I ascend from the dark dirty halls of the metro and out into the light of Paris. You can’t miss them, the ‘girls’ standing across from me leaning on a fountain enjoying their breakfast I mean Marlboro light. They unenthusiastically nod at me. We recognize each other always and everywhere. Our ‘uniform’ is a big help in that. Skinny jeans wrapped tightly over long legs and just a basic tank top. We are all dressed in black, because it makes you so much skinnier. Sneakers, hair in a ponytail and to top it all off, a stuffed bag under our arm, a designer one, for the girls doing well for themselves.
With some delicate force I’m barely able to close it. This bag is heavier than most of the girls. It’s filled with high heals, bikini or skin coloured underwear, ‘chicken filets’ to create cleavage if the customer desires (but in this town that doesn’t happen that often), a hairbrush, bottle of water, a city map just in case Google Maps on my iPhone isn’t working, an umbrella and last, but certainly not least, my portfolio. This portfolio filled with photos, that’s me! I can never loose it because without these pictures I am nothing.
How it usually starts. We are selected as ‘the prettiest girls of the world’ normally by model-scouts who claim to have an eye for it and promise you the world. We come from all over the world to cities like London, Paris, Milan and New York to become models. And then there is a choice: fashion or commercial. We come in two flavours.
The fashion girls are the showgirls; they’re long and thin and are considered more prestigious because they roam the catwalks and work for high-end magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and L’Officiel. They create a stunning portfolio but in the beginning they are barely paid enough to cover their metro ticket and goji berry diet.
Commercial models work for well-known international brands and stores that we have all heard about. They are often referred to as ‘Catalogue queens’. You are allowed to be a little curvy and you better smile on almost every photo. It sounds fun but there are sometimes pictures where you look so ridiculous you wouldn’t even show them to your own family…
After a long day of modelling, and getting in and out of over 20 wedding dresses, the client announces that there are still some garments, designed for the mother of the bride, left to be photographed. If you would be so kind to put them on. Accompanied with a thick layer of make-up on your face, light blue eyeshade and heavy hair sprayed curly bangs. The stylist adjusts a hat too small for my head by pushing it down even tighter on my head. He knows he’s hurting me. He viciously hisses: “You’re the one who wanted to be a model, right?”
While still at school and later college, I did the modelling work on the side. But I was truly ‘discovered’ when I was 24 years of age. At the time I was working as a journalist for a well-known news program. At that age I was actually a ‘Dinosaurus Rex’ in the fashion world, but I looked younger than I was and decided to take the chance. And now I am here in Paris. 1m74, the absolute bottom-line height wise for a professional model, and weighing in at 54kg I am considered ‘curvy’ in the city of light and very commercial.
I’m on my way to casting number 338. Walking through the little streets around Notre Dame, my favourite building in this city, I smell fresh baguettes and see piles of multi-coloured macarons lying in the shop windows. Focus, focus, focus… I tell myself. Sure I am hungry and I have walked many miles today. But the city is a dream and this is the place you want to be a model. If you can make it here… than you can make it in New York. You can’t go any higher than New York. It’s like winning gold at the Olympics for models.
‘Destination reached’ the metallic voice of Google Maps announces.
In front of the door I see someone perform a well-known procedure. A girl has just changed her worn down sneakers in to nude coloured fake Louboutin killer heels. She hastily puts them in the cotton bag on which the logo and phone number of her agency are printed in big letters. An elastic hairband is removed and she throws a brush through her hair. After that a quick check in her pocket mirror.
They don’t like make-up here, casting directors like to see for themselves what they can do with your face. That’s what my booker told me. And they should know because the booker is your manager from the modelling agency who works your agenda and plans out your career.
My predecessor has transformed herself in front of the door into a model that has just stepped out of a magazine. I follow the ritual. I know the routine. Still, the pressure of having to always ‘look pretty’, no bags under your eyes, no spots on your skin, awake and alert, and with your hair, fingernails and body in top shape, remains a stressful thing.
I have noticed that there are some tricks that can help you get a booking. Like being the very first to show up or the very last. Customers have a better memory of how you impressed them. But it also happened to me that I got bookings while the night before I went out till late or while I came in late all sweaty after having to transfer at 3 different train stations and sitting for an hour in a hot and humid metro. In the end it all boils down to the fact that you just have to be ‘too cool to care’. That you should not give one single fuck. With this in mind I breath in. And out, and walk high-heeled into the room.
Here starts an unwritten ritual. In fact you don’t want to look around too much, but it’s just like a highway accident, you can’t stop yourself from watching. Next to me dressed in a bikini, Miss Brazil, 18 years old with never ending legs. Next to her a Ukrainian girl who obviously had her boobs done and they look perfect, and then the blondest Scandinavian model who is from top to bottom drop dead gorgeous…
Now it’s my turn. A quick scan around the room teaches me that at least I have the best classical face and the best looking hair of all the others.
But standing in my bikini in front of the casting director I can feel it. I’m probably not what they are looking for. And then with an expressionless face he asks me:
‘Do you like McDonald’s?’
At that moment I just want to disappear and I don’t know how fast I can leave the casting area. I kick out my high heels and run outside. I don’t know if I’ll be ever able to share this embarrassment with someone. How am I going to explain to my girlfriends back home that I want to do this work so very much?
Translation advice: David Kok & Sibylle Schothorst