"You're tall and skinny. I've enrolled you in a modeling class."
Those are the words that every girl openly longs to hear, but in my case it was my mother's way of letting me know I needed to earn my keep. At age 11 there aren't many ways for a tall, skinny girl to make herself useful, but to stand around looking tall and skinny. It was my call to arms, my 'ask not what my mother can do for me, but what I can do for my mother,' my manifest destiny. I was her last, best hope for the good life and she was willing to pimp me out.
She was very attractive, as was my father. My brother's looks hadn't taken any kind of shape, but still my mother once looked at the two of us standing together and asked, "How could two such good looking people have two such funny looking kids?" She laughed to indicate it was meant as a joke, and apologized when she saw what was probably a look of horror on my face. My brother barely noticed, and continued on his beggarly quest for a McDonald's Happy Meal and a toy gun. "No," she replied. "We don't have the money for that."
My instructor was a homely yet photogenic, shapeless woman, who had taken up teaching because she was getting too long in the tooth to scare up work. Her teaching method was thus: She would place a book on our heads, and push us down a make-shift catwalk, then tell us what we did wrong. I'd been in ballet classes most of my young life, so I had a grace of movement that most of the less symmetry challenged girls lacked. This didn't make up for my lack of self worth in every other aspect, and this woman read me like, well, like a book.
And so she decided to make me the star of our final modeling exam, and fit me into an ugly, floral dress that made me look like a bouquet of Forget-me-nots on white stalks. The featured model always goes last, and is the one who--in a real show--gets to act all nicey nicey with the designer. Unless J.C. Penney himself put that monstrosity together, I doubt anyone did much designing. I wasn't happy about the dress nor the attention, but I was flattered, and did my absolute best. I managed to complete my pass without tripping, doing a perfect model's turn at the end of the runway and ducking backstage before I peed myself. There was a tiny bit of applause from somewhere near where my family sat.
Once classes were complete, our instructor submitted our photos to various agencies around town. My photos didn't pass the test, which was just as well. I may have looked 16 but I was far too young to launch a career, certainly not in an industry marred by hypersexuality, drug abuse and potential encounters with Andy Warhol. The same could be said for a dancer's life. I'd dodged four bullets, the third being acting and the fourth, musician. Phew!
My mother continued to encourage me to model, act, dance and sing but I ultimately let her vicarious aspirations of wealth and fame go down the drain by ending my growth spurt at a non-lofty 5'6". Then came several dozen pounds and acne, and a star was unborn.
Some years later I asked her why she would put a shy, terrified girl through such an ordeal, even if it meant we would all live in comfort. Why such a looks-based industry when I had other qualities to lean on? I was a good student, had a natural ability to write, paint and invent, and even excelled in math. So why modeling?
"To build your self confidence, of course." To her, it made perfect sense.