Sometimes people ask me what, in my opinion, makes a good art model. I have roughly a zillion different answers to this question, depending on my mood, but one thing remains (and I think would apply to more ‘mainstream’ modelling, as well): you’ve got to be thick skinned.
This isn’t as simple as it sounds.
The obvious things are these: you have to be prepared to see yourself as an object. I go through a flurry of indecision about my beliefs on this; are you objectifying yourself by modelling? Are other people objectifying you? If so, is that OK?
I flit, often within seconds, between seeing myself as a subject and as an object, both in relation to another person’s view of me, and in terms of the way I see myself.
Really, this is the sort of division you set yourself up for if you become a professional model; you observe yourself. You are not yourself. You are yourself and you watch yourself, both in the moment, and afterwards, when flicking through the photographer’s photos on the back of his camera, working with him to see what works and what doesn’t (when you first begin modelling, you are only interested in yourself; when you’ve been doing it a while, you are looking at the overall composition, mood, narrative, meaning; sometimes having strong opinions on lighting, lenses and angles). Either way, you quickly learn to see yourself as a series of shapes, and a vehicle of expression; when critiquing yourself, you will say ‘I think the head is a little too high in that frame’ rather than ‘I think my head is a little too high’.
You will stand in front of another human as they talk quite openly about your flaws, just as easily and directly as they will praise your strengths. You will quickly find that you join in with them. Personally, and I think this is where new models can struggle, I have no emotional stock in my strengths/flaws; I can quite happily list my strengths and my flaws in a matter of fact sort of way, and don’t really associate my true self with either. I often worry about new models, or those who are less secure in themselves, who might go home with one casual, unintentional remark ringing in their ears.
You learn, quickly, that within one single photoshoot, in two separate frames taken moments apart, you can look malnourished or flabby. You learn, then, what angles do (both yours and the photographer’s) and what lighting can sculpt or highlight, and you realise that there really is nothing objectively true about your body.
This is what you are working with; a knowledge of how to produce; a skill set which most people don’t have; a self-awareness which in all other contexts might seem quite unhealthy. The crucial thing – and I have realised how crucial this really is, over the years – is not to get caught up in any judgement of yourself, whether they are your own or others’.
I wrote a creative piece of writing only a few days ago titled ‘To Anyone Who Thinks I am Beautiful’ (I would love to publish it here to illustrate this little rant I seem to be indulging in today, though really I should be making dinner in the half an hour I have free for myself before I go out this evening, but I can’t for various reasons; I hope it might go in the book I’m writing, for one thing). I can’t tell you how much pleasure I took in listing my physical flaws/failings/imperfections; it is incredibly liberating; but again, remember, I don’t hold any emotional stock in them; that is the point. I am beautiful as is everyone else; the fun comes in knowing how awful you look in your most private moments, how illusory the photography industry can be (even when no photoshop is used whatsoever) and how wonderful it is that these statements (‘I am beautiful’/’I am not beautiful’) can completely co-exist.
When I tell people you have to be thick-skinned, I don’t just mean you have to take insults with a pinch of salt (the throwaway comments from those who are socially inept, or the mean, or misogynistic, or the photographer who has a clear idea of how his models should look, or whatever else); I also mean the opposite. I mean you have to take compliments and adoration and gushing attention precisely as lightly. (And I’ve written about vanity in other places, before.) It is lovely to hear that an image of you is deemed aesthetically appealing, and to get notification after notification of ‘likes’ or ‘wow’s, or whatever else – your continued influx of work depends on it, but you have to know, deep down (and again, I’m employing paradox, again — perhaps this is the most essential skill; to be able to hold mutually exclusive beliefs at any given moment; it is certainly one of my keenest talents, quite frankly…) that it’s all both wonderfully true (you are beautiful) and complete bollocks (you’re really not that special).
When I first began modelling and getting into the ‘industry’, I performed a small mini-vomit in my mouth whenever I saw other models referring to or describing their ‘look’ in their sales pitches (or website blurbs, etc.). ‘Look’ as a noun, not a verb. Urgh. Gross. (I feel similarly shudder-ous about the ubiquitous use of ‘creative’ as a noun rather than an adjective, as in ‘I’m looking for a creative…’ instead ‘I’m looking for a creative person’, though I question my distaste for this, as it’s perfectly common to hear ‘she’s an academic’ instead of ‘she’s academic’, so in the world of academia, at least, it’s a perfectly usual occurence to become a trait rather than merely be described as having that trait). ANYWAY, self-describing one’s ‘look’ takes quite a weird amount of self-awareness, which you find you quickly adopt for its efficacy; you have to know what you are selling, and be visible to those who are looking to buy that thing.
And, further proof that it’s all imaginary; I take quite a lot of enjoyment from turning up as truly myself (my ‘look’, by the way, is something I usually describe (urgh) as ‘natural’, ‘bohemian’ and ‘feminine’, because, well, that’s just the way it is) and being converted via a photographer’s vision into something quite glamorous and strong – this happened today, and as I was dressing this morning to drive to the shoot (to work with a photographer I regularly model for, and who I really love working with), I thought it was quite funny that I would turn up looking loose and floaty but inevitably be dressed immediately in something tight-fitting and sexy, so I went with it and let the fabric flow and wave around me. (This is another thing about modelling; you lose all impetus to dress in a way that shows off your body on a day to day basis; my own mother mentioned the other day that I should show off my figure more, since you can’t even see it under my floaty garments and hippie paraphernalia; that really is saying something, isn’t it?) Anyway, turning up for a glamorous shoot in your gentlest, flowing skirts (even if you have dutifully piled on the make up to make your eyes look smoky and several metres wide; alluring for monochrome, which can take/requires stronger make up than colour) makes for a stronger transformation (more fun) and is an enjoyable, if small, act of rebellion. 🙂
(I listened to Emeli Sandé’s brilliant debut album in the car on the way there and back; hence the [only possibly/slightly relevant] reference to her lyric from the song ‘Clown’. Sidenote: her song ‘Breaking the Law’ is one of the most romantic things ever written, in my personal opinion, and always reminds me of an ex who didn’t dare to hold my hand across the aisle in an aeroplane back when I was a nervous flyer – ha! – because he thought it might not be allowed. Lovely man, but not the one for me. Song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9W3eyRqUttc)