The night before NYFW, I’m awoken by my vibrating phone to the image of my blank Netflix screen and the feeling of my head in my packet of popcorn.
Before I moved to New York, I liked to imagine my life as many giggling teenage girls did; a lot of Carrie Bradshaw moments where pigeons parted at my Margiela feet, and strange but beautiful characters emerging out of cabs in Houston street to change my life forever. But two solid years later, I still find myself pushed up against men who have never heard of an annual shower in the subway that already smells like ancient urine, and my body is less Candice Swanepoel and more pre-pubescent boy. So when I wake up to the smell of my cheddar popcorn, I’m not so shocked anymore. It becomes my little childish ‘fuck-you’ to fashion week.
What can I say about modeling that hasn’t already been said? People talk about the eating disorders and the sexual assaults, they glorify the Victoria’s Secret Angels and the Calvin Klein billboards, and assume Cara, Gigi, and Karlie represent us all. But there are stories within the sensationalized, and there are real people underneath the gloss and the dirt. When I was scouted in Australia at 14, I was so young and fresh and unknown. I was unquestionably heroine for the casting directors, and I saw the best of the industry. When you are young you don’t care so much for what you don’t understand. I walked for Hermès without knowing what it really meant, and I threw away my editorials in GQ after ripping out the pictures of Ryan Gosling. I had a wonderful agency and kind agents who protected me, and I let that innocence reign over all else.
When I moved to New York for college and began modeling there, suddenly it all felt real. You cannot model in New York without caring about it – no matter how Freja Beha your aura is, and how many packs you smoke. It’s hard not to care when you’re sent to Estee Lauder castings that will pay you 5 digits for a day’s effort, or when Joan Smalls shows up at Model Lounge the same time you accidentally step on Chanel Iman’s foot. When you’re racing to your 7th casting before making your 2nd fitting and it’s dawn and the lights of the buildings bounce off each other in a way that is only possible in New York, you feel as though you are achieving many things. That’s the magic of this city; you feel as though any second you will turn a corner on Lexington and some fucking great thing will swallow you whole, and your life becomes the music video to Empire State of Mind. Because modeling in New York is very real and it’s very fast, and people are not so honest and so you feel as though every opportunity is translucent. I meet many 13 year old girls from Ukraine at castings, and they all exude that aura so many of us had when we first came to this city. An aura of invincibility cushioned by awkward modesty – there’s an inherent belief in the very beautiful. When I see that in them, it’s both nostalgic and heartbreaking.
Photographer Dennison Betram
Photographer Georges Antoni
What I want to say is this: modeling is more than the romanticized image of a beautiful anorexic girl staring at her diet coke. It’s more than the stunning girl standing next to Karl who even your oblivious mother can mouth out a first name at a glance of her profile. And it’s more than the street style snaps, the after parties at 1OAK, the random acting classes, and the untouched salad. I meet so many beautiful people everyday, so inspiring, so creative, so shiny. But I have also met the opposite. Modeling is a profession, like anything else, but at the same time, it’s difficult to classify. When everything is defined so physically, who are you to know what is real and what is not? That is why I and so many others I know cannot make up our minds on whether we are in love with it completely, or if we want to shoot our brains out at the mere prospect of another casting. Perhaps in retrospect, we will come to know.
I’m a little older now, no longer fourteen, and I don’t feel as young as when I first stepped foot in New York City. I am twenty, but for some reason I cannot add the only. You don’t realize how fast you change here. The opportunities and moments that had seemed to me so important a few months ago have dimmed, and my life itself has sharpened in contrast. It’s not that I don’t care about modeling anymore; it’s just that I don’t care so much. It has never been the center of my life – I have always cared more about my classes and my major and who I will inherently become. Had I cared about it completely, let modeling become my one career focus, I think I would have been rather broken. Maybe I am not as strong as the rest, but I understand who I am and what I need. I think you should never confuse your passion with what makes you money. If the two overlap, then you are a goddamn lucky asshole, but the purpose of doing what you love shouldn’t be the dollar bills. If you work for any other reason besides passion and love, you cannot make anything authentic. And I have always known that modeling is my money job – I don’t make anything close to Liu Wen, but I make a lot more in a single day than a month waiting tables. I value my time and freedom because I don’t get a lot of it, and so I take what I can get. But there is no authenticity in modeling, for me at least, and my passion lies elsewhere. I am in love with fashion and film and art, and modeling helps me channel that at times. I am always thankful for the experience, the people I meet, the clothes I get to wear, and the moments themselves. But I believe they only bring me closer to where I am supposed to be, and modeling itself isn’t enough to hold me. I wonder if there’s a way I could have worded that without sounding like I have a stick up my ass, but I only mean that it is important to never let something become your entire universe. I always feel a little awkward when someone labels me as a ‘model,’ not because I am ashamed, but because I have never felt like I am one. There shouldn’t be an idea of an identity, of finding out who you are supposed to be, or becoming that one thing you are destined for. Because if I have learnt anything in my years of trying to be a chameleon, it’s that nothing is permanent and life is change. We do what we think is best, and when we know better, we do better. We adapt and we evolve, and become who we want to when we want to. Perhaps modeling makes up a piece of who I am at twenty, but it is only until I graduate onto my next identity.
Many of us will fade out. Ours isn’t a career that creates many memorable names. Maybe it’s part of our beauty, the elusiveness, or maybe it’s what makes our tragedy. I used to have this naïve belief that I was different from the rest, a little paler maybe, or my eyes were more special, or my earlobe the perfect amount of awkward. But models are all special, and there are always fresher faces, younger girls, taller girls, skinnier girls. And so I have learned to experience the moments, let it rest, and befriend the few real girls who also like to read, to swear a lot, to accept refusals as growths of character and not attacks on their physical attributes. I look at it all fondly now. I am relaxed and ready, always ambitious, but never expectant. We’re models, yes, but we’re also just young girls, experimenting and learning, even as another, even behind a lens. In New York at 3am, we all had our moments. We had the Meat-packing parties and the free bottle service. We had the conversations about our weight, bitching about our bookers, rubbing our blistered feet. We shared eye-rolls across hallways in sketchy fashion week castings, and we had rappers trying to take us home. We shared cigarettes, even those of us who didn’t smoke, shared nude bras, shared a black jean, shared dreams and boroughs and ambitions. We love modeling as much as we hate it. And so many of us will leave, will go back to school, will marry, will move to the West coast, will spend our pay-checks on Ann Demeulemeester boots. But our experiences bind us together, no matter how big you make it, or how hard you fail, through weight gains and college degrees, and through shitty male model boyfriends to even shittier village men. And so when I look at faces in magazines now, I see colors and personalities and stories, and for a few seconds, I understand them like nobody else.
In New York, as in modeling, we all wait for our moment in which the city falls in love with us. But even if you never get your Saint Laurent exclusive, or even if you do, the stories you hold never lessen or increase. Because you have your moments, and even if they are not perfect, they are yours. You are who you are, model or not, and if you find your reasons and your obsessions, you’ll linger.
Photographer Natalia Parsonson