At age 14, Amy Lemons moved from her hometown of Richmond, Va., to New York, signed with an international modeling agency, and began traveling the world.
“I got my first passport to model,” she says. She loved the adventure and the creativity; each day was new and different. She worked with top photographers, including Mario Testino, and shot ads for Burberry in Wales and Victoria’s Secret in St. Barts. She was living the life. Steven Meisel shot her for the cover of Italian Vogue. Next came covers for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and campaigns for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren.
“I was working with all these people I’d seen in the magazines -- Gisele and Tyra Banks -- and they were so nice to me,” Lemons says. “Most of the girls at the top of the profession are smart, driven, and educated.”
She remembers how Banks was a size 10 and proud of it. But everyone else was extremely judgmental, calling Lemons, a lifetime athlete, “too healthy.” In modeling, that’s code for “chubby.” Lemons’ New York agency began pushing hard for her to slim down.
She nibbled rice cakes and dropped weight. “When you’re 15, it’s relatively easy to do, but it wasn’t maintainable,” Lemons says. “For a couple of seasons I was extreme because I wanted every single show.” She fit in and did couture runway shows for Valentino and others. But she’d yo-yo back up when the season ended. And she wasn’t alone. “I watched every top girl struggle.”
Lemons dropped to a size 2, too tiny for her 5-foot-11 inch frame. “I was incredibly unhealthy, getting stomach pains. I had no life, no energy. I was getting sick trying to be successful.” She quit modeling and went to UCLA, earning a bachelor’s degree in history. Now she’s back in the industry -- but on her own terms. She’s a healthy size 6 to 8, which sounds absolutely skinny in my world, but in her world, that keeps her busy in the “curvy” and “plus” categories. (Vogue Italia has a “curvy” blog on its website).
She still gets to travel and participate in great campaigns, and, she says, “I’ve never been happier. I wish it could happen for more girls.”
Lemons is doing more than wishing. She recently joined The Model Alliance, launched by model Sarah Ziff, to give models a voice and improve their working conditions. Its site tells stories of more than a few models who, at the height of their careers, died of anorexia or ended their own lives. “This tragic slew of deaths cannot be blamed on the industry alone, but suggest that models deserve healthier standards and need more support,” the group says.
Most high-fashion models aren’t as lucky as Tyra Banks. Banks was able to get what she wanted because she was already a moneymaker for the designers, explains Stacie Vanchieri, who owns talent agency Modelogic, which represents Lemons (Vanchieri is also my sister, and the source of at least some of my fascination with the industry).
Banks was selling product, so the designers would get her a size 10 if that’s what it took to shoot her in their clothes. But a young girl breaking into the business doesn’t have that kind of clout.
Many models, like Lemons, start young -- when their bodies haven’t fully developed and they are very impressionable. In a survey by The Model Alliance, about 55 percent of respondents said they started between ages 13 and 16. The nonprofit is pushing for magazines and designers to hire older models. Condé Nast promised in May 2012 that none of its international Vogue magazines will use models who appear anorexic or who are under age 16, although, since then, a 15-year old model has appeared on the cover of Vogue China and a 14-year old showed up in the pages of Vogue Japan. Condé Nast vows to do better, but change isn’t likely to come overnight.
“I constantly have amazing girls walk in here who are size 6 and I can’t place them,” Vanchieri says. “I show their pictures to agents in New York and Miami and they immediately ask measurements and want to know if she can go down or go up.”
Vanchieri says she’s honest with potential models who want a shot at the big time. “I’ll either tell her we can’t help her. Or, in front of her mom, I’ll say ‘You’re body’s not right, you have to change.' A smart mother will say, no thanks. A crazy mom will come back with, ‘We can do that!’ The girls who want this so badly will try anything.”
“At least, at the younger ages, the girls who are close to where they need to be just have to cut out sweets and start jogging, and the extra weight will come off,” adds Vanchieri. But it can easily go too far.
“The worst we’ve seen is when we send girls to China to build up their books,” Vanchieri says. “They come back horrifyingly thin.” She’s had to call mothers to say their daughters need to take a break to get back to a healthier weight.
So why does Vanchieri stay in the industry? “The girls who want to model are going to go somewhere. The draw is too strong,” she says. Vanchieri now only sends the girls to New York who are naturally thin and have strong family support to protect them.
She’s also changed her approach from her early days as an agent. She sent Lemons to New York at age 14. “I never do that anymore,” she says. She’ll work with a younger girl to build her portfolio at home, and will make her hold off on a leap to New York until she’s ready to graduate high school. “You’ll do better in New York if you are smarter, and have good time management and organizational skills,” she adds.
And in reality, the high-pressure, high-fashion world of modeling is a small slice of the large modeling pie, Vanchieri says. The majority of Modelogic’s business is beauty and commercial modeling, for companies like Macys, Target, and Kohls. No question, these models are still thin -- sizes 4 or 6. But, Vanchieri says, they’re not the zeroes hired for Stella McCartney or Zac Posen campaigns.
Lemons is taking advantage of the broader world of friendlier clients, and in between her bookings, she speaks to girls in middle and high school and offers hard-earned advice: “At some point you have to say, ‘this is my body type.’ Some girls are naturally thin. Others are beautiful, but curvier, like Tyra. You talk about it. You don’t pretend.”
That’s good guidance for every girl, not just those who pose for a living.
Young girls are smart, adds Vanchieri. They know that the models in the magazines are air brushed. They should buy the magazines, like Glamour or Vogue, that portray healthier women. And choose products that use healthy models, says Lemons. CoverGirl now uses Ellen DeGeneres and Pink as spokesmodels. “I see things changing, and it’s positive for young girls. If we keep saying we want to see real and relatable images, change will happen,” Lemons says.
My daughters Lily and Claire idolize my sister. She is their fun, stylish aunt who knows all about fashion and celebrities. She was the entertainment at Lily’s 9-year-old birthday party. The best-aunt-in-the-world styled the girls’ hair, added a little blush, dressed them up, and took their pictures. Each girl went home with a new gleam in her eyes and a comp card -- just like the promotional pieces that models use to get jobs. The kids called it “The best party ever!”
In return, I offered to host a science-writing bash for her sons. Neither boy has taken me up on that offer. (I'll forgive them, someday. Maybe.)
In the meantime, Aunt Stacie is happy to watch TV modeling shows with my daughters and point out what’s real and what’s fake. With our family genes, neither of my girls will be skyscraper tall, so the high-fashion houses aren’t likely to come knocking. But she continues to earn “super aunt” status, most recently sending them tickets to this January’s “Girls World Expo” in Washington, D.C., where they’ll get a chance to “celebrate who they are” and meet supermodel turned girls’ health advocate: Amy Lemons. -- Cori Vanchieri
One Thing New contributor Cori Vanchieri writes about medicine and health.
If you liked this story, you might also like:
When Woman Run the (Corporate) World
Why We Miss Marissa Mayer. Already.
Woman of Mars
Got a story idea? Think we're fabulous? Email us at more [at] onethingnew [dot] com, '@' us on twitter, or visit us on facebook. And spread the word. We appreciate your help in getting the word out about what we're up to!
Photo courtesy of Amy Lemons