Buy “Runway”



POL: I need your help!

I met with a friend the other night who really thinks I need to start my book, a memoir titled Paris On Less Than $10,000 a Day, earlier, before I arrive in Paris, to give the reader a sense of who I was before I began modeling and how and why I got into modeling. I have written introductory chapters about a gazillion times and NONE of them has worked, so I always return to beginning the book when I arrive in Paris. But the feedback I got from the agents who read it was that they need to feel a stronger connection to the character. One agent said specifically: “We have very limited information about life prior to modelling (and especially prior to life in San Francisco) before the first third of the book.  Without a sense of who the main character is as a person, I don’t have a sense of whether her reactions to the new environment are in character or out of character.  I don’t know whether she’s really being challenged or just inconvenienced.” So today I wrote a gazillion-and-first version of the intro. This is rough, and it’s mostly summary, but I don’t know how else to get all the information packed in. One option, I guess, is to write two or three chapters instead of just one. What do you think? Does a summarized chapter like this work? Or would it be better to break it into multiple chapters written in scene? Which parts would you like to see in scene? I’ve including the beginning of the first chapter below it, so you can get a feel for how the rest of the book is written. Any and all feedback is helpful!

* * *

The Beginning

I’m standing in the storefront window of Anne Taylor at the Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi, Michigan, trying not to fall asleep. A woman reaches out to touch the sleeve of the wool plaid blazer I’m wearing.

“Oh, my God, she’s real!” she yelps, when I flinch. “Betty, look! She’s real!” She takes a step back and points at me.

“Oh, that’s fabulous,” Betty says. “You can hardly tell.”

I’m freeze modeling, which means standing like a mannequin in a shop window all morning with ten-minute breaks each hour to change clothes. I was chosen because I’m a member of the Twelve Oaks Mall fashion panel, a group of high school-aged models who do fashion shows for free. Now three young girls, about twelve, are standing outside the window, pointing and giggling.

“Look, she’s falling asleep,” one says, as I struggle to stare motionless ahead. And now here comes my mom and my sister. My sister’s the one who got me into this, the one who wanted me to model. I’ve never had any interest in fashion, let alone modeling. My favorite outfit is this long blue skirt that I wear knotted on one side with a white shirt, white leggings, and white cowboy boots. I look like I walked straight out of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but it’s comfortable. My sister, however, has plans for me.

“You’re tall and skinny; you should model,” she said to me one day.

“Why would I want to model? Models are dumb.”

“Who cares? You could make a lot of money. Just do it for a while, make a ton of money, and then you can do anything you want.”

“Like how much money?”

“One of my students makes $800 a day doing Dominos pizza commercials, and she’s 17. She’s got enough money saved to go to college already.”

I hadn’t thought about how I planned to pay for college yet—I knew my Dad couldn’t afford it on his own—but $800 a day! I could buy a lot of things with $800 a day—new clothes, a car, another trip out to California to visit my brother.

One of my five brothers (I’m the youngest of eight kids) had invited me out to visit him at Stanford for spring break, and I’d fallen in love with the Bay Area. I dreamt of getting out of Michigan and moving to a place where there were palm trees, where it was sunny in December, and where it never snowed. After much badgering, my sister convinced me to get some photos taken by a photographer her student knew, and things snowballed from there.

First I was stopped by a talent scout from Elite Model Management in New York while out studying at the local library with my friends. She was a Detroit photographer and asked me if I’d had any photos taken. When I told her that I had, she asked if she could come to my house to see them. She talked to my parents and convinced them to let her take me to a scouting competition at a local mall. There I met a sort of model manager, who took me under her wing. She took me to Chicago to meet the agencies there, and they told me I was too high fashion for Chicago and that I needed to go to to New York.

She set up an appointment for me to meet John Casablancas, the owner of Elite Model Management in New York, the largest and most prestigious modeling agency in the world. John took one look at me and told me I needed a nose job. She had me do a couple of test shoots, and the photographer at one of the shoots asked me if I’d ever considered getting a nose job. That clinched it for me. If I wanted to model, I’d have to get my nose fixed. My sister had had a nose job already, so it wasn’t a foreign concept. My friend’s dad happened to be a plastic surgeon, and she took me to meet him. He said he could write it up as a deviated septum so our insurance company would pay for it. All I needed was $200 for the deductible, and I’d be picture perfect. I scheduled the surgery as though it were a routine checkup at the dentist, and then convinced my parents to give me the money. It helped that my sister was on my side.

Meanwhile, the model manager convinced my parents to sign a contract that gave her 5 percent of everything I earned for the next five years. She organized appointments for me in New York, and I went there with yet another one of my brothers, who lives upstate there. The agencies suggested I go to Europe to get some experience and to build up my portfolio. A lot of models start out in Europe because there are so many magazines there—a Vogue, an Elle and a Marie Claire for every country, plus all of their local magazines. Then I could return to New York and clean up doing catalog and advertising jobs.

But I was 16, and there was no way I was going to quit high school and move to Europe, so I gave up on modeling. I did a few local jobs—shoots for The Detroit News and the Metro Times, a fashion show for Xandra Rhodes, and some mall shows here and there, but I gave up the idea of ever making any real money, especially after I lost an auto show job for which I would have been paid $50,000 a year to travel the country extolling the wonders of the Ford Taurus, Sierra, and LTD. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Then the universe conspired to move me to California. First, a friend from school decided she was moving to LA after she graduated and encouraged me to go with her. Then I met a guy who had gone to my high school and moved to San Francisco. “LA sucks,” he said. “Move to San Francisco instead.” Then my brother in New York, after flying me there to do a milk commercial for the American Dairy Association, said, “If you want to go to California, then go. What’s stopping you?” Really? I thought. I can just … go? So I started making plans.

I got a second after-school job to save money for the move. I spent my English classes sitting at the back of the room drawing up plans—how much money I needed, when I would leave, and where I would live and work once I got there. There were details to work out, like how I was going to get to California. I didn’t own a car and didn’t have money to buy one. My parents weren’t willing to help me out because they didn’t want me to go, and I was too young to rent a car. I could have flown, but then how would I take my life’s possessions? I wasn’t going for a couple of months; I was going for good.

Then I ran into the mother of an old grade school friend and discovered that she had plans to move to California, too—to Santa Barbara. I convinced her to move to San Francisco instead, so we could share an apartment. Meanwhile, my sister-in-law got a job in LA, and my brother needed someone to drive his pickup truck cross country from Michigan. I saved money to buy a cap for the truck and had a friend teach me how to drive a stick. All this went on while I was taking the SAT and AP exams, writing college application essays (to please my parents), and acting as the vice president of my senior class.

I arrived in San Francisco on July 7, 1988, and I had a tougher time finding a job than I expected. I eventually got one selling T-shirts at a tourist shop on Fisherman’s Wharf, but I hated it. I wanted to work in a restaurant where I could eat good food and make good tips, but instead I was folding T-shirts all day. I wasn’t even allowed to operate the cash register. My money was running out fast, so I began to sell my clothes and return unused Christmas gifts for cash. Before long, I was dining on 50-cent burgers at Burger King and drinking tap water for lunch. I was broke.

I tried attending classes at City College in the Twin Peaks district of San Francisco, but coming from a private school, I couldn’t stand the way the teacher condescended to us. If we worked really hard, she said, some day we may be able to go to UC Berkeley. Of course I was going to go to Berkeley, you ninnywinny, I thought, and never returned. So there I was, broke, without a college degree, and feeling very very trapped.

“Just call that model manager woman,” my roommate said. “Go to Europe, make $5000, and then come back and go to school.”

So I called her. She set up appointments for me with the three biggest agencies in San Francisco, and all three agreed to represent me. I went with Look because it had the best reputation, and within a week they had me doing test shoots and meeting agents visiting from Paris and Milan. The agents asked me to go to Europe for the shows, whose castings were three weeks away.

“Pourquoi pas?” I said. What did I have to lose?

I stopped in Michigan on my way to Paris to see my family and put some of my things in storage. While here, I agreed to do one last job for the fashion panel, and now here I am, a real mannequin, the French word for “model.” I’m excited to go to Paris. I’ve never been abroad, but I’ve taken four years of high school French, so at least I can conjugate my verbs. I figure with my good business sense, I’ll do well. I plan to model for a year, make as much money as I can, and then apply to UC Berkeley next fall. Until then, Paris, j’arrive!

* * *


The taxi driver deposits me on rue Etienne Marcel, at the corner of the six-lane boulevard de Sebastopol. The buildings are dirty but beautiful, their windows like shiny fat women wearing white wooden shutters for jackets and black lace balconies for skirts. Tiny Peugeots and Fiats idle impatiently at red lights while I drag the brown tweed suitcases my parents gave me for Christmas across the street to number 62, the Marilyn Gauthier Agency. I step into the smallest elevator I’ve ever seen, stack my suitcases one on top of another, and squeeze in sideways beside them. I’m relieved to have made it through the airport maze with its giant glass wormholes that suspend travelers over the seven-floor terminal, but I’m worried that Marilyn won’t like me, that she’ll think I’m not pretty enough or outgoing enough, and send me home.

I stare at myself in the full-length mirror as I rattle and hum my way up to the third floor. I examine my new nose, wondering whether Marilyn will notice that I’ve had it fixed, and then pop a tiny zit that has formed beneath my left nostril. The elevator door opens out onto a hardwood floor, and I step out. I’m about to meet one of the most powerful modeling agents in the world, the person who could make the difference between a lucrative international career and a dead-end job selling T-shirts on Fisherman’s Wharf, and I can’t stop yawning, a peculiar response I have to fear.

Inside, a pale woman with thick, dark ropes of hair instructs me to wait on a black sofa beneath a photo of a buxom, almost fat, model. When no one is looking, I stand to glimpse my reflection in the glass of the photo behind me. Together we are the before-and-after photos of a cancer survivor, she healthy and smiling with florid cheeks and golden locks, and I emaciated and pale, my brittle, bleached hair shorn to an inch. I don’t understand why anyone thinks I could model. I don’t look like the girls in fashion magazines. I don’t look like a girl at all with my boyish face and cropped hair. And it’s not like I’m fashionable. I don’t know the first thing about what’s in and what’s out, who’s hot and who’s not. I sit down quickly as two buxom women, one blond and one brunette, appear in the foyer. They’re both wearing décolleté sweaters, knee-length wool skirts, and high heels. In my jeans, hightops, and baggy wool sweater that’s pilling at the sleeves, I’m sorely underdressed for this high fashion capital. I would have changed into something nicer, but I don’t have anything nicer. When the one on the right introduces herself as Marilyn, I see that she resembles the woman in the poster, except that she has dark, curly hair and a hooked nose that my plastic surgeon would have been quick to send for surgery. Her disarmingly sad eyes make me like her right away. Her assistant, Siobhan, has a pug nose and an imperious regard, but a warm smile that makes me like her, too. They look at me and exchange some words in French. I hold my breath.

“Come along, dahling,” Siobhan says in a British accent, motioning for me to follow. I exhale. I’ve passed the first test.

In the booking room, four agents, called bookers, sit around a large, round table—all dressed to kill: Kevin in a designer cowboy shirt, Anne in a fur-collared blazer, Etienne with a silk scarf around his neck, and Ulla in cat-eye glasses. A chair remains empty for Marilyn, who looks like a Balla painting in her constant flurry of motion. I’m taking everything in, memorizing their clothes, their mannerisms, and the intonation of their words. I want to be a straight-A model.

18 comments to POL: I need your help!

  • – LOVE the opening where she's modeling in the window.

    – Was confused about sister's age. Can she be introduced as "older sister"? I think that would help.

    – Need more scenes. I know you want to go quick, but it was too much summary. Maybe pick out some of the best bits and turn them into scenes to break up the summaries?

    – Love the "peculiar response to fear"!

    – LOVE the last line: "I want to be a straight-A model."

    So far, so good! Just break up some of the summaries with scenes. I feel like you're being swept up into this modeling world out of a sense of (or hope for) convenience. Hopefully that's what you're trying to convey.

    I don't detect any real sense of fear or excitement. I'm also not *entirely* sure what you want… A college education? But for what? To live in California? Okay… is that it? I think if you can clarify what you want (or what you think you want at the time, or a sense of not knowing what you want) that will also give me something to identify with.

    Hope that's helpful!

  • That's very helpful, Kristan, thanks! I think I need to do a lot more work on this chapter!

  • Nice. But start in Paris. Make the intro the second chapter, backstory-like.

  • Oh, Travener, you're killing me! You really think it should start in Paris?

  • I did not pause at all in my reading of these chapters. I read straight through, without stopping, which speaks well of your writing. 🙂

    And before I volunteer my info, caveat is that I already know you, so my perspective as a reader is skewed. That said, the excerpts insist that you don't know anything about fashion (i.e., describing the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers dress) but I still feel like the narrator is fairly fashion conscious. Perhaps there could be more things in scene, little details that betray the character's unfamiliarity with fashion? Feeling a particular fine fabric for that first time? Marveling at the fit of "nicer" clothing? (i.e., how the armholes of CHANEL work like no other dress–but you don't know it's the cut/design if it's your first time wearing CHANEL) Being intimidated by fashion? I want a bit more of the emotion/interior life of the narrator as it relates to all the change and all the new developments. Right now, the narrator is a steely eyed missile woman who can never be derailed; now irl, I know you are one of the most determined and focused and disciplined people I have ever met, but it's hard to believe a 16 or 17 year old doesn't have some insecurity?

    okay. hope that makes sense…

  • Christine, thanks for the feedback! Is this stuff you think belongs in the first chapter(s) before even going to Paris? When you mentioned Chanel, it seemed like you were referring to later on, so I'm not sure. Interesting that you mention insecurity because I've been worried that I made my character TOO insecure throughout the book. I was going to remove some of that stuff, but maybe I should leave it and add more to that first chapter.

  • Meghan, I'll email you some comments later today.

  • I read this and then went and read the chapter Prêt-à-Porter. I was intrigued! And I think what I liked so much is that it came across that the memoir is written by an intelligent, grounded person, a totally different perspective than what I would expect a report on runway modeling in Milan to sound like (everything all glamour and weight issues). For that reason, I like the first chapter about your beginnings. However, I would like to see a bit more of your thoughts as you go through the nose job, move to California, etc. just to connect to you a bit more. You give a lot of nice showing detail in Paris, I'd like to see more of that in Chapter 1, rather than the reporting of your actions step by step.

  • Thanks , Jenna! I'm working on a rewrite right now, and I'll incorporate your feedback as I go.

  • I couldn't agree more with the agents who said they needed time to get to know your character. Specifically, they need time to empathize with the character. So use a scene of action — be it in Paris or as a model in Michigan– but make it show YOU with worries and fears and real human emotions. Also, what is the hook of this book? Arriving in Paris and being sucked in? Your triumph over stepping out of that life?

    The first option you have above veers from action almost immediately and goes into exposition. I'd like to see that freeze model scene extended a little as an action scene — and by action I only mean you, there, with your thoughts.

    What about starting with the first time somebody told you that you should model? As a scene. I found the second scene harder to get into, but more dynamic.

    You already know I love all of the book and find it very engaging.

  • The beginning hooked me…it allowed me to get into the "story" and the "character." Then when you switched to summary, I felt like the information was interesting, but not told as interestingly as the beginning. Hope that makes sense. Perhaps some of your summarized thoughts could be added into more scenes, as Kristan suggested. In fact, I think you should do this from the paragraph beginning with the brother in Stanford. Bring us to that scene and write it in "real time" like you did the opening scene.

  • Sierra – thanks for the feedback! The trick, of course, is to figure out WHICH scene to use. There wasn't really a first time someone told me I should model. At least not one I remember. Then again, this is memoir, so I can just make it up! (Just kidding).

    Sarah – It's always back to "show don't tell," but it's difficult when you want to summarize a series of events without writing each one in a scene. I haven't figured out the trick yet. Thanks for the brother in Stanford suggestion.

  • JC – Oh, I've written CHAPTERS about that guy and deleted them all. Turns out he wasn't a pivotal character in the story. All that remains is a scene in which he chides the protagonist for showing up on his doorstep after doing mushrooms with his ex-girlfriend 🙂

  • JC

    I think we’d all like to hear more about this guy you met in San Francisco.

  • Meghan- Not having read the rest of your memoir, I read this first section on your pre-Paris life, and thought "wow, this DEFINITELY needs to be in the story!" There are a lot of interesting things happening before and up to the time you move to San Francisco that seem like they would be a very big deal to a 17-year-old — the possibility of modeling while still in high school and especially moving across the country instead of going to college. My thought while reading all of that was that it feels very compressed. I think your life leading up to when you moved to SF is probably a chapter in itself – with a bit of a cliffhanger – what's going to happen in SF?! Then your new, hard life in SF seems like a chapter in itself, too. The drama of being so young in a new city with no money and no prospects is pretty intense – I'd drag it out and create some more suspense, you know, "is she going to make it?" Landing in Paris after almost starving with no money is quite a feat that readers would be all the more impressed with if they knew more about it.

    In general, beginning a memoir of travel/a journey with landing in the place where you're going is kind of a cliche. I agree that you'd need to start further back, before Paris. (Again, it's not having read the rest of your book that I say that.)

    Being one of eight kids is (to a reader) a major, major detail of your earlier life, and it's in parentheses! I came away from this knowing a lot more about how you got into modeling, but still not knowing about you, which I think that agent was probably trying to get at as well. As a reader I know only: you're one of 8, you went to private school, and perhaps you were well off (a visit to NY, a friend's Dad who's a plastic surgeon, private school with 8 kids in the fam?) My guess is that drawing the pre-Paris stuff out into at least one full chapter, if not two, would allow you to add in more context and more about yourself, your personality, what you want, what you know/don't know about fashion, your family's response to your desire to move to CA, etc.

    Finally, I found the switch to present tense a little confusing/jarring/unnecessary. All of the sudden you switch from your adult voice to an 18-yr-old voice, except the 18 year old was in present tense, which obviously it isn't. My guess is, if you play up the drama of your pre-Paris life, and the story of how you got to Paris, you won't need present tense to create that drama for you.

    Ok, wow, didn't mean for my comments to be so long. Hope that's helpful!

  • Elizabeth – thank you so much for all the feedback. I think you're right that I need two separate chapters, and thank you so for saying that starting in Paris is cliche because a LOT of people have told me to start in Paris, and I don't think it's the way to go for my book. Also, the WHOLE BOOK is written in present tense, which is why that scene is in present tense. The past tense stuff is background.

  • I love the theme you are using, I have a WordPress blog as well, and I would love to use this theme. Anyway you can tell me what its called?