Tick tick tick. Pop. The world turns white. Whirring flashbulbs cool. Color pools back into the studio.
“One more. Don’t move,” Gillian says, “Don’t breathe.”
Tick tick tick. Pop.
“What do you think?” she asks Jordan.
Jordan looks out from behind the camera, eyeing me. I stare off into mid-space, that magic distance that isn’t quite anywhere. The neither here nor there that every model in every magazine inhabits—the precise midpoint between the viewer and the subject: a flawless inter-dimension where all the edges of the world appear crisper. Where light hits every curve exactly right, saturating the page with a sweetness that says, Yes. This is the land where life is ripe.
“I think his collar is a little off,” Gillian says.
Jordan steps from behind his mounted Canon over to a nearby computer. Wires coil down the leg of the tripod across the concrete floor only to disappear into various outlets. One snake-coil extends all the way to a table and plugs in a computer, where Jordan flips through the fresh photos. A program automatically chops my head and my legs from my torso, leaving behind a perfectly pressed, totally anonymous suit.
Gillian leans in toward the screen, glances at me—not really me, but at the suit—then back at the screen. To her, I’m a breathing mannequin. A standardized body with articulating joints who happens to understand English.
“Hold on,” she says, “stay still.”
I do, obnoxiously. I’m so still that one could sharpen the tip of my pinkie-nail, drop it on a record, and Debussy’s roiling piano arrangements would issue from my parted mouth, free of static.
Somewhere in the middle of Clare de Lune, Gillian walks into the ambush of lighting equipment, her high heels ticking like a clock. She grabs the lapel of my suit and stuffs a plate-sized wad of cotton against my chest.
“It’s sitting just a bit off,” she says, “nothing a little stuffing wont fix.”
She turns and walks away. Tick-tock tick-tock back behind the lights leaving me stranded, a blue-suited sliver against the white backdrop. A sunken chested scarecrow, the not-quite-there man, always “too much” or “too little.” Nothing a little stuffing can’t fix.
The land of amateur modeling is a strange one. From my brief voyages there, I’ve gathered it’s a nervous, painfully pretty, and all-together confusing place. No one model seems to know what to do with themselves in this early stage of their maybe-careers. Can I even call myself a model? They might ask.
Can I even call myself a model? I might ask, and often do, stepping into call rooms full of towering women and men that glide this way and that, holding numbers to their chests as scouts watch on, jotting their quick, illegible notes as they take measurement of the lot.
And measurements matter. They are made at every opportunity and attached to each of us. At six feet tall, or 72 inches, my numbers are as follows: 163, 30-32, 38-40, 14.5, 38, and 34: weight, waist, legs, neck, arms, and chest—in Standard pounds and inches, of course, because I’m frankly not qualified for international work. My continent has been mapped, its contours are known, its coastlines defined. There is no new territory to uncover, and I am well aware that a 14.5” neck on a six-foot tall 163 pound man is a tad on the slender side. When the ratio is dwelled upon too long, it makes my head seem like melon mounted on a flagpole. If I were an island nation, a skewered cantaloupe rotting high in the sun would surely be my flag.
I try to hold my melon-head steady as I approach the sign in table for the VCU Spring Fashion Show Audition. “Hey there,” the attendant says. A VCU Fashion mug sits on the table. She’s one of the students of the school helping to arrange the show. Which, for models, falls under the category of “unpaid runway experience.” But there is a prime incentive: local talent agencies often show up to the auditions, sit in reserved seats during the show, and scout for new faces. There’s always the slight possibility they’ll approach you at the end of the show and offer you a contract. The possibilities presented by the mere presence of these people heightens the excitement.
“Hi,” I say. I shift my feet at the edge of the sign-in table. The Depot is mostly empty. One or two models arrived to the call before me. They mill about the waiting area arcing eyebrows and slumping against walls as if they were already posing. As if a cameraman was hiding just behind the potted trees in the corner and this is all part of the audition. Maybe he is. Maybe it is. My armpits start to sweat. I stare a little too long, parsing the space between the plastic leaves for a camera lens, just to be sure.
The attendant clicks her pen.
“If you just sign in on this sheet, I’ll get you your number and you can go get your measurements,” she says.
“Right,” I say. The sheet is empty. I sign, she hands me a number: 1.
“You’re the first one,” she says, “it pays to be early.” I realize the people standing about “posing” were just students. I make my way over to the wall by the tree and lean against it. Casually. Not too casually. I tilt my head down, like I’m thinking about something. Not too far down. Just enough to be able to shoot a sultry glance at any hidden cameraman or scout that happens to walk up the stairs while I wait to be measured. For better or worse, I know exactly what I look like leaning just so against the wall. I know exactly how a camera sees me.
I’ve looked over the shoulders of enough photographers to know that my left eyelid sags a bit, that I have a lopsided crease where my eyebrows meet, and that my left side is generally my good side because the meticulous part of my hair makes my jawline look sharper. I decide to tilt my head a bit to the left. Sidelong glances are more mysterious, sexier in some way.
The only people that come up the stairs are more models. They start to arrive in small packs. After the first two or three bundles sign their names and are numbered, I stop posing and slink into the corner. More arrive. They’re all beautiful.
When I manage to separate myself from my self, it’s really something to be among so many profitably pretty people. Lingering quietly, watching myself watch them, I feel like a lemur who climbed that plastic potted tree in the corner and found himself among songbirds.
Naturally. The lanky creature thinks upon seeing the birds. These creatures are too charming for gravity.
To be paid for appearance—to be in a position to buy a month’s worth of food with a parting of the lips, a slight smile or smolder—seems simple, superficial. Fake, even. That’s the rub though. Standing there with these people, one of the last things I think is “fake.”
Weeks later, in the green room waiting for runway rehearsal to start, I hear two of the male models discussing a third’s jeans. They aren’t just jeans, the third says. They’re measured and cut from recycled denim harvested from a Levi factory. A woman stands a few tables in front of me. She’s braless, a cream soft shirt waterfalls over the impossible orbs of her breasts and stops just shy of her bellybutton. She looks so comfortable. Not just in her clothes, but her skin. Her back is like a cello string. Neither rigid nor loose, but tuned. She practically hums, nipples stark against loose cotton like twin towers broadcasting her tune to the world.
I’ve been staring too long again. I look to the floor as thick-knit cardigans and canvas jackets are peeled from shoulders and tossed into tangled bundles at our feet as if they didn’t cost a few hundred dollars a piece. No face is made up, only a touch of foundation or a hint of lipstick. Polishing a pearl only enhances the effect, it’ll catch the light without all the fuss. Anyway, no single eyeliner, razor, hair product, or tooth-whitener can really fool anyone into buying a granite necklace, so to speak. And the smells—
Standing in line at rehearsal or glancing shoulders on the runway, I’m overcome by perfumes. Honey glazed cherry blossoms, cut pine staves soaked in bourbon, invisible trails that overwhelm the imagination and conjure steaming chais in incensed heavens. Most remarkable about the smells is only unscented clear deodorants are allowed at rehearsals and shows, so as not to tarnish the designers’ garments. These people somehow manage to sweat these scents, or engage in a regiment of skin care that allows them to permanently weave sweetness into their pores. Everyone and everything is authentically designed. Appearing fake is forbidden. Each tames his or her natural appearance like master gardeners let loose in the jungle. They’re whirling flowerbeds of muscle, trimmed sharp hedges of hair, and labyrinthine orchards of eyes.
Returning to myself, having marveled and whiffed at all the pretty people flitting around their high places, it’s hard not to feel like I’m sliding my hand back into a glove that doesn’t quite fit. It’s loose here, sweaty there, too tight in places and generally could use some color. I disabused myself of the idea that I could be paid for taking my shirt off a while ago. My back is pock marked by pimples. It looks like I caught a load of birdshot at an early age and the scars never quite healed. It’s a constellation of red that says, “No photos. Please.”
It shouldn’t matter. My worth is not determined by my commercial appeal. Besides, I can’t see the scars unless I’m looking back. Standing in my towel after a shower, craning my neck over my shoulder. All bent and twisted like Benczúr’s Narcissus looking into his pool. Looking back at myself surrounded by fogged up silver. Watching me get swallowed by a gray thing.
Then again mirrors aren’t silver or gray. They’re green.
Our eyes perceive a spectrum of light, and colors are just light at different wavelengths along that spectrum.
Different objects absorb and reflect different wavelengths of light. Only when an object reflects light do we perceive it, and its color depends on what wavelengths it reflects. If something is black, it absorbed all the light that hit it. If something is red, it reflected the wavelength “red” and absorbed everything else. If something is white, it reflected all the light.
So why aren’t mirrors white? Why can’t we see our reflection in a piece of paper?
When light bounces off a piece of paper, it’s scattered. Imagine a ball exploding against a brick wall and sending pieces flying in every direction.
When light hits a mirror, the light retains its organization. Same ball, only it doesn’t break. It just bounces off in a different direction. This organized redirection recreates the images instead of scattering them.
In a way, a mirror rebuilds an images as it redirects it. Most mirrors are made out of silica based materials, which reflect green just a bit better than any other color.
Which is why images in a mirror may sometimes appear green tinted.
When I stare at my pocked back in the mirror, I don’t see any green. I just feel green, a bit sickly. If I glance up from my scars, I see bags under my eyes, the same that hung there when I was thirteen. Back when I fell into myself.
Back when all I ate was two 200 calorie Boca Burgers per day with yellow mustard or Texas Pete because they were the only condiments without any calories. Back when I ran seven miles most every morning. Back when I pulled my hand through my hair and came away with tufts. Back when I found myself seated between a psychiatrist and nutritionist. Anorexia nervosa, they agreed. And they talked me back toward two thousand calories a day. Some say Narcissus starved to death staring at his reflection in that pool. Or he drowned, falling down into a reflection of himself.
Apparently, the green tint is easier to notice in mirror tunnels: when two mirrors are set face to face, creating an endless hall of copies—an architecture of reflections. It’s easier to see it there, but I don’t know many people who would want to sit in that in-between for that long. Long enough to see green as they stare just past the edge of their cheeks to avoid the infinite line of eyes staring back.
Mirror tunnels unsettle me. They're optical monuments to the limits of perception. They reveal a chink in the complex neurological systems that translate light to images. Standing in those tunnels, staring at myself
staring at myself
staring at myself
staring at myself
staring at myself
staring at myself
staring at myself, I can hear echoes bouncing from the buried reaches of my brain. This isn’t real. It says. There aren’t this many of you. There is no tunnel here, no way to walk through this place. There is no real in-between here.
When I see myself in a mirror or a photo, I see an echo. All the images remade and reproduced are just more monuments. More mirror tunnels, and if I stare too long, I hear an echo. I hear myself arguing. How beautiful. How imperfect. If I stare long and hard, the two blend. How beautifully imperfect. No longer a loose glove, but a fitted continent. An almost impossible landscape of atoms assembled from all over the known and unknown universe. Really though, I only know my photons. The particles of light that reflect off me are all I see. That’s comforting in it’s own way, though. Everything and everyone I know is bouncing light.