A funny thing happened after I published my review of Vivian, a collaborative reality series from E!/Snapchat that I stumbled upon one evening when I was unwilling to put my phone down and think about the real world: Its star, 21-year-old modeling scout Vivian Benitez, contacted me. And not to yell at me! She told me she enjoyed what I had written.
What a good sport, I thought. While my review made the case for watching her show, which pulverizes three months of her life down into eight five-minute morsels of episodes, and while I specifically wrote that I loved her, I also called Vivian “mind-numbing” and compared it to junk food. I guess it can be all of those things, and Benitez can be someone who both laughs at herself readily and articulates her worldview with precision. She’s worked at Wilhelmina L.A. since she was 19 (she’s previously worked at Wilhelmina Miami at 17), but she allows that “your worth has nothing to with whether you can be a model or not.” In fact, she admits that nothing she’s doing is of much importance.
At least, she said as much to me Monday morning during a phone interview, which was coordinated by E!. Underlining Benitez’s divisive potential seems to be part of the marketing plan (“She’s steadily getting more popular…. and polarizing,” an E! publicist told me in the interview pitch). Benitez herself seems to reside in a state of disbelief that she’s heading her own eponymous show—on Episode 1 of Vivian she looks squarely into the camera and says, “Can you believe they gave me a show? Me neither. Fuck it.” To me, she referred to the situation she has found herself in as “insane.”
I took this interview because, why wouldn’t I want to talk to Vivian, my new friend who lives in my pocket (and also Los Angeles)? I enjoyed our conversation as much as I did her show. I thought she was candid, or at least very good at acting like it, and that through self-deprecation she exuded considerable charm. She’s sharp, at any rate. After talking to her, I’m not so convinced that it’s insane that Benitez has this show, in fact. It’s starting to make perfect sense. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
JEZEBEL: It says a lot about your character that you would read my review and not become upset, but in fact enjoy it.
VIVIAN BENITEZ: Well, I don’t care. I mean, you said you loved me so that’s all that matters.
I do. And I was transfixed by your show. But some people are so sensitive that feedback even approaching criticism is enough to upset them.
I critique myself all day long. No matter what you write, I’ve said it in my head 100 times worse.
I can relate. On your show, you repeatedly make the point that you aren’t worthy of a show.
My biggest coping mechanism is tearing myself down before anyone else gets the chance to. If I don’t take myself seriously and I put that face forward, then what can you say about me? I know that some things I do are absolutely ridiculous. I know I’m dramatic. I think it’s a good way to step into whatever sort of spotlight I’m stepping into.
I appreciate humility way more than I appreciate someone who brags to the point of delusion.
The show’s called Vivian. If I stepped into it all full of myself, it would be even more insane than it is.
I guess having a show named after yourself is the ultimate brag.
I don’t need to say shit! Also, there’s this culture in Hollywood right now that I’m really trying to break, and hopefully can in some way, of people taking themselves so seriously, especially my peers. All of these little socialite, celebrity children. I just hate it. Everyone’s trying to make themselves seem more famous or rich or cool than they are, and it’s like none of you are doing anything of any importance! Neither am I! Let’s just be real about that. None of us are curing cancer. Everyone’s taking themselves so seriously and it really irks me.
It irks me, too.
I’m getting a lot of feedback that’s like, “You’re so real.” I think that aspect maybe trumps some of the cheesier storylines in the show. You get down to the core of it and it’s just like, this is my message.
What do you think are some of the cheesier storylines?
The whole show is for a younger demographic. It was as dark and gritty as they would let me go. I think they let me go a little bit overboard for their demographic on how many times I can swear. I don’t know, the show is basically my life, so... I don’t know. My whole life is cheesy.
It entertained me.
That’s all we’re trying to do. I think people are taking it way too seriously. I’m getting nasty tweets and stuff and I’m like, “Are you kidding me? It’s a Snapchat show.”
What’s people’s beef?
I judge people for a living and, “You’re not even pretty.” I ranted about it on my Instagram story. Like, “Okay, let’s unpack this.” I’m not a model. I don’t have the face for it, I don’t have the body for it. Your worth has nothing to with whether you can be a model or not. You could be the most beautiful girl and still might not have the potential to be a model. But that’s okay. There’s a thousand other things you can do with your life. I think we should be raising our daughters to grow up and want to be Amal Clooney, not Gigi Hadid.
Do you think about the fact that the beauty industry is often accused of setting impossibly high standards, and that you’re currently contributing to that?
Totally. It kills me. But I’ve always been campaigning for more diversity. I’m always pushing for, “Why can’t we sign a shorter model?” Sometimes I push through and bend the rules a little bit. I sign models with all different ethnicities, all different body types. If I believe in them, I really campaign for them.
Does any of the feedback you receive bother you?
It gets to me when it’s true. Someone tweeted, “Did E! try to make Vivian Benitez seem like a brat on her own show?” And it’s like, “Fuck, I do look kind of bratty in the first couple of episodes.” I wish I wasn’t so angry, I wish I didn’t put that foot forward because maybe it turned some people off. I read everything and I really care a lot. I hate when people act like they don’t care. I read it and I check myself: “Is this true? How can you use this and learn from it?”
How did the show come to be?
We shot a pilot [about] the office Wilhelmina for E! I had a tiny, little part in it. That show went nowhere—I think they picked up Model Squad, or something. It wasn’t an interesting show. I think the CEO of Wilhelmina had a meeting with Snapchat and was like, “Hey, there’s this really interesting part of this pilot that went nowhere, why don’t you look into this?” E! got involved again, and all the parts fit back together with the people who created the pilot. But it was like two years I was working on it.
What did people that you work with think when it turned out that you were the only interesting part of the show?
I think people have a lot of weird, different feelings. My boss Steve is actually the most supportive, amazing boss you could ever imagine. He’s been my rock and my campaigner in the office when people get jealous that it’s like, “No Wilhelmina is being paid to do this show. It’s now part of her job, so this is what she’s doing.” It’s basically a billboard for Wilhelmina. No one can be mad.
Has it gotten awkward, though?
I have to not get too involved in the office politics or I’ll go crazy. I just try to stay in my lane and not do too much. I’m a scout, so I’m supposed to be out scouting. I really don’t have to deal with it. Most of the people that were working there during the filming of the show and didn’t really like it left, but not because of the show.
How does your life change as you go about it with a camera crew accompanying you?
You just have to turn it on. It’s more dramatic. It’s for entertainment, so at the end of the day, everything has to be higher stakes than it is in real life. But it didn’t really change. I live my life like there’s a camera in front of me anyway. I’m dramatic. People will ask now that the show’s out, “How does it feel?” I’m like, “Nothing has changed. I still have $20 in my bank account and the guy I like won’t text me back.”
Is that literally true about your bank account?
You’re not getting that Snapchat money?
Oh, I got that Snapchat money and it wasn’t that much and I blew through it already. I live completely outside of my means. I get paid a good salary from Wilhelmina, but rent’s super expensive. I don’t get help from anybody. I’ve taken care of myself since I was 16. Neither my mom nor my dad have money. I’m very much self-made and I like nicer things. I live in a studio, but I probably pay too much rent, and I like nice cars, so I have an Audi. I probably shouldn’t do that. I’m not in debt every month, but I do spend every cent that I make every month.
You probably have time to sort that out. I lived just as hand-to-mouth in my twenties.
It’s really normal. When the Kylie [Jenner] [Forbes] cover came out that was like, “self-made,” and everyone was putting their two cents in, I posted a photo of my bank account with $11 in it, and I was like, “No, this is what it means to be self-made.” It’s okay for young girls to see that not everyone is rich in Hollywood. You can be hustling and everyone might think you’re making it, but no, I’m still struggling. I’m sure I won’t be forever, but it’s okay to share with people, “Oh no, I don’t have money right now.” I don’t know why everyone’s always trying to cover up the fact that they’re struggling with money.
What do you think it is about you that makes you unwilling to play the game that most people play with no seeming second thought?
It’s exhausting. I’ve been shunned by all of these Hollywood socialites and celebrities that won’t talk to you if you aren’t famous. I’m like, “I don’t want to end up like you, so I’m going to do everything opposite of what you’re doing and hopefully I’m still a human in the end.” These people that I’ve met that are famous at my age, they’re no longer human.
Do you have any good shunning stories? Any particular instances where someone was absolutely ridiculous?
Yes. I have a thousand, but I won’t name any names. One of the most famous people in the world right now is one of the meanest girls I’ve ever met. My ex was best friends with her boyfriend at the time, and we’d all go out on double dates. She’d refuse to acknowledge that I exist. We’d be at a four-person table and she wouldn’t acknowledge me. I went to her boyfriend and said, “Why is she so mean?” He said, “I’m sorry, she just doesn’t have any interest in being friends with anybody that’s not famous because she feels like she’s going to be taken advantage of.” Or something like that. I was just shocked. It happened again with a male super huge movie star celebrity. He didn’t want to talk to me in an intimate setting because I wasn’t a model. After all these experiences, I was like, “Fuck this, I’m no longer trying to keep up with the Joneses.”
I think fame alone is enough to fuck people up. Have you thought about safeguarding yourself from the pitfalls of celebrity? At 21, your brain is still developing.
Um. You know, I’m really just winging it.