Catwalk Confessional p. VII: Clear the Runways!
Most people will never stand onstage at a sold-out First Avenue show. They'll never see the whites of 2,000 eyeballs at their feet, or feel the heat from searing spotlights on their backs. Most people will never strut confidently to a spot downstage and have a moment to think, What the hell am I supposed to be doing up here?
As a model for Voltage, I'm lucky enough to experience what many up-and-coming musicians have only imagined. I feel the heat. I see the eyes. I have my moment of pure, almost existential panic. In other words, Voltage is a smashing success.
For models and crewmembers, the night begins at 3:30 in the afternoon—which is a little like a teacher showing up for school at 3:30 a.m. I enter First Avenue through the side door, feeling like a celebrity trying to avoid throngs of paparazzi. Minus the throngs and the paparazzi. There's a check-in table set up near the entrance where I pick up a lanyard that says MODEL and sling it around my neck.
The mainroom looks funny during the day. There aren't many windows, so the entire club is dim, and the floor has been swept clean of beer bottles and fliers. Upstairs, the VIP room serves as the models' changing area, sectioned off according to designer. There are a couple of chairs and tables for each group, barely enough room for a rack of clothes. Models lounge on the plastic seats, dressed casually in tight jeans and skimpy tank tops, waiting for instructions. They look up at me as I walk in, and I imagine that every girl who enters the room will receive a similar once-over.
Brushes, palettes and tubes litter a makeup table in the corner of the room. I can hear Soul Coughing coming from behind the bar. Paper signs mark each designer's area; I spot Labrador—one of my designers—and throw my bag on the corresponding table. It's 3:30 on the dot and I'm the first one here. I find the tiny cloisters for George Moskal and Anne Selden, my other designers, but no one is around. If I were ever to become a professional model, I'd need to learn to be late.
If I've learned anything over the past two months, it's that modeling is often bewildering. Stylists and designers know exactly what to do: beautify the models and drape them with clothes. But we models are clueless when we're not on the runway or in the makeup chair. For the most part, we hang out backstage and try to entertain ourselves.
Di, my makeup artist for the LookBook photo shoot informs me that I'm supposed to be getting primped. I traipse over to the second floor bar, which has been transformed into a makeshift beauty parlor. Stylists surround the countertops, armed with aerosols and sponges, and spill out along the ledge overlooking the mainroom. Models fill each chair, perching upright like frozen statues. I find a sign that says Labrador, plop down on a stool, and meet Jessi, my makeup artist.
The look for Labrador is summery, with lots of gold and yellow. Jessi hums a Beach Boys tune as she dabs pink cream on my cheeks, imitating a slight sunburn. We discuss makeup, and she raves over her favorite product, a melon shimmer from Mac.
"I'm gonna get married in this blush," she says. "This blush is my life."
Twenty minutes later, I scoot over a seat and Sandra starts in on my hair. I see two other female Labrador models sporting curls, so I know what's in store for my mane.
"Do you like the smell of the hair spray?" Sandra says as she engulfs my head in aerosol. I sneeze. "Yeah, it's okay."
Vanessa is getting her hair done in the chair next to mine. "I've been in a ton of fashion shows, and my brother hasn't come to any," she complains into her cell phone. Vanessa is a model for Vision, one of the agencies working with Voltage. She's done shoots for Target and occasional prom runway shows. "They're not huge like this," she tells me, "but they pay really well."
After I'm fully fluffed and painted, I find the dinner we've been promised on the downstairs bar. It consists of turkey wraps, grapes, melons, broccoli, and carrots. For beverages, there's a choice of water or energy drinks.When I last modeled in Voltage a few years back, the dinner offering was pizza. Needless to say, in this crowd, it didn't move.
Barrett Johanneson, my Labrador designer, shows up with shoes for Vanessa. He and Anna, his assistant, spent the afternoon "running around the mall like squirrels." Anna hands me a tiny yellow sundress and I quickly change clothes, ignoring the fact that I'm in a roomful of six-dozen people. Johanneson fusses over my pumps, which are a bit too large. We compensate with heel inserts and ball cushions, and voila—they fit.
I meander over to George Moskal's area, where he's draping a grey gown on a tall blonde. We discuss my outfit and I start gushing over a honey yellow silk scarf on one of the hangers. It's from London, he says, and used to be his mother's. "Oh, cool," I say. "Is she going to be here tonight?"
"No," he responds. "She actually died four years ago."
Before I can awkwardly swallow my tongue, he adds. "It's a tribute to her."
I start to feel sentimental and gushy, but moments later the mood lightens when we start talking about my shoes. They're white slingbacks, a style I've never worn. I put them on and walk around Moskal's rack of clothes. With each step, my heel smacks up and down. I ask Moskal if this is normal for slingback shoes.
"Yeah, they'll do that a little, I think," he says staring intently at my foot. His face breaks out in a smile. "Oh wait, how would I know? I've never worn slingbacks before!"
We laugh over this for a moment, until it hits me that I'm going to be wearing a pair of strange smacking shoes on a runway in front of hundreds of people. My nerves kick in.
Back at the Labrador table, I watch Barrett hammer a snap on a lime green shirt. He looks up at me with a wide smile and pretends to bash himself on the head. "I'm done!" he cries.
I spend the next 20 minutes quietly panicking in a chair. My eyes are open and my mouth is half smiling, but inside, I'm imagining my ankles shattering the moment I step on the runway. I stare at my choreography notes and wipe sweat beads from my forehead.
"Labrador, line up!"
We jump as if the floor has been electrified and form a line: five men, five women, sun burnt and catwalk-ready. The other models watch with wide eyes as we saunter down the metal stairs in the back of the VIP room. I practice my walk through the underbelly of First Avenue: sashaying past the fenced-off liquor closet, strutting around the furnace, gliding past a trio of employees sneaking indoor cigarettes.
We emerge through a door near the coat check window, next to a line of concertgoers clutching jackets and winterwear. They gaze at us as we file by, witnesses to a high-fashion freakshow.
A black tarp dangles from the ceiling, preventing the rest of the audience from glimpsing the runway lineup. I watch Dance Band set up equipment behind a giant screen that separates the stage from the runway. After a few minutes, the screen lifts and they open with crashing chords, jolting the audience to life. The show has officially begun.
At the start of Dance Band's second song, Annie Larson's models prance out onto the catwalk wearing brightly colored jumpers and wielding jump ropes. I lean into Molly, one of the other models, and express my relief that we aren't doing any prop antics onstage. "I'd whip somebody in the face with that thing!"
After Annie Larson's set, Dance Band begins their third song. The choreographer motions for the first Labrador girl to take the stage. She walks, a male model joins her, and they exit. It's my turn.
"Go," the choreographer whispers.
I climb up four wobbly metal stairs and reach the runway. The lights are so intense I worry that my faux-sunburn could turn real. To my right, Dance Band slams in my ears, bouncing around in skintight bodysuits. I throw my chin up, march six feet to the platform, and hit my first pose. Nathan, a male model, enters the runway and walks to the end. He poses, turns on his heels, and heads my way. I step off the platform and strut down the catwalk, taking my turn in the limelight. It feels powerful, holding the attention of the entire nightclub.
We line up again behind the black tarp and walk the runway once more with Johanneson trailing behind us. The crowd hoots and hollers approvingly.
As soon as my feet hit the floor, I race upstairs to George Moskal's station. I spot a hanger with my name on it and throw off my clothes. Moskal has me wearing a grey jersey tee and gold cowl skirt that I tried on for a fitting two weeks ago. I change hurriedly and flop into a chair in front of Lindsay, Moskal's hair stylist. She rats the curls that I wore for Labrador and wraps a gold scarf around my head.
Someone yells, "Five minutes!" and I start to panic. What about my makeup? Di, my makeup artists, slaps some eyeshadow on my lids, slicks on a bit of liner, and sends me on my way. "What about lipstick?" I ask.
"You're good," she says. "Go!"
I race down the stairs and fall into line with the other George Moskal models. We're marching to the tunes of Black Blondie: slow, sexy, and sultry. I feel like a seductress as I climb onstage and glide across the runway. My nerves have calmed since the Labrador set; I feel as though I'm getting the hang of this walking thing. I strike my poses, turn on my heel, and come to the sudden realization that I don't know what to do. Am I supposed to switch places with the girl on the platform? Wasn't she supposed to stay on the end and I take the platform? Oh, man. We screwed up.
I try to get off the runway without showing either fear or shame. One reason designers dress their models in heels is so we can't run away.
After George Moskal's set, I run upstairs and throw on my outfit for Anne Selden. I'm wearing a grey dress with red and blue accents under a red jacket that I wore for the LookBook photo shoot. Half of Selden's models have yet to be styled, and we race each other to the chairs.
Next, I head downstairs and take my place in the procession of Anne Selden models. The choreographer rushes over and whispers, "Don't step on the last segment of the runway. One of the legs isn't stable."
Freezing on the runway is the stuff of anxiety dreams; falling off is a million-hit YouTube moment The God Damn Doo Wop Band harmonizes onstage as I ascend the wobbly stairs. The audience is tired, having stood for three hours, but they cheer as I slip off my jacket and sling it over my shoulder. I switch places with another model and take my final pose: chin up, shoulders back, face relaxed and still. It feels almost natural.
I exit the stage with a mixture of reluctance and excitement. My feet are killing me in four-inch heels, but I'd wear them for another three hours for a few more seconds on stage. Fashion modeling may be all about the clothes, but tonight I feel like a real supermodel, part of the art itself.
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