“WEIRD WORLD OF THE MODEL” by Alfred Bester – May 1961

[Note: The two women profiled here are now in their 80’s—and still modeling, half a century after this article was written. Presumably they now make more than $60 an hour.]

How true is the popular picture of the model as skinny, conceited, overpaid and undersexed? Two of the top come clean about the glamour profession

You are in the giant studio of one of the world’s foremost fashion photographers. It is eleven in the morning, and since nine the studio has been preparing one fashion photograph. The model has arrived in make-up, done her hair and submitted to a complete blue-white body wash because this will be a color shot. She has been walking around for an hour, wearing nothing but a balloon chemise, drying herself in the air.

Now the sitting begins. The model puts on a high-fashion dress and takes her position on the set. The photographer stacks records on the hi-fi and driving jazz blasts through the studio. A giant electric fan is turned on, and its gale whips the model’s dress. Its roar is added to the clamor of music, and everybody has to shout.

Plate after plate is slammed into the camera. At each exposure, the strobe lights explode with a shattering WHAM! The model melts smoothly from pose to pose, experimenting with arms, hands, legs, feet, body, head—always careful to adjust the dress and display it at its best.

The photographer never stops directing, praising, singing with the music: “Arm a little higher, darling. That’s it! Beautiful! Hold it!” WHAM! “You look lovely. One more.” WHAM ! “Perfect!” WHAM! Left leg back. Hold the hem higher. Lovely!” WHAM! “One more!” WHAM! “What’d you just do with your head? No, the other way. That’s it! Beautiful!” WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

At noon, when the turmoil is almost intolerable, the sitting is suddenly over. Forty plates have been exposed, from which one high-fashion photograph will be selected. Photographer and staff are weary but triumphant. The model quietly changes and leaves the studio for another sitting. She has been paid sixty dollars an hour for these three hours and is booked for eight more with other photographers. She will go home exhausted but $660 richer at the end of the day.

#

One of the most antic aspects of the arts is the baroque world of the fashion model. Women admire fashion models, mostly because they have the long figure on which clothes drape to perfection. “They’re built like greyhounds,” the women exclaim fervently, and go on another crash diet. Many men claim they dislike the fashion models.

“They’re so skinny you’d have to beat the sheets to find ’em,” they protest, and then knock themselves out trying to promote a date with a model.

When you discuss models with anyone outside the fashion world, you discover that weird legends have grown around them. It is believed they’re all flat as boards, spend twenty-four hours a day contemplating their own beauty, are frigid, easily seduced (because they’re used to dressing and undressing in public), Lesbians because there are no real men in their world.

Neither China Machado (Chee-na Ma-chah-do), the exotic Siamese-Portuguese model from Paris who electrified the New York fashion world last year, nor the stately Carmen Dell’Orefice (Dell-or-ay-feech-ay), who has owned the New York modeling business for seventeen years, is narcissistic, frigid, amoral or Lesbian.

Both are reasonably endowed fore and aft (China: 5’6 1/2″, 105 lbs., 34-22-35; Carmen: 5’9 1/4″, 130 lbs., 35-24-39), both are married and mothers. They must be considered together, for they are the top models in two entirely different fields of fashion. China is a show model who accepts photographic bookings; Carmen is a photographer’s model who does an occasional show.

They’re close friends and share the same salty point of view which they express with acid honesty: high fashion, they say, is look designed for rich women who have nothing to do in life but keep their figures for that kind of clothes, and think about it all the time. Period.

So much for high fashion. Now what about the models?

China was born in Shanghai, came to the United States with her family when she was fourteen and finally settled in Buenos Aires. She was raised in seven languages, and at sixteen got a job as an airline hostess, which she kept for two and a half years. Then an unfortunate love affair drove her to run away to Paris, where she landed a job singing in night clubs.

“I started in Chez Gabby’s and Carroll’s, where Juliette Greco was discovered. I sang in seven languages. I had no voice and no training. It was just a novelty thing that I did. I got about twenty-five thousand francs a night.”

She sang in Paris, Rome and Vienna, and got a bit in the movies. “I was in Ali Baba with Fernandel. They took me and threw me into the pool five days in succession, and that began my movie career.” Then the singing and acting careers petered out and, dead broke, she tried modeling.

“I went to Givenchy. I’d never modeled before, but one of the girls was sick, so they put her dress on me and it fit, and I went into the salon and showed it. Afterward, Givenchy came running back and asked me if I would work for him. I was starving, but I said I’d take a week to think it over. Then I asked twice as much money as models usually get, and I became his top model.”

#

Carmen (she’s known exclusively by her first name in the fashion business) was born in New York City and grew up into a tall, skinny kid with a sensitive face. “My chest was so flat it was concave, and I wore braces on my teeth until I was eighteen. And skinny. My God! I didn’t begin to acquire a shape until I was sixteen.”

But she was thirteen when she began work as a model. She was lugging her books home from school when a photographer’s wife spotted her on the bus. The woman scribbled a note and sent it home to the mother via Carmen. Test shots were arranged, and after a few disappointments, Carmen became a spare-time professional model. “I got paid ten dollars an hour for seven hours the first day. That’s nothing now, but seventy dollars was a hell of a lot for a thirteen-year-old to make.”

“What are you paid now?”

“I get sixty dollars an hour.

“Are you the highest-paid model?”

“No. Suzy Parker gets one hundred twenty dollars, but she’s a movie star; and Dovima gets seventy-five dollars. There’s just one account I have where they pay me two hundred dollars. The days I work for them, I’m the highest-paid model in the world.”

Photographic modeling fees in America generally vary from $20 to $60 an hour, averaging out at $40 an hour. Next best paid are the German models in Munich, who average $18; then the Paris photo models at $15; and, worst paid, the English models who average $4 an hour. Show models in Paris area paid by the week and average $120, China said: “I started at $130 an hour and fought, but literally fought, my way up to $180. They’re the stingiest people in the business.”

According to Jerry Ford, former Notre Dame end, who, with his wife Eileen, runs one of the biggest model agencies in New York, there is a sharp difference between models of different nationalities. The Americans are the most businesslike; they appear on time for their bookings, in make-up and ready for work. The Germans are paranoid and accuse the world of conspiring to cheat them. The English girls are too shy to talk money.

The French models are in a class by themselves: spoiled, temperamental, impossible. “I remember sitting in Dorian Leigh’s office in Paris,” Ford said. (Dorian Leigh, a former fashion model, now runs an agency in Paris.) “She phoned one of her girls in Cannes and said, ‘Suzanne, you know you’re due back in Paris Monday for a booking.’ Suzanne said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly get to Paris before Wednesday.’ Dorian said, ‘I knew you’d say that, so I set the date for Wednesday.’ And Suzanne said, ‘Oh, in that case I couldn’t be back before Thursday.”‘

China described the antics of the Paris models vividly. She sat in the simple Greenwich Village apartment (she owns an elaborate one in Paris) which she occupies with her actor-husband, Martino La Salla. Her brand-new baby, Blanche, was blowing bubbles on her lap. China was wearing an old sweater and slacks and very little make-up, except for the dark-brown eyes, which were heavily done in the high-fashion style. Her hair is black, threaded with silver and high-lighted with a white streak. Her skin is a light tan.

“At Dior there are a dozen girls and five or six are called vedettes, the top models. They won’t show a dress to a client after the regular show. A stand-in has to do it. They sweep in like stars and have temperamental hysterics because another girl has one more dress to show than they do. In the cabine, the dressing room, it’s screaming, fainting, rolling on the floor and pulling hair. You wouldn’t believe it.

“At Fath, the girls all bring red wine into the cabine and drink and play cards all day. You’d think they were drunks. In another of the top houses, the cabine is called The Whorehouse. All the girls have a ‘friend’ who’s keeping them. Their salary is just for taxi money. They spend all day talking about their boy friends.”

China put Blanche in my lap and jumped to her feet. “And you ought to see the way they show. Each model tries to develop an individual walk, and you wouldn’t believe some of them. One Argentine girl is very thin. She’s five-feet-six-and-a-half-inches and only weighs eighty-three pounds. She walks like this.” China stooped, riveted her arms to her sides, thrust her chin forward and stalked across the room.

“Another one walks very fast with one arm at her side and the other stretched out like a signpost.” China crossed the room, looking like an upside-down L. Then there’s one that walks with one elbow in front of her body and her hand over her chin.” China crossed again, looking like an E. Phillips Oppenheim spy trying to avoid recognition.

“Of course, some of the houses like the girls to look and walk a certain way. Balenciaga prefers long, thin types and makes a special bra to flatten the models. Givenchy wanted us to walk quickly because he was afraid of cheating.”

“Cheating?”

“Of being copied. He had a screen placed before the door of the cabine, and he would stand behind it and spy on the salon when we were showing the collection. If he thought anyone was cheating, he’d become furious and make us sprint in and out of the salon.”

I watched China show dresses in a chic Seventh Avenue house. Her style was far more spectacular than that of her colleagues. The American girls seemed stiff and constrained compared to China’s hip-rolling swagger and her flamboyant turns taken with a kick of the foot. The show lasted forty minutes, and China modeled ten dresses, which meant that she made a complete change every four minutes. She also changed her modeling style for each garment.

“Each dress must be shown in an individual way,” she said. “If I’m wearing a suit, I show it simply, as if I were taking a walk. In an evening dress I walk in holding the skirt, almost as if I were dancing. A model can make or break a dress. In Paris some houses give a percentage on sales to the models, because they realize the girl is selling the dress. They don’t in the States, and they’re wrong.”

#

China’s Village apartment is almost Japanese in its spareness; Carmen’s Upper East Side apartment (which she occupies with her husband, photographer Dick Heimann, and her ten-year-old daughter) is as overdecorated as a Cecil Beaton set. There are prints, paintings, mirrors, chandeliers, gew-gaws, gimcrackery, a hi-fi speaker in the fireplace, a four-poster bed, shuttered closets, a canopied bathtub and a throne built over the toilet.

Carmen was wearing an old sweater and slacks and no make-up, except for the dark-hazel eyes which were heavily done in the high-fashion style. She was hunched over a sewing machine on the French, painted dining-room table. She makes a lot of her own clothes.

“Modeling for camera and modeling for a house are two entirely different things,” she said in her slow, little-girl voice with its odd inflections which everybody in the business loves to imitate. “House modeling in New York isn’t what it is in Paris. It doesn’t have the social prestige. There isn’t the romance and style. It’s sort of drag-ass.”

“What are the tricks of modeling for the camera ?”

“There aren’t any tricks; you have to work it out in terms of yourself. I know I have wide hips and square shoulders, so I have to adjust myself.

“You have to look at the merchandise and see how it will look on your body. You’re not paid to look beautiful, but to make the dress beautiful. That’s the duty of the model, and that’s why all models aren’t raving beauties.”

Carmen discussed types of models—Junior, All-American, Catalogue and High Fashion. The model must be tall and photogenic, with a sharply planed bony face, thin-line nose, wide-set eyes and well-proportioned features. The fair Swedish look with straight hair is preferred, and many models must have their hair straightened.

“Why do models look so mad in the fashion photographs?”

“That’s not mad. We call it the Spook Look. That’s my nickname, incidentally. I’m called the Spook.” Carmen gave me a lowering, sullen glance with pouted lips and cheeks sucked in. The latest in high-fashion looks is the Van Dongen look, named after the painter whose style the models imitate. It features eye make-up so heavy that you can’t see the eye itself.

Making the rounds with China and Carmen, I solved a mystery that puzzles most men—what’s inside the inevitable hatbox or carry-all that every model totes and is the trade-mark of the profession. Carmen’s leather bag weighed eleven and a half pounds. It contained appointment books, clothes, shoes, slippers, lingerie, girdles, waist cinchers and a portable beauty parlor that included four switches, five foundations, sixteen lipsticks and twenty-two shades of eyeshadow.

Carmen explained that she carried the girdles in case the clothes were tight. “At one sitting,” she said, “they took all morning to set the lights, so they decided to shoot after lunch. I went out and had a hero sandwich and when I got back, the dresses wouldn’t fit.”

She pointed out that there were no false eyelashes in the bag. “I don’t have to wear them,” she said. “Of course I have to shave my legs twice a day, but I’m great in the hair department.”

“I once knew a girl,” China said, “who always took two hours to make up. She used to cut off a lock of her hair and then, snip-snip-snip, cut it to make her own false eyelashes.”

“And I don’t have to wear falsies,” Carmen said. “The greatest day in my life was when an editor told me take out the falsies and I had to tell her it was me. I wear a 34-B. That’s pretty good for a model.” She dove into her make-up bag and pulled out a ring. “Oh, yes. And my wedding ring. I carry it because you can’t wear it on most jobs. Whenever I have a fight with my husband, I have to quick dig it out and put it on so he won’t think I’m spiteful.”

Both China and Carmen agree that nowadays most girls dream of becoming models; it has become the big glamour profession. “But no girl should think it’s something she can do part time,” Carmen warned. “She’ll never make it that way. You have to have everything within your command to give at any moment. This means you have to refuse the extra drink, watch what you eat, get your sleep, be at your healthiest. You have to pay attention to yourself and know what the machinery can do. It’s not vanity. You’re a business. You’re the factory.”

China urges girls to study themselves and learn to make the most or themselves. “Half the American girls are pretty and well formed,” she said, “but they’re not graceful and poised. They’re empty. American women are very afraid of being different. They’re gauche and boyish. They imitate their brothers.”

“Most women make up badly because they don’t have the opportunity to experiment,” Carmen added, “and they’re intimidated by the threat of being thought vain if they do. Basically, most men dislike make-up because it’s done so badly.”

And this brought up the problem of models’ difficulties with men. Why do so many men profess an active dislike for models while nursing a secret admiration for them?

“Well, one reason is the models you see around in night spots,” Carmen said. “They really aren’t models, because the real models are either working in studios or home in bed. These imitations draw attention to themselves in the worst way. Some girls run around naked with all their clothes on—which is why men find it offensive.”

But probing deeper with China, Carmen and others, I discovered that the difficulties models have with men stem from three issues: breasts, naïveté and money.

Hollywood and men’s magazines have exaggerated breasts to the point of deformity. One photographer says: “If you put a Carmen alongside a Jayne Mansfield on the beach in bikinis, most men would prefer Carmen. She has a wonderful figure. And if you just shot a Mansfield without her shoulders pulled back and her back arched, well—”

American men are naïve about models. All the girls agree that they run up against the same thing. When they meet a man, he thinks : “Ah-ha. I’ll bet she’s stuck-up because everybody tells her she’s beautiful. Well, I’m going to be different.” And then they become nasty and insulting. Most models prefer older men who, they say, are the only ones who aren’t fazed by their appearance.

Money is a tremendous barrier between models and men in America. China says : “This is the only city where I haven’t been almost raped on my first date. The fact that I’m Oriental and lived in Europe absolutely terrifies

American men. And also—’Jeez! She’s a model and makes all that money !’ I have the impression that American men are terrified of making a faux pas.”

“And there’s something else,” Carmen said. “Models don’t screen their men, because they don’t value themselves the way the rest of the world does. Models are waiting to be snared by clever men who are after the money they make. Many models have been taken.”

I’ve been around models long enough to see through the phony glamour that surrounds them, and I would still like a date with one of them. Working girls are wonderful. ◊


China Machado and Carmen Dell’Orefice, two of New York’s highest-paid fashion models, are also model homebodies.


A colorful ad from this issue.

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