Friday, August 21, 2009

Madiba and me

When Storm called me a couple of days later to say that I was booked for the Versace show, I was understandably confused. After the curt dismissal at the casting, how could I possibly have been chosen?
Debbie soon explained that while I wouldn’t be walking the ramp with Kate, Naomi and Amber in the latest Versace couture, myself and two other Storm models had been selected to model in an auction after the show.

The motivation behind the “Versace For Africa” event was a charity drive headed by Naomi Campbell. She had spent some time with President Mandela and had even been named as his honorary grand daughter! He had truly moved her to become actively involved with his personal charity, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. Naomi had approached her long-term friend Donatella and together they brought the international epitome of glamour to Africa. They’d end the stellar fashion show with an auction, the proceeds of which were to go to the NMCF. The House of Versace also donated to the auction, ten outfits and a copy of Gianni Versace's book, Vanitas, signed by the author.

Amber Valletta, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell arrive at Genadendal
I was thrilled to be involved in this worthy, glamorous event in any way and eagerly awaited the weekend. My dad dropped me off outside then-President Mandela’s house where I was quickly cleared by security. I was escorted to a marquee tent that was all abuzz with models, make-up artists, hair stylists and dressers. Once they figured out who I was and what I was there for, I was plopped down into a seat at a row of makeshift vanity tables. I was excited to see Louwina there. She smiled and winked at me conspiratorially as if to say, “Look! We got in anyway, can you believe it?” While someone started gluing extensions onto my own hair roots, another soul dressed head to toe in black performed an artistic miracle on my face, turning the girl-next-door into someone who might almost be mistaken for a model!

When I wasn’t staring disbelievingly at the transformation in the mirror, I tried my best to pretend that I didn’t notice MISS KATE MOSS in the seat next to me, paging through a trashy magazine and carelessly tossing her cigarette butt onto the temporary carpet. I held my pose when MISS NAOMI CAMPBELL jokingly (or not so jokingly?) and loudly voiced her opinion that they “always gave Amber and Christy the highest heels and the best dresses, it’s not fair”! I remember being charmed by their British accents, and that Naomi’s presence truly was larger than life. Wherever she was in the room, you knew it and you knew what was on her mind. But she was also quite sweet and funny and astoundingly beautiful. Kate was much more reserved and almost tomboyish.

I didn’t manage to catch a glimpse of Amber or Christy, though they must’ve been right there. I was desperately trying to spot any local models, curious as to who might’ve made the cut at the daunting casting. Eventually I noticed a young blonde, totally memorable by her luscious lips.
Lisa-Marie Schneider was about sixteen and just breaking into the local modeling scene. Male magazines were doing features on her and there was talk of a contract with a huge New York agency. I smiled at her as she nervously tottered up and down on sky-high stilettos; practicing so she wouldn’t mess up out on the ramp.

Lisa-Marie Schneider
Soon all the show models were called up to their dressing rails for first outfits and us auction models were herded into a kitchenette to anticipate our own turn on the catwalk. Louwina introduced me to a flaming redhead with the finest, most delicate features. Michelle du Toit and I were both small-town girls new to this game, both more interested in art and drama than glitz and glamour. We became fast friends that night at Genadendal and now eleven years later, I still consider her a dear, dear friend.

Michelle du Toit
When the Versace Spring/Summer ’98 unveiling was over, the celebrity models took their seats in the audience and it was show time for us. We took turns to slip in and out of the outfits up for auction, parading them with what we hoped was flair and expertise. When the next item was a car we posed next to it; paintings, books and plates were held up for examination and so we made it up as we went along.

The supermodels were quite vocal during the bidding, cheering on the highly cautious South African glitterati. Yes it was for Madiba, and yes, it was by Versace, but such flashy foreign labels were never traditionally held in high esteem at the tip of Africa. But things plodded along, certainly aided by the supers and their dollars and pounds.

My final item was a Madiba shirt, created by Gianni Versace himself in honour of the great peacekeeping leader. My dresser and I decided to throw it on over the last sequin mini I’d been wearing and off I went. I was still careful on the stilettos and pretty much faking the calm confidence required. I stood on stage and took a minute to actually see into the audience. Here I was, and there in the stands, looking up at me (or at least at my shirt) was Naomi, Kate and Christy, laughing and cheering and shouting higher and higher bids. It was so surreal.

The shirt eventually sold for R30,000 to an unknown bidder and luckily for me, the moment was caught on film.

While I was definitely in awe of the big persona's surrounding me at this moment, I think I'd also just expected this level of celebrity and excitement from the modeling industry. When looking at it from the outside, it seems that this is the norm. In the next decade, I'd come to realise what a uniquely memorable event this was. Truly special for the fact that it happened so soon after the tragic death of Gianni Versace, that it established Cape Town as a tiny but important part of the international fashion scene and in that it brought together the high profile impact of the supermodels at the height of their power and the venerable cause of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund. The supermodels even made a little film about the event, Fashion Kingdom. I wonder if I'm in it?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


My very first casting through Storm was a big one, and I didn’t even know it. I was instructed to go to the Table Bay Hotel in the V&A Waterfront for a show casting, wearing a short skirt and heels. I recall it was a Friday afternoon and I rushed out after class to change and chase into the city. Luckily by this time my brother had gone overseas, leaving his little blue Ford Laser in my slightly inexperienced hands!

I made it to the hotel in one piece, parked somewhere I wasn’t supposed to and hurried into the foyer. I was greeted by the sight of around eighty long-limbed girls, all wearing the short skirt-high heels-uniform, lined up outside a conference room, waiting to be seen. With a disappointed sigh I joined the back of the queue, this was going to take forever! An hour later only twenty girls had been in, come out and left and the crowd was getting restless.

I’d finally built up the courage to strike up a conversation with a slightly older girl whose face I recognized from magazines and the Storm model board, Louwina. She’d been modeling professionally since she was sixteen and had seen it all. She was the one who told me that this casting was for a VERSACE show to be held at NELSON MANDELA’S home and that all the SUPERMODELS would be there too! I listened attentively as she explained to a bunch of us newbie’s what a rare and amazing occurrence this was. Big international fashion houses never did shows in South Africa, and Naomi, Kate, Christy and Amber certainly didn’t put in regular appearances on our humble catwalks. I didn’t know whether to believe the outrageous things Louwina was telling us, but at least listening to her gush about it made the time go by.

A little flame of hope was also sparking to life inside my head. Imagine being on the catwalk with the likes of my favourite model at the time, Amber Valetta? I started building castles in the sky about being properly discovered, hand picked by Donatella Versace to star in the next Versace perfume campaign and the jet setting lifestyle my pal Amber and I would enjoy...

Look, I'm generally a sensible girl but when you feel like you get so close to these ephemeral, inspirational mirages of glamour and status, it's hard not to lose one's head just a little.

My beautiful reverie was shattered when someone of obvious authority appeared from behind the closed doors of the conference room. She was tall and blonde, dressed head to toe in black and looked severely harassed. At the sight of the slim hordes snaking through the foyer, she seemed even more upset. She went back into the room and came out with a shorter, darker version of herself. Together they started at the head of the queue, looking each girl over, then having a short, quiet conference before telling the model whether to stay or go. Instead of letting each model wait around before getting a chance to walk the ramp in front of the panel, only pre-selected ones would go through to the conference room. The rest were free to leave. On the one hand this seemed cruel and dismissive, on the other, it was going to save everyone a lot of time.

The ladies in black made their way down the queue in minutes. They knew exactly which type of model they were looking for and it seemed that there weren’t any of those at this casting! I think I saw two models being sent in to the actual casting, everyone else was summarily rejected. When Louwina got the boot just a couple of girls ahead of me, I knew I had no chance. She was taller, slimmer and infinitely more experienced. So when my turn came to stand defenseless before the judges, I saw their eyes glazing over in a definite negative, gave them my biggest smile and marched out the foyer door before they could utter their meaningless ‘thanks for coming’.

I slammed shut the door of my car, seething with humiliation and frustration, regretting the time and petrol wasted. It doesn’t matter how little you care for this business, how much you understand mentally that it’s nothing personal, it still stings like hell to be discarded so heartlessly. In time I would grow a thicker skin, I would waltz out of worse situations with a grin on my face thinking “Your loss, suckers!” but that first impulse of hurt and injured pride is still uncomfortably familiar after all these years.