My waist was tiny, but not quite tiny enough.
In fact, according to Kate, few of the numbers she meticulously noted managed to meet the requirements of high fashion modeling. My bust, my hips, my height; my body was suddenly reduced to a handful of numbers, figures which apparently held far more meaning than I ever gave them credit for.
“You’re the closest to fitting the measurements we have so far, though, so you’re probably in,” she said.
I hadn’t wanted to model for the event in the first place. It was called Poetry and Project Runway, and from the sounds of it, it was a desperate attempt to integrate academics with reality television in hopes of convincing a pseudo-celebrity to visit campus. No matter how many times Kate tried to explain its purpose to me, the whole affair sounded like a stretch. But maybe that’s why I’d never considered a career in the fashion industry.
I certainly hadn’t been considering it when I pressed delete on the numerous campus-wide emails Kate had issued about auditioning for the event. At 5’8”, I knew I probably fit the height requirement, but I in no way wanted to enter the world of modeling, even on the amateurish college level. My feminist side reared at the idea of being objectified for the sake of something as petty as fashion. Although I wasn’t willing to admit it, a part of me, my secretly-girly, shoe-loving, rom-com-watching side, was enticed.
Everyone was thrilled for me; my mom demanded I post pictures from the event on Facebook as soon as possible, and Kate was elated that she’d managed to find someone even remotely close to Andrae’s stick-figure measurements. My girl friends congratulated me, as if being of above-average height was the highest achievement of my college career.
I detested the good wishes. I have always been ardently opposed to the fashion world and all the superficial ideals it presents. I even wrote an editorial about beauty pageants for my high school newspaper, criticizing the concept of “annually crowning a bleached-blonde stick figure and claiming that she is the perfect representation of America.” My girl-power ideals hadn’t shifted since high school. With every, “Wow, congrats!” I got from a friend, my amateur journalistic words rang true: “It is demeaning towards young women in today’s society to present an airbrushed beauty queen and claim that the most they can do to change the world is smile and wave.”
But I couldn’t suppress my inexplicably and embarrassingly girly alter-ego. She reminded me of all the “Project Runway” episodes I’d eagerly (and yes, hypocritically) watched. She reminded me of my overflowing collection of scarves and cheap jewelry, the guilty rush I felt when I found a cute sweater on sale. She imagined being pampered, having my hair and makeup professionally styled, feeling like a diva and showing it all off.
Eventually, romance won. There I was, a few weeks later, shaking hands with a former Project Runway contestant.
Andrae was wiry, gregarious, and flamboyantly gay enough pull off any style of facial hair without looking like a porn star. Actually, for someone who was about to adjust measuring tape around my crotch and boobs, he made me feel quite at-ease.
Until I saw his designs, at least.
I was anticipating something glamorous, something couture, maybe an asymmetrical dress or a skirt with a billowing train. Instead, Andrae decided to be creative. I think he was taking advantage of our amateurism to display his guilty-pleasure designs, those sketches he’d scrawled in the margins of his design books but knew would never make it on an actual runway.
His concept was vague at best. According to his official website, “one of the organizing principles of this work involves the use of mobius bands. Criticism and response are inexplicably conjoined in the process of making art, and neither can survive without the other. As it is in this relationship, it is in these garments, where sleeve edge is joined to hem, or neckline to armhole in a continuous, mysterious loop.”
In layman’s terms: A bunch of gauzy fabric styled in the most hip-widening way possible.
And it was all lime green.
I quickly transformed from a nervous college student into Andrae’s newest canvas. I stood at attention as he eyeballed me, terrified that he would wave me off, underwhelmed by the averageness of his newest model. To my surprise and relief, however, Andrae squealed with delight as his eyes traveled from my shoulders to toes. My legs, he told me, were the longest of any of the amateur models’, which meant I could display the jewel of his collection: a pair of mile-long, mint-green pants. He handed me a set of emerald tights to wear under them and one of his circular-themed, pouchy tops, then shooed me to the bathroom to change.
From Andrae’s reaction when I came out, I could have won America’s Next Top Model; I felt more like Kermit the Frog with balloon thighs.
He was so ecstatic that I was tall enough to wear his beloved pants, in fact, that I was given the honor of modeling twice, once with the smock-style shirt, another with a sleeveless sheath on top.
I was unfortunately a long way from being allowed to change back into my embarrassingly generic-brand clothes. The fitting took an eternity longer than those on the hour-long Runway episodes. Andrae was in no rush as he tucked and trimmed, measured and re-measured his creation. Initially, I felt like Andrae was a sculptor and I was his block of marble, being chipped away at to discover the masterpiece within. As the fitting continued, however, I began to feel more like a mannequin than a work of art. My arms were lifted and lowered; I walked across the room and turned on his command; I tensed my legs and held my breath while he was prodding the pants’ fabric with a needle.
From the major readjustments he was making, I regretted not being taller, skinnier, something closer to what he wanted his art modeled on. My anxiety must have shown.
“Don’t worry when I get frustrated or I’m not happy with how it looks,” he reassured me.
“You look gorgeous; it’s the garment I’m critiquing, not you.”
Finally, I was released. My homework: To procure a strapless bra and a pair of brown or black heels.
I’d always hated the Gibson theater dressing room. One of the unofficial traits of a good drama major is immodesty; before a performance, there are usually scads of girls traipsing around the changing room in nylons and bras, crooning showtunes while jokingly groping and teasing each other . I, on the other hand, aim to spend as little time as possible in the dressing room. I usually arrive earlier than any of the other actors, hair and make-up already done, and scurry to a bathroom stall to change and rush to the green room. I’m not sure where my consistent discomfort with dressing room rituals comes from, but as I settled onto my stool hours before the runway show, I tried to convince myself that this time would be different. This time, I would enjoy, not simply endure, being pampered. After all, the models on Project Runway always seemed to look forward to the L’Oreal hair and makeup session; why shouldn’t I feel the same?
As I arranged my makeup on the dressing table, I was struck by how woefully limited my cosmetic collection appeared. I usually only went lipstick or eye shadow shopping when I had a play coming up, and even then, I just bought whatever happened to be on sale at CVS. My nerves were hardly relieved when Kate wheeled in her towering makeup supply cart. It looked more like she was preparing for surgery than for a makeover from the precision she exacted in setting up her endless supply of hair gels, lip glosses, and eyeliners.
She styled and primped one model at a time. While we waited, Andrae tried to keep us entertained with tales of the glamorous life of the somewhat rich and moderately famous. I was far too nervous to participate in the conversations, and my anxiety infuriated me ; I’d performed in front of an audience more than anyone else in the room. I had clamoroued to be on stage since my second grade debut as a monkey in “Wackadoo Zoo.” I’d been onstage in a purple tutu, sang and danced in a wig and showgirl costume, even orated a commencement speech for a gymnasium of thousands.
Tonight, I had no lines to memorize or steps to remember, but it was the first time my pre-show anxiety was miserable enough to confuse with nausea. For some embarrassingly irrational reason, walking in a circle in heels terrified me more than even the most exhaustive of lead roles.
I avoided as many of the looming mirrors as possible while Kate attacked my hair with a curling iron and colored my face. Instead, I imagined the stoic, composed faces of the Project Runway models as professionals painted their lips and eyelids. I thought there was something almost magical about that part of the show, the way the models disappeared under a cloud of powder and sprays and miraculously reemerged magazine-cover perfect. I hovered in this fantastical mindset while Kate busied herself in the real world. When she was finally finished, a mirror was thrust in front of my face.
“What do you think?” she asked.
I thought I looked fine.
I certainly didn’t look like I’d just stepped out of the L’Oreal makeup room, but I looked fine. Despite Kate’s meticulousness, my skin hadn’t become flawlessly alabaster. My eyes were the same brown they’d always been, even with the mascara and eyeshadow. I was still recognizably and undeniably me.
The transformation was far less dramatic than I’d hoped it would be
After looking at the impossibly endless copies of myself in the wall-to-wall mirrors, I found myself dreading the actual catwalk more than ever, but it was far too late to back out now.
Andrae herded us into the blackbox theater to practice The Walk.
There is something eerily stoic about walking into an empty theater right before show time. The blaringly silent space feels as strange as a fresh blanket of snow, and the five of us huddled together, each unwilling to disturb the tranquility.
It was Andrae who made the first leap. He lined us up in order of our appearance, then moved center stage to exemplify The Walk. He swaggered from the curtain to the edge of the stage, paused, struck a lopsided, unnatural pose, then swaggered back.
One at a time, we wobbled across the catwalk for an imaginary audience. Andrae’s notes were as convoluted and deceptively simple as his beloved mobius loops: he told us to slow down, but stay deliberate; our arms could move, but not distractingly so; our pose was supposed to be elegant, yet firm.
It was humiliating. Here I was, a sophomore liberal arts student, being told how to walk. I was in Tawes Theater, a space where I was supposed to feel at ease, where I’d confidently performed monologues, laughed and cried, and used art to tell stories. This time, I had no story to tell.
Despite our wobbliness, Andrae continued to drill us. Apparently, The Walk isn’t something one learns; it is something a true model is born with. He coaxed us through practice walk after practice walk but eventually gave up any hope of bringing out our inner beauty queens. Instead, he gathered us backstage for the pep talk of a lifetime.
“Now girls, you look beautiful, you look sexy. I want you to feel it. You need to show the audience,” he said. “Here’s what I want you to be thinking while you’re walking down that catwalk: ‘You wanna fuck me? Well you can’t.’ That’s the face you need to have.”
That did it. I knew the face he was describing, the elusive “look” that the models are supposed to replicate on the runway. Apparently, they’re not supposed to be daydreaming about their next shopping spree or trying to remember how many calories were in their last meal; they’re supposed to tell a story. Admittedly, “Fuck me now” wasn’t a story I wanted to tell, but at least it was just another role. The Runway Model was no Blanche Dubois, but she was my character, and I was already cast.
I never remember much from performances. Show nights blur together in my memory, and the most I can usually recall are cloudy stage lights and dark faces looking back at me. Project Runway turned out to be just another play. I know I attempted The Walk and Fuck Me face, but that’s only because I’ve seen pictures since. If it weren’t for the photographic evidence, I don’t think I would believe I’d pulled off that role.
The Runway Model is a character I never want to play again. She is supposed to look sassy, sexy and sure, but she’s more three-dimensional than that. Like any complex role, she has her secrets. The model knows The Walk, but no one sees her after she scrubs off her foundation and combs out the hair-spray snarls. In the dressing room, the model has a very different story to tell .