top of page

The Realities of Modeling

Asian model holding lit match while wearing flammable fur

They told me not to set the fur on fire. #DontTellMeHowToLiveMyLife

Confession — I did modeling in my early 20’s.

It started when a fellow student suggested I try out as a student model in 2007. Then I was scouted at the casting by some TV producers, and things went from there. At the time, I was a huge fan of America’s Next Top Model, and you can’t go through life as a 5'9" (174 cm) Taiwanese girl without people asking you if you’re a model (the appropriate response is ‘oh no no of course not’ with feigned modesty). For all the obvious reasons, the prospect of a glamorous adventure was very, very appealing.

But I never identified as just a model. I was a snob. I was always model/graduate student, model/marketing minion, model/actress (I know, I know), or most commonly, model/freelance translator.

This previous gig was something I used to keep under wraps. Most of my friends didn’t find out about it until months into our friendship. This was a deliberate decision. In my experience, it gives people license to belittle your achievement. One of my first bosses made it clear that he hired me because I was “pretty” on a weekly basis.

Also, if you modeled for a day, you’re somehow a model forever. I haven’t booked a job in three years, but people still insists on referring to me as “a model.” Why is that? If you were a waitress for a couple of summers, you’re not a waitress for the rest of your life.

Tangent: model/freelance translator/graduate student was the worst possible combination. In an age before cloud computing and MacBook Air, I was to be found hauling around papers, books, an IBM ThinkPad, a pair of heels, and a change of clothes on any given day. I had very big bags.

The Realities

No, you don’t get free clothes. Modeling is a 24–7 job. As in 28-hour shoots, always on call for castings, and dieting all the time (unless you’re one of those girls who are honestly built to model. There are lots of them. Don’t hate).

Photoshop can be a wonderful thing (see Tina Fay’s quote from Bossypants), but photo shoots can make you feel like a busted can of biscuits.

You don’t get rich. Magazine shoots pay about 100 dollars a day. Take out the agency’s cut (20–40%), transportation, and hours you spent on the dozens of castings you had to go to to land the job in the first place, you’re in the red. You’re in even deeper red if you’re a traveling foreign model. Agencies overcharge you on rent and cab fare and short you on your paychecks if you’re not diligent. And it’s hard to be diligent when you don’t speak or read the local language. I thankfully never had to go through this, but I had witness enough of these practices. That and casual prostitution, but let’s not get into that.

Jobs can be really gross. Think Ross in leather pants in midsummer. Wearing “sample” clothes that have been circulated through every photography studio in town all season and not laundered because God forbid you wash a CÉLINE blouse improperly.

Jobs can be really, really awesome. Like when they glue feathers to your eyebrows and hand you a yellow python.

People in bad jungle costumes, holding one yellow snake

Yes, this happened.

The Damage

Models really are the most insecure people in the world. I have never felt more unattractive than when I was draped in a satin gown and doused in diamonds, with my rib cages and hip bones jutting out.

Yes, some models have eating disorders. Yes, I was nearly one of them. Yes, they make you strip down to your underwear and pinch your wobbly bits. Yes, it’s humiliating and dehumanizing.

But it’s the job. It’s just a job. It’ll ruin your day, but you don’t have to let it rule your life. Criticism about your body is easy to take — compared to criticism on work you actually poured your blood, sweat, and tears into (like a thesis) — because, if you can force yourself to believe it, there’s really very little you can change about your body to match the extreme standards for modeling. Your bone structure and proportions are mostly genetic. You can starve yourself all day, but you won’t sprout another 2 inches, shrink your pelvis, or magically have a longer/shorter neck, depending on the complaint of the day.

Oh but I tried. I survived on 800 calories a day, hired a personal trainer (with money I never made), took “herbal medicine” that made me so nauseated I couldn’t sit up in my bed, tried acupuncture, and even consulted with several plastic surgeons (THANK YOU MOM AND DAD for not letting me get away with that one, phew).

With 20/20 hindsight, I now see that the criticism was not at all personal. It’s actually inconvenient for the designers if the models show up in all different shapes and sizes. An outfit can be clipped and pinned to fit a smaller frame, but you can’t exactly add more fabric to it at the shoot or five minutes before the show if you can’t get into the damn pants in the first place.

Sounds brutal, but it’s true.

In the end, modeling made me smarter about what real people look like.

When you’ve seen your own head being shrunk in Photoshop (to make you look taller, naturally), you stop wishing you could look like the people in the glossy pages of a magazine.

The shrunken head, plus satin and diamonds.

I consider it vaccination against future body image issues. No one can ever sell me on a diet ever again. And you’ll never hear me complain what any part my body looks like.

What I’ve learned

Your value is defined by what the client needs. And if you don’t have what they’re looking for? Walk away from the deal. Try something different. With 20/20 hindsight, I now see that clients who liked me, who wanted to work with me, did. And there’s always another casting, another show, or another job entirely.

Don’t sign anything as-is. You can always negotiate. The contract says 5 years? Ask for 3. Never believe anyone who hands you a contract and says, “that’s the standard. Everyone signs this.” Read through everything carefully and ask questions. If they won’t budge? Walk away.

Photo shoots are incredibly collaborative efforts. Most days, you walk into a job with a completely new team. The model is a very small piece of the whole puzzle. However, the model can effectively ruin a shoot with anything from bad skin, bad hangover, bad haircut, bad legs… But mostly just with a bad attitude.

Attitude matters. There’s more than one silhouette in every fashion show. If you work hard and you’re polite, designers and editors are more willing to find something that will fit you. It’s human nature — we all like to go to work with someone nice.

Would I do it again?

Hell yes I would do it again. It was awesome. I was lucky. I’ve got some pretty sick photos to terrorize my grandchildren with (holy $hit granny had drawn-in cleavage!).

Last job, 2012.

Would I recommend other girls to go into modeling?

Yes, but with caution. I was lucky to have started when I was already 21, and always had some sort of occupation outside of modeling. Modeling never fully consumed my life, and now that I’ve survived it, the experience is priceless.

Modeling was great training: how to dress for your body type, how to walk in heels (catwalk summer camp!), how to work with teams, how to pack efficiently, how to be ready for anything.

Job interviews are a breeze when you’ve survived castings. Ask me about my marital status! Drill me on the blanks in my resume! Come at me, bro! These are questions I have answers for, or things I can improve upon.

Just don’t ask me why my butt measures over 90 cm, or why my torso is so long, or why my head is too big for my shoulders.You should’ve known better than to ask me to drop another 5 kilos, now I look like a lollipop. Photoshop it.

Single post: Blog_Single_Post_Widget
bottom of page