With eight days to go till the Bill Blass show, I was deep into a green-grape diet (three for breakfast, two for snacks, six for binges). How else was I going to fit into my assigned skintight showstopper? I was a model on a mission. But given that I was also a robust 6'2", wedging myself into munchkin minis was no picnic. Somewhat inevitably, I collapsed in New York's Chelsea Hotel and was carried past the jaded bohemians to the nearest hospital.
That was a lot of dress sizes ago. Today, 15 years later, the debate is heating up: Has the tyranny of the super-skinny silhouette gone too far? Last August, when 22-year-old Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos died of anorexia-related heart failure between costume changes, Spanish authorities decided that models under a certain weight might need medical help, not a gig: They declared that 5'9" catwalkers must weigh a minimum of 125 pounds.
Three months later, a Brazilian model met a similar fate. America's reaction? It doesn't look like we'll be banning the undernourished look anytime soon. With skeletal celebs like Portia de Rossi, Kate Bosworth, Nicole Richie, Teri Hatcher, and former plus-size model Sophie Dahl — now bug-eyed and tiny — treading the red carpet oh-so-lightly, extra pounds are still grossly off-trend. Plenty of trainers are flogging ketosis, a dubious state achieved when a carb-starved body burns fat to save itself. No surprise, then, that a new jeans size has just been invented: 00. Satirical news site The Onion couldn't resist chiming in via a fictional young actress who nails an audition for the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa campaign: "I'm pretty thin, but I didn't think I was eating-disorder thin," she gushes triumphantly.
I signed up for modeling by accident, not design, when I was discovered at 17 in Paris on a study tour in the late '80s. Soon enough, I was in the hands of a team of bookers whose job it was to turn me into a robotic goddess onto which fashion fantasies could be projected. Of course, every new girl had to have a gimmick — mine was flaming red hair and goofy, coltish height.
Show week is a ritualistic mini Olympics that defines the fashion calendar. We queued up at the casting calls, the funnel that sifts out everybody who doesn't have the look du jour: "Give me a storm-trooper blonde"; "Give me a jolie laide"; "Give me retro"; "Give me that slack-jawed junkie look." What constituted fabulous morphed from season to season, but one rule never changed — you must adhere to a body ideal that is way taller and thinner than average. An Italian greyhound spareness, topped by a wilting asparagus neck and lolling head that accentuates the clothing, not the woman. Fabric hangs beautifully till it pools on the floor; it's all about the dress. Bottom line, if you couldn't achieve the look, you weren't in the game. So we played — smoking to kill our appetites and wringing ourselves out in steam rooms. Of course, plenty of models ate what they liked and simply threw it all up later.
My dilemma: those pesky Celtic warrior genes that kept me from looking "Park Avenue fragile." Some girls are meant to be slim-hipped and tiny; I'd watch them wolf down burgers and mud cake without gaining a gram. It's being unhealthily thin that's the bitch. At the beginning, I thought cutting out the crème caramels of life would be enough. Dream on.
At a certain point, my photo got past the gatekeepers of a god-like Italian designer. I was summoned into his presence and made to put on a pair of putty-colored shorts in exquisite, feather-light fabric. My heart sank when I saw how my grandmother's hips filled them to the brim, pushing the pleats apart instead of letting them hang limply. As I filed past, the maestro remarked to his staff, "molto," not unkindly. But you don't need to have read Dante to translate. I was mortified. A pear-shaped woman like me in a gamine's job — clearly I'd have to start smashing square pegs into round holes.
Why? I couldn't resist. The lottery aspect of the castings stirs the "pick me, pick me" dynamic, so potent for young girls who are barely out of childhood and still inventing themselves. You become emotionally invested in the constant appraisal. As for the designers, they withdrew validation with one hand while offering temporary superpowers with the other.
The attention, the flattery, the heart-surgeon money, the city-hopping, the all-access social pass — the job is a hoot, and a parallel universe that constantly reaffirms the normalcy of weighing as little as possible. There were always more Marlboro reds and rancid champagne backstage than food, and we were all dieting together — food deprivation was a badge of honor. My body became a battlefield where willpower and genetic destiny duked it out. Once I fixated on the goal weight, starving down was easy — especially when I discovered diuretics, which rid you of fluid, the lifeblood of the body.
The more I punished myself, the more fashion rewarded me. That white-hot attention of a show or a shoot provides a drug-like rush, everyone pivoting around to create an über-you. Of course you're on a pedestal, but you're a piece of meat up there, being pawed, looked at, discussed, and tweaked. Your requisite passivity blinds everyone — even yourself — to your humanity.
I once rented my cute little apartment that overlooked the chimney pots of Paris to an American farm girl right off the plane, ready to model. She was stunningly beautiful; everything about her was meant to be round — her cascading curls, her pommette cheeks, her booty, the figure-eight swoop of her body. When I caught up with her six months later, even I was shocked: The purplish circles under her dead eyes, the jutting bones, and the air of misery were as repellent as her milky, creamy lushness had been lovely.
I did the reverse. Toward the mid-'90s, I was ready, even excited, to move on to other careers. But my uphill battle with food wasn't over. Once relieved of trying to be an impossible size, my policy became, "Say yes to everything," like a naughty girl bolting out of convent school. As trays went by, I crash-tackled waiters and partied on booze and cocktail canapés. I ate for revenge, comfort, and company; the cheese platter was my idea of a stable relationship. After all those years of deprivation, my body threw its own Mardi Gras: Instead of being thinner than everybody else, I went bigger. Not that I enjoyed it — I just tossed it all down.
The only real silver bullet was the discovery of my "happy weight" many cities and years later, back home in Sydney: swimming, bush-walking, playing with my son — happy and in love. While I focused on other things, my body naturally stabilized at exactly where it's meant to be: size 12. And I have come to relish my big ol' womanly curves.
There is such a thing as a healthy model — a girl who got dealt the thin card. But as sunken-cheeked chic creates an undertow that drags regular-shaped women into a losing battle only models used to have to fight, I believe a mantra of self-acceptance needs to be put out there. Once you make peace with who you naturally are, life is an incredible feast.