Somewhere in between joining Storm Model Agency and walking the ramp with the Supermodels, I needed to get started on my model portfolio. A model's portfolio (commonly referred to as her book) is her resume, her ad campaign, the proof in the pudding - vouching that she is a professional and showing off her photographic potential.
Unless you're lucky enough to have Patrick Demarchelier banging on your door from the second you're discovered, you need to build your book by testing. Test photography is a collaboration between agency, photographer, styling artists and model. Sometimes new photographers offer to test shoot models for free, as a way of building their own portfolios. Otherwise the agency or the model might pay the rest of the team to shoot specific pictures that the model needs. If a rookie model finds a good agency that believes in her, the agency will pay for test shoots upfront, hoping to recoup their investment when she starts earning money. I was lucky enough that Storm offered to do this for me, otherwise that might have been the end of everything!
My very first test was a bit of a nightmare. For some unknown reason, a photographer and make-up artist was booked, but no stylist. A couple of days before the scheduled date, the photographer phoned me and told me to bring my own clothing. When I panicked and started explaining that I'm a poor drama student with a taste for the unusual, he unsympathetically said I could surely borrow some decent duds from friends or maybe I knew someone who owned a boutique? Dude, I wasn't some hoity-toity Camps Bay socialite, trying her hand at a spot of modeling when I wasn't swanning around in my boutique-owner friends' designer gear...
Poor. Drama Student. Out in the sticks!
But the intimidated young me just said okay, I'll make a plan, before putting down the phone and freaking out.
As fate would have it, one of my house mates heard the ruckus and came out to check on me. Frans is a bear of a man, an engineering student at the time, who loved playing his didgeridoo at all hours of the day and night. He went on to play underwater hockey for the Netherlands. Interesting man. Anyway, so Frans calmed me down and pointed out that his wealthy, fabulous artist mother did know some boutique owners and within an hour I had an appointment at a swish store in the Waterfront. The kind of store I'd never even looked at, never mind went into and shopped at!
Frans' mother must have had serious clout at the boutique, as I was treated with great kindness on my scouting trip. The sales lady helped me find three outfits according to the photographer's list: a suit, a cocktail dress and a smart-casual outfit. The grown-up elegance of the store was so far removed from my personal taste and lifestyle, I couldn't picture myself wearing any of it and had no opinion either way, so I happily left the store with my loot beautifully wrapped and hung in suit bags.
When I arrived at the shoot location (a gorgeous house in Camps Bay, ironically) I had no idea what to do or what to expect. The make-up artist was courteous but not friendly, unceremoniously shoving me into a chair and starting to powder and paint my face. She sighed at the state of my home-dyed hair and made as little as possible small talk. Once she was done with me, she called the photographer over and he too seemed a bit gruff and impatient. They stared in misery at my little collection of clothing and then seemed to agree to just shoot it and be done with me.
You see, the success of any photo shoot is dependent on so many different factors all coming together beautifully and if one area is underwhelming, it affects everything else. While the clothing I'd brought was nice enough, a professional stylist would've added just the right shoes, earrings, belts and other accessories to take it from a fairly boring periwinkle blue suit to something hot and happening. Sans stylist, this was going to be hard.
We spent about three hours taking photographs. I was so out of my depth. I would stand in the position indicated by the photographer and not know what on earth to do. My eager devouring of fashion magazines clearly didn't mean I suddenly knew how to pose and work the outfit. We shot the blue suit standing against a wall, then for the cocktail dress I was lying down on a sun lounger while the photographer shot straight down at me from the balcony above. It was slow going and highly frustrating, no matter which way I turned or how I tuned my smile up or down, the photographer seemed unhappy.
Eventually we moved on to the last outfit, a little printed T-shirt and black trousers. They posed me on a bed, trying to get me to look all relaxed and natural. An impossibility when I felt that they were unimpressed by me and that things just weren't working out. Somehow I ended up upside-down and finally the photographer was sounding a bit more enthusiastic. "Good, great, little smile... Okay maybe a little less..." And we were finished.
In retrospect, it wasn't terrible for a first shoot. Sure, having a stylist would've helped a great deal, especially if we'd chosen clothing a little closer to my own style. And a slightly friendlier team, used to working with first-time models, could have made me feel more confident and adventurous in my posing. But things don't always come together perfectly and there was also a lesson in that. We used about five pictures from the test for my first portfolio, as a mediocre set of pictures was better than no pictures at all. Eventually the suit and the cocktail dress shots were removed from my book and got lost, but I still have one picture left to remind me of the start of it all.