I twisted from behind to face the camera.
Sadly, my vision for this pose was lacking. Already, I had been instructed to move a leg, stretch an elbow, lift my chin.
I shoved my hands in my back pockets for effect, pushing my hips toward the shot and twisting my face and body into a position not even a yoga instructor would suggest. There were a couple loud pops. I wondered how many massages it would take me to reset — surely more than the $50 I was earning from this 4.5-hour session could redeem.
The photographer eyed me.
“Si,” he said. “Muy natural.”
Against all odds and likelihood, I was … a model.
For one day, and one day only. It started out as a joke, mostly.
A couple weeks earlier, my San Salvador friend Alejandro — an entrepreneur and true hustler who takes four solid minutes to list the things he does — called me and told me he needed someone to fill in for the empty model slots he had (one of his many hustles is recruiting models for a popular local department store). I laughed for 30 seconds and then reminded him who I am.
But somehow, perhaps buoyed by the prospect of this column and the hilarity of my face being on a Salvadoran department store website, I wound up in the studio a few days later, ready to audition for a job I couldn’t have wanted less.
I strolled past actual models, donning high heels and lipstick in deep hues, and instantly apologized to Alejandro while I galloped alongside him in jeans, sandals and one of the only 11 tee shirts I own.
A week later, when he told me my audition had earned me a gig, I felt like maybe he was the one that should apologize.
“Wait, so … I have to model … clothes … now?”
We laughed. It was still a joke.
But it stopped feeling like one a few hours my big gig.
Suddenly, I was seeking out face masks and whitening strips. I was about to stand — HAH, I thought stand was the proper verb, still, in those moments — in front of glaring lights and relent to every inch of me being judged.
When it was time, I jumped in the car with Alejandro and immediately housed some pretzels I’d brought along. Models typically stress-cram carbs just before a big shoot, right?
Alejandro smiled. “Consider smiling with your mouth closed,” he said.
He was kidding, but he wasn’t.
I was in the model business now.
In the studio, a gaggle of people surrounded me as though they wanted to fight, but with really soft, colorful weapons.
“Sit,” one of them commanded in Spanish, before pausing to ensure, “you’re the model, right?”
“Apparently,” I giggled, uncomfortably.
Suddenly, I was in motion. Well, actually, I was still — as still as a corpse on the way to the grave — but my human exterior was changing, rapidly. One woman was in charge of my hair. Another, my makeup. The heat of the curling iron ran through my locks as I felt layers and layers of creams caking onto my face.
“You look … pretty,” Alejandro choked, as the blush on my cheeks grew thicker.
The eyelashes came next — cheap, fake ones, like from a convenience store.
I blinked 20 times. “I don’t think these are on right,” I said, tearing up. “They’re really uncomfortable.”
My makeup artist chuckled. “Yes cariño,” she said. “They’re supposed to be uncomfortable.”
When I caught the first glimpse at my reflection in the adjacent mirror, I almost passed out.
Had I unknowingly auditioned for a clown gig? Was this a Day of the Dead event I was shooting? Or perhaps they were especially confused, and I was part of a drag shoot?
It briefly crossed my mind that perhaps I was part of a Punk’d-style episode. That Alejandro had for some strange reason made me the butt of some elaborate hoax and any minute now, the cameras were emerge from around the corners and he would start exploding with laughter.
But the only camera that would appear was the one aimed straight at me for more than four hours.
“Adios!” My makeup artist fluttered as she took off, handing me a mirror on her way out.
As I stared into it, I had no idea who the psychotic-looking person in the reflection was — but I suddenly felt the urge to slap her, or at least ditch her the next time she went to the bathroom.
I was told to remove all my jewelry and I did, save for one worn little macrame bracelet — the only item that couldn’t be removed. Alejandro told me that they would probably photoshop it out, along with all of my tattoos — which are still somewhat taboo in El Salvador.
“They’re taking my personality,” I quipped to Alejandro, only half joking. “My nose ring. My tattoos. My will to live.”
The shoot began.
I walked out into the lights after my first change, and informed them that “it doesn’t fit.” How naive and cute I was in that moment, believing that all the clothes the models donned truly fit them. No, no, no, there were clips for that — pulling the fabric so that it hung snug and smooth against my body. And angles were important; when they shot me from the front, a series of clips were securing my rear. When they shot me from the back, those clips shifted to my front.
Every outfit was shot three times — from the front, the back and the side — and for the first few runs, I had three people snapping at me to stop touching my hair, to push my hips out wider, to tuck my legs in closer, to stand up straighter while simultaneously removing my shoulders from their sockets.
I turned into Modelzilla quickly, chirping “everyone needs to be quiet, you’re overwhelming me, just give me a @$S#-ing minute!”
(It was the first time they realized I had zero experience; I apologized, again, to everyone.)
Actually, I was having a crisis under the lights. I felt as though the real Amelia had been stuffed into the locked box along with my iPhone (that’s when I knew it would be a truly joyless day), and I was stuck with this super pink-lipped imposter all day. It’s disconcerting to feel like a different person. It’s almost disorienting.
I asked the time. It had only been an hour — time was standing still. My stomach sank.
I looked over at the rack and realized I would be trying on all of the items — at least 200 different outfits.
Soon, the photographer informed me I’d “gotten it” and was doing much better at looking “natural” while contorting my body into various pretzel shapes.
Knowing I could never make a smile look genuine in this moment, I had begun to utilize my hostility instead, transforming into a character I named Sexy Angry Model in my head. I was using all of my powers to conjure my best impression of Posh Spice.
And they loved it. Truly, they ate it up. I complimented myself, silently, for my superb acting skills.
Mentally distancing myself from this reality was important.
A couple times, the photographer called me to come look at the shots he’d taken — he was trying to encourage me by showing me how I looked, and was clearly looking for a smile in this moment. It was true that the intensity of the makeup wasn’t as severe in the lens. Still, I could only manage to *not gag* as I warily looked at the likeness in front of me. It was like seeing images of yourself blackout drunk at a party, riding a mechanical bull or singing Taylor Swift or something.
Like WHO IS THAT HUMAN AND WHAT DID SHE DO WITH ME???
I imagined my huge eyeliner drooping like the sad clown I like felt inside.
Knowing that the photos would look different than how I felt, I wondered if I would feel better when they emerged on the website, clean and professional — betraying none of the hidden clips and wrenched organs and in-person drag-style makeup.
When they did appear, on my birthday no less, I studied them. The girl in the photos looked all right, I guess. Whoever she was.
The thing is, I didn’t want to recognize her. But to my surprise, they had chosen *not* to Photoshop out my tattoos, or the worn macrame bracelet.
While taking away my face, my mannerisms, my smile, my nose ring and for a few hours my sense of self worth, they had preserved little pieces of me, like clues on the road to guessing my identity.
I wasn’t sure if it made me feel better or worse.
“It’s weird,” a friend said over texts when I showed him the photos. “It’s like the video game version of Amelia.”
Of all the outfits I tried on, they mostly posted just the photos of me in tee shirts and jeans. For three days, I refreshed the page, wondering if the dresses and glamorous jumpsuits I’d donned would emerge.
They didn’t. Maybe I didn’t look good in something that felt so far away from who I’ve become these days. Maybe, for those photos, Sexy Angry Model just looked like Angry Angry Model. Maybe my hips looked too small or my butt too flat or my shoulders too slumped or my mouth too open.
I took the $50, and used it to buy cold beers and a gooey double cheeseburger, the sauce dripping all over my bare face.
I couldn’t have felt less like a model.
And that was perfect.