I wrote this as a letter to The Guardian in response to an article I read yesterday by Terri White. I doubt they will print it, so I thought I would share it here to see what you guys think.
Please share, I think it has some important messages:
I read your article by Terri White with some interest. I’m familiar with Terri, having been in that world and seen her around at events, but I had no idea until reading her article that she felt the same way that I did - that I had been party to a dangerous lie. I was a glamour model from 2003 and I was around for the start of the real girls boom that she mentions. I got into modelling while at university when I entered a student competition in FHM and won, thus setting a train in motion that it’s taken almost 9 years to get off of.
Glamour modelling as a concept is something that as a feminist I have never felt 100% comfortable with. I did well at modelling. I’d often get asked for advice on how to get into it and would surprise people by always advising against it. It’s not a nice world, and in reality it’s not very glamourous. I understand how it looks from the outside though, mainly because I was seduced by the perceived glamour myself. It’s called glamour modelling for a reason I guess, seeing all these self-assured, confident and sexy women on the covers of magazines and seeing the way men (and women!) reacted to them. Compared to the life I had before they seemed so unachievable and exotic.
I was not a girl who dreamed of being a model. I think I wanted to be an environmentalist if I remember correctly, or an architect… even a film director at one point. Never a model. I was very academic at school and didn’t think that I’d ever be good looking enough to be a model, so never considered it. As an insecure and quite ‘different’ girl, I had no confidence in my looks at all. I wasn’t popular. While never bullied, I’d spent most of my early teenage years being told by boys in various ways that I was disgusting and the majority of my late teens and early twenties believing every word. I’d grown up with images of women like Pamela Anderson and Carmen Electra hovering over me like overinflated adverts for Goodyear tyres. THIS was what sexy was about: tiny waists, Caramac tans, giant breasts and big blonde hair. As a very pale, awkward ginger girl with freckles, it was a look I’d never be able to aspire to in a million years. But, that didn’t stop me trying. Every day (from my teens to my mid-twenties) I would methodically cake layer upon layer of fake tan onto my ghostly skin then top it up with layers of sun shimmer body make-up to try and recreate their bronzed look. God knows why I thought it looked good as in reality I looked more like a grubby cheesy Wotsit. My friends would marvel at how my tan would come off on sheets, clothing, even walls! I spent most of my days hoping it wouldn’t rain, for fear of marbled arms and legs. Ginger people aren’t meant to be tanned. It’s not sexy. It’s taken me ten years and Christina Hendricks to realise that.
By the time I hit university my self-esteem was at all time low, which coincided - perversely - with a decision by the male population that I was actually alright. Of course, I had no idea what to do with all this new-found attention (having never had it before) and the boys didn’t know what to do with this girl who looked like she might know a thing or two about sex, but whom was actually completely inadequate. I didn’t find my first boyfriend until I was 21 (that should say it all). Despite the awkward and sometimes humiliating situations that ensued, I found that I had gotten a taste for the attention and played up to it. I created a persona (‘Pink’) that was the person that I had always wanted to be growing up; pretty, loud, sexually confident and outrageous. Basically everything that I wasn’t before. It was all an act, but as the people at university hadn’t known me before they didn’t know any better, and to many this is who I was. By being this fantasy person I could live out all the things I thought would make me sexy and attractive, so I became a cheerleader and I started modelling. Studying and all my dreams of a traditional career went out of the window. By the time I graduated I couldn’t tell the fantasy me and the real me apart.
My first attempt at getting into modelling saw me approaching a cheesy portrait studio in Norfolk to take some glamour shots. Upon arrival I was promptly locked in a studio by the vastly overweight middle-aged photographer who then attempted to ply me with alcohol (I didn’t drink) and pose me in vaguely pedophilic outfits. Terrified, I ran out of the studio crying and upon seeing the terrible photos that resulted, told myself not to try again. However, a few months later I was coerced into another (infinitely less scary) shoot in a friend’s back garden and the pictures turned out quite good so I sent them in to FHM, not expecting a reply. The next day I got a phone call from them scheduling a shoot and my modelling journey began.
I realise this has all been a bit self-indulgent so far but I think it’s important to see the thought processes that go into making a young girl want to pursue this kind of career. Attention given to those who have never had it before can become quite a toxic drug. In my experience the majority of glamour models I have met have had something to prove. Whether it be against a school bully, an abusive boyfriend or parent, or even against themselves. They want to prove that they are wanted and beautiful, possibly because they don’t get that kind of attention at home. It’s such a specific thing to do - to share what society dictates should be private with the world - and it’s something you rarely find the prettiest girl at school doing. Having been told she is beautiful all her life she doesn’t feel the need. But there is a neediness to glamour models, this need to be wanted, of always being the ugly duckling - the underdog almost - that consumes them and makes them do what they do.
I remember reading Ariel Levy’s ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs’ when it came out and feeling a bit uncomfortable as I thought about the impact of some of the things I had done. Of how I was feeding into and perpetuating a sexuality myth that affected other people, other girls. But while it made me question what I was doing, it didn’t make me stop. By that point I was too invested in the world, I couldn’t separate myself from this image I had created as a shy and nervous 15 year old. I realised that while intellectually I was against what I was doing, my moral objection was never stronger than my desire to be wanted, which was a horrible feeling. Looking back now I can see that I was trying to fill a vacuum. Without trying to get too boo hoo and quasi-psychologist about it, my parents separated when I was a child and I’d never felt very loved by either of them. My Mum worked a lot and was never home and my Dad went off and started a new family. My pursuit into glamour modelling coincided with me losing contact with my Dad for almost seven years. When we finally started speaking again I discovered I had a five year old brother with Autism that I had never met, and my sister (who I’d last seen when she was three) was now ten years old. As she got older, answering the question of what I did for a living got harder and harder as I realised the implications it could have on her life if she saw it as a positive thing. I didn’t want her to think it was cool.
Now that I’m on better terms with my family and have found a stable and loving boyfriend, my priorities have changed a lot from when I started out. I can see what I did for what it was: a cry for attention. I feel more secure in myself and I’m less likely to look outside for approval, feelings that have definitely affected my decision to leave modelling for good. It’s been a hell of an ego-blow but I think it was worth it. To be honest, I care more about what my family think about me now than some serial masturbator from Hull, which is the way it should be and probably what I was looking for all along. I want to be someone the people I love can be proud of. Most of all, I want to be a good role model for my sister.
It makes me sad to think of the high hopes my parents had for my future when they sent me away to university. The fact that modelling ended up being my career is something that caused much chagrin and disappointment in my family. They had all hoped that I would do something more intellectual, something less… public, and their unhappiness was always at the back of my mind when I started. But I comforted myself with the reasoning that I was young, “you only live once!” (that old chestnut), and my education would always be there as something to fall back on. Well, that was the plan anyway.
On the whole I did very well out of modelling. I had a long-running column within one of the lads magazines, shot for Playboy, did Page 3, even worked with some fashion photographers, but I knew I was one of the few. For every girl who made it there was a long list of also rans, and even though I was doing well I wasn’t making the kind of money I’d been lead to believe glamour models were making. For the majority of my career I was living on a basic wage of £500 a month, sometimes less. Unable to pay my rent and living expenses and unwilling to go into the murky side of things to make more, I got into a lot of debt.
People talk about female empowerment but a lot of our job was to pander. To pander to readers, editors, casting agents and embody an ideal that would change on a monthly basis. Brunettes one week, big boobs the next… we became the sum of our parts. Success was totally arbitrary and had more to do with the whims of booking agents, photographers and picture editors than how hard you worked at it. Obviously working hard and being a good model helped, but it wasn’t the be all and end all. Competition was so rife that one bad shoot or hair cut could cost you everything. I watched girl upon girl get into it only to disappear six months later. The average career of a successful glamour model is about 3-5 years, only a small percentage make it longer than that, and even then not by much.
Plus, girls who do this don’t just go away and have a quiet life afterwards. It’s not the 80s anymore. The internet has made it so their ‘little mistake’ or ‘bit of fun’ from when they were younger can now be searched on Google by potential employers and becomes very hard to make go away. Due to the competition that the Nuts-era real girls created, there is little to no money in glamour modelling. Why pay a model when a real girl will be just as popular and work for free? Girls get into it expecting money and fame yet big names in modelling are a thing of the past and the lack of money (and difficulty going back to a normal job) has pushed more girls into the seedier sides of the industry. I never did it myself, but many of the girls who wouldn’t have considered it five years ago find themselves working on the babe channels just to make ends meet, and from there it’s a slippery slope into escorting and prostitution, via a pit stop in ‘financial domination’ or pay-pigging, which has become increasing popular with models in their twilight. Having failed to find a footballer and in an endless quest to get their rent paid glamour girls are marching forth with ‘tributes’ and their Amazon wish lists trying to monetise the fans they have created by enticing them into financial slavery. I guess when your need for random stuff exceeds the money you are actually making, these things happen. Looking good is expensive, and what are these girls without their looks?
It seems models have turned to exploiting others because they are sick of being exploited themselves. But is that a good enough excuse? The law sides with photographers when it comes to copyright meaning a model’s image can be legally resold without her receiving a penny. There is no minimum wage for models, no unions, pension plans or healthcare, and girls are regularly expected to work for free. The magazines’ appetite for new girls outweighs a girl’s chance to have any kind of long-lasting career and low fees rob the average model the chance of making any money from it, despite the fact that the pictures printed may lose her her normal job. Modelling can and will damage your career prospects for the rest of your life. Girls going into it don’t see this, they see the cache, the confidence boost of extra attention, and the thrill of their friends seeing them in a magazine, but wouldn’t it be better if they were in that magazine for something more than their cup size? Why are women selling themselves so short? Giving up their careers for a flash in the pan as a sex object? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves.