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British model Louise Donegan didn’t aspire to be a model. She was studying art and had a place at University at The Surrey Institute of Art and Design for radio journalism. However, at age 15, her plans changed dramatically one night when she was scouted by a London-based agency. At first, she was reluctant because she wanted to finish her education, but she decided to postpone college to give modeling a try. Her career quickly took off. She has appeared on the cover of French Marie Claire and worked for brands such as Marc by Marc Jacobs, L’Oreal and Oil of Olay.
As a very young person who was thrown into an adult world, Donegan was a fast learner. Having traveled as a child, she already had a good grasp of foreign languages. Yet she soon learned that many modeling gigs didn’t pay or paid “in trade” (payment in clothes, not cash), and she struggled to cover her expenses.
“For a long time it was difficult for me to work for free because I couldn’t afford it. I had many other part time jobs, most of which would pay about $40 a day. When you don’t have any money, the difference between doing an editorial shoot for free and waiting tables for a small amount of money is huge.”
Simply put, she said, “A pretty picture doesn’t pay the bills.”
Like many other models who work internationally, she also found other unforeseen aspects of the modeling business to be challenging.
“There is the self-employed international worker aspect: Paying your taxes in EVERY country, [obtaining a] working visa in USA, maintaining good relationships with all of your agencies around the world, making sure you get paid for jobs in the past, retrieving money when it hasn’t been paid.”
Donegan advises aspiring models to seek the help of a good lawyer and accountant before entering into an agreement with an agency. “You will have to sign contracts in many different places, so don’t sign anything that you’ll wish you could un-sign.”
Donegan expresses concern over one-sided contracts and lack of financial transparency. “Everything is stacked in favor of the agency,” she said, noting that the agency can drop the model at any time without notice, there is no regulation governing when the model must be paid, and the model must pay the agency for charges to her agency account that may exceed her earnings and lead to debt.
“How is it that in this day and age, I don’t know how much money I have in my account at the agency, unless I call or email and ask for a statement, which will come the day after tomorrow? But I do know exactly what models and agents had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner because it’s on Instagram.”
She suggests a modern, digitized structure that would increase transparency at agencies and, in turn, improve models’ knowledge and control over their schedules and finances. She considers how such a platform could provide models “our balance in real time on one page, our chart in real time on another, my portfolio on another, flights I have coming up, when an ad I shot last month will be released, when the next copy of that magazine I just shot an editorial for will be out.” The current lack of transparency at agencies, she feels, leads to a power imbalance. “Everything in our industry, as it is, is set up to take a lot of the power away from the girls.”
Donegan describes modeling as a career that does not happen overnight and that takes persistence. “Being a model is about building a career and a global network over a period of time. Building a career takes diligence and commitment.”
She also explains how working as a model isn’t like working a 9-5 job.
“When the working day is done, there are still things a model has to do that, if I were working in an office, for example, I would not have to bother with. I have to eat healthy food, exercise, maintain a good skincare routine, maintain good personal grooming, and style myself in a way that will mean clients will book me. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
In fact, Donegan takes health and fitness very seriously, not just for herself, but also for others. A triathlete, she just competed in the NYC Triathlon and raised money for a cancer charity. She hopes, “that the money and awareness I raised helps people and their families receive better treatment, have a better quality of life, and saves lives in the future.”
As for what it takes to be a successful model, she says self-awareness, a thick skin, social media savvy, and developing a portfolio are all key.
“There are so many aspects to being a good model. You have to be good at posing, have a lot of confidence, not be bashful or a prude. You will have to get changed in public places in front of a bunch of strangers who probably don’t speak your language. There is the social media aspect and presenting yourself in a particular way online. Then there’s maintaining your portfolio so that you are always current and have recent pictures that are relevant to the work you are doing.”
Donegan is refreshingly candid about the inner workings of the industry—an industry that has given her so much and that she wants to improve. Not only does she reveal the power imbalances that need to be addressed; in hindsight, she also sees possible solutions for how to promote fairness and transparency in the industry. Thus, it seems fitting that now, through her modeling work, Donegan has the money and a bit of spare time to study the art of making and restoring stained glass—objects that bring both beauty and clarity. “It gives me enormous pleasure to do so.”
—> Article originally published by the Model Alliance
By EMILY SANDBERG
The world of fashion and beauty brand marketing has changed from billboards to Instagram ads, and making the cut can be difficult.
You need to be everywhere, all at once. Without being seen, you’ve missed the mark.
I’m going to introduce major social media marketing contenders who offer their own unique take on the stylish social media solution.
You’re going to need inspiration for your initiatives, and what better way to learn and grow, than to see how the pro’s walk the walk, and talk the talk?
Glossier has been taking the world by storm with their unforgettable Facebook video advertisements. They know their audience, know their product, and know what videos get the views.
Glossier got their start with Into The Gloss. As beauty editors, they’ve tried everything–what worked and what didn’t. With that knowledge and experience under their belt, they made Glossier.
“The first ingredient of Glossier makeup is you. It’s makeup you wear, not makeup that wears you.”
That unique value proposition alone engages consumers in a sea of loud and bright, with something more subtle. Their fresh-faced, natural, pastel pink, dewy aesthetic is on-brand and on-point. They maintain the same consistency across their website, Instagram account, Facebook page, and Twitter page.
With their most highly viewed Youtube video clocking in at 1.5 million views, their Facebook page offering an astounding 163k likes, their Twitter page slaying at 48k followers, and their Instagram presence dominating at 851k, it’s easy to see that Glossier is taking the social media world by storm.
By maintaining a consistent brand-feel and tone–and having great products–Glossier remains a cut above the competition.
Zara remains a staple of fashionistas everywhere. With their high fashion appeal, and ready-to-wear prices, the fashion giant maintains peak form across all social outlets.
Zara is a Spanish clothing and accessories retailer based in Arteixo, Galicia. The company was founded in 1975 by Amancio Ortega and Rosalía Mera. It is the main brand of the Inditex group, the world’s largest apparel retailer.
Zara is everywhere you look, and everything their customers want to be. They provide fashion-forward aesthetics, and rely on imagery over text to sell their stylish fashion lifestyle brand.
The landing page of their official website relies on no gimmicks. Just you, the look, your language and location. Zara speaks for itself.
Their classically cool, experimental Instagram account allows a peek into new design trends. With typography playing a key role, and video pushing their brand-voice forward, Zara’s Instagram presence hits new heights with over 23 million fans.
Zara’s Twitter profile nets them a staggering 1.28 million followers. And we can clearly see from the picture below that they carry forward their aesthetic vision across all their platforms.
Astounding us at over 26 million fans on their Facebook page, Zara knows how to command a following. They even employ a unique tactic by featuring a video as their Facebook header image. Something that is rarely seen, and even more rare–done well.
Zara knows that moving pictures pull people in. And again, we see that they carry their website’s main aesthetic across every platform.
With consistency, video, and an image-first social media marketing strategy, it’s clear that Zara comes out on top.
3. MAN REPELLER
Man Repeller offers a different take on fashion, brand, and style. It’s your premier place for style, life, and fashion advice. Man Repeller delivers on content, and delivers on aesthetic.
Originally a blogging platform, Man Repeller has branched out into working with Neiman Marcus and Miu Miu. They feature sales in their email newsletters and their shop page, garnering exposure for other brands with their large reader-base.
Man Repeller’s eclectic style has netted them 1.9 million followers on Instagram alone. Their content-centric presence brings in 387k fans on Twitter, and 339k likes on Facebook.
Their massive content-focused, and aesthetic fueled branding choices bring big numbers to major fashion retailers. Man Repeller promotes products throughout their website, with quirky, cheeky opinion pieces.
Certainly a brand to watch, Man Repeller relies heavily on writing. This is where they shine most. Paired with great aesthetics, Man Repeller truly shines above the rest.
ASOS owns the social media style sphere with fashion and beauty for both men and women. Their aesthetics update constantly, but they maintain their playful, multifaceted face across all social channels.
Asos.com is a British online fashion and beauty store. Primarily aimed at young adults, Asos sells over 850 brands as well as its own range of clothing and accessories.
Your one stop shop for everything fashion, ASOS pulls in 6.5 million followers on their Instagram account. ASOS is cheeky, quirky, and unafraid of truly unique style choices. They define trends and defy stereotypes. And their audience loves them for it.
Multicultural and stylish as all hell, ASOS’ landing page features people of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. They have great fashion finds for everyone, and they’re loud and proud about their variety.
With 5 million fans on Facebook alone, ASOS knows how to engage their consumers. They also employ a video as their header image, like Zara. A new, lush, enticing trend that stands out amongst the crowd of flat headers.
As for Twitter, ASOS carries over their Instagram aesthetic with dark, saturated color. Their followers love it, as shown by the 1.05 million fans they have on Twitter, alone.
They also support humanitarian efforts, which shows a softer side to the brand behemoth.
By tapping into their greatest strengths–variety, choice, aesthetic, and authenticity–ASOS wins with social media marketing. By supporting others, ASOS is a brand worth buying, and a brand worth watching.
Aerie is one of the most celebrated brands on social media. Supporting body-positivity and diversity, Aerie has a roster of beautiful models from all walks of life. They’ve proven that socially conscious is the way to go on social media.
Aerie, stylized as aerie, is a lingerie retailer and intimate apparel sub-brand owned by American Eagle Outfitters. In addition to lingerie such as a wide variety of bras and other undergarments, the aerie line also sells dormwear, active apparel, loungewear, accessories and sleepwear. They have a multitude of sizing options.
But that doesn’t begin to explain the impact that Aerie has had on social media. Not even close.
Aerie’s Instagram presence has 753k dedicated followers and counting. And with good reason. Their body-positive and diverse approach to lingerie and other garments has gained critical and national acclaim.
“Aerie Real” is a body image campaign that was launched by aerie in spring 2014. AEO released news that it was going to discontinue using supermodels and digitally retouching its models to encourage positive self-image.
The #aeriereal hashtag was created as a result of this campaign, and the campaign alone increased profits for the company by 20%. The hashtag is still being used to this day, even though the campaign was released in 2014.
As part of this campaign, aerie became the first national retailer to sponsor the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
Social consciousness goes a long way to brand visibility. Aerie did it right, and continues to reap the benefit of improving the body image of women everywhere, and increasing exposure with every tweet.
With their Twitter following at 105k, and their Facebook page at almost 2 million fans, Aerie knows just how important social media is for a fashion brand’s exposure.
And they know that women of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities want comfortable, affordable lingerie and fashion choices.
These 5 fashion and beauty brands slay the social media competition in social media style. Their examples of excellence can help you get started on your own stylish social media journey.
But what about real-life tips, tricks, tactics and strategies? You’ll have to stay tuned for my next installment, “7 Unique Social Media Strategies to Slay Fashion Marketing”, to find out more.
also published in TWICE SOCIAL’s blog. #SUPERMODELBLOGGER
Why Hartje Andresen & The Model Mafia Think the Fashion Industry Needs to Take a Stand on Sustainability
BY LAUREL PINSON (via Glamour.com)
More than 30 models took a bus ride to Washington, D.C., to participate in the People’s Climate March, an enormous rally that brought thousands into the sweltering heat to draw attention to issues around jobs, justice, and climate change. The group was part of the “Model Mafia,” a community of models who are eager to use their personal platforms (and their collective power) to encourage sustainability in the fashion industry and beyond.
While “fashion” and “climate change” might not be two things you’d put together, these models would beg to differ. In fact, they think the industry is teetering on the brink of self-immolation unless they start embracing more sustainable practices—and that fashion can set an example for other industries to follow. Sustainability has been a buzzword in the industry for some time but has yet to make the leap into standard practice or formalized regulations. Truth: Fashion is the second largest industrial polluter, second only to oil. These models want to change that.
The women assembled to caravan down to D.C. were true global citizens—people born in one country who have made any number of cities their home. As model Renee Peters stressed over email, “Models are representative of so many different cultures, ethnicities, and countries, as most travel all over the world for work. They also are representative of a vast range of socioeconomic classes, from their childhood upbringing.”
Top model Cameron Russell spoke to Glamour about what brought this group together and why climate change is a truly intersectional issue. And several of the Model Mafia offered their perspectives too.
Glamour: How did this all come together? How did you end up on a bus heading to D.C. with more than 30 models?
Cameron Russell: The women who came are part of a larger group called the Model Mafia, which is a group of models that have organized meet-ups to hang out and to discuss activism inside the fashion industry, as well as career development, friendship, and support. And when the People’s Climate March came into my calendar view, I emailed the group, and the response was enormous. I think we have a chain of 50 or 60 replies saying yes. On Tuesday of last week, we held this wonderful sign painting/teach-in where five different women from the group spoke about climate change and the way it intersects with the issues that they care about. One of the reasons I helped set up this group was I wanted to build a container for our industry to organize and help make visible all these model leaders that I knew of personally in some cases and lots I didn’t know. I actually saw a lot of models and a lot of women who were attracted to modeling because they had something they wanted to say, and it was fast access to media and a network and all the things it provides. On Tuesday this woman Hawa Hassan spoke, and she’s a Somali American woman who immigrated here, and she talked about how climate refugees and how climate change is an immigration crisis. (Hassan followed up over email with her own insight on the matter, writing, “According to UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, the number of displaced people is now at its highest ever, even more than after World War II. And in the next 20 to 30 years, there’s no question that tens of millions of people—some estimates go up to one billion—will be displaced by drought and other effects from climate change. The term ‘climate refugee’ isn’t officially accepted yet, but soon it will be unavoidable.”)
Ebonee Davis has given a TedTalk on race in the industry, and she talked about the intersection of racial justice and climate change and how it is just as essential to solving the climate crisis as it is to addressing immigration, because frontline communities are largely communities of color. In the United States, people of color and African Americans are disproportionately affected by climate change and have also been on the forefront of the environmental justice movement prior to the climate movement. (Davis followed up via email with additional details on this issue, writing: “Most people think of global warming when they hear the phrase ‘climate change, but in reality climate change presents itself in many ways. Flint, Michigan’s water crisis and Dakota Access Pipeline are examples of how unsustainable manufacturing practices and irresponsible building can profoundly affect the earth and its inhabitants. In both of these cases, and many others, communities of color are the most vulnerable.”) And then there’s Renee Peters, who has been doing sustainable fashion work, and she spoke about sustainability in fashion. Our industry is one of the largest industrial polluters in the world and is responsible for somewhere around 10 percent of carbon emissions. And there are so many ways that we can advocate and make change within our own industry that will really significantly help solve them and move us to a sustainable future.
I think everyone asks, “Why go to a march? Are marches useful for anything?” And my personal way into this is thinking that this is an opportunity for us to build our political capital in this model group…. Anyway, that’s a long-winded answer.
Glamour: No, it’s actually perfect. The thing that I find so interesting about your group—and the Model Mafia broadly—is that you are putting climate change into your sights in a very intersectional way. I think models are the ultimate global citizens in terms of influencers, in a way. They are perceived by the layman to be these real jet-set characters, whether they are a person that is traveling to Milan for Fashion Week or not. It’s so interesting that you guys would band together to address something that really is global and is border- or boundary-less.
CR: I think this group has been really intersectional—and this was very intentional when we founded it. With models there’s a very “winner take all” dynamic where one in 1,000 or one in 2,000 girls hits the jackpot, and everybody else works their ass off hoping that will happen. And one of the really beautiful things [about this group] is organizing in that community and not organizing the way that we’re organized backstage at a show, where you see the same 30 girls over and over, or organized at a shoot, where you see the same women that are trending and maybe a couple new faces. Organizing it really by putting out a call to all women who understand themselves to be models has attracted a very diverse set along all lines. I think one of the most powerful parts of this group is that we can be in solidarity with each other among very, very different issues.
Glamour: So these aren’t all American models—and they’re also models at varying stages of their career.
CR: They’re not all supermodels; they’re not all going to be supermodels, but they are women who work in an industry that isn’t clean and who have a unique set of skills when they’re together. This isn’t necessarily really because everyone in this group is a supermodel. It’s because we have a shared interest and we have some shared skills and we’re in an industry that we want to push for them to change.
Glamour: What do you think is the number-one thing that fashion should turn its attention to in making change here? I’m sure there’s a long list, but where would you start?
CR: I think there are a couple of different ways that we can address this. We know that industries are going to have to self-regulate in order to address climate change. And the fashion industry—because it’s a big contributor, for one, but also because it’s so public—through self-regulation can serve as a model for other industries. It’s an industry really based on consumerism, so we’re going to have to change some of the fundamental ways that we operate. I think large commitments, industrywise, around sustainability would be very powerful. But I also understand that sustainability isn’t just about “Do we use organic cotton?” or “Do we produce fewer garments?” It’s also addressing a whole host of issues that I think our industry is also really well poised to address.
Glamour: These are the same issues I know the women’s rights movement often discusses—that once you start unraveling one thread, it’s really about so many different things stuck together. But I do think it’s interesting to think about fashion as an industry that’s more poised to effect change than other industries.
CR: I wouldn’t say that we’re necessarily more poised than other industries to bring change; I just think we see what we’re uniquely poised to address many of these issues.
On a lighter note, one thing I’ve been thinking about recently is…I don’t know if you ever went to Blockbuster, the home video rental store?
CR: So I remember going to Blockbuster one day when, like, the Internet had arrived, and I was like, “Oh no, you guys, your time is so limited.” And they just didn’t adapt, and it was this really slow, painful death. There were discount bins of DVDs being sold, and the price just went down and down: $7.99, then $2.99, then free. And then they just closed. I feel like fashion is at this moment where we’re like, “We’re not going to be able to keep doing this. The centerpiece of our existence cannot be selling trash.” The reason that all of us are here is not to create and sell $5 T-shirts. The reason that all of us are here is because we love making culture and we are creative and we love the community. And all of those things are 100 percent sustainable and renewable. And that’s where our focus has to be.
This interview has been condensed.
Photos by Gabriela Celeste
When you hear the name William Helburn, it will probably not mean anything to you. Unless you were part of the advertising industry in the Mad Men era or a fashion insider, Bill (as friends and colleagues call him) would have flown under your radar. Contemporary to other greats like Richard Avedon, Lilian Bassman, and Irving Penn, Mr. Helburn’s career started right after the war. Mr. Helburn shot faces like Dovima, Dorian Leigh and Jean Patchett for various publications including Harper’s Bazaar and Time Magazine. In the book Seventh and Madison (Thames & Hudson) the reader is introduced to this essential character of a long-gone era, in which the United States lived what was probably the most exciting and innovative time in advertising.
This photographer never spent much time building an editorial brand. “I never made a point to put my name under my pictures; I was working mainly in advertising, and unlike magazine fashion shoots, you never get credit for that work,” Bill explains with no regrets. “I worked a lot, I was successful, people fancied me, and I made a lot of money.”
Mr. Helburn didn’t care about branding himself, so why suddenly have a retrospective of his work at the peak of his 90 years of age? “I have no idea, this is such a nuisance!” he laughs, “these people who followed my work, approached me and said they were interested in what I created and stated that they felt the world should know who I am.” Bill agreed with the proposition but was skeptical they would be able to put a book together with the little material he had saved over the years. “I threw away three-quarters of the work I did, anything that wasn’t approved [to run] went to the trash, I didn’t know people were gonna come back and make a book about me.”
What Robert and Lois Lilly (authors of the book) saw, was the indelible mark this photographer had left in the advertising industry. Helburn was making images that were outside the box and popped from the pages of the magazines and billboards, bringing new excitement to the ads he was hired to shoot. He was the only advertising photographer who was as trendy as the fashion photographers, roaming the world with top models and celebrities and putting them in new and unexpected situations for the sake of selling a product differently.
Never before would a fashion photographer shoot a car advertisement, and that’s exactly what Bill did. “I made it more enjoyable. I wasn’t showing the engine like most ads were. I had a model in the picture, and I made that car sexy.” And Bill gets excited every time he is invited to talk about his work. “I made advertising a little more fashionable. They would give me layouts, and I’d shoot that, but then I’d also do what I wanted to do and more often than not they’d pick my idea over the layout.” That was how models ended up with cruise ships in their hair, standing atop street signs or naked in the middle of a snowstorm. Shock value was something this artist knew well.
In times when the world talks endlessly about new media and the end of the printed matter, it’s valid to wonder what made such a successful photographer change from shooting stills to moving image. Eventually, Mr. Helburn saw the expansion of the television as a new media and moved on to shoot commercials. “That was the way the world was going, advertising was spending more money on TV, so I started doing that,” explains Bill. And he did that from the 80s up until the early 90s when he finally retired to enjoy his success and spend time with the family.
For someone who seemed so passionate about his work, one is left wondering if he keeps up with new advertising campaigns and magazines. The answer comes as quickly as the click of a shutter. “I couldn’t care less; I don’t keep track of it at all, I just want to enjoy life!”. And that he does, with no regrets, only happy memories. “Doing this book… it’s rewarding, they rediscovered me,” concludes the master.
One of my assignments on fourth grade was to read a book about a girl who traveled abroad on an exchange student program. This was a thoroughly engaging tale of chasing independence, dealing with language barrier, new cultures and experiencing feeling homesick for the first time. After the class had read the book and turned in the essays, the school arranged for the author to come in to give a lecture. The girl was probably no more than ten years our senior and had attended our school. I had a transcendental experience, it was the first time I had met someone who had actually left home and gone some place else. Everything started to make sense to me. Everything, but the idea of feeling homesick.
“Why would she be crying just because she wasn’t home?” I didn’t get it. To me, getting out should feel more like a blessing than a curse. There was nothing wrong with my family or my upbringing, but I felt a longing for life abroad ever since I can remember. It made no sense and I could not explain it, I only knew how I felt.
A few years later, when I was eighteen, I finally got my first opportunity to go somewhere. I didn’t exactly make it out of Brazil but I was moving from Porto Alegre to São Paulo, which was significant. I was the first in my family to take such a big step and one of my first friends to go anywhere, for good. Think of it as moving from Charleston to New York. It was huge!
I remember dealing with models who were very young (but not much younger than I was), most of them between 14 and 16 years old. Many girls adjusted well to the life in the biggest metropolis of Brazil, pounding the pavement trying to make it in the world of modeling. A few others however, had terrible bouts of depression and loneliness and broke down quickly. Every now and then a girl would come into the office crying and desperate to get on the phone with her mother, just because she missed her parents or felt overwhelmed by the size of the city. I couldn’t relate with that feeling. I never cried, I never felt separated, I never felt distant. I was happy. What could be better than pursuing a career in one of the best modeling agencies in the world?
The first few months in my new city went by smoothly. I had to travel down south a couple of times to gather more of my belongings, so I still maintained a fairly close connection with my family. I didn’t have a place of my own, I was couch surfing with a friend of a friend until I figured things out. The distance from where I was staying to work was enormous. I had to take two buses and the journey could last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, and that’s not counting the late nights. The neighborhood was not only dangerous but the buses took longer than usual, as they ran more infrequently. As the challenges grew I began to understand, to a small degree, what some of those girls might have felt too.
Many years have passed since those first months in Sao Paulo. I now live in New York and find myself experiencing unique layers of emotional pain. It’s been three years since the last time I’ve been home. A series of events kept me from making the trip back from New York, including a break up, a green card and a new apartment. Life happened and before I knew it I found myself feeling anxious and irritable. I became an emotional wreck. I watch cartoons and I cry, the Lipitor commercials come on TV and I cry, I listen to music and I cry, heck, even Homeland has been making me cry. I have become a running joke among the people who know me.
I send Christmas cards with corny pictures of me and my cat, I write letters, I FaceTime. I used to denounce the holidays; now I love them. These days I celebrate tradition, and all I long for is a home of my own. For this person, who always believed in being independent and in belonging to the world, it’s quite a change. Could I be homesick?
Through a very painful process of shedding layers of pride and old resentments I believe I finally got to a point where I am able to accept my roots for what they are. I can finally admit that indeed I do miss home and all the drama that can be attached to it. My life may not be in the south of Brazil, but that doesn’t mean I have to abandon it all behind.
I’ve grown to admire and enjoy some of the traditions from my home country and state. I am proud of our beautiful sunsets, the tree-lined streets, the quality of life, the cultural vain that beats stronger than in most parts of that country. I celebrate the gaucho culture, our funny musical accent and even our orange (or is it red?) taxi cabs.
Being home is an opportunity to remember, recharge and reconnect. Going back gives me the chance to look at how far I’ve come and how capable I am of chasing dreams and goals that sometimes feel unsurmountable. When I’m homesick I realize that all those things were possible because of where I came from. The fact that I came from a reality so distant from the goals I was looking to achieve made me even more resilient. Home may be difficult, but it’s unlike any other place I’ve been to. Home is provincial, but it’s where some of my most special memories and connections are. As I age and experience life on life’s terms, I also realize that home is always going to be the place I turn to for reference and support, no matter where I end up.
In my first foray into the world of Folsom Street East (the largest gay block party on the East Coast) I didn’t know what to expect. A friend of mine had asked me to go with him. Upon our arrival, one of the first tents we encountered was of the Visual AIDS — an organization that utilizes art to provoke dialogue and supports HIV+ artists. A (very) handsome semi-naked man greeted us cheerfully and invited us to support the cause; “Do you want to take a polaroid for Benjamin’s project?” I was in for the thrill of the ride and had promised myself I would let whatever happened, happen. We signed a waiver (which we didn’t read) and as we headed down the cue my friend started stripping down. Was there a memo I never got? We were in the middle of the street in broad daylight.
Being naked in public was basically my worst fear, coming to life. “well, if you can go surfing, you can get naked in front of hundreds of people, it’ll be a nice test!” — I figured. I took my clothes off, leaving on only the skimpy jockstraps I was wearing. Onlookers immediately complimented me for keeping it classic and not branching out with one of those more recent colorful designs. “wow, the real sports jock, that’s hot!” Parents and their young children walked by as I laid my clothes down on the foldable table; it was all vonnegutesque.
I had never experienced such freedom. I had never felt so proud about myself, my sexuality and my body, no matter how imperfect it is. Believe me, I was still petrified but somehow, it clicked. I was finally able to accept my body image for what it is. I felt I could stop comparing myself to all the hot bodies I see in the gym, or the porn stars in the movies that everyone watches, but no one cares to admit. I felt like one of them, not apart from them. There was nothing so terrible about my figure. No, I don’t have a six pack, yes there are muffin tops (perhaps from eating too many muffins) and my hair doesn’t always have the perfect wave, but that’s all me.
On my walk home I wondered: do these so to speak “hot bodies” feel 100% confident about themselves? Or do they too sometimes look at people like me and find something they would like to have? Do they also compare and despair? I thought about Nodeth Vang, a photographer who had once asked if I would pose for him. “I love your hair and how you look in your apartment” he said. I sent him a message; he was thrilled to hear from me. We set a date for our photoshoot. This was an opportunity to see myself as others see me. I wanted to discover how I looked on camera. No, I wanted to find out how I looked naked, on camera. I needed to know whether all my self-criticism was a reality or a fantasy. I will tell you that the photoshoot was one of the most exciting and sensual experiences I had ever been in. I was in love with myself and my body for the first time in my life. I was completely comfortable naked in whatever scenario imaginable.
A few weeks passed and I received an email from the artist from Folsom, Benjamin Fredrickson. I recalled he was a very sweet guy, talented too; “a real artist” I thought. His work had been shown in museums and art galleries, there was nothing gauche about it. Benjamin sent the polaroid from the fair to my friend and I. We were both happy with the result. The picture was adorable, not at all sleazy (as it could have been) and it absolutely captured our friendship and our relationship: two grown men who deeply cared for each other. In the email, he ended with “if you would like to pose for another portrait, don’t hesitate to contact”. So I did. Benjamin and I met for coffee one afternoon after work, we talked for over an hour and shared so many interests. He was definitely not a pervert, I felt safe. We set a date and time for our shoot, shook hands and went our separate ways. I couldn’t wait to contribute with him as an artist. I wanted to understand what different interpretations might arise from different shoots and artistic visions. Moreover, I wanted to feel that same thrill I’d felt before.
What happened for me that day was cathartic, I learned to let go of all the shame I had been carrying since my years as a fat kid, and just have fun. Benjamin put me in the most unexpected positions; I simply followed his lead. He told me to bend over, push my ass up, bend my legs over my head, stand up, sit down… I did it all! I felt complete serenity and connected with what those models must have felt when posing for Picasso. There is a connection that occurs, a fire that sparks in the eye of the artist and the way he thinks and interprets your beauty is so personal and unique to him. That is what I wanted to see in the film. At that moment I had no judgement; at that moment I was certain I would never feel ashamed of what I was doing. Whether those images ended in a magazine or an art show, it all made sense to me. At that moment I finally understood the difference between nudity for art and pornography. I know, this could unleash a long drawn-out conversation, but in my head it became simple and neither are bad or wrong — they simply are.
The last five years of my life have been all about self-acceptance and discovery, I’ve done things I never believed were possible. I learned surfing, I jumped from the top of a waterfall, I wrote a screenplay and I fell in love. Twice. Loving myself and my body, as it is, was probably my last threshold. I am happy to say I crossed it and will hopefully never go back again. First, I had to come out of the closet, then, I had to be accepted by my gay peers and live up to unrealistic beauty standards. Most of those standards however, lived in my head. Today all I want is to be real and happy. We are all different from each other, there is definitely room for everyone.