by Cindy Rae
This is a memoir about a homely girl from Minnesota who becomes a high fashion model.
After the Versace shoot, I was booked for my first runway show. Adrianna Vittadini was a designer that I had never heard of. I figured she must be a big designer since her shop was next to Valentino on Via Monte Napoleone where all of the high-priced luxurious stores were.
I was proud of myself for arriving early for once, especially on that dreary, overcast day in Milan. I’d never seen a runway show and didn’t know what to expect. When I walked through the gigantic, glass doors, a woman with bleached hair sticking straight up like a porcupine introduced herself as the choreographer. She escorted me backstage where there were racks filled with fancy clothes.
“Those are your clothes, near the wall.” She pointed her finger. “Make sure all of your outfits are unbuttoned and unzipped so you can change more quickly. We will be starting the rehearsal soon.”
Each model had her own rack with three or four changes of clothes and her name on a label tied on the end. One by one, the runway models arrived backstage wearing designer sunglasses, short black dresses to accentuate their long legs, and high heeled boots. I looked down at my outfit: a jean skirt, a baggy two-toned T-shirt with “Rick James, Super Freak” written on the front, and tennis shoes from a street market. I hung out off to the side to watch, while the models hugged and gave each other high fives.
The girl with the rack next to mine had a tiny nose and big lips. Trying to strike up a conversation, I said, “Hi, I’m Cindy and this is my first runway show. How about you?”
“I’ve done hundreds of shows. Mostly for big designers in Paris and London.” She turned her little nose in the air while checking out her clothes.
“Oh, that’s great,” I said, hoping she’d give me some tips. Instead, she turned, pranced over to one of her friends and air-kissed her near both cheeks. They both turned to look at me. Feeling out of place, I decided to hang out behind my rack of clothes. I overheard some of the models chatting about mean designers and two-timing boyfriends.
One said, “Did you hear what Tanya did?”
“She slept with her agent to book all the good jobs.”
A few of them gasped.
“She’s such a slut.” said the one with deer skinny legs. They all laughed and continued to bash other models and designers.
Most were startlingly gorgeous and lean as greyhounds. I wondered how these girls could be so pretty on the outside and ugly on the inside.
The choreographer spoke into a microphone from the stage, “Time for the prova.” A word I later learned meant rehearsal.
There was a sheet of paper taped to the wall with the order we were to walk. My name was fourth on the list. I peeked from the side, just behind the curtain to keep a sharp eye on the graceful moves the tall girls were performing so that I could copy them. Their hair shone underneath the lights with skin as perfect as porcelain dolls. I wondered how I fit in with these goddesses. When I stepped onto the runway, I felt dizzy, like my heart would pound out of my chest. I must have done okay because no one said anything.
Someone backstage said, “Time for makeup.” A handsome Latino man who wore eyeliner and mascara grabbed my hand and pulled me to a chair. "Ciao, I'm Rolando, I'll be doing your makeup." I sat as still as I could, while he applied purple and pink eye shadow to my lids, heavy black eyeliner winged a quarter-inch beyond my outer eye.
“I have never had this much makeup on before.”
“I’m not done yet.” He pulled out some false eyelashes. I said, “Those look like spider legs.” He laughed, “Don’t blink or you’ll get glue in your eye.” I froze like a cement statue while he poked and prodded the corners of my eyes holding the lashed down until they dried.
“Open your mouth,” he brushed on wine-colored lipstick.
Next, a hairdresser curled and teased my hair until it looked like I stuck my finger in a light socket.
“Close your eyes while I spray.”
After about two minutes of her spraying, I said, “Wow, that’s a lot of hair spray.” and wondered how I was going to get all of the knots out of my hair.
“I go through at least two cans of Aqua Net per show.”
I felt like a blank canvas while the artists transformed me, like a painting brought to life. My reflection in the mirror looked more like the singer Madonna than myself. Hours of prep, all for about thirty seconds of fame on the runway.
Before the show was about to begin, panic set in. The other models stripped in front of everyone chatting as if they were naked at a party. One of them said to the group, “Hey, do you want to go dancing at Nepenta later?”
“I’m in!” chimed a couple of the girls.
The one next to me said, “I have to catch a flight to Paris for the Chanel show tomorrow.”
I wanted to say, “I’ll go dancing.” but figured they wouldn’t want to hang out with me. Being an outcast, reminded me of elementary school back in Minnesota. I felt like I didn’t fit in.
I hid behind my clothes rack to change, ashamed of my tiny boobs, and hoped that my sweaty armpits wouldn't ruin the clothes. Someone yelled, "Line up!"
My first outfit was an over-sized cowl necked sweater with hand-embroidered cabbage roses and a tight black pencil skirt. I squished my toes into six-inch high-heeled pumps. My heart seemed to be pounding faster than the music. The first model stepped onto the runway. In thirty seconds, it would be my turn. I froze. "Go!" Someone shouted and shoved me. I stepped out, blinded by the lights. My awkward walk felt clumsy, like an ostrich on roller skates. For the love of God, Cindy, please don’t fall. I pleaded with myself.
I spotted rows and rows of people, mostly well-dressed women, all staring at me. Judging me. No one was smiling…neither was I. At the end of the runway, the bright bulbs flashed from the photographers. I had to close my eyes. I turned, walked back up the catwalk, turned again to pose with another flurry of flashes. Applause from the audience.
Backstage everyone was rushing around like fish in a tank during feeding time. I pushed my way to my rack where my dressers had my next ensemble ready. I held my arms in the air as one girl pulled off my sweater, the other was helping to get my skirt off.
"Hurry!" She shouted. In a matter of seconds, it would be my turn again.
My next outfit was a sheer cream-colored chiffon dress, they zipped it quickly and one of my dressers screamed.
"Merda!" More screaming.
The buckle on my shoe broke. I ran toward the designer who put my feet into a pair of roman sandals that laced up to just below my knees. A makeup artist stood in front of me, "Open your mouth," as he touched up my lipstick. Meanwhile, the hair person was spraying my hair. Someone powdered my face. Someone else changed my earrings. So many hands on me. It took about two minutes for the entourage to change my look, like the mechanics changing the tires on a high-speed race track.
“Go, go go!”
And just like that, I was back on the runway, walking to a Celtic Enya song blaring from the speakers. I was feeling more confident. Cameras were flashing once again bright lights blinded me as I strutted down the catwalk, hips swaying to the loud music.
Towards the end of the runway, something was dangling on my right calf. I glanced down, one of my sandals had come unlaced with about two feet of string dragging behind my foot. Shit! What could I do? On the one hand, I could keep on walking with it and pretend I don’t notice. But if I didn’t fix it, I could end up one of those models who fall on the runway in front of everyone. I had to make a choice and quickly.
Luckily, the sandals were flat. I reached down, pulled off the sandal, flung it over my shoulder and hoped it looked okay. I turned for my final pose, then quickly hobbled off stage. I felt proud of myself for not tripping.
I exhaled a sigh of relief when the show ended. I changed into my jeans skirt and tennis shoes. Bubbly blisters were already forming from the stilettoes. The model next to me adjusted her Gucci purse and said, "See ya next show."
I smiled, "Hope so!" Unsure if runway modeling was for me.
I was never asked to model for Vittadini again.
Sofia, the runway booker from my agency, called me into her office. She was a linebacker of a woman. She wore a solid black t-shirt and baggy high waisted blue jeans that gave her a very masculine appearance. Her dark brown hair was shaved on the sides and curly on top like a poodle. She spoke with a heavy Russian accent. I was afraid of her.
"Vat is dis?" She yelled as she slammed some pictures from the Vittadini show onto her desk. A runway model's photos are one of the most important tools for the designer and model. The designer uses them to show his fashions and a model uses them to build their portfolio. My feet were twisted bow legged. My mouth was wide open and my eyes completely shut. Worst picture ever.
A few tears stormed down my cheek. Oh my God, I’m a failure. What if they send me back to the states? Maybe modeling just wasn’t going to happen for me.
Suddenly, she yelled, "Stop crying. You walk for me now!"
I shuffled down the hallway hunched over, defeated, my head hung low.
"You walk like an elefan’te." She said, then handed me a book, “Put this on your head.” The book kept falling off as I walked back and forth while she hollered, “Heel-toe, heel-toe. Shoulders back. Head up. One foot in front of the other.”
I wanted to prove to her that I could learn to walk. Plus, I had no one, and nowhere else to go. I did exactly as she said. After what seemed like hours, she said, "Brava Amore."