The back room of the Ibiza nightclub was thick with ammonia and stale booze, two smells that were unfamiliar to me.
At 16, I was also unaware of the debaucherous nature of Ibiza, knowledge that would come years later, with maturity and experience. As a muted bass line crept in from the room next door, I stood in a group of 64 other girls aged 14 to 21, model hopefuls from around the world, and I looked down at the outfit dangling from my fingers: black spandex boy shorts and a white bathing suit, thong-cut with a front V that dipped down past the navel and straps barely wide enough to cover, well, anything.
From atop an apple box, the producer explained what would happen.
"Don’t worry," she said, "the dance floor had been cleared." We would only have to be out there for a few minutes so video footage of us dancing could be shot. The words I remember most: “If you don’t wear it, you won’t win.”
So, with much hesitation, I changed into the least amount of clothing I had ever worn in public (without being provided a changing space, as club employees strolled past with excuses in the form of mops and buckets or bags of ice) and I did what I was told.
Of course I wanted to win. Every girl there did. Winning meant a modeling contract of $150,000, an infinite sum for a teenager. Winning meant an escape from my life: a suburban existence that lead nowhere but university, job, marriage, and my own suburban existence.
It all happened so fast. Just two months earlier, I had been “discovered” by a New York scout from one of the world’s largest agencies. Then, I won a spot in the agency’s annual international contest, that year held in Spain, where I ended up placing in the top 15, winning a two-year, $50,000 contract. It’s strange how winning something can make you feel as if you should be appreciative.
I returned home to my last year of high school, though agency representatives tried to convince my parents that I needed to be in New York immediately to fulfill my contract. Fortunately, my parents stood firm and refused.
One month after graduation, at 17, I moved to New York. My stuffed animal collection stayed behind.
The new face of Christian Dior is 14 years old. It’s difficult for me not to consider this in the context of my own life, my own trajectory in modeling, a job that I held for almost two decades. I admit, I never got a contract for $265,000, but, like Sofia Mechetner, the first show I ever walked in was Christian Dior. Spring/Summer 1995. When I was 16, two months after the contest in Spain.
I remember the fitting for that show, backstage in a hidden room inside the Carousel du Louvre. My first time in Paris, my first fashion show, I was in awe of it all.
I remember standing in front of a group of people, all adults, all strangers: the designer and his entourage. I wore a black and white hound’s-tooth mini skirt with a matching bustier in a stiff leather, its cups molded to fit a more womanly figure than my pre-pubescent frame.
I remember that without saying a word—maybe because he knew little English and I knew no Italian, maybe because he didn’t even know my name—the designer stepped toward me with a furrowed brow and ripped the top off of me.
Then, with his bare paws, he attempted to readjust my practically nonexistent breasts into something that might fill the bustier. I stiffened under his touch and held back tears like I did at piano lessons whenever my teacher admonished me for not practicing enough.
Realizing that nothing would work, the designer pushed the piece in my direction with an audible exhale and walked away, leaving me standing there clutching the top against my unclothed torso.
It took me years to understand that in this situation, the designer did not see me as a person, as a breathing, living entity, but merely a vehicle for showcasing his clothing, his creations.
Despite my innocence, I did, however, understand that if I were to continue modeling I needed to become less sensitive about my body, and over time, over the course of my career, I was able to create a detachment between myself and my own body. It was the only way to cope.
Let’s go back to Ibiza. The dance floor had been cleared, but that meant that clubgoers were simply pushed to the sides where, now sweaty and leering, they surrounded the dance floor and hung over balconies. The contestants were herded to the center of the room, the music turned up, and, on cue, we started dancing.
What happened next had not been explained: large cannons near the ceiling started spewing huge clouds of white foam. It smelled bad and stung when it got in your eyes, which it did because it rose quickly.
Turns out the clubgoers were allowed on the dance floor after all, and it didn’t take long for some girls to get groped. The episode ended when a security guard rescued me and guided me in his arms, like a chick under its mother’s wing, back into the relative safety of the back room, where many girls were already in tears.
It’s easy to say, hypothetically: “I’d do that for $265,000. Or $150,000. Or $50,000.” But when you find yourself in the position, it’s different. Where do you draw the line for what you would do? What if your job depends on it? What if your family’s well-being were also at stake?
Dior’s new face, Sofia Mechetner, is now the earner in her family (her single mother previously worked three jobs). What will she do, or be asked to do, to not have this taken away from her? And, being so young, who will she turn to for guidance?
It’s easy not to humanize models, to imagine them having no thoughts and feelings. They are a rare species; most people don’t know a model. Models exist either as inanimate—flattened on the pages of a magazine, or supersized, looking down from billboards, or voiceless as they glide down a runway.
And I get it, modeling and fashion are all about untouchable illusion. No one wants that glossy image shattered. Certainly no one wants to hear complaints from those whose lives are envied. But, what if the girl in question is your daughter? What then?
Using teenage models to hawk adult products is detrimental to all involved. For the viewer, it presents a warped idea of what womanly beauty and sexuality should look like.
And what about the models themselves? How does modeling at such a young age stunt or alter one’s psychological development? Before I had even kissed a boy, I was using my face, my body, and its sexuality—wholly lost on me at the time—to sell things. The irony, too, lost on me: that I was using sex to sell before I had even had sex.
How could my parents have allowed me to continue to model? Because they didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t tell them. Anything. A teenage daughter lying to her parents is nothing new.
My parents trusted me, trusted that they had raised a girl with a good head on her shoulders. They trusted the agency. The few conversations that did take place before my departure with anyone from the agency were only to assure my parents that I would be taken care of. I wasn’t.
The only girl I remember who traveled with her mother was 15, from Canada, and still found a way to smoke weed on the rooftop of the chaperoned model apartment on a Saturday afternoon.
I knew that if I said anything, my parents would prevent me from seeing where this new and potentially exciting life could take me. So, I perpetuated the stereotype of glamour and only years later would I allow myself to realize the damage that withholding the truth—from others and from myself—had done to my psyche and my sanity.
In allowing this to happen, am I the one to blame? Maybe. But at 17, I was ill-equipped and utterly incapable of making these decisions on my own. Especially in this adult world into which I had been dropped. Especially when those in positions of power—bookers, agents, clients, photographers—all always behaved as if nothing were wrong, and elite clubs have means of keeping their practices private.
How could I have kept modeling for as long as I did? The simple answer: Because I could; because at six feet, 125 pounds, with strong and symmetrical facial features (all of which I inherited), I look like a model. Because I didn’t know what else to do, I didn’t know there anything else I could do (no one in the industry cares to help a girl figure out her next step), and it was all I had known since the age of 16.
Because I made a decent living without having to work too many hours. Because I did get to see parts of the world and meet people (both good and bad) that I wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise. Because there was always the chance that a million-dollar contract could land in my lap at any moment, and the prospect of money has a way of transforming even the most levelheaded into starry-eyed dreamers.
I’m sure my parents, too, hoped that modeling could make me rich and famous. What parents don’t want to dream big for their children? Maybe, however, where teenagers are concerned, modeling is just the wrong dream to have.
Maybe it would have been better if we had waited until I was older, until I had a better sense of myself and my body—before handing it over to the whims of others. Maybe it’s best to leave this very grown-up profession to those who have fully grown up.