The train ride from Lancaster to Los Angeles was just over two hours, and I spent most of the journey triple checking I hadn’t forgotten any essentials: heels, comp cards, portfolio, pepper spray. I usually passed the time reading, or daydreaming with headphones plugged in. Always Nabokov or the Weeknd, convincing myself I possessed more maturity than my handful of years provided. I’d flash Lolita and The Great Gatsby and Fahrenheit 451, making sure my fellow passengers saw the same precocious nature all the other adults in my life did—evidence I was toeing the line between child and woman. Full freckled cheeks and long, lean legs made outsiders question whether I was sixteen or twenty-five.
Other times, I stared out the large, smudged windows. I would watch the desert turn to mountains turn to city. Pieces of rusted scrap metal sat in the same spots along the tracks, bright green weeds growing around the abandoned machinery. There was always ample time to dream of what my life could be. Would this be the casting to change everything? Would I go to New York, sign a six-figure contract?
When I was signed by an agency, just before my sixteenth birthday, the agent told my mother I had an exciting look. I was “unconventionally” pretty, “exotic” but not too much so, and youthful with a strong walk. They told me how they’d love my look in Milan, in Tokyo. I wasn’t thin enough for Paris yet but this, of course, could be fixed.
Of course, the number of girls who would make modeling a feasible career was low—probably under 5%. Realistically, I knew no matter how many unpaid shoots I participated in, no matter how many castings attended or how much weight was lost, that big break would never come—just as it didn’t for 95% of us trying for success. I didn’t pay these statistics any mind at the time because of how easy it was made to seem: that, in an instant, everything could appear just within my slender reach if I tried hard enough.
The up-and-coming photographer was a thirty-year-old in Malibu. We created a mood board together on Google docs, settling on a sunny feel with about ten different looks. My mother drove me to the house where the shoot was and held my belongings while the makeup artist painted on a full-coverage look. It was my first shoot, my first time wearing that much product. This is how adults must feel all the time. I wasn’t allowed to yawn, as warned by the agents, because we had to be enthusiastic from start to finish. Plus, it creased your foundation.
My lack of confidence was obvious in the photographs. I had devastatingly little self-esteem that dropped more every time I saw an image of myself. Those feelings worsened when posing with other models, their experience and grace a direct contrast to my naivety. Still, I remembered the nervous energy that worked through my bones the week leading up to the shoot, and I was surprised at how much fun I had.
There were a few more shoots after that, each with a different vibe. A dark, moody set of photos with a well-known photographer in a Korea Town apartment; next, a girl-next-door theme with floral swimwear and layers of gold jewelry shot by a woman in Agoura Hills. While being prepped in the makeup chair she told me not to worry about my remaining baby fat. “My daughter is signed with Ford and had those big cheeks until she was seventeen,” she said casually while sipping on a giant iced coffee, gesturing to my face as she spoke. “You just have to start hot yoga. And maybe think about going vegan. That’s what all the girls do now.”
On the drive home, my mom and I stopped at Panera for a late lunch. I ordered a baguette with my salad, and she warned me to enjoy the carbs while I could. A former model herself and the most striking woman I knew, I took her advice to heart.
I went back to the agency a few months into my career for a check in. My hair had gotten too long, I’d have to cut it. But not too short. My measurements were good, but not great. Had I been working out? Doing cardio? I was sixteen years old, 5’8, and a size zero. Listed alongside two carefully selected photos on my comp cards—thick glossy slips of photo paper handed out at castings—were my measurements. Bust-waist-hip, 30-24-34.
An agent would never tell a minor to lose weight outright. It wasn’t tasteful after the early 2000s when the runway girls, the world had agreed, had gotten too skinny. The terminology was very specific, but we knew what they really meant. Instead of lose five pounds, it was lose an inch in your hips or tone up your arms. After, the agents would look over your photos, always leaving on a positive note to keep us optimistic. They’d smile like they had a secret before sharing a casting for a major brand, or a meeting with an agent at Wilhelmina—always something to keep us coming back.
On this visit, they told me I had one of my biggest castings to date: a music video to be shot in Santa Monica for a widely known band. Filming was set for spring, and I had to arrive bikini ready. This meant waxed, on day three of a juice cleanse, and in the smallest string swimsuit I owned.
“They won’t ask,” someone at the agency whispered to me on the way out, “But if they do, you’re nineteen.”
I nodded in agreement, wide eyes always betraying the lie of my age.
LA Fashion Week is not on the radar. It’s nowhere near the level of New York or Paris, but it’s where west coast girls can get scouted by bigger agencies and practice their walks. The week before castings, I ate as little as possible without getting caught. I skipped breakfast and lunch when everyone was at work and drank large amounts of green tea to quiet my stomach when it rumbled. Dinner couldn’t be avoided, but no one tracked my portions.
Every night, I did a quiet workout on the wooden floor beside my bed. Having lived in the mountains where it frequently dropped to twenty or thirty degrees overnight, I stopped fighting my parents over the heater. Shivering, another model had once told me, burned calories, forced clenched abs. After an hour of crunches, planks, squats, push-ups, and any other silent exercise, I showered and wrapped my stomach tightly in saran wrap, determined to slip into any garment handed to me. During casting week, I rode the train back and forth for three days straight.
The castings were brutal. My heel slid out of a pair of sleek black stilettos while walking in on the first day, twisting my ankle outside the inconspicuous concrete building.
I walked on it anyway.
The process was the same for each designer. We were put into groups ranging from five to fifteen, depending on how large the collection was for the show. Some of the world’s most beautiful women were lined up in plain black tank tops and skinny jeans, teetering about on five-inch heels. Never wedges, they made your calves look fat. “No make-up” make-up applied flawlessly; their cheekbones were sharper than their fluorescently lit stares. Their lips were perfectly pouty and plump. They weighed a hundred pounds and somehow had perfect breasts. I stared enviously, trying to hide my fear of imminent rejection.
We lined up and went one at a time, handing our comp cards and portfolios to a (predominantly white and male) group seated behind a fold out table littered with photos and half-empty coffee cups. They asked our measurements, our ages, our ethnicities. I was taught to dance around the question of age unless directly prompted for an ID. I told someone, a stylist or artistic director, about being part Japanese. “Could you look more Asian?” He asked.
I requested clarification.
“I don’t know, like, squint your eyes a little or something?”
After the blank stares, if they bothered to look up at us at all, we’d walk. You had to research each brand beforehand, so you knew what kind of girl they wanted. Did you need to have some pep, some swing? Or did they purely want hangers, your body the necessary means to an end?
No matter how prepared you were, the criticism was incessant.
Too skinny, too fat, too tall, not tall enough. Your hip-to-waist ratio is all wrong. Your eyes are too close together. Your neck is short, ungraceful. Once, a man told me my fingers were distractingly bulky. I learned new ways to be insecure—things I didn’t even realize a person could notice.
With each comment, my job was to smile and nod. Yes, I am fat. Yes, I know, my boobs are very small. Thank you for your time, please keep some comp cards. No, I won’t cry when I find them in the trash later.
Meanwhile, the internet was ushering in an era of “body confidence” and fake positivity: the rise of the Instagram influencer. The Kardashian-Jenner clan promoted bright blue gummies that promised hair growth. A woman with nearly half a million followers openly laughed behind the photographer’s back when I was test shooting at a large make-up brand event. The day prior, she’d posted a lengthy anti-bullying infographic and wrote about being made fun of for her skinny legs back in middle school. Once, I made the two-hour journey to a casting only to be turned away at the door. My follower count, I was told, was far too low for anyone to take me seriously. Was I even marketing myself? Did I even have a brand established? Without sponsorships and a perfectly curated photo feed, a model is nothing but another unblemished face in the crowd.
By the end of casting week my feet were blistered from the heels. A stylist scolded me when she saw the red welling through my socks, threatening to make me pay for the cleaning if it got on the shoes.
By the end, I’d only booked one show.
I didn’t care. The excitement was overwhelming. When I’d gotten the email, the memory of the week vanished and all I could think of was walking. The thrill of transformation fogs the desire for self-protection. Never mind my growling stomach or my aching soles because this was going to be it—I could see flashing lights capturing my frame, and I thought, I am going to be something great.
The day of the show was chaos. Backstage consisted of huge outdoor tents set up for hair and makeup. Floodlights sat in every corner, and everyone was in a rush. The makeup artist did my face in dead silence, except to tell me, “You have very long bottom lashes.” It didn’t feel like a compliment; I apologized. She shrugged.
As my eyelids were painted, someone appeared behind me. The look required a slicked-back bun, not a hair out of place. “Stop jerking,” the makeup artist told me. “Quit moving.” The hair stylist was tugging my hair back, ripping through knots and slathering on gel.
One of the girls from my agency found some pizza and asked if I wanted a slice. An instant later, someone on a loudspeaker shouted, “PIZZA IS FOR CREW ONLY, NOT TALENT. DO NOT GIVE THE MODELS PIZZA.” She threw her slice away before anyone saw. I looked around in disbelief, poorly disguising an urge to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Then it was time to get changed.
The indoor portion of the backstage area was even more frenzied than hair and makeup had been. There wasn’t a single unoccupied spot. Everywhere there were clothes being steamed, shoes being polished, last second alterations made. The room smelled of fake mango and nicotine. House music blasted from somewhere near the stage. People gossiped about who was in the audience—a retired SNL cast member from the 80s, sitcom producers, Janice Dickinson and her permanent scowl.
Ten minutes before time, a gum-chewing stylist came with the racks of clothes to be showcased. She called our names one by one, and we held onto our hangers as the protectant plastic wrap clung to our legs. We talked about how nervous we were, how much we’d practiced our walks, the semi-famous models we’d spotted in the makeup chair across from ours.
The stylist interrupted. “Clothes on. Now please.”
Her annoyance was evident. She was popping out another piece of gum when we asked where we should change.
“What? What the fuck are you saying?” She gawked at us like we’d just asked her why the sky was blue, or where babies came from. “Here, now, just get the fucking clothes on.”
There we were, a huddle of lanky teenaged girls stripped naked in a room of people flooding in and out. We got into the clothes as fast as possible, but the flash of behind-the-scenes photos never stopped. Even the designer, who had been the sole kind person to us that day, avoided our eyes. The shoes barely fit and my chest didn’t fill the dress properly. Someone walked up to me, silently lifted the skirt, and slapped sticky nude silicon lifts onto my breasts. They stepped back to review their work, sighed heavily, and walked away without a word.
Another girl saw tears welling in my eyes and told me not to cry. “They’ll send you back to makeup, and then you’ll really be in trouble.”
A blister popped fifteen seconds before I walked. It squished with each step, the loose skin moving back and forth under my weight. Shoulders back, head straight, arms moving just slightly, float. Don’t smile, don’t make eye contact, walk like you’ve just had a lot of sex. You don’t know what that means? Okay, then walk like you’ll get fired if you don’t shut the fuck up and get on with it.
At the music video casting, where I was turned away when they asked for my ID and discovered my real age, I heard one of the casting directors describe us as baby muses. All I wanted was to live up to the name. I was deeply aware of being looked at, watched. I spoke only when spoken to, kept my responses brief and mischievous. I pretended my body was mine instead of everyone else’s, that every decision had been my own. I met club promoters who didn’t bat an eye at my youth, I blinked my long lashes slowly at grown men and pretended I wasn’t one of fifty identical looking women in any given room.
We were made to believe modeling and self-objectification were empowerment, that nothing was more feminist than profiting off our looks. Men were gawking either way; might as well make money off of it. And don’t forget to give us a 25% cut. I told myself I was becoming an adult, that pain was the only thing making me interesting. I was mature enough to handle these situations, I reasoned, because adults placed them in front of me.
The flaws in my teenage logic are clear. Pain is pain, not a lesson or a personality trait. Even now, six years removed from this brief second life, I can’t see a piece of bread without hearing a voice telling me not to eat it, can’t get dressed without seeing that my pretty-pretty feathers aren’t ruffled up enough. The clacking of heels on tile transports me to a seventeen-year old’s sense of insecurity, and a phantom heat radiates through my calves from hours of stilettos. The line between empowerment and exploitation is unknowable until you’ve crossed it.
They shoved us down the rabbit hole and buried the exit. They sent us to downtown LA, alone, told us to do whatever the photographers asked, and kept calling us “girls” until they stopped calling us altogether. We were paid in exposure and if we were anything, it was exposed: our bodies, our selves.
Sometimes I have dreams of being back in one of those nameless concrete buildings, facing rejection after rejection. There’s a girl—no doubt an amalgamation of the hopeful many I met during this time—with a baby pink Chanel purse hiding in the bathroom, mascara running down her cheeks as she pulls out a clump of freshly highlighted honey blonde hair. I’d love to say that I scoop up this girl and tell her everything is going to be okay, but that would be a lie. I jolt awake, leaving her in that cold, metallic cage, but not before she holds the clump out to me with shaking hands, like a bird offering pieces of its nest.
In the nearly empty train ride home one night during casting week, I practiced “finding my light” like the agents said I should. Chin angled up; eyes cast down, the voices of others louder than my own: the body as a failure, the face almost good enough but not quite. Always performing for an omnipresent, invisible camera, trying to look perfect for eyes no longer watching. And then the loud, squealing sound of old brakes halted my practice.
At the Glendale stop, a man in a slightly wrinkled suit sat next to me. I found my tired eyes in the window. The man was there too, blatantly looking me up and down under the fluorescents. How will I get him to leave me alone? I tightened my grip on my bag, felt for the edges of a pocketknife hidden in a side compartment, easily within reach.
Beyond the glass, the night was pitch black, flooding in behind my reflection. What will I do when I’m no longer something pleasing to look at?
Nicole Minton is a Californian writer, editor, and English MA student currently based in Las Vegas. Her work has appeared in Nevada Humanities' 2021 Las Vegas Writes anthology and the Johns Hopkins Macksey Journal. You can find her driving around to Amy Winehouse and cursing at the desert sun.