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34-24-34: The truth about fashion models

A friend of mine sent me a link to fashion model Jenna Sauer’s (aka Tatiana Anymodel’s) interview on with the note, “I wish you could do this questionnaire too—I’d like to see your answers vs “Tatiana’s!” Well friend, here they are. But first, a little background about me:

When I was 18, I moved to Paris to model full time. I worked there for six years before returning to the States to attend UCLA. I wrote about my adventures and misadventures in Paris, Tokyo, London, and Hamburg in my memoir, Paris On Less Than $10,000 A Day. And now I’m a writer. Who writes in neon yellow fleece pajama pants and a gray cashmere sweater full of holes. I’m that much of a fashionista.

Do models eat?

When I first started modeling at 18, I still had some baby fat. I was 125 pounds and my hips were a whopping 93 centimeters, which translates to about 36.5 inches. The ideal measurements for a model are 34-24-34. Although I was 5’11½ ” and had been mistaken for anorexic most of my life, I was told that I needed to lose weight. I started working out and running, and my weight dropped to 122 and stayed there during the course of my modeling years. But I was one of those models who could eat anything and never gain an ounce. My boyfriend was always telling me I was too skinny, and one client told me I was too thin to do his show, so I tried to gain weight (which was stupid in retrospect. I worked the most when I was 122 pounds), but couldn’t. Once I went on vacation to Italy, and my boyfriend fed me five course meals for lunch and dinner every day to fatten me up. On the third day, I vomited from overeating. At that point I decided to accept my weight for what it was and stop trying to please everyone.

There were other models like me, but there were also many models who dieted, and others who had eating disorders. Many of them had mild bulimia or anorexia, so unless you lived with them and watched what they ate, it wasn’t obvious. I had one roommate who only ate baby food and Wasa crackers. I had another who ate large meals and then threw them up. Every now and then you’d see a girl at a show or at a casting who had dropped below 100 pounds, and everyone would be whispering about what happened to cause her to go to that extreme. We’d all feel the need to talk to her and to encourage her to eat, but no one ever dared because we didn’t want her to feel worse about herself than she already did.

Are Eastern Bloc pre-teenagers the only ones who get work?

Well, I can’t speak for today (according to Jenna Sauers, the answer is yes, along with Brazilian girls), but I was working in Paris when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and when the USSR collapsed in 1991, and the market was suddenly flooded by girls named Natasha and Natalia. I liked them. They were shy and polite or bold like army generals and always serious. The Brazilian girls, by the way, were more prevalent in Japan, and they were loud and boisterous. I used to wonder if only rich Brazilians got into modeling because they all acted so entitled.

Is it as tiring as they say?

I remember going to castings late at night during show season. I remember flying to Tokyo and arriving at the Narita Airport after a sixteen-hour flight to find a manager waiting to drive me on show castings—straight off the airplane after having been up half the night. I remember arriving at one of those castings at 9 p.m. to find a roomful of Japanese men sitting in plastic chairs lined against the walls. A man in the middle of the room turned on some loud rock music and told me to dance. And I did. Tokyo was insane like that. I often did two—sometimes three—jobs in a day, getting up at 5 or 6 a.m. and rushing from a fashion show to a photo shoot and sometimes a second photo shoot after that. I would get home and collapse into bed and get up the following day and do it all over again. I had to request a day off when I became too run down. I remember eating acerola drops to fight off colds because they were full of vitamin C.

But there was a lot of down time, too. In Paris I could go a month without working. And even on jobs we spent a lot of time sitting around smoking cigarettes and reading books while the other models got their make-up and hair done, or while other models were shooting. It was one extreme or the other.

Okay, but the money’s pretty awesome, right?

It could be. It was when I worked in Japan, and it was when I worked for Jil Sander. But there were weeks—months—that I hardly made any money at all. Magazines paid $100/day gross. Vogue paid $75/day. You couldn’t live on that. You had to do catalog and shows or advertising and TV commercials to make a living. I think at one point I calculated that I was making $8 an hour once I factored in all the time I spent pounding the pavement on castings. Overall, I averaged $50-$100,000k per year. I think my best year I made $150,000k. It sounds like a lot, but we were spending a lot, too. We were expected to wear designer clothes and get $100 facials, and we paid our own travel expenses to places like Australia and Japan.

Are models vain?

Models are the most insecure people I know. They are acutely aware of every one of their physical flaws from the ear that sticks out to the crooked toe to the veins in their hands. And I think that insecurity often comes across as aloofness.

Does everyone do mountains of coke or what?

Most models I knew smoked pot now and then, but none of my friends did hard drugs. We couldn’t afford meat let alone cocaine (My first year in Paris I ate rice, pasta, and Burger King every night because it was all I could afford.) I heard stories, and I saw track marks on the bottom of a famous model’s feet one time at a show, but I was never into the party scene, so I didn’t witness coke at parties, let alone on jobs.

Are models dumb?

Yes. All of them. I’m kidding. No, they’re not dumb. Most of the models I met read constantly (this was before cell phones and laptop computers much less smart phones, so there wasn’t much else to do). They spoke multiple languages and were as familiar with Ginza, Bondi, the Reeperbahn, and the Marais as they were with their hometown in Ohio. Most hadn’t gone to college because they would have been too old to start modeling at 22, but that didn’t make them dumb. They were worldly and urbane. So what if they didn’t know the definition of “egregious” or “apocryphal”? They could order sushi in four different languages.

Do a lot of models have, uh, a Naomi Campbell attitude?

Fortunately, the only model I ever met with a Naomi Campbell attitude was Naomi Campbell. Models, on average, are very friendly. There is a hierarchy, however. At shows I did, the supermodels only talked to other supermodels. They didn’t talk to us not-so-supermodels. But I attributed that more to the fact that they knew each other from previous jobs than that they were consciously snubbing us. Movie stars at a party don’t generally walk up to people they don’t know and strike up conversations. They talk to people they know.

Okay, so what is the worst part of the job?

Where do I begin? The boredom. The uncertainty. Being thousands of miles away from your friends and family on your 21st birthday. Being told you need to lose weight when you’re 5’11” and weigh 125 pounds. The toll it takes on your self-esteem not to have begun college at the age of 25 when all your friends back home are finishing up their master’s degrees. Shooting bathing suits in December and fur coats in July. Making vacation plans and then having to cancel to do a shoot for Marie-Claire. Making weekend plans and then having to cancel in order to fly to Germany at 5 a.m. the following morning for a catalog job. Not having a TV, a plant, a pet, or long-distance telephone access in your models apartment. Having to buy phone cards to use the payphone down the street to call home. Losing a huge job because you cut your hair too short. Losing a huge job because you refused to cut your hair too short. Feeling like the only thing you’re contributing to the world is making women feel shitty about themselves. I could go on …

88 comments to 34-24-34: The truth about fashion models

  • I love this post–it has given me new insight into your modeling experience, and a new facet to your persona here–and now I rrreally can't wait to read your book. So glad you did this! Now I want to read more–what do you think of America's Next Top Model?

    • Meghan Ward

      Christine – Thank YOU! As for America's Next Top Model, I'll save that for another post! (Although I've only seen it a handful of times.) And keep feeding me questions. I need blog post ideas 🙂

  • Kristan

    How fascinating! Thanks for sharing your experiences. I found both yours and the "Anonymodel's" answers very interesting, and sent the links to a couple friends who I think would as well.

    (Psst: Have you considered writing a YA novel about modeling? I think the experience would be pretty interesting to teens, and touch on a lot of issues they face anyway — self esteem / body issues, desire to see the world, uncertainty about money and career, emotional/physical distance from family…)

    • Meghan Ward

      Kristan – My memoir is borderline YA – except for all the sex. I think it will sell to a young audience since it's written in first person from my 18-year-old POV.

  • Amazing stuff here. I knew a few models when I lived in Rome and they said similar things. I used some of their stories in my novel Food of Love, which is about a former model who gets fat and thinks that's why her husband is trying to kill her.

    Modeling sounds like a tough life. And nobody talks about the boredom. Or the fact Vogue only pays $75 a day. Jeez. Film extra work is just as boring, but it pays better, and and they feed you–usually very well.

    I love Kristan's suggestion of a YA novel about a model. If you've ever thought of writing YA, I think that would be a fabulous book.

    • Meghan Ward

      Bleh – I have no interest in writing a novel about modeling – but like I said in response to Kristan's comment above, my memoir is borderline YA (one could call it "New Adult"). I'm hoping it will appeal to teens as well as adults. Fingers crossed! And now I want to read Food of Love as well as The Gatsby Game!

  • KLM

    I also enjoyed reading your answers. In fact I was so fascinated, that even though I was in a rush to get the kids ready for school this morning but I still read the whole post from stem to stern (we managed to be on time nevertheless).

    A YA model book? Hmmm. There's an idea…

    Last question for you: What song/artist was played most often while you were hoofing it down the runway? I'm just curious if there's a particular song that, when you hear it now, it reminds you of your fashion show days.

    • Meghan Ward

      Kristan – That makes me happy that the kids were almost late for school 🙂

      The song that sticks out the most for me is George Michael's "Freedom" because it had all the supermodels in it. I remember being at a show backstage with most of the girls in the video when the song came on. It was kind of surreal. I remember hearing a lot of Lenny Kravitz and Dee Lite and Massive Attack back then. As for songs used DURING the shows – they were always these very hip songs that I don't know the names of. I can hear one in my head right now – sometimes they were Japanese pop songs or ones with sound bytes from an old Bridget Bardot song. The one in my head is going to bug me now. I'll see if I can dig it up. Today there are websites that list all the songs played in every New York runway show. It's a great way to find good music! Would make a good blog post, too 🙂

  • Fascinating! So, what makes certain models "super?" What's the difference between you and one of the girls in the George Michael video?

    • Meghan Ward

      They make a shitload more money! Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, etc. all made millions per year back then. Linda is famous for saying, "We don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day" (Thus, the title of my book).

  • Did I mention I'm excited to read the next version of your book? And I agree with some of the other commenters on here–more posts about your experiences would always be welcome, because like advertising, modeling is one of those things that everyone's exposed to, but few people see from the inside.

    • Meghan Ward

      Thanks, Nate. I look forward to hearing what you think about it! And I'm glad people are interested in the topic. Makes me feel like there is a market for the book.

  • Aditi Raychoudhury

    I can attest to the fact that Meghan can eat all she wants and stay thin- I m jealous! And that models arent dumb! Recently, read that christy turlington is attending journalism school at Columbia! I wd imagine the women of the modeling world is as diverse as the rest of the world – the only difference maybe that some of them have to get their degrees later. Btw, I watch ANTM on and off – for one reason – I REALLY LOVE to see the magic at the hands of the make up artists, hairstylists, and photographers – UNBELIEVABLE!

    • America's Next Top Model isn't really a show I want to get hooked on, but I'll watch a a couple episodes so I can comment on it. And I CANNOT eat as much as I could when I was in my 20s without gaining weight. I wish!

  • Risa

    Great post, Meghan. Just met a former model from Latvia who started as a teen. I agree with others that your stories would be fascinating to read. And a gray cashmere sweater full of holes sounds like a perfect writing sweater. Every writer needs to have a writing sweater!

    • Risa, Sadly, I think it's time to either repair or ditch my sweater. My elbows are getting cold. And thanks for the encouragement re: my book! I hope people will want to read it.

  • sierragodfrey

    This was a fantastic post, Meghan and like others, I couldn't stop reading once I started. I realize that even thought I know you, I know little about that period and I think most of us think it's super glamorous–and it was! You did amazing things! You speak French to your children still!

    Some follow up questions for you:
    – You said models are some of the most insecure people on earth. And it comes across as aloofness. Did you and do you still struggle with this insecurity?

    -Please please please tell me more about that model you saw whose feet had track marks on them! Wow! Presumably so her arms wouldn't be marred? Where on her feet was that?

    • Sierra – Great questions! I'll save the first one for a follow-up post. As for the second- yes, she shot up through the bottom of her feet so the marks wouldn't show. She was a second-tier supermodel – in other words, famous back then but not as big as Christy or Linda or Naomi.

  • Your posts are always amazing. I can't wait for the book and I love the title. It sounds like a life that is full of extremes. I had a summer job once that was wonderful and terrible. I'd never do it again and wouldn't trade the memories for anything.

  • I love that you're blogging about this!! This is a little off topic, but it's funny that you mention that all the models used to read while sitting around waiting. I've been wondering if my recently acquired iPhone will make me dumb as I was sick in bed this weekend and instead of reading I played games on my phone … on the up side phone Scrabble taught me the word "Oxidic," which is "A binary compound of oxygen"…. so that's got it count for something.

    I've always thought that being a model would really mess with a person head. It totally means something culturally. Did you know that when Rob was interviewing at the paper that the editors told him they "had a former model working there?" I'm not sure how that applies to journalism. : >

    • meghancward

      Alta – That's funny about the newspaper and not surprising knowing the editors. As for reading, I don't have an iPhone, but if I take my iPad to a doc appt, I'm much more likely to check e-mail than to read a book. Now that I'm a writer I don't read nearly as much as I did when I was modeling. I had so much down time back then – no computer, no cell phone, no distractions. I bet models aren't reading nearly as much today with all the electronic gadgets.

    • I'm dying to know which paper!

  • Lisa

    Meghan, can you comment on what to look for in a modeling agency? I have several wanting to sign my daughter. She is 6 ft. 24"waist and 34" hips and lovely. We live in middle Tennessee so do I sign with a local agency or go straight to CA or NY? Thoughts on how long the exclusivity term should be with an agency?

  • Lisa, email me at and I'll tell you what I know.

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    I found this really enlightening. I have family members who have pushed me towards the modeling industry because I am 5'11" and only 105 lbs. I was considering it seriously but wanted to get a better idea of what the experience itself would be like. It is not nearly as glamorous as it is chalked up to be I think, and honestly, I would rather get a different job. Thanks so much for helping me clarify what I wanted to do with my career:)

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