“Ok, show me your ‘sexy’ look…”
That’s what my very first booking agent said to fifteen-year-old me, during my first visit to the modeling agency. I was there to meet the owner and the bookers, and to sign my modeling contract.
My mom and I made the hour-long trip together. She stayed in the waiting room while I went with my booker into a room down the hall. It could’ve been a ballet / dance studio - it was large and spacious, and three of the walls were floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The remaining wall was lined with large windows, so the room was very bright and sunny.
I had never been in a mirror-lined room like that, and it was an unnerving experience to see my image so completely. Sure, I had seen myself in full-length mirrors before, but I had never seen myself quite like this: in a mirror so large, and in the context of being considered a model. Up until that point in my young life, I had identified as a ‘kid’, really. A kid who lived in a small town with three siblings and two parents whom she loved very much. A kid on the track team, and on the cheerleading squad for the J.V. boys’ basketball team. A kid who loved to wear baggy sweatshirts and Tretorns. A kid who loved to eat, sing, draw, and make people laugh. And there I was, head-to-toe in the mirror, being considered a fashion model by these seemingly sophisticated strangers. I wondered if these were the types of mirrors that made me appear bigger than I was, or if I really looked like that. Frankly, I did not like what I saw. Prior to that day, I'd never disliked my image in the mirror quite as much as that day. I felt exposed and different and unprepared.
My booker (I’ll call her Ann) and I were the only ones in that room. Ann walked up close to one of the mirrored walls, and asked me to stand next to her. She told me about how, as a model, it’s important to be able to move well, and to be aware of how you appear when you move in front of the camera. That made sense to me. As I listened to her, I recall feeling shy, nodding in response to what she was telling me, and wondering if she was going to ask me to walk or pose for her. I was hoping that she wouldn’t.
Ann was standing a few feet away from the mirror, looking at herself – chin down, hands on her hips, one leg jutted out to the side. The look on her face was quite serious. ‘Fierce’, if you will. She asked me to mimic her. She said to me, “Ok, show me your ‘sexy’ look. Come on, let’s see…”
My SEXY look?
If I possessed a sexy look at that time, I was certainly not familiar with it at the age of fifteen. Nor did I feel comfortable exploring a sexy look right then and there – especially in light of the fact that I was feeling everything but sexy at that time.
Nevertheless, I attempted to find my sexy look for Ann. I didn’t want to blow my chance at having a modeling career. So, there I stood, in front of the mirror. Reluctantly and shyly, I looked at my face. I was blushing. I had hoped that I could hide the fact that I was nervous, but alas, I could not. I remember making some sort of face - some sort of my own fifteen-year-old version of a sexy look. I shudder to think about how I must’ve looked. I don’t remember Ann’s reaction, but I do remember the relief I felt when it was time to leave that mirror-filled room and go back to where my mom was waiting for me. I also remember being instructed to practice my sexy look in the mirror at home.
Now that I’m a grown woman, I am confused and appalled, really, that it was acceptable at that time for a fifteen-year-old girl to be asked to readily produce a sexy look while in a room with a stranger. While I didn’t feel that I was in danger, I did feel extremely uncomfortable and totally unready to be in that position. And that is enough to want to discuss and make sense of the often strange and disconcerting facets of the modeling business today.
While it’s true that models must learn to pose in many different ways and learn to move well, they must first be made to feel safe. There must be conversations about the importance of getting to know oneself, about learning to trust oneself. Conversations about positive self-talk and inner dialogue. About how modeling can be thought of as an art form, and that as a model, you and your body can be the art work – and that that’s OK. A young girl / young woman starting out in this business must be supported by people who teach her that what’s more valuable than her ability to administer a ‘sexy look’ on command is the development of her self-esteem. First and foremost. As we all know, that takes a long time. It’s a process. A process that needs to be discussed and developed.
A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to mentor a beginner model (I’ll call her Kendra) who started in the biz relatively late, at age 24. This lovely young woman had recently been discovered by a model scout who had referred her to me for coaching. I was told by the scout that this model had been an athlete for many years, so she needed to learn how to pose in a more relaxed way. I was happy to be given the chance to meet and get to know her.
When I meet with new models, I visit with them for 1-2 hours each time. Any longer than that per session (*one session is only the beginning!), and I’ve found that the models have seemed a little overwhelmed and ‘in their heads’ rather than in their bodies. So, spending what I call bite-sized amounts of time has proven to be more beneficial to them. Some models (and their agents, sometimes) become impatient because they haven’t gotten the hang of learning to relax into posing for an editorial photo shoot, or do the runway walk as well as they would like…in an hour or two. However, just as the development of self-esteem takes time, learning to feel comfortable posing and walking the runway takes time, too.
I met with Kendra three different times, for approximately 90 minutes each visit. The first two sessions involved posing and runway walking. By the third session, it was clear to both Kendra and I that she was still quite uncomfortable and a bit rigid in her movements. This is, of course, normal – she had just entered into modeling a few months prior! I decided that it would be a good idea that for our third session, Kendra and I would talk for most of the session. I wanted to know what she liked to do in her free time, whether she was close with her family or not, if she had any pets, etc. Within a half an hour or so of talking about what she liked and what her favorite things were, Kendra relaxed and smiled and I saw her true self and authenticity shine through her discomfort. Once she was more comfortable, she got up out of her chair and walked and posed with much more ease.
The following day, Kendra’s scout called me and said that she was not pleased to hear that Kendra and I spent the majority of our third session “just talking about her life”. She strongly suggested that if I wanted her to continue referring me to the models she discovers, I really should have more action involved in my sessions, rather than talking.
Obviously, I don’t agree. It was only when Kendra felt like she was being seen for more than her physicality that she was able to begin feeling more comfortable with her physicality.
Agents and bookers often expect new models to automatically, magically know how to pose & walk, dress for castings & interviews, properly apply their own makeup, etc. Even the new models who do naturally possess this knowledge benefit from learning the nuances of the business, and from having support from a fellow model. The vast majority of agents / bookers have never been models themselves. (*important to note: many agency owners are often billionaire men who simply want ideal access to beautiful, young women. Not everyone realizes this.) Whatever the case, beginner models benefit from the support of models who are willing, patient, and experienced to take the time to help them navigate this business. There’s no proper school for it, and yet, it’s a career! No young woman who’s starting out in this business, nor her parent/s, should feel like they’re in the dark. They need more support.