Entering the dragon’s den
I arrive twenty minutes late for a casting, but it doesn’t really matter. Only three other girls have found their way into the casting room so far; ‘girls’ being a euphemism – the youngest person in the room is a women in her early twenties. At a fashion casting we are never ‘women’, always ‘girls’ – most likely because no grown-up woman would tolerate the treatment we endure on a daily basis.
I sit down on one of the few cheap chairs propped up at the back of the room, next to the other girls. Most idly scroll on their phones, knowing they have time on their hands, because this is not a regular casting. This is a casting with the dragon.
The dragon, among the most feared casting directors in the fashion world, is responsible for the booking of models for clients like Calvin Klein, Balenciaga and Jil Sander. She got into hot water in 2017, when it came to public attention that before Paris Fashion Week she had locked one hundred and fifty models in a dark stairwell while she went out for lunch.[i]
Though not well received, the conduct was insufficiently reprehensible for her to lose a seat on fashion’s Mount Olympus once and for all. A rap on the knuckle and the incident was soon forgiven, though certainly not forgotten by the models left in the cold stairwell for up to three hours – a duration the dragon still denies.
At the end of the room someone has pushed together some tables, forming a long line. Behind the tables there’s an abundance of sweating assistants typing into their MacBooks. But I am not paying attention to them, as I cannot take my eyes off the dragon, seated at the left hand side of the table. In front of her – weirdly reminding me of the feasts in Harry Potter – there lies a pile of greasy McDonalds paper bags.
It seems sickly ironic that a woman who hires other women based on the suitability of their bodies (preferably size XXS) is unashamedly spooning an Oreo McFlurry into her mouth in front of us. Now the windowless room is beginning to fill with the smell of grease, but the dragon takes no notice of this, or of us, lurking in the back of the room.
At this stage she seems to be enjoying herself, wise-cracking with her assistants,. The room is starting to fill up with other I models. I recognize a few of them; some I know from previous castings, others I have seen in campaigns or in magazines. There are insufficient chairs for everyone, models start to crouch on the floor. The casting was supposed to begin forty minutes ago.
Stale sweat and make-up stains
Suddenly there is movement. One of the assistants gets up and asks the first five girls to put their names down on a list. We are led to a small toilet and handed undergarments to put on. The assistant tells us to be quick, blushing as she says so. With few words we strip down in front of each other. We are used to it.
My dress, black, cheaply-made nylon – the sort you might pick up at the checkout of a drug store – has undoubtedly been worn before, smelling of stale sweat and caked in make-up stains.
The assistant returns. ‘Low ponytail’, she says, and orders us to line up – as if we are being chosen for a game of dodge ball. We walk back into the room. The McDonalds paper bags have magically disappeared. Instead there’s a list in front of the dragon. She calls my name.
It feels odd standing in front of her; her name – taken in vain more often than not – being a staple in fashion industry gossip. Even odder is how charming she becomes once you are in front of her, and no longer a nameless model, but an actual person. Almost like a human being?
Why we put up with it…
I now wonder when I first became habituated to the absurdity that is the fashion industry. I remember how glamorous it all seemed at the outset – like a high school clique that I desperately wanted to be a part of – and once I had made it, I was even more desperate to remain a part of it.
It took a while for me to realise that it is not all glamour and champagne. It demands countless hours at airports, sleepless nights in lousy hotel rooms, and blue lips from icy shooting locations.
Latterly I no longer feel as exclusive as I once did. The features that made it so exciting to begin with are now annoying routines: constantly having your hair done becomes irritating; sitting still for hours while you are made-up causes back pain; waiting for what seem like eternities during lighting tests makes it all become a blur.
I wonder if all so-called dream jobs crash against reality at some point. Or is it only models who are not supposed to talk about the negative sides of their profession, and who must pretend every day is glorious and lock away their mental problems?
An insider gag is that we all want to quit, and yet here we remain. While the lows may be really low, it seems the highs are too addictive to let go of. It is all too alluring to earn a regular person’s monthly salary in the space of a day; too tempting to visit places you would otherwise never reach; too fascinating to abandon the dream.
How can anyone who travels the world and meets people we all grew up seeing on TV complain? It seems tasteless to moan about non-sensical work conditions, when life could be so much harder.
Most of the time models keep quiet. The only safe space for venting our annoyances seems to lie within the industry itself. Though competitors, fellow models are often the only allies we have. Every model understands the pressures, stresses, body dismorphia, loneliness and petty jealousies.
We exchange knowing looks before pulling out phones to broadcast our fabulous life on social media. We are models after all, so we must maintain the fantasy.
They probably all want to quit
The casting is over within five minutes. The dragon is precious with her own time – it is ours that is of no value to her. She orders me walk in a straight line, scribbling down something on a sheet of paper. She asks me to walk again. And again. I walk up and down the room three times, the eyes of everyone in attendance following my every step.
The dragon makes no comment, she just watches. When I am finished she asks the next girl to do the same walk, I stand with the others and watch. After the five of us have done our walk she calls me up again and takes some pictures with a 2007-esque bubble gum-coloured digital camera.
I have met her before, at another casting in another city. She pretends to remember me when I tell her, though fails to look me in the eyes. Yet I can feel her gaze all over my body, scanning every flaw, comparing ‘it’ to the countless (and to her nameless) other bodies she has surveyed before.
I am ordered to look left, right, chin up, chin down, profile, smile, smile with teeth, smile with less teeth, sit-down, fetch. When she has finished the examination she moves on without addressing me again. As I turn, her assistant waves me over to her. She has an amateurish spreadsheet in front of her with a set of questions.
‘Would you walk topless?’
‘Would you wear fur?’
‘Would you wear leather?’
I wonder if anyone ever dares to say no to any of these questions. If so I have never heard of it. We didn’t make it this far to limit our chances by refusing anything we are offered. She ticks every category next to my name.
Then I am free to go. I hurry back into the toilet, handing my disgusting gown over to the next girl, waiting alongside the others in the tiny room, like battery chickens at a factory farm.
As my eyes adjust to the sunshine outside, it all seems surreal – that there are some of the most beautiful girls of Paris stuffed into a back room in a nameless shop in a nameless street. They probably all want to quit.
‘Roxanne Smith’ is a pseudonym, if you have stories you wish to share in confidence contact us at [email protected]
[i]Landon Peoples, ‘The Plot Thickens In The Casting Directors Vs. Models Case’, March 2nd, 2017, Refinery29, https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2017/03/143463/balenciaga-james-scully-models-casting-drama, accessed 27/4/19.