From Vanity to Maternity
CHAPTER 1 From Strut to Waddle
My path and Cindy Crawford’s intersected only once, in front of the makeshift bathrooms backstage at the Richard Tyler show. I had two choices: reverse course as if the sight of her supreme beauty had paralyzed my bladder or go into the stall right next to her. I assumed a nonchalant air, as though I frequently squatted alongside one-name wonders like Linda, Christy, and Naomi, with their perfectly manicured toes peeking at me from Jimmy Choo’s. As sounds of the afternoon’s caffeine exiting and rattling toilet paper rolls filled the air, I thought, She isn’t so different from me … right? I looked down at my beat-up Chuck Taylor’s and cringed.
Okay, so Cindy is a tad higher on the model food chain. She is known as just “Cindy,” even “Cindy Inc.” I’m Jill Johnson. Who? You know, former Coors Light Superbowl girl, Kohl’s catalog poser, mall fashion show diva? No, you don’t know. You don’t know because I am a “blue-collar model,” i.e. one of the nameless, pretty from at least one angle with the right makeup and lighting, hardworking cover girls—or, more likely, inset-photo girls—who definitely gets out of bed for $10,000…a month, even a season. I know some eager mediocre models who have stuck with their careers for 10K a year. It’s fun, sounds glamorous (even if the reality is more Greyhound bus than Learjet), and offers tantalizing possibilities. Keep leaning out, stretching those slender arms toward the supermodel brass ring, and a lucky girl might trade her blue-collar prefix for a super one. Then the world is hers. At least I used to think so.
I thought so when Cindy and I stood alongside one another at the sinks post porta potty rendezvous—when I was a day away from my big chance. As Cindy dried her hands, she surprised me with a friendly smile. That meant either a nice Midwestern lass still inhabited the heart of Cindy Inc., or I didn’t look like a model and so posed zero threat. I flashed her a meek grin, a girlish response to her womanly confidence.
I turned back to the mirror and pretended to focus on the meticulous application of lip gloss while inspecting my reflection. Pesky dark circles lay under my steel blue eyes, but they were named second “Prettiest Eyes” in ninth grade, almost making me feel like part of the inner circle of popular people (I wasn’t). My smackers—no complaints, except my mom’s when I was born: “Oh no, she has her dad’s fat lips!" Clearly she didn’t have Angelina Jolie as a frame of reference. My nose: bulbous in those awkward brace-face teen years, but I had grown into it. A black leather Ferrari cap quelled my rebellious mop of wavy hair, streaked from mousy to golden blonde. I dreamed of having a bouncy little cheerleader ponytail like all the Chi Omega sorority girls had in college (the Chi Os had not deemed me stylish enough to join their ranks). Instead I got what one hairdresser described as “the most hair I’ve ever seen on a white girl.”
I scanned down to my 127-pound, 5-foot-10 body. A clingy ankle-length charcoal dress hinted at prepubescent hips and average Bs—dollops to Cindy’s double-scoops—and a black-knit sweater concealed a full rear made from a loaf rather than heart-shaped mold. Well, I got the model uniform right anyway: black. At age 25, I looked 20, so I trumped Miss Crawford there. Fifteen would be better, but I was glad to have been modeling for Barbizon back in Rochester, New York, then. Standing in Bryant Park at New York’s Fashion Week comparing myself to one of God’s most notable creations of the 20th century was intimidating enough at 20-something, never mind 15.
Why was I hanging out in the tents occupied by the world’s fashion makers and uber catwalkers, anyway? Well, not because I, one of the non-super model masses, expected to strut down any of the big-time runways they contained. The backstage pass around my neck came courtesy of my best friend Sophie Patitz, who invited me to tag along to her show bookings. Sophie had watched her sister Tatjana, seven years her senior, shoot to supermodel heights. And I’m not using the super prefix loosely; she was one of the coveted posse who appeared in the George Michael “Freedom” video that made the top mannequins household names. An agent caught a glimpse of Sophie and sent her into her territorial big sister’s shadow. Today Sophie and Tatjana were walking for Richard Tyler. The twenty-one-year-old was on her big sis’s stiletto-clad heels.
As I pilfered sushi rolls from the mouthwatering buffet, I watched a makeup artist poring over my friend’s distinct features. Sophie’s naturally blonde hair framed an extraordinary face, with eyes the color and shape of a Siberian husky’s. Her eyebrows drew diagonal lines to the outer reaches of her face and then plummeted, forming amazing triangular arches. Baby fat had clung to her face when we met three years before, but her cheekbones had bulldozed it into two smooth planes beside her prominent nose. Like a bow on a perfectly wrapped package, her upper lip split into two crescents and rose like the top half of a heart—a family trademark that screamed sex appeal, which Sophie, the reluctant model, often quieted with old jeans and holey socks. She never tried very hard to succeed. Her unforgettable face and lanky body did all the work (with no help from Tatjana, except for the obvious resemblance). I noticed Sophie admiring the makeup artist’s handiwork in the mirror and suspected that for once she was actually enjoying her job.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Sophie said, as she took a smoke break between makeup and hair. Under her breath she muttered, “Everyone is so fabulous.” Fabulous most definitely was not a compliment coming from Sophie.
“You know me: free food, I’m there!” I replied, offering her the last piece of California roll.
“I’m too nervous,” she said, waving the food away with her cigarette. “You know I don’t take this business seriously, but…this,” she paused and gestured toward a gaggle of fashion’s finest swans—Nadja Auermann, Stephanie Seymour, Tatjana—“this is big.”
The top magazine editors would be in the audience, deciding who they’d book for all their fashion editorials. The models who shined here would grace the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. The advertising clients would take note and use the same in-demand faces for their campaigns, and cha-ching—a woman of barely legal drinking age, sometimes even a teen, could become a millionaire.
Tatjana strode over to her sister and said, “Hi Sophie, don’t you look nice.” Nice was an understatement but no doubt more than she wanted to concede. “Hi,” she offered me a sweet smile. At almost s ix feet tall, with a bada-boom body, Tatjana somehow could pull off cute, in addition to total diva. The few times we’d met, she seemed like a playful great dane pup, but I’d heard the stories about her opposite extreme, which was more python.
Stephanie Seymour joined us and I gazed from one striking face to another as she and Tatjana bantered about boyfriends: rock stars (the classic supermodel match); Seymour’s new love, billionaire Peter Brandt (talk about bulbous noses); actor Pierce Brosnan. Apparently neither woman had my weakness for male models. Seymour notoriously had skipped straight to dating and moving in with her agent, John Casablancas, at age 16. Never mind that he already was married to another model. That is how the game is played by the pros. I was an amateur, a mere spectator really.
“I know this is dorky, but can I take your picture?” I asked the dazzling duo. Like a reflex to the sight of a camera, they struck an Elle-worthy pose. I assumed that and the Cindy encounter would be the high points of Fashion Week for me.
“Get up, up, up, up!” I opened an eye the following morning and saw Sophie prodding my leg with a Doc Marten boot.
“Man, there’s no denying the Gestapo ancestry, is there,” I said, groaning at my half-German, half-Estonian friend (she had grown up in Sweden, just to make it more confusing). “Whose show this morning?” I asked into my pillow, in the very comfortable bed in our room at the new Paramount Hotel. Elite models got a discount. Sophie was an Elite model.
“Never heard of him,” I replied.
“Like you’ve heard of anyone!”
That’s true. I had no idea who Tatjana Patitz was when I first met Sophie. She loved that about me.
I skimped on the makeup and hair styling because Sophie, who could get ready five times faster than pokey morning me, kept tapping her foot and glaring at me in the bathroom. She had a glare that was hard to ignore.
An hour later we were back down in Bryant Park, where I discovered that the Bayou people did a very nice breakfast spread. As I popped miniature muffins into my mouth and slurped whipped cream off the top of my fancy coffee drink, one of the designer’s assistants approached the buffet and looked me up and down. I had on Levi’s and one of Sophie’s Kookai sweaters and possibly poppy seeds in my teeth.
“Are you a model?” asked the assistant.
“No. I mean, yes. I mean, no, not a model in this show, but, yes, I’m a model,” I replied. Several times during the week, people armed with curling irons and lipstick mistook me for one of the bona fide catwalkers. I appreciated the confidence boost, since I imagined Cindy and co. knew I belonged in a department store or charity luncheon in Miami, not at the 7th on Sixth shows in New York.
“One of the models didn’t show up. Would you be up for doing the show?” the assistant asked.
“Sh-sh-sure,” I stammered, as my gut dropped to the floor and boomeranged back up into my throat.
“Great, hold on a sec,” she darted back to the racks of outfits, where the design team buzzed around like frenzied bees. Before I even had time to tell Sophie that I might be walking Bradley Bayou’s runway with her, the assistant rushed back through the scurry of primpers doing last-minute touch-ups. “Never mind sweetie, you’re off the hook,” she said with a shrug.
“Phew. Well, you woke me up anyway,” I replied, feigning nonchalance. I felt dismayed over the fleeting fantasy—a shot at recognition from fashion’s dictators in the front rows, a subsequent string of rocker boyfriends—but also relieved. That morning I had seen the runway from a model’s-eye view when Sophie went to scope it out. Even without a thousand riveted stares and the swarm of zooming lenses and dancing flashes, the monstrous catwalk made me queasy. Even Sophie had said, “This one seems longer and higher than the others.” She looked intimidated; Sophie typically does not do intimidated. Gradually that looming image faded back to its safe place outside my reality.
“First look!” I snapped out of my daydream as I heard the models’ cue to dress, meaning mere minutes before show time. I was about to join the audience and find a good seat, when a pack of flustered faces surrounded me. The model had not arrived after all. A debate ensued, and someone demanded a decision “Pronto!” I thought even pronto was too late, but I just stood there with my mouth agape in shock. The show coordinator gave the go-ahead, “OK, let’s use her. Hustle people!”
Everyone moved instantly: multiple makeup artists dove in with foundation sponges, blush brushes, shadow palettes, brow and lip liners; an octopus of hairdressers’ hands, gripping brushes, rollers, and bobby pins, descended upon my head; and another arm reached down, tugged off my Puma, and slipped my unsuspecting foot into a five-inch-tall stiletto.
Oh, dear God, I thought, I can’t walk in these! If only catwalks came equipped with railings for weeble-wobble-and-they-do-fall-down models like me. I wondered if I should weasel out of the show, admit I was a flip-floppin’ South Beach model tiptoeing on the brink of complete humiliation and possible bodily disfigurement. You can do it, you can do it, I chanted silently, closing my eyes to accommodate the eye shadow appliers—of which there were two, one for each eye. When I glanced in the mirror—literally two minutes after my transformation from blue-collar to almost-super model began—I couldn’t believe it. I looked stunning. I had girlishly pink cheeks and glossed lips paired with irresistible bedroom eyes and movie-star hair. The editors will love me. This is it, I thought.
“Ooooh, it’s like Cinderella,” squealed the dresser who had slid my feet into the towering torture chambers. Amid the frenzy, the designer proceeded to check the fit of the finale gown on me. The finale gown? I had a chance of being the model who closes the show, a designer’s equivalent of the teacher’s pet. He zipped me in. “Perfect!” he exclaimed triumphantly. A ring of reporters snapped pictures and interviewed me, while I tried to listen to the choreographer coach me on how to walk and where to pivot.
Someone shuffled me off to my spot below the stage steps where the other fifteen girls already were lined up, including Sophie who gave me a giddy thumbs-up. Within seconds, my dressers had me in a plastic skirt with pink and yellow flowers on it (think shower curtain/lamp shade) and pastel blue jacket, which I would unbutton to reveal the black bra beneath. I had practiced walking for a mere five shaky, discouraging steps when the tent went black and the music started.
The show was surreal: a blur of faces, blinding spotlights, the whir of clicking cameras, the pounding of music barely audible as my heartbeat filled the room. Time seemed to stop. I remember the moment when I stepped out to the spot where Sophie and I had taken a sneak peek. It was scary enough before, but this time hundreds of faces stared at me from the rows of chairs around the catwalk. I froze for a second and then began teetering down the runway. My feet pulsed. My legs felt numb. I couldn’t tell if I was moving forward—like one of those dreams where you can’t get to the door at the end of a bright white hall—but the surrounding faces changed, so I must have been. Halfway down I remembered that I needed to unbutton my jacket. I faltered as my concentration went from not toppling over to the disrobing task…one button…two buttons…three buttons. By the time I reached the end of the runway where a mob of photographers angled and elbowed for that killer shot, the jacket fell open, my black lace push-up bra teased the cameras, and I struck a “come hither” pose. I pivoted and headed back past the next model, with her cool gaze that I imitated. I was smokin‘ hot!
Backstage, where pantyhose were stripped off and slapped on in milliseconds, time and models sped by. I slipped out of my first look and into a chic suit. I slid back into the line-up like a race car pulling out of a pit stop, only walking in a new pair of skyscraper stilettos felt like driving with the emerge ncy brake on. I picked up the pace once I hit the stage, as I had experience now. While not speeding down the runway as the Patitz sisters did (Tatjana’s break-neck pace earned her the nickname “beep beep”), I glided along with barely a wobble. Perhaps I might actually catch up to Sophie, not literally, on the runway—that would be ba d form, passing or trampling a colleague—but in my career and, in turn, even with men…. C atwalk adrenaline pumped possibilities into my mind.
When my dresser presented my third and last pair of footwear, low heels, I would have danced a naked happy jig if I’d had time. Instead I focused on making my last pass my best yet. I worked the runway, made eye contact with the most stylish audience members—maybe editors who would buzz about that “fabulous new girl” walking for Bradley Bayou. Then, seemingly moments after the chill of fear turned into a thrill that I didn’t want to end, the show was over.
The design team bombarded me with hugs and congratulations for “saving the show.” I shrugged off the attention, trying to stay cool despite quaking knees. I felt like a little kid fresh off my first rollercoaster ride and yearning to jump back on. Sophie made her way through my Bayou fan club and gave me a big hug.
“You did it! How do you feel?” she asked. Her concerned look indicated she was waiting to see if I’d puke or smile.
“Awesome. That was fun. Which designer is next?” I asked, with a hand on my hip and flip of the hair.
“Isaac Mizrahi in a few hours. You never know, maybe the model who flaked is booked for that too,” replied Sophie. “You could be the first model to take Fashion Week by storm, without even going to the castings.”
“Well, not exactly. I did go to some and got shot down, but I could invent a new persona. I’m Svetlana from Russia, zee mystery model of Fall ’94,” I joked. About the last part. The first part was true. Metropolitan, my agency in New York, had sent me on the show rounds, but I’d been rejected. I couldn’t wait to tell my booker about my catwalk coup, which for sure would infuse some excitement into his tired attitude toward me. “Hey, let’s get changed,” I said to Sophie. “I’m going to Metropolitan right now to tell them about their new superstar, Svetlana Johnson!”
We shed our designer duds, replacing them with tight jeans, black leather jackets, and—thank God, for my mangled toes—commodious boots. We exited the tent into the perfect fall day, and I felt more invigorated than I had in months. Both of us forgot about Shay, our hairdresser friend who had come to watch Sophie and had expected to sit with me.
“Sophie, Jill!” We both turned and saw Shay, a dread-locked Horshack lookalike and one of the sweetest guys in the business. He waved as he made his way through the crowd flowing like a giant amoeba out of the Josephine tent.
“Oh man, I bet he thought you overslept. He must have flipped when he saw you on the runway,” said Sophie, as she inhaled her nicotine fix as rapidly as she walked the runway.
Shay grinned at me as he approached, and I waited to hear his review. “Jilly, God, you looked terrified,” he said, as he gave me the kind of embrace you give someone with a grave ailment.
“Did she?” Sophie said. “Aww, Jill.” She gave me a reassuring pat on the back.
“Did I?” I said, trying to appear nonplussed. My legs, which up until I heard Shay’s assessment, felt like they might pull a Mary Poppins and float off into the air, suddenly felt like two concrete blocks. I hoped the flush I could feel heading to my cheeks looked like the result of the brisk air. “Yeah, I’m sure I did,” I said with a laugh. “Hey, I’m going to run to my agency and deal with some stuff. Catch ya later, Shay,” I said, depositing a double-cheek kiss. “I’ll just meet you at the hotel, Soph.”
“OK. Make sure you tell them the story. It’s a great one,” said Sophie.
All except the last part.
I headed toward the Bryant Park subway stairs and gave myself a pep talk. I couldn’t have looked terrified the whole time. Maybe the first few steps. When I vogued for the camera, I was channeling Linda, for sure. Whatever. All my agent would know is that I walked in the big tents. That meant big things to come. I could barely stand the suspense as I made my way to Metropolitan. Christian, my booker, would be so psyched!
I strode out of the elevator on the fifth floor overlooking Union Square and directly to the large round booking table at the back of the agency. “Christian, guess what,” I said, “I just did the Bradley Bayou show!”
“Did you have them sign a voucher?” asked Christian, before putting up a finger to shush me as he answered the phone. He spoke excitedly in French to the model on the other end. “Oui, huit défilés. Fantastique!” Someone had booked eight shows. Impressive. He hung up the phone. He looked at me. “So?”
“It was kind of a whirlwind,” I said. Money had been the last thing on my mind; tripping, falling, and taking someone’s eye out with the spike on my heel—that was more in line with what I was thinking before the show. And after? I was the star. Are stars supposed to fret over niggling paychecks?
“You always have the client sign a voucher,” lectured Christian, with irritation in his voice and not a hint of the elation I imagined. The phone rang again, ending our conversation. Well, I thought, as I began what I hoped would be a 30-block therapeutic walk back to the hotel, I can call my mom. As my #1 fan, she’ll be excited for me.
Bradley Bayou never did pay up, even though an AP photo of me in the black bra–cropped jacket and plastic miniskirt get-up provided proof in newspapers across America that I indeed had walked their runway. My expression wasn’t totally Linda Evangelista, but it wasn’t squirrel-meets-Mac truck either. Too bad the only other runway I made it on that week was LaGuardia’s. But my Bradley Bayou experience would have a huge impact on my career, just not in the way I expected.
Ten years after my accidental debut in New York Fashion Week, I found myself back in Union Square, near my old agency. I looked up at the building that once housed Metropolitan Models and remembered how a scout had stopped me in the street and told me to come meet the bookers. With a thick French accent, he said, “Eet eez Claudia Scheeffer’s eh-jaun-cie.” Oh, to think of a time when a stranger would dangle supermodel bait in my apparently eye-catching face to lure me into an agency.
Now people were staring at me but what they saw wasn’t pretty. I was 20 pounds heavier, with a potbelly, and regurgitated sausage in the gray-streaked hair I attempted to hold away from my face as I puked on the congested sidewalk outside Whole Foods. The whipping October wind didn’t help matters, nor did the stylish patrons seated by the window, gawking at me over their cartons of tofu and veggies.
The suspect swine is what messed up my day. I’d ordered my standard breakfast: three fried eggs, two pieces of toast, turkey sausage, a bowl of Bran Flakes, and a fruit platter. The sausage looked different from the day before, but, because of the fog brain and insatiable appetite, I hadn’t noticed that until the last bite. Half an hour later, I was shopping for shoes to contain my swollen feet at a wedding that evening. That’s when the piercing pain in my head and tidal wave of nausea struck. I first upchucked outside Aldo on Broadway before taking my little sidewalk freak show up to Union Square. At least I’d managed to slap down thirty bucks for a pair of sparkly ballet flats before turning green.
Eighteen weeks into a twin pregnancy, I’d had several women’s shares of morning-noon-and-night sickness. Add my tendency toward brutal migraines—triggered by anything from a pesky link of sausage (room service had sent me regular, not the nitrate-free version) to a progesterone surge—and I’d gotten double whammied every few days of my hormonal journey to twin mommyhood.
But today of all days, I did not need this. Today I would witness my younger, taller, prettier doppelganger, Audi, walk the aisle. She also was thinner (not just now, but always) and had bigger au natural boobs (unless mine happened to be lactating). It gets worse: my friend would be in a breathtaking one-of-a-kind wedding gown designed for her as a personal favor by Carolina Herrera. While I’d become a haus frau, Audi had become Herrera’s house model. Audi also had drunk from the Botox fountain of youth since age 25, essentially freezing her looks at the optimum age. I had lines scurrying across my forehead in a tremendous hurry, a purple patchwork of varicose veins on my calves, and the prospect of “twin skin.” I had spent tens of thousands of dollars and injected myself with scores of needles to get myself into this condition. Audi had declared that she would forego children altogether.
The queasiness did not subside in time for the ceremony. I sat in a back row, wedging my fist into my throbbing eye socket and concentrating on keeping Saltines in my stomach rather than propelling from it onto the Neo-Gothic pew at Trinity Church. My husband had stayed home in Spain, saddled with work. Tough, sure, but nothing like what I was saddled with. His best friend stood in as my date. Compared to the stunning current-catwalking bridesmaids, I felt like the booby prize—puking or not. And I did lose the crackers, shortly into the reception, canvasing the bathroom and obliterating what was left of my resolve to make the best of it.
“I’m afraid I have to leave before I heave on the bride,” I told Audi, after extracting her from a raucous crowd of shot drinkers.
“Oh, someone is bound to eventually,” she said, giving me a pep-up hug.
“There’s also the matter of my seam ripping any minute.” I lifted my sequined blouse to reveal a half-zipped skirt and my stomach expanding like the Incredible Hulk, despite the lack of digested calories. I caught her furtive “yikes” look.
“I’m sorry,” I said forlornly. “I’m a wreck, and I really wanted to see your first dance.”
Audi smiled radiantly, and with her blonde locks cascading over blush moiré taffeta, she glided across the dance floor, grabbed the microphone, and said, “I want to say thanks to my great friend Jill for coming all the way from Madrid, pregnant with twins, to celebrate this day. She’s not feeling so hot. Before she leaves, we’d like to do our first dance.” Audi beckoned the bewildered groom. He obediently took her lithe body in his arms, The Beach Boys “God Only Knows” began to play, and the dashing newlyweds floated dreamily around the room.
After the song ended, I waddled outside and my escort hailed me a taxi. I thought about what Audi said about me “not feeling so hot,” and contemplated the loaded meaning for an ex-model.
I had lost my position as one of the lettuce-nibbling “beautiful people” (albeit on the lower-echelon, and with a penchant for pizza), and fallen into the blubbery, bloated, cranky, voracious state of pregnancy, where an ultimate 46-pound weight gain loomed. Before that tumble came marriage and monogamy—no more access to the planet’s hottest guys. Next: needy offspring to put first, before vanity and a good night’s sleep. Gone were the days of cruising Ocean Drive in a convertible, chasing covers and cover boys, Offspring blaring from the speakers.
How would I navigate the bumps in the road from model to mom—including the giant one in my mid-section—after two decades hyper-focused on concealing flaws, maintaining a svelte figure, and minimizing responsibilities? The answer lay in the depths of a world that isn’t all shallow, where the runways I walked added up to a lot more than a fashion show. I learned lessons there, on an unlikely course from teen Barbizon reject to international model, that not only smoothed my journey from strut to waddle but offer a roadmap for anyone tromping, or meandering, from girlhood to motherhood. The scenery in my story is out of the ordinary but the destination is an extraordinary place within anyone's reach.