ome years ago, I was a model for Halloween. In real life, I am pretty and petite, but not model material, apart from perhaps my piano hands and my soulful eyes, even if one of the eyes is “lazy,” which my mother discovered when I was a toddler.
I have my mother’s dark, deep-set eyes, and also her long, thick eyelashes.
At an Armani makeover in New York, I was told that my lashes were my strongest feature, and to always wear mascara to accentuate them. A boyfriend said he could hear them click together when I slept.
Since I never had genuine modeling aspirations, Halloween seemed like a good occasion to indulge my modeling itch. So, I signed up for a competition that I could neither win, nor really even be judged at. Through a friend, I snuck into a Halloween day modeling event for high school girls at the Rockville Hilton Hotel in suburban Washington, D.C.
“Are you someone’s mother?” the woman at check-in asked me. Mortified, I stammered that I’d just missed the day for my own age category (which I don’t think existed, since I was 33-years-old). Then I excused myself to the bathroom, and thought about not coming out. I gave myself a little pep talk inside the stall: You’re only doing this for yourself anyway. Come on. Corraggio. Slipping into Italian always gave me extra oomph when I most needed it.
My modeling mission went deeper than wanting to look good. My mother’s death nine months earlier had triggered my own personal makeover. In her youth, she’d looked like Jacqueline Kennedy, so perhaps I wanted to redeem her beauty. My mother had also groomed me to dress well. Not surprisingly, order in my life generally begins in my closet.
At the time, I was living in Washington, a polished town and a good place to revamp a wardrobe because of its blend of high-end and boho stores. I could dream at Saks Fifth Avenue and then get my fix at Annie Creamcheese, a vintage store in Georgetown. For everyday clothes, I went to Filene’s Basement, or Nordstrom Rack.
My friend Hope helped me with my makeover. Tall, lanky, and Caribbean-American, he’d been a model in New York City, and he taught me how to walk down a catwalk. He imparted self-care habits such as eating preservative-free food, drinking purified water and maintaining good posture, along with the importance of self-love. “You’ve got to love yourself when no one else will,” he once said, quoting the actor Terrence Howard, while looking at himself in my mirror.
That message resonated, as I was just beginning to navigate a world without my mother, the one source of unconditional love in my life. The world seemed like a much pricklier place in her absence. I clashed with my roommates. I argued with my colleagues. I fought with my family. I resented the world without my mother in it. Ultimately, I suppose, I clashed with myself.
The prep room at the modeling event was a sea of prom dresses and hair spray, with mothers anxiously helping their daughters get ready. Fortunately, we could bring our own outfits to model in, and I chose a mix of vintage and H&M clothes, plus some pieces from Italy, including a pair of tall light brown leather boots that hugged my calves. But my outfits, I quickly learned, mattered not. It was all about how I wore them.
The bright lights felt blinding as I approached the catwalk. I was wearing a sexy black knit H&M dress, but the look on my face was one of panic and self-consciousness. I heard snickering and laughter as I walked down the catwalk, scurrying to the end, where a photographer snapped away.
There were four rounds, which got progressively better as I relaxed. By the last round, the swimsuit round, I was both happy that the event was almost over, and toughened up enough not to care what anyone thought. I’d invested the least in my swimsuit — a last-minute H&M purchase, with a stringy aquamarine cover-up that I normally would have thought looked too revealing, and cheap, to wear in public. Perhaps remembering Hope’s words about self-love, or finally ceding to what I’d come for, I walked down the catwalk with confidence, grace, and an unwavering look at the audience. Miraculously, they looked back at me in kind. I realized then that the world looks back at you the way you look at it. I was finally beginning to mother myself.