In what reads like a painful, cringe-inducing rant against an industry that makes most of us just feel plain sad, former fashion model Carré Otis admits to living and perpetuating the lie that is, “the glamorousness of the fashion industry.” She does all this in Vogue Australia, no less. With this cover, no less:
I’m going to share a bit of it, but I want you to know… this entire thing has me irritated:
When I was 18 and arriving on the modelling scene in the mid-80s, attention from the public felt sudden and surprising. After working so hard as a teenager in both Europe and the States, after so many rejections and failed “gosees”(castings), after the countless not-so-subtle suggestions from industry professionals that I just might not have “it”, I was shocked when others started following my career. When I visited my agents, they’d hand me a stack of letters and I’d look over my shoulder, wondering if it was intended for the actual famous models in the other room. “Carr.,” my agent said, her hands firmly planted on my shoulders, “You’re a celebrity now. Get used to it.” There were some kind letters, praising the art direction or aesthetics of a photo shoot. And there were some filthy ones in which men detailed what they’d like to do to my body and – equally upsetting – what they did to their own while staring at my image. Despite some of the more alarming aspects of the latter type, I was mostly flattered that by posing for a picture I had inspired absolute strangers to take time out and send me their thoughts.
But there was one type of letter that consistently left me uneasy: the type that made up about 80 per cent of my fan mail. It was the one from the young girl in the age range of 10 to 15, seeking my advice about how to become what I was only pretending to be.
They wanted my tips and my beauty “secrets”. But I wasn’t willing to reveal the real secrets: the destructive behaviours and inner torment. I was keeping those secrets not only from my earnest fans but from myself as well. So I’d just send them an autographed photo and hope that by avoiding answering the questions I could avoid facing my own dark reality.
I recently came across a box filled with some of these very letters. And while I can’t go back in time to answer those young girls, I hope to provide some insight by answering them now. Below are the answers I didn’t have the nerve to give then.
I’m 10. What is your workout routine and what do you eat? I wish I had your body. What’s it like to look like that? I would die to look like you.”
Whenever asked about my diet/workout, I would cite a healthy routine, the kind touted in women’s magazines. “Jazzercise three times a week and light weights,” I’d say. The heavily guarded truth was that I exercised a minimum of two hours a day, seven days a week. On days when I wasn’t working, I did double duty, going to the gym twice in one day. I said I ate oatmeal for breakfast, chicken and veggies for lunch, and fish and salad for dinner, along with a healthy snack like yoghurt. But in reality, my big diet staple was four to six cups of black coffee per day, avoiding even a splash of skim milk since I was terrified of extra calories. And to stave off hunger, I went through a few packs of cigarettes daily. Cigarettes with coffee gave me an energy boost. And all energy boosts were welcome because my body was perpetually fatigued from little to no sleep, over-exercised muscles, starvation and the relentless stream of criticisms inside my own head.
I made sure nobody knew about my real routine, protecting it fiercely so that I could maintain a body that nature simply did not intend for me to have. When I got especially skinny I got lots of positive reinforcement: more compliments and more jobs. Due to the stimulants of nicotine and caffeine, and the gnawing hunger pains, I rarely slept. Even when I tried to lie down I was jacked up and restless, barely able to shut my eyes. So I took pills to sleep. What a gnarly existence. So many vicious cycles they’re impossible to trace. I slept about an hour a night. But sometimes I was so tired from partying, jet lag and an utter lack of nutrition, that I’d stay asleep for 15 hours straight. As you can see, insecurity and the endless desire to look perfect were the only consistent things in my life.
Models have no union representation, so neither breaks nor meals were common. But if someone ever did take my food order, I was too petrified to eat, imagining that even a salad would bloat me. “No, thanks,” I’d say, sipping my coffee. “I just ate.” Or I’d order something “sensible” and when it arrived I wouldn’t touch it. My teeth gradually yellowed from all the coffee, nicotine and worn enamel caused by bile (from stomach acidity due to all the starvation and even vomiting). But thanks to the brightening whitening power of airbrushing, in every shot my fake smile revealed sparkling teeth. Without my on-set manicures and pedicures, you’d have seen that, just like my teeth, my nails were breaking and yellow.
One morning, I was sent to the emergency room with heart palpitations and an irregular heartbeat – a culmination of 20 years of starvation. Turns out I’d created three holes in my heart and I needed an emergency ablation surgery. In your letter you said you’d “die to look like [me]”. Well that’s almost what I did. What did it feel like to look like that, you ask? It felt, quite literally, like heartbreak.
She rounds out her essay with the following:
Modelling felt like a constant exercise in shoving aside my real feelings. When I had my period and was moody and bloated, I had to strip down to nearly nothing and look sexy for the camera. When I learnt that my dog back home was hit by a car, I had to shove that grief down and pose like I was on cloud nine. There was no discussion of selfcare, honouring feelings or communicating needs. It was brutal. I can’t deny the fact that I had some extraordinary experiences in the industry. After I “made it” I could make more demands and draw more boundaries. But even then I was still part of a reckless and flawed system. I continued, for example, to endure sexual harassment without realising it didn’t have to be a job requirement. While there are plenty of models who can say they had mostly wonderful experiences, who thrived both inside and outside the industry, I know that many are still contending with the same obstacles I did – trying to meet impossible standards of perfection and accepting abusive power dynamics as “just part of the job”. I’ve proudly become involved in the Model Alliance, an organisation that takes abuse reports, aggressively challenges the code of silence, and continues the fight for a much-needed models’ union. I encourage people to view images of models through a realistic lens, to challenge those automatic assumptions about the internal world of a model based on her (heavily doctored) external appearance.
Today, thankfully, my happiness has nothing to do with my weight or feedback from others. And perfection of any kind is no longer the goal. The notion that perfection can be achieved is a lie we are told and a lie we tell ourselves. That’s the ugly truth. I wish I could’ve told those young fans what I’ve finally learnt to tell myself: reality – imperfection – is where the real beauty is.
You can read the essay in its entirety here, and please do. It’s really heartbreaking, if not infuriating.
Why am I irritated, you ask?
Because part of the allure of modeling is the “glamorousness” of it all, right? The idea of partying with big names, commanding a high paycheck, living some jet-setting high life in a giant loft somewhere is what pulls people in… not the harsh realities of it – all the “dues paying” looks a lot like, well, this. Maybe the Adriana Limas of the world live that life, but what did she have to go through to get there?
I’m gonna need some context here, y’all… because I’m struggling.
Also, the takeaway here is the same as always: we might look at these photos and wonder a heaping helping of “why”s, but if reading something like this can give you even the slightest idea of what’s going on during the photo shoot, before the shoot, inside the body and health of that model and what she’s had to suffer through to get where she wanted to be? And that little bit of insight can help stop someone from hating themselves for not looking like a Carré? Then I’ll post these all day, baby. Because this is heartbreaking… and, again, infuriating.
Decide what is best for you, be patient in finding that path, and be confident in the choices you’ve made for you. No one and no thing can make you feel bad about that.