Authors: Shere Hite
Based on this work experience, I decided to try to work part-time while still studying at Columbia. I thought I would try modelling. Another student (with similar financial problems) said she did modelling, part-time, âmostly hats'. She gave me some telephone
, and I went to meet one or two photographers with her. I began to try doing photo shots with some of them, so I could take them to a model agency. A few months later, with the help of Bob Stone, a well-known, young fashion photographer, and his photos, I joined one
of the two top modelling agencies in New York, Wilhelmina's.
Willie, as we called her, had been a Ford model (the other top agency) and was so successful she opened her own agency. She didn't like the way âthe girls' were treated at Ford, and wanted to set a new standard of professionalism. Wilhelmina's agency became a
of prestige. Willie was the gorgeous brunette on lots of 1950s Revlon posters for Cherries-in-the-Snow red nail polish and lipstick. She had one in her office. It took up a whole wall.
By this time, as my grandfather's contribution had completely run out, I was on my own in one of the most expensive cities in the world, going to one of the most expensive schools in the United States. I worked for over two years as a fashion and advertising model with Willie. All this time, I was on an official leave of absence from Columbia.
Modelling was a great education â and also a rude introduction to yet more parts of the âreal world'. The bottom line was: the prettiest girls get chosen by the cool guys for jobs, get their picture taken, and get money. What a scenario! Of course, it's real work, too: beauty work, starving, stamina, plus minding the finances of your own business life. It's often physically trying, as well. You have to wear bathing suits in January, to make the early deadlines for the spring issues, smile convincingly when you don't feel like it, no matter what the photographer is saying â âBaby, you're hot! Do you feel it? Give it to me, come on, give me that hot pussy juice'. Of course, not all male photographers
think they should act like perverts, but many do. Sometimes it's just put-downs. For example, Neal Bar doing a photograph for
shouting at me for ânot being tall enough' for the camera angle he wanted, i.e., âWhat's wrong with
Yet he selected me.
Sometimes I look at fashion magazines today and wonder what was going through the model's mind while she was performing for the camera. How many hours had she struggled with the make-up and hair stylist; who's ego got bumped during the preparation? And how much was she getting paid? I hope it was enough. Despite inflated stories, models (other than the top twenty) often make barely enough to eat. Sometimes a new one looks as if her big chance has arrived â or do I imagine it? I know, I went through all of this.
Maybe another reason I decided to try being a model (besides the money and the challenge and the glamour â in addition to the appeal of being one's own boss) went back to that day when my grandfather showed so much that he loved me, by insisting on having my photo taken by the best photographer in town, then putting it proudly on his desk at work (the only photo there) in a fancy frame. He kept it there all the rest of his life, even when he retired and moved his desk into his home. Even when I visited after he had Alzheimer's, it was there, twenty years later, still the only one. So maybe I felt good about photos, I expected good things to come of them.
When I was with Willie, I sometimes wore dresses worth thousands of dollars, or jewellery with security guards attached. But I wasn't so interested in them. I
liked antique clothing, and thought there was more poetry inside those fragile garments than in anything modern. Even couture clothing seemed mass-produced, compared to the antiques which I had started buying as a student, before they were considered âtrendy'.
I was fascinated by make-up, however, and I also liked talking to the other models about care of the body, seeing how they shared secrets of grooming with each other, the openness and naturalness with which we changed clothes together. We were always put in situations of having a lot of people around when we were semi-nude, dressing us, criticizing our bodies, faces, and hair, applying make-up. You have to get over a need for privacy, or quickly stop being a model. We looked at our bodies and each other's, almost as pieces of art, always searching to improve their design. I liked the acceptability of caring for our bodies, considering them important, and praising each others'. I liked looking at the beautiful bodies of other women around me.
There were other parts I didn't like. Most days as a model are spent lugging a heavy book of photos of oneself around to the notorious âgo-sees'. The agency gives you a list of appointments with photographers and clients currently working, and you spend the day going to see one after the other. This is how you meet new photographers and clients. You show them your pictures, and leave behind a brochure of yourself with the agency's name on it (paid for by yourself). You don't find out if you got the job there and then, you only hear later from the agency.
In truth, most jobs made me feel alienated. It took
serious amounts of time to get ready for a job, first at home (making a body perfect is a lot of work), and then at the photographer's, where the hair and make-up artist would take twice as long as the photos themselves. Often, I found the hair, or make-up they would put on me ugly, so it was difficult to be confident in front of the camera. I felt so unlike who I thought I was. Their make-up made me feel stripped of my own being. This was unpleasant, but it was pleasant having someone comb your hair and gently touch your face with small brushes. I never knew what to say if the result wasn't something I liked. You just had to live with it. Even so, a day together doing a job was fun. There was camaraderie, and often the whole crew would go out for dinner together afterward.
The legendary Diana Vreeland was the head of
magazine for many years, considered the doyenne, the most elegant arbiter of fashion. She did dress in a marked, stylish way, but I never found her to be so elegant. To me, Rachmaninov was elegant, Strauss was elegant, opera was elegant, and ballet too. Clothing and style were fun, a buzz, but not true elegance â unless one had the carriage and grace of a ballet dancer. In fact, Vreeland critiqued me for my carriage. She didn't like it. I had grown up to be shy, and learned the âgood girl' posture of slouching slightly, hiding my breasts, and so on. Vreeland was putting together a live show, where I and some other models would walk around, showing off garments in an elegant salon. She liked me, but practically twisted my head off my neck when she tried to wrench it into the position she thought would look right, i.e.
Chin Up. Walk with arrogance! Pride! And she demonstrated, âNow
do it'. I tried, but of course, after this, I felt even less confident than before, so I shuffled across the room, neither in my own style anymore, nor hers, âOh no, no, no!' she exclaimed, and tried again, having me walk in front of her. But it was hopeless. Her announcing to me, âYou must have pride!' was a quintessential feminist idea, but in that setting and at that time, I was doing well to be there at all. Maybe today she would have appreciated my style of walking. I thought arrogance was a sin, and maybe I still do.
The independence of modelling is that you manage your own time and your own budget. There is no minimum you can receive, and no maximum. (This was great training for running my own research business later, balancing the budget. But I had also seen my grandfather run his own business for years, which helped.) Models' hourly rates varied from about $100â$500. Mine was $250 for most jobs, as it was for the vast majority of models. Of course this sounds great, but you didn't get it all the time. And the really beautiful editorial jobs in top magazines (not the ads) are prestige, the cream, and don't pay at all.
for example, at that time paid $15 per hour. But we all loved doing editorial.
I never ate enough. My health was fragile, and I was too thin, as I didn't yet understand how to eat well. When I had a date for dinner, and the man would order wine, thinking this would make for a nice evening, in fact, it only made me faint, since drinking on such an empty stomach was a recipe for exhaustion.
It soon began to seem to me, lugging my book around, that there was a certain irony in being a model: spending your days on âgo-sees' to visit male photographers and clients, to sell your beauty/body. The prettiest girl gets the guy â who gives her money â was the social system writ large! We, the models, were 90 per cent women, those with the power (the photographers and clients) were 90 per cent males. I began to mention this to other models around the agency. Word got around that I was the resident feminist. One result of this was when Peter Falk and Ben Gazarra made their film with John Cassavetes,
I was asked to appear on television with them (the
), to talk about a âwoman's point of view'. Me! I wonder if that show still exists in Franklin's files? It must have been about 1970.
Peter Falk (who went on to become famous on television for playing Columbo) told me in private that he thought the âreal problem' was that âthey won't let men be men anymore'. I wonder if he still thinks this is the âproblem', or if he has changed his mind. I liked him better than the other two, who seemed arrogant. Cassavetes was so arrogant, he wouldn't even speak to me off screen. His female characters are so full of clichÃ©s, it almost makes one fall off one's chair with shock â like something out of Micky Spillaine!
I met Jane Fonda at the studio of James Moore around this time too. He and a lot of photographers nearby had lofts like in the movie
(lofts had to be big, empty and white). In that film the great model Veruschka gave a knock-out performance of the sexual
innuendo between photographer and model. Jane was very friendly, really great, I thought. But I was still shy. When she asked me to join her for dinner, I didn't go. I said no. Why? Because I wanted to too much. Almost like the time my grandfather had asked me to call him âDad', and I was surprised and shy. Now, as a model, I was no longer drab, but I was still very shy. I would have loved to go. Sometimes I still do the same thing today. I avoid friendships with people I would like to know, out of a continuing shyness, or sense that this would force me to perform beyond my energy level, or something like that. I should overcome this!
Soon after, I had a walk-on part as a fashion model in Jane's film
I never followed it up by going further into films, because it was so boring waiting around hours for a ten minute part. It wasn't glamorous at all. Also, I didn't like the way the director talked to Jane Fonda. Rather than encouraging her and praising her, he was dry and non-committal, making her do takes over and over. I didn't see anything wrong with the way she was doing it.
When I worked for Willie, one out of the hundreds of job assignments I had appeared in
I was not paid by
paid Wilhelmina. This caused a lot of trouble some years later. It was a photo taken by Frederick Smith, a prominent New York photographer I had worked with often on catalogues. He was asked to submit a photo for a feature in
called âTen Fashion Photographers Present their Favourite Models' and asked me. Fred had taught me about photo printing and I used to hang out with him in his
dark-room. He was an extremely intelligent and interesting man, very gentle, with a little of my grandfather's personality. I respected Fred, and had agreed to his request. We did some photos of me in a big flowered hat in a bed in his studio, me cuddling up with a dog Fred found. This was before the days of crotch shots, and it was basically a torso and breasts shot in soft focus. It paid OK, not extravagantly, but more than usual, and that was what I needed.
Did I feel turned on during the shooting by being nude? By âexhibiting' myself? Not at all. I recall the day very well. I'm not saying that in the right setting I wouldn't feel excited being in the nude and having someone admire me, just that nothing about that situation was sexual to me. Maybe difficult to believe, but true. Later, many years later, having a photo taken of me nude by a woman photographer for the Pompidou Centre, I did think that this was an erotic moment. But not then. Maybe the idea that it was for the heavy-handed magazine
turned me off.
I had been much more sexually harassed on ânice' fashion jobs, including by Hiro, the top photographer for
for several years. One day we were getting ready for a shoot, with a whole crew of people: make-up artist, hair person, stylist, and a battery of clients, including representatives of the advertising agency and the company. I was all in white, except for a gold belt. While the make-up and hair people were making the last adjustments, so I couldn't move, and the clients were walking around inspecting me to see if I was finally OK, mumbling their opinions to each
other, Hiro (probably as nervous as I was with all that going on), began to rub the buckle on my belt, which was shiny gold metal, as if to polish it. Then, on his knees in front of me, he turned to the clients, announcing loudly to me, âWell, does it turn you on when I'm rubbing your belt like this?' The room hushed while everyone waited for my answer. âUh, I dunno, I â¦' was all I could stammer, fully embarrassed.
As a model, I had always made it a point of honour to use my own full name, not to appear as âBascha' or some other name, as many of my friends did. Thus, after my first book was published, it was easy for
to find in its files the big surprise, wow, she once posed nude for us, and republish it. I didn't know it was coming out until it was already out. Yet another time I didn't get paid anything!