What models never talk about

by Rachel Bell on January 2, 2008

The Manchester United Christmas party began with players ‘selecting’ models from across the country and ended with a report of rape. So is being a piece of meat for rich men the reality for upcoming models? Former US model Allison Davis was promised modelling jobs and found herself being used as an escort for older men, kept out against her will at clubs and sexually assaulted. While the media focuses on the size zero debate, Allison tells Rachel Bell her story, one in which why rape and sexual harassment are as real a threat  as death by eating disorder.

I was always self-conscious but I was really into sports. My dad hoped I’d go on a basketball scholarship. The first time I considered modelling was when I was in 7th grade. Someone at church said I looked like Nikki Taylor. I went to a crappy Dallas agency and started doing local modeling, mainly cheesy showroom stuff. The agency weighed me in weekly and told me to lose weight. I’d plan my week but if I went over 900 calories a day, I ‘d just eat an apple the next. I’d divide it into meals and drink loads of water and diet drinks. I was 13. My dad thought it was nuts, that it was harming my basketball.

I remember fainting on the volleyball court in ninth grade. My eating had become disordered and I was pretty sick – I would have been classified anorexic – but I thought I was in complete control. The food is an obsession. By 16 or 17, I’d done every diet going – Atkins, meat only, low calorie and two week liquid only diets. I was more of a starvation diet type but you can’t do it, obviously you faint. You feel low and at the end of the week, you’re all alone, you binge eat. From the age of 17-19 I didn’t get a period. I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to have kids so I went to my gynaecologist in Texas and she said, it’s not harmful, you just don’t have enough body fat, what diet are you on? By this time I was doing commercial billboards, runways, catalogues and Dillard’s, a Dallas department store – a laugh in industry terms. But modelling is addictive. The money is addictive and the affirmation that you conform to the western ideal of beauty, the acceptance, is addictive. I was getting straight As at school and was in the National Honours Society but one photo that goes in the Sunday newspaper or one second on TV and it’s the big deal.

At 18 I paid several hundred dollars to be admitted to my first and only pageant. The draw was that modelling agencies would be there. I took the free ‘interview training’ and was told to tell the judge what they wanted to hear. As if women aren’t socialized enough to please people. It was a case of forget your true self, you’re a robot now. The funniest thing was when an older competitor loaned me her fake boobs as I was waiting in line for the swimsuit competition. I thought I’d look ridiculous with size D breasts, and would be embarrassed at all the stuffing, so I didn’t wear them. I think it might have helped my score  ­– ­the winner was a size 0 with this huge fake cleavage. All of the women in the pageant were constantly degrading their bodies verbally, either seeking validation or calling themselves fat and uglier than other contestants. Some of them were seriously ill with various eating disorders. We had a slumber party in the hotel and no one ate anything.

That same year, 2001, my Dallas agent sent me to Milan. She said I had to go. Agencies make their younger models go to Paris, Milan or London and call it, ‘Hitting the Pavement’. You go to get good tear sheets for magazines and runway work, and meet good photographers. For me, this was a really dramatic, extreme experience. Most models do not talk about their first year.

In Milan I lived in a models apartment with two Americans, Ruth and Mary-Beth. Our parents were told we would have a chaperone. I was 18 but many models were as young as 15. Our chaperone was a 25-year-old Italian man, Paulo. He always came into our apartment smoking a joint and told us he could get us anything we wanted – designer clothes, drugs, anything. On the first night Paulo forced himself on me. They were plying us with alcohol and as I’d never drank before – I was always too busy and never went to drinking parties – I was getting drunk on two dakiris. Paulo was giving me the customary kiss on each cheek and he forces himself on my mouth and pushes me hard against a wall. Maybe he saw how revolted and offended I was and got bored because he let me go after he got his kiss.

I’m pretty sure the chaperones were paid by club owners to take us clubbing. Ruth said they make money per head. We weren’t exactly prisoners but we had no control, ­­we were in a foreign country, we were reliant on our chaperone to take us home. It was subtle, if we asked to go home at a decent hour, suddenly Paulo couldn’t understand us, he’d disappear or he’d bring more champagne. So we’d be out until around 5.30am. The agency would book me on weekend trips to Rome but there was no work planned for me. I was told I had ‘free time’. I didn’t want to sit around the pool with these older guys drinking champagne. We were being used as escorts and kept out against our will. One night when we were so tired and refused to go out, Paulo said, ‘You have to go out or I’ll get fired.’ He wouldn’t leave us alone. I reluctantly agreed but as we sat in Nobu with these older men, I wasn’t smiling or being a good little escort. The owner of the agency said if I didn’t act happy, he’s make sure I wouldn’t get any work. Then he said if I started smiling, he would buy me whatever I wanted. So I sold myself out for a pair of Dolce and Gabbana jeans.

When the agency took us out, there were always these older men with us. Paulo brought some of them came back to our apartment one evening. A man in his fifties who’d been introduced to us at the agency started massaging Mary Beth while she lay on the couch. I went into the other room and read a fashion magazine. Later Mary Beth came in and said, ‘Allison, he stuck his finger inside me when he was massaging me.’ She just looked really violated. I had to go in and tell them to leave. I had to push them out the door.

There was a Swiss man who was always driving us around and telling us he was rich. And there was a guy who the agency introduced us to who was always courting models. He told me he could make me but I wasn’t to tell Mary Beth because she’ll never make it. He said the same thing to Mary Beth. We’d got back late one evening and said we’re going to bed and I shut the door. Paulo and these two men started throwing stones at our window, putting their faces up against it and trying to lift it up. Paulo was yelling let us in. They were really frightening us. Mary Beth’s drink had been spiked. I hadn’t seen someone floppy like that, she was pretty much passed out. Ruth and I were freaking out inside, saying oh my god, we have no protection, they ARE our protection. We were underage but they were always plying us with free alcohol. We yelled at them and eventually they left. We thought that they thought they’d gotten us drunk enough so that they could have sex with us.

A couple of times we went to get our assignments from the agency at 8 or 9 am (in Italy I had up to ten go-sees a day, much more than in Dallas) and it was shut down because police were looking through it. The agency takes all the models’ passports so they don’t lose them. A Russian girl who lived with us started dating the agency head and he wouldn’t let her eat. She always looked so unhappy. We’d heard stories about where she came from, how poor she was. Other girls said, “Well think how much better off she is now.’ I’m not saying it’s trafficking because they weren’t forced. But by being an agency they can get girls from anywhere in Europe and get them work permits.

I look so sad in my Milan pictures. I’d stopped laughing and being goofy. It was so different to how I envisaged modelling. I was having this intense struggle to be myself. I know I was idealistic, I had been sheltered. I didn’t have sexual harassment until Italy. I’d always had the respect of the men in my family and the boys at school. I always stood up to sexist shit. When I called my Dallas agent to complain about the situation in Milan, she said, “It’s Italy, darling. Everything’s a little bit on the black market there, you just have to work the system.” I see her as my enemy now. I’ve known her since I was a child and trusted her. I blame her in that adolescent way when adults break their trust.

In Italy we hardly ate anything. I was bulimic. I’m pretty sure most of the models were starving themselves. They are type A personalities, perfectionists who don’t want to fail. I didn’t want to fail but to succeed, to be thin enough, there’s too much you have to do that hurts yourself. After Italy, my agency thought I needed motivating. They’d call me more often and tell me to go work out and not have any carbs after 11am. They called me in for bi-weekly hip measurements. A photographer commented that I was getting pudgy. I now know I was never pudgy‚ because I am 5‚11 and never weighed above 118. One of the bookers would call me and say, ‘No doughnuts this morning, Allison.’ It was so condescending. We know not to eat doughnuts.

The first time I was hospitalised was soon after I got back to Dallas at the start of 2002. I was 19 with ulcers in my colon from the extremely high protein, no carbohydrate diet I kept myself on. I’d had no roughage or veg for a year, like extreme Atkins. I’d been abusing laxatives so my stomach swelled to pregnant woman size. It was really painful. My sphincter was ruined. My digestive system is still sluggish because of the damage that I did. I will probably be on medication for a long time to keep my digestive system functioning properly, but I count myself lucky because I didn’t have holes in my oesophagus or eroding teeth from my bulimia, only acid reflux, which seems to be getting better.

In 2002 I moved to LA to take acting classes. Mine is a commercial look and my agent thought it would get me TV ad work. I started to sabotage my career, I think I was subconsciously unable to handle the pressure and it was hurting too much. When a hairdresser said my long, blonde hair was really badly damaged, I told her to chop it off into a very short spiky haircut. It was an outward expression of my inner turmoil and this immature reaction to get back at my agent. I cried when I got home. I dyed it black as a kind of nail in the coffin. It meant my book was totally wasted. My agent was so mad and said I was so stupid. It was stupid because black hair really doesn’t suit me. I was struggling with myself. I’ve never seen myself as other people do. I’d lost a sense of who I was. My existence was solely about being thin and pretty. I switched from binging and starvation cycles to binge eating because my relationship with food was so disordered. This basically forces you to quit because you gain weight and don’t look like your pictures anymore. It wasn’t long before I was hospitalised again at the end of 2002. It was the Christmas holidays. I was suffering from depression and I was throwing up, doing starvation dieting for a few weeks, then bingeing. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.

I’d signed with a new small LA agency and was still sick when I enrolled on night classes on Sex and Gender. It was strange the first time I starting reading feminist literature in class because it read like a diary.

The classes really raised my consciousness, especially about the body obsessive scene in LA. I doubt I would have conquered my internal conflicts without feminist scholarship and that’s why I believe in its power. Reviving Ophelia (an old book by a woman psychiatrist) seemed to be the only literature I could find that spoke to the causes of my problems. Other psychiatrists tried to medicate me or diagnose me with some disease and I felt like they were not understanding. That book was one reason I found the strength to overcome my eating disorder and finally resist the addictive draw of the modelling world.

I feel that much of everyday lives are becoming like beauty pageants. There’s been a harmful shift in our society from what really matters, there’s a distorted view of reality. Pageants perpetuate the harmful myth that girls and women that they must be judged on their looks, that beauty is all, but only one look fits. It is this internalising of the normalization of comparing one’s body to the ideal and expecting it to conform that is so insidious. To hate one’s own body is a horrible feeling that interferes with all aspect of your life. If you don’t fit the beauty ideal by your peers, you feel miserable, you’re a failure. Girls aged 12-13 are too accepted or rejected and outcast from schools. Extreme body dissatisfaction leads to eating disorders, self harm, depression and suicide. Lack of self-respect can lead to mistreating one’s body in other ways – such as binge drinking, unprotected sex and drugs.

Harmless? Empowering? I know at least three models that have been seriously (near death) ill with diseases directly contributable to unrealistic body images and expectations. A friend of mine very nearly died from anorexia. I know girls whose hair has fallen out, who have had to be force-fed. It has become all too common for people in the media to portray their human side through admissions of eating disorders. Still, I think those most afflicted don’t feel comfortable talking about them with people outside of their circle of friends and as a result aren’t getting the help they need.

At the same time men become accustomed to judging and being entitled to judge (Italians legally bet on pageant contestants like racehorses) and I feel this has a great deal to do with discrimination in the workplace, prostitution, and violence against women. (Italians legally bet on pageant contestants like racehorses.) This type of liberty that men feel that have to comment on women’s looks apparently has no end. No matter how successful women become, their bodies can still be berated and used to bring them down.

The World Economic Forum put out a gender gap study and the US is 17th on the list. There’s this focus for women on being sanitised. Women are still seen as primary caretakers. Keeping women as the loving, caring stereotype, as beautiful things, is hurting us, it’s hurting the world. Women could do so much more. We need women in diverse roles.

I left LA in January 2004. I was 21. At 23, I finally begun to see my body in its softer shape as my body, instead of some disgusting blob of jiggly skin. I believe that my mind is still recovering and adjusting from the body dysmorphic disorder it developed. That said, I feel happier and smarter. I have energy.

I came across Object – Women, not Sex Objects at The Women’s Resource Centre and their slogan really appealed to me. I became a strong supporter whist living in London. I complained about irresponsible ads and talked on BBC radio people about beauty pageants. Now I’m back in Dallas doing an advanced degree in gender studies. I want to do all I can to make the feminist voice louder and encourage more girls and women to listen to their authentic selves. Feminism is not just a movement for me; it is a way to express the truth of my experiences in this world. It brought back my authentic self, my voice.

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