My mother gave me two pieces of advice that have always stuck with me. The first piece of advice was never accept expensive gifts from men who aren’t your fiancé or husband; there are always strings attached. And second, nothing is ever really truly free.
When I was in Istanbul, I met through mutual friends an American girl, let’s call her Lia. At the beginning of our friendship, I was under the impression that Lia possessed some secret charm that I was clearly born without. All of her bags were Chanel, Balenciaga, or Givenchy. She owned an enviable collection of Louboutins. She boasted of constantly jetting around Europe and Asia (with the occasional jaunt to Dubai), where she stayed exclusively at Conde Nast-recommended hotels. A pimple or wrinkle was an easily solvable problem for New York’s best dermatologist; any weight she put on was swiftly removed by Miami’s best surgeon. For a few days I was in awe of this girl: Her stories always had characters I’d read about, and her lovers were always wealthy.
One evening, Lia extended the fickle branch of friendship and called me to invite me to join her for an evening out with some friends of hers. I complained that I was tired, and begged to be excluded.
“I thought you were a party girl, and we’re in Istanbul,” she responded in a dumbfounded tone. “You want to stay in?”
I surveyed my hotel room, and snuggled deeper into the sheets (God, I love hotel bedding). I pulled my duvet up to my chin and felt the mattress shaping to my body. “I’m so cozy,“ I protested. “Besides, guaranteed, wherever you are going will require makeup and pants—two things that at this moment are very unappealing to me.”
“It’s going to be a full-on, next-level glam situation,” she persisted. “We can dress up, they’re taking us to the nicest restaurant—it’ll be fun and free. Besides, I can’t go by myself.”
“Those aren’t convincing words for me right now,” I yawned. “If you said cozy and comfortable, maybe.”
“But they always pay for dinner! And one of them is cute, he saw your picture and thought you were cute, you just spend the night, have fun, and then he takes you to breakfast and maybe out for a little shopping.”
“Nope. Not moving.”
“Soccer players, Champagne, good times.” She sounded as if she was chanting these words to herself, rather than to me.
I used every excuse in the book: a shortage of money, no proper clothes for the outing, sudden illness, etc.
“Whatever, you’re young and you won’t be for long. You’re missing out.” Click.
Earlier that week, I worked with a Russian girl at a photo shoot. She was sweet, always bubbling with energy, and excited to speak English (when you begin to live in countries where they don’t speak your native tongue, it is such a relief to find someone out there who is willing to indulge you).
“I love speaking English—my dream is to go to America,” she confided to me late one evening. And then: “I was given an offer from an agency in Miami.”
“Really? That’s amazing, when do you go?”
“I’m not sure if I should take it—the contract seems weird.” It was our break, and she invited me to join her for a coffee. “The agency seems good, a lot of bikini jobs, they take care of us and everything. And it’s Miami!” She laughed.
“So what’s the weird part?”
Her face became serious. “I saw in my contract that I’m supposed to have dinner with clients, and breakfast was optional. What does that mean?” Whoa.
“That’s a quirky contract.” I began cautiously, “I wouldn’t. I haven’t had breakfast or dinner with clients, maybe lunch… but that’s because it’s on set and it’s catered. It’s not like, a restaurant.”
“Yeah, it is kind of weird. But, to live in Miami…!” Her voice trailed off and she looked out on to the road, overcrowded with traffic and dirty. The sky was gray and a thick layer of smog hung in the air—you could see her comparing it to what she thought Miami looked like: bright blues, electric greens, and Champagne always waiting for you by the pool.
A lot of girls become models because there is the alluring, if distant, promise of first-class, all-designer everything. I would be lying if I said those thoughts didn’t occur to me when I signed up for the job. But it’s also a profession filled with conflicting binaries: You are healthy and go to the gym, but sometimes you skip meals, you might sneer at Playboy but you might jump at the chance to be a Victoria’s Secret Angel or in Sports Illustrated. As a dear friend pointed out to me bluntly the other evening, “You use your body to make money—so what’s the difference between you and a whore?”
The fashion industry can be very contradicting. Tis the nature of the beast. But all industries have their dark sides. Yes, working as a model can be very exploitive. But aren’t unpaid internships exploiting young talent as well? Isn’t paying college graduates minimum wage, to do a job they didn’t need a degree for, exploitive?
I stayed up late the other night, tossing and turning and musing over my friend’s remark. There is a line, which can, and sometimes is, crossed. On the other hand, there are a lot of girls who are very protective with their bodies and their choice of work. There was a fantastic article written about Canadian megamodel Daria Werbowy in British Vogue. She was described as being “the reluctant model”—a model who the client was worried about being rejected by, and not the other way around. It’s a powerful statement.
So then readers, why do I model if the industry can be skeezy and gross at times? Because I don’t see modeling as a way to boost self-esteem or prove something to myself—I see modeling as an opportunity to see the world, and nothing more than that.
There can be great perks with this job, but again—nothing is ever free. Especially if it’s a $10,000 handbag served with breakfast.