Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Northern Lights
Frauke, the studio manager, adjusts her glasses, moving them lower on her nose. Wordlessly, she extends her hand.
I cross the foyer. The soles of my tennis shoes squidge against the marble. I give her my modeling portfolio. My heart pounds.
"Chicago Inc," she murmurs, scanning the cover.
"It's-a-new-agency-Louis-is-my-booker," I say in a rush.
Silence. The pages start to turn: one, two. When Frauke gets to page three, a three-quarter of me peeking through the strings of my tennis racquet, the first of my two "sporty" test shots, her eyes rotate.
"You're how old?"
The pages of my portfolio continue to turn. I watch myself go by, unseen.
"Seventeen. I'll be eighteen soon. In a month. July 5th actually."
Oops. Louis told me to stop doing this. "Models should never call attention to the aging process," he has said. Then again, Louis also told me to stop being such a motormouth. "Do you think of Marilyn Monroe as chatty?" he asked me once. "I think of Marilyn Monroe as dead," I replied. "Exactly," he retorted. "Icons don't talk." I get it: Shut up. But I can't help it; I'm nervous. I've been nervous ever since I got within twenty feet of this place, my fifth and final stop according to my list of appointments:
Conrad Fuhrmann (photographer)
25 W. Burton Pl. (xDearborn)
Ask 2C: Frauke (studio manager)
It looked harmless enough on paper, I thought. What did I know? I arrived at 25 West Burton Place to discover not a grungy fourth-floor walk-up, an "industrial space" filled with loose wires, dust bunnies, and futon seating, as per usual, but a large town house, a mansion, really, smack in the middle of Chicago's swanky Gold Coast District. Cream-colored and modern with a gravel driveway and sculptured trees, it looked like it belonged in Paris. Not that I've ever been. It looked like what I imagine Paris looking like. It looked imposing.
The inside is imposing, too. Or maybe it's Frauke. With glittering, ebony eyes, and glossy black hair, she sits in the all-white marble foyer looking more than a little like a spider in her web.
Wham. My portfolio cover slams shut. With sudden and surprising crispness, Frauke rises up and leans forward, her red nails gripping the desk's edge, her eyes skittering up my Adrienne Vittadini ensemble (a carefully chosen navy-and-white-striped skirt with matching sweater) and across my chin, nose, cheekbonesevery inch of fleshuntil they lock with mine.
"Follow me," she says.
I catch up with Frauke's dark form just as it enters a room. My eyes adjust: small study. Two suede couches. Dozens of glossy books. A smattering of silver frames with beautiful people in them.
"Conrad, this is Emily."
And a man. Conrad Fuhrmann lifts his glasses from the V in his cashmere sweater and hooks them around his temples. "Hello."
I swallow. "Hi."
Rising, he clasps his hands together like a dance instructor. "Turn around."
He laughs. "Not so fast. Again. So I can see you."
I spin around slowly, feeling very revolving cake, until I'm facing the couch again, facing Conrad and Frauke, who's now seated beside him. Physically, he's the antithesis of her: small, almost petite, with cornflower blue eyes and delicate features. Surprisingly, I find myself relaxing in his presence.
"How old are you?"
"Almost eighteen," Frauke answers crisply, as if my own might have been different.
When Conrad sits down again, his body tips forwarda question mark of keen interest.
And then it begins.
"Do you exercise?
"Do you dance?
"Do you eat?
". . . A lot?
"How often do you drink:
"How many hours of sleep do you get a night?
"How tall are you?
"How tall are your parents?
"How much have you grown in the last year?
"How much do you weigh?
"Do you wear contacts?
"Do you use sunscreen?
"How would you describe your hair?
"Please state your morning and evening skin-care routine, beginning with your cleanser."
And on and on. It's like one of those nightmares where, suddenly, it's finals and you're being grilled by a panel of experts on a topic you haven't studied, only this test's for models, so it's not that hard.
Finally, we've exhausted the Health and Beauty category. Conrad gets the distracted look of someone doing complex numerical calculations in his head.
"So . . . almost eighteen. You've graduated, correct?"
"Are you going to college?"
Not here, too. This is the question plaguing every single one of my classmates this summer, the question asked by every parent, every relativeeveryone, that is, except people in the fashion business.
Conrad's back on his feet again, stepping toward me. "What about Northwestern?"
What about it? "Umm, it's a good school," I say. Did he go there? "But I want to be in New York."
Conrad eyes me steadily for one beat. Then another. "We'll see," he says.
See what? As far as I know the admissions process is over, thank God. But we don't discuss this further; instead Conrad takes me by the hand and guides me into the photography studio, which is vast and white, of course, and nice. Very nice. Against one wall, thick art books and scores of spindly magazines are interspersed with sculptures. A sweep of calla lilies rises out of a crystal vase next to a sleek leather sofa, one of a pair. A lacquered coffee table gleams. Chrome equipment glints in the bright light.
As I look aroundreally take it inmy stomach roils. From one thought in particular: This guy is major, really really major, in a totally different league from anyone I've ever worked with.
And that's before I see the photograph. Hanging right in front of me, only a couple of feet from where we've stopped, is a small black and white, that I stare at and gasp. Because, there, wearing nothing more than a few ounces of Lycra and a sultry smile, is the one and only Cindy CrawfordAmerica's superest of supermodels. Only I've never seen her like this; with her short spiky hair and big soft cheeks, she looks about seventeen. My age.
Wow. I knew Cindy was from Illinois but . . . I turn to Conrad. He's still smiling, his blue eyes still soft and glowing. Slowly, he extends his hand toward my face. "Let's see: if we moved this . . ." A fingertip lightly touches a mole near my hairline before sliding down my cheek ". . . we'd have her." Then taps the location of the famous Cindy sweet spot.
No way. In Wisconsin, where I'm from, it's always been Brooke. We don't really look that much alike except for the eyebrows, but that doesn't stop people from accosting me, convinced I really am Miss-Nothing-But-Her-Calvins, though why the famous star would be wandering around the Midwest in a Balsam High sweatshirt was a mystery to me, unless it was a very earnest attempt at going deep undercover. Still, it's a compliment and who doesn't love compliments? Yet it's nothing like being compared to Cindyand by someone who's actually photographed her! This is huge. I grin from ear to ear, even though it's not exactly ladylike. I can't help it.
And that's it, or a minute later it is. I say good-bye, walk along the gravel driveway, and through the iron gate, which purrs shut behind me. It's raining and a bit brisk, so I shove my hands in my pockets before trudging down the wet, gray avenue, turning at the red light for one last look. In contrast to the dull brick buildings surrounding it, the town house twinkles captivatingly, almost magically, like one of those shiny stones you find on the beach, the ones that look sprinkled with gold. The inside was like that, too. I think of the bright gleam of the foyer, the cozy glow of the library, the clean luminescence of the photo studiolight emanated from every corner of that place, and the world outside seems flatter, duller in its wake.
I have to work there, I think as I continue on. I just have to.
I guess I feel this way because so far my career hasn't been exactly what you'd call stellar. How could it be when it started with cheese? Not cheesy photos. Cheddar cheese. Foam Cheddar cheese.
You see, my father is the Woods in Woods and Wacowski, a small Milwaukee-based advertising agency. While the firm creates plenty of standard slogans, what they're famous for are bovine double entendres. You know: "Moove on Over," "Cream the Competition," "For a Good Cowse," that sort of thingthe kind of taglines that are perennially popular in the state that declares itself America's Dairyland right on its license plate.
Last fall, as part of his pitch to the state tourism board, Dad came up with a hatquite a hat. It's called the Cheesehead and maybe you've seen it? If not, picture a wedge of yellow foamthe cheeseglued to the brim of a baseball hat, then picture someone actually deciding this is a good way to be seen in public, preferably drunk at a Packer game. Bad, right? Well, you should have seen the prototypes. I certainly did; it was either Swiss or Brick that capped off my modeling debut one cold winter day when Dad offered me $72 bucksthe amount in his walletto wear them for two rolls of film for his client.
Dale, the agency photographer, shot the two rolls, then asked if he could shoot one more, without the cheese. "You have good bone structure," he said, after he'd instructed me to loosen my fists, turn slightly profile, and look at the lens. "And a killer smile."
After we finished, Dale said something else. He was on his knees, packing away a reflector, when he rocked back on his heels. "I think you could be a model, Emily, I really do," he said, before offering to pass my photo along to a local agency.
I think you could be a model. Those were his exact words. I acted surprised, blase even, but truthfully? I was thrilled.
And I was ready. As anyone who has visited my room in the last five years can attest, I love fashion. I can't get enough of it. I subscribe to most beauty magazines; the rest I pick up at the newsstand. This is no exaggeration: if the cover features a smiling beauty next to the words "Ten Terrific Tips!," "Looks You'll Love!," or if the issue's simply hefty, it's mine. Every time I bring one home, I follow the same routine. I carry it up to my bedroom (flat so as not to bend the pages and face up with nothing on top so as not to scratch the cover), then I plunk down on my rug and slowly thumb the pages. When I find just the right photo, of Famke maybe, or Rachel, or ElleI know all their namesI take an X-Acto knife (scissors are too messy and tearing it? Please), care-ful-ly slice the picture out, and hold it up to the wall. Usually, it takes several tries to find just the right place. When I do, I tape it up, flop down on the rug, and stare up at my new addition. At her. She's usually running or leapinginside, outside, it doesn't matter, just as long as she looks like she's going somewhere. Some place that I want to be. Some place else. And lying there, looking up, I know, I just know, that if I could hop up there and go along with herno, become herthen my life would be perfect.
Given all this, I guess it's not a surprise that one week later, when the Tami Scott School of Modeling called to ask if I wanted to enroll in a modeling course, my reply was an enthusiastic "Yes!" I jotted down the details, hung up, and immediately called Christina, my best friend since the third grade who's always right about everything. She told me to go for it.
There was only one obstacle.
"You want to do what?" my mother said. I had walked downstairs and joined her in the kitchen. She had just checked the loaf of bread baking in the oven and the room was still warm.
"I want to take a modeling course," I repeated, this time from the fridge. I was looking for the pitcher of iced tea.
I found the pitcher, got a tumbler, some ice, poured the tea, and returned the pitcher. Mom still hadn't replied.
"What?" I said. But I knew. One look at Mom's hemp drawstring pants, her crocheted halter, her beaded necklaces, one look at her Birkenstocks, her waist-long hair, her unmadeup face, one look and anyone would know: My mom's a "social activist," as she likes to put it, which you are welcome to interpret as "aging hippie." Dad is, too. How my parents got that way, we'll get to soon enough. For now, suffice it to say that the next thing out of her mouth wasn't a total shocker.
"Over my dead body."
"Thanks for being so supportive," I shot back. "Really."
Mom looked pained, but it wasn't from what I had said. "When I refused to let you play with Barbie, I never dreamt you'd try to become one!" she spat.
This merited an eye roll. "Mom, please. Everyone knows Barbies aren't real. Models are."
"Not the ones I've seen," she rebutted. She was scraping dough off the chopping block. Long thin curls shot to the floor.
Hmm. Personally, I couldn't imagine a time when my mother had ever even seen a model. She never set foot into my room, and they weren't exactly stripping down in Mother Jones and Ms. But I let this go, which turned out not to matter much; she had a lot more to say.
"What about your schoolwork?"
"The course is every Saturday. It's only two hours long."
"I'm sure it isn't free."
"It's a thousand dollars."
"It's a what?"
"Mom, I'll pay you back out of my earnings."
Our bout lasted several rounds. It took us past the loom in the dining room and onto the sunporch, where Mom watered her plantsmostly jadein their wide assortment of macrame holders and fondled her wind chimes before heading back into the kitchen to dump the extra water into the mustard-colored sink and examine the spelt barley loaf. Right about the time the crust turned brown and hard, she softened.
"Okay," she said, pulling on her oven mitts, which are normal looking because I gave them to her. "If this is what you want to do, Emily, do it and do it well."
Yes! I pumped my fist into the air and then hugged her.