Modeling was my first job, and is to date the one I've held the longest. My final stint, which started in Paris and wound through cities almost too numerous to mention, spanned almost two years. Then, this summer, I quit.
The industry demanded a geographic flexibility that was initially very exciting. I had eleven addresses last year, and that's just for starters. I lived, notionally, for a time with a boy in San Francisco. There was the couch in the freezing Bushwick railroad, and the extended Stuyvesant Town housesit. A dissolute month on my then-editor's couch.
It became apparent to me early on that a lot about the fashion world does not, on its own terms, add up. Fashion has industrialized , and deeply fetishized, its production of newness, but every photographer I ever worked with would inevitably give, un-prompted, at some point during the shoot, his What-We-Lost-With-The-Death-Of-Film eulogy. Early adopters these people are not: the industry still follows an archaic schedule whereby clothes are presented six months ahead of season in shows that are "private," but for the whole of the Internet, which means that in many cases knock-offs beat the originals into stores. Nobody can say for certain whether or not this matters, given so many of the designers who protest the knock-offs the loudest revisit each others' and their own old ideas in an orderly season-to-season progression, like runners in an infinitely recursive relay race, with shoulder pads.
The money doesn't make sense: designers sell next season's clothes at those shows, then fill their orders using proceeds from the collection of two seasons ago that retailers are, finally, coughing up for. This structural financial constraint makes nimble reaction to any external world event almost impossible, which explains fashion's famed disconnect from things that might be called "external" "world" "events." I learned early that the higher a job's fashion quotient, the less money I would be offered. How, exactly, I was supposed to make a living as a model never became entirely clear; when I worked two months in Australia last year, after agency fees and the rent were deducted, nearly AU$5,000 worth of earnings became AU$690.90. Less than the cost of my airfare, certainly less than the cost of the food and subway passes I'd had to charge during the trip. I left Sydney in November. I didn't get my $690.90 -- $413.70, after wire transfer fees and currency conversion -- until this April. "At least," said the agency accountant, "you worked!"
I had to get used to living however, and wherever, I could. Like in a tiny Washington Heights studio. Milan was a single room in a long-stay hotel with a hot plate, a bar fridge, and two other models. I still don't know how much I paid for that; I was too afraid to ask my booker at Elite Milan.
Because the industry keeps even its marginal players endlessly occupied, but bored, there was always plenty of time to think. I often reflected on the fact that studies show that women, after looking at fashion magazines -- full of pictures of girls very much like me, sometimes even pictures of me -- feel bad about themselves. I also often wondered why it is, given this fact, that we buy the magazines again next month.
This is not to say that I didn't enjoy modeling. In point of fact, what kept me in the industry for so long was the constant contact with lovely women, smart women, talented women, hard-working women, inspiring women, women of the sort I wanted to grow up to be. (I met some nice men, too, but, in this industry, there are just fewer of them -- fashion is a powerful global business that has the quirk of being thoroughly gendered.) In fact, fashion is the world's largest employer of women; it's an industry of women, by women, for women. I felt like I was always meeting the best of them: Foodie art directors who advised me on which East Village deli secretly sells the best $3 goat tacos East of the Mississippi. Prop stylists who went to RISD, emerged only with an ingrained loathing of the art world old boys' club, and decided to fuck it and paint hay bales odd colors and source antique books for editorial spreads. I remember walking 20 minutes from a train station to get to a photographer's apartment, and then talking for an hour about Tess Of The D'Urbervilles and Cindy Sherman, over tea, while she intermittently remembered to take my picture. (She drove me home, and we worked 12 hours together that weekend.) It took me a very long time to reconcile the apparent disconnect between the consistent wonderfulness of the many people I was working with, and the persistent awfulness of the position of abject and total disempowerment that I, like any non-super model, occupied -- to realize that the problems of the modeling industry are not in fact personal, but structural.
And then there were the models. I knew, when I walked into my new agency, Elite Paris, in September of 2007, that I had found my tribe. They were the sweetest, dirtiest talking, weirdest, comic-book-loving, Internet nerding, most breathtakingly cynical, tallest, hard-drinkingest, Proust-readingest, silliest, one-day-I'm-going-to-fuck-all-this-and-be-a-lawyerest, funniest, toughest crowd I'd ever run with. They were all 16 and 20 and 23, and most were amenable to staying up late and talking about Lech Walesa and the problems of teaching post-WWII history in a country where 15 years ago neighbors turned each other in to the secret police for having an extra chicken. Or they would trash talk creepy clients while drinking white wine out of 7UP bottles in the street because none of us had the money for a bar tab and the apartment was too hot. That was good, too.
A bubbly Sydney stylist let me a bedroom for $280 a week and talked about enhancing her vital energy through Ayurvedic foods. A party photographer used to give me the keys to his house when he was in Mexico City or Shanghai making a living taking pictures of hipsters who wore the same cut of jeans as back in Silver Lake, but I think I knew, even then, he would not prove a lasting friend.
A dear friend of mine, a lapsed English major from Los Angeles who looks like Madonna, once pointed out that one of the dangers of modeling as a line of work is that you're forever passing through. In this job, you can go to a new city and be a new person, maybe -- or at least nobody will be there to know the difference. Which means that you have to be the keeper of your own institutional memory, that hard-won self-knowledge such as you were able to eke at 14 or 16 or 18, or whenever you threw your lot in with a booker who liked what you'd always hated about your nose.
When we were talking about mutual acquaintances, my Madonna lookalike friend told me a story about a fellow model, a teenaged scenester I'd been hanging out with in Los Angeles and New York earlier that year. The girl rolled with a musician boyfriend who was fucking my friend when she was 16, and she had a momager who lived off her earnings, which included at that time $25,000 for a major global campaign. And, said my friend, the teenager had actually just entered rehab in Arizona because the whole time I had known her, she was shooting heroin. The story -- with the stage mother, the influence of one of the many dudes who fuck 16-year-olds, the money jobs, the intravenous drug use -- all seemed at the time like a giant neon sign flashing Get Out Of This Industry Now. I still can't believe I didn't even realize she was strung out. Perhaps that contains a depressing message about the kinds of connections this business fosters between people. Or about how I coarsened as a person during my time wandering this earth selling the rights to my image for a living. Or both. I don't know.
I never hated my job -- I kind of loved it, actually, the diet and the pay and the persistent feeling that what I was doing was actually, you know, stupid, withal -- but I began to grow scared that the longer I stayed in the industry, the more I enjoyed the deferment of real-life obligations it entailed. I went over a year without spending six weeks in one place. And it made me the kind of person who couldn't recognize when a teenager was injecting Class A narcotics. Possibly because, at the time, I was doing a shade too many substances myself.
Paris was a Pepto-Bismol womb of a room in an apartment where Diane Kruger stayed when she had my job. (The color gave me pregnancy nightmares.) I spent three nights in a models' apartment near Wilshire and La Brea with no electricity; my three roommates and I removed our eye makeup by candlelight.
Yes, there were parties, often very strange ones. (The fashion industry relies on an astounding number and variety of externalities to make the investments it demands appear, to its principals, worth it.) I decided to stop seeing a dude when he pleaded, in the doorway of a Carroll Gardens townhouse, "Don't leave, baby, I just scored cocaine." And a curly-haired Scientologist teen sitcom actor who carried a wad of hundreds secured with a rubber band lectured me in a night club about the additive contents of Red Bull. I remember once hanging out in Los Angeles with a born-again Ultimate Fighting champion and his Playmate girlfriend -- "She shot her issue before she met me, you know," explained the champion -- at the home of a Texan introduced to me as Anna Wintour's de facto stepson. The Texan worked -- naturally -- in the West Coast office of Men's Vogue, and he kept a loaded handgun in his kitchen drawer, next to the aluminum foil. I started talking to the Texan's fraternity brother, who moved to Los Angeles from New York at 25 because, he said, he felt one couldn't move to Los Angeles at 28 or 29. If it didn't work out and you had to go back East, it would be too late.
"Do you miss New York?" I asked the fraternity brother.
The man looked at me for a second. In the kitchen, the Texan removed the magazine from his pistol and handed it to another guest.
"New York is the best place in the world to be," he said.
At the time, I interpreted this as a straightforward endorsement of the city. New York is simply where you live if you have any choice in the matter! But I'm no longer so sure of the judgment.
Then I slept on a couch in a crumbling Spanish Colonial-Revival mansion off Franklin where they did not give me a key because the French doors did not lock.
New York was the place I kept returning to, at first excitedly, then grudgingly, then with relief, because at least I speak the language and the subway runs all night. (And I did try that goat taco place, and it is good.) Although I traveled widely as a child -- I had lived in four countries before I turned 18, and visited numerous cities in Western Europe and Asia, sometimes for work and sometimes for fun -- I didn't see New York until I was 22. And for that I will be forever grateful: this odd conglomeration of mostly working infrastructure and unimpeachable cultural security, this city where you never have to wonder if the movie will open or the band will play or the author will read, is a place I shall never take for granted.
When you model, your job mostly entails going to 5-10 different addresses every day, an astonishingly direct introduction to a city and its workings. In Milan this was achieved on that city's subway, which shows such unswerving aesthetic devotion to its primary color scheme that using it feels like actually being inside Massimo Vignelli's iconic map. In Paris, stunned by the cost of a carte orange, I often walked between castings. (I had a budget of €80 per week, funds my agency, when it doled out its weekly loan, insisted on calling my "pocket money.") In Los Angeles, I bummed rides from models with cars, borrowed a bicycle from the party photographer, and learned that the city does in fact have a subway system, and that you can take it to Pasadena and go to the Huntington Gardens on your day off. Everywhere, I walked and walked and walked. And charged groceries.
I'd love to say that traveling broadened my horizons, that all these places took on unique contours in my mind. That the Australian-accented Hasidic Jews I passed on the street in Bondi were somehow different than the ones I'd see rolling up the security gates on their bakeries as I stumbled home in Williamsburg at a quarter to five in the morning. Instead, after a time, everything reminded me of something else. And I hated this anhedonic change in my own perspective more than I hated any other change in me that the industry wrought. New York remained exceptional for a lot longer than anywhere else, but, eventually, I tried coke in the kitchen of the Beatrice Inn and then at a party I stayed long enough to hear a white magazine editor refer to a black magazine editor, not present, as "that fucking nigger," and slowly, the city lost its particular glamor.
There were hotels times infinity. I slept two weeks on the couch of my childhood best friend while it rained in spring in Auckland. My renewed New Zealand passport was posted to a Mt. Eden craftsman cottage. Sydney, pub manager, harbour view.
My bookings were actually steadier after the onset of this recession than before, but my interest in my modeling "career" was lessening markedly. My wonderful booker at Next in New York fell in love and moved to Paris at the beginning of this summer. I soon lost heart at the process of, at 23, finding a new agency; dashing all over to be interviewed, offering up my book as if it I still believed it comprised all of my achievements, felt almost shamefully stupid. I called my mother agent, a hardworking Christian from the Midwest who was fond of e-mailing abstract but heartfelt encouragements ("God is a rewarder!"), and told him to tell the new agencies no. (Only one even tried to change my mind.)
My last job -- "Oh, if only we could be shooting film," exclaimed the photographer, as he put in his memory card -- was for a bridal magazine, and I wore, among other things, a dress that cost $29,000 and was largely constructed of ostrich feathers. Before the job, the photographer had found an old personal blog I used to write, under the name I'll now be writing with for Jezebel. He wanted to know why I'd given up on that blog; I was good and kind of funny, he said. I told him I'd gotten bored, which was more or less true.
At the very end of the shoot, as the assistants were striking the set, undoing everything they'd jerry-rigged so convincingly the day before, as the stylists were packing up the couture gowns and the art director was looking at potential layouts with her boss, and as I was putting on my jacket and heading for the door, the photographer called out to me, "Jenna! Please just keep writing."
My name is Jenna Sauers.
I smiled, and told him that I would.