Because I'm getting older, my days as a model are numbered – and I'm not sure what to do next
Melissa Stetten in Santa Barbara, California. Photo by James Gunn
Melissa Stetten was born in Kalamazoo in Michigan. She is a writer, photographer and model. She blogs at Pretty Bored and lives between New York City and Los Angeles.
I’ve spent the past few days avoiding sunlight. I had acid put on my face to get rid of never-ending acne scars, and my dermatologist gave me strict instructions to stay indoors. She said that if I were to go in the sun, or even get close to a window, the acid would reactivate to burn my skin again. I was basically told to stay home and watch Netflix for 72 hours.
I intended to comply, but soon realised I’d forgotten to refill one of my antidepressant prescriptions. If I didn’t make it to the pharmacy soon, my brain would start firing off these ‘zaps’, like it always does when I miss a pill. I had to travel only a few stops away from my Brooklyn sublet so I figured 30 seconds in the sun would be a piece of cake. I slathered on SPF 100 sunscreen and put on a hat and sunglasses. I looked like Bill Cosby from the film Ghost Dad, if he were white and wearing cut-off jean shorts. I got off the subway and ran into the store. My face was already burning. The pharmacist handed over my Wellbutrin, and I ripped it open and swallowed a pill using only my saliva.
The reason I put myself through this torture is because I’m a model working in a world obsessed with eternal youth. My face is my employee, and the industry we work in doesn’t reward time and experience. In fact, it does just the opposite. I use a bunch of different medications to keep my skin looking decent, because I was cursed with acne as a kid, and it never seemed to go away. Facials and lasers are expensive, and sometimes painful, but they are part of my job. I have grown accustomed to this, but lately, I’ve started wondering how long I want to be waking up every day fearing what I’ll see in the mirror. I need to figure out my post-model life before I start injecting comedy amounts of chemicals into my face to look younger.
Initially, I saw modelling as a side job, but when I moved to New York and signed with an agency, I switched to full-time. I was making good money and had a lot of free time, which I occupied by sleeping more than 10 hours a day. I had been working 30 to 40 hours a week since I was 15, so this lax schedule was new to me. I had no idea how to fill a day, and so I slept.
After a while, I realised I preferred to be busy. I have more energy when I’m running around to 12 castings a day during fashion week. It keeps my mind from wandering. Not like I’m doing tons of thinking while posing for photographers, but being in a creative environment with people who are ambitious and passionate about their work helps. I can find things to do, even if I’m sitting in a make-up chair for hours. I read, write jokes, and take photos. I made a website called Models on Phones that is just pictures of bored models on their cell phones waiting for castings and make-up. First rule of modelling: never forget your phone charger.
I’ve always been more interested in the unconventional experience of modelling than in collecting pretty pictures of myself. Yeah, I need money to pay rent and buy organic beets at Whole Foods, but most of all I like sharing my behind-the-scenes stories. If I could write about my experiences in the modelling world forever, I would. I started a blog a few years back so I could write about the people I’m confronted with, and I like to make fun of myself to amuse others. I attribute it to growing up lower-class with horrible acne. I think I continue modelling to make up for being the unattractive, weird girl in school. Every boy I had a crush on wanted nothing to do with me because I was tall and had teeth that were too big to fit inside my mouth. When I hung out with my friends and their boyfriends, I was the funny, sarcastic girl who pretended she wasn’t bothered by being undesirable.
At first, I worried that my blog would come off as a self-indulgent boring mess of drivel. In the end, it has become my favourite work. I love getting emails from people who read it and thank me for being honest and entertaining. What’s the point of being a model if I can’t exploit all the non-glamorous, behind-the-scenes bullshit I deal with? I write what I write because I don’t want people to idealise the modelling experience, and I don’t want people to presume that I can’t think for myself just because I won the bone structure lottery. I often wake up at 5am in a panic about my life decisions. I constantly wonder if I’m a good person, just like everyone else. Sometimes writing about modelling is its own kind of antidepressant. Finishing a blog gives me more sense of accomplishment than booking a Cosmo editorial about which underwear makes your butt look hot. But the thought of having to figure out what to do with my life after modelling is frightening.
Whether it’s writing or something else, I must decide on a new course soon, because I’m getting too old for this business. How crazy is it to think I’m old when I’m still in my 20s? I feel weird about even admitting my age. I have to say ‘20s’ because it means I could possibly be 25. But we all know that when a girl says: ‘I’m in my 20s’, it means she’s either 28 or 29. I often think about my place in the modelling world and how my career is almost over. It’s sad and exciting at the same time. Once I’m not waiting for emails about castings or booking my next facial, I’ll put my energy into something that won’t make me feel worthless. Maybe I’d be a great host for the reality TV show Project Runway? ‘Hey Tim Gunn, why don’t YOU make it work, ya big knucklehead?’ But, there’s no way I could take myself seriously hosting a show about fashion or models and, besides, I can’t speak to a crowd of more than three people without wanting to die.
‘Why don’t you just marry a rich older guy so you don’t have to figure out a new career?’ That’s a great question, imaginary person. I once overheard a guy say he thought most models were prostituting themselves to rich men because they always carry around expensive purses. I know girls who do that. It’s easy to date rich older guys if you’re a beautiful young model. The difficult part is finding one who’s not married or a total douchebag. If you’re OK with that, then go ahead and sleep with a spray-tanned 65‑year-old who works out too much and has a multi-million-dollar loft decorated with cheesy art. If I lacked standards and pride but valued Valentino shoes, I’d be eating oysters with that guy, instead of writing this right now. But alas, I could never date a guy who didn’t make me laugh hysterically. Looks like I won’t be adding ‘trophy wife’ to my list of post-modelling endeavours.
I think I look bad about 95 per cent of the time. I have even apologised to people for having to look at my face when I have a blemish. My insecurity breeds my anxiety, which is one of the reasons I take antidepressants, besides just being depressed in general. I don’t entirely blame modelling for my depression, but I know it’s not helping. Needing to look perfect all the time with an already fucked-up brain chemistry is not a great combination. I started taking pills shortly after I began modelling. They don’t fix everything, but they have saved my life so far. Numbing my fear and constant worrying is the only way I can get out of bed some days. It’s a shame I don’t do fun drugs because people seem so happy and energised on them. When I did coke with my friends, it felt great for about 20 minutes. We were totally going to start a band, but then I felt like dying when it wore off. All I can play on the guitar is one Counting Crows song and half a Green Day song, so it would’ve been a shitty band anyway.
There’s no amount of mascara that will make a client like me more. At castings, they usually have an image in mind of the model they want to use before making an ad. When I read the criteria for an audition, the roles I’m cast for are usually described as ‘mid‑20s’, ‘quirky’, and ‘approachable’. I usually fit the bill, but it’s not quirkiness they’re seeing, it’s anxiety. Any approachability I give off is just a fake smile and the remnants of my Midwestern accent. Photo shoots are crude transactions when you’re a model. After I sign my name, I lose my identity, because clients do everything they can to transform you into their vision. I’m no longer Melissa, I’m ‘Hot Girl #2’, a mere object beneath layers of make-up and hair extensions. I barely look like the person I really am. People have said so many times: ‘Wow, that doesn’t even look like you’ when they see my modelling photos. Well, it’s not. It’s hard to recognise myself in the photos sometimes. I have way more lines on my face, and more weird bones in my nose, than the Photoshopped version of me lets on.
I like it when people ask if I’m a model, but I hate it when they ask: ‘What do you do?’ and I have to say: ‘I’m a model.’ That makes sense, right?
My friends say I should take advantage of my looks while I can. That makes sense, I guess, but I’d know I was just postponing the inevitable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to work in different places. This past year I’ve worked in New York, London, and Los Angeles. I would probably still be in London if it weren’t for my last relationship ending. My ex was there shooting a movie and I went with him, but I got the ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ speech and had to move back to the US. It definitely was me. I’m too insecure to have a boyfriend. It always feels like I need them way more than they need me. Don’t say: ‘But you’re a model and you have nothing to worry about.’ I have everything to worry about. Sometimes it seems logical to move back to the Midwest and marry a guy who has nothing to do with the entertainment industry and who worships me. He has to be way funnier than me, though. I wonder if the stand-up comic Louis C K would move to Kansas with me? We could be depressed and hate everything together. It’d be great.
Aside from getting blog material, sometimes it feels like the only reason I’m still modelling is for the title. I like it when people ask if I’m a model, but I hate it when they ask: ‘What do you do?’ and I have to say: ‘I’m a model.’ That makes sense, right? Totally. The moment people hear ‘model’, they examine me to see if I’m worthy of the title. It’s so uncomfortable. Sometimes people look surprised, and I’m not sure how to respond to that. ‘Sorry I don’t look like a model right now because my face is breaking out, but I swear if you could see my waist-to-hips ratio you’d totally understand.’ I’m sure that won’t make me look crazy or anything.
One time I was feeling really shitty about my appearance and a guy said: ‘Hey dummy, you’re a model, like, that’s your job, you get paid to be beautiful, not everyone can do that, so shut up about your body.’ He was right, but he also wanted to have sex with me, so was not to be trusted. Most of the time I feel OK being naked around a guy, but it’s tough when other models are around. Last month I had to try on a bunch of outfits while 10 models were all sitting against the wall waiting for their turn. I stripped down to my strapless bra and thong and stood next to a clothes rack while three people who didn’t speak English put clothes on my body. When I was finished, another designer doing a casting asked if I could try on his clothes. I went to put my clothes back on but he told me just to leave them there. I didn’t want to walk across the room in a thong, even though models are used to seeing each other naked. The thought of 19-year-old models staring at me as I walked past them naked gave me anxiety. They have perfect bodies and I don’t. I put on my shorts anyway and ran over there like a weirdo. I ended up booking that job.
There is this illusion about modelling that people kiss your ass all day long and give you anything you want. The only fawning attention I get from modelling comes from gross men who stare and make inappropriate comments. I’m not out at bars every night doing bumps of coke or guzzling free drinks. I’m home early five days a week putting moisturiser on my face, thinking I’m fat, and drinking water. When you’re a model, you know that last night’s cocktails show up as dry skin on your face the next morning. I might have been able to swing that a few years ago, but not any more. I need to make sure I’m doing everything I can to look 10 years younger than I really am. Being a walking mannequin is exhausting. But maybe someday it will be worth it, when I finish my novel tentatively called ‘I Survived the Modelling Industry by Taking Antidepressants and Didn’t Even Have to Throw Up Once: The Melissa Stetten Story.’
So, what do I do now? I love living and working in New York. I make consistent money; I can drink at a bar until 4am on the weekends, and I move around sublets instead of having a permanent apartment. I really love that I can walk one block to a bodega for a sandwich. But how is that helping my future? In Los Angeles, my life is different. There I have a cat who is taken care of by my best friend who also shares my apartment. I also have a car, and my sister lives a few hours north in Yosemite, one of my favourite places to vacation. My manager is there, along with my commercial agent. I audition for TV shows, and meet people about developing fun things based on my blog. I’m moving in a somewhat constructive direction in LA. So what do I do now? I think I just answered my own question. My future is more important than a convenient sandwich.
2 October 2013