In 1988 I was fourteen years old, five-foot-nine, skinny, flat-chested and at least four more years away from any proper evidence of puberty. To compound all of this luminous adolescent joy I was also morbidly shy and horrifically self-conscious. In short, I was a child. A bloody tall child, but a child nonetheless.
My hair was long and brown, my eyebrows heavy, my cheeks full. I was so thin, and so tormented by my thinness, that I ate as much as I could to try and gain weight. I ate all sorts of crap. Nothing happened. I remained, despite all efforts, a wisp of skin and bones, stumbling when I ran, blown hither and thither by gusts of strong wind and glances from strangers. The sad truth is that I come from a family of stick insects, and the physique I would later be grateful for was a thing of shame and sadness in my formative years. Victimized and scorned, I was teased mercilessly about my stature by other children. My nicknames were, amongst others: Olive Oyl, Bean Pole, Stick, Twig, and, my personal favorite, Inverted, a name given to me by the boys in my neighborhood in honor of my invisible breasts. Humiliated by my non-existent chest, I covered my body as much as I could and engaged, whenever possible, in the bust-increasing exercises I read about in Judy Bloom books.
These were not my glory days.
As an only child growing up without television I sought solace in books and art. I wrote and drew and ate up words and pictures with my heart and mind and soul. Aesthetics and language nourished me. I wanted to be an architect, an artist, a writer, a filmmaker, a designer of things. I had dreams and ambitions that most parents would be proud of, at least any parents with artistic persuasions.
But then something happened, something my mother had known was going to happen for some time, something she allowed but didn’t necessarily want, something my father had dreaded and detested, and something I would never have expected.
They came a-calling.
Model agents are a curious bunch—always on the lookout for young girls they can take on and “protect” and “nurture” while at the same time pushing them into a hyper-sexualized and shallow world where they will earn money for being blessed with good looks, without having to use their brains or their creativity, and where they will be rewarded for being a glorified clothes hanger who knows how to work a camera (and maybe, if they’re really good, a room).
These agents I speak of have eyes and instincts that can see beyond the shyness, the scrawny exterior and inverted bosom. They have minds that add the numbers, do the math, envision the war paint and see, through slitted eyes, the finished product.
Click. Whir. Click.
The photographer who shot my mother’s loft for a spread in Vogue Living requested to take a picture of me as I skulked in the corner in my ill-fitting, unflattering, blue-and-white checked school uniform, with ink stains on my fingertips, a snarl upon my youthful lips, and daggers in my diamond-eyes.
A vicious little virgin was I.
She took the photo and, when she left, took it with her, changing my life in an instant in ways I will never be able to digest without feeling a cocktail of conflicting emotions.
The phone rang.
Will you come down and see us?
My mother, reticent but loving, conversed with me as she would an adult. Her first mistake.
In a matter of hours we were sitting in an agency. This was nothing very new to my mother. As a designer and semi-retired fashion icon herself, she was clued in to the scene. But, as a disciplinarian, she was a tad… elastic. Either that or I was an uncontrollable hellion, given an inch and greedily taking a hundred miles.
Conversations were had. Things discussed and mulled over. The nice people who wanted to represent me were comfortable with the restrictions my mother placed on the arrangement.
I could only work on weekends, in Melbourne, and only, only, ONLY if it was a high-profile or high paying job. Considering that the majority of all modeling/fashion industry work in Australia stemmed out of Sydney this seemed like a perfectly tight arrangement. Enough to keep me quarantined while also allowing me to feel special—something a gangly girl in the art department with a funny, foreign accent had a hard time feeling in a school full of righteous upper-middle-class bitches with a knack for cruelty.
Unfortunately for my mother (and my ego), something else happened that changed the course of our lives.
I booked a job.
Two days after that first meeting we got the call.
Vogue magazine was flying their entire crew down from Sydney to work with me on an eight-page editorial. Over the weekend.
I was off and posing, and nothing in my world would ever be the same again. Over the next few years my grades would suffer, my ego would soar, my belligerence double. By 15, I would be living in Tokyo alone over the holidays; by 16, in Paris and Milan. I would leave school. I would be hit on by vile cretins, assuming me to be stupid or willing to advance my career with sexual favors. I would be punished with no work when I didn’t play the game. I would see strange things, do even stranger things and sometimes even do strangers. I would meet wonderful people and terrible assholes. I would make lots of money and spend it all. I would look like a young girl but live like a woman while I behaved like a princess and partied like a devil. I would move on and on, traveling for the better part of twelve years, never finding a home but always seeking one. Eventually I would find it in America in the least likely of places. But that’s another story. At this point my life was still a vague, uncertain, exciting future, and I was just a kid with dreams. And, two months later, when my first editorial in Vogue hit the stands, I looked like a prepubescent, innocent, wide-eyed virgin-child caught playing dress-ups in her mother’s most expensive evening gowns and stiletto-heeled shoes.
It’s an ugly reality that those pictures appeared in a magazine targeted towards 35-to-40-year-old women, and higher. This magazine became one of my regular clients and frequently used me to sell clothes, style and a physical ideal to middle-aged women more than twice my age. Even as a kid I thought this was weird and somehow inappropriate. I didn’t understand it but nor did I question it, and I still willingly danced with and followed the piper, for he played a most enticing and seductive tune.
It’s a strange, strange world, and we’re in it.