“If you don’t mind telling me, how old are you?” A casting director asked me that last week. I told him the truth. I have no reason to lie about my age. There are two common notions about age and modeling: girls are forced into it too young and they won’t last past 21. I’m not sure what people expect us to get out of the two or three years that leaves us. Obviously, the industry is not that simple. I was happy to get an early start and hope to keep working well into adulthood.
I began modeling right when I turned 16. I tried to start sooner. I snuck an application to a local agency into the mail when I was 12, but my mom found the envelope in the mailbox and made it very clear what she thought about my dream: “absolutely not.” At least, that wasn’t how I was going to get started. I was desperate to get any kind of job as soon as I could. On my 16th birthday, when I could first work legally, I took a job behind the register in a Pakistani gift shop that had just opened in my neighborhood. Days later, a woman writing an article on the store saw my potential. Soon after that, I was signed with an agency in Chicago.
In a sense, it was only because I was so eager to work that I was ever scouted, so I didn’t think twice about working hard as a model. Some of my first jobs were for national department stores. My part-time gig modeling quickly became an occupation that earned me some good money, but I had to make some compromises. While the girls in high school were hanging out in the local strip mall on weekends, I’d be shooting in Chicago. I missed my own senior prom, but I’d shot enough prom catalogs that I was totally okay with that. I didn’t fit in well with my classmates and perhaps missed out on some of the high school experience, but my co-workers on shoots were teaching me about the industry and initiating me into a different sort of community.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one working hard on my career. I wouldn’t have been able to model in high school without my parents’ support. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but young models have more important needs. There is no denying that some people in the industry can try to get under your skin. Being told as a teenager that there were size requirements was definitely confusing. How does a growing girl “work” on her measurements? Hormones are going to trump salads any day. My parents were in an uncomfortable position of second guessing so-called experts, but they put my well-being above questionable career advice. When one of my former agents told my mother I wasn’t measuring up, my mom got really upset. My mother, a costumer whose livelihood depends on precise measurements, had put a tape measure to me that morning. I was the size my agent demanded, although she insisted otherwise. It’s easy to blame measurements, I later learned. I worked OK then, but I was an inch and a half bigger when I shot a cover for Elle. My mother was right to stand up for me.
My career continued to progress through high school. Before graduating, I had to meet with agencies in New York. My family couldn’t afford hotels or a car service to take me to my appointments, and they couldn’t go along with me. I slept on a friend of a friend’s couch. I navigated the city alone. It was stressful, but I knew it was possible. As graduation approached, I made plans to travel abroad, where I would have a chance to build up my book. I went to work in Greece when I was 18. By the grace of my French teacher who sponsored me, the month I spent in the models’ apartment counted as my Senior project. Again, my parents were there to support me with the promise that, one way or another, I had a home and a family waiting for me if things didn’t work out. And I was corresponding with my teacher the entire trip, telling her all about my shoots and castings. That was important when I was asked to work with photographers with problematic reputations or to do shots that made me uncomfortable. No matter what my agency told me I had to do, I was always safe saying “no.” That’s not always true for young girls.
The biggest challenge as a young model was being rejected and introduced to such brutal competition. But because I feel like I had a strong backbone, the industry taught me how to be resilient. I faced challenges that could have overwhelmed some and obstacles that could have defeated others. I have a whole collection of emails from my teenage years where agents and bookers told me I needed to fix this, fix that, lose weight, tone up. Those emails from high school are very, very hard for me to read now. I can see why some might think twice about letting teenagers model, especially if they were younger and under even more pressure than I was. But it’s not just a girl’s age that makes the difference.
In Milan, I lived in a models’ apartment with some girls that were far younger than me. They were supporting their families, not supported by them. At fifteen, they worked so they could send money home. I could see how the industry hardened them. They were wary of becoming friends and extremely competitive. They had more at stake. Unfortunately, they couldn’t just say no to jobs that made them uncomfortable. I didn’t feel like I had to sleep with a photographer to get more work or show more skin than I was comfortable with. These girls weren’t so fortunate. They depended on club promoters to buy them dinner, in exchange for being paraded through the clubs. Because they were desperate and poor, they assumed that this was what they needed to do. Being young didn’t help, but poverty has the same effect on models as it does on young women everywhere.
As far as getting “old” I think it’s more about how you carry yourself through the years. I know many working models who are in their late twenties. The man at my casting last week didn’t judge me for being 23, in fact he said that was still too young, and that they were looking for someone older. A model playing my mother on a bridal shoot once told me that her smile lines had earned her the part. I find that there’s not this terrible scary fear of outgrowing modeling and getting old and worn out, because the most important thing is being in the right market. And if one day, I wake up, and decide it’s not for me, my family and loved ones will treat me just the same. That’s important. Modeling has taught me patience, shown me beautiful places, and introduced me to incredible people. Each case is truly individual. But I don’t think modeling as a teenager is inherently wrong. You can do it with the right support and knowledge of what is and isn’t right for you.