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They call them tests. Unlike in school, it required no preparation on my part – my performance had little to do with the outcome. The completion of such tests didn’t move me closer to a tangible achievement; there was no diploma on the horizon.
The whole point, as explained to me by the agency, was to get a single good photo that could be used for my promotional materials. I, like all models, had composite cards and a portfolio that needed constant refreshing.
Photos sour quickly like milk. The memory of one such session hasn’t diminished over time. It lives in the recesses of my mind, safe and comfortable in its long term housing.
It happened in Miami when I was 19 years old. Not that I wanted to be in Miami in the first place. I wanted to be in New York. And I didn’t want to be a model used for a swimming costume and lingerie work but that’s where I had found myself. My youthful agency had given way to a fatalism fed by despair.
There I am: in a black bikini, sitting on a stranger’s lawn in the dark. Around me stand five men: the owner of the house, the photographer, a make-up artist and two others who played no clear role. I’m waiting for the photographer to inflate a baby pool.
It was impossible in those days to feel heartened but I could still feel degraded by what was about to happen. An unflinching conviction that I was more than the sum of my physical attributes burned softly in a deep place, as it always had.
The pool was filled with ice cold water from a garden hose. I got in slowly and lay on my back with my legs stretched out in front of me. My head had no firm place to rest; I draped it back onto the grass. The camera clicked away; each shot marked time propelling us toward the end. The photographer paused: something was missing, but what? That something was ice cream toppings.
Someone went in to the kitchen and brought out fudge sauce, whipped cream, and cherry syrup. The guys who were just there started pouring it all over me. Having the liquids land on my body was bad enough–but then they reached my face.
I think one of the amused male onlookers asked me to open my mouth but his aim was poor and a cherry landed in my eye. I blinked and closed my eyes against any more exposure. With no vision, I could only feel the fudge being poured in figure eights while the cherry fluid kept raining down; the occasional soft cherry landing on my neck or torso. Someone said: ‘This is like a Hugh Hefner cocaine party’. Everyone laughed. I did not.
This wasn’t a joke I could be in on even though the photographer expected me to appreciate the satire. If this was satire, they were off the hook.
Finally there were enough pictures. I was given a hand to get out of the pool. The owner of the house offered me his shower and I made my way to the bathroom while everyone else sat downstairs.
Any relief I felt from the shoot being over was quickly replaced by fear that the photographer would join me in shower. He’d already picked some blades of grass off my back in a way that alerted me to his intentions. The urgency to get out before an intrusion didn’t make the work of removing sticky fluids from my hair any easier.
I got out of the shower prematurely but alone and back to the over populated model’s apartment where I lived. Some fudge remained in my hair. I’m guessing the photographer gave me a ride; the agonising alone time ultimately unavoidable. No attempts to touch or kiss; I got lucky.
The pictures were never used. I didn’t even see them. Those hours shooting, that loss of dignity served no commercial purpose. Weeks later when the photographer called me to say my body looked amazing in the images, I shuddered at the reference to a record of events. I choked out a ‘thank you’.
Image credit: Freepik
Elsie Ramsey was born in California and moved all around the country growing up. She runs the website, What’s Your Story?