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The Model - Victoria Secret

An anonymous model on life behind fashion’s velvet rope

From campaign shoots to Victoria’s Secret VIP parties, sometimes success isn’t all it might seem on the outside


A meander through a pretty-people purgatory, The Model is a four-part series of pieces written by an anonymous ex-male model. Instalments explore social media, body image, and what it’s like chasing success in an industry always hungrily in pursuit of the new.

I did a shoot with a Victoria’s Secret model once. It was my first global campaign, so it was a big day for me. I didn’t sleep much. I got out of bed early and walked downtown to Dune studios in New York. I passed commuters going to real jobs, suited guys pulling their jackets tight against cross winds. 

Photo studios tend to be cavernous white spaces, dauntingly large and reflective. The ambient light coming in through the floor to ceiling windows always seemed aspic to me. Dune looks out on the Hudson, and because I was still mostly asleep, in the fog of memory and tiredness I only have a vague sense of looking out at water, at the tugboats moving slowly in the early-morning light. But at this point, before the majority of people had arrived and the studio sat mostly empty, I can’t tell you much else about it to distinguish it from any other; all the studios seem to have blended together, in whiteness, an endless blank page. 

I was early and there were a few lighting guys setting up. I made myself a cup of tea at the catering station, where they’d set up some cold cuts and other things for breakfast. I eyed up an apple that I would eat later. I sat in a little plastic chair. And then I waited, which I was used to doing, because that is what a lot of modelling entails.

The photographer showed up and we did a quick double-cheek kiss and she went to set up the shoot. We’d shot together the day before; the shoot was three days long, one day where I was shot individually, one day where X and I would shoot, and on the final day X would be shot alone. This was a way of streamlining the shoot and keeping the costs down; X was being paid four times what I was – which was fair, as she had a few million Instagram followers she would bring with her to the campaign, against the 400-odd that I had then – and her schedule was obviously busier than mine. 

“I sat in a little plastic chair. And then I waited, which I was used to doing, because that is what a lot of modelling entails.”

Then the make-up artist arrived, along with the designer, who had come through to watch. The make-up artist was famous in his own right, and had a pretty lucrative set-up doing the make-up for various big-name celebrities who would get into petty squabbles over who could have him do their make-up should their schedules overlap. The designer whispered to me at one point – you’re very lucky, because no-one does skin like he does. 

Mr. Skin wheeled a steel suitcase over to the make-up tables – they do have those lights, in case you’re wondering – and opened it like a field-medic on a battlefield; different levels of shelves appeared, and, as he reached in, the box kept unfolding, revealing more and more layers, boxes within boxes. As the skin king, he did have an impressive array of concealers; a veritable pantone of beiges. As I watched him prepare, I could see my un-made up face in the mirror, the bags under my eyes in the harsh white light, the crease between my eyebrows, the slightly hallow pallor of my winter skin – and I smiled, because soon he would make it all disappear. 

This is when X arrived. She was the last person to arrive, but I’m not trying to call her out by saying that. X arrived almost exactly to her call time, probably two minutes early, with the kind of professional disaffection that anyone might have upon arriving at their established place of work; where they clock in every day, sit at the same desk and ignore the same people. But of course, most people aren’t about to be paid a significant five figure sum for that day of work, which would involve standing in clothes – and to be fair, occasionally bending and sitting in clothes – and they aren’t about to be fawned over by a somewhat famous fashion designer. She smiled at me on the plastic chair, didn’t remove her headphones, draped herself on a sofa off to the side and waited. 

X was, of course, exceptionally beautiful, even before make-up, despite almost certainly having recently been in another time-zone on another high-paying job. What struck me was less the objective fact that she was beautiful, which I think goes without saying for someone at her level of the modelling industry, but more that she was almost freakishly perfect – there was not a single feature of hers that you would move, not even by a millimetre. 

“What struck me was less the objective fact that she was beautiful, but more that she was almost freakishly perfect – there was not a single feature of hers that you would move, not even by a millimetre.” 

This doesn’t, to be honest, make X the most striking or beautiful person I’ve ever seen, but it does make her an almost uncanny archetype for a kind of girl-next-door-hyper-privileged-good-genes-Snow-White beauty that is basically the high-school drama-rom-com-supersonic-1950s-Good-Housekeeping-catalogue ideal of white feminine beauty. She was beautiful in the kind of utterly retrograde way in which you could see why she walked into her first casting, at the age of 14, and was immediately spotted by a casting director as being it, as in possession of the stuff, the ineffable and incalculable thing. 

She was, in other words, an uncanny representation of exactly what society has conditioned us to consider beautiful

Maybe – you could hope – she is a dying breed in an industry that is nominally diversifying, and, maybe in the future, archetypal beauty won’t cut it anymore. But alas, those days are far away and as such I was a few feet away from someone who had spun the genetic tombola and walked away a multi-millionaire. Good for her. 

X didn’t take her headphones out and would occasionally busy herself with her phone. The designer had waved at her, but was taking a call as she had walked in. When the call ended the designer walked over and hugged her and the two of them went over to the photographer and started discussing the shoot in a huddle. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, and I wondered if I was meant to go over, because, after all, I was in the shoot too. But I didn’t; I had kind of resigned myself to the idea that I was basically just there and that my role would be more mannequin than model. To be fair, considering my day rate, I was roughly the price of the handbags we were shooting. It made sense to me that I was an accessory. 

“I was roughly the price of the handbags we were shooting. It made sense to me that I was an accessory”

It was a few days before the big VS show of that year and the make-up artist would be there doing the make-up for some of the celebrities attending and performing – but he wasn’t doing the Angels. Apparently, that was someone else. I knew this because X and the make-up artist had clearly worked together a lot of times before, him being Mr. Skin, and her being in possession of a prized flesh-canvas that had often brought them together, and they were ostensibly hatching a plan whereby just before the show she would sneak out and find him in whichever dressing room he was in and he would correct whatever mistakes the other make-up artist had created, and, now in possession of the perfect contours of a luxury saloon or a topographical survey of the Grand Canyon, she would walk the runway and outshine everyone else.

I was in the seat next to them; my hair being meticulously attended to by a small Japanese lady. The conversation next to me had moved on to a matter of grave importance and solemnity. Their voices hushed, I heard X tell Mr. Skin that another famous VS model, who we will call Y, would not be getting her wings in the show. Mr. Skin genuinely put a hand over his mouth when he heard this and hugged X. Which didn’t really make a lot of sense to me, because this wasn’t even about X, who would 100% be getting her wings. It was, in a way, quite touching to see that she cared so much for her friend. It obviously also meant something to Mr Skin; the existence of an injustice in the situation that he instinctively understood, but that clearly missed me. 

What it amounted to, it became clear, was a problem with numbers. You see, there are probably 40 or so models who will walk in any VS show, and of those only around half get wings, and one gets a ridiculous diamond studded fantasy bra which costs, literally, a million dollars. There are also 12 girls who are on fixed term contracts which guarantee a set amount of money a year from VS (I heard offhandedly from someone on-set that this was $4m but I have no idea if that is true). The catch is that means that all of your other jobs are subordinate to VS – such that even if Virgil Abloh wants to fly you into space to be the first model to walk on the moon, if VS wants you at a store opening in Baltimore, you’re contractually kept down-to-earth (to the extent that this phrase can apply to a twenty-something year old who earns millions of dollars a year on the basis of their subjectively perfect genes). 

The problem, the one that had now occupied X and Mr. Skin for the best part of 30 minutes, was that Y was a contract model, i.e. one of the chosen twelve, the contractual disciples, or if you will, the true heavenly angels, and yet, she would not be receiving wings. If you don’t have wings, I mean, how can you even be sure you’re an angel?

A year later I would find myself at the VS show in Shanghai. I was not there as an angel, but I was offered a spare ticket by someone and thought it might be interesting to see. It was the biggest fashion show Shanghai had ever seen and people were going mad over tickets. My WeChat feed was full of people asking for spares or offering them for outlandish sums of money. In the local press it was said that front row tickets were going for up to $50,000 and the asking price for regular tickets was in the region of a few thousand dollars. This was obviously insane, especially when I arrived at the venue – the Mercedes Benz arena, the same one that the NBA takes over for exhibition matches – and saw a long line of Shanghai’s glitterati snaking their way along the bland road outside the venue, flanked on one side by a chain link fence and on the other by a few officious security guards, in neon vests, who did their best to stop people cutting in line.

Some of the women, their legs and arms exposed to the harsh temperatures – it was an unseasonably cold November night – huddled together shivering, their diamonds and sequins twinkling. The forward-thinkers wore thick fur coats. The unabashed got their drivers to pull up at the front of the line and strode in high-heels past the security guards. The rest just stood around, shuffling forward a few metres every so often. Behind them the arena was bathed in pink light; the words Victoria’s Secret picked out in white letters in the dead center. 

When we got in we realised that none of the tickets actually had seats marked on them. A lot of people milled around arguing about where to sit. Some people were obviously pissed because they’d paid whatever outlandish sum for a seat in a particular row or with a particular line-of-sight and now found that there was someone in their seat. Considering none of the tickets actually had designated seats written clearly on them, there was little they could do about it. Some shouted into their phones. 

The show was what the show was. From my vantage point somewhere half-way up the top-tier of the seats the models strutted gracefully down the runway, appearing to be roughly the size of pins. When one fell and the entire audience let out a gasp, I could whisper to the person I was with that I heard a pin drop, but the joke would land as awkwardly as the model. Harry Styles performed. Katy Perry did not (she couldn’t get a visa). 

The unabashed got their drivers to pull up at the front of the line and strode in high-heels past the security guards. The rest just stood around, shuffling forward a few metres every so often.

45 minutes later the show was over and that was it. The majority of the 5,000 people who had forked up all of that money would now go back outside into the cold and bundle into whatever cars came to collect them and go back to whatever homes they lived in or whatever restaurants they’d be dining in that evening and tell whoever would listen that they’d been there. And for those not in auditory range, they’d take to social media. And then a few days later the show would be broadcast to the world and again they’d see the models, this time life-size, this time in high-definition, and smile to themselves and say once again, that they were there. 

There was a small segment of that 5,000, however, whose night was just starting. They would go down the road to another exhibition centre and would flash a special wristband that they had got with their ticket which gave them access to the after party, where the models would be in attendance. And these tickets, well, on the black-market these tickets were where the real money was at. And so it was; a new level, another rung on the ladder to climb. 

The person I was with was also going to the after party, and so in we went. There was freely-flowing alcohol and a big dance floor. Occasionally you would see a six-foot woman towering over everyone around her. You’d have spotted an angel, and if the light caught them right you could even angle your head and make out a halo. 

Considering there were 40-odd models who’d walked the show, I didn’t really understand why I could only spot a handful in the main room.

Then I discovered that there was a VIP section. Roped off, with a few tables that members of the public had paid some dumb-fuck sum for, and then the friends and lovers and families of the angels, and the girls themselves, who bobbed around serenely inside their paddock. Bella Hadid sat despondently on a sofa, declining to take photos. 

The person I was with waved over at a small Asian guy on one of the tables and the rope parted and we were escorted inside. I shook hands with the Singaporean casino-magnate who was paying for the table and the entourage gathered around it. It felt, as you can imagine, no different than having been on the outside of the rope – I had after all spent exactly the same amount, i.e. nothing, to be there, and I wanted nothing less than a photo with Bella Hadid, so it was all the same to me. 

“It was, as with a lot of fashion parties, not a huge amount of fun”

But there was a nagging feeling of anxiety in the air. The people outside of the rope looked in at us, wanting to get in, just as the people leaving the show had asked us if we had spare tickets to the after-party, and no-doubt people had probably asked them if they had spare tickets to the actual show. Inside, the people in the roped area looked at each other, sizing up the other tables and their relative proximity to the Angels, or the amount of alcohol they were drinking or what they were wearing. It was, as with a lot of fashion parties, not a huge amount of fun. People still tried to get pictures with Bella Hadid. She still said no.  

I wondered if I would see X and then I turned and there she was. I waved awkwardly, not expecting her to remember me. She didn’t. She smiled back politely and then disappeared off into the main room. I didn’t see her again. 

Back in Dune studios, I sat rapt listening to Mr Skin and Ms X explore the very nature of wingedness. It was a dadaist concerto in the key of existential crisis, and I’ve got to say, it would have made for great TV. It was, of course, gross, and so utterly disconnected from the reality of the world and the struggles that constitute a normal life that it was tragicomic. But, after a few moments on my high-horse, I started to listen more carefully, and I slowly but surely, if not somewhat reluctantly, came to an understanding that would, in a small but substantive way, change me. 

What I realised then, as the diminutive Japanese lady coiffed me, was that even at the highest reaches of success – even once you have climbed every single last rung of the ladder – the clouds do not part, the air is no fresher and it does not get any easier to breathe. Did Emerson not say that from the mountain you see the mountain? Even if you pay for the table of your dreams at the VS afterparty, Bella Hadid still won’t take a picture with you; and if you’re Bella Hadid, people still won’t let you just have your one fucking moment to yourself. What I learnt is that all of the anxieties and insecurities we have with us at our current ladder rung, they will follow us to the next, and the next, and unless we find a way to become secure in this one, reaching the next will do nothing.

“Even at the highest reaches of success, the clouds do not part, the air is no fresher and it does not get any easier to breathe.”

I wanted, as a full-time working model, nothing more than to write and get published and never have to go to another fucking casting ever again. Then I got published and I wanted to be published somewhere better. Then I got published somewhere better, whatever that means, but it was still not in the mythical place I hold to be the best. I was still dissatisfied, and, obviously, because it’s writing at the end of the day, still pretty fucking poor. I went to grad-school on a scholarship, and let the castings start to trail off, so I could write more. But if I ever do get an article in the best maybe it won’t be enough words, and then it won’t be on their cover, and then it won’t be their most read article ever; and even if it is then it won’t cure the issues in my personal life and it won’t make my person love me more and I’ll be overworked and underpaid (it’s still writing) and it won’t bring back the dead etc etc etc until finally I drown in the infinite sea of words that stretch out ahead of me unwritten. And this will be ironic, because when I modelled full time and it was rough, words were always the lifeline I clung to. 

My point is just this, and maybe it’s redundant, and maybe it’s obvious to you, but it certainly wasn’t to me until I saw a multi-millionaire, barely twenty years old, nearly reduced to tears that another genetically blessed twenty year old multi-millionaire was not going to wear wings in a fashion show. I thought about how ridiculous it was; how many models walking in that show would kill for that stable contract, or how many models had auditioned just to be in that show and not got it, and how many tens of thousands of girls apply to modelling agencies every year and don’t get represented etc etc in an ever widening pyramid that could have spread to encompass the entire relative spectrum of human suffering. 

In that moment, I realised it never gets better. That might sound defeatist, but I found it liberating. It meant I stopped looking so hard to an illusory future when I’ll have achieved the things and it would all be easy from there on in. Instead, I try, and fail – often – to find pleasure in the work I’m doing at the minute, because that’s all there is. I’m safe in the knowledge now that even if I do make it big next year, I’m still going to find new ways to make myself feel small. 

And that’s ok, that’s human. 

Sometimes a bell rings, and an angel doesn’t get its wings.