The message came over the summer: “We are casting our next show with no models. This is not public. Don’t spill the beans. I was wondering if you would be up for being in the show.”
I should probably clarify. The show in question was J. Crew, the correspondent was Jenna Lyons and, to quote Molly Bloom in Ulysses, “…and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Then, my heart racing, my head spinning, my face plastered with the kind of comically blushing smile generally reserved for emojis, I sat down on my sofa and thought, “Oh my god!” And then, “Oh god!” And then, “Oh GOD!” I was going to be a non-model, model?
I can’t speak for other young women. But I would hazard a guess that many females at some point in their developing lives have harbored fantasies of being a character or creature, be it a princess or a fairy or a doll, whose defining trait is that she is considered beautiful (and to those girls who haven’t? God bless you and may you rule the world.) There are entire industries predicated on planting and then perpetuating the importance of this reverie.
When I was in eighth grade, a little movie called Clueless came out and my friend Yasmeen and I would prance around school singing “I’m gonna be a supermodel,” the refrain from the Jill Sobule song on the film’s soundtrack. We chanted it with such frequency that our middle school yearbook’s version of superlatives read next to both of our names, “Eighth grade wouldn’t be the same if Vanessa/Yasmeen wasn’t going to be a supermodel.”
Well, guess what? I wasn’t going to be one then and I’m certainly not on track now (Yasmeen, with her balletic physique and Bambi eyes had a much better shot). That wasn’t really the point of our facetious crooning, anyway. Underlying our tra-la-la was the very real fact that at 13 years old, we were starting to understand, however unknowingly, what beauty was and the societal pressure on women to acquire some measure of it and be recognized for it.
Of course, beauty, as just about anyone will or should tell you, is a mutable, ever-changing concept. And naturally, there is such a thing as inner beauty, whose merits far transcend its exterior counterpart, a notion that we can pretty much all agree on in the same way we (those of us who believe in science, at least) accept that climate change is a real and important concern, but continue to behave in ways that suggest we’re okay with ignoring it.
The thing is outer beauty does count, especially if you are a woman. And especially if you are woman who is not white. I’m not saying it matters in the sense that it should be the basis of your self-worth, but the ways in which our society defines and oftentimes limits the parameters of what is considered beautiful have a very real impact on how young and older women navigate the world.
Growing up as a mixed race child in the '80s and '90s when such a thing was not terribly common, it’s not that I felt ugly, but more that I didn’t know what I was. I looked nothing like my Asian mother, nor did I resemble my father’s Russian-German Jewish family. When we would visit my mothers’ relatives in Hong Kong, I still didn’t fit in—people would look at me on the street with the same curiosity often bestowed upon blonde, blue-eyed girls. And walking around New York City, I was constantly asked, “Where are you from?”
“New York,” I would always reply, perplexed.
“No, where are you from?”
“Still from New York.” Even in my hometown, the quintessential melting pot city, I was an alien.
But more importantly, when I flipped through magazines or watched TV, I pretty much never saw anyone who looked like me: models, actresses, anyone. If it hadn’t been for China Chow and Devon Aoki (and the two or three other Eurasian girls in my high school), both of whom I latched onto with the most avid of curiosity, I wouldn’t have known people like me existed andcould fit into the schema of what was conventionally attractive. There is an immense power in seeing someone who bears some resemblance to you celebrated for their particular brand of beauty. It is not a solution to racism or any of the grander problems that plague our culture today, but in representation comes both self-acceptance and societal awareness and with that, a more open and thoughtful worldview.
And so when that message from Lyons came through, it felt like not only the fulfillment of latent childhood dreams, but also like an opportunity to be a part of something special. And not just from a racial perspective, though of course that was in my mind. I’m just shy of 5’4 and would never be mistaken for a waif. While the fashion industry may go through its phases of celebrating “fuller-figured” and more “mature” models, at the end of the day, this is a world in which runways and ad campaigns are generally going to be dominated by tall, skinny girls who can barely purchase alcohol legally. Period.
As such, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t entertain, however briefly, embarking on a boot camp of sorts or a diet overhaul, at the very least. God knows, I’ve done so for less important and more absurd reasons. And I’m human, after all, and I was going to be standing in front of hundreds of people having my photo taken and eyed by members of an industry not always known for their generosity of aesthetic spirit.
Some important things deterred me from this ill-conceived path. One, the casting director, Courtney, sent out an email to all participants specifically asking us "not" to change our appearances in any way prior to the show (included on the list were even benign things like eyelash extensions and hair cuts). Two, she followed this up with questions for each of us about our personal style, saying the design team wanted to come up with looks that reflected our own way of dressing (while of course, implicitly, adhering to J. Crew’s own vision). See, J. Crew actually wanted us for being us. Imagine that.
And so in the weeks leading up to the show date, I tried to redirect my nerves—and good god did I have some—towards something beyond my appearance: my performance. As an editor, I have been to many a presentation, often arriving at the tail end when the models have been standing for practically an hour in spindly heels. Over the years, I have seen young women cry, faint and in one case, gently crumple to the ground like a dead petal fallen from a flower. I was not going to be the girl who fainted.
Like an athlete, I partook of some training. I would turn off the AC in my apartment, don heavy sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt and slip into the most uncomfortable pair of heels I own and then proceed to stand directly underneath my halogen floor lamp while my iPhone timer counted down the minutes. I started with half an hour. Fifteen minutes in, my forehead was beaded with sweat and I had lost all feeling in my toes. But I prevailed and after four days, made it to an hour, only to pass out on my sofa, feet elevated until I could regain enough feeling to crawl into bed.
My fitting was a far more pleasurable experience. On a Thursday evening, I entered the humming hive of J. Crew’s offices to discover my look for the show: a taupe-greige (that I would later learn was called “desert canyon”) sequined slip dress paired with black satin criss-cross flat slides. It was, simply put, perfect: somehow both very J. Crew and very me.
With help from the brand’s head of women’s design Somsack Sikhounmuong and style director Gayle Spannaus, Lyons and what seemed like a flurry of invisible tailors suddenly surrounded me as I stood there, shaking slightly from the attention. The dress was too big and so tie straps were undone and retied, the back was pinned, the hem was shortened, Lyons held up some black grosgrain ribbon against the straps and pieces of that soon got pinned on, along with some smaller ribbon strips and chiffon flowers. I don’t drive, but I imagine this is a bit what a car feels like in the midst of a wash. And it all seemed to happen over the course of mere minutes, with no full sentences actually exchanged, as though some secret, silent language was passing between this team of people via telepathy. I took one headshot and a few full-length ones for my look card and done!
“I want you to show up on Sunday exactly like this,” said Sikhounmuong, referring to my completely bare face, save for a fine dappling of espresso shadow on my lower lash line (I was also told to show up with my hair in a messy half-loop).
“But you will have makeup there, right? And hair? I don’t even own a blow dryer!” I said.
“Yes, of course,” he smiled. Hmm.
As I was getting dressed to leave, I perused the lineup of looks, curious about the other women chosen. It was a pretty glorious array. There were blondes and brunettes, slim frames and bigger-boned ones, cropped locks and long hair (and even white-grey hair) and an array of skin tones from pointillist freckled to deep mocha and darker. Imagine a terribly chic subway car transported through the lens of fashion.
Show day dawned. I’d like to say I was calm but I would be lying. I probably slept four hours. Even a quick run couldn’t shake my excited jitters, but I tried to remember what a wise running coach Julia Lucas once told me: excitement and nervousness produce the same physiological effect on your body; it’s up to you to choose the outcome.
Arriving at the back entrance to Spring Studios at 10 a.m. (for a 2:30 p.m. show), I was given a pass and ushered upstairs as I heard Courtney say into a walkie talkie, “Model Vanessa Lawrence is coming up.” Trying the word on for size, I walked into a hair and makeup space already buzzing with activity.
“Are you ready for your close-up?” trilled Jenna with a huge smile to the room’s gathered group.
First up: hair. My stylist Rheanne blew-dry my still shower-wet-locks and then, coating them in various layers of Elnett hairspray, a thickener and a texturizer, pulled it back into an off center, messy chignon with soft pieces hanging loose in the front. “Do you like it?” she queried, as if asking a non-model model her opinions on a hairstyle were perfectly normal. What universe was this? (For the record, it was great, though it would go through a few more permutations.)
A bit more waiting and I was onto makeup. “You can go to hair first,” said the artist, Alice. Um, perhaps my chignon was a touch too subtle? Alice instructed her assistant to just apply some Bobbi Brown foundation as concealer with a brush to my undereye area, forehead, chin and nose. Some clear brow gel and luminizer on the C-curve of my eye and cheek bones and I was done.
“That’s it?” I asked, in shock. This wasn’t unnatural natural beauty. This was actual natural beauty. I have friends who probably wear more makeup than I had on simply to go to the office.
More waiting, then off to change into my dress and shoes and line up to get photographed for the look book. A kind young woman lubed me up from neck to toe with a coating of Nivea leaving me with a radiant gleam. And then my hair went through various stages of coitus. “It’s too tight,” said one person. “It needs to be loosened and messed up.”
And so as cries of "Gorgeous!” and “That's so cute!” emanated from Lyons while another girl had her photo taken, my hair was sexed up. “It’s too much,” said Gayle when it was my turn in the camera’s eye.
Somewhere between pre- and mid-sex, my chignon found its way and I tried, gamely, to point my shoulders, feet, eyes and chin in the various directions the photographer Mei yelled at me. I’m pretty sure they just barely got the shot, but I tried to let this pass and get my game face on for show time.
Waiting in that holding room and glancing around at the kaleidoscope of pink and blue and gingham and khaki and tall and short and skinny and not skinny and young (like, Crewcuts young) and old – 64 non-model models in all – I felt, oddly, a sense of belonging. And it was not because I was seeing some smidgen of myself reflected in the faces and bodies around me; it was because the faces and bodies around me were all so different from me and from each other that I knew, implicitly, that I was also a part of them.
Eventually, we lined up and made our way down to the show space. We found our marks, had our makeup touched up and were pretty much left to our own devices. In the best sense. There were no instructions on exactly what kind of facial expressions we should make, how our bodies should hang. There was no grand speech from Lyons about how important or special this was.
Sometimes the biggest statements simply happen. And if you’re lucky, they keep on happening until they no longer count as statements at all.