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The Runway Gypsy

Back to Reality

Her first angry email was only four lines long. Following a subject line that testified “corporate life is not so bad,” she took issue with a short rant she had found on my web site. “You make it sound like a day job is a cop out,” she chastized. “I have a day job but I’m proud that I made the leap from my dream to reality. I can actually pay my bills, and you know what? – most days that feels good.” She gave no specifics, not even her name, and no clues as to where in the country she lived. Something in my gut sensed there was a story here, if I could get its author to reveal more.

We corresponded occasionally for a couple weeks. Slowly came her gender, and then her first initial, W. She wrote generally about corporate life and dream life, without any identifying details. The lack of specificity kept me intrigued. There was a reason for her secrecy: “The path my life took after living my dream made me a much happier, more interesting person. But people only want to hear about the early years. They’re not interested in my life now. So I hide the early years, so people can discover the real me.”

            Slowly she trusted my sincerity of interest in the “real” her. She agreed to be profiled if it might help bring this point of view to the book. Her name was Wendy Jones. I wouldn’t have to get on a plane to come see her – a drive across the Golden Gate Bridge would get me there. She worked in Marin and lived in Sonoma. She was 42.

            She grew up in Albuquerque. Her father was a secret service agent, her mother a schoolteacher who earned $30,000 a year. They’ve been married fifty years. Wendy was one of four children. In high school, her dream was to travel. She wanted to be a flight attendant, but back then there were height requirements, and Wendy was too tall. Five ten. All her friends and boyfriends were shorter, so she stooped and slouched. Her parents sent her to a finishing school to improve her posture. The series of classes ended with a trip to New York for a modeling convention at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. She put up with the classes because she wanted to see New York.

Out of thousands of teens at the convention, Wendy won. The prize was to be a modeling contract with the Ford Agency. Instead, Wendy snuck out to head down to the fashion district. She wanted to see the building at 550 7th Avenue; all the famous clothes designers had their studios inside. She was standing in the building’s lobby, soaking up the atmosphere, when the lobby guard asked, “Are you here for the ‘go-see’?” Unsure what a “go-see” was, she nodded. He sent her up to a floor. On the elevator was a very distinguished looking man. He too asked her, “Are you here for the ‘go-see’?”

            “Yes,” she said.

            “What agency are you with?”

            “Ford,” she tried.

            “Ford doesn’t have runway models,” he said doubtfully.

            He got off at her floor and went through a door. She went to the receptionist.

            “Name?”

            “Wendy Jones.”

            “You’re not on the list.”

            The receptionist’s phone rang. She listened, hung up. “Go through that door.”

            She entered a showroom. Another man told her to get dressed. She changed into a dress and shoes.

            “Walk!” boomed a voice. It was the man from the elevator.

            She walked. Clumsily. Terribly.

            “No! Follow me! Like this!” He demonstrated, she followed.

            “Okay then,” he said after a moment. “We’re hiring you. Here’s the booker at Zoli.” Zoli was the agency for runway models. “It only pays two thousand a week.” He told the other girls to leave.

            Wendy didn’t know what she was hired for. It turned out that she had been hired as an in-house model, and that the man on the elevator was Oscar de la Renta. She was only eighteen. That was the beginning of a fifteen year career as a show model, working continuously in New York, Europe, and Japan.

She wasn’t gorgeous, and she couldn’t walk, but those could be fixed by training and makeup. She was tall and slender, the perfect size, able to wear any designers’ clothes off the rack. She was that size naturally, without any dieting or exercise. And for the first five years of her career, that was the reason she stayed busy. “They just wanted girls that could fit in the clothes,” she said.

Her dream came true suddenly, and too easily, and without any hard work at all on her part. For that reason, she never felt that she deserved her success. It was a fluke, determined entirely by her genes, and not an accomplishment.

Very often we don’t value the things that come easiest to us. It’s the things we work for, we earn, that we treasure most.   

            Her life had almost no similarities to the conventional life. She never owned a car. She didn’t keep an apartment in New York. Everything was taken care of for her. Her agents in different markets arranged her travel and bookings. She lived entirely in hotel rooms and studios owned by designers. Maids cleaned up. She never had to cook for herself. It was impossible to have genuine relationships because she was constantly leaving town. She learned to be a loner. She traveled light, without any belongings. Modeling wasn’t her dream, (traveling was), but she got caught up in the lifestyle and the narrow world of fashion.

“I met amazing people and thought I was more important than I actually was,” she said.

            Eventually she learned to manage some of her career rather than cede control to others. She wasn’t the genius in the family, but she’d managed to squeeze in four quarters of college. She saved a fair amount of her money. She watched models do drugs and behave badly, but never fell into that hole. Some of her success she earned, simply by not making bad choices when everyone else did. She was dependable, and became sought-after by designers.

            Wendy told me all this in a very manner-of-fact tone, without any of the self-indulgence that signals someone is living in their past. She wasn’t overly proud and wasn’t hoping any of this would impress me. We were having lunch after spending the morning at her office. I waited for her to talk about how she left that life behind, and then prodded her to do so.

            “You don’t want to ask me more about those years?” she asked.

            “Is there something you think is important you didn’t tell me?”

            “No, just –” She looked at me again. Maybe I was for real. “Usually people want to hear, you know, all the dirt. What designers I worked for, what they were like, did I sleep with any of them. Or what such-and-such famous model was like. Who took drugs. What hotels we stayed in. All the sleazy glamorous stuff. And then people assume I made a lot more money than I did, and so they figure something must have happened that I’m not rich and retired now.”

            “I gotta admit. None of that sounds very interesting to me.”

            “You’re rare then. I appreciate it.”

            “Were you famous?”

            “Not like runway models today are famous, and never like print models are famous, but yes. Enough to be recognized on the street occasionally.”

            I watched her. I was trying to sense what lingering effect all those years had. “Are you still a loner?” I asked.

            “I’m trying not to be, but yes.”

            “Do you have a boyfriend?”

            “I want to, but no. I’m dating.”

            “Is it hard to have a genuine relationships now? Like, do you push way, need to be by yourself?”

            “Maybe a little. But I’m aware of it. My parents are my role model, and I often feel that no relationship in my life can compare to theirs. Half a century together and they’re still on their honeymoon.”

            “What about money? Have you adjusted to the value of a dollar?”

            “I’ve adjusted to paying my own way, which I didn’t have to do before. But I never lost touch with the value of a dollar. My mother was a schoolteacher.”

            She talked a lot about her family, including her brainiac sister and younger brother, who was a police officer in Dallas when he was killed on the job. He was 25. Wendy was 31 and in Europe at the time. She’d wanted to leave modeling for a while, having recognized that it wasn’t fun anymore, but she was afraid to leave because she had no skills. She couldn’t even type. What would she do? When her brother was killed, she quit immediately and moved back to New York, where she was closer to her family. She had many offers to come back to work, but wasn’t interested. Modeling had kept her from spending time with her brother. It was tainted in that way. She couldn’t be around it. Unsure what else to do, a friend of hers, a photographer, asked her to represent his work. Soon she agented several photographers to catalogs.

            After a year, not feeling better, she finally started seeing a grief counselor. To help her get on with her life, she left New York, which was too steeped in the modeling business. She moved to the West Coast, and then, because catalogs and photographers were still a connection to her past, she left that to be a recruiter. She worked on commission for different “chop houses,” cold-calling workers. She worked her way up to respectable placement agencies. Two years ago, she was hired into the Human Resources department at Restoration Hardware, where she is now the Director of Recruiting for their corporate division. She had offers from other companies for up to $20,000 more in salary, but wanted to work here.

            “It was my very first ‘real’ job,” she said. “And I was 40 years old.” She was completely unready for the office politics and the weird corporate rituals, like performance reviews. “I’m here every day, working beside my boss, and suddenly one day we have to turn and look at each other in judgment. When you’re not used to it, it’s very demeaning.” She got over it. Her boss has become her true mentor and friend.

            “I’ve never been happier than in the last two years,” she said.

            Wendy gave me an extensive tour of Restoration Hardware’s headquarters. Every product they sell really appeals to the nesting instinct. But it’s more than that. Plato believed in Forms, these categorical ideals that exist in our head. Any chair we sit in is compared by our minds to what we mean by “chair,” or what we mean by “bedspread,” which in combination come to represent what we mean by “home.” Restoration Hardware’s products are straight out of our Platonic ideal of Home. They’re timeless. They conjure home. The more I soaked in, the more I saw Wendy’s company as a Temple of Domesticity. It was not surprising that after fifteen years of never having an apartment or a car or a steady relationship, she had chosen this Place of Worship to immerse herself in, as a sort of training course in the simple pleasures of Home.

            As Director of Recruiting, she doesn’t look for people whose dream is to work for Restoration Hardware. “Most people fall into things,” she said. She’s looking for the right fit, not credentials. “Degrees are small minded,” she insists, reminding me she doesn’t have one. She hires from other industries. One of the reasons her work is so meaningful is she’s sort of rescuing drifting souls like the one she used to be, and giving them a home. Or at least a work-home.

            “Do people here know who you were?” I asked.

            “Not at first. I was afraid of not being taken seriously. On my resume, and in conversation, I would tell people that ‘I traveled internationally on behalf of Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, and other designers.’ Most people assumed that was a fancy way of saying I was a sales rep. Three months into this job, I was outed. A banker was meeting with the CEO, and he saw me in the halls. He was shocked to see me, asked why’d I left modeling. Right in front of the CEO and CFO. Everyone in the company knew within half an hour.”

            I said, “And now you’ve got the guts to let me ‘out you’ publicly.”

            “It’s not something I want you to do, but I recognize it’s part of doing this with you.”

            “What’s changed?”

            “I’m proud that I’ve made it back to reality. Most models work until they stop getting bookings and their only option is to marry some wealthy man.”

            Last December she was in Union Square when one of the women handing out perfume samples asked, “Are you Wendy Jones?” Wendy realized they used to model together. The look in her face was deep shame and embarrassment; she tried to pretend she wasn’t really just a perfume model, considered the lowest form of modeling. “I’m just doing this as a favor to a friend,” she said. Soon the word spread, and Wendy got calls at her office from out-of-work models hoping for a job. They had no skills, not even a resume. They were unhirable.

            “It was a defining moment for me,” Wendy said. “I’m a very happy person. I wish I could say that they seem happy. I was proud of myself, maybe for the first time in my life. That was the first time I feel I really accomplished something in all these intervening years.”

            Among the many models she worked with, she knows of only two who have other successful careers. One’s a writer and the other an antiques dealer.

            She’s been in her place in Sonoma for twenty-five months straight, which is a new record for her, by four months. “I still have that itch for the gypsy lifestyle,” she admits. For the last nine years, she’s been hauling around a bunch of taped-up boxes. They’re full of old portfolios and mementos of her brother. She avoided opening them for so long that she came to think of them as Pandora’s Boxes.

“Six weeks ago, I finally unpacked.”

“How’s it feel?”

            She answered by repeating words that came to her last weekend, when she bumped into the photographer she used to work with. “What happened to you?” he asked. “You just disappeared.” She explained her transition, and added, “As a model I was always just existing day to day. Now I’m truly living my life.”

            To me, she added, “That’s really how I feel. I’m truly living my life.”

            “What did your old photographer friend think of that?”

            “We went out for drinks. We laughed about old times. At the end of the night he said, ‘It’s great to see you’ve cracked the code.’”

            Her past is resurfacing all around her. Talking to me is a way to confront it and no longer hide. We’d come a long way in a few weeks, from her first email.

            “You were really mad at me when you wrote that, weren’t you?”

            “I felt like you were bashing my choice of lifestyle on your web site.”

            “I’m going to soften that rant,” I said. “Rewrite it a little. I think you were right to call me on it.”

            The subtext to our conversations was the question, “When should I make peace with my ambition and settle down?” The one feeling everyone in this book has experienced is of missing out on life. For some people, this recognition leads them to pursue a dream; for others, it leads them to let the dream go. Sometimes that’s the wisest choice. I’m not just paying those words lip service – I’ve seen both sides of chasing dreams.

I mentioned earlier that my father had put his company through bankruptcy. He had grown up in the insurance industry, but in the late seventies he got the entrepreneurial bug, borrowed from a bank at 20 percent interest, and purchased a thirty-employee light-industrial company that refurbished telephones. He ran it well and loved it, but after a few years the Justice Department succeeded in breaking apart AT&T. AT&T, in turn, broke all of its subcontractor contracts. My dad no longer had a contract with his biggest customer, and his company plunged into bankruptcy, a long and arduous process that almost took our house and car. Could he have jumped back on the entrepreneurial horse again? Sure. But should he? He didn’t like the feeling of total loss of control. He didn’t like the temper that rose up in him. He didn’t like not being able to sleep at night. He hated the feeling that he couldn’t provide for his sons. He recognized that his psychological makeup was not a good fit for failing. We all must ask this test if we are considering chasing a dream: Am I the kind of person who will find fulfillment, even if I fail? It’s easy to be a magnanimous guy if the coin lands on heads. But to play a game of chance means you have to be capable of handling tails. Going to court that summer was such a terrible experience for my father. He saved himself by using his afternoons to do something his heart told him to do. He took a Coast Guard training course and earned his skipper’s license. At the end of the summer, he skippered a 96-foot-long, 1929-built wooden passenger vessel all the way up to Alaska. It was his salvation. He eventually decided, I think rightly, to go back to selling commercial insurance. He’d always been a great insurance broker, and he even learned in this time of crisis that he probably wasn’t cut out for managing more than small teams of people. In any big firm, if you’re good at doing the work you get promoted and don’t do the work anymore. My dad liked being the one who did the work. He told his firm that was where he fit. He had the awareness to recognize where he was most productive. And now, in his retirement to horse ranching, he’s found in himself a sweetness and thoughtfulness that he never expected.

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