Growing up in New York in the ’60s, I was a lanky mousy-blonde student at the all-girls Chapin School and later Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut. I had three interests: boys, boys, and sports (I played volleyball, lacrosse, and tennis). It wasn’t until I was around 14 that I became aware that I was pretty. It was the stares on the street, the approving glances from friends’ fathers that, while not exactly sketchy, indicated a form of appreciation. Men thought I was attractive, and I was uncomfortable with it—very uncomfortable.
It might be surprising, then, that when I turned 15 I set my sights on becoming a model. I should emphasize that I did not think of myself as a great beauty; nobody had ever told me, “You’re so fabulous; you photograph like a dream.” It was financial independence I was after; I wanted to make my own money and have a career, and I saw modeling as my ticket to success.
The fact that I was drawn to an industry that trades on appearances probably seems ironic. A year earlier I had been squirming under the notion of the male gaze; suddenly I wanted to leverage that attention into a lifestyle. But if I learned anything from the many lunches I had as a teenager with my family at the 21 Club, then a center of prestige and influence, it’s that in life you need to have either power, looks, or money. Well, at that tender age, power and money didn’t seem within my reach. But I understood from the outset that looks could get you a seat at the table of life. I wanted one of those seats, and I went after it with perseverance and focus.
I signed with Eileen Ford. Whenever she seemed less than enthusiastic about my chances, I would nab the day’s go-see list, cold-call the photographers, and get the jobs myself. By the time I was 22, I was one of the agency’s top earners, booking ads for Revlon, Maybelline, Clairol, and Saks Fifth Avenue and racking up covers for French Elle, Italian Vogue, and Town & Country. There was even one month when I walked by a newsstand and saw myself staring back from six different publications. (Okay, one of them was a knitting magazine.)
Needless to say, my relationship with my appearance was a complicated one. On the one hand, I was empowered by my ability to parlay my blonde hair and blue eyes into a successful career. I felt like I was using my business savvy, not just my girl-next-door looks. As the makeup artist Stan Place once told me on a shoot, “You know, Nina, I admire you. You’re really not that beautiful, but you’re smart enough to convince everyone that you are.” I thought, Finally, someone who gets it!