Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fair Lady Naked Lady

We had a rehearsal for the Fair Lady show, which is a highly irregular occurrence. As a rule, when you are cast in a fashion show, you might have to attend a fitting or two prior to the event, but any choreography is quickly explained in the few hours before the show, when the models are all at the venue anyway, having their hair and make up done. You see, time is money and show producers don’t want to pay for any more of the models’ time than is absolutely necessary.
So it was a blessing that for my very first show, we did actually get to rehearse the routine to the music that would play on the day. I guess they’d decided to work with rather inexperienced fresh faces to suit the ‘Young Designer’ theme and wanted to give us some much needed confidence. Being inexperienced, we were also still cheap.
The second bit of luck was that we were doing the entire show barefoot and that the show director, Lucilla Booyzen (previously known as the angry little redhead lady), really wanted us to walk super normal and naturally. I remember being at the rehearsal, strolling down the ramp to “No, no, no, you don’t love me this I know now…” and Lucilla saying “You’re really feeling the music, wonderful.” This a mere ten minutes after she scolded me for standing with my arms crossed in front of me… Apparently a no, no, no while listening to Lucilla talk!
The day of the show finally arrived, and while my Bad Boyfriend was not exactly thrilled about it, he hadn’t given me too much grief. I was as excited as a child on Christmas morning, but obviously had to keep my cool and act terribly blasé as soon as I joined the other girls at the venue.
When I found the rail with my name and outfits on it, my blood chilled. The first number was a simple white linen sheath, with a tribal tattoo print in places. It had slits on both sides, coming right up to my hipbones. The linen was sheer, which meant quite completely see-through under spotlights. On my upper arm, I had to wear miniature deer horns, tied on with leather cords.
I can’t recall my second outfit to save my life, I must’ve suppressed it so deep down that the memory will never ever resurface, but I know for a fact that it was even more revealing than the first.
The final number was a nun’s habit by comparison, a tiny a-line miniskirt and a cropped knit top with long bell sleeves. A woven basket went on my back with leather straps, silk flowers artfully arranged to peek out through the top of the basket.
Which reminds me, I should explain something about Young Designer competitions. Popular themes for Young Designer Competitions include Innovation by Technical Design, Recycle/Reuse/Resurrect Nature, the Future of Fashion, Wearable Art, Culture Clash and Form vs. Function.
The grand finale fashion show then exhibits the design student finalists whose work really grabbed the judges’ attention. Inevitably, the students interpret the themes by creating the strangest, most uncomfortable, and usually nude-est attire to display their creative genius. Look, I know everyone has to start somewhere and tries real hard to be original, but what’s with all the nudity?
Fair Lady Fashion Show 1995

Anyway, once again I knew there was no turning back and I fervently wished the rest of the show over. There was a lot of press, including TV cameras, backstage and I nervously ducked and dodged my way to the stage, to prevent my poor Grandmother catching her half naked granddaughter on the nation’s favourite magazine show.
I can’t remember if the other girls were as shocked as I was by our lack of clothing, I think it was made much worse for me by the fear of some picture or snippet coming into my Bad Boyfriend’s view. Every unpleasant thing he’d ever said about me would be validated; I felt like I was compromising my morals to be in a silly fashion show. I only prayed that he would never know, and swore to myself that this debut would also be the finale in my glorious modeling career.
Mostly, ramp modeling isn’t rocket science. You walk down the ramp, turn and walk back out, but it’s amazing how complicated it can feel once you step out under the lights and observe a thousand or so faces intently watching your every move. When all that’s between your privacy and two thousand intense eyes is a little floss of flesh coloured G-string and a sheer linen sheath, mortification takes on a whole new meaning.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Show Pony

But I digress. I was with The Bad Boyfriend. He didn’t trust me further than he could throw me, he thought all women were horrible sluts and that my wearing anything remotely flattering was a direct offense towards him.

Why I put up with this, deserves a whole different blog and probably a couple of years of therapy, but suffice it to say that he was three years older than my naïve romantic self, and he had also charmed my family into thinking that we were a normal, blissfully happy teenage couple.

I got another call from the agency. There was a fashion show casting and they were looking for really young, fresh faces. I took down the details, already perplexed.

I knew Bad Boy wouldn't like this one bit. Me, up on a ramp for the whole world to see in whatever outfit the casting director saw fit? He’d rather shut me in a closet and throw away the key. In a rare streak of rebellion I thought "Sod it, this is my life!" and arranged with my parents to take me to the casting.

I remember exactly what I wore that day. At the modelling course we’d been told that you should wear a short skirt and high heels to show castings so that the client can see your legs and your walk. My sisters were only to keen to help me find just the right look and pretty soon I was stepping out in a tight black and white striped miniskirt, a fitted denim waistcoat over a shrunken black tee and sky-high cork sole wedges. All these trendy, tiny items came from my precocious thirteen year old stepsister’s closet. I smeared on my lucky charm Vixen lipstick, added lashings of mascara and off we went.

Show pony:

show pony

The show I was casting for was the gala event of the Fair Lady Young Designer of the Year competition. Fair Lady sounds remarkably uncool doesn’t it? Yet it’s one of the handful of local woman’s magazines, along with Cosmopolitan, Elle and Glamour that we get here and therefore entirely respectable. I joined a long queue of tall, gangly girls on the 11th floor of the infamously ugly skyscraper hosting Media24.

One by one, we each had to walk the length of the room while an angry little lady with villainous red hair styled in a severe bob scowled at us and called out instructions. When it was my turn, I tried my best to imitate what I perceived to be a model walk. A step or two into the endless walk of shame, I knew I was failing, quite badly.

“No no no no no!” exclaimed the angry little lady. “What are you doing? Why are you walking like a horse? Take off those ridiculous shoes, stop trying so hard and just walk. Pretend you’re walking down the street with your friends, no weird model walks please!”

So I did that, thinking to myself, this is complete bullshit. I just wanted to carry right on walking when I made it to the back of the room, leave the ugly empty boardroom with the tall pretty staring girls and the angry little lady far behind me. But then she said “Great, thank you, that’s all I ever wanted. Please wait over here.” I watched in awe as the angry little lady broke a smile and gestured me over to the side of the room where five other girls, who could obviously also walk normally, sat waiting.

We sat in silence while the casting director observed and scowled and instructed. We cringed with shared embarrassment whenever someone was summarily dismissed, smiled shy welcoming smiles when someone was miraculously motioned over to our side. After a while I thought I could tell when she’d make someone stay. It seemed that she preferred the more natural, slightly offbeat girls to the gorgeous sexpots in full makeup and Wonderbras.

A pretty girl with strawberry blonde hair and gorgeous freckles came up and pouted all along the walkway. When the lady instructed her to stop pouting, she went bright red and couldn’t suppress a nervous smile. The smile revealed that she was wearing metal braces - the only reason she was ‘pouting’ was to keep her secret under wraps. We all looked expectantly at the lady, fearing her wrath. Instead she broke into another delighted smile and even laughed out loud.

“That’s just wonderful! How sweet! Now do your walk again but let me see those braces, don’t hide them away behind that silly pout!”

My mouth dropped open in disbelief.

By the end of the casting, about an hour later, there were twelve girls left. We were all tall, skinny and young but that was where the similarities ended. We were black or brown or white or yellow or pink; exotic, expressive and overconfident or plain, fine featured and shy plus everything in between.

We were models.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bad Boys and Beauty Queens

The really funny thing about the Fancy Bra Flyer is that I was still excited to find it in the mailbox one morning. I obviously have no pride? I don’t know if any of the kids in my school ever saw it, no-one ever said anything, so apart from this blog of course, I guess I got away with it.

And the money? I earned a whopping $40 for my twenty minutes of smiling in an ugly bra. Maybe the true worth of the paycheck is more understandable when you know that at the time I was also working as a check-out girl at our local supermarket, where I earned R3 (30 US cents) per hour. Hey, three hours of work and I could afford one Fancy Bra! With my Pep pay I could buy fifty. 

That first taste of fortune and fame was not repeated anytime soon though. Before I knew it, I was in my final year of high school and thoughts of modeling were far from my mind as I had a new boyfriend.

A Bad Boyfriend.

A jealous, possessive, manipulative, criminally insecure boy who'd estranged me from my friends and kept us couped up at home when we should've been out and about having the time of our young lives. Apart from the fact that we weren’t allowed to go out and socialize, this bad boyfriend also prescribed what I wore.

This will become increasingly absurd when I tell you that I clearly wasn’t an overconfident, alluring seventeen-year-old running around in revealing outfits. If anything, I was a bit of a mousy do-gooder heavily under the influence of grunge. So when I say he prescribed my wardrobe, it means he criticized the provocative fit of my faded baggy jeans and moaned that my oversized Nirvana t-shirts were too revealing. Seriously!

To further illustrate my truly unfeminine, unflattering personal style at the time, this anecdote. In SA we wear uniforms to school. On the odd Spring- or Sportsday we are allowed to wear our own clothes. While most girls would use this opportunity to dress up in pretty, flirty little sundresses, I would uhm, not.

One particular Spring day, each senior class had to choose a representative for the school beauty pageant. On this occasion, I wore beige knee-length baggy shorts with an oversized black t-shirt, several old-silver necklaces and my 8hole black Doc Maartens. They were my prized possession and the only shoes I wore, ever. Obviously my class was a bunch of subversive indie kids as they voted me and my Docs into the pageant!

Not your average beauty pageant attire:

Not your average beauty pageant attire

I went to the interview round, feeling mighty uncomfortable amongst the pretty, sweet girls in their sundresses, but what could I do? Besides, I was immensely flattered by my class’ vote of confidence. Despite the courage to do the modeling course and strut my stuff in the Fancy Bra, I didn’t actually feel like a pretty girl. I just figured I’m tall and skinny and that’s enough.

Unbelievably I made it to the finals of the Miss High School Pageant and I WISH I had pictures. I wore a floor length, chocolate brown crushed velvet sheath with long fluted sleeves, my Vixen lips and straightened hair parted severely down the middle. I must’ve looked like a vampire next to the pretty ones in their pastel ball gowns!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Fancy Flyer

A couple of months after the newspaper incident, the agency called again and said I was already confirmed for a department store shoot two days later, all I had to do was show up. I could hardly believe it, it was finally going to happen! I pictured everyone in my school leafing through their mail-delivered catalogues and spotting me, looking absolutely glamorous.

I'd been told to have my hair and make-up done and ready to shoot when we got to the studio, so on the day I rushed to the school bathrooms, with its awful fluorescent lighting, as soon as the last bell went and hastily applied some make-up, mostly borrowed from my mom. A younger girl using the wash basin stared at me in wonder. How much do you think I enjoyed telling her that I was on my way to a photo shoot?

My mom and I arrived at a dark, cold and dingy warehouse studio in the city, where I was immediately shooed into a dressing room. I had to remove several layers of clothing, it was the middle of winter, and I was mortified to be in my underwear in front of the none-too-friendly stylist. I wondered what I would be wearing and hoped it would be something really cool and trendy.

When the stylist handed me a huge, ugly white bra, I couldn't hide my shock. "Is that it? Is that all I'm wearing?" I squeaked. "Yes dear just get it on, we're running late. You can put your pants back on." As she left the room I took a quick moment to swallow back the tears threatening to spill over and gave myself a little pep talk in the mirror. 
"We came all this way, my mom took time off work to bring me, I was getting paid for it, I don't want to be a prude..." There was no turning back. 
I ran my brush through hair that had been in a ponytail all day, applied some more Vixen lipstick, straightened my shoulders and walked out into the studio wearing my jeans, boots and the Ugliest Bra in the World.

I was made to sit on a little stool in front of a plain white background. My mom was standing in a dark recess of the warehouse, trying not to get in anyone's way. When she saw what I was wearing, or rather not wearing, she just pulled a funny disgusted face and gave me a huge grin of encouragement. I tried to greet the photographer and introduce myself. He gave a condescending little smile and said "Just sit there and smile, okay?" I did my best to follow his instructions, and within twenty minutes it was all over. The photographer and stylist hastily moved onto the next shot, hardly even saying thank you or goodbye.

Thus I learned my very first lessons in modelling:

Ask questions before the shoot: you're allowed to know what you're getting yourself into.
Be ready for anything: including underwear/swimwear, extreme temperatures, embarrassment.
It's certainly not all glamour all the time: in fact, mostly it's not.
You're not the star of the show on set: you're just the product.
Pay your dues: you have to start somewhere, most likely not at the top.

I still don't know why I'm doing this, except for the little "in all honesty" clause this blog is based on, but here, for your viewing pleasure, I present, the true star of the show.

The Ugliest Bra In The World

For the bargain price of 79 US cents ladies, don't get one, get two!

And just to really rub it in, at about the same time I was Pepping the Ladies' Fancy Bra, Miss Eva Herzigova was saying 'Hello, boys!' in her Wonderbra and causing all kinds of commotion all around the world.

Please vote in my poll on the right, how much do you think I got paid for this beauteous work of art called the Fancy Bra Flyer?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A false start

When the modelling course was over, I took my A graded certificate and life went back to bored teenager in the suburbs normality. I didn't know what I could do next to seriously try my hand at the modelling business and was quite underwhelmed with my little portfolio of photos. Even I could tell that I was no natural at this. It seemed my dream was just that, a mirage, a fun little interlude but just not meant to be.

The agency who had presented the course was a small, amateurish operation and I suppose it wasn't in their interest to recommend that I try and find real, professional representation. So while I scoured the small print in the spine of every magazine editorial and read the sexy names of agencies like Boss, Storm and Outlaws, I had no idea that you could just call them up for an interview. I was sure you had to be discovered eating an ice cream (Naomi Campbell) or catching a flight out of JFK (Kate Moss). Imagine this world before the internet explosion, before entire channels on TV were dedicated to fashion, models and celebrities, before Tyra! All a girl could do was read her mom's fashion magazines and dream.

Then one day, out of the blue, the agency called and told me that if I could get to Cape Town within the hour, a photographer would shoot me for a newspaper. Excitedly I promised to get there in time and slammed down the phone to get going. Only then did I consider the facts:
I was 16 with no means of transport, both my parents were at work, my brother didn't have a license yet, and we lived 35 kilometers from the city. I decided I'd walk into our town centre and take a train. This could be my big break, I had to do this!

Luckily my brother sensibly interceded. It would take me thirty minutes to walk to the station, another fifteen to figure out which train to take. Then who knew when the train would depart, how long the journey would be and once all that was done I'd only be stuck at Cape Town station with no knowledge of the city or where I was meant to be. Never mind the fact that our public transport in SA is unreliable at best, dangerous at worst, and especially back in 1994 a young girl alone on a commuter train was probably not the best idea. He made me call the agency and tell them it couldn't be done. I hated him for it, while at the same time realising that he was absolutely right. Having my picture in the local newspaper, was just not worth putting my safety at risk.