When I was young and svelte, Grace Jones-ing about with the cool kids of Los Angeles, it felt like the world was my oyster and I could have anything I wanted. Picture me, graduating from art school, becoming a performance artist because I was frustrated I couldn’t continue my film photography practice; becoming a model almost as an extracurricular activity simply because I could; getting into acting just because it was there and I already had the chops from my youth. Now I’m older, more voluptuous, and… I still find myself cavorting about LA every once in a while with the coolest grown folks you’ll ever meet, feeling like the world is my oyster and I can have anything I want. I now have over 15 years of experience and training as a performance artist, model, actress, and singer/songwriter. My gigs come to me with intention and purpose now. I no longer stumble flippantly into them, like when I was in my mid-20s.
Back then, being a model on the local runway scene opened a lot of doors for me that I didn’t really understand or recognize in the moments I was experiencing them. All I knew was that I was having fun doing a different kind of performance art, meeting interesting and ambitious new people - a kind of ambition that I’d never encountered before. I forged new adult friendships that last until this day, 15 years later. And I’m the kind of person who, contrary to what you may believe about LA, cultivated these authentic friendships where we didn’t feel the need to prove ourselves to each other, didn’t always have to have something epic in the works, didn’t need to constantly drop names and be known in a scene. It’s how I like my friendships.
Now, here at 40, I know a little better. Good for 25 year old me for being so open and adventurous and sincere. Not so good for 25 year old me for not at least *trying* to learn the ropes of being a strategic social climber, for being blinded by my youthful pretty privilege. I’ve got some advice for me at 25 that I want to share with you. If you’re a young model, actor, musician, writer, freelancer, no matter what, I know you’re going to find at least one thing below that’s going to help you. Keep reading…
Do your research when someone wants to represent you.
We don’t have time to go into the details of what made my first two reps such train wreck situations. My first rep? A model manager who was a recent transplant at the time that I’m sure meant well in the beginning. My second rep was also my first commercial agent - only got me 4 auditions total in the two years he repped me during a time when everyone swore up and down that I should be auditioning constantly. The thing is, I didn’t know any better, and I really wanted to go further and knew I’d reached the limits of how far I could go alone. I didn’t even know what questions to ask or what to look for.
I should have asked that first modeling rep what relationships she was fostering in Los Angeles with casting directors. I didn’t know or understand that most independent managers begin at already-established agencies and take their time building their reputation and talent roster. I also had never even heard of a go-see (Top Model was a Thing while I had my head in the books in college, don’t get mad at me), and didn’t know that I should have been going on several of them. And this was during the days when LA Fashion Week was still happening at Smashbox Studios! This rep was very enthusiastic about me in the very beginning, but wasn’t really managing me and seemed to lose interest over time. And I didn’t understand that that’s what was happening while it was happening. Over the course of a year, she hadn’t really gotten me anything except a few low-paid tests, poorly run portfolio shoots, two unpaid shows in nightclubs, and one cattle call audition for LA Fashion Week AW 2009. And then she flamed out so sad that to this day, I really do hope she’s okay.
The best of one of those low-paid test shoots, circa 2009
That second agent situation? Red flags should have been going off when I first met him and it seemed like he could take me or leave me. That guy's energy was so coke-fueled, it would set me on edge and I had to do deep breathing exercises after every phone call. I have to give credit where it’s due - one of my best friends to this day was repped by him and practically insisted he take me on. She just wanted me to have a chance at a career, and I was grateful to her for that. It’s not like I had an in anywhere else, and I wouldn’t have had a clue how to get representation on my own. But it’s so important to have reps that are very enthusiastic about having you on board. Unfortunately, my only experience up to that point was people who insisted on having me around, but at the same time wouldn’t develop me or at least communicate effectively with me. Being an afterthought to the ones who were supposed to have me top of mind was all I knew.
Guys, vet your reps thoroughly. A good rep is excited to have you on board, is busy getting you in front of the right casting directors and jobs, makes time for check-ins, has a profile on IMDb Pro, and if they’re with an agency, that agency is SAG-AFTRA Franchised (another Thing I was clueless about).
Not every great photographer is worth testing with.
You know how I mentioned my frustration about not being able to afford being a film photographer anymore? I really don’t talk about it much, but in college I majored in Fine Arts with a concentration in conceptual photography. I spent hours in darkrooms, perfecting my shooting techniques, playing with composition and light. I know what makes a great conceptual and documentary photographer.
Ladies and gentlemen, I did not know what made a great fashion photographer.
A great fashion photographer is an effective communicator, who has a vision and knows how to pull a performance out of you to achieve that vision. A great fashion photographer has a great personal style, too. No, they’re not dressed to the nines 24/7, but you can see that they have a very specific point of view in how they dress themselves. They do it well. And a great fashion photographer is either repped by an agency themselves, or is at least putting out agency-quality work. Y’all, I didn’t even know that agencies for photographers, stylists, makeup, and hair were even a Thing! Do you understand how much help I needed???
An excellent shot by an excellent fashion photographer, my ex-boyfriend Armen Poghosyan, circa 2012.
You’re not going to get to see the bad pictures of me taken by otherwise great photographers today, but looking back, I think to myself “WHY DID I WASTE THIS PRECIOUS TIME?!” But I know why. It's because I didn’t understand that, as a model, your portfolio needs to look like it leapt from the pages of Vogue Italia, of Harpers Bazaar, of Flaunt and i-D and Paper. And that you’re only gonna get that from a photographer who has a portfolio that looks like that, too.
Coming from the art world, and as a visual and performance artist myself, I was used to being in a place of constant experimentation, with not much use for technical perfection. We were never trying to achieve a slickness or polish, just excellence. Thank God I know better now how to use that point of view. It’s a good one to have, but doesn’t belong in your modeling or acting portfolio; your career is at stake. Train your eye, and marry your well-trained eye with an excellent photographer’s high level of proficiency so you can get in the door.
Learn how to dress your body well.
Speaking of distinct personal style, it’s funny because I always *did* have that, going all the way back to high school. It’s just that my execution was off. My mother didn’t have fashion, art, or cultural magazines laying around the house. Only Time, Newsweek, and the Dallas Morning News. The only reason she allowed my younger sister and I to share subscriptions to Teen and Seventeen was because we wore her down about it and she finally caved. She hated it when the dELiA*s catalog would arrive, though. She let it be known that we could look but we would never touch with her money. So throughout high school and college, I hacked a very dELiA*s-influenced style out of my existing wardrobe that had a touch of goth/punk/glam.
When I became part of a loose association of models and actors in my late 20s, this was unfortunately still the case. Hanging out with them influenced me, however.
In fact, it was because of that friend who got me the second agent that I was cast in my first commercial - I used a lot of that money on a wardrobe overhaul that was a big step up, but still lacked an edge and polish that I could have used to get ahead as a model and actress. But like I said, in those days, I didn’t understand how that my wardrobe had to be part of my career strategy. Which is the foundation of the next bit of advice 25-year-old me needs to hear…
Develop a social strategy.
Showing up and putting in hard work is only 35% of the work. And that face, body, and pleasant attitude of yours isn't carrying the other 65%.
This heydey of mine was in my mid-to-late 20s, and there was no such thing as social media. Yeah, we had Facebook, but Facebook had only recently opened up to people who hadn't attended a university. I love nightlife, I love hanging with friends, but I've always been a very hard-wired introvert. I was known for bringing a thick novel or a copy of the most recent LA Weekly with me backstage before a fashion show, killing that final hour before my first look with my head in the clouds, totally absorbed, only occasionally looking up to engage with everyone around me. Backstage is fun and most of the models and designers I was walking for were really interesting and cool. But actually getting people's phone number and making plans to be out on the town? Why? I already had friends.
Who knows how many totally legit opportunities I missed out on because of my naivete… and by the way, I regret absolutely nothing. I love how everything has panned out for me. Yet I don't repeat those same mistakes anymore. I actively seek opportunities to attend select happenings in the art world and entertainment industry, and I take my time putting together complete looks that are on-brand and current. I understand now how to make myself memorable.
You MUST pay attention to how things are changing.
I have a cousin named Niki. Back in the early 2000s, her email signature always included this wise saying:
As the first person from both sides of my family to move to Los Angeles, I understood that even with their support, I was still making my way here alone. I knew that in order to get through college and adulthood, I would have to roll with the punches, keep my eyes open, and have a level of self-awareness and self-mastery to make it. I actively pursued my evolution. But blind spots are real, and they'll have even the most self-aware among us twisting in the wind. Because I ended up twisting in the wind.
That very same arts education that was serving me well in some ways was holding me back in others. Because as a film photography purist, why would I download some new phone app called Instagram and take shitty phone pictures with it? And as someone with a performance art practice that I was satisfied with, why would I need to collaborate with anyone outside of that sphere of influence? Additionally, my upbringing in Texas and art school education never prepared me for entrepreneurship or a freelancer life. All I knew was working for others, waiting to be noticed by gatekeepers, seeking traditional employment with skills that had become irrelevant. I was stuck doing background acting and bartending for catering companies, and it still wasn't enough money to get by, low as my expenses were those days. And don't get me wrong, I actually really enjoyed doing background and bartending, but those things weren't feeding my career progress.
This was a COLLABORATION, featuring the work of iconic wardrobe stylist Neishea Lemle, circa 2018
My circumstances began to force me to change in ways that I never thought would be necessary. I had to deprioritize modeling and acting for two years to get my life in order (it's still not in order, lowkey). I had to consider using my skills as a fine artist in a more commercial way, and be grateful for the opportunity to adapt. I had to get in therapy and start noticing my pattern of unconsciously self-deprecating by continuously choosing environments and situations that did not affirm my talent and skills. I had to shake off the dregs of social anxiety that I thought I had gotten over by the time I was 15. I had to own the part I played, however unconsciously, in creating my flailing career.
I know for a fact that 25 year old me wouldn't recognize me today. But she sure would stan.
I do not see 2007 - 2014 as youth wasted. I lived my life to the fullest, pushing myself, taking responsibility for my choices, with the inner desire to have no regrets. Those years made me who I am today, and I like who I am today. I wouldn't jump in a time machine to change things if offered. One thing that saved me time and again was that I was dedicated to learning from other people's mistakes, so that mine would be very specific to me.
Shot by a photographer named Jason circa 2018; this is one of my faves.
Don't try to reinvent the wheel. Learn from my mistakes, so that you can make your own. Discernment is your friend, and begins within. You are not above using your looks to get ahead. Be in community with your colleagues. Call yourself out when you feel yourself resisting inevitable changes. You will make mistakes, you will fuck up, you will disappoint yourself and others. Just make a vow to yourself that you won't bullshit yourself when you do, that you'll take responsibility and learn from it.
FELLOW X-ENNIALS! Chime in on the comments below with some advice your younger self needs to hear - maybe someone else will read it and take it to heart.
GEN Z KIDS! Chime in on the comments below with your current experiences and challenges - you’re walking a different planet than we walked when we were your age. What are the ways in which you feel you need guidance?
PS - Interested in what my first decade and a half in Los Angeles sounded like? Take a listen here. You're welcome :-)
|I'm a one-woman circus and the world's most passionate Grace Jones stan. Everything about your planet confounds me, except cats. Book me: hritalent.com|