Liskula Cohen shares wisdom from a place you might not expect…the world of high-fashion modeling.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from being a model, it’s that a lot of the lessons which apply to working in this industry are pretty universal. It’s easy to think of models as living a rarefied existence, inaccessible and incomprehensible to an industry outsider. In reality, though, a lot of the wisdom I picked up can apply to every sphere of life, for men and women alike.
- What You Know Matters Less Than What You Learn.
For better or worse, Americans have been placing more and more of an emphasis on education over the last seventy years. You know the expression: Today’s college degree is yesterday’s high school degree. Four generations ago, the average American entered the workforce as a teenager. Today, the average is late twenties.
Professional modeling is a noteworthy exception to this rule. It turns out that there is a reason why the stereotype of the “dumb model” came into existence – because they generally enter the workforce at such a young age, full-time models receive considerably less formal education than most Americans.
Their careers generally start when they’re fifteen years old (as mentioned earlier). They rarely finish high school, almost never finish college, and have to adjust to managing a career in a very brief time between their teen years and their early twenties, when it usually ends (I was an exception in that I was still receiving gigs when I was 40). By the time the average person has finished college, a model’s career is over.
While the lack of education is unfortunate in its own right, one upshot to this is that – at a time when others their age are still focused on getting into good colleges – successful models develop a knack early on for how to move up in a career. If you succeed as a model, it’s because you realized the importance of knowing your industry. You need to know the key players – the editors, the photographers, the top designers. In every industry you have to know what you’re doing – who to talk to, who has power, what they expect of you. This networking savvy has helped models like Kathy Ireland, Christy Turlington, and Iman create flourishing businesses after they retired.
- If the work is worth doing, expect it to be HARD.
I’m not just talking about the rigorous exercising and dieting that most people associate with modeling (more on that in a moment). For all the glamour that comes with being a professional model, the work itself is often as mindnumbingly dull as working in retail, food service, or any other job where you’re paid to stand around all day with a fake smile plastered on your face.
Imagine standing on a concrete floor all day wearing five-inch heels. People are constantly pulling stray hairs out of your head, fiddling with your makeup, telling you to adjust this or that small detail in your pose. Every hour someone insults you: Your weight, your height, your skin, your bone structure. One client told me that my nail beds were too long (this ad wasn’t even selling nail polish). There are days when I’d come home and take two Advil because my cheeks hurt so much from smiling all day. When friends would try to make me laugh, I’d have to work not to cry out from pain.
Of course, people spend their entire lives dreaming of being models… which means it’s insanely competitive and rejection is the norm. Models have to be very resilient people. You’ll meet with fifteen clients and fourteen-and-a-half of them will be absolutely brutal. In Sofia Loren’s words, “Getting ahead in a difficult profession requires avid faith in yourself. That is why some people with mediocre talent, but with great inner drive, go so much further than people with vastly superior talent.”
Notice how she said “in a difficult profession” and not just “in modeling.” There may be a lot of setbacks and drudge work, but there isn’t any job worth having that doesn’t come with generous helpings of both those things. The ones who develop successful long-term careers nearly always learned those lessons early on.
- Success is based as much on luck (and genetics) as anything you can control.
It’s one of the hardest lessons everyone is eventually forced to learn – in the end, hard work can only get you so far.
Often I would think about how I was being paid outrageous amounts of money just for having the right DNA. Remember the earlier comment about rigorous exercise and dieting being “associated” with modeling? While it is essential to take care of yourself, your ability to have the right body type is as much hereditary dumb luck as it is regimented lifestyle planning. I was lucky to be among the models who don’t have to worry about gaining a lot of weight after eating too much. A model who is prone to gaining weight would have to go on the so-called ‘model diet’ – Coca Cola and crackers. If you were less lucky and had the “wrong” facial structure, weren’t taller than 5’6”, or in some other way failed to meet the industry’s restricted ideals, you were flat-out screwed.
The point here is not that any person or group of people is “better” than anyone else. The teachers who taught that you everyone is special weren’t lying, and as has already been explained, hard work is instrumental to success in most fields. At the same time, it’s simply not possible to have great aptitude at everything. If you’re four-feet-eleven and bowlegged, no amount of spunk and grit will allow you to be a professional football tackle; if you don’t have an ear for the language of music, hours of practice won’t help you be a rock star; and if you don’t have the right genetic makeup, the chances are you won’t make it as a mainstream model.
None of this is meant to de-emphasize the importance of hard work, however. The lesson is to play to your strengths; cultivate what you can do with hard work and perseverance, while never losing sight of your own limitations. If anything, being aware of the necessity of luck only makes you work harder. As Thomas Jefferson once put it:
“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it”
- You shouldn’t solely identify yourself with what you do.
It’s worth pointing out that Photoshop has changed the game here quite significantly (as I wrote with Matthew Rozsa in an article for GirlieGirlArmy). Today there is a member of every modeling team that was unheard of in my day… “The Retoucher.” Physical “imperfections” and wrinkles that would have ended a career before it began years ago can now be brushed away with the click of a button. Then again, some things never change, foremost among them that models eventually get older.
A lot of models have a very hard time coping with the end of their career. It becomes a part of their identity that they don’t want to lose. They became obsessed with their image – girls who would spend more money on their clothing to maintain this perception of still being a model. I have friends who are over forty years old and still walk around with a portfolio.
This doesn’t mean that modeling isn’t ultimately worth it in the end. The point here, though, is that you need to have an identity beyond what you do for a living. This is true even in industries that don’t have age limits – Talk to anyone who has succeeded in their career, and you’ll always find that the happiest are the ones who have balanced that with other aspects of their life, rather than solely embraced one dimension of their character. Personally, I take enormous joy in being a mother, a friend, and in my career working for FrontRowEyewear. Other models I know who are happy have likewise diversified.
The best closing line for this point, and this article in general, came from Marilyn Monroe:
“A career is wonderful, but you can’t curl up with it on a cold night.”
Photo courtesy of author Liskula Cohen
Also by Liskula Cohen and Matt Rozsa:
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