I wrote this piece for the Sunday Times in 1981.
EVER since I saw Twiggy on the cover of Petticoat magazine I was obsessed (like every other 16-year-old) with becoming a model.
I used to practice making up my face for hours (‘if Twiggy could wear three pairs of false eyelashes, then so could I). My hobby was skin care. I would dash home from the rigours of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (BK 1) and plaster my face with home-made face-packs, elbows rammed into lemon-halves.
I painstakingly cut out hundreds of pictures (with pinking shears) of glamorous vacuous-looking models from every magazine from Huigenoot to Harper’s Bazaar …
I just KNEW that modelling was my vocation.
Once I was through with my studies I would fly to London, Paris or Rome (I wasn’t fussy). I would be spotted in the streets of one of said metropoli and – well – the rest would be history.
I would become a household face, if not name.
Francis Ford Coppola would threaten to strangle himself with a piece of spaghetti if I didn’t accept the lead in his next movie. Scavulio and Avedon would fight tooth and nail to photograph me.
I used to pore over the small ads: ”Attractive girls of all ages required – no experience necessary” etc. etc. and agonise about which number to call.
I was convinced they were all open sesames to the glamorous world of modelling.
Finally my mother relented, eyes rolling heavenwards, and enrolled me for a modelling course run by a top Johannesburg agency. Stella Robertson. (I wonder if anyone remembers her?)
I was in my seventh heaven.
Three time a week I would catch the bus into town to be taught the gospel according to Cleans-Tone-and-Nourish. I was now dashing home from the rigours of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (BK 1) to practise Giving Myself Different Looks.
Going to the supermarket I would imagine every aisle was a ramp. I undulated behind the trolley like an elegant giraffe.
For me, the word ‘model’ was synonymous with everything that was sophisticated, desirable, exclusive and exciting.
Once I became a model, women would whisper behind my back: ”Isn’t she the girl in that perfume ad….?” Men would flock about me vying for my attention, begging me to let them take me away to live in a manner to which I might wish to become accustomed to … little girls would ask me how they could become models ”like you” ….
I graduated from the catwalk and was told that I would be a lovely model.
My enthusiasm at this stage bubbling at boiling point (after all, the cover of Vogue was mere weeks away), I decided it was time to answer one of the enticing small ads.
Move over Veruschka, sorry, old Shrimp …
The first advertisement I answered was the usual “unique opportunities in the glamorous world of fashion.” I agonised about what I would wear, painted my face, toiled into town on the 74 bus and found the address: a sleazy joint above a restaurant.
Hmmm … Where was the white ducoed office with purple velvet drapes? Where was the chandelier, the montage of famous models on chaise longes – or at least on the walls? The enthusiasm started to wane slightly.
The photographer, (who looked as though he should carry a government health warning) looked me over briefly (and lecherously), and told me to come back – after two hours.
How naive I was! When I returned to the studio, where I suspect even the mice wore overalls, he was – surprise, surprise – alone.
He shoved some forms at me and said gruffly: ”Fill in these – later.”
Then he told me to lie on the floor. This was to relax me, he explained with exaggerated patience, insinuating that only a novice would imagine this was not a perfectly normal request.
He then proceeded to try to hypnotise me: ”You’re FEEEEELING SLEEEEEEPY …. When you hear me click this shutter you will feel beautiful and turned on…” (This being a family newspaper I will not elaborate on the suggestive details of his monologue.)
I started giggling nervously since I was feeling foolish, lying there on the floor like a fried egg, listening to this lunatic chant. So he obviously decided that a direct approach might be more fruitful.
”Let’s start off with some underwear shots,” he leered.
”But that’s not the sort of thing you see in Vogue …,” I stammered.
”Hah ! Have you seen how UNDRESSED Vogue is becoming these days?” he demanded.
Ignorant an inexperienced as I was in the ways of the world, even I was starting to suspect that all was not kosher.
Tears welled in my eyes, I grabbed my brand-new model-bag and fled.
The next Sunday I read a long and sordid story in a newspaper about some fake photographer who made a habit of enticing young would-be models up to his ”studio” and trying to seduce them. One of his methods was hypnotise them. I wonder if it could have been the same man?
The episode shook me.
Where was the glamour?
Where was the fantasy world peopled with girls with perfectly-featured faces and endless legs wearing silver fox and Bulgari jewels? Where were the good-looking photographers who cajoled and flattered?
But people kept insisting that I would be ”a lovely model”, so I went back to the agency and decided to let them find jobs for me. Yes, they did find me jobs. But not the kind I had in mind. There I was, opening fridge doors, simpering at power drills, beaming in sultry bikinis and looking sultry in portable showers.
Sure, there were the glam jobs – the fur coat and perfume ads and the feature on diamond jewellery… but the effort and persistence required to land such jobs would make Sherpa Tensing’s Everest effort seem like a Sunday stroll.
Landing a prestige modelling job was a multi-phased operation. First the agency would show your ”portie” (portfolio) of ”pickies” (aka pictures) to the client. Then you would trundle off to an audition with another 300 hopefuls (I once went to an audition in a five-star hotel – there were 400 models filling the foyer). This audition could last anything up to six hours.
Then the ”finalists” would be chosen … he also-rans would shrug their shoulders and force a ”you-can’t-win-’em-all” smile and trudge off lugging their rejected portfolios. Eventually the client would get back to your agency, ask you to go for test shots and THEN perhaps you would be lucky enough to land the job.
Many are called but few are chosen.
Models are expected to promote themselves. If you don’t have a job, you are expected to traipse the town to ”go see” photographers. Make them aware of your paltry existence.
Most photographers are bored to death with being asked to take what they disparagingly call ”happy shots.”‘ You totter into their studios, hot and sweaty from having walked 93 blocks (or hot and sweaty from having battled to find a parking meter) only to have them slip through your portfolio, poker-faced and then say in an expressionless voice, ”Well, thanks. There’s nothing happening right now, but we’ll keep you in mind!”
The modelling agency expects you to to be ready for a job at half an hour’s notice – so you hang around the phone. It got to the stage where I was packing a hairdryer like a 44 – ”you never know”.
Some girls who don’t suffer from hyper-activity are content to sit in the modelling agency, waiting for something to turn up. In the end this usually pays off because the agency will obviously prefer a girl who is there, at the ready, to the inconvenience of finding another model.
The money may be good but how long can you handle being paid for being bored? A shoot may take three or four hours. Most of the time is spent waiting for the photographer to set up lighting, waiting for the director to make up his mind about the props, waiting for the weather to clear… Yawn.
The sad fact is that in South Africa there are very few opportunities to hit the big time in modelling.
Without wishing to sound like Miss Sour Grapes 1981, there is a tendency for the few fashion magazines we have in South Africa to latch on to one girl who suits their images and to use her over and over again.
Glamour? I didn’t see much of it. Just had bad-tempered photographers and irregular work at impossible hours and months of waiting for your money to come through.
And as for the perfect features and flawless skin? It’s all done with low lights and trick mirrors.