Five Myths About Modeling

Like many great women in the world, I have a younger sister who is just dazzling. Her hair cascades in golden rivers down her back. Her orbish, water-blue eyes look as though they have been enlarged with very convincing computer technology. And she somehow managed to skirt that pubescent complication of limbs that are much too long and heavy for the body.

However, unlike many of the great women of the world whose younger sisters have their own private suns to follow them around and shed beams of heavenly light on them, I enjoy a wonderful privilege:  a decade-sized age gap between my sister and me. We do not compete for the same boys, prizes, and attention. I never have to hear that she’s the prettier sister. She never borrows my clothes and looks better in them. So I just get to think she’s great.

She also thinks I’m great, which is nice. From the moment she could understand that we were related, she wanted to do everything just like me. She even spent several years trying to convince our entire family that her hair was brown, just like mine, and not the honey-blond color that it actually is. That was cute.

Recently, though, she asked me about my modeling career. How I have both awaited and dreaded this day!—While on the one hand I finally have an apprentice unto whom I can bestow my wealth of knowledge on make-up, hair, and home skin-care remedies (I also have three brothers, and for whatever reason, none of these things interest them), on the other hand I have to face a living, moving, sometimes unruly responsibility to communicate to my one and only sister the place of these rituals in life. Outward beauty is not everything, dear sister, and of all things, modeling taught me that.

Of course, she’s interested in modeling because I did it, and in those enormous eyes of hers I can do no wrong; but she’s also interested because, like the rest of us mortal women, she gets that familiar, if not completely explicable, surge somewhere in her ribcage whenever she looks at a particularly alluring or provocative ad sporting a model in all her flawless, bored glory. Models are arguably the most brilliant marketing strategy of all time — all it takes is one look at a model and deep inside the average woman the tribal gongs resonate and she, the woman, hears the frequency of her heart click into place with that pounding, ethereal beauty, and this message dances over the cosmic wires, as clearly as if it came through the telephone:

I am strong. 

I am beautiful.

 I am perfection.

I can have fun. 

I am in control.

Well, my sister—I am here to break that frequency, and kill the myth within you. It is a great privilege to be a woman, a privilege that includes grace and mystery and—let’s just say it—beauty. But beauty isn’t found where fashion shows and lipstick commercials tell you it is. In fact, that message about strength and beauty and perfection is horribly distorted. Let me tell you why.

I am strong. This part of the message is born, I am convinced, from the heavy bass-beat that soundtracks the runway. Music taps into even our most buried emotions. It’s just part of the job description of humanness.

But in real life (and models do have real lives outside of the catwalk), there is no soundtrack. Off the runway, even the most stunning models stumble along to their own, sometimes broken, beats; they walk into Starbucks and their heels get caught in the cobblestones outside and they scrounge for change at the counter and they are just normal people. No heavy bass, no tribal gongs.

The part of a model’s life that is presented to the public, chosen for her by a series of experts who have carefully studied marketing, and by extension, human longing, is so small, it probably couldn’t even be expressed in a written fraction. Those few concentrated moments onstage are what make her captivating; they are undiluted by the heel-in-the-cobblestone moments only she knows she has. Anyone would feel powerful marching down a long stage to techno music—but that’s only a ninety-second snippet of the model’s actual life. A paper clipping, really. A model feels about as strong as the next girl when her car stalls on a dark and dusty road, or when her bank account creeps closer and closer to zero. Modeling is classic lying by omission: it looks good at first glance, but it doesn’t show the whole picture. Being pretty on the outside doesn’t make a girl strong on the inside.

I am beautiful. I almost don’t even know where to begin on this one. Not touching on how beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or how beauty is an evolving standard, I am going to narrow my scope to the immediate and empirical facts: This part is not much of a lie. Models are beautiful.

When they’re modeling.

The real message of a model—when she is modeling—is, You would be beautiful if you had what I have. Why? Because when a model is modeling, she is not modeling herself; she is modeling a product. Models are props, mere pieces in a bigger game. Those experts who have studied marketing and human desire?—are tuning in to that frequency I already mentioned in the heartstrings, that part of us that wants to be connected and connects itself to the human aspect of any ad campaign — the human, the model. It is no coincidence that we want what we see models have — what they have and look so good having. We’re set up for that.

When I used to tell people I was a model, I would see the muscles in their faces spasm—in fact, their faces almost seemed to get wider—and this comprehending expression would pass over them, like, “Ah, yes—you are beautiful! I don’t know how I missed it before.” As if the stated fact that I modeled placed me in some elite, untouchable minority, even though just seeing me out in the daylight didn’t do that for them.

Models do not roll out of bed looking strong and beautiful. They roll out of bed looking like Thanksgiving turkey on the morning after, with all the stuffing on the outside, just like everyone else. Their beauty is about position, and perception. Sometimes when I’m looking at a magazine ad or watching a commercial I ask myself: if I saw this chick sitting outside at a café, and she stuck her gum to the bottom of the table, would I still think she was beautiful?

And the answer is almost exclusively: probably not.

I am perfection. Maybe the actual words here are not, “I am perfection,” but “I have arrived.” How shall I explain this?

When Adam took the apple from Eve and God looked down and said, “Oh, you’re going to toil now, buddy,” thousands of years of manual labor ensued. Ever since, we’ve been trying to catch up. And some small part of us within knows that our lives would be so much easier if we didn’t have to toil so much all the time. (Okay, maybe it’s not such a small part… and maybe it’s not buried so deep below the surface, either.)

So we work and we work and we work, forever believing if we can just make it to our next paycheck, or just grow our bangs out, or just learn the violin or find the perfect push-up bra, then everything will be okay; our friends and family will see the beauty and confidence and strength we had all along, and we will have arrived.

A model makes a golden calf (to continue with the Biblical imagery) of that goal. She has everything she needs: the music egging her on as she prowls the catwalk, the beauty radiating out her every pore, and whatever material extension she might require to be seen, to be the person everyone in the room wants or wants to be. And if all that is attainable for her, maybe it’s attainable for the rest of us, too. Like the other lies, though, this message does not reflect reality. If we buy the purse or mascara or hair dye she’s selling, in six months, the purse will be worn-in and the clasp will be broken, the tube of mascara will have run dry, and our roots will be three inches long. Life is all catching up. One does not arrive. One shows up, catches the show, and takes an early bus home to get some rest before doing it all again tomorrow. That’s reality.

I can have fun. I wish I could remember whether it was Tom Welling or Ashton Kutcher (I feel like it was Tom Welling) that I saw in a clothing ad from before he was famous, and he was playing basketball in the picture and being clobbered by all these girls. He looked ecstatic. The unwritten message of the ad was, Can’t you picture yourself having this much fun?  The marketing person behind that ad no doubt knew that if the answer was yes, the viewer of the ad was already picturing him- or herself wearing the same kinds of clothing as the people in the picture who were having the time of their lives. Brilliant. It’s the reason shopping from a catalog is so much easier than shopping in a store. No florescent lights, and I can see how the clothing is supposed to make me look, the kind of life it can offer me? I honestly don’t know why anyone shops in a store.

Truth be told, though, as a former model I know getting that picture was probably a mother of a job. Modeling is brutal enough when you get to sit still—but an action shot? Puh-lease. No one went home happy that day. Let me put it this way. When I look back on my three years of modeling, I gape at myself. I was so young, so impressionable—I don’t know how I survived. The people in the industry are ferocious. Once, I saw a camera guy make a stinky-cheese face at a six-year-old kid at a commercial audition and say, “Braces? What’s with the braces?” and proceed to tell the kid’s mother that she was wasting everyone’s time; no one wants to see a commercial with a kid who wears braces.

And he wasn’t even the meanest guy I ever encountered. With that in mind, when I look at ads like the Welling/Kutcher ad, where everyone is beaming and having a jolly ol’ time, I wonder how many of those models went home and cried that day. I mean, maybe they genuinely did have a good time. Maybe the cameraman told those chilluns to just have fun, and he somehow got lucky and caught a shot where all their faces line up perfectly and none of them was feeling lame or at all competitive so everyone was smiling and high on life. It’s possible.

Really. I mean, who’s to say?

I am in control. This is the biggest myth of them all, because it covers all the other myths in one broad, egotistical stroke. What is perhaps the one thing that everyone in the world wants? …I don’t mean love. Although that is true. I guess technically it could be related, too, to the thing I do mean, but it is not the thing I mean. The thing I mean is control. I didn’t always think this was true. I didn’t think of myself as wanting control because when I heard “control” I thought of some dictatorship sort of scenario, like I wanted world domination, the power to start a war or conclude the entire earth’s story with the push of a red button under the desk.

But I had a revelation when one day in my head I saw my life as a giant game of whack-a-mole. All these little problems kept popping up, and at first, I was able to whack them all back down again. But then they started popping up faster, and more than one at a time, and suddenly I found myself wishing (in a totally normal, not at all weird way) that I could be like that chick in India who was born with the extra arms, because at least she would be able to keep up with all the whacking.

Since then I’ve found that the more out of control I feel, the more susceptible I am to models and their evil marketing schemes. I see their perfect lives—their perfect teeth, their perfect hair, their amazing clothes that they wear like, What, this old thing?—and I want what they have. The strength, the beauty, the confidence, the fun, the control.

But whatever they’re selling—that’s not where beauty and strength come from. I would never in a million years tell anyone, let alone my sister, whom I’ve eagerly waited to show interest in makeup and boys and the whole shebang, that a little daily primp is evil; that a little retail therapy now and then will never help anything, that a slightly shorter skirt (not so short that she can’t sit, of course) won’t help her the way she wants in certain situations, or that there do not exist in the universe any practical, aesthetic tips to help along the way to feeling and being both sexy and fun. That would be just plumb false. And rotten. I’d be a terrible sister. Worst sister of the year.

But it’s a slippery slope. If one gives into a little primp, a little retail therapy, a little hemming of the skirt, too often, then the game of whack-a-mole becomes all the keeping up one tries to do to remain outwardly beautiful, and that’s no good.

Beauty is not about what is on the outside. Although it helps to take care of the outside. The most beautiful traits are the timeless ones. I mean, I have a painter friend who looks a little like a genetic collage of Jesus and that Muppet—what’s his name?—Animal. And he acts like he looks. Very wise, very philosophical; but also sometimes very loud and nonsensical, all over the place, though not in a floppy, fish-out-of-water way. More like a frantic squirrel on Redbull sort of way. And he’s the life of every party because of it. He’s mesmerizing. This guy will tell a story—made-up or true—and people have to listen. To every word. I actually slap my knee when I laugh at his stories, because I’m so out of breath and my cheeks hurt so much and there’s nothing left to do but—slap my knee. And he’s never going to grow out of that. His ways are never going to go out of style. That’s not beauty in the traditional sense of the word, but it pulses. Almost like he does have his own soundtrack.

Wouldn’t you rather be like that? This is my question for my sister, for every woman—for every person, for that matter. Wouldn’t you rather that your beauty came from knowing who you are and being yourself and not trying to be like some model whom you’ve never even met? Some model who, away from the camera, trips over cobblestones and breaks down on dark roads and probably has to go in for an agonizing bikini wax every two to three weeks?

I know I would.

That’s why I don’t model anymore. Being a model wasn’t the life I thought it would be. It taught me a lot, but it wasn’t a life of playing basketball with Tom Welling and Ashton Kutcher, and walking my saucy walk down a runway all the time. It was a lot of psychological torment, a lot of crying, a lot of tearing my hair out, trying to be something I was not. There are so many more things to focus on in life than looking good, on being up on all the latest trends. I find much more satisfaction in chasing real dreams, like publishing a book one day, owning a home, opening a café. When I look in the mirror now, I’m happy with what I see. And the more I live this way, the more I see beauty in people in ways that have nothing to do with the way they look. It’s a good life.

It’s a beautiful life. A beautiful, real life.

By Alexis Paquette.