Five years ago, in the middle of February Fashion week, I was freshly 22 and sipping cheap vodka concoctions at an after party for an avant garde menswear designer somewhere on the lower east side of Manhattan.
Among the crowd that gathered were 90’s alterna-rock icons, IT-girl models, drag queen superstars and peppered between were my two girlfriends and I, born-and-bred babes from New York City.
I wore oversized black-rimmed prescription glasses that had not yet become a trend among YOLO millennials, a $12 high-waisted black pencil skirt from H&M and a red top tucked in. A kind-faced fella by the name of Medford struck up a conversation with me.
“I like your style,” he said.
“Thanks!” I smiled.
“I’m here scouting for talent for a new show. Are you into fashion?”
“Of course! What kind of talent?”
“Something for a network, the details aren’t something I can share now but you’d be competing to win a position at a fashion magazine. Is that something you’re interested in?”
Time stood still in that moment. I went to school for creative writing but had to drop out because I wasn’t able to afford it. For my entire life I wanted to write for a magazine and here someone was offering an opportunity I’d often daydream about. Our conversation was brief but he handed me a card and asked me to send him some writing samples.
I was overjoyed. When I got home, I put the card on my fridge so my Mom could see it. Neither of us believed him, but I followed through with the samples the next day and soon after received a phone call from Medford asking me to show up to a closed audition for the show.
I arrived at a hotel in midtown, folder in hand with a 20-page questionnaire containing things like “Describe your personality in 3 words” and “What do you least like about yourself?” I answered honestly.
There were about 100 of us, all clearly chosen for our individual styles. We were split into two groups of 50, divided by scouter. We were to go into a room and then face a casting director and panel of industry makers and we were given 1 minute to tell the dais why we deserved to be cast on the show.
When it was my turn, I remember sounding desperate, but somehow that worked to my advantage.
“I don’t know about anyone else in this room, I only know that I’d wrestle an alligator on the floor to be given a chance at this opportunity.” The main casting director laughed, and my fate thus far was sealed.
We broke for lunch. After which we were reunited in the conference room. The casting director said that numbers would be called and those were the people that were moving on to the next round.
There was the bitchy leather jacket wench that told the panel she deserved this more than anyone else because she was the only one in the room with connections and experience in the fashion industry. There was the super cute British guy whose accent alone guaranteed him a spot in the next go around. And then there was me. “Number 64.”
I was ecstatic and praised myself silently for getting to the next phase. The other auditioners were thanked for their time and told to leave, while the rest of us had to wait. The room thinned and 50 people remained, 25 from each scouter. And there I was.
The lights went off and a camera was put on. The first auditioner of the second round was called up by number to keep our anonymity. He was told to stand on a marker and a bright light flashed onto his face. He was greeted by the casting director and then was asked a series of very personal questions that were plucked and highlighted from questionnaire. When he was finished, he was instructed to leave, and he would hear from someone within the next few weeks. A lump appeared in my throat and my hands started to shake.
There were 8 people before me, each one with a different sob story. Some told of a relative’s passing, some spoke of growing up poor, all while the room sunk into their chairs and began to fall asleep. Ten hours had passed since we arrived that morning and now we were all fading. I listened to each story, wondering what my angle was going to be.
It was my turn and my hands were still shaking. I walked up to the marker on the floor and clutched my fingers tightly in my palms. Just then, the director stopped the process, instructed an assistant to turn on the lights and berated the rest of us for boring her to anger.
“Let me just say that this is the worst group of people I’ve ever interviewed to be on a television show and I’ve casted for every season of America’s Next Top Model. I expected so much more from NYC and this is the bullshit I am getting? Wake up, this is your opportunity and nobody is showing me that they want it. You are all giving me sob stories and that’s not what’s going to land you on this show. I’ve been to four cities so far and I can count the number of people I remember, and there’s only been about two of you in this room so far who are on that list. Get it together and stop wasting all of our time.”
I froze. Clarity came in the form of adrenaline. Suddenly all of my fears rushed through my pores.
I interrupted the casting director: “Well. I’m going to be the next person you remember, so let’s get started already.” She let out a small laugh, and said, “OK, let’s.” The lights were turned off and the questions began.
“How would you describe yourself in 3 words?”
“Creative, adventurous, and fun.”
“Describe your personal style.”
“Broke Boho. Lazy Rock & Roll. Brooklyn. A little Stevie Nicks one day, a little Joan Jett the next.”
“It says on your questionnaire that you drink to get drunk. What do you mean by that?”
“It means that although a glass of wine here and there with my girlfriends after work or cocktail at brunch is fun to some people, I’m not satisfied until I’m sloshed. That’s the point isn’t it? I mean I know I’ve had fun when I wake up the next morning and I find an eyelash in my cleavage.”
“What?!” The casting director shrieked.
“Oh, you know, you wake up the next morning and your memory is cloudy, but you know by the looks of it you’d been dancing with strangers all night in a dark club, and you’re sweaty, and your eye makeup is smudged and lipstick is faded and your hair is tousled and your fake lashes have fallen between your breasts, you just know in that moment before you realize how hungover you are, that last night must have been EPIC.”
The room erupted with laughter. I hooked them three questions in and if I could keep up the momentum I knew I’d make it to the next round. I felt amazing, I knew what comedians felt like when they were working the room and everyone was in it with them.
“I can make this happen,” I thought. I had never been so sure of anything in my life until that very moment, I took that small victory and I ran. But I knew what was coming next.
“You are clearly a beautiful girl, but let’s be honest, you are not a size 2. You know the fashion industry is hard on anyone that doesn’t fit the mold of model thin. How would you handle the pressure of being plus-size in this competition?”
Keep in mind this was 2008. There were no major mainstream plus-size blogs. There were no campaigns about “Real Women” there were no real outlets, social media communities did not stand behind the plus-size woman yet and although shopping at mainstream stores wasn’t a serious issue for me, most straight stores were very limited in their plus-size options. I had never had to speak publicly about the way I looked before and had no other option but to be honest.
“I don’t know what you see when you look in the mirror and I don’t know what you see when you look at me but I don’t measure my worth on what you or anyone else in this room thinks of me. I feel amazing, I feel beautiful, I strive to be fashion-forward in the body that I have now, and I can’t conform for anyone. Would it be tough? I don’t know. But I do know that I feel beautiful in a way that most of my skinnier friends don’t and that’s the attitude I will bring into this competition.”
A voice from the back of the room yelled, “You go, girl.” It reminded me of my mother. She would later be heard on TV saying it to me on an episode. It was something she always said to me growing up, a familiar phrase of encouragement.
I finished my interview on a high. I had made everyone feel something, I had proved I wanted this more than the rest of them. When we were finished, Medford winked at me and I left the room. A man who left to use the bathroom as I was exiting the room stopped me in the hallway and said, “You made my day and you had the best interview, thank you so much.” It was a uniquely exciting experience. It was my favorite part of the process.
Two weeks later. I was told I made it to the preliminary rounds. We were sent to LA to CBS studios to meet a bunch of TV execs. I was there for a week, sequestered from the world. We could watch TV and read books but had no access to phones or Internet.
There were 20 of us. We weren’t allowed to speak to one another and although we went to meals together and waited for interviews together, we were only known as numbers. The point of this was that when we met on the show it was "for the first time," although at least four of us had previously met at the New York auditions.
We would try to talk over breakfast, but there were hired people making sure we barely made eye contact. In one interview, I was shown a photo of a few contestants and had to give my opinion on that person based solely on how they looked.
A moment flashed through my brain that my picture must have been shown to everyone else and that upset me. So I was brutal. They showed me a photo of a very petite, but beautiful girl who spent most of our time at the hotel in a white bikini, with her fake DDs front & center. I destroyed her in my comments. Later I'd felt terrible about misjudging her, as we would both be cast and she would grow to be my closest friend on the show.
That evening Medford came to my room.
“You did very well, Danielle. One of the big execs is pushing for you. Tomorrow is the last set of interviews and you need to really bring it.”
I was confident. The next day came and went. I did what I thought they wanted and the night before we were to go home I was brought into a conference room where I met with the original casting director from New York.
“This competition is tough. There are people that have more experience than you, they know this industry more. That being said, you made it!”
I smiled so hard my face hurt the next day. I thanked everyone in the room and told them I wouldn’t disappoint. We left the next morning and my boyfriend and mother greeted me at JFK. I waited to tell both that I had made it until I saw them in person. We were all excited as I told them about LA. I left four days later, and started what would later be known as “Stylista.”
The show was a competition reality show that was based on "The Devil Wears Prada." We were all vying for one editorial position at Elle Magazine. Our Miranda Priestly was Elle Creative Director Anne Slowey, who was portrayed as vapid, stiff, and cruel but was actually a lovely and sweet person. Her confidante was Joe Zee, another editor at Elle who would later go on to be on a few other reality shows. He was less intimidating than I first thought and really knew his shit.
In reality I thought both were down-to-earth people from whom I could really learn, but I was never really given the opportunity. The strings and puppetry from the producers and scriptwriters backstage would do anything they could to produce a story. We were all given the same spiel about how this was a great opportunity that would help us in our pursuits even if we didn’t win and sometimes for the runners-up, a job opportunity arises.
I kept these thoughts in my head even though that first night of taping lead me to believe otherwise. In one scene, Joe Zee was critiquing our outfits. We were told to wear something that reflected our personal style. I felt safe in a pair of fitted black skinnies, a blue blazer and a pair of open-toed snakeskin heels. Joe Zee was complimentary saying, “You look great. I really like the pop of color in your jacket and it fits well.”
He then paused and was told in his earpiece to give his feedback again, but this time include something about the fact that I was plus-size. It wasn’t until that moment I realized that I was a typecast. The fat girl we should all root for. Or make fun of. Or both.
I tried not to feel defeated, but would soon realize the manipulative and deceptive extremes people will go to in order to produce a story.
The rest of filming I tried to be myself while also trying to stay aware of what the producers were doing, but they were too good at their job and I was too inexperienced to know any better. I would have to sit through hour-long conversations with storywriters, sound guys, interns, that focused on the imperfections of my body. I would have to talk in detail about things I never even thought about.
I’d be filmed eating normally and watch the girls around me with debilitating eating disorders push strawberries around for 30 minutes with a fork and knife. I ate salads, but the one night we had pizza I was filmed more than anyone else.
If everyone decided we were going to treat ourselves to wine and ice cream because of the long day of filming, I would be the only one asked about it during our weekly interviews. It made me sick and when I finally realized what was happening I gave up.
One day, I became ill from sushi we had eaten the night before. I was in such pain that I was crying in the bathroom at our “office” Elle Downtown. This was the episode where we were allowed to go through the fashion closet and pick something out to wear to an event that night.
I had made up my mind that I wouldn’t even bother looking as I’d been in there many times before and I knew everything ranged from a size 0 to a size 6. The producers told us before filming those scenes that, “There are things in the closet for everyone. So, please, don’t hesitate to look.”
They mentioned the closet having Armani suits for the one male that was left on the show and looked at me and winked. When I went into the closet I found two identical tops in different colors that were the only things in the closet for me. Both items were scattered so that I really had to look through every piece of clothing to find them.
I gave up. I stared directly into the camera (which is a big reality show no) and told the producers to go fuck themselves. Later that night, when I was interviewed, I was asked, “Was the reason you were crying because it was so hard to find something in your size in the closet?” Even though that event happened before I rifled through the clothes.
I told my storywriter, Jodi, to fuck off. She told me it was important that I answer her questions in the interview otherwise I could face elimination. She confirmed what I already figured out. I had been severely duped and the next elimination, I was cut from the competition because I would not play into their games. Unfortunately for me, they had enough on film to edit me down to a weak person with serious self-esteem issues.
The winner ended up being a very smart, very fit woman, who was edited to seem like a she had everything going for her, but whom I came to know as vain and insecure, and who would later tell me, “The fashion industry wasn’t made for women like you.”
Months before the show aired, I needed counseling. I needed to find ways to deal with all of the anxiety I had just having thoughts of how I was about to be portrayed to the world. I saw a therapist, the show came and went, a second season was never picked up. The show had terrible reviews.
The worst was trying to explain to my friends and family that the person they were about to see on TV was not the person they knew in real life. Nonetheless they were supportive and loving and proud of the person they saw. Friends told me to start a blog about my experiences and to reach out to other women who could relate to me but I was too broken to do so at the time, too disappointed at something that was supposed to change my life for the better.
Eventually I accepted what was only a fleeting moment in my life. I held on to the positive things that came from this, that which encouraged me to quit my dead-end job, break off a relationship that had run its course, move out of my parents house and experience my 20s with full acceptance of the person I was.
I am so happy that in 2013 there are so many women who stand united in the idea that beauty isn’t a size and thankful that I had the platform to show people that the fashion industry is made for people like me.