A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

Joan Didion opens her essay "Goodbye To All That" with the declaration that it is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. But with my career, it was in fact just the opposite:

These photos, the polaroids that got me on a plane to Paris, were only one beginning of many. There was also the beginning of department store and catalog work, circa age 8; the beginning when I graduated, in my teens, to appearing in campaigns and commercials for Asian brands who wanted to shoot in my country. Then I went to college, and met two agents while I was working on a story for the student newspaper, and the pictures they took were another beginning. But these snapshots will do for the story I am telling you now, because once they had been taken, a certain chain of events was set in motion that, to this day, seems ineluctable. Almost as soon as I had hit "Send" on the e-mail, I had a reply asking if my passport was up to date. The following morning, I left.

For the record, when the end came, it was pretty damn clear.


A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

But since we're still talking about firsts here, this is the only picture I still have from my very first Paris test shoot. I was nervous, and I ruined half the shots because I did not then know how to avoid looking startled; I was all wide-open eyes and a faintly frowning mouth. A month or so later, I had a lookbook casting with the same photographer, and my book was still full of the startled pictures. "We shot some nice stuff together, didn't we," he lied, as he flipped through the pages, right past this one. He did not book me.


A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

Another, more successful, Paris test shoot. This picture stayed in my book in every market in which I ever worked for the duration of my career; I remember taking it in the photographer's apartment, very rapidly, in true rough and ready test fashion, with no hair or makeup. The whole time, the photographer was chatting with a woman from my agency about whether the Czech model Denisa Dvorakova was going to be the next Daria Werbowy. "Je la trouve meme mieux que Daria, dans une certaine manière," said the woman from my agency, referring to Denisa. The photographer was unconvinced.

Photo: Elina Kechicheva


A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

A New York test shoot. The photographer was buzzing because he had just received word that he would be doing a test with Karlie Kloss, the teenaged St. Louis supermodel. The next day I read in the paper that Karlie was switching to Next, the same agency I was with, and it all made sense.

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

The woman who worked at Elite Paris and was such a fan of Denisa pointed to this picture as an example of how my hips were fat. I liked it anyway.


A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

This was a commercial shoot, and without it, my Paris agency debt would have climbed into the stratosphere. (As it is, it still kind of hit the roof.)

My nose doesn't actually look like that.

Photo: Stefania Paparelli

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

This rendering is not all that much more accurate. My nose was generally the first thing to get fixed in post-production.

For this shoot, I remember hurrying to meet the team on time at their hotel in the 1st Arrondissement, a tremendously grand building, and then waiting half an hour for anyone besides the fashion editor to turn up. Once we were all assembled, we ate lunch. I was afraid to order anything because I didn't know if I'd be asked to pay, and I couldn't afford it. That's how new I was.

Photo: Stefania Paparelli

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

This picture had some endurance in my book, too. It was from a lookbook shoot for the Los Angeles label Guy Baxter; unfortunately, I had just been dumped and the whole job went by in a fog of dread because I had to go back to San Francisco to deal with the tedious and depressing business of dividing up a household's worth of goods. The photographer was brilliant; when I went on a go-see at a stupid but hip magazine, and the casting director showed more interest in him than she did me, I totally talked him up. (But not too much, lest she think him somehow tainted for earning the approval of someone her magazine would under no circumstances feature.)

Photo: Daniel Bernauer

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

A shoot in Malibu for Greek Cosmopolitan. I remember the fashion editor's name was Iphigenia; since then, whenever I've had to sign my name somewhere I didn't want to — like at the compulsory visitor registry of the Scientologist-run museum of the horrors of psychology in Hollywood — I've called myself Iphigenia something-or-other.

You can see a heavy-duty stylist's clamp holding the dress on at my back.

Photo: Vassilis Karydis

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

This editorial, for a Spanish magazine I forget the name of, was a trio of firsts. My first trip to Miami. My first Brazilian wax. My first Cuban food. I read Didion's Miami and spent as long as I could in the hotel sauna, because it was actually pretty freezing outside. I loved that the photographer lit those palms with a pink gel.

Photo: Toni Torres

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

This picture was from an editorial about the runway hair and makeup of some of the designers showing at New Zealand Fashion Week. I happened to be picked for Zambesi; I've always liked Zambesi's clothes, so I dug that. Also I dug that they didn't fix my nose.

Photo: Russ Flatt

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

This Lord & Taylor catalog never made it anywhere near my book, since it was a commercial job. But it was fun to shoot, and it subsidized months of doing editorials for free. This gig also marked the one and only time I have ever had to wear glue-in hair extensions for a shoot, a scalp indignity to which most models are regularly subjected. When I was working, I was lucky in that my hair is naturally thick enough and had grown long enough that even outlandish styles could be achieved with only the material at hand. But that day, the client wanted to make my hair more red, so extensions it was. It took me nearly a week to get all the glue out. Whether my hair looks redder than normal here is a matter for debate.

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

This hair editorial for Lucky brought me to Mexico for four days this Spring. We were shooting split shifts, 5-10 a.m. and 3-7 p.m. for the light, and so during the day I, the other models, and the rest of the team either idled on the beach or walked around downtown Tulúm. The fashion editor found the most beautiful pair of handmade sandals and we were all jealous. (I think if you sent a Lucky team to Antarctica, they'd still find a store with really cute cardigans. That's just what they do.)

Photo: Michael Waring

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

This editorial, for an Australian magazine, got me more work than anything else I ever did. For some reason, this and shot and the two after it were like catnip for casting directors. People who'd seen me a dozen times already and passed me over for every job would suddenly hit this picture and look up at me in shock. Then they would call my booker and option me.

Photo: Liz Hamm

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

Sometimes, the options even came through. I should have written the photographer a thank-you note, or something.

Photo: Liz Hamm

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

This was another picture in which my hips were pointed out as a problem. It had been my favorite from that shoot.

Photo: Liz Hamm

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

This was the first thing I shot after getting off a plane for Sydney, and I was jet-lagged as all hell and dispirited about working, again, for free, but the team was inspiring, so I jumped around a fake stage for twelve hours until the fake smoke made me teary. The photographer bought me a flat white and a pastry to wake me up, and she nicknamed me "Lady Jenna."

Photo: Kylie Coutts

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

None of the images from this story ever made it into my book. I'm not sure why; this one was on the cover of some fashion magazine.

Photo: Kylie Coutts

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

You can't really see it, but I think I was wearing a necklace made of matchbox cars in this one. And that skirt was basically an embroidered parachute. The appeal of wearing in editorials only things you could put on to go buy milk at the bodega soon fades. I always loved above all fashion's capacity for transformation. Becoming an extraordinary version of myself for a day was often a lot of fun. If I could have made any kind of living doing it, I might have kept at it a little longer. But I had a good run, or at least I had the run my genes and my willingness to pound the pavement and not eat too much entitled me to. And now it's over.

Photo: Kylie Coutts

A Short Trip Through My Portfolio, With Sequins

This picture from Italian Glamour always graced the last page of my book, even though it dates from that ancient Paris trip — peep those bangs — so I figured I'd end with it here. The photographer wore a variety of funny hats from off the accessories table to get me to grin; as you can see, his methods were effective.

Photo: Fabio Chizzola