Carolita Johnson | Longreads | August 2018 | 19 minutes (4,656 words)
At first I was worried about saying my first day job was as a model in Paris, because I don’t want to infuriate people out there who have certain very hard-to-shake preconceptions (involving envy and scorn, simultaneously) about models and modeling. But you know what? Screw it. My first day job was as a model in Paris.
This is how it happened.
I was a fashion design student at Parson’s School of Design back in 1984. A reluctant one. I had wanted to go to SUNY Stonybrook to be an English Major, another thing that infuriates certain demographics, particularly the one my parents belong to: firmly middle class, non-college-educated first-generation Americans. They, with visions gleaned from TV sitcoms and 1950s movies of “mad men of advertising” in their heads, decided they’d rather see themselves dead — “over my dead body” said my father, only the second time in his life, the first being when I asked for bagpipe lessons — and made me go to art school instead. Who ever heard of that? But yes:
I fought them to at least let me go to Parson’s, because of the BFA in Liberal Studies that was attached to the art degree on offer, unlike F.I.T. at the time, which only offered certificates but was cheaper and therefore more attractive to my dad. I posited that neither of my brothers wanted to attend college, and it wasn’t like I was asking to go to medical school, so they were getting off easy. Also, after raiding my dad’s dresser and finding his bank book, which explained why I’d been turned down for every kind of financial aid I’d applied for, I shamelessly blackmailed him with the terrifying specter of my mother’s rage if she were to find out he was limiting my access to a better, more high class diploma, which he could perfectly afford. Education was everything in our house, right up there next to financial security and a constant sense of unspecified shame.
My ultimate plan was to take some kind of art course that wouldn’t take up too much bandwidth in my brain, get my BFA, and use it to pursue a Masters in, guess what? Last laugh would be mine: English Majordom. All I had to do was sit tight and draw stupid pictures for teachers who I considered artistic sell-outs, who were glad to put up with me and any other student whose only real talent was possessing parents with enough dough to finance their nice salary and benefits for four years.
Yeah, I was young and righteous, and had no idea yet that health insurance could be important enough, to some artists and designers, to compel them to take jobs teaching snotty young adults like me in universities.
So, I got my BFA in Fashion Design, which was the form of art I most despised, figuring the less esteem I had for what I was studying in art school, the less tempted I’d be to pursue it after graduation if I had any propensity for caving, which was unlikely but who knows! As a preventive strategy it worked, sort of.
In my senior year, there was a trend in the fashion world that called for “regular people” instead of models, otherwise known in the business as “ugly models.” I was unaware of this till a year or two later when I was left flabbergasted on a trolley in Milan after someone asked if I was with the “Ugly People Agency.” So when a Parson’s alumni asked if I would model for a designer I’d actually heard of, I was pretty damn flattered. I cut class and did my first fashion show for $50. I justified this after calculating that my dad was paying less than $50 for each day of school. I realize this seems impossible to anyone attending Parson’s now, over 30 years later. Eat your hearts out, suckers. Here’s a tip: if you don’t yet know what you want to do, the only year worth paying for is 1: Foundation Year. (*I should say, opinions are that of the author and not necessarily that of this publication.)
A few other people asked me to model for them after that. I was glad to, even if I wasn’t quite ready to process the memories this activity re-awakened in me of my middle school classmates calling me “Ape-Face Johnson” and “ugly,” among other, very unmentionable (meaning, racist) epithets. My looks became acceptable by senior year thanks to the new trend of models with un-plucked eyebrows and full-lips, but I was reluctant to get comfortable with my new status as “pretty.” It wasn’t that I had self-esteem issues — before, during, and after “Ape-Face” I had found my looks mostly unobjectionable. It was only that I’d learned how fickle people were and that “beautiful” and “ugly” were arbitrary concepts liable to change places without notice. I would forever be wary about having the rug pulled out from under me again.
My trepidations aside, I’ve always been loathe to say no to an opportunity for an unexpected glimpse into a world I have no access to otherwise. I took every modeling job I was offered, and it felt wonderfully like pulling on the thread that unravels everything. By my third year at Parson’s, I was fully immersed in Fashion Design, more and more fluent in it. It’s my nature to persevere and succeed, even in things I don’t like. Taking a job in a design house upon graduation could too easily have turned into a forty-year rut instead of a brief pause. Every modeling job I did deprogrammed me a little more and brought me closer to my original plan: to take that BFA and run.
By the time I graduated (which, technically, I didn’t, but that’s another story), I had cultivated two ideas about my life and vocation:
1. I wanted to write and illustrate writing, hopefully my own.
2. I had nothing to say yet, and therefore nothing to illustrate yet, either.
I therefore needed to get out of the house and do some living — out of the country, ideally. My plan, since I was about 9 years old, had always been to travel and live abroad for at least 10 years once I was old enough to leave my parents’ house. I had planned to do this as soon as I was legally an adult, at 18. But by 18 I modified my plans after a summer job in a supermarket. There, I’d worked with older women I perceived were living in precarious financial situations and a dearth of hope due to limits placed on them by their level of education.
So, by the late-80s I had my education. It meant I probably — hopefully — wouldn’t end up working in a supermarket forever. I didn’t consider the four years studying something I didn’t care about a waste because persevering in spite of my lack of interest gave me the discipline I’d need to pursue anything else I put my mind to. I threw my fashion design portfolio to the back of my bedroom closet, got two summer jobs in SoHo boutiques, another one in a Chelsea crabhouse, and informed my parents I’d be going abroad in the fall.
I’d found one modeling agency that thought I could get work in London. One. All the others said I didn’t stand a chance, to give it up, not waste my time.
In retrospect, they were right, but only in a practical way. If you want to be a model, you probably want to make more than 30K a year. I did not. For what I earned, I could have played it safe, stayed home and become a receptionist or underpaid assistant designer somewhere, married some guy, had kids, settled down, become Lucy Jordan. But modeling got me out of the house and into other countries— into independence. It threw me into uncertainty and dicey situations I’d have to learn to navigate or come to a bad end. It threw me into life. And that’s all I wanted. That was the prize.
So, if my “real” job was going to be as a writer/illustrator, my day job was getting “out there” and having experiences; growing up out of the persona of a sheltered middle-class child of conservative (in every sense of the word) parents whose only dream for me was to get a job in a fancy office and marry the fancy boss. So, yeah, my first day job was modeling in Paris.
Like any day job, it meant being someone else, especially at first, when I needed it the most. I had the dubious and rather humiliating honor of being the model that everyone got when they couldn’t get the model they really wanted.
Sometimes the client had difficulty believing I was a model at all.
When the “ugly model” trend gathered full momentum, I was finally able to stop eating nothing but corn flakes for all my meals and splurge on well-rounded healthy meals. I worked for some pretty prestigious photographers and designers. Unfortunately when you work for the high end people, they consider it a favor and don’t pay you much. You’re supposed be glad to work for them almost for free, then wait for the less cool, less prestigious clients to come sniffing around to offer you lots of money to make them look as cool as the cool people they saw you working for. Then the even less cool people, the huge clients with boring clothes in catalogues, will give you so much work making their stuff look cool, that you’ll be able to buy yourself an apartment, maybe even also buy your mom a house, then retire as a yoga teacher or a rich man’s trophy wife.
Alas (I say “alas,” but maybe it was a good thing), that didn’t happen for us “ugly models.” When ugly was over, so were we. “But you’re not ugly,” you say? Ah, but would that I really were. I wasn’t “ugly” enough to stay on after the fad as one of the more unusual looking models, and I wasn’t pretty enough to stay on as a “normal” model. I was back to that “pretty girl who doesn’t have what it takes,” just like that guy had told me a few years earlier.
Now, I was dressed to the nines, but broke all the time. Me and a friend of mine, J., another model paid mostly in clothes instead of money, we had a deal: if we’d made plans it was okay to back out with short notice if someone else invited only one of us out to dinner, because, well, free food. Bread making its stealthy way from the basket on the restaurant table into pockets and handbags was nothing to sneeze at. Paid mostly in fabulous designer clothing instead of money, we were young, glamorous, hungry, and we had a special arrangement.
C’est la vie. I reminded myself that it was a day job, not my forever job, anyway. But the rent must be paid, so I contacted a designer friend who’d always expressed an interest in working with me in some capacity. This led to my next day job as a stuffed animal designer and handbag designer’s assistant in Spain. I packed up and moved to Spain with my dog. We were illegal immigrants. Oh, by the way, I’d been illegally modeling in Paris that whole time, too, which was why I had no bank account and lived off the money I kept in a boot after cashing my checks at a mysterious bulletproof window in a dark, covered alley, the nature of which as a business I was never quite sure.
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A few months into this, my Spanish employer realized they couldn’t pay me except in a one-way ticket out of Madrid, and after six months of glomming cans of sardines and other leftovers for me and my dog off her seamstresses and my roommates, I came “home” to Paris. My next day job was at a mosaic studio, where the boss thought he’d be able to get me a work visa, but couldn’t. Instead, he tended to show up way too early at my garret on rue Vaneau with croissants, so very French, so very Pepe le Pew.
At least this variety of Frenchman takes it sportingly and doesn’t become a dangerous stalker. He really did try to get me my working papers. But when he failed, I lucked out: he was friends with one of the designers I’d worked with before, and word got back to them that I needed work. They offered me seasonal in-house modeling work, the kind “real models,” the ones you’ve heard of and envied, don’t have time to do because they’re busy doing magazine shoots and runway shows, living the good life. For two weeks at a time, three or four times a year, I’d put on as much weight as I possibly could so I’d fit into the press samples, which were made for models eight inches taller than me. Every season they’d check that I wasn’t “too skeeeny” before booking me. This was how I did it:
I did this for 10 years. In between seasons, I had other day jobs. In the course of that decade, tired of trying to get people to hire me for “real” work and failing to convince them that I was more than just a pretty/not-ugly-enough-anymore face, I decided I needed to go back to school and get that English diploma. Realizing I didn’t have the means to pay for that back home in the USA, I conned the French into thinking I was one of their citizens’ common-law wife (also known as a “concubine”) and got into French college for free.
I did not go to the Sorbonne, which I considered too bourgeois. I chose Jussieu, the university that offered Latin in the first year of a major called “Modern Letters.” I’d always wanted to take Latin and wasn’t going back to school without it. This education I considered as part of my “real job.” For a year I studied French grammar, “orthography,” and used the language labs every night at the public library till 11pm in preparation for my entrance exam. When I got accepted, I went to my future school and found out what book was assigned for the Latin course I wanted to take, and did all the homework for the first semester over the summer, because I figured I needed a head start, learning Latin in French.
For five years I took courses that would have made my parents’ hair stand on end: comp lit, the art of the dissertation, psychoanalysis 101, structural linguistics, Ancient Greek, Latin, Ancient French… The authorities finally caught up with me while I was in pre-doc, studying Medieval Anthropology, habitually hanging out at the National Library, where I’d read manuscripts with white cotton gloves on when I wasn’t eying the attractive young philosophy PhDs.
During all this time in school, I was hardworking, grateful, never cheated, lived without heat and hot water or my own toilet in garrets, took my shower in the public baths, and loved every minute of it. My mother sent me a little money every month, as prescribed by French law for foreign students, to prove I wasn’t attending school just for the visa. I was so frugal that I barely used it. My rent was only $100 a month — can you believe it? This made it possible to be picky about day jobs.
My college day job was as a typist, transcribing translations, which I only learned to type for after getting the job.
It was fun, but it gave me “Bible bumps,” aka ganglion cysts, in both my wrists, as well as a touch of carpal tunnel. Nevertheless, I loved my crazy boss and his family and learned so much from the translations I typed for him, that it was totally worth it. Now that I was working legally, I had the right to five weeks of paid vacation. I used my vacation time to do the fashion work for my old client, Jean-Paul Gaultier, giving my wrists a couple weeks to rest every few months.
But in the middle of my first pre-doc year, as I was researching medieval nuns’ relationship to their menstrual cycles, my working papers were denied and I was informed that I should be getting back to my “country of origin” soon. It meant my two bosses could no longer legally employ me, and I had to find other less scrupulous, or more gullible bosses. For a few weeks I cycled in and out of boutique shopgirl work and fancy restaurant hostess work. The most annoying part of the restaurant work was the men grabbing me all the time, and I mean everyone from customers to busboys and managers. By the summer of that year, it was a relief to self-deport back to New York.
Relief, however, was short-lived, as I ran into the same grabby man-hands in fancy American restaurants. I eventually began working for a couple photographers, managing their studios, in the course of which I learned how to use computers and various softwares. After two years of working till 8pm every day at less than 30K a year with no overtime or benefits — feeling like I had no future, 15K in credit card debt from self-medicating my depression with shopping, facials and sushi — I faked my way into a job as a database beta tester, installer, and tech support specialist at a French software company and went back to France, legally this time.
Luckily, through a combination of my research experience and my training in structural linguistics at French university, plus my uncanny ability to find needles in haystacks, the job was not just easy for me but felt mostly like being paid to play a marathon game of “Battleship” every day, and it went down in my employment history as one of my favorites.
Remember how I said I was going abroad for about 10 years after graduating from college? I was now in my 12th year abroad. I’d taken the software job thinking it was going to be so easy that I’d come home and draw at the drafting table I built myself in my “studette,” or write stories on my laptop every night. But I didn’t. The full-time job still took a lot out of me. It wasn’t boring enough or idle enough for me to escape into creativity. Instead, the tech support side, as fun as it was, burned me out. I was 37 and had a 13 year-old dog, and was going nowhere, and my decade of traveling to get out and “live” had come and gone.
Two years into working for them, the software company I was working for decided to send me to their New York branch for a couple of months to work with their developer. In a lapse of judgement they also directed me to be their telephone salesperson there as well, the horror (to an introvert like me) of which made me retreat into my old escapist self. What was I doing selling a software whose bugs I spent all day dealing with when I should be writing and drawing by now? I contacted a friend at The New Yorker and asked if I could come over and look at any artist portfolios that might be lying around. I wanted to see how real artists whose work I’d seen obtained that work.
When I got to her office, my friend had forgotten about this request. “Wait a minute,” she said, “Crawford is around here somewhere, and he’s got three portfolios here. Let me go find him.” This was how I was introduced to one of The New Yorker’s funniest cartoonists. He also happened to be a painter and illustrator, thus the three portfolios. He was the perfect specimen. Not only that, my friend was supposed to play pool with him that evening, but had to work instead. So, she put us together and shooed us out to go play without her.
That night, for the first time in my life I chatted with a real artist, one who made a living from his art and nothing else. He talked to me like a peer, about art supplies, inspirations, publications, how he’d begun, how he’d survived, the ups and downs. Until that evening, cartoonists and illustrators had seemed like mythical creatures to me. The only artists in my little world were the commercial artists of the “mad men” type from TV sitcoms, or amalgams of the starving, Bohemian artists of “An American in Paris” and the insane artist from Albert Camus’ “The Artist at Work,” neither of which I identified with.
The idea of me being paid to express myself artistically and able to pay rent in New York City had seemed as improbable as “Ape-Face” becoming a fashion model. It was perhaps this fluke that made me suspect the Improbable need not be the enemy of the Possible. Meeting Crawford, who gave me advice on paper and pencils, not to mention encouragement, confirmed that for me. When I got back to Paris, I gave my boss two months’ notice that I would be returning to New York for good to pursue a new life and day job.
What that day job would be, I had no idea. I was officially unemployed and my credit card debt was waiting for me when I returned. I contacted a friend who’d once saved me from despair at Parson’s when she saw tears begin to run down my face during a patternmaking class. With a birdlike flutter of the hands she had reached over to the pieces of my pattern, turned them around to fit with each other and shown me, “Look, it’s easy; just do this.” All I was sure of now was that if anyone could see a solution to my problem that I couldn’t see, she was the one. Fifteen years later she still had the knack: she looked at me, looked me up and down, then said, “Let me measure you.” Once she’d measured me, she said, “You can be a fit model. You can do fittings for samples. In fact, you can probably start by working for me.” And that was my next day job.
It was a job that, once I got an agent and a few other clients, paid $250 an hour. For the first two years of it, before the Great Recession, I had one client who booked me for three full days a week, leaving me with enough time to draw, and enough money to pay off my debt. A few years later, I had two more clients like that. At its worst, it was a job that bored me to death, eroded my body image, and ruined my feet after years of standing still in high heels for hours at a time. (You want to know what fit models talk about when they get together at the agency holiday party? Chiropractors and orthopedic insoles.)
At its best, it was a lucrative job that introduced me to a few hardworking immigrants who, fascinated and inspired by my other life as an artist, inspired me, too, kept me sane in an insane, fickle and superficial world. I maintained this balance until I had to quit to take care of Crawford, who I married 14 years after that fateful day we both got stood up at The New Yorker.
My latest day job is as a counterperson at the local cafe in a small city 100 miles from New York. It’s a job I procured when my late husband and I moved upstate in search of a lower rent. At that time, I was still modeling in New York City, but I’ve always made sure to seek employment in whatever city I live in, because there’s no better way to become part of its community than to work there. At that moment in time, I didn’t need the job in the financial sense — I only needed it in the moral sense. But I foresaw a day when I might quit my job in the big city in order to take better care of my aging husband, and figured the sooner I scouted the local employment territory the better.
This was the cafe where we would hold our official wedding (for years we’d found it was enough to just call each other “husband” and “wife”). When my husband died, and I was incapable of doing mostly anything, the cafe offered me a haven, moral support, muscle (in case of needing to move furniture), lunch every now and then when I was strong enough to leave the house, and friendship. When I returned to work, my dog was even welcome to sit quietly in a chair during my shift, providing emotional support on tap to us all.
While I was still completely numb with bereavement, I kept a second part time job across the street in a dress shop, where the owner had proposed, upon offering me the job, that I could work on my writing and drawing during the “slower moments.” But I am not Kafka, and we live in a capitalist culture, so naturally the owner preferred to pay me to sweep the floor and dust and check off a list of “busywork” during the slower moments than to know I was sitting around drawing or writing my own things. Eventually I realized overemployment was keeping me from my own work, and I quit that job. Within a week, I sold my first cartoon since starting to draw again.
Emerging from the mental lethargy of bereavement and finding myself writing and drawing again, I reduced my half-day shifts at the cafe to three. I’m the oldest person there but, somehow, doing the same job as people younger than me there makes me identify with their age bracket, particularly in practical and financial terms. I know how it feels to look at my check and see the same numbers they look at. Alternately, I find myself treating them like they’re as experienced in life as I am, possibly sometimes to their benefit, but possibly not always. Every now and then I have to remind myself that I’m “old.”
Which brings me to an occasional impression I have that some older women frequenting the cafe view me as a specter of failure from a cautionary tale of aging womanhood in the patriarchy: the one in which if you didn’t play your cards right, marry well (or divorce well), or at least have a “great job” (meaning one with benefits, and above all one that did not pull the rug out from under you before you were actually ready to retire) this is how you will end up: single, childless, a mere “countergirl” at 53.
I’ve perceived older women treating me with downright disdain. And then there’s the older men from a generation that it’s plainly obvious was taught that as long as they are cis-gender and at least middle class, they are better off and more powerful than some middle-aged woman they see working in a small town cafe.
It could be my imagination. It isn’t unimaginable that I may have internalized my own, very conservative mother’s fears for my welfare in a man’s world to the point of projecting this upon strangers. But I’ll tell you this much: whenever people want to talk to the manager, ageism probably has something to do with the way they walk past my young bosses and come to me.
Bursting people’s bubbles is part of my real job.
A Woman’s Work: Home Economics
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Carolita Johnson is a writer, storyteller and cartoonist who contributes regularly to the New Yorker.
Editor: Sari Botton