(Center: Eugenia Gonzalez Ruiz-Olloqui, Michael Bastian)
From The New York Times:
I’d love to tell you that my modeling career got its kick-start when the photographer Larry Clark found me skateboarding in a disused swimming pool in Tulsa. Or when Karl Lagerfeld tweeted some photos he had taken of me in my capacity as the towel boy at his day spa.
But in fact, I was standing in the gift shop of the Santa Barbara Zoo when I received an urgent e-mail from an editor at this newspaper telling me to send my chest size.
Having no clue what this measurement is, I asked the woman standing behind the gift shop’s cash register for a tape measure. I explained to her that, although I’m 50 and only 5-foot-10 and look like a college provost, I was going to walk the runway at New York Fashion Week. Her expression was that of someone who’s just crossed the Atlantic in a rowboat.
Non-models like Gary Oldman (5-foot-10, 54), Willem Dafoe (5-foot-10, 57) and Tim Roth (5-foot-7, 51) all walked the runway for Miuccia Prada last fall, so maybe, my editor had thought, an equally pasty-faced writer could do it, too.
Does the model make the runway, or does the runway make the model? I sought an answer from Michael Bastian, the 2011 Council of Fashion Designers of America men’s-wear designer of the year known for his elegant twist on classic American clothes. Mr. Bastian, the former men’s fashion director for Bergdorf Goodman, started his own line in 2006 and a collaboration with Gant in 2009. But more important, his runway casting embraces my cheeseburger lifestyle. He said, “I’m anti-scrawny-little-German-guy.”
First, Mr. Bastian’s business partner, the ebullient Eugenia Gonzalez Ruiz-Olloqui, summoned me to her and Mr. Bastian’s airy, white-brick offices in west Chelsea. The dashing, affable-to-the-point-of-huggy Mr. Bastian promised me, “We’re going to make you look like a model.” I thought, maybe they can merge my age spots into a tan.
Mr. Bastian beckoned me to a two-sided bulletin board on wheels, where he showed me photographs of 47 “looks,” all in dusty colors inspired by the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler.
Explaining that most of the show should feel like one of Calvin Klein’s haute Fire Island pool parties in the 1970s, Mr. Bastian said he was planning on sending six Speedos down the runway. I said, “That’s a lot of package.” Mr. Bastian promised that I would not be part of this package. I thanked him heartily.
In the week before my casting session, I put together a “book”: a folder of my author photos and contributor photographs from magazines. I got a pedicure. I neither cut my hair nor shaved, as requested of me. Eager to have cheekbones, I juice-fasted away 13 pounds, from 169 to 156. Food deprivation made me peevish and abrupt; I suddenly understood Naomi’s Campbell’s complicated relationship with telephones.
Nervous the night before my casting session, I slept only four hours. I awoke looking puffy and swollen: Dennis Quaid meets an animé chipmunk.
Though Mr. Bastian and his team would see 132 models to fill the 47 spots, there were only 3 waiting in the hallway when I showed up for my audition. We shot one another sidelong glances.
Ushered into the office, I beheld Mr. Bastian’s casting director, Bethann Hardison, a former model who walked in the epochal 1973 Versailles runway show before becoming an agent and helping to nurture talent like Ms. Campbell, Veronica Webb and Tyson Beckford. Wearing a purple turban and lots of beads, Ms. Hardison exuded tribal-elder wisdom.
Beholding me now for the first time, her eyes widened as she said: “Oh! Oh! O.K.” I asked, “Why are you laughing?” She shook her head.
Mr. Bastian and five of his colleagues sat in an intimidating row of chairs in front of his desk. We all said hello. I handed over my photos and Mr. Bastian exclaimed, “You have a book!” I explained: “I realized that my picture has probably been in more magazines than most of these boys. But in my case, I’m always fully clothed — because I’m not a whore.”
Ms. Hardison put her hand on my shoulder. “Baby,” she said, “models don’t talk that much.” Consulting the bulletin board, Mr. Bastian instructed his stylists to dress me in two of the looks, both involving cashmere sweaters and cloth-covered loafers worn without socks. At one point, four people were touching me, tweaking and zhuzhing: human carwash. I loved it.
After each wardrobe change, I did my walk. You could almost hear a mangy German shepherd tied to a chain-link fence, barking. Ms. Hardison later told me that, when I had reached the far side of the room the first time, Mr. Bastian had turned to her and said, “Is he putting us on?”
For my second attempt, various members of the group gave me suggestions, all in an effort to cure my stooped shoulders and my lack of urgency or self-importance, my failure to convey that my devastating man-musk would bodily flatten all who crossed its path. Stefan Campbell, the director of the show, suggested I push my navel against my spine. Ms. Hardison told me to walk as if I had a secret. Then she asked me to name a hero (I said, “David Bowie”) and then to walk like him.
It all felt a little drama school, and I feared someone was going to tell me to lie on the cold studio floor and to breathe through my ankles.
Mr. Bastian then invited me to watch some of the other models audition. The parade of physical and sartorial beauty was dazzling. The models were the opposite of what I’d expected: they were largely heterosexual and shy and sweet. I also learned that when walking, I should pick a spot on the wall, for focus. I learned that smiling was the mark of the amateur.
That night at home, I practiced my walking. Every designer, it’s been said, has a preferred gait. Ms. Prada’s has been described as “zombie” and Marc Jacobs’s as “running for the bus.” Mr. Bastian’s, I’d decided, is more “date with destiny” or “Easter Island: The Walk-Off.”
It occurred to me that my lifelong slouchy posture is, in a complicated and wrong way, connected to my hatred of bragging. Somehow in my mind I’ve learned to equate slouching with modesty.
I needed to eradicate this crippling mind-set. I knew it would help me if I created a character. I started with the name Hank but then bumped it up to Hanque. I decided Hanque is a former Lufthansa flight attendant who is possibly Nordic — his unplaceable accent swerves wildly from a remote farm outside Oslo to a dimly lighted bar in Akron.
Whenever Hanque says “fabulous,” it comes out “fahvolous.” Hanque likes vegan baked goods, vintage motorcycles and Sofia Coppola when she wears aqua in airports. Hanque dreams of one day seeing bumper stickers encouraging drivers to “Hanque if you love Hanque.”
When I returned to Mr. Bastian’s office the next day for my wardrobe fitting, my new swagger met with fanfare. “You fixed your walk,” Mr. Bastian noted. Ms. Hardison said: “You’ve got a whole different consciousness. You saw so much yesterday that you’ve taken on a different energy.” The precise algorithm behind my new gait is shrouded under 10,000 veils of mystery. I will, however, dangle one phrase in front of you: pectoral thunder.
Mr. Bastian repeatedly tweaked my outfit, swapping out different hats and shoes, finally settling on a gray V-neck cashmere sweater with a giraffe pattern; powder-blue cotton pants; capped-toe loafers worn without socks; a cranberry Civil War-soldier-type hat with a blue plastic visor, and aviator shades. I looked like a highly successful aromatherapist.
Notwithstanding the reception to my improved walking, I knew I could still use some pointers from Ms. Hardison. She and I went out into the offices’ long, sterile hallway, and she watched me storm away.
I told her about Hanque, whom she applauded. I said that, on the day of the show, the photographers would probably peg me — given my height and age — for an actor.
She said: “Why limit yourself to ‘actor’? Maybe Hanque is a scientist. A Nobel Prize-winning scientist.”
Came the day. I reported to the cavernous Milk Studios on West 15th Street at 9 a.m. for a noon show, as instructed. Our space was industrial and white, featuring a U-shaped runway covered with a plush carpeting whose color Mr. Campbell called “cocaine white.”
At about 10:30 all of us models took a trial walk in our street clothes. I was slightly short of breath and my hands were shaking. My walk felt endless, like boarding a plane on an inexpensive airline.
Backstage, Ms. Hardison emerged from the swirl of activity. She grabbed my hand and led me to a supply closet, away from the commotion. “O.K., baby, think of something fun,” she said, “because you look a little stiff.” I told her I loved her Nobel Prize-winning scientist idea for Hanque. What if, I mused, Hanque has emerged from Calvin Klein’s pool and, in order to collect his Nobel medal, must hustle down a U-shaped path that is clotted with 40 or more of the world’s most attractive men? She gave it the thumbs up: “Yes. Because we’ve already won the game. Now we’re just having fun.”
Soon walkie-talkie-bearing production assistants were corralling us models through hair and makeup. We changed into our clothes. Wearing a kind of costume helped allay my nerves; in sunglasses, I thought, I could probably rob a bank.
Nevertheless, my ambient jitteriness unleashed a slightly repulsive tendency to reverse-brag to the other models in a bid for attention. I told Ian Mellencamp that I had been cast for this ’70s pool party “for historical accuracy”; I told Chad White, “I was an awkward, gawky teenager.’ ” I’d also told Lisa Aharon, the makeup artist, that I wanted “a smoky eye and a drama lip.” She demurred, calling my specifications “a little drag.”
Knowing that the fee paid to models for runway ranges from zero for an inexperienced model to about $1,000 for a newish model, to $25,000 or so for an A-lister, I also made a series of comments meant to elicit a price tag from Cory Bond, an A-lister you might recognize from his 2009 Guess and Dolce & Gabana campaigns. But he, all Southern gentleman, simply extolled the virtues of being seen by a lot of movers and shakers. (In our audience: the big cheeses from GQ and The Times, as well as the designer Peter Som and the actor Cheyenne Jackson.)
One of the models, a 21-year-old Spaniard named River Viiperi, failed to show. He’d been out partying with Paris Hilton at the restaurant Lavo the night before (a 3:13 a.m. tweet from Ms. Hilton alludes to “Raging at Lavo ” with Mr. Viiperi) and overslept. One of the Bastian team’s stylists, a redhead named Zeph, boldly stepped unto the breach.
Ten minutes before the show, each of us 47 models stood backstage in the order of procession. An older female security guard buzzed through. “Who are you?” she asked me. I said, “I’m one of the models.” “You are?” she asked. I said yes. “That’s why you’re here?” she asked. I said yes. Unconvinced, she shrugged and wandered off.
My walk: a thing of beauty. A poem. That muffled sound off in the distance? Balanchine, weeping. Next came much high-fiving and hallelujah-ing backstage from Ms. Hardison and my other colleagues. Zeph got a lot of love, too. Mr. Bastian walked up to me all smiles. I told him, “I’ve always been a white swan, but I’m so proud to have been your black swan.” Big hug.
And then, poof, it was all over. The Bastian team holed up in a conference room; the models skittered off to other shows. I walked to the elevators with Zeph, and all I could think was: But Hanque was supposed to be this show’s new face!
I knew how Hanque would handle post-show malaise (muumuu, long phone call to hustler boyfriend in Milan, sobbing). I opted instead to eat bagels and carrot cake almost to the point of sickness.
I have my memories. I’ve already bought one Michael Bastian dress shirt; to wear it is to be armed with a kind of Proustian kryptonite.
But will I be able to sustain Hanque’s rigorous application of unslouch? Yes, when I summon it, it returns. This usually happens when I’m walking down the street. So, if you see someone thudding down lower Broadway who brings to mind a slightly coked-out Albert Einstein in a Speedo, flash your high beams. Hanque if you love Hanque.