In year eight, my friends told me that I should become a model. I emailed an agency a headshot, got a call, and a few weeks later I was signed to the same agency as Jennifer Hawkins. In a matter of months, I had been flown to China to ‘compete’ in a faux beauty pageant held on an island. The main attraction was a mud park.
Contestants were ordered to writhe around in the mud in bikinis for the photoshoot. I did as instructed, but the international booker who went to ‘chaperone’ us was clearly frustrated by my insufficiently alluring mud-writhing. We were playing tug of war in the mud but I was the only one trying to win, a fourteen year old momentarily forgetting the real purpose of the exercise. She kept asking of my poses: “why isn’t it more sexy? You need to be more sexy!”, and didn’t stop until she realised that I wouldn’t even be legal for two years.
The bikinis were all uniform size and cut, and I didn’t even know what a bikini wax was at fourteen. I’m not particularly hairy but these bikinis were fucking minute. There was still a Russian anorexic who had to wear her own because the uniform ones would fall off her. (I know she had anorexia because her arms were coated in thick fur. It’s the body’s method of trying to keep heat in.) Thank God for my roommate, she threw a razor at me and shoved me into the bathroom. Without her I probably would have combusted from the shame of being a post-pubescent woman.
They also ordered us, one day, to walk around a dam dressed as geishas, a task made more difficult by the unfortunate combination of cobblestones and heels. After cobblin’ for several hours, my ankles almost snapped. At the time, I hadn’t learnt what cultural appropriation was—at least I was spared that mental turmoil.
On the final night of the trip, ‘the girls’ got me drunk on minibar vodka. It was so weird, even though they’d put me down all week for being a nerd, having red hair, and most of all being a terrible catwalker, I was young enough that I was mainly just excited that they liked me.
Back in Sydney, modeling was similarly cruel but maybe less bizarre. I knew I probably wasn’t cut out for photoshoots when the instruction to ‘act natural’ put me into an existential meltdown. Where do I put my hands to act natural? What is natural? I didn’t really understand what they meant by natural, because my natural state was sweaty adolescent discomfort.
There were moments of comedy. You know when you try stuff on in a shop, and it’s so small you have to call your friend/mum to help get you out of it? It’s slightly more humiliating when it’s not your friend or your mum, but an Armani stylist, or the person who designed the clothes. They aren’t impressed walking in to see a pair of legs sticking out of a straitjacket wrapped around your head, no face visible, arms pointing to the sky. ‘Help me please’.
I found catwalk similarly distressing. I hated having to change outfits in only a G-String in front of 35 year old gay male stylists and other insanely beautiful models. And castings were a minefield. Going into a waiting room only to see my competitors, tall, lythe, perfectly formed THINGS looking me up and down… I was always the shortest, and the widest.
People who know me find this weight insecurity funny, or assume that I’m doing that classic hot girl ‘Oh god I’m hideous/Please compliment me’ routine. I’m 175cm tall, and am conventionally thin. But once I started modeling, my headspace started to yo-yo between ‘God I am so fucking beautiful’ at the end of a photoshoot to ‘I want to take a knife and just slice the fat straight off my arse’ when my agent pointed at my backside and said ‘yeah, there’s your problem’.
For example, Paris agents came to take girls for summer placements, and they totally frothed on me, which is pretty normal (they all froth on you, and then you leave the room and they talk about your smoking lines and cellulite and laugh maniacally). My booker—who would literally slap French fries out of your fingers if you went abroad with her—later told me that they wanted to take me, but my hips were too wide.
That may seem odd, but as I learnt one characteristic of a model that ranks above being traditionally beautiful, apart from height, is hip measurement: they need to be 35 (inches) or below. At least, that was the official line of my agents. Maybe they were just trying to starve their girls into being more buyable.
My hips measured 37 inches.
I spent the summer of year twelve forcing myself into an eating disorder and a fetish for running for hours in the sun. I’d go for a run and then have an egg for lunch, then go for another run and have a slice of sashimi for dinner. I created a prison in my mind—if I went to bed hungry, I’d repeat over and over, ‘Today, I won. I am winning.’ At the time, it felt totally normal —I didn’t have an eating disorder, I was just doing my job, making the choices I had to make to give me money and success in the long run. This is the insidious way the agency isn’t ‘hurting’ you, it’s just facilitating your success, and you must do your part.
I managed to get to my ‘goal weight’ for a casting for London, but didn’t get the gig, because they just didn’t really like my look. My pursuit of ultimate beauty had made me look like shit, gaunt in the face, tired and slumped, my hair matted and dull, the light faded from my eyes.
Modeling had an upside. When I started, I had no choice but to start waxing, to learn to walk well in heels, to understand fashion, to get good at putting on make up and think about grooming all the time. I got competent at looking pretty—when I could be bothered. I got good at ‘being a girl’, something some girls do out of genuine interest, but I had to do out of necessity.
That was a pretty powerful feeling. I felt shit when I was doing the job, but in normal life, I suddenly occupied a higher status. I was a model. I was paid to be good looking. That’s the ultimate aspiration for teenage girls.
The dream was so strong for some that they drop out of school to pursue it in year 10. They sacrifice their education, and even if they make it, they’re usually done by 25.
There was little sympathy for missing a casting because it clashed with class. ‘Can’t you just skip?’ At 16 I explained it was hard for me to leave school, travel to a location, then get back to school without arousing suspicion. They suggested I just get a motorbike licence.
I made a lot of money; I had some interesting experiences. But it came at a price. While I felt good about myself in the company of people who couldn’t occupy this category, I still felt shit about myself when working within the industry, because I knew deep down I was illegitimate. I knew I liked food and staying in my pyjamas too much to ever succeed or ‘act natural’.
I eventually quit modeling because I was tired of failing at fakery, and because I didn’t want to profit off making other women feel bad when they observed my airbrushed, photo-shopped self. I don’t want to be complicit with a structure that perpetuates the objectification and simplification of women, and privileges white people who win a very specific genetic lottery.
Since I quit, a weight has been lifted, and a bit put on. A few months ago, I ordered pasta for dinner, for the first time in six years.
I haven’t waxed my legs in months. I haven’t had a Brazilian in a year (probably the best improvement). I cut my hair short (I wasn’t allowed before). And bizarrely, my posture has gotten better—after years of urging from my agents, leaving them actually took the chip off my shoulder.