His voice oozed from his throat like warm brie spilling from a toasted baguette. Not just any brie either. Clotted brie. Brie a dozen years past its use-by date. Brie that had mutated into a virus. An Ebola of seeping dairy. I shuddered. His intent was as slimy as his accent.
“You know, Zoë”, he smirked as he pushed his cocaine laced mirror closer towards me on the chaise, “We are going to ‘ave to ‘ave sex one of zeeze days.”
My skin crawled. I felt alone, alert, resentful, and extremely pissed off. The gravity of the situation sunk in and it crossed my mind that I might be the only woman in the world who was repelled by French men and their Teflon accents.
Slowly, mulling over my options, I reached for the mirror, rationalising that his drugs were the lesser of the two evils being presented to me.
He was my modelling agent.
I was seventeen years old, far from home and living in his house.
When I first arrived in France I was struck by its oldness. It was the first time I had been in a city with such rich architectural history — the first time I could marvel at buildings that weren’t mired in the confines of 1950’s ugliness. New Zealand, while not lacking in culture, isn’t rich with ancient architecture or paved with cobbled stones. In my country, little girls with big romantic imaginations could only dream of castles. Here in France I could walk in their shadows, breathe in their stories, and touch their ghost-filled walls.
My initial reverie at being in a place so seeped in fairy-tale magic and medieval history soon waned. I quickly learned that young girls in this city were in constant danger, and that no handsome prince was going to ride in on a white horse and whisk me off to safety. I had to get tough and smart, and do it fast. In those first few weeks in Paris I was followed home, flashed at, and groped by men of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities. One night a car full of men followed my cab all the way home from a dinner and I had to sprint for the door to get to safety. The taxi driver watched. Another time, while struggling to carry heavy bags of groceries down the Champs Elysees, a man brazenly cupped my budding teenaged breasts in his hands before disappearing into the crowd. Loaded up with heavy bags I was powerless to protect myself.
One day, on a sunny Saturday morning, on my way to the Cimetière du Père Lachaise with friends to visit the grave of Jim Morrison, a young man sat down opposite me on the train and stared directly into my eyes, challenging me to look away. There was such a rude menace about him. When I held his gaze and refused to be afraid or look away he pulled out a flick-knife and thrust it at my face with an air of infinite malice. The shock of it gave me a burst of nervous energy and I reacted to the situation strangely. I burst out laughing.
For all I know that laughter saved my life.
Stunned, the man fled, horrified and emasculated, reduced by my reaction to a mere petty criminal instead of ‘ze big man with ze big knife’. I watched him run and felt like Crocodile Dundee in the subways of New York City.
I should have yelled “That ain’t a knife, mate…”
But I didn’t. It wasn’t funny. My laughter wasn’t mirth, it was fear disguised as bravado.
After it was over, when my reactionary madness had ebbed and the more authentic emotions had begun to manifest, I sat down on Jim’s grave and bawled my teenaged heart out. It could have gone another way. My reaction could have enraged him enough to make him want to stab me in my face, or cut my throat, right there in public. I sat there and cried, listening to a feathered hippie with a beaten-up guitar sing a sad rendition of a favorite song.
“She lives on Love Street…”
As the song finished and my tears dried, a street kid with a rat on his shoulder passed me a flask of Jack Daniels and warmed me with a smile. A little human kindness and everything was okay again. I watched in amazement as the rat drank whiskey from his mouth. Instead of being revulsed by this I saw a sweet and tender moment between friends. I expressed my concern for the rat and suggested that rats might not like being drunk and the boy asked me my name. And then he named his rat after me. I felt it was quite an honor.
The world is full of beauty — it just depends how open you are to seeing it when it’s disguised.
Paris, in the early nineties, was a place of lapsed taboos and luxurious excesses. There was little fear of repercussion for delinquent behaviour, and very little discretion. Cocaine dusted furniture, faces and gilded mirrors. Champagne flowed freely. Sex was still mostly unprotected and frequently anonymous. Life was hedonistic and the music spurred us on. New beats, revolutionised sounds, the beginnings of electronica and the smiley-face culture. Despite my age I was granted access to Les Bains Douche, The Lexington Queen, Nell’s, Folies Pigalle and any other nightclub I deemed worthy. My friends and I, no matter how young, were The Models. We made those clubs. Without us there were no clubs, for without us there would be no sleazy rich men to overpay for bottle service.
My being in Paris, even at such a young age, was a natural progression for my career. I’d been working for magazines in Australia since I was fourteen. My portfolio boasted editorials from Vogue and Elle, and I was tipped to be a successful working model, at least. My shy childhood was behind me and I had grown a big personality and put on a layer of confidence. I thought I was pretty hot shit. In reality I was a kid, out of my depth and totally at the mercy of the men who ran the business.
In order to protect me, my French agency, Karin Models, had suggested to my agent and mother that I stay with the owner of the agency while I was in Paris. That way I could be safe.
But there I was, being hit on and passed a plate of cocaine by the very man who was supposed to protect me.
I did not sleep with my agent. I did not in any way return his advances. Instead I simply withdrew physically and emotionally. I became smaller and more brittle. I found his suggestion revolting and scary, and illegal. But despite it all I didn’t tell an adult. I thought I was a woman who could handle my own business. I thought I could look after myself. If I had told my mother or my Australian agency they would have ripped me out of France and hauled my ass back to Australia so fast my head would have spun off my body. And then I wouldn’t be in Paris. And I so wanted to be in Paris. I told a few girls about his unwanted advances and we all determined that even though he was a disgusting little garden gnome, he was not a real threat.
When it became clear to my agent that I was not going to have sex with him, he removed me from his apartment and placed me into cramped model-housing in the sleazy arrondissement of Pigalle. I was clearly being punished.
Off I was sent, far away from ritzy Avenue Hoche. No more butler, no more chef. All of a sudden I was surrounded by hookers, drug dealers, reprobates, strippers, street kids, perverts, neon lights and purveyors of darkness. I loved it. This was real life. I was seventeen and in my element. The scene outside my new home was more comfortable and exciting than the grimy quarters within, so I stayed out - for as long as I could, as often as I could. Sharing a two room flat with six whiny models was not my idea of a happy home. Squeezing into a tiny bathroom with a half dozen hair dryers, a blocked shower, a mountain of cosmetics and wet underwear was, for an only child, a pretty good approximation of hell.
I became a night owl and found a crowd of club owners that sheltered me from creeps and let me tag along with the fast crowd. One of them had a large African cat that ran along the roof tops of Paris at night and terrified unsuspecting residents and sleeping pigeons. Her name was Alien. They were fun times.
I stayed in Paris for a few more weeks but there was no work for me and, despite the crazy times and fun parties, it was time to move on.
It was not until several years later, in Milan, that I heard my agent had spread a rumour that I was a drug addict. I’m not sure if it’s true but it is what I was told. If it’s true it isn’t any wonder I had no work.
My agent’s name was Jean Luc Brunel. He tried to have sex with me when I was a child. He gave me drugs. It’s high time he was outed for it.
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