I hadn’t thought about them before, the light bulbs. I had been working for this client for the better part of three months as a fit model, which is about as close as you can get to regular contracted work if you’re not a Victoria Secret model.
Most models -- the girls you see on runways and in magazines and on big billboard campaigns -- reach their peak in their early 20s. That’s when the elastic in your skin is still taut and the wrinkles haven’t set in. After that, the lucky ones, like Daria Werbowy, become the “mature” faces of luxury. The majority of the others fade into obscurity, moving back to whatever country they came from or marrying a rich guy.
But fit modeling you could do practically forever, provided you stay the same size. I once heard a story about a fit model for a famous design house who had started in her 30s as the company’s production size six. Twenty years later she was still at it. At 50, she got liposuction to keep working for them. When you get a fit modeling job, you do everything you can to keep it -- especially when there are no better options.
This client was a referral from another client I'd had for years back in Los Angeles. The original designer had licensed their name out to a Canadian company that specialized in cheap taffeta and scratchy crinoline -- inferior approximations of beauty stitched together in a foreign country using underpaid labor and then sold to American girls shopping for high school prom.
Now they were in charge of the designer’s bridal diffusion line, taking her aesthetic -- known for its liberal use of expensive French and Spanish lace, hand appliquéd beadwork, deep and beautiful draping -- and watering it down until it reached a vague, passable similarity. The fabric might have been different, but at least the body would be the same. That’s why I was hired. Le mannequin mobile…
Unlike with my previous employer, I never felt secure there, which was perhaps less a reflection of the actual company and more of the New York modeling market as a whole. The turnaround in this city is brutal. In LA, you could keep the same client for years, loyalty being the byproduct of having a smaller supply of workable girls.
But in New York, every season brought with it another wave of beautiful bodies and faces from all over the world, girls who were younger, thinner, more ready to work for peanuts. Your absolute replaceability was felt as tangibly as the permanent crick in your neck from hauling a bag around the city filled with your portfolio and a pair of designer stilettos.
Despite the nervous energy that filled the place like a second oxygen, despite being lightly accused each time I came to work that I had put on weight in the three days since I had seen them, I did my best to be chummy and amiable, indebting them to me with my niceness.
Sometimes this tactic works, but most of the time it doesn’t matter. Fashion loves the lunatics, the divas. They’re the ones that stylists groan over having to work with but secretly luxuriate in being close to, like being the first on the scene to witness a city filled with people burn to the ground. The polite workhorses are boring. No one talks about those.
They were standing in a half circle around me, talking amongst themselves about where they could find cheaper beading for a gown -- if you had to source from China or India or if they just had to forgo the beading altogether --while I stood on my own against a white wall, waiting for them to finish.
People always used to ask me what I thought about while I was modeling. “Nothing,” I would tell them, which was mostly true. Because despite the fact you weren’t using your brain, you couldn’t check out entirely; there was always someone who would eventually ask you to do something so you’d have to stay at least partially conscious. What I generally filled my head with were easy subjects that required little creativity or depth. Which, in today’s case, was about having sex with Nathan Brockman, the DJ I had cheated on my then-boyfriend with the night before.
Happily, dreamily, lazily, I lifted my arms and crossed them high over my head, imagining being in his bedroom again, with his closet filled with plaid button-ups and a pile of worn-out Converse, the bed pushed into the corner of a very small room. Until an unfamiliar searing pain began to ripple through my central nervous system, neither hot nor cold, just a silent scream from my brain telling me to move my hand.
By the time I pulled it away, it was too late. I had come into lengthy contact with one of the dozens of exposed light bulbs lining the walls, the kind with the shiny chrome topcoat that bounced light behind it in addition to conducting an ungodly amount of heat.
I didn’t scream, or make a fuss. I only held my left ankle with my right hand, assessing the damage with a bizarrely calm distance while I said quietly, “I think I burned myself.” There was no real “think” in this equation; the damage was absolute. A two-inch diameter circle branded the top of my hand, the center burned completely white and surrounded by a large perimeter of reddish purple skin.
“Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay?” they asked, a chorus of concern that perhaps had less to do with caring about me and more about making sure I didn’t sue them for physical damages and potential lost income. Modeling is a physical job. You can’t work with a bum bod.
Hundreds of Band-Aids, pounds of doctor-prescribed silver sulfadiazine, and one set of Neosporin-stained bed sheets later, the wound had healed over, leaving a pink mark and a slightly different texture in its wake. I contemplated suing them for damages -- not some ghastly amount but at least for the supplies, for the jewelry castings that I had to skip, for the annoying inability to use my hand.
“You sure you want to do that?” my booker asked, in a way that made me sure I didn’t. “Is it that bad?” Yeah, lady. It’s that bad. I walked into a job with full use of my left hand and walked out without it. It’s bad.
And so I didn’t sue. I kept coming to work, bandage on my hand, until the season ended and they simply stopped hiring me. Years later, I’m still stuck with the mark on my hand, a permanent reminder of that time I didn’t stand up for myself when I was afraid of losing a job I’d lose anyway. Oh, and Nathan Brockman, I suppose, who soon after dating me went on to move in with Teri Westman, a petite brunette with no visible scars.