A chapter from my memoir Paris On Less Than $10,000 a Day was published in the anthology, It’s So You: 35 Women Write about Personal Expression Through Fashion and Style. For other samples of my writing, click here.
It’s my third show season. My first season I booked one show—I forget what it was—and my second I booked four, so I’m on an upward trajectory. When I call my parents, my dad answers and asks what I’m up to. I tell him I’m in the middle of show castings.
“So that means you’ll be modeling the spring collections,” he says with an air of pride.
My mom and dad, who buy their clothes from Petite Sophisticates and Sears respectively, are now in tune with the international fashion trends. My dad hands my mom the phone.
“Will you be going on to the London shows next?” she asks. “Or skipping London and going to Milan?”
“Probably Milan,” I tell her. My mom has been watching Style with Elsa Klensch on CNN. I’ve seen Elsa in her thin red lips and thick brown bangs, sitting in the front row of the audience at shows, and my mother has seen me on Style with Elsa Klensch—one three-second clip of me walking down the runway in the Hermès show. In the photo I’m looking down, not straight ahead, because no one has explained to me yet that the cameras I’m supposed to look at are up there, out of sight, not down there, where photographers mob the stage around our feet.
“And will you be doing the Tokyo or New York collections this fall?” my mother asks. “I hear polka dots are in.”
I hate polka dots. “Tokyo. I’m going to Tokyo,” I tell her. I can’t wait to go to Tokyo. TOKYO! Land of sushi, Godzilla, and samurai! I’ll buy a kimono! Drink some sake! Meet a sumo wrestler! They have three alphabets, each with its own script, and I want to learn all three. Marilyn, my agent, doesn’t want me to go. She says Tokyo is for second-rate models and that I should be going to New York instead. But I have no interest in New York because it is in the United States. The only reason I’m modeling is to (a) see the world and (b) make some money. I want to be one of those lingerie models who goes to Tokyo empty handed and comes back two months later with $60,000 cash stuffed in her boots. With $60,000 I could put a down payment on a three-unit Victorian in San Francisco and rent two of the apartments out while I live in the third and use the rent to pay the mortgage and my tuition at U.C. Berkeley. Even if I buy just one unit, I could get a three-bedroom apartment and rent two of the rooms out while I live in the third. That’s what I’m going to do. And I’ll learn Japanese in the process. And French, German, Spanish, and Italian. I’ll be one of those cosmopolitan diplomats who winters in New Zealand and summers in Provence. I’ll decorate each room in my house like a different country—African masks in one room, hand-painted Japanese screens in another, and Indian bedspreads and pillows in a third. I’ll collect objects from all over the world—kilims from Turkey, boomerangs from Australia, marionettes from Prague. I can’t wait!
It’s show casting week, and I’m being sent to see all the prêt-à-porter designers. The haute couture shows took place in July, and I look far too young to do those, so no Chanel or Yves St. Laurent for me. But I’m perfect for prêt-a-porter—young, modern and androgynous looking, 5’11” and 122 pounds (I’ve lost three pounds since I started working out). Etienne, the show booker at my agengy, sends me on castings every day. I’ve been to see the French: Hermès, Gaultier, Claude Montana, Sonia Rykiel. I’ve been to see the Japanese: Kenzo, Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake, Yoji Yamamoto. I’ve been to see the British, Germans and Italians: Betsy Johnson, Helmut Lang, Enrico Coveri. Hermès, known for its silk scarves and leather handbags, has me walk up and down the room in a short-sleeved blouse, cotton peddle pushers, and flats. I book the show. At Claude Montana, I’m asked to try a blue leather jumpsuit. I am instructed look strong, walk strong, so I try, like a gladiator, but Claude looks bored. I don’t book the show. At Enrico Coveri, the clothes are bright and colorful, like Enrico himself. He’s a big man, jovial and sweaty. He asks me to walk in a multicolored dress and I do. He hugs me and tells me he loves me, right there on stage. I book the show. At Helmut Lang the clothes are gray, black, and green, chamo colors, and again walk strong, tough. I am perfect for this show and I know it, but Helmut barely notices me. I don’t book the show. At Comme des Garçons the clothes are black and white, only black and white. I wonder if it’s a religious thing, and whether Rei Kawakubo is Buddhist. I meet Rei, and she is short with an angular black bob and ruler-straight bangs. Her asymmetrical skirt hangs down to her ankle on one side, and she doesn’t smile or speak any English. She looks at me and nods. I book the show.
At Sonia Rykiel the clothes are conservative and made of lightweight, natural fabrics, the kind my sister buys from Anne Taylor. I try to walk sexy in the high heels they ask me to wear. I cross one foot in front of the other and swing my hips, but I lose my balance and wobble. I don’t book the show. At Issey Miyake the clothes are orange, pink, yellow, green. They are made out of an intensely wrinkled synthetic fabric that is Issey Miyake’s signature style. They are even sold that way—twisted and knotted into tight little bundles to keep their pleated shape. The material feels crisp against my skin. I love the clothes, and I walk like I’m on the street, no heels and no hips, and I smile, a coy, impish smile. I book the show. I book nine shows in all—Issey, Yoji, Comme des Garçons, Kenzo, Hermès, Cerruti, Michel Klein, Enrico Coveri, and Popy Moreni.
My first show is for Kenzo. Backstage racks of clothes line one side while rows of hair and makeup tables line the other. Because Meghan Douglas is a rising star and we have booked many of the same shows, the sign on her rack reads “Meghan D.”, the sign on mine “Meghan W.” and that is how our names are called when it is time for us to line up. At the hair station, I see Christian and I am relieved because Christian is the best, the very best, of the hairdressers who do fashion shows. When Christian is on duty, I ask for a trim. He’s busy now, but I motion to him, and he puts a hand in the air with his fingers spread: five. Come back in five. He’s working on another model’s hair, so we’re communicating through our reflections in the mirror. Five minutes later, I sit down in Christian’s chair. Without a word he begins to cut, the shiny points of the professional hairstyling scissors cold against my temples.
“I heard a complaint about you,” he says in his Dutch accent. A complaint about me? I’m flattered that I’m well known enough to be complained about. “I heard you are difficult with hairdressers, very difficult.”
“Oh,” I bow my head.
“Lift your head,” Christian says, placing his index finger under my chin. “And uncross your legs. Is it true?”
“That you’re difficult.”
It was true, but I hadn’t realized I was so difficult that news had spread among the hairdresser elite. “It’s just that I don’t have much hair,” I tried to explain. “So if it gets messed up, I’m messed up.” It was true. I was terrified of new hairdressers and when my hairdresser at Bruno moved to New York, I sat white knuckled in the swivel chair while his replacement cut my hair. And I hated it. It was too short around the ears and too square on top. It made me look like a boy.
Finally, Christian smiled. “How’s that?”
“Perfect. Thank you,” I said, getting up from the chair.
“Hold on. I may as well style you now, while you’re sitting here.” He lifts a can of Phyto Plage—they love to put Phyto Plage in my hair—squirts a long stream of the sage-smelling oil into the palm of his hand, massage it into my scalp, then slicks it back with a comb—like a boy’s. I sigh.
“Thanks,” I say, forcing a smile.
“You’re never happy.”
“That’s not true! I just don’t always like to look like a boy.”
“Androgyny is in. You got those Glamour and the Marie Claire jobs because you look like a boy. You probably got booked for this show because you look like a boy. Don’t fight it.”
“Don’t be difficult.”
“I won’t.” I get up from the chair and walk over to the row of makeup tables, where one row of models is getting makeup done while another row waits in line. In front on the left is Christy Turlington. She is stunning, even in person. I stare at her reflection, hoping she won’t notice me, wondering if she’s had a nose job like I have. Her face is just too perfect, too chiseled, unnatural. She has a calm about her, though, that the other supermodels don’t. Between Yoshi’s barked orders to hair dressers, makeup artists, and hair stylists, I catch pieces of her conversation with supermodel Yasmeen Ghauri. Yasmeen’s waist was so tiny in proportion to her broad shoulders that rumor has it she’s had two ribs removed to look thinner.
“How are you handling this season?” Yasmeen asks Christy.
“Handling it,” Christy responds, as though she can’t wait to go home. I try to imagine how hectic her life must be—being chauffeured in a limo from one show to the next, doing two or three shows in one day, and having her hair and makeup undone and redone that many times as well. Just when I am starting to feel sorry for Christy and her hectic schedule, I remember that I heard Versace offered her $40,000 not to do any other shows but his in Milan. $40,000 for one show. I was only making $600 for this show. I wondered how much she was making. Probably $5,000. Maybe $10,000. I didn’t feel sorry for her anymore.
Meghan Douglas sits down next to me. “We need to talk.”
“What about my name?”
“You need to change it.”
“Look, you’re doing all the shows, which means you’re going to be a star. It’s just too confusing with two Meghans. All this Meghan D. Meghan W. stuff—it’s a total pain, and I’m already known by my name. So you need to change yours.”
“Change my name? To a completely different name?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugs. “Whatever you want.” She doesn’t say it in an unfriendly way. It’s more like she is giving me professional advice, advice that will simplify both of our lives. It’s like she is asking me for a favor. Meghan Douglas isn’t a supermodel, not yet, but she is a rising star, unlike me. I know I’m not because in order to be a star you have to want to be a star, and I don’t. I really didn’t care that much about modeling. I just wanted to see the world, learn some languages, fall in love, and make enough money to go back to school after a few more months. While some of these girls have always dreamt of being models, I am simply biding my time while I earn my California residency so I can attend UC Berkeley.
I take a sip of Evian and scan the room. I know most of the models by name, especially the famous ones: Yasmine Le Bon, Karen Mulder, Yasmeen Ghauri, Beverly Peele, Christy Turlington, Tatiana Patitz, Kirsten Owen, Emma S., and the list goes on. There are twenty girls in all, pretty standard for a show, and although several—Kirsten, Emma, Beverly—are models I’ve worked with before, none of them are my friends. I retrieve my spiral notebook and pen from my backpack and retreat to the corner of the tent. A model next to me is listening to headphones. Another is meditating in a corner by herself, and another is imitating catalog positions, throwing her head back and smiling a wide-mouthed smile, like she’s hysterical with laughter. Two other models giggle. All of them, like me, are smoking cigarettes.
In my notebook, I don’t know what to write, so I scribble, “I don’t know what to write” in cursive a few times, then look up. A model compliments Karen Mulder on her Gucci shoes, and Karen says she got them when she did a shoot for Elle. I didn’t know clients gave clothes away for free, and I’m envious that I’m not good enough, beautiful enough, or well known enough to get free shoes. I bought mine at the local shoe store for $60. They’re flat with thick rubber soles, so I can walk around all day on castings without hurting my feet. But Karen doesn’t have to do castings. None of the supermodels do. Their agents messenger their books to clients because they’re too busy working all the time.
“Does anyone know Algebra?” Beverly asks. She is 6’, probably 120 pounds, and 14 years old. Unlike me, Beverly does the haute couture shows—Chanel included. With makeup she can pass for 25, but I still look my age—19. Her mother attends most of the shows and sits with her backstage. I’m surprised at how the other models fawn over Beverly’s mom. I’m always embarrassed to introduce my mom to my friends because in her pink knit stirrup pants and her white Keds, she’s not exactly a fashion plate. But no one is shunning Beverly’s mom. They think she’s cute in her sweatshirt and jeans, like a model’s giant teddy bear. I wonder if they all miss their moms as much as I do.
“I do!” I call to Beverly, and carry my notebook to where she’s sitting. I dropped out of Calculus halfway through senior year because I could no longer concentrate on logarithms and limits. I wanted to find myself and explore the world, and Sister Sharon hadn’t convinced me that the quadratic formula was on the path to enlightenment.
“How do you multiply 5^6 x 5^7?” Beverly asks, hoping one of the several models who jumped to her aid will know the answer. The other models shrug.
“You add the 6 and 7,” I tell her. “So it’s 5^13, which you can do on your calculator.”
“Thanks, Meghan!” Beverly is my friend now. “How about this one—how do you factor (x^2 – y^2)?
“(x+y) times (x-y) because when you FOIL (x+y)(x-y), the xy and yx cancel each other out. Like this …” I feel so smart helping Beverly with her homework, even though this is eighth-grade level math. I didn’t feel smart back home when I dropped out of Calculus with a C. Maybe I could make a career out of this—tutoring models backstage.
No. Most models have either finished high school or have dropped out for good. The only other model I know who is Beverly’s age is Kimora, who’s with my agency. Kimora is fourteen, too, and she’s on her own in Paris with no one to supervise her, and she stays out late, sometimes all night.
“It’s time!” the Japanese coordinator of the show shouts. “Change into your first outfits!” I turn to see Linda
Evangelista racing in with full makeup and hair from another show. Christian is flattening her hair and combing it to one side, and Thierry is standing by with a box of tissues and a lipstick brush. I look at my watch: four fifteen. The show was supposed to start at four, which means that they held it for Linda, and which means that hundreds of people—from movie stars to magazine editors—are shifting in their seats waiting for the show to begin.
A waiter carrying a silver platter offers me a glass of champagne. I take it, sip it, then the music starts. It’s George Michael’s Freedom, which is ironic because most of the models in the video are right here in this room. I watch Linda as she lip-synchs the words, dancing, joking around, while Christy smiles silently, apparently amused by Linda’s antics. The energy backstage is palpable. The show is about to begin, and I yawn. I yawn and yawn and yawn, like I always do when I’m nervous.
“Don’t look so excited,” Christian says as he checks my hair one last time. He thinks I’m bored, and I don’t correct his misconception.
Kenzo walks down the line, examining each of our outfits to make sure we look perfect before we go on stage. Then the show begins. Linda and Christy go on first and the audience roars with applause. Then Beverly and Yasmeen, Kirsten and Karen, Tatiana and … me! Yoshi is wearing a headset, shouting orders before the models go onstage. He says something to Tatiana and I, but I can’t hear him because the music is too loud and Tatiana is standing between us.
Then he shouts “Go! Go go go!” I take a deep breath, hold my chin high, and step out onto the runway. Beneath the bright lights, I saunter past the editors of Vogue, Elle, and Marie Claire, before celebrities like Robert DeNiro and Isabella Rosselini to the foot of the runway, where shutters release like locusts attacking a fresh harvest. My blazer glides seamlessly off my shoulders and down my arms behind my back. With the middle and index fingers of my right hand, I catch it and flip it over my right shoulder. With my left hand on my hip and my left foot thrust to the side, I take a small step forward, spin 180 degrees to the left, pose once more, spin another 180 degrees, pose again, then turn and walk back to the top of the stage where Tatiana and I turn, pose, and exit off opposite sides.
Backstage, Tatiana yells at me, “You walked off the wrong side!” and I realize that that is what Yoshi must have said, “Both exit right.”
“That was the way we rehearsed it,” I meekly reply, wondering what difference it makes as long as we don’t bump into each other. But Tatiana is already at her rack, throwing her clothes at her dresser, so I race back to my rack, too, where I undress, throwing my clothes on the ground, not at my dresser.
“Meghan! Meghan!” Yoshi is yelling, but I’m wearing nothing but a skirt.
“Vite!” I urge Elise. “Vite!” and another dresser comes to her aid. While one ties my shoes and the other buttons my shirt, I pull the sleeves of another jacket up over my arms.
“Meghan!” Yoshi yells. “Meghan!!”
Thierry chases me with a makeup brush while I run toward the stage. Christian quickly resculpts my bangs, while Kenzo yells, “Jacket off! Jacket take off!” He means onstage, at the end of the runway, and I nod. Yoshi pushes me onto the runway, this time alone. When I walk, I realize my shoes are too big, and it’s too late to do anything about it. I try to act natural, like I’m not stumbling drunk down the runway, but it’s impossible with three-inch heels flopping off my feet. I finally bend down and take my shoes off, then saunter down the runway barefoot, swinging my shoes in one hand as if I meant to do that. That’s another lesson I’ve learned from modeling. Never show you messed up. Always make it look like you meant to do that.