Jennifer Dziura writes life coaching advice weekly here on TheGloss, and career coaching advice Fridays on TheGrindstone.
I have walked in some fashion shows. Certainly not in Fashion Week, or even on what I would call a real runway. I think the history of my downmarket-catwalk modeling career (2004-2006, RIP) went like this:
•Two or three fashion shows for a now-defunct vintage lingerie store in Williamsburg. It’s not that hard to hold a fashion show in a bar — I’m pretty sure if you bring a bunch of scantily-clad women into a bar called “The Tainted Lady” and parade them around, you’re adding to the atmosphere and selling drinks, and you may be able to strike a deal with the bar in which you don’t have to pay anything to hold the event. In any case, a business that sells antique slips and girdles can perhaps only go so far. Observe the photo of me with a male model in a corset. Awesome.
•Lingerie fashion show at Marion’s Continental. This is a restaurant. It holds many fashion events, but this show nevertheless involved journalists looking at my ass while they ate brunch. Also, I wore three different outfits in the show, two of which involved silk thongs. As silk does not stretch and each thong sold for over $200, I had two people assigned to me in the staging area to slide the first thong inch-by-inch down over my hipbones and then slide the new one inch-by-inch up over my hipbones. (What’s the point of lingerie you can’t take off, you know, in a hurry?)
•A Valentine’s Day fashion show, also in a bar, sponsored by some kind of lingerie company. Noticing a theme?
•A crime against clothing in which I modeled a vest made out of neckties. Sarah Jessica Parker once wore something from the designer on Sex and the City. Neckties. Sewn together. To make a vest. A very stiff vest. With pointy bits at the bottom. The show was held in the upstairs part of a very nice Indian restaurant that I think uses the space for weddings.
I was also briefly signed to a fledgling modeling agency in Soho that I never did any work for because the owner wanted me to call her every morning and looked confused when, in 2005, I suggested that it would be more efficient to send out an email to all the models at once. We just weren’t going to get along.
Surely, I learned a few things from these experiences. As I later confirmed when I held a male beauty pageant in a bar to celebrate my thirtieth birthday, anyone with $2,000 and access to Craigslist is basically omnipotent. Also, walking in a fashion show is much like being a bridesmaid: you have to walk much, much more slowly than you think you should.
I later ended up contributing three pages on “How to Put On Your Own Fashion Show” for the book Girls Gone Mild, by Wendy Shalit. Specifically, how to put on your own modest fashion show. To promote modesty and no-sexing. Weird, right?
Here are some other things I learned from my brief “modeling” career.
(By the way, if you would like to become an indie model yourself, joining OneModelPlace or ModelMayhem isn’t particularly more difficult than setting up a Facebook profile. Making money without being entirely naked is another matter.)
Being a Pretty Girl Doesn’t Get You That Far
I don’t just mean a girl who happens to be pretty. I mean a girl trying to make it almost entirely on being pretty. A girl putting herself out there, saying, “I’ve noticed I’m kind of pretty!”
Being a Pretty Girl kind of makes you a walking target. Yes, some people will want to have sex with you, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Rather, you will be a target for people looking to make money off of you, or use you to look good the way one uses a new sports car and a nice watch to look good. You will be viewed as a raw material, much like timber or an underground oil pocket.
There are a million valedictorians, even more A+ students. There are a million absolutely beautiful girls. Perfection just puts you in a club. Despite how hard it is to get into that club, there are a lot of people there, because so many people are engaged in the same pursuits. There are fewer B- students running companies, or really-pretty-attractive-for-a-regular-person women selling cars. These people make more money, do more exciting things, and are better able to handle life’s vicissitudes.
There’s just no point at which someone shows up and gives you money for being pretty (or being talented in general). There’s no Jesus who reaches out of the sky to reward you, fairly, for being so special and better than everyone else.
If someone does ever pay you for being pretty or talented, it is only so they can make even more money off of you. That’s it. That’s all there is. Be clear about that. Very clear.
Your Desire to Be Thought of As Very Pretty Can and Will Be Used Against You
It is very hard to get paid as a model because so very many girls want to be able to call themselves models that they will happily work for free.
I am reminded of a friend of mine who teaches writing workshops. Once, her class got very excited when she simply said, “You are all writers.” She said that sometimes what people want is not so much the writing lessons as to be dubbed “writers” (here, she made a gesture like a king knighting someone), to have some authority’s permission to call themselves that. You could do a photoshoot in Central Park at no cost to yourself and advertise on Craigslist for “models,” and girls will show up because, dear god, now they’re real models!
I am also reminded of a “modeling conference” associated with OneModelPlace that I attended in 2005 or so. Somehow, I’d gotten hooked up with a free invite, so I stopped in, only to see a lot of frankly delusional teenagers walking around with their mothers, and a few tall, attractive young women being photographed by people who have absolutely no power in the fashion industry. There was also a seminar on makeup being given by a makeup saleslady.
Narcissists make very good customers. You can sell people an infinity of things by feeding their narcissism.
On the other side of the equation, really, really needing other people’s approval — or constantly wishing inside that your moment onstage will come even though you are in no way involved in the performing arts — makes you vulnerable to exploitation.
For instance: the wedding-industrial complex in the United States. Why does the average American wedding cost $25,000? In some part, because lots of women really, really want to be pretty, pretty princesses. I’ve long noted that women who perform for a living often no longer have this impulse. If you’re onstage all the time, you don’t need to use your marriage as an opportunity to play princess. Musician Amanda Palmer married Neil Gaiman in a spur-of-the-moment ceremony in someone’s living room, despite the fact that at least one of them is a multimillionaire.
In her post about the wedding, Palmer wrote, “I think part of the attraction of having a giant wedding is that, as a bride, you get to be a total rock star for a day, The focus is pretty much on you for a collection of hours, and you can spend months and months planning how you want to shine in that spotlight. As Amanda Palmer, for better or worse, I already do this every day.”
I wrote a column here about overcoming narcissism. I am definitely formerly guilty, and I hope I’ve grown out of it. In my opinion, the opposite of narcissism isn’t self-effacement. It’s something more like citizenship. (See Bullish Life: When Achievements Just Leave You Feeling Empty.)
No One Has a Future Plan for You (But You)
I wrote in Bullish: What to Do About Being (Temporarily) Pretty about women getting by on their looks needing to transition to a “brain-based economy.”
Modeling is definitely one of those careers with no plan for the future. Anything you’re propping up with youth and beauty is a losing game; you’ll have to work harder and harder over time just to get the same results. It is the exact opposite of passive income, wherein you build something useful to others and profit from it for years to come.
Certainly, some models (Heidi Klum! Kathy Ireland!) have parlayed their modeling careers into other, modeling-related careers. Excellent. Beautiful. I have nothing bad to say about this. But these women’s modeling agencies certainly didn’t set that up for them.
I wrote in Bullish: How Business Is Like Dating that, while you may be monogamous to the company you work for, it is not monogamous to you; your company is totally seeing other employees. It certainly does not have a grand plan for your career.
I wrote in Bullish Life: 3 Romantic Mistakes That Young Women Make That Cause Weeping Among The Angels And Kittens that men in general certainly are not looking out for you or curating your romantic experience to work out in some satisfying story arc, and any individual man should not be assumed to be doing any such advance planning on your behalf unless he (very) explicitly says so.
In other words, the universe will totally let you spend all of your twenties on something that’s going nowhere. No one’s going to stop you. There’s no magic point in time wherein you will suddenly have a different, more adult life. Nope, you’ll just end up in your thirties with pretty much the same stagnant life you had in your twenties, except it’ll look a lot less adorable on you.
See Bullish: Extreme Advance Planning For Very Smart Women and Bullish: Screw New Year’s Resolutions Try Designing Your Career for more on creating a strategic plan.
Of course looks are important. Simply looking healthy is always a plus for a career; employers like to feel that you won’t get out of breath on the way to a sales call and won’t die of consumption right after the training period. I wrote in Bullish Life: Gentlewomen Don’t Crash Diet that looking about 80% of your best is usually the optimal solution for people who aren’t models.
In fact, I’m pretty sure the optimal situation is to look pretty good, pretend you don’t know that you’re attractive, and go do something difficult and useful to others that also doesn’t happen to have very many attractive people doing it.
And by the way, if you don’t think you’re that conventionally attractive and you felt that this mostly didn’t apply to you, here’s something I’ve noticed: beauty democratizes with age. If you take care of yourself really well and basically just look the same as you always have, but with updated hair and clothes, somewhere around decade after college, people start complimenting you for how amazing you look. That is, since entropy and mortality are the natural way of things, merely looking the same as before passes for looking good as your cohort ages. So just exercise a lot, buy things that look expensive, and wait for everyone else to fall apart due to their own laziness. (See Bullish Life: What To Do When You’re Surrounded By Lazy Idiots (and Sweet, Fragile Simpletons).”
Oh, and check in to The Grindstone on Friday for “Bullish Fashion Week Edition: What I Learned About Business from Being a Low-Rent Model.”