A portrait of the model as a young woman

In Features /

By Lori Fazari

Beads of sweat slide down Paula Romkey’s back as she leans forward into the photographer’s lens. She’s uncomfortably seated on a piece of Styrofoam that can’t contain the heat emanating from the asphalt under her.

The sun beats down, and yet again the weather has reached over 37 degrees on this July afternoon in New York City.

It’s hot enough on the sidewalk, but up on the roof of photographer Garth Aikens’ three-storey apartment building, Paula can barely tolerate the heat in her dark blue denim jacket and black skirt.

As he directs his subject, Garth keeps up a steady stream of chatter. “Chin up. That’s it,” he commands, and Paula obeys, tilting her chin forward and swinging her wavy, long brown hair.

The air is heavy and still, and the smells of tar, fast food and car exhaust hang over this working-class neighbourhood in downtown Brooklyn.

“Chin up a bit more. Lift your head up a bit,” Garth says and Paula thinks for a second before throwing her head back and to the right.

“No, the other way. Try to keep the eyes open,” the photographer says. Paula moves the other way as she’s told, staring straight into Garth’s lens as he continues to snap away.

She follows each command without a word, save for the occasional self-conscious giggle when Garth blurts out encouragement like, “Beautiful! Look at you, girl … you work it!”

Garth is used to working with aspiring models like Paula who have barely been in front of a camera before. She’s a bit nervous but his relaxed, friendly manner puts her at ease.

After all, not much is at stake beyond the US $350 she’s paying for this photo shoot for her portfolio. If all else fails, Paula keeps reminding herself, and no clients sign her on to model, she’ll just go back home to her family and part-time job at a mall clothing store in Ottawa.

Garth turns away for a few minutes while he makes adjustments to his camera. Gina Simone, the make-up artist who’s been standing back watching the action this whole time, steps in to fuss with Paula’s hair, putting each strand in its place.

Paula has been in front of the camera for more than two hours already, and all she can think about is going back downstairs to Garth’s air-conditioned studio/apartment to wash her face.

When Paula arrived for the photo shoot three hours ago, the only make-up she wore was the lip gloss she always carries in her handbag.

With Gina’s artful touch, and a kitchen table full of cosmetics, Paula’s narrow face and wide-set, clear blue eyes have been transformed from soft to smoky.

It looks good, but she’s itching to take it all off. Natural is how she feels most comfortable, and when Garth finally says they’re done for the day and everyone files down the stairs from the roof, Paula heads straight for the bathroom.

“What a rush,” she tells Garth once she’s washed her face and tied up her hair. “You put all that work in and then you see the final results.” She’s clutching the test Polaroids of the photo shoot that Garth gave her.

“You’re great — your face and smile and everything,” he tells her, walking her out to the street before going back up to his apartment where his next model is waiting to be photographed.

On her 20-minute subway ride back to Manhattan, Paula admires the photos of herself.

 

“Weren’t you in the newspapers, modeling in New York or something?” the woman checking ID at the bar in Ottawa’s Byward Market asks Paula.

“No, I’ve been working here all summer. I wish,” Paula says with a friendship laugh and a wide smile, trying to gain the woman’s confidence. Shit, Paula thinks, this gig has completely blown my cover.

It used to be easier to sneak into bars in her hometown of Ottawa, using her older sister’s ID. But since she got back from New York City almost two weeks ago, Paula has been fielding questions from friends and strangers who read about her trip in one of the local papers. A cover story before she left called her a Cinderella off on an adventure to the big city.

The woman at the bar entrance buys Paula’s story and lets her in. “You look a lot like that girl though,” she says as Paula walks into the bar.

The place is packed with high school and university students who have nothing better to do on a Sunday night. Dance beats pulse through the crowd as Puala makes her way down a few stairs to the bar.

She’s been here almost every weekend this summer because the beer’s cheap and most of her private school friends and acquaintances from other high schools hang out here.

Halfway through her first beer, a guy walks by her and stops to say hi. It’s someone she met while hanging out at other bars in the Byward Market area.

“Heeyyy, how are you,” Paula says, leaning forward to give him a hug, beer still in hand. She’s almost six-feet tall and towers over a lot of people in here.

“What have you been up to?” he asks as they both lean against the bar.

She hesitates. “Just working in New York for a while.”

“What were you doing there?”

“Modelling.”

“How old are you again.”

“I’m 17. I start Grade 12 next month.”

“Wow,” he says, standing back to look her up and down in disbelief as she giggles. “You look great.”

Paula is used to this attention, and as she walks off to mingle with other people in the bar, she’s oblivious to the heads that turn to stare as she passes.

She works the room like a smooth salesperson, saying hello to the people she knows and striking up conversations with good-looking men.

Acquaintances who have seen her photos in he paper ask how her modeling career is going. “I’m just waiting to hear back,” is her standard reply.

Before the night is over she’s met four guys and give one her number.

 

Model agent Susan Georget looks up from her computer at Paula, inspecting her appearance. “You might want to put your hair down. They’re looking for something a little more glamorous and sexy.”

“Sure, not a problem,” Paula says, her hands flying up to unfasten the elastic holding her ponytail.

It’s the last day of Paula’s first week in New York City, and Susan’s criticism makes her feel self-conscious as she walks out of the women’s division office to wait in the hallway of her Park Avenue modelling agency, Wilhelmina Models Inc.

Paula is here for her third casting call of the week to meet clients who need models for a trade brochure. As she waits she pots another model, her competition, down the hall. She’s older and looking more casual in her drawstring cargo pants and blue T-shirt. Paula recognizes her from a photo spread in Mode magazine.

Finally another agent, Tom Winslow, calls Paula into the meeting room and introduces her to the two female and two male executives seated in the office.

In quick succession they fire off questions: “How old are you? Where are you from? Have you modeled anywhere before?”

Paula barely has time to sit and answer before it’s over. With her head spinning, she walks out of the meeting room and into the lobby, where a steady stream of aspiring models and actors are passing through, handing in resumes and photographs. Paula wonders whether she’s made an impression on the clients she just met.

Here in New York, she can’t rely on looks alone — attitude and experience also count. That’s what Tom says over the phone that night when he explains the contract went to the older model she recognized at the casting call. It’s disappointing, but not a crushing blow for Paula.

“Models are created, not discovered. My philosophy is you find the raw material and develop it,” Tom says. “The No. 1 word I try to instill is patience.”

Three days later, Paula takes an early flight back to Ottawa. Her agents promise to call if any clients are interested in her portfolio, though her phone hasn’t rung yet.

Leave a Comment