I call myself a “Recovering Model”. I suppose it all began, really, when I was 20 years old. I’d been working in a pretty cheap ladies’ shop that disguised itself as classy, despite everything it sold being polyester and elastic-waisted floral patterns, none of which appealed to the younger set.
We were to be featured in a fashion show in Hull, at the time the “grungy place across the river”, but a fashion show nonetheless. What a coup it would be! Our boutique, in all its polyester and faux satin glory parading down the runway in the foreign land of…well, Hull, but still. I was chuffed to even fit the models, let alone be on site to see our designs showcased.
The man running the event was a scrawny little thing, grey all over, his skin, hair, eyes, probably right down to his fingernails, and he looked as though a poof of breeze would wisp him away, leaving a little grey plume of smoke as he faded off, and I could almost see it, like a balloon losing its helium squealing, “Weeeeee!” as it whistled off into the sky. His voice was as small as his body, with a strong Gatineau accent, a mix of French that sounded as though it had been beaten down by equally slang English.
He reached his limp little hand to greet me, surveying me from head to toe, appraising me. After a few pleasantries, he stood back with a final approving stare, nodded, and said, “You’ll be in the show. Also, I’m putting on a modelling contest here in Hull in a few months; you’ll be in that, too.” And there it was, ladies and gentlemen: my short-lived modelling career was about to take off.
Now, I’m a tall girl, and the world has rarely allowed me to forget it. Since childhood, people would gawk and me and exclaim, “You’re so tall!” as though I hadn’t realized and ought to look down and check myself, only to recoil in the same horror/shock/disbelief that they were conveying in their judgmental looks or tone. In the fifth grade, I remember visiting my guidance counsellor in the school, filled with embarrassment as the boys in my school, not yet having hit their own growth spurts, would laugh and call me ‘Giraffe’, ‘Daddy Long Legs’ or ‘Mummy’, forever mocking my stature. “Well, you know,” She leaned forward and whispered, conspiratorially, “Supermodels are tall. Perhaps you’ll be a model one day.” Throughout a teenaged-hood filled with poor hair decisions – spiral perm, anyone? – and braces, headgear, gawky long limbs and questionable clothing decisions, I continued to remind myself as though a mantra: “Supermodels are tall…”
The modelling contest was held in a hotel ballroom, a long runway set up with a panel of judges at the end of it, notepads in hand, like something out a (cheap) Miss World contest. I was late to arrive for hair and make up and so had to do my own, amidst the clamour and hysterics of the several fellow contestants around me, nervously twirling their bouffant ‘dos, false lashes sticking closed on their overly done up faces. A brush through my hair and just enough time to slick on some dollar-store lip gloss and mascara, and it was announced we must take our places for the runway portion of the event.
A quick aside here: the contest was in Hull and the majority, if not all, the other contestants were French, so I really had very little clue as to what was going on a great share of the time, and followed whomever looked as though she knew what she was doing. Finally, we were told to all make our way to the stage, the full lot of us, the final call as the winners were announced. A few names were spoken and we clapped politely, my clapping one of absolute and utter confusion, but polite nonetheless. Finally, a drum roll and my name was announced, a loud cheer from my parents at the back of the room, followed by tears from some of the girls, their lashes sort of trailing down their faces like little spiders, one of them undoing her tiara (she really did wear a tiara) right there on the stage.
“What’s going on?” I whispered to a hopeful beside me.
“You won,” She shrugged.
“Everything?!” I asked, unsure of what to do.
A dirty look and a nod, and I was thrust to the front of the runway to accept a barrage of prizes and make a speech.
“Merci pour tout!” I squeaked out in disbelieving broken French. “Je m’appelle Anna! Bonjour!”
And there I was, the winner of the Model Search, 1998.
In the 90s, my modelling career didn’t amount to much but self conscious shoots with duck faced poses before duck face was even a thing, and basically the bragging rights to say, “I’m a model; I won a contest.” This didn’t really offer me a lot of accolades because it wasn’t often that it would come up easily in conversation, and even if it had, who would say that? I was told to lose weight if I wanted to ‘make it big’ in the industry. I was a size 4 at the time.
It wasn’t until I had been through my divorce in 2015 that I even considered re-embarking in the modelling industry, and that was at the urging of a friend of mine who worked as a make up artist and had a friend who was an accomplished photographer. She urged me to try, and set up an introduction, and off I went to another self conscious shoot. It was then the offers came in: shoots, fashion shows, look books…people wanted to catch my face on camera, my body in their clothes…I was something, I was someone. I believed, if only for a brief passing while, that by being featured in a magazine or a show, I was somehow worthy…I was finally worthwhile.
One would think that having had two babies and a hip replacement, in her late thirties and with a full time job, modelling would be a bit of a joke, but I found the opposite. Whereas some part of me laughed off the offers to shoot TFP (time in exchange for pictures, basically a free photoshoot) or the incentives to join various modelling agencies, in retrospect, I found myself vying for these approvals, these superficial validations. The more likes I got on an image, or fans on my professional page, the more I was able to convince myself that I was doing something right, and that I was likeable, even loveable. My marriage may have fallen apart, and being a single mother of two girls was not easy, but dammit I was adored, and my “fans” told me I was beautiful, so therefore I must be, right?
For two years I played the game, auditioned for shows with a perfected walk, swaying hips – only one of which was real…joke’s on them! – chin slightly tucked so as to look seductive but not too much so, no smile, careful strides in heels that made some girls look like Bambi On Ice. I went to shoots, smiled and nodded at some less-than-professional photographers who commented openly on my looks, one who paused for an inordinate amount of time to sigh and say, wistfully, “I’m just admiring your beauty…” I smiled and nodded at designers who, backstage at shows, would fit me and tell me to take a deep breath in because I was “too big” for this dress or that suit. I smiled and nodded as other models would go on about the frustrations of being too beautiful, too thin, too hungry, too adored. “My fans are just crazy,” One would sigh, exasperated with her astounding beauty and overly-affectionate fans. “They just message me all the time, wanting to spoil me…It’s just so much attention!” Another heavy sigh, and back to her mobile she went, giggling at fans begging for an opportunity to buy her things, posting selfies to garner more. At one point, I couldn’t handle being affiliated with this kind of lifestyle anymore.
As a fitness instructor, I had been exposed to the downside of an industry that valued the physical above all else, and when combined with modelling, proved a dangerous combination. I was in an at-times volatile relationship, and I truly believed that if I stayed thin enough, pretty enough, that I would be fine in all aspects of my life. I began working out six to seven days a week, sometimes up to five times per day. I existed off egg whites, broccoli and protein shakes – and the forever fulfilling boost of ‘likes’ on airbrushed, photoshopped images on social media! – in my objective to seek some kind of Beautiful Person Nirvana.
A final show, and backstage with other models from all over, I looked around me. Younger girls were taking endless selfies – the resurgence of duck face was alive and well! – posing to show just the right amount of cleavage, just the right tilt of the chin, posting for likes. A number of models huddled together, engaged in superficial conversation: “You’re, like, soooooo pretty,” one would gush, and the other, in mock disbelief, would reply with a gasp, “Ohmygosh no YOU are so pretty!” “Let’s take a selfie!” And up went the camera, a new friendship forged over their love of each other and themselves. What in the actual f*ck was I doing here?
I stood, right then, amidst the crowd of giggling girls, posing with wide, almost comically over-innocent eyes looking up at their downward tilted mobiles, capturing their manufactured joy, hash-tagging their posts with things like, “#ModelLife, #BTS, #ModelsJustWantToHaveFun’. One turned to the other, tilted her head and asked, “Would you pose nude for free if it was, like, tasteful?” The other shrugged and said, “Like, ya, so long as it’s art, and anyway, you’ll get like so many new followers.” Another sheik of joy and a few more selfies. Nudes for the win, because, hey, followers reigned supreme, no?
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with PTSD (not modelling related) and sent off work for mental health leave that I realized the extent to which modelling had played a destructive role in my life. I had placed my self worth on an unattainable mark of beauty, which truly is in the eye of the beholder. I had assumed that, because people liked images of my (photoshopped) body, my (overly made up) face, my (fake) smile, that somehow they liked me. For once in my life, my height wasn’t something to be ashamed of, but to be celebrated…and yet, I was being celebrated for those things that could only be seen by the naked eye. Nobody knew me, nobody really cared to. So long as I was a still image on a screen or a magazine, I was voiceless, nameless, and my story was whatever the viewers wanted it to be.
“You are tired,” My therapist says at our weekly session, “You’re tired of being valued for the physical. You’re tired of doing what everyone else wants you to do, and you’re ready to take charge and do what feels right for you.” And I am. And I am. I stand up, brush myself off and declare aloud, “I’m Anna, and I am a recovering model.” My make believe audience applauds, welcomes me, and finally, I am Anna, and that is enough.