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Backstage Bulimia at the Runway Show

It's hard not to consider purging when the only things you worry about is falling over and looking fat.

by Melissa Stetten
Nov 23 2012, 12:37pm

I’m in an Italian designer’s showroom sitting on a cold cement floor at my 13th and last casting of the day. Across from me is a model who doesn’t look a day over 15. She’s reading Catcher in the Rye. (Or at least pretending to read, because models are supposed to be illiterate, right?) I shun the reams of hifalutin literature in my bag to read, once again, the email with the details for the runway show that night. The call time is 6PM. It’s now 5.30PM. I still have 20 girls ahead of me, but this job pays $2,000 so that shitty runway show for $250 plus "trade" can totally go fuck itself, for the next hour at least. I call my agent to let him know I’m going to be late to the show. He gives me sass. “You better move your ass, sweetie!”

"Sweetie". No matter how bitchy he gets, he always finishes each sentence with "sweetie".

A million minutes later I realise that I haven’t eaten all day and start digging in my bag like an animal for anything vaguely edible. I find a granola bar and a half-empty (or half-full, for you disgusting optimists out there) bag of M&Ms. I scarf down both like I don’t care about calories and start to get my energy back. My name is finally called and I run into the room with a huge condescending smile on my face. I do my runway walk for the designer, pose for a few photos and get the fuck out of there.

I arrive at Lincoln Center and have absolutely no clue where I’m supposed to go. The only instructions in my email are “studio tent backstage ask for Keri”. What's a "studio tent"? Who the fuck is Keri? I wander around hoping some hot older guy will say, “Oh, you must be a model because you’re so pretty. Let me help you find where you’re going. The idea that you'd become in any way sexually obligated to me as a result of this interaction won't even cross my mind.” Nope. Didn’t happen.

After asking guys who look like security guards where to go I find my destination. I see a sign that says “MAKEUP/HAIR” hanging on a white curtain and push through a crowd of people who are pretending to work. I know you shitheads aren’t really doing anything important, but with a job title like “production intern”, I guess you're allowed to be as wildly arrogant as you like.

I walk behind the curtain and see 30 models sitting in chairs getting their hair done. A frantic woman holding a clipboard immediately asks my name and walks me to a chair. “This is Ivana, she’ll be doing your make-up.” Ivana puts moisturiser on my skin and asks what I’m doing for my acne. “Well, I was on Accutane last year, and I’m putting Retin-A on it now, I’m sorry it sucks,” I say, embarrassed. I feel like I always have the worst skin in the room and I’m always apologising for it. I’m horrified of people seeing me without make-up because I’ve never had perfect skin. Somehow I've managed to be successful with remnants of acne scars from my former life as a zit-riddled, chocolate-eating teenager. Every morning I wake up and check my skin for blemishes – sometimes they’re bad enough to make me cry and hate myself even more than I already do for obsessing over my appearance. (BRB, going to freebase some Zoloft.)

Okay, I’m back. Once my make-up is complete I’m sent to another chair, where a cute, young guy named Colin is waiting with a comb and a bottle of sea salt spray. “I’m about to tease the shit out of your hair, girl!”

He’s way too excited for this. I don’t mind my hair being curled or straightened with a burning fucking hot iron, but there’s nothing worse than teased hair. After an hour of yanking and destroying my hair, he’s finally finished. I look in the mirror and say, “Oh, OK, great, thanks,” Knowing I’m heading immediately to the bathroom to fix this mess. I look like Courtney Love if she'd ever gotten so fucked up she decided it was a good idea to do her own make-up.

I walk back through the crowd of models with my can of Diet Coke. I see a table of mini-cupcakes and my usual discipline with unhealthy food completely disappears. I grab a few (five) and find a restroom. I look at myself in the mirror, wipe some of the ridiculous purple lipstick off and scarf down the cupcakes hoping no one comes in. I hear a girl in one of the stalls coughing. Then I hear her vomit. She flushes the toilet and walks to the sink. Her hair and make-up is identical to mine.

“You OK? Sick? Need some water?” I ask, overly concerned. She shrugs, rinses out her mouth and leaves. The realisation doesn’t hit me until a few moments later. Ohhhh right, bulimia + models = duh! I’m left alone with my can of Diet Coke and mini-cupcakes like some sort of fat piece of shit neanderthal. Here I am stuffing calorie-soaked treats down my throat when I should be eating no more than three almonds. I don’t care, I’m hungry and I need food and caffeine to function properly so I don’t lose my shit and start yelling the N-word like Kramer. Maybe that’s why I hate my thighs and always feel fatter than other models. Maybe I should be puking before jobs. I feel happier when I look skinny, and depressed when I feel fat. Maybe bulimia is what’s missing from my empty, soulless, shallow life.

I finish all but one of the cupcakes and head to the dressing area. One of the many people carrying a clipboard yells to the models that it’s rehearsal time. All the girls line up next to the stage entrance still wearing their own clothes. The coordinator yells something about paying attention, but I'm not paying attention, so I have no idea what he said. He pushes us out one by one and yells critiques to the girls as they’re walking. “Straighten your back! Faster! Slower! Pose for at least three seconds at the end!” We all know how to walk, settle down.

When rehearsal is done I head over to a rack with my name and photo on it. Two outfits are hanging up with paper numbers attached to them. Nine and 23. Those are my numbers. A dresser comes running over to me and says she’ll help me put on my first outfit. I take all my clothes off except for a thong and stand there with my arms across my chest trying to keep warm. The dresser unzips the garment and pulls it over my head. It gets stuck on my hips. I wiggle like a dying mermaid and finally it goes into place. I put on the six-inch heels and practice walking. The fucking shoes keep slipping off, ugh. I put my other shoes back on and run to the bathroom to grab some paper towels.

I’m sitting on the floor stuffing it into my shoes and I see a girl from my agency. “Oh my gosh, you look so good in that dress!” She squeals. “I look like shit, YOU look amazing!” I reply, and then we compliment each other some more because that’s what models do. One of the hundred people carrying a clipboard yells to the models to get in line. The models shuffle their bony bodies over to a makeshift line and OF COURSE half of them can’t remember their numbers. 'I’m too old for this shit' I think to myself. I’m just tired, and hungry and ready for this day to be over.
I hear the music start. Lana Del Rey, how original. Everyone in the fashion district isn’t already using "Video Games" to make their clothing seem ethereal and unique. “Oh my gosh I love this song!” the model standing behind me shrieks. “You would” I say under my breath.

The coordinator pushes the first girl out. When I say "pushes", I mean pushes. We are not treated like humans during a fashion show. We are personality-less dolls who have come to life for one hour only to showcase the new season of clothing that only rich old ladies can afford. After each girl returns she runs to her clothing rack and her outfit is literally ripped off of her and she’s shoved into the next look.

It’s my turn for the runway. The only things I get nervous about are falling over and looking fat. I’m shoved onto the runway and sashay my way to the end. There are so many lights I can’t see shit. I have no idea how many people are there or who is sitting in the front row, all I care about is not falling. I stop at the end and pose. And by pose I mean look like a pissed off teenager. I strut myself back to behind the stage and run to my rack. Three people are now trying to get this fucking tight-ass dress off of me. I put my arms into the air and let them do all the work. I’m standing there naked and slip into my next outfit. I grab my shoes and don’t put them on until I have to. I get back in line and wait to do it all over again.

The entire show lasts no more than 15 minutes. Days of preparation, castings and fittings all for 15 minutes. When the show ends the designer walks in front with all the models following behind. They tell us to clap, but fuck that. I’ll pretend to smile, I'll give you that. After the finale I run back to my rack, rip off my clothes and change back into the same Rag and Bone jeans I’ve been wearing for weeks. I leave my hair and make-up how it is because I love riding the subway looking like a freak. Of course no one gives me a second look because it is New York City. When I get back to my Midtown apartment I spend an hour brushing out my hair and scrubbing the thick layer of make-up off my face. I heat up a slice of pizza because fuck it.

Follow Melissa on Twitter: @MelissaStetten

Illustrations by Sam Taylor. Follow him on Twitter @sptsam or visit his website at

Previously: Crash Landing at the Runway Show

New York Fashion Week
Melissa Stetten
runway shows