“Working off your looks pretty much makes you the opposite of self-confident.” Paulina Poriskova, supermodel, said that in “About Face,” a documentary about the industry. Most people assume that models are drowning in complements. It’s true, people sometimes say we’re pretty, but they’re more often telling us what needs improvement. And worse, the latter is what usually comes from the people whose opinions matter. Absolute humiliation is one of the few things you can count on as a model.
The industry is bipolar. When we’re at the top of our game, there’s always an element of suspense. It’s like a horror film: you’re looking for your undoing behind every door and around each corner. Most of the time, you don’t see the crisis coming until it hits you. It goes the other way too. There have been those times when I have asked myself whether my career is over, or have seen an utterly perfect girl and wonder what I’m even doing there, only to have been suddenly catapulted to greater successes than I had ever known before. If you let yourself get caught up in the cycle, it’s all high highs and low lows.
It’s taken years of conditioning to learn how to let myself shine and be unaffected by comparisons or slights. I’ve had to become adaptable, malleable and hard-working. I’ve needed to become tough so that, not only insults, but also complements, bounce right off my skin. I’ve eagerly collected stories of models past and I’ve taken comfort knowing that most models have had the same, if not worse struggles. Learning about the industry has been crucial too. I‘ve studied like crazy, browsing the portfolios of other models, photographers, stylists, and makeup artists like I was getting ready to book them myself. I always want to know who I am working for, how they’re relevant to the industry and how they earned that relevance. Even if everyone on set is too busy to learn my name, I can still learn from them. I’ve quietly observed all the techniques, tricks and insider secrets of how to make the most from my face and hair. I notice what’s in everyone’s kits, how photogs shoot, and the words used to direct. All together, I’ve learned a lot about my role, what I’m responsible for, and, as important, what I cannot control and can’t afford to worry about. The model is almost always the scapegoat, so it takes some knowledge to know what’s within my power to improve and how.
Too much praise means I’m not being pushed enough. In some of my best shots I was at my limit, wondering if I could keep going. But I’m not the sort to just give up. I love the jobs where the crew are all my friends, but if I want to be better, I need people who aren’t afraid to hurt my feelings. I know that the jobs leaving me in tears sometimes offer valuable insight. Even after the years I’ve spent in front of the camera, I’m still learning and I still make mistakes. A few weeks ago someone on set pointed out an amateurish mistake. I felt humiliated, but I was also genuinely grateful that this person said something. The other day a hair stylist made me feel loved and appreciated, but a few days later a different hair stylist made me feel like everything was wrong. I’ve been told I am beautiful, but I have also been told that I have lopsided eyebrows, large pores and a plain face, that I didn’t know how to turn around, and that I am “slow.” I, like all models, must learn to appreciate the honesty in what we do, at least. Whatever we’re wearing, our bodies are laid bare on set, ready for scrutiny and criticism worse than any first date or final exam. Whatever’s said, however, models like anyone are more than what’s seen. We only ever give a piece of ourselves completely to our jobs. Oddly it’s the part we hold for ourselves, our determination, hopes and perseverance, that makes the difference between great models and pretty girls.