Some people have a 401K to secure their financial future. I have a letter of apology from Anna Wintour. I figure it’s so rare it might be worth a down payment on a home one day. How did this end up in my possession? Read on, my beauties. Read on.
In 1980 I was 14 & spending the summer in New York modeling with Elite. I was what was referred to as one of the “summer girls”: models recruited from all over the world, to spend the summer in NYC, living together in an apartment. During the summer there were anywhere from 6 to 12 of us. It was an opportunity for girls to meet the fashion world & see if they actually did have the potential to get work. Some girls lasted a few days, or weeks before they were sent home. If the feedback from clients wasn’t good or the girl gained weight or couldn’t handle the stress of life in New York City or just didn’t seem to “have it”, she was sent home. Some of us were lucky to last the entire summer. And, based on the success we had in booking jobs, a few of us were lucky enough to be asked to stay on (I declined. I had received a full scholarship at a top private high school & I didn’t want to pass that up) and/or come back the following summer (which I did).
Our days were spent doing what every new model does all day, every day: going on “go-sees”, where you literally go & see clients to show them your “book”. Your book, also known as your portfolio, is basically a model’s resume. It’s what clients, photographers, editors look at to see how you actually look in photos.
Most new models don’t have actual WORK to put in their book, so they have what are called “test shots”; these are photos taken to show all of your different looks & you try to have test shots that show you with a variety of looks: natural makeup, more glamorous looks, some “body shots” to show off your figure, action shots to show that you can move & jump, more editorial shots that show your high fashion side.
More established models will have actual “tear sheets” in their book; tear sheets are actual pictures from jobs they’ve done: magazines, newspaper ads (back when that was an actually thing), catalogs, etc., hence the name: you “tear” the “sheets” out of the magazine/newspaper, etc. I was lucky to have quite a lot of tear sheets, mainly from my past three years of working in my hometown of San Francisco, where I was featured in the daily newspaper in ads from department stores almost three times a week, which is actually a lot. I also had some very highly respected catalog work (the very first Esprit catalog, which in turn got me noticed by John Casablancas of Elite) and some impressive pictures from an editorial I did earlier that year for Italian Vogue.
Even though I was new to the New York modeling world, I had what agencies refer to as a “strong book”; where most “summer girls” only had test shots & maybe one print ad from their small town newspaper IF they were lucky, I had some legit work that would allow the agency to consider me for more prestigious work.
Every morning a “summer girl” would go to her agency & get a list of about 8-12 “go-sees” for the day. Her booker (the person at her agency who is her sort of personal point person & helps to get her “booked” for jobs) will try to make sure that she is going to see clients who are more likely to book her so that she is not running all over NYC in the summer seeing clients that have no interest in her particular look. In my case I was often sent to clients who wanted girls with good hair or were very tall (at 5’10″, I was on the taller side in those days) or girls with a more “exotic” look. I used to battle with my bookers because they never wanted to send me to the clients who were looking for “All American Beauties”. Why was I, an all American girl, never sent to those…. but all the girls from Sweden were, I would ask? I knew the answer, but I liked to push buttons. Imagine that! They were not amused by my antics. Remind me to tell you what I once said to Helen Gurly Brown, the eternally pink swathed editor of Cosmopolitan that got me “grounded” by my agency.
Sometimes only girls who had been requested by the client would be sent to a go-see. This was usually because the client was very clear on what they wanted for the job & didn’t have time to waste seeing lots of girls. The agency would send over the head cards of the girls they thought fit the requirement & then the client would determine which, if any, they wanted to meet in person. Those were usually very important jobs & it was always a more nerve-racking process. Would you live up to the expectation they had when they saw your card? Or would they look up at you…then down at your book…then up at you again…slam your book shut…push it towards you…and say “Thank you” …never to be heard from again. That is how most go-sees went. Heck, you’d be lucky to get the “thank you”.
So when my booker told me that the editor of a relatively well known (but not by much) magazine called Savvy wanted to see me for a potential editorial (an editorial is the main section of a fashion magazine; the actual fashion spread), that was a huge win. And it was for the FALL FASHION issue, which, as you may know, is the premier issue for fashion, so that was even more impressive. Getting a few pages in an editorial like that could make a model’s career. The money wouldn’t be great – the more prestigious the job, the less impressive the pay would be. It was seen as a sort of trade-off. But the prestige jobs bring more jobs & with more jobs you can then set a higher day rate & so on.
I went for my go-see & met with several people from the magazine. You are never really introduced to anyone nor does anyone really talk to you. I don’t know what it’s like now, but back then you were explicitly told by your agency to not speak unless spoken to on go-sees (always a tough game of restraint for chatty me). You just walk in, smile, hand them your book, stand there & wait. Often they will look at you & then back at your book. Maybe some whispering goes on. You know it’s about you but you try to act like you don’t care. Sometimes they make no effort to prevent you from hearing. “I think her hair will be an issue. Can we put a hat on her?”, “The clothes are all darker shades. She’ll look washed out”, “Her arms look really, really long. Is anyone else noticing that?” …and so on.
I remember my book being passed around & then that was it. A faint smile & thank you from the woman in charge, who had big soulful eyes & a British accent, but nothing that would lead me to believe that I had booked the job…which is generally how it goes. You just smile, take back your book, say thank you & leave. And wait. And unless you get booked, you generally never hear anything about the go-see, save for a “no, you didn’t book it” from your booker. You are never given a reason. I actually think it’s better that way…cause the reasons will always be about your appearance…and what they didn’t like about it. And no one wants to hear that.
This time was different. My agency called me a few days later to tell me that I had booked the job. Seven pages. Just me. No other models (which is even better – because that means more pictures for you!). It was the type of win for a “summer girl” that makes all the bookers in the agency stand up & clap…which they did.
It was an all-day shoot in a quintessential loft style studio with whitewashed brick & a wall of big uncovered windows that let in that ever important photographer’s assistant: natural lighting. The clothes were meant for working women in the corporate world. This was the early 80’s so it was lots of blazers with padded shoulders, high necked blouses with silk bows & long narrow skirts. There were about 8 people on the crew: photographer (I actually don’t remember who it was; I recall it was a woman. There’s a part of me that wants to say it was Ellen von Unwerth but I think I just made that up), photographer’s assistant, hair and makeup team, a few people from the designers whose clothes I would be wearing, the client.
And overseeing it all was the magazine’s editor whom had initially requested me for the go-see, had looked at my book with the others & who had ultimately been the one to decide to book me. She had been in New York for just a few years, with a brief stint as a junior editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Prior to that, in her native London, she had worked at Harper’s Bazaar UK. She had just started her tenure at Savvy when she booked me. Her name? Anna Wintour.
At one point during the shoot, I fainted. The summer heat & the bulk of the wool suits & knee high zippered leather boots were more than my slight frame could bear. I’ve never been good in hot weather in general & had a history of fainting when I got too warm. Anna was very concerned for me & stopping the shoot until she was satisfied that I was completely hydrated & recovered. Like any industry, in modeling, time is money but she made sure I took the time I needed to get steady on my feet again. Since I was the only model, it wasn’t as if they could shoot the others while I rested. So work literally had to stop for about an hour. She insisted on it. Later in the summer I would be on another job where models were fainting left & right (I managed to just wobble a bit) & they had us pose sitting in chairs so they could keep shooting. Anna’s sensitivity & concern in this situation was not the norm.
It was not rare then, nor is it today, to have models on set as young as 14. Concessions are not made for their age, nor do laws protect them as they do for their counterparts in the acting industry. They are treated like adults, in ways both good & bad, and when you add in makeup & sophisticated clothes, those adults around them can often seem to forget that they are working with children…very, very tall children, but children nonetheless. I was a very mature & street smart girl, but I still was 14, a long way from home & I was always very aware of those who DID treat me with a more protective & sensitive spirit. It didn’t happen often so when it did occur, I was comforted by it. Ms. Wintour was one of the few in my 12+ year career who demonstrated that particular kindness. I can probably count on one hand those who ever did.
The shoot progressed & concluded the way most do. You get the job done, have your voucher signed (it notes the hours you worked & your rate & is submitted to the agency so that they can they bill the client. I am pretty sure Anna signed mine. At the time I had no way of knowing that it might be valuable one day & therefore, worth saving. Drat! There goes to the pool to that home this letter will buy me!), say your goodbyes & head out in the street, looking sort of out of place with full makeup in your teenager attire.
It was a job like many others, but with the added excitement of knowing that I was going to be featured in a national magazine with tear sheets that could be a game changer for my career. It was the kind of job that the other summer girls I was sharing an apartment with all hoped & wished they would book. Not many did, though one of my other roomies, a 6-foot-tall Iowan named Terry Ferrell would best us all that summer: she booked the cover of Mademoiselle magazine & went on to have a solid career before moving on to a successful acting career (goggle her; you’ll see).
Another one of my roomies had a fairly successful summer & the agency really wanted her to stay on; she declined. Surf was up back home in Santa Barbara & she missed her boyfriend. I remember one of the bookers telling her she’d never work again if she left. She was undeterred & went home after the summer. Turns out she DID work again. Perhaps you’ve heard of her? Her name is Kathy Ireland! Boom! Drops the mic.
When the September issue of the magazine hit the newsstands, my mum & I went to an intentional magazine store in San Francisco that carried pretty much every publication under the sun. Savvy was not a magazine you’d generally find at the checkout stand. We anxiously flipped through the publication. There is nothing like that moment of excitement before you see your pictures for the first time after an exciting shoot. You generally have no idea what photos will be chosen & you literally see them for the first time in the publication. We searched & we searched. Nothing. Had we gotten the month wrong? Where were my pictures?
The truth is, sometimes pix don’t make it into the publication. It is VERY common. You usually don’t know until you see it. There were times where I shot ads for department stores with several other models & when the ad ran, I was the only model in the photo; the cut out the other models. There were times when I was the model cut out. It happens. Explanations are not expected or given. It’s the same with editorials. But in this case, I was the only model. Not one photo made it. Of course the natural tendency is to think that it is something YOU did wrong but I was savvy (ha!) enough to know that it could be due to any number of reasons. Maybe there was no film in the camera, or the makeup didn’t look right or maybe there was a manufacturing issue with the clothes that would prevent them from being in stores. I had learned early on not to take things personally in the modeling industry…but I was still devastated. It felt like an epic fail no matter what the reason. I was also sort of embarrassed because I had told my agency at home & all of my friends about this great gig & we were all so excited to see the pictures.
We contacted Elite & asked them what happened. They didn’t know. They didn’t seem concerned. They’d gotten paid. That’s all they cared about. Their reaction was not unusual, to be honest. The cold hearted nature of the business.
I always wrote thank you letters to clients after I worked with them. While it may not be the norm in modeling, I was raised to write them for everything. I still do to this day. Due to the hectic summer & then starting high school literally days after I returned home from NYC, I didn’t get a chance to write Anna until after we saw the magazine. I think I actually may have waited on purpose as well because I figured it would be fun to see the pix and THEN write her.
So I wrote my note. I wrote to tell Anna how much I enjoyed working with her & to thank her for her kindness during the shoot & of course mentioned how disappointed I was that the pix never made the publication. We sent the letter to the main address on Savvy’s masthead. I don’t think we actually thought she would get it. But she did. And if we ever thought she would receive it, we NEVER expected her to respond. But she did.
It is literally unheard of for a model – especially a run of the mill unknown model – to receive a letter from a magazine editor for any reason, let alone an apology for photos not making the publication.
For privacy reasons (I had my first experience with stalkers at age 12) my mum often had her name as the return address name so I think that might be why Anna replied to her instead of me. “Lulu” is my nom de plume. My real name starts with an “S”. I’d tell you what it is but then I’d have to kill you. And that would just be rude.
The fact that Ms. Wintour took the time to not only respond but apologize & offer to track down the photos is quite remarkable. It’s hard to impress upon you exactly HOW remarkable. We never did see the pix; it would have been nice but it was not likely that that would happen. The fact that Anna even offered to track them down simply adds to appreciation I felt when I received her letter.
While there is no way to know if the woman I met back in 1980 has changed much in becoming the woman we all (think we) know now, I believe that people are who they are at their core & while we evolve, I don’t think the essence of who we are really changes very much. Do I think Anna would write a letter like that TODAY? I don’t know. I’m not sure. But she did it THEN & that is what matters to ME.
While much has been said & written about Ms. Wintour (and alluded to in movies like “The Devil Wears Prada” where it is assumed that Meryl Streep’s character – cold, punitive, harsh & unyielding – was based on her), not all of it positive, my memories of her were of very soft spoken, focused and kind woman. Was she warm and fuzzy? No. But that is not a job requirement for her career path. In the consideration she showed me on the set & in writing the letter to me, she demonstrated attributes that ARE: attention to detail, class, style, professionalism & thoughtfulness.
Would Anna Wintour remember me to this day? No. Not at all. This all happened over 35 years ago. I was just a random model, at the beginning of a less than moderately succeeded career; a blip on her eventually iconic career path. But I, of course, remember her…with great respect, admiration & affection. To me she was not a devil wearing Prada; she was an angel wearing a well-worn cardigan & sensible shoes. xo lulu