Unemployed, Madison Hamill decided to take control of her future and become a supermodel. But instead, she found herself on the fringes of New Zealand’s modelling industry.
“Inhale. Imagine your womb opening like a flower.”
I opened one eye to squint. But she had her eyes closed, a lilac buddha, apparently capable of unironic serenity. If I’m being totally honest, I was never one of those people who was comfortable closing their eyes in public. And I didn’t really believe my womb was in the same place as my diaphragm.
“Feel your womb space. Your womb space is your centre of being.”
I wriggled and tugged my jean-shorts out from my crotch.
Which brings me to the dramatic question: why would I, a partially sane twenty-one-year-old psychology graduate, find myself in the home office of a chakra-touting life coach, learning to ‘nurture my feminine essence’ and pace a pretend catwalk feeling the power of my womb?
The answer begins with unemployment and that terrible uncontrollable gap between interview and rejection. This time, before the individual interviews, they had put the candidates in a room and asked us to decide, collectively, which two of eight characters we would leave to die in a burning building if we only had time to save six of them. We were unanimous: the nice old man and the arrogant billionaire were swiftly assassinated. All this to prove ourselves worthy of being ‘call centre representatives’.
At this point, I was done with employment seeking. I was done with not having a plan and I was done with dependency. I was done with hypothetical manslaughter and customer service, equally. I decided to take control: I decided to become a supermodel.
In retrospect, this decision was one in a long succession of about turns. Once, when I had decided to become a computer scientist, I had changed my degree and studied Python and Java for an entire year before remembering my intense dislike of mathematics. I liked to believe in things. I was chasing ‘identity’. Perhaps I was chasing this ethereal value called ‘confidence’ that leeched so forcefully out of the pages of Vogue. The ability to wear a bag over your head and look like you were the hostage-taker. I was, at that time, wearing an ankle-length puffer jacket to avoid paying for extra heating, so you can see the appeal.
The first step to becoming a supermodel is taking pictures of oneself. I had no smartphone or digital camera and lived in a room the size of a closet, but that wasn’t going to stop me. I propped my laptop on its side so the webcam would take a profile shot, and positioned it on top of the coffee table, on top of my desk, and set a five-second delay. Then I balanced myself on a swivel chair to float above the mess of takeaway boxes and dirty washing, in the only suitable patch of natural light and posed.
I posted these photos on a website called Star Now, a name that seemed to share the urgency of my new-born ambition. This glorious website required no CVs, no cover letters, carefully crafted to mask one’s glaring lack of experience. Instead, you simply clicked ‘apply’ and waited. Within a week, I was shortlisted for ‘TOP MODEL WORLDWIDE’ (all capital letters), a catwalk competition in London with prizes including modelling contracts, walking in London Fashion Week, and holidays to exotic locations.
In celebration of my debut as a model, I bought myself the most recent issue of Vogue and studied the models on their shiny pages. An embroidered girl appeared to float in her blue kimono; Gigi Hadid, javelin in hand, conquered the universe; a curious bend of the head made a pink fur coat seem mysterious.
I’ll admit, at this point, I did look at myself in the mirror and wonder whether this whole thing was in contradiction with my so-called left-wing feminist values. After all, it’s oft-repeated that models are superficial posers who set unattainable standards for young girls.
But I’d have to be pretty narcissistic to believe myself an unattainable standard. Assessing myself without filters, head-on in the mirror, I was pretty sure that it was all a big scam. I wasn’t like the girls in the magazines. In comparison, I was a pale, shapeless, amalgam of flesh. Like Voldemort after he returned from mangled baby form in that cauldron.
I scrutinised the website but found no fault. They claimed to be “firmly established as one of the UK’s leading fashion and model industry awards events” with a “track record of launching careers”. They even raised thousands of pounds each year for children with cancer.
So, to my friends over lunch, I presented the situation like the punchline of a joke, implying I had simply tripped and fallen into modelling superstardom on my way to the bathroom. I recruited Sarah, an apprentice electrician with a professional camera, to help me make the photos and videos I needed to compete in ‘TOP MODEL WORLDWIDE’. The competition required a full-length bikini shot in natural lighting, so I had no choice but to pose in a bikini on my barely-covered balcony, in a thunderstorm, dashing back inside to jog on the spot, and out again to take more pictures. Afterwards we drove to the railway station to film me walking towards the camera in its clean, mosaic interior, smiling, turning around and walking away.
“Look casual,” Sarah would warn, and we would pause our routine and stifle laughter.
And that was how I was selected to represent New Zealand as a Grand Finalist for ‘TOP MODEL WORLDWIDE’, set to go to London in March 2017 for a catwalk show at the London Metropole Hotel. If only I could raise a hefty sum of money, of course. The competition didn’t pay for my flights and on top of that, I needed what was called a ‘place sponsorship’ which is when a company pays your $358 NZD fee in exchange for you promoting them.
“How do I go about asking companies to sponsor me?” I asked a Top Model staff member, in an email.
“Anyone can be your place sponsor,” they said, adding that some girls chose to pay the sponsorship themselves in advance and then find a sponsor.
Unfortunately, I was broke, and my list of people or companies rich enough to pay for my trip to London didn’t overlap with the list of people who cared about my modelling career. I sent letters to local businesses but to no avail. But at least the sense of worthlessness I felt passing the security guards at the Work and Income office each fortnight was muted by a quiet sense of triumph, the knowledge that all this was only temporary. I was on my way up.
On the other hand, most people looked confused when I mentioned my modelling adventure. Maybe they were wondering why I didn’t look like Gigi Hadid. Maybe they thought I was talking about those crazy America’s Next Top Model contestants screaming at each other in limousines. I began to feel embarrassed to mention it. But I had to tell my parents that I was thinking of taking another gap year to go to a modelling event. I had been planning to apply for an intensive clinical psychology post-graduate course, but I was having second thoughts and third thoughts and altogether too many thoughts, and the deadline was approaching.
When I messaged my dad subtly suggesting that a couple grand would be super helpful at that moment in time, he messaged me a personal manifesto on the modelling industry. Here are his main points:
- I suspect that modelling is often a portal for the porn industry
- People can easily become image fodder for a big industry
- Given the highly commercialised nature of the enterprise, I don’t trust the idea that modelling is art. Art presupposes a depth of experience and engagement with the world
- I distrust the culture which is so flimsily related to the whims of the market
So here I was, preparing to become image fodder for a giant hungry porn machine and be regurgitated by market analysers, who I presumed were like those people in the Hunger Games who throw up their food in order to eat more. In the midst of that, deadlines approached. Apply to study postgraduate clinical psychology, or pay the place sponsorship and go to London? Or do neither and face the continued void of being graduated from a course so broad as to be useless? Other twenty-somethings warned me that I would only live once, and besides, I was afflicted with the vestigial membrane of a childhood belief in being discovered and whisked away like Cinderella. But still, I wanted confirmation from some other source besides the organisation itself that this competition was what it claimed to be. I had sent emails to anyone in the industry who might know, but nobody had yet responded. It was as if this competition was a fantasy I had concocted from reading too much bad pop-fiction.
Meanwhile, if I was going to be a real model, I would need a portfolio. I was contacted by a local photographer with a fake-sounding name, looking to do a photo-shoot in exchange for using the images for promotion. I figured that anyone with such a suspicious name must, by some reverse logic, be very genuine and well-intentioned. I agreed to do a shoot in an impromptu studio in his garage. Of course, I wasn’t so stupid as to allow a strange man to take photos of me alone in his garage, so I invited my grandmother.
This photographer was a quiet little man who led us to his make-shift studio where I changed clothes and posed, hugging my knees innocently or pouting on a stool. He kept trying to straighten my hair so it fell perfectly from a mid-part like two orange sheets. He even came up and adjusted it himself, or moved my clothing about so I could feel his moist little hands patting my hair, like a dog licking its young. My grandmother completed her crossword puzzle. He seemed like ‘a nice young man’, she said.
A day later he sent me some of the pictures. Me in a black dress which melted completely into the black backdrop and me against a white backdrop which made my skin look like a pink baby. ‘You’re so gorgeous’ he messaged me when he sent the last photos. I didn’t message back.
I was nervous about meeting with another photographer, but the next one who contacted me was very professional. He had a family business and he would never touch the models himself for any reason, he said, as this was very unprofessional. He wanted to do some fantasy photography which, from Google Images, I gathered meant beautiful heroines in dark forests lounging about in gossamer dresses with wolves. I agreed to visit him to try on clothes from his model wardrobe.
Three of them were there when I visited the house: the photographer, his mother-in-law and his adult daughter. They were friendly and generous and even offered me a free smartphone when they found out I didn’t have one.
I was expecting some kind of celebrity wardrobe reveal, but there were just a few racks of clothes, the accumulation of a habit of picking up here and there, items meant for someone smaller and skinnier than themselves. I tried on a wedding dress and a selection of corsets. The mother-in-law helped me tie them up at the back and I imagined I was Kate Winslet being oppressed by society. The corsets made my chest look big and this was met with approval.
“What if we did a shot with you in a leather jacket, holding a pistol?” wondered the photographer, in a moment of inspiration. “Would you be ok with that?”
“With a motorbike,” added the daughter. “You’d look real badass.”
“Ok,” I said and they handed me a silver pistol from a black case. The weight of it turned me giddy for a second and I pointed it at the mantelpiece and pretended to fire.
Of course, I didn’t really agree with making guns look sexy. But I did believe in looking badass.
I still couldn’t find any proof that ‘TOP MODEL WORLDWIDE’ was a scam. The organisers replied to emails swiftly but in single sentences, and I didn’t want to sound rude. I emailed the manager of a local modelling agency to ask if she knew of the organisation. She said that she had never heard of it, and added that the previous year, one girl had been left high and dry at the Christchurch airport after a similar story with another competition. On the other hand, I did find an article on Stuff.co.nz about a Kiwi girl who competed in ‘TOP MODEL’ a few years ago. She won a prize and hadn’t, as I could tell, been funnelled into the porn industry.
I wondered if there were rules about competitions like this, so I did some research. According to Susan Scafidi, ‘fashion law’ hadn’t really existed as a distinct field of law until 2006 when she had the tenacity to propose that it be studied as a field in its own right. The laws that protect performers and artists don’t protect models. As a result, they can often be abused, underpaid, misled, made to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, or selected for their anorexia.
In other words, the reason the industry is so unregulated and, if we believe my dad, ‘a portal to the porn industry’, is that despite being one of the most lucrative industries in the world, fashion is seen as frivolous. Perhaps this contradiction – the extent to which we buy into fashion and simultaneously shun it – is partly a product of our uneasiness with femininity. ‘Frivolous’ is, quite often, code for girly. It’s make-up and accessories, lacy doilies and pink china dogs It’s that pernicious Professor Umbridge’s decorative-cat-plate collection in Harry Potter.
It’s an excess of care about appearances. Better feminists, of course, avoid girly-ness by cultivating armpit gardens, avoiding mirrors and retail outlets, and never ever reading Vogue. Giving too much thought to our appearance reminds us of the bad old days when we had to think about doilies because we were busy being oppressed by ‘the man’. Better feminists don’t need fashion. Better feminists are confident. They know who they are. They probably know how to wring a chicken’s neck. Better feminists would look at those runway models and see ‘materialism’. They wouldn’t see the way they float as if unencumbered by reality.
An email arrived reminding me to send the money for the place sponsorship as soon as possible. My mouse hovered over the button that would send the money from my own account – almost all the savings I had.
And still, requests kept finding me on Star Now. I turned down a request for a weekend of naked ‘art’ photo shoots in Central Otago but accepted a hair modelling gig run by a salon who were showcasing products to Dunedin hairdressers. I spent the day having my hair glossed and curled into an impressive ginger afro, and walking a catwalk with a group of excited girls wearing the latest Company of Strangers collection. When one of the younger girls worried she’d mess up the walk, I reassured her.
“You’ll be fine. It’s all about confidence,” I said, and then I went out there and walked confidently in the wrong direction. I watched the footage of myself afterwards and cringed. I didn’t look towards the camera at the right time. I didn’t place my body in the right way. My arms were like white sausages.
But still, I persisted. I met with a friend of mine who reported for the local newspaper and convinced her to do an article to ask for sponsors. ‘Heading to the Catwalks of London’ the article read. I told her that modelling had made me more confident. But I didn’t believe it.
I waited for responses in my inbox but received nothing. Finally, nearing the end of the week, I received one email from a lady who had read the article. She offered me a free lesson in ‘nurturing my feminine essence’. I accepted, of course, and she was lovely. I almost wished I could have been the kind of person who could close their eyes in public.
As I walked the fifty minutes back to my flat in the spitting rain, decrying my immature tendency to wear shorts in response to any brief gap in cloud-cover, I realised I didn’t want to be a mythical creature. I was done with bikinis. I was done with smiling and tightening my stomach muscles and wearing heels. I was done with sending letters to strangers asking for money I didn’t deserve. The Cinderella in my head gave up her dream of being discovered and resolved to discover herself. I decided to take control. I decided to become a novelist.
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