Karlie Kloss taught me how to walk when she was 15 and I was 18. Do you know how embarrassing that is? To be a woman grown — the owner of a high school diploma! — and have a girl three years your junior teach you how to walk?
The answer: not at all embarrassing. Are you kidding? It's real neat. I should put it on my résumé. Karlie Kloss is a bona fide supermodel. What type of weirdo would be embarrassed to get walking lessons from her? She could do an Irish step dance atop freshly fallen snow without sinking in. She is the grand supreme authority on being a pedestrian, for heaven's sake.
No, getting walking lessons from Karlie Kloss was not embarrassing. Attending a summer camp for aspiring models, though — holy eff. That was.
While on vacation in Florida in 2007, a man named Kevin approached me in a mall and asked if I'd ever considered being a model. He had a waxed head and emotionless eyes — 99 percent pupil — and looked about as predatory as any man could look. He did, however, have a business card from a well-known modeling agency and two to three tall, pretty girls in tow, all of which afforded him some legitimacy. He invited me to their offices in Miami for a meeting the next day. Flattered, I said I'd be there.
The meeting in Miami went like this: a talent manager measured my hips, waist, and bust, told me to lose weight, and said see ya.
There was a bit more to it — I waited in a lobby for a while, too — but that was the gist. I had caught Kevin's attention at the mall because I was tall and young and gave off the impression of slimness. My visit to Miami proved, despite my height and youth, that I was in no condition to make them money. I had stomach pudge and wide hips and was not terribly photogenic. If I could fix those things, though, then we could talk. That's meant literally. I could not talk to them again until I lost weight.
"Let's get your hips from 39 inches to 36," said Kevin. He was a recruiter whose paycheck depended on my signing with an agency. "If you can do that, contact me in six weeks. You could get signed and maybe make money."
Getting signed and maybe making money sounded good to me. I was a senior in high school who planned to go to college in the fall only because that's what middle-class people did, not because I had any ambition. At 18, my sole concern was winning the heart of a boy who reminded me of Jim from The Office. If I became a model, I reasoned, perhaps I could win the heart of the real Jim. I couldn't care less about fashion or makeup or hair, but I liked the idea of dating stars and getting paid to look beautiful.
Losing weight wasn't difficult. I knew the basic formula for weight loss was less food and more movement. Thanks to a lifelong hearty appetite — my ideal breakfast was four donuts, my ideal dinner six to eight tacos and three glasses of milk — my diet had plenty of room for improvement. By cutting dessert and second helpings, I lost 10 pounds within a month. Within six weeks I was close enough to a 36-inch hipline to contact Kevin. When I did, he invited me to the agency's model camp in New York City that July.
"You'll meet with agents and have your own photo shoot," said Kevin. "With luck, you'll be skinny enough to get signed, at which point we'll further exploit you for our own profit. What say you?" OK, that might not be an exact quote.
"Could I get rich?"
"All right, I'm convinced. Sign me up!"
"Good," said Kevin. "From now on, stay out of the sun — we don't want you tan. Stop plucking your eyebrows. Don't cut your hair. Practice posing in the mirror and walking in heels. And for the love of God, lose more weight."
"Sounds like I've got a hairy summer spent indoors, not eating, to look forward to. Thanks, Kevin!"
By this point, I lived in a strange purgatory between apathy and commitment. For most of my life, my go-to outfit had been track pants and sweatshirts. Fashion was not my thing. Plus, I recognized the agency's need for me to be stick-skinny as wrong. Still, a modeling career was pursuing me, and who was I to turn down such a lucrative, glamorous job offer? I had dreams I'd make a million dollars, move in with Jim, and go for jogs with my new best friends, Gisele and... I don't know, another supermodel. (Like I told you, I know nothing about fashion.) So why not? It'd be easy to lose more weight, grow more hair, and stay out of the sun. That all sounded like a reasonable enough sacrifice to realize "my dreams."
Those dreams, of course, were delusions. Most models struggle to make $30,000 a year, Jim's married, and Gisele's more into yoga.
But since I didn't know that at the time, I did what Kevin said. Before camp started, Elite told us it would include a two-mile run around Central Park. Convinced my mile time would determine my modeling success, I began running two miles every morning. My life consisted of jogs and sit-ups, artificially sweetened yogurt and Lean Cuisines, measuring tapes, scales, and mirrors. By July, at six feet tall, I weighed 128 pounds.
Then camp started. On the first day, instead of the two-mile jog I'd been promised, Elite had us do yoga. Picture an extremely brittle tomboy trying yoga for her first time amid a room of flexible future models. That's what it was like, except far worse because the whole thing was filmed and your girl was posted directly in front of the tripod.
On the second day, Karlie Kloss gave us a runway demonstration. She looked as if she were skipping across cumulus clouds suspended by trampoline springs. Her ability to walk was spooky-good, like miracles and The Office. After she went, the other aspiring models and I had to follow. Our heartbreaking little fashion show took place in front of agents and models and moms. You and I both know it was spooky-bad, like the season Jim dated Karen.
On the last day, each girl had an individual test photo shoot. We all had different time slots, so they planned activities throughout the day for us. One of them was a walking tour through Central Park, for which we all wore the same size small, agency-branded t-shirt. Even at my skinniest, I was never a small. I have a disproportionately long torso and that shit was a crop top on me, but as Kevin would— and did — say, "Models are supposed to wear smalls."
He reminded me of that fact often, actually. Since my photo shoot was scheduled for the evening, Kevin followed me around that entire day to yell at me for doing reprehensible things like drinking water. Even though it's easy to vilify him for it, I can't really blame him. He did it because in order for either of us to make money, I had to be skinny. He didn't create that beauty standard; he just went along with it. So did I.
When camp ended and I started college, I'd get encouraging phone calls from Kevin every few weeks to remind me of the dangers of freshman tomfoolery like eating. That November, an agent invited me back to New York for a meeting.
This time they put me in a bathing suit, measured my hips, knocked on the bone, sighed, and said, "There's nothing else there. It's just too wide." The same day, Kevin arranged for me to meet with a different modeling management company. Someone there accused me of having a boob job. Neither agency contacted me again. I cried all the way to California Pizza Kitchen.
Actually, I didn't cry at all. I just had a good meal then went back to college and gained 30 pounds and graduated and got an office job in Maine.
I was disappointed, but mostly, I was relieved. I was too skinny. To say I looked unattractive and to use words like emaciated and bobble-headed insults others who are naturally that slim. What's worse, it still places the emphasis on looks rather than quality of life, and it was the latter that determined I was too skinny.
I gave up things I loved for vanity and greed. I willed the days away just so I could go to bed and wake up to a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. If the best part of your day is eating a bowl of cereal, your life's probably not too fun. And if you follow your cereal with weighing yourself, measuring your hips, and examining the angle of your stomach pooch, then your life probably especially sucks. Mine certainly did. It was such a tedious, uninteresting existence, all in the hope strangers would think I was pretty enough to convince other women, if they bought the shit I wore and used and ate, they'd be pretty enough, too. It turns out I'm not pretty enough for Jim, and that's OK. Unlike me, he isn't a real person.