from the New York Times Magazine (Cover Story)
An October morning in Paris. James King, her hair pulled back into a ponytail, bounds from an elevator into the lobby of the Hotel de la Tremoille, not far from the Arc de Triomphe, where she has been staying for the past week. “How do I look — what do you think?” she asks the 20-year-old Julia Samersova, who used to work at Company Management, the modeling agency that began representing James nearly two years ago, when she was still known as Jaime. (Company Management already represented Jaime Rishar, a top model. “James” was already Jaime King’s nickname.) Samersova is now James’s best friend and occasional chaperone. Seated at a breakfast table squeezing lemons into a bottle of Evian, she looks up at James, who gestures nervously at her black pants and long-sleeved black shirt. “Do you think this is proper? Do you think it’s fierce yet subtle?” (“Fierce” is the superlative du jour this fall among the fashion crowd.)
She has enormous dark eyes and braces on her teeth, and will tell anyone who asks that her father is a Russian mobster. Motherly beyond her years, she has taken a break from her studies in fashion-business merchandising at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to accompany James to this fall’s ready-to-wear shows in Europe, which began the first week in October in Milan.
“Banana Republic rocks, I’m sorry,” James says.
It is the morning of the John Galliano show, one of the most anticipated of the collections being shown in Paris, and James has been cast in it — a triumph for any model, not to speak of one having her first season in Paris. James has just finished her third season in Milan (fall, spring, fall), but because of French law, any model under 16 is prohibited from appearing in the Paris collections. James turned 16 in April.
When James has finished her breakfast — tea, a small pain au chocolat and a chain of Marlboros — I walk with her and Samersova to the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, where the Galliano show is to take place. Despite the balmy weather, Paris has been a mess — a general strike and the resulting gridlock have filled the air with a throat-scorching smog; the proliferation of terrorist bombs in subways and garbage cans has led to a heavy police presence on the streets. Yet the fashion world feels eerily removed from all this. At the backstage entrance to the Galliano show, the most pressing question is who will get in and who won’t. Fashion shows used to be sedate affairs catering mostly to magazine editors and department-store buyers. Now that models have become icons, the shows have about them an air of exquisite urgency: they’re cultural high-low events, like a Stones concert in the 1970’s.
Though the show isn’t scheduled to start until 6:30 P.M., models like James who aren’t yet stars are summoned hours ahead to have their hair and makeup done, so that the top models can arrive last and enjoy the full attention of the staff members. In a windowless backstage area, time drifts by on a languorous haze of smoke and hair spray and blow-dryer heat. A dance beat throbs unnoticed, like a pulse. James sips a can of Heineken and smokes. She picked up a horrible cough in Milan and developed shingles on her back from stress — a wide brush stroke of tiny purple blisters that she takes obvious glee in showing people. Samersova nags at her to take her medicine.
James likes to tell people that she and Samersova are Tauruses. “I mean she is the second me,” James says. “That’s why I bring her here, because I know that when I’m too frazzled to make a rational decision I can trust her because we think exactly the same. I mean she’s like a boyfriend but not.”
James seems quite childlike at times — she’s easily distracted, prone to slouching and staring into space, then snapping to attention in a fit of enthusiasm. She’s physically affectionate in a sweet, unself-conscious way, always hugging people and leaning against them. She can be insecure, like the time she accused a Company Management driver of preferring to drive another model rather than herself, then stalked away, looking as if she might cry. Yet other moments she seems much older than 16, so jaded as to be unshockable. She has a pierced nipple, a large tattoo of a winged fairy on her lower back, refers to people in their 20’s as “kids” and frequently invokes her “whole life,” as if this were an endless expanse of time. These contradictions are all present, somehow, in her face, which looks freshly minted in its innocence yet, somehow, knowing.
Galliano is famous for his lush romantic details, and by 3 in the afternoon, James’s hair has been wrapped around coils of wire to resemble branches of a tree. Makeup is next; then she huddles with the other younger models, wiling away the remaining time before the show. At one point they talk among themselves about how distant they feel from their old lives. “The hardest thing is when you go home and you realize you’ve grown up 10 years in 2 days,” James says. “My sister is in college, earning $5.50 an hour working part time, and she’s like, ‘You make so much more money than I do, and I’m 20 years old.’ ” After a moment, James adds: “She has a 3.9 grade-point average. That’s almost 4.0.”
Having been pegged early on as a potential star, James opted to leave high school more than a year ago and pursue modeling full time, a route the industry publicly frowns upon but is not all that uncommon. The supermodel Bridget Hall, who even now is only 18, is said to have left school at 15. Like Hall and a number of other teen-age models, James is enrolled in a home-study program, but she admits that she has little time or inclination for schoolwork. Still, there is an intellectual hunger about her: she asks lots of questions (not always the case with teen-age models), keeps voluminous journals and usually has a book buried in her bag; today it’s a contemporary Japanese novel, “The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” by Haruki Murakami.
Shortly after 4, the supermodels begin to show up: Kate Moss and Amber Valetta, Naomi Campbell, Shalom. Some rhythm backstage instantly quickens. One well-known model arrives in a long navy blue skirt and turtleneck. (“Fake boobs,” a younger girl whispers.) In the imaginations of younger models and would-be models, each supermodel seems to stand for something: Linda Evangelista for hard work; Campbell for bad behavior; Moss for imperfect beauty that triumphed. Within minutes of the supermodels’ arrival, the room is saturated with camera flashes and television crews, everyone tripping over wires and elbowing one another aside to get at those famously beautiful faces. The media runoff falls to the newer, lesser-known models, who are already inured to the giant cameras clocking their every move, often only inches from their faces.
By now, outside the theater, an impatient, well-heeled crowd surges against the waist-high metal barriers cordoning off the doors. Everyone is brandishing crumpled invitations and wailing the name of Galliano’s gatekeeper, a young bespectacled Englishman named Mesh. “Mesh! Mesh!” He paces frantically before them, occasionally waving his arms and consulting with the security guards. Now and then, a shaken-looking fashion editor makes herself heard and is pried from the crush. “I’m so sorry!” Mesh murmurs in soothing tones while delivering her into the theater. “I had no idea you were there.” Inside, seating is assigned in direct accordance with status, and Galliano has sharpened the hierarchy at this show by seating his most important guests right on the stage.
Eventually the show opens to sound bites from the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack. It’s a convoluted spectacle, no simple runway viewing. Campbell saunters about the stage like a high priestess, several choirboys trotting in her wake; Shalom, barelegged in a tutu, pirouettes around the perimeter of the balcony. James appears in a white dress, her hair full of leaves. As she darts to and fro, following Galliano’s wordless, pretentious script with complete sincerity, she brings to mind nothing so much as a girl starring in the school play.
In the fashion world, models are always “girls.” Successful models are “big girls.” Stars like Moss and Campbell and Evangelista are “huge girls.” Diminutive though the term may sound for a 30-year-old like Evangelista, who has made millions during her career, “girl” captures the peculiar role played by a model of any age. Backstage at a show or at a shooting in a loft, “girl” suggests, as it is meant to, someone more beautiful and less complicated than a woman.
In recent years, America has become obsessed with “girls,” and the fashion world has a theory about why: actresses have lost their glamour by turning into real people, and models have replaced them as the stars of our time. Certainly models are this decade’s contribution to our already crowded celebrity pantheon. They are what rock stars were to the 70’s and visual artists were to the 80’s. The rise of models has less to do with the fashion industry, whose business has slumped since the 80’s, than with the potent blend of cultural preoccupations they embody: youth, beauty and, perhaps most of all, media exposure. Models are perfectly suited to a culture obsessed with fame for its own sake. Appearing in the media is their job — their images are their stock in trade. They are famous for being famous.
In the fashion world, there is a feeling that models have changed. “Today, you’re not looking for perfection anymore,” says Michael Flutie, the owner of Company Management, one of several new modeling agencies that have been founded in New York in the last decade. What matters more than any particular look is a model’s attitude, her ability to project an inner life for the camera: the inner life of someone whose surface fascinates us.
To “find a girl” is to discover a teen-ager with potential. The career arc of a model requires that she start young, and the preternatural beauty of very young girls (along with their quite genuine girlishness) makes them ur-models of a sort. Even a face 21 years old doesn’t look quite as fresh, and I’ve had models in their 20’s admit that they’re a few years older than they say, and tell me how hard it was to adjust to metabolic changes. For years now, and in summertime especially, Manhattan has teemed with schoolgirls, some as young as 12 or 13, who are building up their modeling portfolios during vacation. The ones with real potential almost always get magazine work before they graduate high school. The paradox of the outcry over Calvin Klein’s recent advertisements for his jeans is that most of his young models were shown to look their real ages.
But if models have always been young, they have not always been media celebrities, and nowadays, teen-agers like James must contend with a level of attention — and the pressures that come with it — that wasn’t there in the early 80’s, when I modeled briefly. The media presence is greater now, and the world has shrunk: a 16-year-old model might be offered jobs in Paris one week and Prague the next. She is part of a globalized industry.
To “make a girl” is to put her on the map. Flutie began making James two years ago. James is big today, and there are people in the fashion world who believe that she could be huge. She has long, straight blond hair and a heartbreaking face — sexy and sorrowful. She has an endearingly snaggletoothed smile and the luminous skin of a child. She is a slender girl and a voluptuous woman. She is growing up before our eyes, and she is growing up very, very fast.
On the day Flutie arrives in Paris from Milan, company management holds a dinner for its models at Natacha, a restaurant popular this fall with the fashion crowd. (Fashion people tend to surround themselves with one another, wherever they are.) In a downstairs room bathed in gold light, the models and their guests sprawl around several tables and wait for Flutie. There’s Jicky Schnee, a bleached blonde whose modeling career took off when she had the good fortune to share an elevator one day with the fashion photographer Steven Meisel, whom she didn’t recognize but whose dog she patted. There is Suzy Richards, from London, who recently cut off her long brown hair and bleached it white, and Lesli Holecek, who recently cut off her long blond hair and dyed it blue-black (and, more recently, back to blond). The models share gossip from Milan — Evangelista looked fat, the runways were full of blondes, some models aren’t coming to Paris because of the nuclear testing in Tahiti.
Joi Tyler, a black model, is having a miserable time in Paris. The designers are using few black models this season, and she has heard it’s because Romeo Gigli used mostly black models in his spring ’95 show and the line wasn’t a commercial hit. Tyler turns to Andreea Radutoiu, a cinnamon-haired model with strong Eastern European features. “I never want to come back here,” she says, almost close to tears.
Finally, Flutie arrives with James and Samersova. James looks exhausted. Flutie, who has bleached-blond hair and eyebrows and is wearing black leather pants (as he almost always does), sits down near Radutoiu, looking pained. He has bad news: a mix-up has occurred between the organizers of the Comme des Garcons show and the French bureaucrats who issue work permits, and Radutoiu, a new model who is having her first season, has been canceled from her biggest show. “But I was just there for the rehearsal,” Radutoiu says in a near whisper, “and they didn’t say anything.” She has a sweet, unpretentious air — once, having run out of moisturizer, she rubbed Mazola oil on her face for a couple of days. She has just turned 19, and spent her adolescence struggling with the rest of her Romanian family as they all settled in Chicago. She looks stunned.
James, who was canceled from the Comme des Garcons show for the same reason as Radutoiu, bellows from her end of the table: “They can [expletive]. I have more important shows to do!” (Later, I heard she was in tears when she first found out.) After venting his frustration with Comme des Garcons, Flutie sips red wine. Among his models, he tends to assume a half-listening stance, like a distracted father whose mind is still at the office. Radutoiu broods. Her book is full of tear sheets from magazines, but in her first year she’ll probably earn less than $30,000, more than half of which will go to repay the agency (on top of a 20 percent commission) for money advanced to her for the many expenses she incurred in the development process: haircuts, air fare, messenger fees, laser prints for her book, multiple copies of each magazine she appears in and even food. The model pays for everything, and it adds up. James, whose Corn Belt blond hair and blue eyes are more naturally the stuff of catalogues — a good source of income for models — will make an estimated $150,000 in this, her second year. But she, too, will have a commission and expenses to pay. The rest will go to her parents, who invest it and provide her with a weekly allowance.
Striking a balance among editorial, advertising and catalogue work is crucial to the success of any model who, like Radutoiu or James, is shooting for the top. Editorial work — that is, posing for the photographs that appear in the fashion pages of magazines — is low paying ($150 per day on average), but highly prestigious and a valuable source of tear sheets and exposure. Catalogues pay much better (day rates start at $750 and can go as high as $10,000 or more, for a star), but are useless in forwarding a career. To be perceived as a mere catalogue girl is to lose the hope of editorial work, without which a model has little chance at grasping for the real prizes of her business: campaigns, or seasonal advertising for designers, which can pay as much as $20,000 per day; and most desired of all, contracts, in which a model becomes a representative for a company’s products or apparel lines (Moss for Calvin Klein, Claudia Schiffer for Revlon). A contract model may earn sums in the millions.
There is an upright piano at Natacha, and James begins fooling around on it. She has a charisma that draws others to her, and soon a group is gathered at the piano. Watching her, I find myself thinking of her description of her first meeting with Flutie, when she was 14: “Michael asked me a question. He’s like, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ And I said, ‘Because I want to be a star.’ It didn’t mean that I want to be famous. It didn’t mean that I wanted everyone to know me, it just meant that I want to be a star to myself. That I wanted to be successful to myself, that I wanted to go somewhere with my life and I wanted it then, I wanted it now.”
James is from Omaha. “I grew up in the suburbs,” she tells me, “very normal family, like Mom, Dad, that kind of thing.” She has an older sister and a younger brother. Her parents separated more than a year ago (something James never mentions), but the split is amicable and they still work together in Omaha, renting out mostly low-income apartments. “When I was 12 or 13,” James says, “that’s when I started looking at magazines, and I became literally obsessed with designers and models. Like, I would stay up till 3 o’clock in the morning slicing the best pictures out of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue and, making collages and posting them up on my door, like the fiercest pictures that I saw, like of Gaultier and Galliano and whatever. I knew every model, I knew who Steven Meisel was.”
In the minds of a great many young American girls, modeling has replaced Hollywood as the locus for fantasies of stardom. Kelly Stewart, a 14-year-old high-school freshman who has been with the Click agency for two years, says she became obsessed at age 8. A room plastered with pages from Vogue has become as emblematic of American girlhood as Barbie has, and the assiduous merchandising of models in books, magazines and cable-television shows is no doubt fueling this surge of interest.
“When I was in junior high, I had a lot of problems with people,” James says. “I started getting my breasts earlier than everyone, I had my period earlier, and people really made fun of me.” Radutoiu, who spoke no English when she arrived from Romania with her family at 13, says that she, too, found solace in fashion magazines. Like fantasies of Hollywood stardom, modeling contains the archetypal elements of discovery, transformation and escape from an imperfect life into a world of riches and fame. But here’s the twist: while few 14-year-olds find their way to Hollywood, a 14-year-old with even the slimmest prospects for a modeling career is more than likely to come to the attention of someone in the fashion world. A vast apparatus exists solely to ferret her out: traveling conventions like Pro Scout and Model Search America, where thousands of girls (and boys) pay to be seen by agents from New York and elsewhere; and countless modeling schools, ranging from the well known, like John Casablancas and Barbizon, to regional schools like Nancy Bounds’s Studios in Omaha. That was where James asked her parents to let her go, and where Flutie, who routinely travels to small markets in search of new talent, spotted her in November 1993 at her graduation fashion show and invited her to New York.
James visited the city with her mother for several days in March 1994, when she was a high-school freshman. She saw photographers, did some test pictures (meaning that both model and photographer work for free, or that the model pays a small amount) and received enthusiastic responses. She returned to New York in July 1994, shortly after her 15th birthday, and did work for Vogue, Mademoiselle, Allure and Seventeen. She also shot an ad for Abercrombie & Fitch, with photographs by Bruce Weber. She made a splash.
“I went home after that first summer and I tried to go back to school,” she says. “I went four days, and that’s when the work started kicking in. I had to choose whether I wanted to do my career or go to school. And you know what? I’m sorry, but you will learn so much more traveling around the world than you ever will sitting in a classroom with 25 people reading a history book. What they teach you in French class about France is bull. You will not know anything about French culture until you come and experience it, just like everything else they teach you.”
James’s mother, Nancy King, describes her daughter as the sort of child who scored high on aptitude tests but was apathetic in school and hard to control at home. “She was different from the beginning,” says King, who is 43 and clearly the source of her daughter’s beauty and blondness. “She would sit around the house and do nothing. We tried to screw her window shut so she wouldn’t sneak out at night — didn’t work. My husband and I were separating, and I thought, How am I going to handle her alone? And then the modeling thing came up . . . everything happens for a reason.” King sees modeling as providing direction for James now and financial security for her future, which she hopes will include college.
Flutie says he doesn’t encourage early departures from school, like James’s. “The modeling had nothing to do with her not being in school,” he says. He mentions that another of his models, Ramsay Jones, 16, just signed an exclusive contract with Galliano for the House of Givenchy, but that the deal will allow her to remain in high school full time. (James is enrolled in a home-study program run by the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.)
James spent the fall of 1994 and much of the following spring commuting between Omaha and New York, where she lived either with Samersova and her mother in their home near Brighton Beach in Brooklyn; in an apartment Company rents in lower Manhattan to temporarily house its models, or at Flutie’s apartment in Greenwich Village. When she traveled for work (especially common in winter, when shoots often take place in warmer cities like Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco), a family member, usually her mother, went with her. Her career continued to flourish: she worked with top photographers like Ellen von Unwerth, Francesco Scavullo and Arthur Elgort, did a Benetton advertisement with Mario Sorrenti and appeared on the cover of Italian Glamour and in the fashion pages of Italian Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Spanish Vogue, British Elle and other magazines.
But while the transformation from Omaha school girl to New York fashion model was, at first, fairly smooth, the return trip was not. James recalls: “I’d come back and visit people. I would sit and watch them at the cafeteria table gossiping . . . and realize: It’s so hard for me to relate to these kids because I have different priorities. All they know is who’s going out with who, what test they have to take and how they’re gonna steal the test to get the answers, and on my mind is, O.K., what job I have to do, when I have to be there — how I’m gonna balance it out.”
Being in New York and working, however, created other anxieties. “I was like: I’m gonna miss the prom. I’m not gonna be able to look back and say that I went to the high-school football games. I was sitting around listening to my friends talk about all the cool things they did last summer, and I didn’t have anything to say. I started to feel really isolated.” She began turning down jobs — including a 10-day booking in Thailand for French Elle, where she would have shot 30 pages and had 10 cover tries — simply because she was in Omaha and didn’t want to get on a plane.
James took a break from modeling and spent part of this past summer at home. “I finally felt close to my friends again,” she says. “Driving around, going to movies, hanging out, gossiping, sleeping until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I took my mom on a vacation to St. Lucia with the money I’d made from a job. We stayed at a spa for two weeks, totally chilled out. And then I realized after two months I was so bored of sleeping until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I was so bored of sitting at people’s houses watching them get plastered, drinking kegs of beer like everybody does in high school. My friends had already gone back to school at that point, and I had nothing to do during the day . . . and I decided, you know what? This is my time, and if I don’t do it now, then I’m never gonna get the chance.” In a sense, the decision was already made; her childhood ended the moment it became hers to choose or to leave behind.
Teen-age models new to New York face an array of temptations. Trendy nightclubs need models, and if they happen to be 15 or 16 — well, they don’t look it. Consequently, the downtown restaurant and nightclub scene, which for most mortals signifies difficult-to-get reservations and humiliating waits in line outside club doors, presents to models nothing but the best tables and free admission. Mark Baker, one of the best-known club and restaurant promoters in town, admits that an enormous amount of his time is spent keeping track of models, whose presence en masse is crucial to the success of the events he orchestrates. “Three-hundred phone calls a day — around the world,” he says.
A model with the slightest interest in night life will soon find herself dining lavishly among large groups of models at restaurants that everyone admits pay all or part of the bill in exchange for a beautiful crowd, though no restaurateur will admit to doing this himself. Afterward, the models are ushered to nightclubs and whisked past the velvet ropes into V.I.P. sections, which are usually visible but inaccessible to the rest of the clubgoers. Needless to say, the collective desire to enter these roped-off areas is generally quite keen, which is exactly the point — “girls” draw paying customers, namely men. “In the 80’s, 18-year-old models were going out to chase the celebrities,” says Howard Stein, the former owner of Xenon and now the owner of System, a popular new nightclub. “Now it’s all reversed. You find celebrities wanting to know where the model party is that night. And that draws playboys and would-be playboys, every little schlepper from Brooklyn thinking he’s going to take home next year’s Claudia Schiffer.”
While most promoters, like Baker, have a protective attitude toward the models they entertain (and a desire to stay in their agents’ good graces), a teen-ager with a taste for night life, and all that it might entail, will have no difficulty finding it. That first summer in New York, when she was 15, James got into drugs.
“When you first go to New York after living in Omaha your whole life, you realize how sheltered you are,” she says. “And so I went out and I partied, and I got myself into a little trouble. I came to a point where they were getting ready to send me home. I was missing planes, I was screwing up jobs.
“But I think every girl who comes to New York needs to go through that stage. You know why? Because you get to the lowest point when you’re so exhausted and so done from partying . . . and you’re so depressed, and that’s when you make a choice whether you’re gonna let yourself sink or you’re gonna swim, and I decided I was gonna swim. And you see girls who just give up hope, and then they deteriorate. But the successful girls do not do that.”
Suddenly she is passionate. “I guarantee you . . . if you walk into a shoot drugged up, they will not put up with it,” she says. She insists she no longer uses drugs. “I know when I was doing drugs, that people knew, and people told my agency, and they were like, I’m not gonna work with this girl . . . and so I cleaned myself up.”
Recalling that first summer, James seems acutely aware that modeling in New York has exposed her to an awful lot for someone her age. “I remember the times where I was so alone,” she says, “bawling and bawling, thinking: God, I’m never gonna be able to be a kid. God, I don’t know what to do. To the point where I was so low and had no faith in anything. I could look back and say, ‘Oh my God, I went through too much at such a young age,’ like I saw too much, I shouldn’t have to go through this pain at such a young age. I could feel sorry for myself.”
She pauses and then adds: “But looking back on that, you know what? It made me nothing but stronger.”
“I was so scared,” James is saying the day after the Galliano show in Paris. “It was, like, acting. My heart was pounding.” She is at a fitting for Jean Colonna, whose show will be held the following day near the Place Pigalle. In Colonna’s vast warehouse-like loft, James puts on the red vinyl skirt and top she’ll be wearing on the runway and holds still while an assistant pins it. “Look at her,” Samersova says, “her body rocks in a big way.” Like all models, James is used to changing clothes in front of people who are dressed. Though critical of her own body, she moves and stands in a way that is both unself-conscious and picturesque. If there is an art to modeling, this is it.
Samersova turns up her nose at the vinyl outfit. “What I think is sexy,” she says, “is James when she first wakes up in the morning and has no makeup on, and she’s coughing her guts out, but she still looks so beautiful.”
James is coughing a lot today, and running a fever. When she’s sick, her jaded side emerges. “I’m so sick of this business,” she mutters as we leave the fitting. Outside, she cannot find the car and wanders into a sleepy Parisian neighborhood. A man walking toward us can’t take his eyes off her, and I’m struck, as I often am, by how remarkable she looks — with her heart-shaped face and pale satin top with spaghetti straps, sunlight flashing off her hair; how otherworldly, compared with the rest of us.
James glances up, sees the man watching her and yells, “I’m a gangsta!” startling him. “I love [expletive]off the French,” she adds with delight.
Having found the car, she is overwhelmed by gratitude toward her driver. “You’re dope, can I just tell you that?” she says with feeling. “You’re awesome.”
“Pardon?” the driver asks.
As we ride to her next fitting, at Karl Lagerfeld, she talks eagerly about getting back to New York and seeing her mother and her boyfriend, Kyle, whom she met back in Omaha last winter. Both of them will arrive in New York shortly after she does and stay for Fashion Week, during which ready-to-wear collections are shown, for the most part, in two large tents in Bryant Park. Later, her father and brother will visit. “My brother is so amazing,” she says. “He’s only 13, but he acts, like, my age. He says ‘I love you’ every time we say goodbye.”
Lagerfeld’s studio is saturated with the dance beat that seems to reach every cranny of the fashion world, as if pumped from a single underground source. Lagerfeld himself is behind a desk in the fitting room. An amiable, ponytailed presence in a dark suit, he seems unperturbed by the fact that he will be showing three collections within four days. While James’s outfits are being prepared — Jackie-esque suits in gold and pale blue — she leans against Samersova on a couch and reflects on her chaotic living arrangements. “I’m starting all over every time I go home,” she says, “and I’m starting all over every time I come to New York. I think that’s the hardest part for me of this job — I’m so unsettled. I need to be surrounded by people I love and care about, and who love and care about me.” She stops, overcome by a coughing fit so wrenching it makes her gag. Finally it ends, leaving her red-faced. She closes her eyes.
“If I could have my Omaha house in New York, I’d be so happy,” she says. “If there’s one thing I could ask for, I’d ask for that.”
It’s Indian summer in New York, and thick, slanted light pours in columns down the avenues. The garment district is full of models — running to castings, congregating on street corners. With their colorful clothing and long spiky legs, they look like a species altogether different from the men on the sidewalks pushing reams of fabric on trolleys or pulling racks of clothes in plastic. In New York, you feel the odd collision of worlds that combine to create the fashion business. In lofts of every description, models hand over their portfolios and walk for strangers. Sewing machines, usually operated by Asians, are often humming unobtrusively in a corner. For a new model to get even three shows during Fashion Week is considered an achievement; a particularly “hot” model might end up with 30.
A couple of days into Fashion Week, Michael Flutie and his boyfriend, Patrick Abbey, a painter, hold a party at Jerry’s restaurant in SoHo. James’s mother arrives before James does. She looks fashionably Middle Western in a bright red jacket that stands out amid the charcoal tones of SoHo. Like James, Nancy King has a ready smile and is forthcoming in conversation, though she seems less worldly than her daughter. “It took us all by surprise,” she says of James’s success. “We thought she’d live in Omaha, go back once or twice a month for jobs. Last year, we were just floundering. Now I’ve learned how to travel with her and also have my life at home.” King’s friend Jean Schroeder has come with her to New York from Omaha, and the two plan to go to Broadway shows and restaurants as well as to James’s fashion shows. “People ask me, ‘What about her education?’ ” King says. “But this is an education.”
James arrives in a fuzzy long-sleeved turquoise sweater. Kyle is with her: an affable, unprepossessing youth in jeans and a T-shirt. He works as a cook in Omaha. James perches on a tall stool beside Jean and asks what she and her mom have been up to. Kyle stays close to James. “She needs one person wherever she is,” her mother explains. “She’s so much calmer when Kyle is around.”
Both James and Kyle are staying with Flutie in his Greenwich Village apartment. James’s mother laughs about permitting this arrangement. “Her older sister is 20,” she says, “and I still don’t let her sleep with her boyfriend in the house. Now her younger brother’s saying, ‘What about Jaime?’ and I say, ‘You have the same rules as your older sister. I can’t explain it!’ ”
“Jaime,” she suddenly says, turning to her daughter. “I don’t like that new picture in your book.”
“In the bath. We don’t do that.”
“My nipples are covered,” James points out.
“It’s pornographic,” her mother says, half-teasing. “I’m going to talk to the agency.”
“Mom! That picture is by Ellen von Unwerth!”
But both of them are smiling. “Guess what!” James says, changing the subject. “Someone saw my card at Calvin Klein on the ‘confirmed’ board.” (In the end, she was not cast in Klein’s show.)
James wanders away to talk to Jacques and Pascal, surname-less partners of Haitian descent who have just begun publishing Creme and Sugar, a racy magazine that caters to the fashion crowd. Pascal, who has bleached-blond hair and a black eye patch and wears brightly hued 70’s-style polyester clothes, tells James that he knows of a cooking job Kyle might be able to get. James calls Kyle over excitedly; she’s dying for him to move here. But back at the table, Kyle says he’s not interested in cooking in New York.
“Why not?” James asks, stung.
He shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m just not.”
Later, he mentions missing the friendliness of their hometown, the way everyone knows everyone else. “Sometimes I wonder, What am I doing here?” he says, glancing around him. Still, he’s excited about the fact that a respected photographer, Dah Len, approached him at one of James’s fashion shows and wants to photograph him. The shoot is set for later in November, and Kyle mentions it several times, as if hoping it will lead to something else.
One of Company Management’s bookers breaks the news to James that she must go to a fitting for one of tomorrow’s shows either late tonight or first thing in the morning. “I was there an hour and a half, and they didn’t have it together — they were too busy getting drunk,” James rails good-naturedly, but soon relents. “I’ll do it in the morning. Tell them they can [expletive].”
“She has a mouth,” her mother says. THE NEXT DAY IS HALLOWEEN, and James has five shows in Bryant Park — the first at noon; the last at 8 P.M. Generally, Nancy King says, she goes backstage with her daughter and then slips into the tent about a half-hour before the show to vie for a seat. At Richard Tyler, one of James’s biggest shows, she snags one near the front. James wears three outfits that are all transparent from the waist up, so that her breasts are fully visible. Like the other models, she saunters to the end of the runway and pauses, gazing with an empty expression into a wall of photographers and video cameras. The photographers, by contrast, are a rowdy, familiar bunch, cajoling and heckling — “Come on, Kirsty, turn around!” — as if the models were their exasperating younger sisters. James’s walk has a sweet bounce to it, but her expression is wary and unsmiling. Her mother leans forward in her seat, snapping pictures with an Instamatic.
Later that day, backstage at the Magaschoni show in the Celeste Bartos Forum at the New York Public Library, models pick at Kisses and Snickers from a Halloween assortment. Champagne is flowing. James has developed pinkeye from the constant application and removal of makeup, and it makes her look like she has been crying. Her skin is raw, and too little sleep has left shadows under her eyes. Kyle, who comes to all of her shows, is with her.
On the runway she appears in a gold bikini. (“Eat your heart out,” mutters the woman next to me.) The minute the show is over, James is back in street clothes and being rushed through the rain, past flashing cameras and autograph seekers in Bryant Park to the Josephine Pavilion, where the Ghost fashion show is about to start. The minute she arrives, hair and makeup people set upon her like emergency-room personnel.
There are sandwiches and more Champagne. The room is dense with photographers, many of whom are in pursuit of Carolyn Murphy, a pixie-faced 22-year-old with short caramel-colored hair who is reportedly negotiating an exclusive Prada contract. Interviewers approach her ceaselessly, asking how it feels to be the next supermodel. A woman from a cable-television show wants to shoot her “real life” next week. “We’ll do shopping or something,” she suggests. “We’ll do you wandering through the city. We’ll do. . . . ” Murphy, clearly exhausted, just keeps nodding.
“Looks like she’d rather do sleeping,” someone says.
Later, Murphy rejects the idea of becoming, as she puts it, an “old-school supermodel.” “The prima donna attitude is out,” she says. “It’s been out for a while. You have to be thankful. I want to do my job, do it well and also have my own life.” Having come from a working-class Florida family, she is not one to take riches for granted. “It could end tomorrow,” she says. (The Prada deal eventually fell through.)
James has removed her long-sleeved shirt and tied it over her black bra, so she won’t have to disturb the gigantic cloud of teased hair that now hovers above her face. She cuddles with Kyle. “Did I look bad in the bikini?” she frets. “Did I look like I had cellulite?” She catches herself slouching and forces herself to sit up straight. “My [expletive]posture,” she says. “I’ve gotta fix it. . . . Mommy!”
Her mother has just come from a matinee. “Oh, I love your hair,” she says, touching her daughter’s cotton-candy tease. Ghost will be the host of a Halloween party later tonight, and King seems more eager to go than James. “We had a great time at the Versace party,” she says. “We danced until 3 in the morning!” Someone suggests setting her up on a date, and James whirls around, adamant. “No!” she cries. “Set her up on a date with Dad!”
“First outfits,” someone calls.
James kisses Kyle on the lips. “I gotta go get dressed,” she says.
It is easy to see how, after two years as a fashion model, James finds it hard to envision resuming her old life as a high-school student. At home she’s a celebrity; even if she chose to go back, it would never be the same. And given a choice, what teen-ager could resist this fantasy — complete with glamour, money and the prospect of fame? So teen-age girls simulate an adulthood they have yet to experience, for the consumption of adult women who then feel dogged by standards of youth and beauty they will never meet. Welcome to image culture’s hall of mirrors.
“I have James living in my house,” Flutie says, “and often I have to come home and say: ‘You know what? Mike is not gonna pick up after you and neither is the maid, and go clean your room and clean it now.’ Now, I know that sounds like — what? An agent doing that? But you have to see the bigger picture. At a modeling agency, you’re dealing with 15-, 16-, 17-year-old girls who are setting up their own shop. And they’re asked to take care of their home, cook, travel, clean, manage a bank account and pay for their expenses on their own. I think that’s a pretty big responsibility.
“You really pour your whole life into not only teaching a girl what is a good picture or a bad picture but, like, how to sit at a dinner table and really behave. I think education and having a modeling agency are very, very parallel in a lot of ways, because you have to have a sense of commitment and integrity to young people. In a way, a doctor or a nurse has similar psychological needs. Why does someone become a priest or a rabbi? The modeling world, the fashion industry and the entertainment industry have become a great place to really sort of give yourself.”
Flutie is serious. And for those who find the notion of the entertainment industry being filled with would-be nurses and priests looking for ways to give of themselves, or of modeling agencies as educational institutions, a bit hard to swallow, we can only hope that he and others will live by this loopy idealism. For one thing we can be certain of: in a culture where “being someone” means “being someone people can see,” where fame and fortune are held up as the highest possible achievements in any life, modeling will remain irresistible to children and even some parents. James King’s precocious career is the fulfillment of a set of cultural desires she herself was in the grip of — before she was propelled into the very kinds of pictures that once mesmerized her. And that’s what it’s all about: getting to the other side of that equation. “I want little girls to want to be me,” says Kelly Stewart, the 14-year-old model, in a moment of endearing tautology, as if becoming the object of her own desire will finally satisfy it.
AT THE END OF FASHION Week, James and seemingly every other model in New York are at Bowery Bar. Crammed under its twirling ceiling fans, a gorgeous fashion crowd kisses hello on both cheeks and then hollers spearmint-gum-scented prattle over the dance beat. James sits next to Kyle, smoking and barely touching a Caesar salad. “I got 18 shows,” she says. “That’s more than any other girl at the agency.” Yet her excitement seems fleeting, and she’s quick to say that successes like these don’t really matter.
Farther down the same table, Radutoiu is still basking in satisfaction over her last show, Marithe and Francois Girbaud, which took place this afternoon. “I want to go back to today,” she sighs, draining her Coke. “I want to do Girbaud again.” She ended up with four shows each in New York and in Paris — a respectable first season.
James has brought her journal along to the restaurant. As the night goes on, she begins writing furiously in a fancy, looping script. When asked, she reads a few sentences aloud that describe, in rhyme, how uncomfortable she feels in this place where everyone watches everyone else.
She will go back to Omaha for the holidays. She and Kyle will break up — though there’s no hint of that now. Come early March, she will be settled again in New York where, before long, the spring shows will begin. This time she hopes she’ll have the pick of the lot.
By the time she is 20, she will very likely have made it to superstardom or have moved on. When James is finished modeling she wants to be a writer, she says, or maybe a photographer. Amid the chaos of Bowery Bar, James is using her straw to chase a cherry through her Shirley Temple and talking not of her future but her past.
“Should I have stayed a kid?” she asks, not looking up. “I think that’s a question I’ll always wonder about.”
Copyright (2001) The New York Times Company. Reprinted by Permission. New York Times material may not be used in any manner except for personal reference without the written permission of The New York Times Company.