Former Babe: Reflections on my brief career as a Teenage Model
Have I told you about my brief career as a teenage model?
When I was fifteen, my physicality meant a whole lot to the people I knew. They’d make well intentioned, but insensitive statements to me. Observations often posed as questions; questions with no answers. Something like: ‘You have very big white teeth, don’t you?’ Or: ‘look how long your legs are! They go right up to your bottom!’ What you are supposed to say, in response to these ruminations on the luck of nature? ‘Yes. Thanks. Cheers for that’. I wasn’t sure. If it were occasional comments, that would have been ok, but the repetition reinforced the meaning about the importance of looking good.
The objectification amped up with the onset of my puberty (not a time renowned for clear, logical thought) and it’s hard to recover from conversation killing beginnings. These comments were similar to the ‘look how much you’ve grown’ comments you get as a kid. The idle commentary (by everyone from family members to school teachers) about how I looked, what my most striking physical attributes were and what I was wearing, sent a message to young me and my hormone-addled brain: How you look means a lot. I was getting the idea that people preferred to look at me, rather than talk with me, because if they did want to talk with me, discussing the physical teenage me with the vulnerable teenage me was a bad start.
At high school (a working class school in a bad neighbourhood, at the end of the train line in Brisbane’s North), I was entered into the Miss Nashville Competition. A mock beauty pageant on the entertainment programme of our annual School Fete. I didn’t think to say: ‘no, thank you but no’. It was framed in a way that I felt grateful to have been nominated by my peers as their class entrant. ‘Go Grade 11B!’ the class would shout, little teenage fists pumping into the expectant air.
I won Miss Nashville, a fiercely contested pageant, judged by a panel of school based beauty experts: Biology Teacher Mr. Cameron, and English Teacher Mrs. Adams. The competition wasn’t judged just on how you looked (that would be shallow); we contestants had to talk into a microphone too. I was asked: ‘if you were placed on a desert island and could pack just one item of make-up, what would it be?’ I correctly answered ‘concealer’ and the blemished audience of my fellow teens knew they’d met their Queen. The prize was a Deportment course at Sabcar Model Agency, just off the Queen Street Mall in the city.
At Sabcar, the Agency’s expert middle-aged instructors worked on our posture. It was a suburban take on a Swiss finishing school. For young ladies, hoping one day to marry well. Powerful men love former models or women who look like former models and former models love powerful men. All Donald Trump’s wives have been former models. Rupert Murdoch has married former model Jerry Hall, but he’s so old that doesn’t count. Thank God for Viagra hey Jerry?
At Sabcar I learned that when using cutlery at fancy dinners, you start from the outside and work your way in. We balanced books on our heads rather than reading books. I was taught how to keep my face and body clean and correctly scented, how to accessorise an outfit to meet the latest European trends, how to apply makeup in the tasteful manner and how to blow-dry my unruly curls into a neat bob.
I was an attentive and serious student at Deportment school, having fully embraced the idea that this was an exciting opportunity and not one to be squandered. I was setting myself up, with all the new life skills I was learning, investing in my future I was. I began to wear shitloads of make up to casual affairs like backyard family BBQs, which generated talk amongst my family about how quickly I was growing up and how mature I was for my age. I was 15.
The Deportment course I’d won was a lure into Sabcar’s real business. It was Brisbane’s 2nd largest modeling Agency (after June Dally Watkins). Giving away deportment courses to cash strapped state schools for kid’s prizes, was an effective and sinister way to grow a fledging beauty business. And it was working a treat. Only the best and the brightest girls would be considered suitable candidates to continue their studies into the Professional Modeling course we were told, straight faced. A surprisingly high number of us fitted the bill perfectly. Once again, luck was on my side. The modeling course cost a lot of money, but Mum wanted for me what all mothers want: for their kids to have every opportunity of attaining all the best life has to offer. So Patsy pulled out her credit card, and maxed it out on my modeling course fees. Mum had been groomed even more carefully than I. We hadn’t even realized I was an aspiring model.
We sashayed down the creaky runway, footsteps timed with the synthesized beats of The Thompson Twins. Blazers nonchalantly removed as we sauntered, pelvises thrust ever so slightly forward, jackets then swung casually over the shoulder to reveal the ‘look’ beneath. On reaching the end of the runway, an expectant pause, then a flash of female Blue Steel for the imaginary cameras, shooting for the imaginary magazines. The Blue Steel was not yet a part of the Zeitgeist, but it did still exist. It just hadn’t been correctly named yet. A name really is everything and Ben Stiller is still doing very well out of Blue Steel, bless him.
Modeling school taught us how to get dressed super quickly backstage, without getting embarrassed about flashing your g-banger at the other models. We all wore them (panty lines ain’t cool), so don’t be getting all up yourself like you’re the only model with knickers wedged right up her clacker bending down to strap on a heel. We were part of a team, a highly competitive team of trainee models. It was a great environment in which to forge life long friendships! We were taught how not to get lipstick on expensive designer clothes (you wrap a silk scarf over your face before the clothes go anywhere near your head). We learned the term clotheshorse: it’s a fashion industry word that does sound derogatory, but it’s not. It means to parade clothes with grace, and a certain saunter round your rear end.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OnI9MptAD8 7.39 mins, Bruno behind the Catwalk, ‘models can earn in one day what teachers earn in a year, why are teachers overpaid? Bruno asks a model.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vF12rS6w25M 5.12 mins Bruno takes apart Fashion
Modeling is split into sub genres: catwalk/runway, photographic work for print media and finally (at the summit) the spokesmodel/ brand ambassador. That’s the rarefied job of models who are allowed to talk. Like in a TV advertisement. These are the big pay packet gigs but unfortunately, they don’t happen very often. It’s still great though, to know that spokesmodels even exist, so all we models have something to aspire to. It means an awful lot to the modeling community, spokesmodeling. Women have either looks or intelligence, but seldom both. We were told that’s why spokesmodels get the big cake, they need both and that’s a tough gig to pull off.
There’s always room for Self-Improvement. Things you can do better, so you constantly dissect your individual features and (with detachment), work on your weakest bits. That’s professional, and it’s what all the successful models do. Very tiring work it was too, I remember being emotionally exhausted from model school.
The grand finale of this protracted farce was a Fashion Parade graduation, where we all got a run down the catwalk, for family and leading industry professionals. Showbiz is always dramatic. We were presented with our official Diploma of Modeling certification onstage, smiling for the cameras, basking in the proud faces of relatives, for now we were officially beautiful.
The con wasn’t quite over. Every professional model needs professional photographs for her professional modeling folio before she can get professional work. Photos don’t come cheap, they’re professional goddamn you new recruits! They’ll cost you a bomb, so out came Mum’s credit card, again, because (lo and behold), just down the corridor from the modeling agency was a fashion photographer! The best fashion photographer in the whole of Brisbane! The Agency could highly recommend him in fact. Most highly indeedy, for they were all in cahoots. Shane Martin was trendy, all the girls were hot for him. Shane Martin was busy too, and wouldn’t photograph just anyone, even if you were paying him top dollar to do so. He’d need to do a walk by and check you were good enough for his lens. His professional reputation was at stake. And guess what. I was pretty enough for my Mum to pay Shane to take modeling photos of me. We were so lucky.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIfrTSFe8Wg Basic Posing Tutorial with Lencarta and professional model Keira, 4.40mins
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77qkhmFjyG0 1.20mins, Posing very quickly, before your beauty runs out.
If you’re going to the considerable expense of getting professional quality photographs taken, you don’t do your own make-up and styling. Even if you have just finished deportment and modeling courses purportedly teaching you those skills. You pay a professional hair stylist to apply half a tub of wet look gel to achieve that authentic wet look gel look. It was a compulsory look for the all important swimsuit shots.
Swimsuit models are a rarefied breed too, not as rarefied as the spokes model brand ambassadors, but we are talking 1980’s Queensland here. There were plenty of opportunities for swimsuit models because, out of the workplace, people lived in their bathers. Everyone had about a hundred pairs. You could walk the streets in your togs, down the shops, do whatever. You could go to a beer garden in togs, just as long as you had covered toe shoes on. People didn’t even bother covering up their bottom halves with a sarong. Banana benders (that’s the friendly nickname for Queenslanders) thought the ‘slip slop slap’ campaign (slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat) was a joke. That’s how Queensland got to be world leaders in skin cancer: everyone was parading round the streets half naked the whole time. Like professional swimsuit models.
Speaking of shopping, gee I needed to do a hell of a lot of it once I’d been to modeling school. It really was good for the whole economy. I learned it’s expensive being a woman. There was always more crap you needed to buy, products I hadn’t even known existed before. Like Nair, a magic hair removal cream. I have no clue what they put in that stuff, but you just slather it on, wait, then wipe off all the hair that’s just fallen out utterly dead. Roots and all. It had an awful stink to it, Nair, it would sting the insides of your nostrils. Swimsuits were high cut then, so we’d all Nair off all our stray pubes. If your hand slipped on application and it went anywhere near your nether region, you’d know all about it. The sting, (I can still feel it) a phantom sting in the privates.
I finally got my professional modeling photos home, I was itching to have some ‘me-time’ with them. The general consensus was that a few of them were incredible, and most of them didn’t even look like me. My family couldn’t understand that models have to be chameleons, you’ve got to be able to change your look up in a heartbeat if you want to exist in this profession, doll!
The fashion photographer Shane Martin told me I had a thick waist, so to add definition I was to elongate my body by crossing my arms up over my head. Again and again he would demonstrate the pose, then I’d mimic it. A photo shoot is a collaboration, it’s a team effort, so you follow the instructions you’re given and then, just have ‘fun’ with it. When in doubt, jump in the air. For the all important swimsuit shots, Shane said: ‘come on Natalie, be sexy now. You’re at the beach and its hot and you’re hot.’ I hadn’t had sex yet, so I had to ad lib. At 15, it was illegal to be doing sex and I hadn’t understood the thrill of breaking the law yet.
Posing for photos is very specialized work, and it’s always changing. The selfie and the duckface didn’t exist when I was a teenage model. Neither did the Internet, thank god. Women’s relationship to photography differs from that of men. Nobody likes to see an ugly photo of themselves, but women are taught vanity from such an early age that its mighty grasp is a difficult menace to free yourself from. These days, economic imperatives have identified men as a huge new growth market for the vanity complex, and all its expensive side markets. Instead of women freeing themselves from vanity, we’ve welcomed men to our living hell: Hey guys, see you down the skin peel clinic!
I’d successfully hurdled every jump placed before me and at considerable expense to my family. It costs a lot to look good. There’s steep taxes placed on dreams. Anywhere there are dreams, there’s also huge industries of industrious people ready to take your money and help you dream your dreams.
I was now a professional model. Still in school, I should have been studying and getting tanked for the first time. Mum wrote me a note for missing science class: Please excuse Natalie for her absence from school. She was busy smiling too hard and bursting out of a pool for a page 3 photo shoot for the Mirror, to learn the laws of Thermodynamics.
I was sent on Go See’s. They’re like an artist/curator studio visit. You meet up and show your portfolio and just ‘relax, be yourself and see what happens’. Nothing happens. It’s a job interview but really there’s no jobs, you don’t have what they’re looking for, but if you asked them what they’re looking for, they couldn’t tell you, because they don’t know. If they did know that would be too prescriptive. Turns out Sabcar only had 2 clients, Sportsgirl and Dolly magazine and all their vacancies were already full. I just didn’t quite have the look they were looking for.
My deportment and modeling courses got me into trouble again, when I was first posted out to Emerald as the new Home Economics and English teacher. Within a week of arriving, and suffering considerable culture shock (luckily, back at Kelvin Grove teachers college, they’d prepared us for the realities of a rural teaching post with a screening of Wake in Fright), I’d been recruited as the 1991 Miss Australia Quest entrant, representing the Combined Mining Unions. And I don’t even like mining (but I didn’t feel like I could say no), so they picked me up at dawn and drove me out to the coal mine for the miners to give me the old once-over and make sure I was a suitable representative for them. It was a charity fundraising competition for a worthwhile cause with pretty young girls, so it was all good.
The CMU boss gave me the thumbs up and the newspaper took my photo to seal the deal, then they drove me back into town and dropped me off at school. I raised money like a good girl and held an underage Valentine’s Day disco at Emerald’s only nightclub, Fanny’s. Even after we’d paid for the Police supervision (just in case the toolies showed up), we’d made a bucket load of cash. The kids loved it because apart from touch football, there wasn’t a whole lot of entertainment out there in Emerald for teens. I was transferred back to Brisbane to teach so didn’t get to the final stages of the Miss Australia Quest. Bummer.
Young me used to always do what I was told I should be doing. When I learned later to say no, it felt so good I’m still saying it, over and over. I have trouble submitting to the will of others. In my youth in Queensland I got imprinted with the idea that what I thought, wasn’t as important as what I had on. I was passively taught that what I was saying wasn’t as important as how I was wearing my hair. It’s any wonder that these days I’m such a handful? Women are still fighting to be heard.
I’m attempting to harness the creative potentials of a mid life crisis, hence the retrospection. Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth has helped in making sense of a part of my past too trippy to properly contemplate. Till now:
‘Beauty is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact. In assigning value to women in a vertical hierarchy according to a culturally imposed physical standard, it is an expression of power relations in which women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves.’ (Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, p12).
‘The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance. Competition between women has been made part of the myth so that women will be divided from one another. Aging in women is ‘unbeautiful’ since women grow more powerful with time, and since the links between generations of women must always be newly broken: Older women fear young ones, young women fear old, and the beauty myth truncates for all the female life span. Most urgently, women’s identity must be premised upon our ‘beauty’ so that we will remain vulnerable to outside approval, carrying the vital sensitive organ of self-esteem exposed to the air. (p.14 ibid).
I’d misplaced my once prized modeling folio by storing it in a dank, obtuse ‘safe place’, out in the shed, which my subconscious promptly forgot. When Morgi finally located the proof, I showed our daughter Maxine my teenage modeling shots. She looked through my ‘look book’ and shook her little head. Then she said, with some consternation, ‘What were you thinking Mum?’ ‘I was thinking a lot about how I looked love’. And then I heard the same words I’d heard 33 years before, ‘This one doesn’t even look like you. You really slathered on the lipstick didn’t you.’ ‘Yes love, I really slathered on the lipstick.’
I’m lucky, my teenage modeling career wasn’t traumatic, but it certainly was twisted.