2008 | Issue One | Nonfiction
I JUST RETURNED to Brooklyn from a short business trip in Milan. I spent two days there lending my face to the marketing efforts behind a mediocre Italian consumer product. It was a satisfying and enriching experience, as are all of my experiences as a marginally successful international model. Let me tell you about it.
My Italian booker summoned me to the job just two days before the shoot. The period between her 8 a.m. phone call and my arrival the following day in Milan was a blurry commotion of packing, public transit, airports and fractured sleep. I awoke into full consciousness somewhere on the red Metropolitana line, in time to hear a recorded female voice intone, “Cadorna... fermata Cadorna,” signaling my departure point. I pulled my suitcase up two long flights of stairs, past promotional images of flesh and high thread counts, and onto the sidewalk of Piazza Cadorna. I stood for a moment beneath Ago, Filo e Nodo, the massive sculpture of a needle weaving thread through Milanese concrete. D&G’s latest ad campaign, replete with oiled abdominals, loomed from a billboard on the opposite side of the plaza. The sun glinted sharply off the needle’s shaft. I winced, squinted, lowered my gaze and, sweating in the late July heat, trudged a short distance to my agents’ lair, the command center of Elite Milano.
I stepped through the front door into the heart of the desert. Tendrils of cigarette smoke wafted from the patio and dispersed through the room, cloaking the scene in a light grey fog. Shrill, ludic babble drifted in Slavic accents from skeletal teenage girls huddled in a far corner. A couple of them glanced at me, flashing shadowed, wide-set eyes from a collage of makeup, legs, designer accessories and hair of the moment. Framed magazine covers lined the walls around them, featuring styled, retouched faces that could as likely have belonged to the girls in the room as not. Closer to the entrance, chiseled, apathetic louts slumped on couches, their ears, eyes and fingers listlessly occupied with personal electronic devices. One of them, who I dimly recognized from some fashion week past, greeted me with monosyllables and extended his fist. He was unkempt and affectless to a degree suggesting that he’d been staying in Milan for some time. I returned his gesture with a stock salutation and bumped his fist with my own. This was a standard greeting pattern that after eight months in the business I had grudgingly come to accept and practice. My early attempts to execute traditional handshakes had been too often met with awkward, stilted reciprocation or hints of derision.
Having completed the ritual, the boy pulled his flaxen locks behind his ears, reinserted white plastic earbuds and toggled the iPod Shuffle clipped to the cuff of his green and yellow Brasil t-shirt. I wheeled my suitcase out of the lounge area and toward the men’s office. In the intervening hallway I found D, a twenty-year-old male model from rural North Carolina, standing beside one of the women’s’ agents in front of the wide rack of female models’ composite cards. The agent, a perpetually tan thirty-something man prone to chain-smoking and vulgar outbursts, was scanning the grid of images, pulling down preferred ones and handing them to D, saying, “Ah, you should fuck her... yes, she is very nice....” They paused for a moment, turning to say, “Ciao,” and, “‘Sup, bro,” and then resumed making selections.
Edging around D, I entered the office and greeted my agents. W, a slender, narrow-eyed, middle-aged man in a gold Dolce & Gabbana track jacket, nodded at me as he carried on a languid phone conversation in Italian. M and M, two interchangeable women slightly younger than W, both donned their smiley faces, kissed my cheeks, and made gratuitous use of the words amore and bello. This false cheer was part of their usual routine of establishing a semblance of goodwill and benevolence, but this time it was unusually flagrant. I presumed that they were attempting to offset the tone of our interactions over the recent fashion week, during which I, through sheer persistence, at last budged them into resolving the errors in my balance sheet. They had double-charged me for an earlier apartment bill, billed me nine days for a seven-day stay, and charged me for an airplane ticket that should have been paid for by a client. These mistakes came just a few months after similar errors that I had likewise managed to have reconciled in the face of much resistance. Unlike many models at my agency, I kept careful track of my expenses in Milan, and was able to catch my agents when they tried to skim money off my account.
Formalities complete, M and M quickly dispatched me with keys to my apartment and returned to their computer screens and cell phones, content that I hadn’t missed my plane and that their 40% cut was thus secure. I walked three meandering blocks through pungent clouds of hydrocarbons spewed by stylish two-stroke scooters to the same tiny studio where I had wallowed during my visit for fashion week in June. With its vinyl tile floors, white painted cinderblock walls, dropped ceiling, and rusty electric hot plates in the makeshift kitchen, the space had the warm ambiance of a middle school cafeteria in cramped miniature. Entering the room this time, I noticed that its ceiling and walls were still dotted with the carcasses of the mosquitoes that I had fastidiously executed one month earlier.
The air in Milan is choked with mosquitoes during the summertime, and regardless of precaution a dozen or more of them would manage to infiltrate the apartment each day. During fashion week and the few days following it, I’d made a ritual of terminating every mosquito in the room before going to bed at night, using my copy of Play It As It Lays. I found that the bodies had a fifty percent chance of remaining stuck to the wall as opposed to the book, so that the tiny explosions of blood and legs spread across the walls and ceiling like a firmament, reflecting approximately half of the total dead. These nightly exterminations were the only way to secure a full night’s sleep, and they provided an oddly cathartic release from a day of intense immersion in Milan’s modeling culture. Standing once again in this bleak dwelling, I felt squarely reestablished, reunited with the winged hématophages in the apartment and the two-legged ones at the agency.
It was around 16:30 when I entered the apartment. A lanky, wan body in black boxer briefs was asleep on the thin mattress on the lower bunk. His face was buried in the pillow, but from the square head and creased brow I recognized the body as belonging to R, my roommate from fashion week. He had been living in this hovel continuously since I’d left at the end of June. My entrance stirred him from his dingy sheets—we had no maid service or convenient laundromat—and he stumbled red-eyed into the bathroom. After two flushes and numerous phlegm noises, he returned and eagerly explained what had caused him to sleep in so late.
“I went out with Umberto and Gesualdo last night. They got me fucked up on coke... and MDMA... and GHB—Yeah, you can mix those, no problem!—and then Umberto let me drive his Porsche all over Milan at, like, four in the morning. Those guys are awesome.”
R, an eighteen-year-old high school dropout with an inordinate amount of stress lines around his eyes and mouth, had introduced me to Umberto and Gesualdo at our agency’s fashion week party. Umberto, R explained privately, had secured his retirement by selling his business some years ago and now spent the bulk of his time farting around on his yacht and throwing drug-fueled parties for an ever-changing entourage of models less than half his age. Just a couple days prior to meeting R during fashion week, Umberto had been kicked out of his rental apartment on Piazza Castello for throwing one too many all-night saturnalias. Gesualdo was a fellow affluent who I never saw without a Gatorade bottle—the vessel which supplied his nearly constant intake of GHB—gripped in his hand.
The modeling scene is rife with wealthy vultures like Umberto and Gesualdo, and with their hangers-on. In the case of male modeling the vultures tend to be gay men rather than straight women. Some of them have a working connection, often tenuous, to the fashion industry, but most seem to just be following the fashion week parties from Milan to Paris to New York. That I don’t see Umberto’s station as enviable is the essence of the disconnect between me and many other people in this industry. R, on the other hand, thrived on their attention and their dispensation of drugs, automotive adventures, open access to clubs and exclusive parties, and, occasionally, outright cash. After his first interactions with them in June, I suggested to R that they would eventually expect favors in return, but he dismissed the possibility. Now, one month later, he was still receiving the benefits of their attention, but I didn’t have time to probe what exactly that entailed.
During fashion week castings, when I’d lived with R and four other models in a two-bedroom space adjacent to the studio, R gained minor renown for his ability to coolly absorb footblows to his genitalia. Visitors were often invited to directly participate in the display of R’s unusual talent, which R attributed to his testicles having been rendered numb, at an early age, by the hooves of a neighbor’s piebald. Guests, male and female alike, took great delight in applying their best punting form to R’s gonads and in observing his absolute lack of reaction. R clearly relished the attention. One night, during fashion week proper, after some of our jobless roommates had left Milan and we had moved over to the studio, R, loose and drowsy on GHB, confided that his story about the horse was untrue, and that he was able to take the kicks so calmly because most people missed the testicles and hit the grundle. “People never notice that I raise up on my toes a little bit... and that usually makes them hit too low.” For those occasions when metatarsals did connect, R told me, “It really hurts, but I just take a drag from my cigarette—you notice how I’m always smoking when I do it?—and take a slow breath and try to smile and not let it show.”
My call time for the photo shoot was 6:30 the next morning, so I unpacked my suitcase, left R to smoke Marlboro Reds on the back porch, and spent a brief night out in the city. Two Swedish models living next door left their room just as I did and invited me to join them for dinner. One of them, T, had had an enormously successful fashion week in June. On the weekends bookending fashion week he would mysteriously disappear, claiming afterwards, with a flushed face, that he “went to stay with a girl.” A model at our agency discovered that he was, in fact, being flown to some unknown location to spend casual time with our agent, W, and Stefano Gabbana. As to what precisely transpired over those weekends, and what their connection was to his fashion week success and subsequent booking of the D&G campaign, we couldn’t be sure and didn’t want to ask.
Exiting the apartment complex, T and his roommate, A, made a beeline for the McDonald’s across the street. I politely declined that dining option, electing to take a solitary stroll through Parco Sempione and pick up groceries from Peck. I bought out the last flaky dregs from a decent pasticceria, ate them under waning dusk in the Piazza Duomo, and returned to the studio, which was now devoid of R. Using R’s book of unattempted Sudoku puzzles, I added four new mosquito splotches to the ceiling before laying my jet-lagged head to rest on the top bunk.
My cell phone’s alarm clock roused me at 5:30 the next morning with a jangly MIDI tune. The lower bunk was empty. I ate a breakfast of fresh figs smeared with truffled goat cheese, then bathed, shaved, and rode rickety streetcars to the rendezvous point. The photographer, a thoroughly kind and enthusiastic Italian man, greeted me with a handshake and led me to a cafe where we drank espresso and ate croissants with the crew, most of whom were already smoking in earnest. From the cafe, a white van transported us to the location, an abandoned textile factory fifty kilometers outside the city.
Waiting at the site were three representatives of the fashion label to whom we were responsible. They held a brief meeting with the photographer and crew while I observed from a distance. No one bothered to convey to me the essential point of their discussion, which, of course, was irrelevant to me. As the one person on the set without any responsibility for real creative input, the model is generally excluded from such dialogues. Two of the representatives drove away immediately after the discussion, while the third, an austere, grey-haired Austrian named H, approached me and introduced himself as the label’s artistic director. “You are a very different look for us this season,” he said. “It is a new direction and we are very excited!”
As the crew dispersed and began to set up their equipment, I wandered around the cavernous factory that I supposed had once hummed with spinning, weaving and knitting machines. Every surface in the vast room was festooned with peeling paint and asbestos-laden debris. The ceiling was supported by a grid of stone columns, and tall, narrow windows lined all four walls, framing a panoramic view of the surrounding hills and the storm clouds gathering above them. The windowsills were littered with dust and the desiccated bodies of bees that had buzzed in through broken panes and evidently hadn’t found their way back out. Seeing that the crew was still far from ready, I sat against the wall beneath one of the sills and opened the book that I’d brought to pass the downtime. The first pangs of ennui were already creeping in.
Thirty pages into The Serpent and the Rainbow, I was summoned to the stylists’ station. The chair was enveloped in a thin haze of Gauloises smoke rendered bright white by the incandescent bulbs encircling the mirror. The garrulous and hyper-effeminate makeup artist smeared various powders and creams around my face, projecting his stale cigarette breath as he maintained an unbroken exchange of lilting babble with the hairstylist. He spoke to me only to deliver the instruction, “Eyes up,” so that he could address my lower lids, and, “Okay, you are done.” The hairstylist took over and performed his work in silence, occasionally accenting a brushstroke or smear of styling creme with a breathy, exaggerated exclamation: “Bello... Beeeeello... Bellissimo! Your hair, it is nice...”
Over the course of my first few months working as a model, I developed an essential defense mechanism that has allowed me to cope with the tedium of a photo shoot. During the hair and makeup process, as each swipe of gel and smudge of foundation renders my face more plastic, I allow my thinking self to recede bit by bit into hibernation. The makeup mirror informs me that I am entering a time and space where I have no purpose other than to follow an excruciatingly mundane series of orders. “Take off those trousers and try the black ones there. Put on those shoes. No, put on the brown ones instead. Let’s change the tie. Put on this jacket. Can someone pin the jacket? Okay, stand over here. Good. Good. Try hands in pockets. No, maybe just one hand. Chin down a bit. Smile.” My free will and self-identity ebb away until, rising fully groomed from the makeup chair, I am resigned to servitude, a total suppression of all creative and emotional impulses. If left unchecked in the face of such crushing understimulation, these impulses would revolt and render me inappropriate for corporate advertising. Self-induced zombification, catalyzed by makeup application, is the only way I can successfully endure a shoot, and this job in Milan was no exception.
H approached. “His hair, it is done? Good, let’s dress him.” He led me to a long rack hung with various sartorial ensembles, pointed out a particular outfit, and asked me to change into it. Standing in my socks and underwear, sliding my arms into a crisp white dress shirt, I sensed that my transformation into an automaton was complete.
The shoot ensued. Photographs were taken, clothes were changed, more photographs were taken, and so on, for hours.
Late in the afternoon, the hovering storm clouds finally erupted into rain. The windows began to leak, soaking the sills and reconstituting the dried bees that I’d noticed earlier. I examined them while the photographer reviewed some shots on his laptop. Rehydrated, the insects looked freshly dead, almost lifelike. Some still had undelivered cargos of pollen attached to their back legs. In the boredom and exhaustion of the sixth hour of shooting, and in the absence of any other stimuli, the phrase “reconstituted bees” became ludicrously, cosmically comical, and it refused to be dislodged from my head. The photographer called me to resume the shoot, and I had to conjure gruesome mental images in order to refrain from laughing hysterically in front of the camera.
I managed to maintain relative composure until the final shot of the day, which featured me brooding in a black pea coat next to one of the windows, where the little critters lurked just beneath my gaze. Their proximity was too much to bear. My pupils were drawn inexorably to the bees, and I broke down and giggled uncontrollably. I attempted to explain myself to the crew, but the humor failed to pass intact across the language barrier. Any fluently English-speaking fashion crew in New York would surely have been even less amused. Eventually, I calmed myself long enough to feign fierceness, and after a couple dozen clicks the photographer declared that he had “the shot.” Following a momentary group hurrah, H announced that he was “very happy, very pleased with the photos,” and the crew began dismantling and packing their equipment.
The white van deposited me and my suitcase at a train station, where I boarded the Malpensa Express and headed to the airport. So, the trip certainly ended with a bang! Those bees were the absolute highlight of my time there. Milan’s modeling culture is full of curious specimens of Animalia—leeches, mosquitoes, vultures, and drugged-up teenagers—but, hands down, the reconstituted bee is the most amusing member of the menagerie. Occasionally I’m asked for advice from young people interested in pursuing a modeling career. I ask them this: Can you exude aplomb in the presence of a reconstituted bee? Yes? Go for it. 💣
WILLIAM FOSTER lives in Oregon City, Oregon.
Copyright William Foster
Photo by George Allen