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I Was a Teen Model Chaperone

Everything I learned shepherding a 5'10", size 2, Russian 17-year-old around New York City

When, at 20 years old, I decided to pursue model management, I had visions on a level far past grandeur. Those over-the-top visions developed into a white hot determination to get in the door. So when, six months after deciding I wanted in, I found myself at a top agency feeding my boss’ dogs and taking non-English speaking teenagers to castings all over the city… I smiled through it. I more than smiled through it. I loved every menial task. I knew each one was a part of the waiting game.

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Finally one day, while sorting mail and "borrowing" email addresses to RSVP to parties, I was asked to do something major. Something I had dreamed about, even before I had dreams of this industry; something maybe many little girls dream about: I was given a credit card, along with a beautiful albeit very raw and clueless model — and I was told to go shopping.

It was as if the heavens had opened and given me the proverbial golden ticket. My mission was to take a 17-year-old girl around NYC, building a functional, easy-to-put-together wardrobe before she began her first New York City castings. I was given specific instructions to set her up with enough clothing for three-to-four simple "model off duty" looks. It goes without saying that as the words "functional" and "simple" were fed to me, all I heard was "Celine" and "Miu Miu." In my mind, I had already dressed this girl in a quirky amalgam of Phoebe Philo and Jean Seberg.

It was as if the heavens had opened and given me the proverbial golden ticket.

Alas, along with the credit card also came a stern $300 cap. My dream of the two of us floating through the halls of Barneys followed by a small army of salesgirls, garment bags in hand, were quickly smashed. Nevertheless, I was still the happiest I’d ever been. Shopping is shopping.

On day one, I went to pick up Delia (names have been changed to protect the models) at her dorm-like accommodations. The lodging, known as "the model apartment," had been set up by the agency for new faces.

Delia was likely one of the most innocent and kind-hearted girls I’d ever met. Mild-mannered and painfully sheltered, she was apologetic that people had to groom her. She came from humble beginnings, leaving behind a large Russian family to try modeling in New York. She arrived with one pair of acid wash jeans she had grown out of about 4 inches ago and a collection of crew neck tops that had seen better days — much better days. Delia was also 17, 5’10" and a size 2 with almost white-blonde, Rapunzel-like, hair. She had legs up to her neck and wore a small A cup on her most voluptuous of days. Even in her high-waters, you saw her coming.

Our first stop was West 8th Street. At the time, there were back-to-back trendy bargain spots, most of which are long gone. This was a pre-Topshop, pre-Brandy Melville world (at least in Manhattan) so the go-to options for the young and trendy were not as obvious as they are now. At this time, West 8th still looked like the Lower East Side. Small, indie, one-off stores where the owner opened and closed the store daily and ran the cash register all day.

Delia felt like she was in a movie, which in turn made me feel very grown up. I was far too sophisticated to be giddy.

We started out with a few trendy novice pieces; I thought the experience would be more enjoyable for her if we didn’t start with staples. We picked out couple of vintage T-shirts and black cotton car wash dress that could be worn with sneakers or heels. These stores eased Delia into the process: there were only ever seven or eight people inside at a time, leaving us room to have fun. Delia felt like she was in a movie, which in turn made me feel very grown up. I was far too sophisticated to be giddy.

Then it was on to the nuts and bolts, which is when things went to pieces. In those days, we still depended on stores like American Apparel and Urban Outfitters for the aesthetic crutch of teenage ambivalence — the science of trying really hard to look like you don’t care. We set out in search of the basics.

At the Outfitters, the mood changed. Maybe because of the intimidating crowds, maybe because of the girls snickering and making hand gestures at Delia’s flat chest in a low-cut dress in the fitting room. Who knows. But the lighthearted fun of two girls shopping quickly turned into a lesson in insecurity.

The sales associate asked Delia if she was a model, and she replied, "almost." She was embarrassed at the suggestion, desperate for the subject to change. The salesgirl, eager to use her pre-planned response snapped back, "So why aren’t you shopping at like Calvin Klein or something, aren’t you rich?" Of course, the arrogant and defensive born-and-raised New Yorker by Delia’s side had to quip back, "Yes, we both are — but we like to do charity when we can."

I wish I had had the maturity to explain to Delia at the time that insecurity comes packaged in a multitude of cloaks.

As a dignified adult I would never say something like that (I promise), but back then I didn’t see any fault with putting someone in their place. I wish I had had the maturity to explain to Delia at the time that insecurity comes packaged in a multitude of cloaks. I should have told her that her own discomfort and personal doubt was most likely trumped by that of the sales associate and shoppers, just covered in sarcasm and nervous laughter. But I was only 20 myself, and didn’t fully learn that for myself until years later. We left UO with a perfect pair of slightly distressed black skinny jeans, some lightweight over-sized checkered button-down shirts, and a defeated and embarrassed Delia. We called it a day and decided to pick up again tomorrow.

next day, I collected Delia from the model apartment. She wore her acid wash jeans with a plaid shirt that had belonged to her brother back home. We were almost out of money anyways, so I decided to tailor the next day around confidence, as opposed to acquisition. I said, "Today, Delia, we go to Barney’s."

I explained to her that we weren’t doing this to shop; we were doing this to enjoy the experience. While I did want to make up for the disaster of Urban Outfitters, I was also taking a moment for myself. I wanted us to float through the halls of Barneys with sales girls behind us, and god damn it, that’s what we did.

I said, "Today, Delia, we go to Barney’s."

Granted they were just carrying clothes to the dressing room, not the register, and I lied and said Delia was the girl currently featured in the Vuitton campaign... and I was her agent but nonetheless: this was the fantasy. We danced around the aisles for hours and I introduced Delia to the friends I already knew and loved; Marc, Helmut, Dries. I watched Delia as she innocently started changing in the middle of the sales floor, and was delighted by her carefree response to the saleswoman who politely asked her to put her pants back on. She was too preoccupied to be uncomfortable. It was a glimpse at youth, right before we learn to be insecure.

We bought nothing, but we both left feeling just a little more deserving of the bizarre and amazing situation we’d found ourselves in. The days of retail intimidation are long past Delia, as she now has 10 years of a high fashion career under her belt. And I still visit Barney’s under assumed identities, just because.

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