By Alison Satterwhite
Part 4: The Shag and Drag
“Oh…and the San Francisco Examiner wants to do a 5 page editorial spread on you for their Sunday insert. We need to work on your look. Meet me in my offices next week and we will discuss,” my agent said abruptly. Ecstatic, I called anyone who could get excited for me, packed my bags and boarded the plane home to Spokane. I would definitely need my mother there for moral support on the next round of critiquing. For the next week, we would verbally replay this scenario over and over, as if to validate its reality. Could it be that my second photo shoot ever would be for the Examiner? Could it be true that I was actually going to Milan–literally THE fashion capital and home to the best fashion designers in the world? Armani, Valentino, Versace, Prada, Missoni, Dolce & Gabbana–just to name a few. Not to mention, it’s the place where all models get their start. This was the era of the “supermodel”, a term propegated to describe the deluge of high-paid, campaign wielding girls of this generation. Milan was, and still is literally a boot camp and haven for up and coming and well-established models of the day like Christy Turlington, Amber Valetta, Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, and Linda Evangelista. It is a place for the best of the best in the industry, right along side, if not above in its importance, to New York, London and Paris. Sheer excitement and adrenaline kept me going for the next week as I prepared for another test shoot and my editorial spread in the Examiner. My agent must have worked his back-door connections in order for me to land a gig like this, and I would come to realize the importance of having someone really dig in and market me. Without his belief in my abilities, I could go nowhere, and it was obvious my agent really believed I could be lucrative. This was not to be confused with actually believing in me as a person with a soul, though I wouldn’t understand this until much later on. My young mind held out hope that he really cared and had my best interest at heart. If there is one thing I learned painfully well, it was that you are a mere commodity in this business. Simply put, until you are a well-established and profitable model, you are bought, sold and traded for the benefit of the glorified pimps who control your success.
The San Francisco Examiner Editorial Spread, circa 1994
The following week my mother and I boarded a plane back to San Francisco, charged and ready for the week ahead. We landed and headed straight over the modeling agency to meet with my agent. As we entered the agency, we were met with the usual apathy and detachment that had manifested itself with each successive encounter. I had halfway expected them to delight in my presence. After all, I was the one who was going to make it big. I was convinced that I would be their next Amber Valletta. In reality, I was just a persona non grata they were developing in their “new face” division. I was not alive to them. I was to become a perfectly stamped out widget. I waited patiently in my agent’s office while he frantically answered questions from his bookers–those who actually “book” or arrange the casting calls and jobs for his models. I was starting to see that it was beneficial to be on good terms with all of these people, as they were my ticket to ascendancy.
After a long, anticipated wait, my agent entered the office where my mother and I waited. The black leather club chairs became hot and uncomfortable as I tried my best to act natural, confident, and continue to win his favor. It seemed imperative that he believe that I believed in myself. He proceeded to advise me that I would be meeting with the hairstylist upstairs that afternoon. “We are going to cut your hair short and give you a fresh new look,” he insisted. “Then you’ll meet with Juan on the second floor and he’ll address your eyebrows.” My mother, being proud of her lack of vanity, had never introduced me to such grooming. The extent of my beauty ritual consisted of a trip to SuperCuts on occasions such as school starting or prom. I settled into my chair and grinned with tacit joy. The focus was to be solely on me and at last I had access to these experts in their fields. It was as if I were dressing up as a child in a costume with the notion that I would magically transform into someone else that day. The old me was finally going to be history and the authentic me would finally emerge. Someone who would be acceptable for me and others to love. “You will also need to update your wardrobe,” he said. My mother and I sat puzzled. What did this mean exactly? We were strangers to fashion and had no idea where to begin. We had never stepped foot in a Saks Fifth Avenue, not to mention a reputable designer’s store. “Do you mean, the Gap?” I asked. Thankfully, he didn’t flinch. He was probably accustomed to dealing with cluelessness and their fresh-picked daughters. “Just find some good basics. Take a look at some magazines and get some ideas,” he continued. It was up to us to read his mind. We were at a loss, but determined to figure it out. He then went on to explain that a new modeling agency, “Why Not”, would represent me while in Milan and that he would take a portion of their commission on any profit I made. They would front all the expense of flying, feeding and housing me while there, but as I booked jobs, I would pay them back. I saw nothing amiss with this arrangement of indentured servitude as I didn’t have the funds to pay my own way and it was standard industry practice. Within a matter of 20 minutes, our conversation was over and he shooed us out the door. “See you on Friday for the shoot. Check with Cooper and get the address. Don’t be late, and by the way, Cooper is your booker, so from now on you can speak with him.” With that, I was handed off to the newest booker in the agency-three days on the job, to be exact. I crossed my fingers that he would take me as seriously as I did.
That afternoon I met with the hair stylist and she gave me the latest and greatest haircut of the moment. A shag. It was very much the fad and I loved it! I was a new person and ready to take on the world. Juan masterfully waxed and shaped my eyebrows to perfection which looking back seem strangely drag. What can I say? I loved being their little ball of mailable clay. I walked out of the salon with a skip in my step and tried to anticipate the upcoming shoot which would turn out to be an experience of a lifetime. Lastly, I made my best attempt at understanding fashion with a trip to the Gap where I purchased the staples I would need to meet with prospective clients and freshen up my look. Determined to add 3 inches to my less than ideal stature of 5 foot 7 and 3/4, I would vow to wear high-heels from that moment forward. The day of the Examiner shoot, I was doted upon from a manicure and roller-set, to the high fashion wardrobe the stylists would attire me in. These, along with one final test shoot and my passport would be the only pictures I clutched proudly as I boarded the plane for Milan.