York I was going to facials, getting highlights and special hair treatments. We went out to dinner and shopping at Bloomingdale's. Though I was still a kid, I spent all my time around adults. Back at school I was a freak. Boys in the neighborhood chased me on their bikes chanting, "Tampax girl, Tampax girl," after I had done a national print ad for the brand. I became an outsider in both worlds, and it was not easy not to belong anywhere.
I got older, but I still didn't know how to rebel or say no. Things got complicated, and my parents went through a difficult and prolonged divorce. My two choices were to move to New York and model full time, or to eat, and eat, and eat some more. Becoming overweight was my only way out of the business. But I didn't escape the world of beauty completely. I spent seven years working in department stores selling clothes and makeup before I finally went back to school.
By the time I found my way to photography at the age of 27, I had been in the beauty industry in some form since the age of 8, first as a child model, then as an in-store makeup artist. Somehow I had been led to believe that my path to happiness could be found only through my physical appearance. But when I first stepped behind the ground glass of my camera, for the first time what I looked like had no meaning. Instead of focusing on myself, I turned my focus to the very world of beauty that had enslaved me for so many years, hoping that somehow I could come to terms with it. The great thing about the camera is that it allows me to use my intellect as well as my emotions, and it gives me distance from my subjects while also penetrating deeper.
There are only a few choices when it comes to overcoming your past: you can let your life become an endless cycle of repeating it, you can move so far away from it that you perhaps never really escape it or you can choose to confront and dissect it. I chose to photograph the offices of cosmetic surgeons because they are the ultimate destination for beauty. There is no place where we confront our own deficiencies and vanities more directly. In making these photographs, I was not as interested in capturing an actual place or thing as in the emotional significance of it—for myself as an artist, and for those who sought their salvation in these chairs, beds, machines and tools.