The Vogue Factor: The Inside Story of Fashion's Most Illustrious Magazine (5 page)

BOOK: The Vogue Factor: The Inside Story of Fashion's Most Illustrious Magazine
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Fortunately, we made it back to the boat, and the shoot—with Sarah looking impeccable in fifties-style fashion, with slicked-back hair and bright-red lipstick—was one of her best ever for
Vogue
. Just before the ship docked, the staff presented me with her phone bill. I handed it to Sarah as the team all met for sunset drinks to toast the success of the shoot. It was close to $7,300. Sarah, to her credit, lay back on a lounge chair deathly pale for a couple of moments, took a few deep breaths, and said: “Oh well.” We not only all made it back alive but Nancy loved the shoot, and Sarah made the cover of the June 1993 edition.

In addition to the various disasters that could and would happen on a major trip, there was always the very great possibility that the
editor-in-chief would not like the results. There was huge pressure to deliver something phenomenal, because location trips obviously ate up most of the magazine’s monthly editorial budget. Melbourne fashion editor Mary Otte once did an entire issue with one male and two female models, shot all around Australia, from Tasmania to Broome and Far North Queensland. It was a mammoth effort and the photographs, taken by Graham Shearer again, were well received by all the team in the fashion office, but the then editor June McCallum didn’t like them for some mysterious styling reasons.

Fashion editors feel devastated when their shoots are rejected because they have obsessed over every tiny detail to get to the end result. It is almost impossible for them to be objective. Mary composed a very calm email to June stating that if she had to do it over again she would make the exact same decisions, and then promptly resigned, which I always thought was tremendously chic.

During Judith Cook’s time as fashion director she once chose Africa as the prime destination for a major issue. There was so much excitement in the stockroom as all the fabulous pieces she had collaborated on began to flow in. There were black-and-white zebra toe thongs with black fringing, ocelot-print parasols with cane handles, voluminous handpainted Masai-inspired ballgowns in brilliant red, gorgeous safari suits in black linen, and piles of colorful beads and bracelets and cuffs. Naomi was the assistant, and as with any trip to Africa it was arduous, expensive and thrilling.

After the team were safely home, the photographs duly arrived in to the art department and the verdict began to trickle through the building. Nancy hated them. She thought the model was spectacularly unattractive.

It’s unusual that such a major trip went ahead without the model being approved, but often when an international model is booked
direct to a location, how they look when they turn up is not quite how they were depicted in their portfolio. They can often carry a few extra pounds that the agent chose not to divulge, and the fashion editor then faces the dilemma of having none of the clothes fit. On many occasions, Judith had to cut clothes up the back and pin them together.

In the case of the African incident, Judith was disconsolate. “I liked her. I specifically chose her because she looked like a lioness!” she exclaimed. I think I gently suggested to her that perhaps therein lay the problem. The story was cut drastically and there was a mad scramble for African artifacts and a Masai backdrop, while a studio shoot was then set up in downtown Sydney Central with a different model. The Africa issue managed to make it to print, but we were reminded about the cost by our editorial business manager for years afterwards, even if we hadn’t personally been involved.

The sheer unpredictability of location trips and the personalities of the chosen crew certainly provided a myriad of dramas. In Greece, fashion editor Sandra Hirsh learned this the hard way when her model, a rising star who had won an international modeling competition from Germany, took a shine to the photographer’s assistant. It happened a lot. Photographers’ assistants are, generally speaking, always really hot, and they are more appealing than the photographer because they don’t get cross with you. Strangely, the photographer’s assistant is often better looking than the male model. They’re not so model-y. Apparently, after an early team dinner, while Sandra thought everyone was safely tucked up in bed, the model and the assistant went for a post-Retsina spin on a motorcycle and had an accident on gravel. The poor girl’s face was split open, and in the midst of her agent threatening to sue, the runner-up in the modeling contest was quickly dispatched.

There were different problems on the idyllic Fijian island of Vatulele, where I joined Judith as assistant and travel writer. The photographer was Richard Bailey, a handsome, charming young surfer from the northern beaches who would continue to work exclusively for
Vogue Australia
for more than two decades, until his passing from cancer in 2010. Everything was postcard perfect—pale blue water, a palm-fringed beach with pristine white sands, glorious weather, the whole cliché. The model arrived from the United States, a gamine beauty who resembled a young Audrey Hepburn. We had trunkloads of clothes; we were poised for a classic
Vogue
shoot. What could go wrong?

After an afternoon reconnaissance we all met for dinner, and noticed the model seemed unusually quiet. Almost melancholy. We put it down to the long flights and regrouped the next morning. Richard started to shoot and she became more and more sad. She wouldn’t smile and was on the brink of tears the whole time. At one point, standing knee-deep in the azure ocean, dressed in a sarong and gigantic straw hat and looking like a divine aquatic goddess, she burst into sobs. Richard was so frustrated. We called her agency in New York to ask what the hell was going on. There’s nothing quite like being told by a supercilious model booker, when you are on a remote island in the Pacific and expected to produce an entire summer issue, that the model they sent you “has had a very troubled upbringing. She’s got a lot of issues. And she hates modeling.”

None of us were without sympathy but we all had a job to do, and you never know whether the story you are getting is straight. For all we knew, the real story was that she missed her boyfriend. I worked with a model once who cried for the entire day because her cat had died. We had to keep redoing her makeup. I must admit I’m
not a cat person, but by all accounts it had expired two days before. How long is one expected to put up with cat grief?

Given that a large amount of pages were expected from the Vatulele trip, Judith creatively improvised and came up with a tenuous narrative about the model meeting someone called Captain Jack (which just so happened to be Richard’s handsome and amiable assistant Mike, again proving the theory that photographers’ assistants are far more useful than male models), so we shot him as much as humanly possible to pad the story out. The narrative of a shoot is always discussed and decided beforehand, but a professional team has to roll with the punches. Our shoot had moved from ethereal tropic nymph emerges from the crystalline water to
South Pacific: The Musical
. Just our luck, heavy tropical rain arrived and the skies were leaden for days, so we all began having tequila slammers at 3 p.m. just to get through. Despite the series of challenges, the photographs turned out beautifully.

While we loved to promote Australian models, we also needed variety. We were shooting at least four main-page stories per issue, and readers tired quickly of seeing the same models too frequently. Given that
Vogue Australia
was a long way off the global fashion radar back then, we could not simply pick up the phone and book the top models in the world, like Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford. If we were able to secure girls of that level it was through long and complex negotiations, usually with a third party that had a vested interest, like a fashion or beauty advertiser. Given these parameters, we were often using girls who were very young and just starting out, or in some cases, a few who were a little bit past their prime. That meant in their late twenties. The ageism is not quite so strict now.

Tory and I once made a reasonably disastrous trip to Los Angeles to produce two shoots: the first with a very top model, who, truth be told, had probably slipped a peg or two down the ladder of fame. When she
arrived at the sumptuous Beverly Hills Peninsula Hotel where we were staying, she clearly felt there were better things she could be doing. By the end of the day, I would have suggested retirement.

Three hours late for a call time of 8 a.m., she sauntered into the suite where we had all the fashion and accessories laid out for her to try on, got into the bed, picked up the phone and dialed room service nachos. Tory and I nearly fainted. We were never, ever allowed to order room service on trips; it was a no-no, except in extreme circumstances, say, if you had lost the use of your legs. We had very rigid rules: no mini bar, no personal laundry, no personal telephone calls, no alcohol. The budgets for food were frugal to say the least. It was common at dinners for the photographers’ assistants to order three courses, given they were usually strapping young men and they’d been working hard all day. When this happened, it generally followed that Tory and I would stare at each other with barely suppressed panic and then say airily, “Oh, I think I’ll just have a salad,” so we could keep the bill down. It wasn’t worth the torture we would endure from Patricia Watson, the business manager, when we got back. Tory could survive for days on Diet Coke.

Back to our pensioner/model, who then decided to chain-smoke cigarettes and refused to put them out while we tried on clothes. In between shots she would return to the bed and spill corn chips all over the 1,000-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets. She was as animated and engaged as a basket of laundry. Eventually we brought in a male model who was so insanely buff that she brightened up enough to take a decent picture, but all we wanted to do was to pour the (uneaten as it turned out) nachos over Nana’s head, as I had taken to calling her.

For the next shoot we had booked a sixteen-year-old girl who was purportedly the agency’s next big thing. We had seen her model card and some amateur test shots, and she certainly had something: pouty,
blonde and innocent. She and her mother met us at the hotel and we were dismayed to see the first problem. She had thick ankles. Either we had not seen a head-to-toe shot, or it had been doctored. Fashion editors are fanatical about girls having good legs. Even Cyd Charisse probably would have struggled to get through at a
Vogue
casting.

But what was truly distressing was that it became obvious the women were in dire financial straits. Her mother had driven from we weren’t sure where, and we noticed that her beaten-up sedan was full of personal possessions. They were living in the car. The girl ordered chili for lunch and was surprised at how it tasted, because she told us she had only ever had it from a can. We didn’t have the budget to put them up for more than one night, but it was clear the mother saw her daughter’s burgeoning career as their ticket out of poverty. Sadly, that was unlikely to happen because her calves weren’t ever going to be slim enough.

Apart from the various fashion trips I had managed to insinuate myself into, there were also opportunities for travel that related to beauty shoots and stories. Fortunately for me, Karin did not like to travel excessively, while I on the other hand was willing to hang onto the wing of a plane, especially if it meant going to the United States.

In 1992, a press trip or “junket” to San Francisco had been offered to
Vogue
, and Nancy decided that I could take the trip, and then fly on to New York to do two beauty shoots, which would hopefully also produce two covers. I was nervous, but ecstatic. Thirty years old and my first trip to America. Business-class. I remember literally skipping across Rushcutters Bay Park that night I was so happy. I’d never been on a press junket before, and I quickly learned an irrefutable fact—there will always be one major dickhead in the party who will ruin the entire experience for you.

On this particular occasion it was a newspaper journalist, who wasn’t even a travel writer. I suspect his editor had given him the trip to
get him out of the office and give the rest of the staff a break from his inane rambling. He commenced proceedings by getting totally wasted in the departure lounge, topping himself up to almost-legless status once we were in the air. He was so smashed by the time we lined up at customs and immigration in the United States, he started swaying, swearing and complaining about American imperialism at the top of his voice. Always a sensible call in the States.

The debonair PR representative who was accompanying our group was mortified and, I sensed, ready to put him on the first plane back, but unfortunately he remained with us for the four days we spent in San Francisco. His crowning achievement came on the last night when we were dining at one of the city’s finest establishments, and the very famous chef came out specially to run through the menu with us, dish by dish. As he finished the intricate explanations, the moron took a breath and said, “Yeah, but do you have any spaghetti?” waiting for the huge laughs that surprisingly did not spill from our clenched jaws. From then on I vowed I would avoid junkets at all costs, but at times I have been obliged to join them. And there would usually be someone I wanted to strangle.

From San Francisco I continued on to New York, and arrived at LaGuardia late at night, laden with suitcases. The very chi chi Mark Hotel had just opened uptown, and I checked into the vast presidential suite on the top floor, which had glittering views all the way downtown. There was jazz playing on the brand-new CD player. I was in heaven. For the umpteenth time in my career at
Vogue
, I took a minute to appreciate how privileged I was.

The phone rang. It was the general manager of the hotel. Would I care to have dinner the following night? The writer Paul Theroux would be joining us. I nearly wept when I had to decline because I was expected at a perfume launch. It is something we were all taught
as juniors. You never blew something off because you got a better offer.
Vogue
staff have always been expected to attend everything they are invited to, no excuses. That is your job, first and foremost. I have seen other journalists throughout the years be incredibly cavalier with their invitations and appointments and it has always infuriated me. The invitations come because of the job, not because you’re so special.

BOOK: The Vogue Factor: The Inside Story of Fashion's Most Illustrious Magazine
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