The summer I was thirteen I decided to grow my hair out. I’d always had shorter hair - a pixie cut, then a bob, always with bangs. I liked to hide behind my hair and the more I had the better. A thick honey colored wall between myself and the rest of the world. I was painfully shy and couldn't stand to be stared at which stood a challenge for a 5’10” middle schooler with Groucho Marx eyebrows. I was paler than the moon so slender I looked like I might disappear. The summer I grew my hair out I was scouted.
Most professional, full time models you meet in big cities such as New York are ‘scouted’. This usually involves being stopped on the street by someone in the industry, most often an agent, who will coerce you into going in to meet with a certain agency. They want you to sign a contract with them, in which instance they get a 'finders fee’. What other industry allows adults to chase down preteens on the street? Creepy, I know.
It was the weekend, and like every teenage girl I was lolling around with a friend at my local shopping mall. A young woman approached me. She announced that a popular teen magazine was holding a modelling competition there. She worked as a scout for the agency involved and was suggesting that I enter. I was shy, I didn't know her. Naturally I was disinterested and refused. Unrelenting, she followed me. She name dropped all of the famous models they had discovered. My friend was all riled up and decided that she would enter. ‘There's prizes and gift bags’ the scout offered. Being thirteen I was totally enticed by the offer of free lipgloss and stickers. I filled out a form, hung out in line with my friend and waited for it to end.
I remember standing in front of a panel of women who shot both questions and compliments at me. They took my photo, and just before I walked off someone pulled me aside and took a Polaroid. It all happened in an instant. Why? I wondered. They hadn't done this to my friend. Nor to any other girl I'd seen pass through the line.
'You have a great smile. How old are you?’
Four stern women sat and looked me up and down. 'Thirteen and a half.’ I meekly answered.
'I think you might be a bit young for this competition.’ was their closing contention.
Before I had scurried home the winners were announced. My friend waited hopefully, eyes sparkling, bursting with excitement. All I could think about was heading home. Everything wrapped up and neither of our names were called. My poor friend; I had never seen a more let down girl in my life. She skulked back home, whilst my mother came to rescue me.
‘How was your day?’ the standard inquiry. I gave away nothing, just responding with a sullen 'fine’. And, for reasons unbeknownst to me as I silently stared out the window I began to cry.
A week passed by. My mother is on the phone talking excitedly to a muffled voice that I do not recognize. She approaches me, hand on the receiver. 'It’s a modelling agency!’ she hisses at me. ‘They saw you at the mall, they want you to go in and meet them!’ This all seemed very unorthodox to me. Calling my house? I wasn't buying it. 'It’s weird. I don’t want to.’ I curtly respond. My mother spent the entire next day trying to coerce me into meeting with these people. I would not budge. We squabbled as only mothers and daughters can, with it all ending in her telling me that I would meet with them and that was that. 'Just go and see, what's the harm?’
That summer, my friends were all going to their first job interviews at McDonald's and a myriad of other American fast food meccas. I was going into a modelling agency for mine. The young woman I had met at the mall greeted me, along with two other women around my mother’s age. The head of the agency, a lady with the demeanor of a slick car salesman, showed me around. She chatted with me, more talked at me; a girl too shy to string two sentences together. I got her best sales pitch, but I remained wide-eyed and wary. Money however, is a great motivator, and when I was informed just how much I could make I was sold. Even an average adult salary is more money than any kid would know what to do with. I took home a contract to 'look over with mom’ which I had signed and returned before the next week.
And suddenly I was a model. Just like that.
It starts off as baby's first job and before you know it it's your career. You are a child working with adults; you are at the mercy of their decisions. It took a year to tell anyone I knew that I was modelling - it felt embarrassing for some reason. I was the straight A student on an academic scholarship, and suddenly I was cutting class every other day for castings and jobs. My priorities completely shifted. I became rebellious and surly. I was constantly exhausted. Full time school and a full time job were a lot for a kid to handle. My mother wrote countless notes excusing me for 'dentist appointments’.
This all eventually caught up with me. I was told that if I was missing that much school, and I didn't get straight A’s, I'd lose my scholarship, and thus be kicked out of the school my parents couldn't otherwise afford.
I used to avoid photos like the plague. I'd blink in every picture. But suddenly having my photo taken was my job. I was making very adult decisions, but I was still in many ways a little girl. I'd never been kissed. I didn't even have my period yet. I would find myself on jobs in lacy bras being instructed to act flirtatiously or look sexy. This was always perplexing. I was still a virgin, I didn't know what that even meant.
Yet, at the time you feel so lucky. Like you've been hand picked for something special. Little did I know of what lay ahead of me. That within two years travel would become my life. That I would fly off to Tokyo, Auckland and New York for months at a time, all alone. I would walk, talk and dress like a grown woman, worry about my rent, visas and taxes at a time when all my friends were going on first dates and learning how to drive. I never had the time.
The next summer I had my first period, and it felt like I was beginning my life as a woman. But I lead two different lives. I would flit in between my hometown and these metropolises. It was like time traveling. One day I was a career woman, with my own apartment in London, and one flight later I was a schoolgirl living at home with her parents, getting grounded and doing homework. I felt like an imposter when I put on my uniform. I didn't fit in, I had nothing to talk to the other girls about. Their problems were totally foreign to me. I usually took refuge in drinking coffee with the teachers at lunch, or hiding away in the library or art rooms. School had become a place I didn't belong. Yet my life was just that: school, work, school, work. There was no time for anything else. My talents and hobbies fell by the wayside. Things I was so talented at, sports I'd trained in since age three, I had to quit because I had no time for them. I couldn't afford to gain the muscle anyway. For a model an inch on the hip is make or break, and that was more important.
I had no dreams because I'd never cultivated any. I had thought of being a journalist but I was too focused on my job and finishing school, which had become such an unbearable hindrance - a finish line I couldn't reach sooner. I never explored opportunities to discover what I wanted. I had a job at which I was accomplished, a career. Why would I want to start something from scratch?
Looking back on all of this it feels like a lifetime has gone by. In a way it has, because it was almost half my life ago. I've experienced and learned so much that has shaped me as a person, and I am a very different creature now. My wardrobe is almost all black. I'm very outgoing and social. I've proved my strength to myself and my skin is as thick as mud. I have an apartment in New York and I've lived in seven different countries since then. I speak different languages. I've been fucked up and fucked over and fucked around. I've grown up doing this, and carved a great life from all that's been given me. The day I was scouted changed the trajectory of my life, and I couldn't be more grateful.