A Day in the Life of a Human Hanger

BY NICOLE ROSS

THIS PERSONAL ESSAY WAS READ AT 14 EAST MAGAZINE'S POP-UP EVENT

The last time I was truly lost I was 18 years old. I’d just landed at Narita International Airport with a 50-pound suitcase and a manila envelope. Inside it was a modeling contract — a tangible reminder that I’d signed both my body and my brain away for the next three months.

I’d spent 15 hours in the air between Detroit, Toronto and Tokyo, where the sky was so overcast I couldn’t tell if it was morning or evening. I had greasy hair and cankles, and my stomach was verbally angry at me for eating Korean Air’s bao buns, which I figured out had a salt content similar to that of the ocean I’d just crossed.

I slumped my way to customs, clenching my visa so tightly that is was sweaty by the time I handed it to the officer. Fifty models were just arrested in China for not having one, and the last thing I wanted to do was end up in cold Asian prison cell — though they were probably like a five-star hotel compared to the ones in America. The officer’s eyes lit up when he saw I was an “entertainer.”

No, I’m not a porn star. Thank you.

He looked at my visa. Then at me. Then back to my visa.

“Entertainer?” he questioned. “What do you do?”

He looked insulting disbelieved when I told him I was a model, but I couldn’t blame him considering I looked like I’d just given birth.

“Go ahead.”

Once outside the airport, I had instructions to take a bus to Roppongi, Minato-ku, but thanks to my limited (a.k.a. non-existent) familiarity with the Japanese alphabet, finding the right one was no easy feat. I eeny-meeny-miny-moe-d it and threw my bags in line for a random bus.

God have mercy on my jet-lagged soul.

Thankfully, he did — and he even saved me a seat next to an American, who informed me that it was 17:20 (5:20 p.m.). Little did I know, two weeks later I would end up at a party in his $15,000/night suite at the Grand Hyatt. It turned out he was a New Yorker who spent his weekends in Roppongi’s club scene. He was one of many. Those Wall-Streeters hosted champagne dinners and reserved 30-person tables at Feria and ColoR. Their nights began at 9:00 p.m. and lasted until 9:00 a.m. — a full 12 hours of blackness, and you could tell who participated because she showed up to the agency the next morning with bruises on her legs reeking of cigarettes. Girl, no hat can hide that hair.

Two hours later a chauffeur picked me up from the bus stop and drove me to the agency, where I had my stats recorded — a weekly routine.

Date: Thursday, April 9, 2014

Height: 172 cm.

Measurements: 82-60-86 cm.

Weight: 49 k.g.

Then I was immediately sent to the van.

“The van” was somewhat of a sacred place. Each agency used one to transport models to castings, so it became something like a team’s locker room —  it was where all the bonding happened. It was covered in wrappers, receipts, magazines and a thin, sticky coat of hairspray. If the van’s stained beige seats could talk, they’d tell secrets and stories from girls from around the world who at one point found themselves enslaved by its sliding doors.

It was nearly 8:00 p.m. when I arrived at my first casting. It was for a hair client, and there was $10,000 on the line.

Joy — I still haven’t showered.

The waiting area was crowded with around 50 girls — their spider-long legs sprawled across the carpet. Most of them were Russians under 20 years old. Their careers would expire within a decade, leaving them with nothing but low self-esteem and a cocaine addiction.

Models are like locusts: They’re herbivores, relocate often and are invertebrates in the sense that they don’t have a backbone. They sit, stand and eat when they’re told to. In their solitary phase, they are unassuming — they generally avoid each other unless they are mating or are forced together by food shortage. Like locusts, when this happens models transform into their gregarious phase, congregating in thick, mobile, ravenous swarms.

I got in line and fought to keep my eyes open by picturing $10,000 in my bank account. It sounded like a lot of money, but subtract $3,000 for the agency’s cut, $1,500 for flight reimbursements, $3,000 for three months in the model apartment, and I’d be left with a lousy $2,500. Uninspiring.

After an hour of waiting, it was finally my turn. I stood still and silent while my chauffeur, Yuichi, introduced me to the client in Japanese. He talked for five minutes or so, and I wondered how he knew so much about me.

“Amerika” was the only word I recognized.

Two of the women held garments against my skin. One pulled out a measuring tape and measured the space between my forehead and my chin, my chin and my collar bone.

The casting director looked at portfolio. Then at me. Then back at my portfolio.

“Kawaii,” he said. Cute.

I didn’t book the job.

Tokyo’s map looked like a plate of spaghetti. Its streets piled on top of each other, twisting and turning without rhyme or reason. I don’t think I would have found my apartment if it wasn’t for Emanuele.

Emanuele [eh-men-oo-eh-l-eh] (noun): Italian neighbor who serves two purposes: showing me around the city and being handsome. We’d become friends earlier that year during swim season in Miami, and he was a familiar face in a city where I knew no one.

Yes, Emanuele, I would love to have Yakitori with you.

Yakitori, the Japanese version of a shish kabob, is definitely not on the model menu, yet I ate my weight in those bamboo skewers. I’m not sure if it was the Italian accent or the shōchū, but dinner made me forget about my greasy hair and cankles.

Drink one: Speak Italian to me. Or any of the five languages you know.

Drink two: Can I call you the Italian Stallion? You box, right?

Drink three: Oh, your ex-girlfriend of five years is a Victoria’s Secret model? Here, you can have the last meatball.

Who knows what drink four might have brought, but we ended up standing outside my apartment door for an awkward ten minutes or so. Emanuele looked at the door handle. Then at me. Then back at the door handle.

He left, eventually, and I ended up alone in my bed staring out the window at a brightly lit night sky. I wondered how I got there — 6,500 miles from home. I imagined my friends and family on the other side of the world, who were probably suffering the mundanity of Midwestern life. But they were together.

I was alone in a city of nine million people. I didn’t know how long I’d be there, where I was going next or when I would know. I wasn’t lost geographically — I was lost spiritually, mentally and relationally. Because years of being pushed and pulled, critiqued and camouflaged, valued solely for a lucky hand of genes, leaves a girl empty and alone.

At the end of the day, the life of a model is underweight and overrated.