A model talks about summer camp, blacksmithing, and being objectified.
Two years ago, on a lead from a friend, Reed walked into a Los Angeles casting call. He had nothing but his bone structure to recommend him; no portfolio, no pictures.
The audition lasted a few minutes. He walked from one end of a long stage to the other, struck a pose, then spoke briefly with the two people who, seated at a table, were assessing his looks.
(Or, I suppose, his look. Singular.)
Five hours later, he got a call from the agency, offering to represent him.
But he turned it down.
The agency was too far away to be worth his while. Also, he doesn’t drive yet.It’s only fair to admit, before going on, that my fascination with models could be called morbid. It’s not what you’re thinking, though. I’m less fascinated with how they look, than with how they think about how they look. I’m endlessly intrigued by the idea that someone could look in the mirror, and see an opportunity to make money.
Personally, the best feeling I take away from a mirror is relief. Normally, it inspires what you might call wistful resignation: “We could really have something here, if only [fill in the blank].”
Granted, I approach mirrors expecting to be disappointed. Like apologizing for a meal before anyone eats, this seems only polite.
Perhaps this accounts for the resentment I feel for those who don’t play by those rules, who take the gamble of assuming the privilege of good-lookingness. For not suspecting themselves of some unseen flaw that they overlooked, and modifying their confidence accordingly. For risking ridicule by assuming the best about how they look. And, above all, for being right.
The only way around that resentment is contempt. To believe that they are shallow. That their confidence comes easily because they’ve never been introspective enough to question it. To believe that it’s only their unthinking confidence, untempered by introspection, that makes it possible for them to be objectively beautiful, while I’m stuck being attractive only to people who really get to know me.
Reed is sixteen years old. Until this year, he attended a Christian homeschool co-op; this fall will be his first time in a public school. He lives with his family in a dodgy part of a small beach town just north of San Diego. He refers to his area of career interest as “the performing arts”–specifically, he means acting and modeling, though he also performs on a dance team and likes to sing.
On the face of it, his many areas of interest make him sound like any artsy teenager–effusive, aggressively versatile, quick to claim proficiency at anything that makes them feel like the central figure in some story or other.
But that’s not what Reed is like, when you meet him in person.Despite his height and shoulder-span, he moves with the self-containment of a shy person. His gaze is direct, but submissive. His smile isn’t broad, but it is sincere. He keeps his square chin tucked modestly toward his chest.
It’s hard to explain. It’s like he’s shy for you.
It’s a kind of condescension, I suppose. But it’s kind, rather than cruel. It’s both endearing and intimidating. It makes you like him at the same time that it makes you doubt yourself.
In case it needs saying, Reed is supremely good-looking. Like how they say it in Zoolander: Ridiculously. Types be damned. He has wide cheekbones that taper down to a subtly cleft chin. His eyes are pale hazel, his hair and skin the same tone of brown-gold. He has the profile of a classic movie star and the body of Nijinsky.
He owes all this to a bizarre clash of ethnicities domestic and exotic–English and Scottish on his dad’s side, Russian Jewish and Javanese on his mom’s. Reed doesn’t look much like either of them.
Most of the A-list girls in my high school were approached at some point, on the beach or at the mall, by a plasticine adult with a business card who offered to tap their potential in exchange for a fee-based “modeling school.”
There were also the ones, usually farther along in puberty, who sat in contrived poses for the tentative black-and-white shots of their artsy friends.
Reed is featured in plenty such photographs, on Facebook and in friends’ beginning portfolios. But the “part-time model” joke doesn’t apply to him. It’s no stretch to imagine him being plucked off a beach or a skatepark by a couturier with big sunglasses and an entourage, giving them his quiet, sympathetic smile, and his future would probably be secured.
Looks like some young’ns are cast in the Marc Jacobs show. Best not tell @CFDA.
Eric Wilson, New York Times
Following his success at the casting call, Reed created a profile for himself on Model Mayhem, a website that connects unrepresented models with photographers who can’t afford agency fees. Frequently, it also connects honest day laborers and would-be artists with perverts and exhibitionists. Reed has learned which emails to answer, and which to ignore.
Through his Model Mayhem gigs, he’s building a portfolio, which he plans to present to a San Diego agency called No Ties Management, recently distinguished by putting a girl in a Justin Bieber video.
But Reed is in no hurry to get representation. At his age, it’s easier to work independently. Unless their name is Ford, agencies have to handle minors carefully. Even as an independent, Reed has to be accompanied by a parent to any job he gets paid for.
“My dad is really supportive. He thinks it’s a good option for me. He likes the arts, too―when when he was younger, he did a little bit of acting.”
He makes as if he might shrug.
“And my mom is okay with it.”
An amateur model is most likely to attract an amateur photographer. Reed’s best-paying gig so far was getting hired by a local portrait photographer to coach high school seniors on how to pose for their graduation photos. He gave them the same advice he follows–to create a character that they can mentally embody.
For a high school senior playing themselves, he describes the character this way:
“‘I’m a senior, I just graduated, I’m stoked on life.’ But, at the same time, dignified. You don’t want to seem childish in your senior pictures. If you’re a guy, you want to seem masculine and strong. And if you’re a girl, you don’t want to seem too playful.”
If the idea of having a coach for your graduation photos makes you laugh, you clearly didn’t have the same high school experience as I did. For most of my high school career, I refused to wear anything but overpriced overalls from the Gap–the only clothes that absolved how fat and disgusting I felt. This is also what I chose to wear in my senior photos, along with my mom’s makeup and hair brushed out from Velcro rollers. At my mom’s direction, we brought along a large, faux gerbera daisy from the faux bouquet in her living room, as a prop.
We were met at Windansea Beach by the photographer, a classy lady who got a fair number of sparkly-eyed smiles from me, which speaks to her expertise. The result, perched for the last ten years on my parents’ mantel, invites plenty of comment, usually in this order:
- “Your hair was so long!”
- “Why are you wearing overalls?”
- “…Is that a flower in your pocket?”
“You do feel kind of ridiculous sometimes,” Reed acknowledges. “Like ‘Really? Am I really doing this right now? Here I am on a public beach, with people walking by, and I’m making these faces that you only see in Hollister stores.'”
“But it’s a character. It’s not really you. You’re a character in a story.
“That’s where I think modeling is almost more interesting than acting. You have an entire character into a split second, and it’s going to stay there; whatever character you’re playing is always going to be just like that. Whereas in acting, your character can change, and be different throughout a play or whatever you’re doing.”
The issue is compounded in the moments between shots, when he breaks character to change clothes, or when the photographer wants to give him directions.
“You just have to have a really good concentration, I guess, and be able to ignore people talking, looking at you. You have to be able to tune people out…or use them for your character. Which can be helpful, too.”
But he says the hardest part is understanding what character the photographer is looking for. His experience behind a camera, as well as in front of it, has shown him that achieving a synergy of thought between photographer and model that results in the desired facial expression is very challenging.
“A photographer can tell you what poses they want you to do, but the face is really hard to communicate. Some people can do it really easy. For me? It comes pretty naturally.”
There are, he adds, basic efforts he has to make–staying away from bad food that clouds his complexion, exercising. I ask if he has to really make that much effort there.
“Um”–I think he knows how hard this will be to hear–“no.”
He claims that this keeps him humble.
[I] have learnt the best way to beat self-consciousness on a shoot is to make yourself the set clown. I’ve got this stupid dance I do, which always seems to do the trick.
“I definitely do get made fun of,” he assures me. “It’s only people who I know really well, so I just feel comfortable enough with them…I would make fun of them, too. I know I would, for anything. Like, I have a friend who does blacksmithing and welding, and I make fun of him. But he’s really good at it. Everyone has their own little thing, and sometimes that little thing is weird. For most people, modeling is weird, especially for a guy.”
Weird, I agree, but not quite like blacksmithing. For one thing, a skill or personality is at least respectable by virtue of the effort it requires. Good looks, on the other hand, are just there, until they aren’t anymore.
Furthermore, blacksmithing is weird principally because there aren’t many people who aspire to it. Modeling is weird because everyone aspires to it, secretly or not. The weird part is watching someone you know be chosen as worthy. After considering it, Reed agrees.
“Yeah–kind of like everyone wants to be an astronaut. It’s a cool job.”
I begin to wonder if he’s intentionally not getting it. Being told “You could totally be a model” is very different from being told “You could totally be an astronaut.”
I ask him if it’s weird to be offered money for the opportunity to be looked at.
“Thinking about it is.”
People who didn’t know him before modeling tend to be overawed.
This used to be flattering, he says; it’s not, anymore.
“I’ll have people that I kind of know, we’ve been just acquaintances, and all of a sudden they find out that I model, and I act, and I sing, and they want to be my best friend. It does make me angry—like why can’t you just be happy with knowing me? Or not knowing me at all? I kind of lose respect for them, in a big way.
“I understand that attractive people are attractive. You want to be with them, you want to know them. But they’re really degrading me as a person, without even knowing it. Obviously, it’s not their intention. It’s just their nature, and it’s my nature too; it’s everyone’s. People do attract people because of what they do, how they look, how they are themselves.
“I understand it, but at the same time…I’m over it. I don’t really tolerate it like before. At all.”
I ask if experiences like this have changed the way he responds to the opposite sex.
“What do you mean, exactly? I’m really comfortable telling people they look good…is that what you mean?”
What I mean, I tell him, is what would you do if you were Ashley?
“I’ve actually never thought about walking up to someone and talking to them just because they’re good-looking.”
I clarify: Pretty girl at a party?
“Oh.” He grins. “I’ve done that.”
And he says that yes, this kind of encounter has changed, the more attention he attracts.
“I’m less quick to do it; I’m just more timid about it, I guess. Especially if it’s a really cute girl―I don’t want her to think I’m just some annoying little kid. I would at least pretend to act like I’m interested in them for more than the way they look.”
I suggest that he could use his and her good looks as a point of entry; sidle up and say something about how nice it is to meet someone as good looking as himself, for a change.
“I’ve kind of done that, almost. It wasn’t me exactly starting it. A girl asked me how long I take to get ready in the morning, and I said a few minutes. And her jaw dropped, and she said ‘Then how do you look so pretty all the time?’ She was totally kidding; she started laughing afterwards.”
In response, Reed says, he shrugged and deadpanned,
“’It just happens, you get over it.’ And they were all really surprised that I said that.”
His smile betrays an expression I haven’t yet seen on him. After a moment, I realize that it’s embarrassment.
I’m a little alarmed by how easy it is to forget that Reed is only sixteen, to say nothing of his church-raised, homeschooled pedigree. To call him an “old soul” would be a handy cliché. But souls get called old when they prematurely shoulder the weight of the world. By contrast, Reed seems to politely decline that burden.
Of course, it hasn’t yet been forced on him. Given his age, there’s only so much that photographers and casting directors can ask him to do. Also, he says, he’s never yet worked with “female models.”
My friend Jeff, a “War on Terror” veteran who turned to fashion photography, used to bluntly admit that his was a sexual business. Blunt acknowledgment of the fact seemed to defang it, for him.
Reed hasn’t encountered that side personally, but he seems to be similarly prepared for it.
“Um…I’m pretty comfortable with saying no.”
His voice gets a bit more quiet as he says this, provoking me to ask if it holds true even in the event that it costs him work.
“Yeah, um…I think so.”
90% of the people out there look better on their left side. Keep your chin out a little bit. And I think you have to feel comfortable with yourself.
Reed hasn’t taken any classes in walking or posing–no John Robert Powers alumnus, he. What he does in front of the camera is self-taught. Which means a lot of private time with mirrors, a lot of trial-and-error with photos posted on Facebook.
This is the part that fascinates me. I’ve occasionally been surprised by seeing my reflection in a plate glass window and finding it inoffensive. But with a camera lens in the offing, I naturally assume the expression of a taxidermied animal, trying to look as if I don’t mind being looked at.
I ask Reed if he can impart some of his “work” techniques to me. He advises me to just listen to my director. I explain that I’m not talking about taking up a career modeling; I’m talking about the random camera-phone shot or Christmas card pose.
“Oh, for that kind of thing?” He frowns thoughtfully. “Okay…I would say never look the camera in the face, with your face or your body. I always tilt my head up slightly, and sometimes off to the side a little. Don’t have your knees locked, your elbows locked, that kind of thing.
“I think the best pictures are taken at eye level, or really far above or really far below eye level.”
This, he explains, is so that there can be no mistaking a warped perspective for what your body actually looks like.
“It sounds kind of stupid, but look in the mirror and figure out what makes you look good. I do that for photo shoots; I can understand someone wanting to for that kind of thing.”
That kind of thing, of course, is as close as most of us are likely to get to what Reed can get paid to do. It may not get us any gigs, but it may also be the difference between getting a date or not. Sometimes, between getting a job or not. It may determine our status on the friend totem pole.
More than anything, it tells us what we deserve to think of ourselves; a flattering or warped perspective may have everything to do with the risks we take and the way we face challenges.
It doesn’t sound kind of stupid to me, at all. I do it every day.
“I have unattractive pictures all over Facebook. And I guess to an extent they’re embarrassing. I’ll have pictures taken when I’m really tired, and it’s late at night and I’m ready to go to sleep, and someone’s like ‘Reed, smile!'”
He shrugs, advising me,
“Just either give a really genuine smile, laugh a little bit as they take the picture, or just go completely goofy and make a weird face.
“I guess it’s just also being okay with the way…I don’t know…you have to be really comfortable with yourself. Whatever face you do make, it’s you.”
I suppose it wouldn’t occur to him that that’s exactly what some of us are afraid of.
If you think about it, modeling is a unique career, in that the longer you’re in it, the more your value depreciates. I think of fifteen-year-olds being discovered while smoking outside a closed nightclub, riding the wave of their desirability until it peaks, and then capitalizing on whatever they end up as―muse of a designer, spouse of a tycoon or movie star, skin-care spokesperson, serial gold-digger, junkie.
But for Reed, with his craftsman mentality, there might be more at stake that getting what he can out of what he was given by accident of birth.
“If I could be signed with Ford at any point in my career, I would say that’s my high. Publicity, to an extent, is definitely a goal–a bigger pool of people seeing my work.
“And then…I don’t know. Just new experiences, I guess. Going to Milan, or something like that.”
Here, again, the belated memory that he’s only sixteen.
Expectations tempered, I ask him if he has any fears about succeeding.
He thinks about it.
“I don’t want to become too busy for my friends, ever, or my family. I don’t want it to be hard on my mom and my dad, or my wife when I get married. I don’t want it to be something that consumes me more than a regular job would. Even though it is different than a regular job.
“And also, I don’t want to become stuck up, or vain or anything. Which…”
His self-effacing smile widens.
“I’m sure I probably will, at some point.”
He raises his hands, palms open.
“And someone’s probably going to slap me in the face, and I’ll get over it!”
Reed hedges his bets with thoughts of pursuing a career in physical therapy–he likes sports, and the idea of helping people.
“I would say if I get to college and I’m still undecided about it, I would probably take the arts road, just because…in the long run, who doesn’t want to be on TV? And it’s what I enjoy.
“There’s something about being a certain character that’s just a fun challenge. Not being you for a little bit, you know?”
This surprises me. Apparently, no matter how attractive or advantageous a person’s skin, there’s still something that makes them want to get out of it.
I don’t know if the moral allergy to attracting attention, especially for something like physical beauty, is a religious thing, or a Western thing, or a modern thing descended from Victorian prudery. I’m inclined to call it a church culture thing, but that may be only because that’s where I came by it.
“Well, I think that God’s given everyone gifts. Whether that’s your face, or your athleticism, or your brain, like writing, and your creative side. And I think that…”
He pauses for a long time.
“I don’t think that it’s a sin to have your picture taken, in any way; I do think that your motive can be sinful. Pictures, obviously, can be sinful. Porn is sinful.”
He pauses again.
“And that’s a hard line to draw—where does it become too provocative? I’m not even sure I could say this picture is, and this picture’s not.”
—I’ve spent many, many hours trying to be beautiful, in order to buy the right to be nakedly emotional.
I always fear that emotion, caught in flight, will twist my face into something grotesque. Anything that is going to be statically recorded has to be controlled, restrained. Otherwise my emotion could be what makes people not want to be around me…it could make me unattractive. It could represent me as a character I don’t want to be.
By contrast, Reed’s pictures show a complete occupation with the story, whatever it is. It might be anything. I guess that’s what makes it powerful. Beauty is sometimes no more than a way of making humanity look unridiculous. If someone caught my face in an emotional reaction, it would make my story look petty, ugly, distasteful. But when I see my emotions manifested on the face of someone beautiful, they are forgiveable, they are worthy of compassion.
Maybe that’s why we love and hate people who are beautiful; why we study them with contempt and envy at the same time. Because they have the permission to face the world without a smile, if they want to–their beauty makes it admissible for them to look lost, alone, sullen, and distraught. They are thanked, paid, and applauded for offering the world only the most ephemeral involuntary part of being human–an appearance.
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To see Reed’s online portfolio, click here.