I get people asking me sometimes, “Why did you stop being a model?” – that is, on the rare occasion I would show someone my old modelling pictures. Some people find it surprising that I chose a career that moved me from being in front of the camera to behind it, but to me it was a completely natural choice. There are stories to every decision we make, and this one always makes people giggle, so I’d like to share it with you.
Back in the day I used to be extremely shy. I was perhaps the most introverted kid in my school! I had very little confidence and almost no friends so the idea of having a career in modelling was perhaps the last thing on my mind. That is, until my 16th birthday when my mum decided to sign me up with an agency. I didn’t want to do it, in fact I was very much against it. I thought it would be the ultimate ‘hell on earth’ standing on a stage, or in the middle of a studio, having someone stare at me and judge me. I was having troubles even talking to people in my own class!
But everything changed when I met my photographer. Helen was an amazing woman who took me on my first shoot on the beach. She helped to get me relaxed and settled. She made me up, and helped to pose me. I slowly grew in confidence and eagerly followed her direction, and by the end of the shoot I was having so much fun that I wanted to do more. We ended the session on a very happy note, but I left a little apprehensive about how the images would turn out. A few weeks later, when they eventually did, I was shocked! I almost couldn’t recognize myself, the girl in the photograph was too pretty and too confident, but everyone assured me that this is what other people saw in me too. Of course I loved it, and suddenly I thought, “I can do this”.
It wasn’t long before I was sent on editorial shoots all over Dubai, modelling for magazines in studios, strutting my stuff down catwalks and even starring in a music video. The models I worked with were fun loving, gorgeous women who loved what they did and I made really good friends as I grew from awkward teenager into a confident young woman. Those were the happiest years when everything seemed bright and the sky seemed to be the limit. I was finally enjoying school, I had new friends, and boyfriends and loving the work I was doing. Nothing could stand in my way!
However, soon after I’d graduated sixth form, it was time for me to go to University and I chose a school in London, and so that meant that my modelling career had to move too.
Everyone at my agency warned me that modelling would be an entirely different experience in the UK than in Dubai, I thought I had heard all the advice I needed, but I wasn’t at all ready for what awaited me there. My agency in Dubai referred me to a famous London-based agency whose headquarters was in Kensington. I was eager to please and I couldn’t wait to get started.
The people at the office welcomed me warmly, and I was assigned to an agent called Michael. He was a young Italian man as skinny as a rake with gorgeous tanned skin and a huge afro! I swear he had his hair permed because it came down in perfect curly waves to his shoulders. On top of that, he wore only the best and latest designs and if that wasn’t enough of a signpost, his speech and body language all indicated that he was gay.
I was ready to like him immediately, but it was clear that he didn’t feel the same way. On our first meeting, he took one look at me and I said “Now darling, you are going to have to lose some weight.’ I wasn’t entirely surprised that this was mentioned, but I was still shocked as it was around the time when Size 0 was being hotly debated by human rights activists and some models were literally dropping dead on catwalk from exhaustion and famine. I was 20 at the time, a size 6 UK, and 5,10’ tall.
I looked down at myself and almost laughed at the thought that I could get skinnier without my body looking like a skeleton.
“Uhhh… How am I supposed to do that?” I asked him.
“Well” he said, “You will have to exercise a lot and pay attention to your diet.” Then he took another sweeping look up and down my body, which made me feel self-conscious. I almost crossed my arms, but forced myself to stand straight.
“You will have to do this as quickly as you can… but you need to do it healthily.” Which to me, translated as “You’ll have to starve, but we don’t want to be criticized for it.”
I didn’t like the idea of this, especially when he insisted that I would have to come into the office for a weight in and measurements every week just to make sure I stayed on track. I walked away from that interview wondering what on earth I had signed up for, but I was determined to give it a go. One thing was for certain… I was NOT going to make myself sick for this. The way I saw it was that it was never necessary for me to do so in Dubai, and I wouldn’t become anorexic for anyone now.
London was an adventure to me, and I loved going out to see the city. The agency would call me with a new place to go every day and I would spend most of my time travelling from studio to studio. So for weeks I went all over London, lining up for hours behind countless gorgeous, skinny, and utterly beautiful girls from all over the world.
Two things that struck me the most was first, just how many of them there were, there were hundreds at each casting! Second, that none of them were really very friendly at all. I struggled to make any friends even though I’d see the same girls at most castings but I think they only saw each other as rivals, which made it a very lonely life. Most were so beautiful, the kind of beauty that literally struck you dumb, I’d simply sit and stare at these girls, then look at myself and just know that I would have no chance of getting the job.
A very few were nice to me and spent some time advising me on the best approach for a casting, but mostly they just wanted to share juicy gossip. Especially stories about the latest models who’d slept with photographers of such and such job. I wasn’t surprised that this happened. I mean seriously! How else could you stand out against a sea of goddesses? Even if you are one of them! But personally, I couldn’t imagine doing it.
A monotonous routine emerged and continued for weeks. I grew to dread my weigh in sessions especially because I was making such little progress, and with each meeting, Michael would tell me that I had to do more. Eat less and exercise more. I became so hungry that it became difficult to concentrate, and with each casting attempt, I became more and more desperate. In the end, I started doing the unthinkable and began refusing meals altogether, every time I ate I would feel horrible and want to throw up then eventually, that’s exactly what I did.
Finally, a few months after I started with the agency, and just after I had reversed my digestive system for a salad… yes that’s right, a SALAD. I looked at myself in the mirror and I made a decision. “This can’t go on”.
Dubai had been so much fun, and I had many opportunities in the industry there, perhaps even a bright future. London on the other hand, was impossible. I hadn’t had a single job, I was running out of money fast, and I had no way of making any in part-time jobs because of the grueling casting list they sent me on. I knew I couldn’t cut it as a model. At that point, I began to give up.
So in the next weigh in, Michael gave me a right tongue lashing after, predictably I hadn’t lost any more weight. “It’s obvious that you’re not taking this seriously Danielle. How can you expect us to represent you when we can’t even use you?”
I got so angry at his reproach, especially as he was not doing much to help me either. I pretty much ran out of the office, my head bowed in frustrated floods of tears. The next morning Michael called me to a casting in Clapham. “You had better make a good impression today” he growled, making it clear that this was my last chance. Something snapped.
I got dressed up and made my way to the casting, but on the way I stopped at McDonalds, bought a Big Mac burger with fries, bagged it up and I took it with me. Once I arrived, I checked in with the studio assistant, then made my way outside where all the other bony, snooty models were waiting for their turn.
I slowly sauntered up to one of the benches near the door, and once I sat down, I carefully unwrapped the burger, making sure they could all see the thick layers of meat and fries, and began eating it in front of them. The look on their faces was priceless! The ones closest to me stood up and walked to the other end of the patio, one of them disappeared inside. Others gave me a look of pure distaste and loathing, curling their lips as I chewed on the greasy paddy. Some puffed furiously at their newly lit cigarettes glaring at me and my delicious smelling lunch whilst others simply turned their backs on me and drank their Starbucks coffees.
The casting director came outside soon afterwards in an absolute fury. “How dare you! I’m calling your agency”. I can’t even remember his name, nor do I remember why he cared so much, but he was as good as his word. Michael called me two minutes later in a rage. He let off a stream of very colourful language to berate me – which I won’t repeat here but it could have landed him a beating with some A class feminists – The conversation concluded with “If you ever do that again, you’ll be removed from our books” I just shrugged my shoulder, stood up facing the casting director who’d turned red and said “In that case, I quit”.
I turned around and left the studio swinging my hips as I went.
Back at home, I cried my eyes out. All I could feel was failure and that I had brought it on myself. I drank wine until I couldn’t walk straight anymore, watched TV and fell asleep on the couch. When I woke up it was morning, there were no calls from the agency. They’d dropped me that fast… and I decided right then and there that I could do so much more with my life. I had a choice and I knew that I could do anything I wanted. So I stood up, made myself some breakfast, and started a new day. Closing the door on modelling for good.
Little did I know that the eating habits I’d accumulated over those intense weeks had taken root. It would be ten more years before I’d finally stop being sick after eating, and it would take several more years before I finally found my calling. But looking back on this experience now, I am glad I made that decision to quit when I did. Modelling in Dubai had given me so much, breaking me out of my shell and building my confidence, but in London it had done nothing but beat me down. Modelling was fun whilst it lasted, but for me, it definitely had a shelf life.
Now I have found my true passion in life as a photographer. I do many kinds of shoots, but I do love working with models. Helen, the first photographer I worked with is my inspiration and I strive to help new models feel comfortable in front of the lens, and find their strength as she once helped me. Many models, both male and female have asked my advice about starting a career in modelling, and the one piece of advice I’ve always given them is this:
It can be a fun life, but please,
And if it’s not fun… Stop.