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Traveling Absurd

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Vignettes of New Mexico

It felt a little bit like doom to check into The Lodge in Cloudcroft in December. Perhaps this was because a ghost is rumored to live in that hotel, or because I knew I had to get up for work the next morning at 3 am, just a few fitful hours from now. Perhaps it was because the woman at reception asked, when I handed her my passport, what it was. She’d never left the state, let alone the country, despite the unshakeable presence, three hours down Route 54 from here, of the Mexican border and Chihuahua. This was New Mexico and there was a fake fire in The Lodge just like at inns in New York and also many things decidedly not like New York. A notice outside a local restaurant read: “Concealed Handguns are welcome on premises. Please keep all weapons holstered unless need arises. In such cases, judicious marksmanship is appreciated.” I chose to find dinner elsewhere.

Maybe my arriving felt ominous because I knew the pervasive cold that awaited me in the desert before dawn, and the fierce heat after noon. Maybe because I knew the peculiar sunburn that comes of exposure to sun from above and reflective sands below. For I had been to this same patch of the Southwestern United States no more than two weeks earlier, to the arid Tularosa Basin where the first ever nuclear weapon was detonated by the Manhattan Project at 5:29 am one summer morning in 1945. The guns were only the beginning of the auguries that this was no New York: so few people lived here that on a Friday evening at seven o’clock the nicest restaurant in town was entirely vacant save our party of eleven. The community of people who did make their home out here under all this sky did not do so for the fine dining: their raison d’etre, the campfire about which they gathered in the famously cold desert night, was US Military base Fort Bliss. Everything that took place around here was suffused with military sobriety, obedience, and reticence; everything that mattered around here belonged to Fort Bliss or the White Sands Missile Range.  

Casey Wayne Hupp, hired by the New York producer to assist with New Mexico logistics on our shoot—location scouting and providing Alamogordo handymen to carry some glass cubes I would pose on and renting two Mercedes panel vans and a GigaTent for changing outfits in public—was himself an army vet. He was still under forty and still working “part time” to fill odd needs at Fort Bliss—needs of the base and, I think, of his own. The rest of the time he operated a tanning salon, which was a thing you could surmise after one look beyond his Aviator sunglasses at his bronze face and blond-highlighted bangs. Howie, driving one of the vans one morning, didn’t specify how he had been affiliated with the army, but he looked back on this affiliation as a proud time in his life. Now he owned a storage complex near the Texas border. Space: in the Tularosa Basin, it seemed the only resource to speak of. 

Amid the army holdings and the Taco Bells and Applebees’ which comprised the primary gastronomical scene here, there was one other presence in Otero County and this is the one that drew me to New Mexico twice in the span of two weeks. White Sands National Monument is a vast park consisting of 275 square miles of gypsum sands, a fine white mineral whose versatile uses range from mortar (it can be found holding together the pyramids of ancient Egypt) to foot cream to coagulant in tofu. In its raw form here, though, gypsum provides an excellent extraterrestrial backdrop for edgy fashion shoots. In 1976 David Bowie shot parts ofThe Man Who Fell to Earth here, and White Sands is precisely the sort of place where you expect to blink and find Bowie wavering, in sequins, on a nearby dune. 

My two trips to White Sands were for different jobs: incredibly, two brands had the same vision which combined me and pastel spring trends and this specific glinting setting for advertising material to be released the coming year. These two trips remain my only experience of New Mexico. It took a day to reach White Sands and a day to return home: the journey involved a succession of clipped domestic flights bridging the states between New York and El Paso, Texas, which were followed by a three hour drive into New Mexico. Four times I passed, on Route 54, the security checkpoint where officers requested to see our passports and peered into the backs of our vans: we were close enough to the Mexican border for them to suspect us of bearing illegal immigrants, and just far enough from the Mexican border for them to suspect that any searches they conducted would come, at this advanced phase in a dash towards the American dream, as a “surprise.” Looming up out of the plane, the big grey building which straddled the highway was an uncomfortable sight, even to me with my arbitrarily inherited American citizenship. It seemed especially somber since the fates and dignity of immigrants all over the nation were being toyed with that month in a capital felicitously removed from the desert sun.

My night in Cloudcroft became increasingly less ominous once I got to my room. My shower was soothing, even if I’d forgotten conditioner and emerged with my hair more than usually unmanageable. Dinner was satisfying in the dining room downstairs where the whole team of this Bloomingdales shoot convened. The restaurant, like much else in this hotel, was named after its resident ghost: Rebecca’s. She was supposedly a chambermaid at The Lodge until she was murdered by her lumberjack lover who, according to a plaque mounted prominently in the lobby, “thought that he owned Rebecca, but she was a free spirit that nobody owned.” Was this the sort of town in which it was necessary to enunciate such a platitude? To assert (the obvious,) that nobody has rights over any being but themselves?

The gypsum was cold under my bare feet in the Park the next morning at dawn. Too cold to bear, almost; it felt for all the world like the snow it resembled, and numbed my toes as I stood in a white suit and swayed and squatted and spun before the camera. At high noon, however, when the sun scorched everything else, I came to appreciate its persistent, damp chill. All day long we rolled a lurching rack of clothes through the dunes with us. I changed my outfits most times in the Giga tent so as not to waste precious daylight on the walk to the parking lot with the RV that was home base. Lunch was brought to us by the Lodge—by Rebecca’s—and we ate at white-draped tables under tents. There was a strong wind snapping our tents and table cloths at our heads, our open eyes, open mouths. There was creamed corn and corn bread and lots of saucy brown meat dishes in tinfoil trays. I think I ate a sweet potato I had carried, wrapped also in tinfoil, from home for a need like this.

We shot until the sun set, racing on the silent plain against the coming of dark. As the sky colored pink and violet, so did the gypsum sands, and then blue, and then grey, and at last indigo. That night back at the Lodge I was so tired I could hardly keep my balance for the duration of a hot shower, and dinner with the photo team downstairs at Rebecca’s was out of the question. Rather, I brought some vegetables up to my room and watched an episode of Bojack Horseman in bed. The show’s about the superficial and isolated life in Hollywood of a cynical horse living off his increasingly faint celebrity, and the next thing I knew it was time to descend again to Rebecca’s for breakfast with everyone, and to clamor into the panel vans for the two and a half hour drive back to El Paso International Airport. I was looking forward to getting back home. Looking forward to leaving behind the dark wooden resort, the concealed weapon restaurants, the deserted streets after seven. Leaving behind Rebecca and the prominent plaque distinguishing Rebecca as “not the Hollywood kind of ghost who goes around scaring people or being vengeful. Rather, like almost all country inn ghosts, she is a mischievous, playful ghost, not in the least sense macabre.” Because country inns, I think, wouldn’t advertise macabre ghosts

Gazing out the window as we sped towards Texas, nursing a subdued sunburn, I thought about Bojack Horseman and wondered how superficial and isolated my own life in Fashion is, how cynical I may have become since I began modeling and traveling enough for me to forget to appreciate it. Unlike the receptionist in Cloudcroft, I have seen a passport. I have a passport. And it is filled with stickers and visas and stamps from border crossings into more countries than I can count on two hands. I have come of age on airplanes and in front of cameras, and that is a uniquely exciting way to come of age. But also an isolating way. And superficial, for all of my work involves me being someone other than me, and all my time off involves me worrying about superficial—surface—traits of mine (am I swimsuit ready). As I embark on my day of connecting flights dotting the map between El Paso and New York, I am uniquely excited to spend the weekend wearing my own clothes, not being seen, not being moved places. And, for the time being, not being anyone other than me. 

So farewell Tularosa Basin, farewell gypsum that I might someday encounter again, in making gesso to plaster a panel for an icon, in toothpaste or in tofu. Farewell missile range, 1945 nuclear moment, shrubs, dunes, and vast blue sky. Farewell ominousness and beautiful, breathtaking, spaciousness. Hello familiar urban bubble. Hello me.

On Conflicts and Camels, and Seeking Something Sacred

Zuzu Tadeushuk

One Day in East Jerusalem

I wouldn’t tell my mom about driving through the West Bank, I decided. She was nervous about my being in Israel in the first place; she didn’t need to worry about me being in the volatile territory, wedged between Jordan and Israel, that was ceded to the Palestinian Authority under the second Oslo Accord of 1995. Mom’s parting words when she left me at the entrance of JFK had been an exhortation not to do anything foolish or put myself in danger’s way, both of which I considered driving through the West Bank might constitute. 

But it felt safer there than I expected. And we were careful about it, peeing at the last rest stop under Israeli domain before pursuing highway 90 onwards through the blinding white sands of Palestinian territory, so that we wouldn’t have to stop in the wrong areas. I didn’t make eye contact with any drivers we passed in the West bank, only with a camel. From my sun drenched passenger seat I felt that if anyone registered that we were there, Western infiltrators to a world we did not understand and which did not understand us, they might show us hostility, a shaken fist perhaps, or I don’t know what, but I didn’t want to find out—or to be found out. For I felt like I didn’t belong on this nerve center of a strip of turf, and truly I didn’t—exactly who does belong on this land is a topic that polarizes scholars and politicians all over the world and fuels local violence. It was the cantankerous question of belonging that was to punctuate much of that day, and to reveal a truth about the young nation of Israel: that every moment and every movement here is permeated by the conflict sparked by this country’s will to exist, that every moment is permeated by the persisting need to guard this existence.

We’d worked up enough courage by the time we passed the camel to stop the car, and we did get out and admire him beside the busy marketplace where he was tethered. The market was a sort of Arab equivalent to the suburban New York strip malls around my home, but occupying tents and selling, in addition to nail polish and dishsoap, dates and the granular green spice called za’atar. It was nondescript enough a place not to feel politically charged, to feel safe, or normal at least. But Noa made sure to only speak English. Not, at this time, her native Hebrew.

Noa made sure to only speak English too when we had gotten into Jerusalem an hour later, after we’d passed back into Israel through a checkpoint where soldiers peered through the sunshine into our car. Exultant and relieved to reach our destination without incident, we parked at Mamila to enter the Old City of Jerusalem on foot at the Jaffa Gate. We were looking for a Russian icon at my insistence, me with my peculiar secular obsession with the art, the artifice, of human faith. And it was going to be a lucky venture, Noa told me, because the man I bought fresh pomegranate juice from at the Jaffa Gate gave me correct change. Noa was touched by his honesty; it didn’t even dawn on me to expect otherwise. Symptoms of our cultures, American me and Middle Eastern she, I thought. Starting the day with such a miracle as a straightforward transaction, though, couldn’t be anything but a good portent. And indeed, we happened unwittingly to have entered directly into the Old City’s Christian quarter, conveniently opposite a Christian Information Center that was dark inside with a priest and a nun perspiring in black muslin. For an authentic religious icon they directed us to an Armenian Christian store at the fourth station of the cross (the place where it is said Jesus encountered his mother along his way down the Via Dolorosa to his crucifixion). We set out with a hand-drawn map, feeling touched with luck. 

Our luck faltered, however, when we found ourselves obliviously sauntering through the Arab quarter of the city, of which I knew nothing but which Noa explained to me was an uncertain place for an Israeli to be, especially an Israeli soldier as she, at the time, was. Now again I’m only speaking English, she told me as she found my hand and clutched it between us. We’re just tourists, she said. We proceeded down the winding stone pathways of the Old City to pass through an archway or tunnel of sorts, a tight stone corridor. In it, like in most of these alleys, there was heavy pedestrian traffic, Arab men walking in one direction and, all of a sudden, a phalanx of Israeli armed police walking in the other direction, pushing against the tide of bodies, pushing us all to one wall so they could sidle through the passage with loud black boots on the cobbles. Then the Arab men standing in front of us were muttering menacingly among themselves. Then they were muttering menacingly to the Israeli soldiers. Then a soldier, close up in the face of an Arab man in his path, sneered “move it,” and then there was dread in the air thick enough to slice. I looked on puzzled; Noa, understanding the Hebrew exchange I could not, experienced a dry-mouthed expectation of something she knew to be routine, ugly, a nearly-forgone conclusion. We couldn't move, really, it was a jam of warm bodies in white robes and us in our most modest warm-weather garb and the officers in their blue suits and bulletproof vests.

Maybe it was the greatest manifestation of our luck, actually, that prevented anything violent from erupting in that passageway just then. I learned since of the frequent stabbings that occur in this quarter of Jerusalem, commonly of Israeli police like those we encountered by irate Arabs. But the volatility of that particular confrontation subsided harmlessly and we shuffled on, white robes and blue suits and meticulous, neutral tourists all tracing our respective paths out from the breathless archway. 

When we came to the Armenian store, called the Hamaedian Gallery for the wealthy local family who owns it, we found dozens of icons…old icons, real icons, vibrant hand-painted wonders. Here in a large low basement I set eyes on a beautiful orangey panel of Madonna and Child with muddied, chipped faces and I knew that I would not depart from this room without unburdening my wallet of a fair amount of money. It was a mortifying realization, and thrilling: I couldn’t believe my luck in this discovery, I couldn’t pick one icon to buy, I couldn’t imagine leaving any behind. So overwhelmed was I by the abundance of beauty around me that the baby-faced Mr. Hamaedian who was attending us, and who explained he was the store owner’s son, remarked that among his multitudes of clients (which included, he said, Putin’s wife), he had never seen anyone so genuinely excited about icons as he saw me then. I was crouched on the floor, hugging my knees, swaying.

After one hour, a phone call to my parents and a number of soul-searching conferences with Noa, I at last settled on one large icon of a woman robed in black against a blank, ivory-colored background. The painting was an estimated 250 years old, of Russian origin, and all the background paint and gold leaf that once covered the underlying layer of plaster known as gesso had been meticulously scraped off. The blankness was evidently intentional, for the figure itself remained carefully intact. This created a striking aesthetic effect—suddenly a nineteenth century Russian icon was modern, minimal and stylized in a way even icons, stiffly stylized to begin with, have never been. 

The subject of the icon was Saint Eudokia of Heliopolis, of whom I’d never heard but who, I discovered once I returned to wifi and Wikipedia, was Lebanese and lived in the first century. Supposedly she was visited by a vision of Saint Michael prompting her to convert to Christianity, which she did and which she convinced many others to do after her, but for which Roman officials beheaded the lady in the year 107 CE. It was the first sentence of the brief Wikipedia article, however, that contained the most colorful and engaging detail about the subject of my new icon: “she was a very beautiful pagan, and garnered her wealth by attracting wealthy lovers.” I have to admire and appreciate a woman who dared not only to defy the Roman Emperor and take her spiritual development into her own hands, but also to harness her beauty to her more superficial benefit—the last, at least, I can relate to. That she is identified first and foremost by her feminine wiles is satisfying to me as a young woman in a way much Christian hagiography is not. Eudokia was only sainted, of course, for her eventual renunciation of these practices and these suitors; in a subversive twist of fate, however, what has endured of Eudokia, in her most immediate mainstream iteration today, is her sensuous femininity, the very shrewdness of her unchristian ways.

I bought the icon and the young Mr. Hamaedian bought me and Noa lunch at his friend’s Armenian restaurant nearby. Famished and worn out from our exhilarating day of choices and chances, risks and rewards, we were relieved when the rotund, twenty-something salesman left us deferentially in the hands of his wizened restaurant friend, commanding us to order what we willed, it was taken care of. Two lemonades, a tangle of red cabbage, hummus, eggplant and a few pitas later, we made our contented way back out into the goldening afternoon and were just turning down the Via Dolorosa when young Hameadian came lurching towards us, panting. He had something for us, he said, and when we stepped back into the dim Hamaedian Gallery he presented Noa with the gold and green ring she had been coveting in his jewelry case all the long while I was agonizing over my icon selection. He had marked her patience, he told her with glinting eyes, and this was his reward to her for being such a devoted friend. I couldn’t have repaid her better myself. His reward for me, he revealed, was another large icon, its background scraped down to the pale gesso like the one I’d just purchased. He had taken it out of storage especially for my perusal, he announced—he’d sell it to me at half price. I contained my mirth and politely deflected his pitch; the free lunch and ring strengthened his suit but I was determined to have just one icon from Jerusalem: flying home with a trunkful of them would diminish their importance to me, the value of this purchase as a reminder forevermore of this experience and this country… 

The way home from Jerusalem was more comfortable than the way to it. We drove across the thin waist of Israel between its Eastern border, where we could gaze down at the de facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah, and its Western coast, where Tel Aviv embraced the sea. In an outlying Tel Aviv neighborhood there stood home, home for Noa and her boyfriend and their rapacious dog Apa, and home for me for one night more, on the couch with the fleece blankets which it was too warm for. As I packed my suitcase that evening, with the new icon swaddled in shirts and bathing suits, I wondered at the staggering coexistence of such spirituality and such animosity and in one location, and in the name of one cause. For Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, functions as an intersection of the three largest of world religions: the Old City that I visited is home to the most sacred of sites for Christians and the most holy site, a few hundred yards away, of Jews. A site holy to Muslims too, second only to Mecca, is located in the same square. But despite the humility and devotion that these sites attract, and the values of tolerance and love that the Abrahamic religions ostensibly promote, the city of Jerusalem, as I experienced first hand, is continuously convulsed by resentment and strife. How is it that the intersection of faiths coincides here with the intersection of the astounding human capacities for worship and for hatred? Does their entanglement say something about the propensity of religion to cloud reason and blight brotherhood? Or indicate a human propensity to pervert even the most sacred and peaceful of institutions for self-servitude? I know little about these things, which are mysteries even to those who have devoted lifetimes to their study. But I can’t help feeling that these forces of piety and hostility, which seem so mutually exclusive, could not coexist and inflame each other as they do if religion in practice did not in some way fall short of its ideal iteration, the purest vision of itself.

I left Israel wistfully, I’d had an astounding introduction to this country and the plane seat was crushing my knees. It was ironic, as I took off over the splendid geography of the Middle East, that I worried about the safety of an icon in my bag while musing on the contradictions inherent in spiritual institutions around the world. It was like a poem I’d read by Robert Hass, about lagunitas or lacunas: the small spaces between things, gaps. When compared to each other, the way I’d feared the West Bank and the uneventful reality of our car ride through it (the grinning camel) formed a lacuna; so did Eudokia’s sainthood and her beguiling means of acquiring wealth; Noa masquerading as a tourist and the Israeli soldier that she really was. These were the gaps between the appearances of things and their truths, between the enchanting symmetry of a religious icon and the skewedness of religion. It was not until I got home that I could begin to distinguish the truths from the appearances, and it may yet be years before I know which of the two I prefer. The icon is beautiful on my kitchen wall.

A Pirouette for Hermés

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Temples. Canals, marshes, swamplands: the voluptuous words for what I see when I fly low over Thailand. I’m landing in Bangkok after a twenty hour trip from New York. All is grey and flat and hazy, and I am nervous. I’m here for a job unlike any other I’ve ever done in my career, a job I spent months auditioning for in the strangest ways. I’m here for a perfume campaign—and not just any perfume campaign, but one that involved acting on video. And not just any type of acting, but dancing! Let me say that again. Danc-ing.

Allow me to explain why this was such a big deal. If you know me at all, you know I don’t dance. You know I’m the contented onlooker at parties, that one clumsy, self-conscious, geeky guest at every event who perniciously avoids moving, avoids people who are moving, avoids attention. I’ve filled this role at every party since middle school. Then I got a call last winter from my agent to inform me that the French luxury house Hermés had expressed interest in me for an upcoming fragrance campaign. The first request they made of me was that I send them a video clip of me leaping delicately from one foot to another like an imaginary fairy on imaginary stepping stones in an imaginary garden. Ok, I can leap well enough, no problem: I had my mom film me one afternoon on my iPhone hopping around my backyard with arms akimbo in a gesture I hoped evoked etherealness, like wings or gauze trailing behind me. (I was wearing jeans and a pilled sweater). 

The next request came a few months later, when Hermes asked to see a video of me skipping rope. Ok, I can skip rope well enough, no problem: I had my agents film me jumping in New York’s Madison Square Park one afternoon with a rope we borrowed from the 24 Hour Fitness below the agency. A week or two later, while on a shoot in Mexico City, I got word that the director of the upcoming ad wanted a brief interview, to be conducted over Skype. Ok, I can interview well enough, no problem: in my hotel room that night I received the director’s call, perched on my queen-sized bed, and in our half-hour conversation I was briefed on the concept of the commercial and asked if I wouldn’t terribly mind taking a video of myself dancing for three minutes, to a favorite song of mine, and sending it over that evening. This is where my heart gave out—until now I had felt qualified to meet each of the challenges I’d been dealt, but when I was asked to dance, to just “let loose” and jam out to my heart’s content, I came up against one major stumbling block: my heart was content to not dance, to sustain that state at any cost. And there was the issue of song: I couldn’t wisely follow the directive to dance to my favorite song, cause at the time that was some Mozart concerto which I put on habitually while doing homework, and which would hardly have made for a groovy clip. My family thought it hilarious, I thought it lamentable, and I made sure my agent understood that if booking this job depended on my, Zuzu’s, dancing abilities it was as good as moot. It was almost worth abandoning here, without humiliating myself. But I gave it a go. After knocking back a margarita from room service. 

In my hotel room in Mexico alone in the night, I opened my laptop and googled “good dance song.” I took the first entry Google gave me, some dated Beyonce song, and videoed, danced,  sent, deleted. And then went out to have real Mexican quesadillas. 

But somehow here I was, hovering over Bangkok, and these marshes and temples, on my way to the filming of that perfume commercial. You’re no less baffled than me as to why. There was no way of explaining my phone ringing in Barnes & Noble while browsing books with my mom over Christmas break, no reconciling my agent’s voice saying “Did you see the email?”


“You got it!”

“I don’t, uh, get it…”

“You’re confirmed for Hermes.”

My nervousness, then, may be imagined. But upon reaching Thailand I realized my dancing abilities (or fearful lack thereof) were the least of my worries. My true nemesis on this trip, it became increasingly clear, was the sun. The heat. The equatorial humidity. For each day registered temperatures between ninety and a hundred degrees fahrenheit, which on its own wouldn't be awful but became so when compounded by migraine-inducing moisture levels. We were filming outside with no recourse to an indoor studio between dawn and dusk and only an armada of fans to keep our tents cool. And I was designated to appear in an outfit comprised of long skinny jeans and a cashmere sweater. For the entire two day shoot. 

We were stationed in Thailand for a total of four days, two days of rehearsals in the chilled tranquility of the hotel conference room, and two days of filming on an open-air set in the flatlands an hour outside of Bangkok. There were eight models in all, and on our first day filming outside, two of them were taken to the emergency room, at different times and for different ailments. That night I myself felt unnervingly ill, couldn’t stand up, felt fuzz in my head, saw fuzz in my eyes, forgot what I was doing when I went to brush my teeth. I almost called a doctor, but called my mom instead, who urged me to drink gatorade for its electrolyte content. I bribed a bellboy to “violate hotel policy” and leave the Le Bua State Tower to make an external purchase, of three jugs gatorade. His knock ten minutes later woke me from a deep and vermillion sleep.

The next day all eight of us models, in varying shades of red, were on set, which was an unbelievably large and realistic replica of a particular street corner…in Paris. Complete with crosswalks, lampposts, and awnings, the intersection of the Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré and Rue Boissy d’Anglas was reconstructed here in Thailand because filming is prohibited on the original site, which abuts the American Embassy in Paris but is home to the storied Hermés flagship store. Determined to locate their ad in and around this store, Hermés sought out places and ways of replicating the street: building the set in studio was ruled out in favor of natural sunlight, and among the places on this planet with guaranteed sunlight Thailand won the bid because, even after business-class airfare to convey the whole Hermés administrative and creative teams and production and talents halfway around the world, filming in Bangkok was still immensely cheaper than filming in, say, Los Angeles, due to things like unions and labor laws. This conglomeration of circumstances, arbitrary as it seems, awarded me the unexpected opportunity to visit a nation I probably would never otherwise have laid eyes on. After nearly four years of modeling this is why I still stick around: because an endeavor in the fashion world rarely proceeds directly, but rather by roundabout and puzzling machinations that produce the most engaging and serendipitous of side effects, like my discovery that banana dumplings, fried on street corners in Bangkok, are not actually as gross as they look. They're rather satisfying.

As serendipity, then, would have it, when the fragrance ad was released a few days ago I discovered that not much dancing is included in its final cut. Dancing did take place, however; nerve-wrackingly and scrutinizedly it was enacted, there on the faux Parisian corner surrounded by cameras, tents, people with parasols, water-bottles, monitors and walky-talkies beneath the equatorial sun. Each of us eight girls had a solo dance to improvise on the spot, no less, but I will never know what my solo looked like, since little of it is included in the final cut and I wasn’t too eager at the time to stand in the sun the extra moments it would have required to watch the playback (and not too eager to watch myself dancing, either)! I have to imagine, though, that it was a little awkward, a little confusing to witness, that it maybe sometimes coincided with the rhythm. I have to hope so. And I have to try as mightily as I can to hold this all close to me for a moment, to absorb and store up as much of this bizarre and unbelievable Hermes adventure as I can—because adventure, really, is what this whole perfume thing proved to be about. The adventure lay in my challenging myself, the adventure lay in the strange banana and raw egg dumplings I saw fried on the streets of Bangkok, the adventure lay in jumping rope with my agents in Madison Park, in illicitly procuring gatorade one midnight, and, yes, in observing temples, canals, marshes, and swamplands from a plane shuddering low over a foreign landscape. The adventure lay in humbling myself, stretching myself, and waiting, expectantly, to see what came of it. It was all grey and hazy, and I had butterflies.

Behind the Curtain at Zara

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Queso Tetilla, I discovered, is Spanish for “tit cheese.” Before I’d set eyes on the thing I wondered, isn’t all cheese tit cheese, by nature of it’s origin? Once I’d seen the cheese, however, on a pedestal at the hotel breakfast buffet specially labeled “Regional Foods of Galicia,” I understood its title; queso tetilla, it transpires, is shaped like a tit. And it is traditionally eaten in this part of Spain paired with membrillo, a quince paste of varying amber or maroon color that is manufactured in blocks to be easily sliceable on a cheese platter at dessert, or the breakfast of the nH hotel in A Coruña.

A Coruña is a small, dense coastal city in the Spain's northren region of Galicia, and I was there this past month to shoot for Zara, whose headquarters are located a few kilometers outside the town in a huge and high-tech warehouse complex. The complex, and Zara itself, belongs to Inditex, a Spanish clothing company and the largest fashion group in the world. Inditex’s unconventional “fast-fashion” business model has redefined the clothing market, flooding it with affordable, high-end knock-offs produced by eight subsidiary brands. Over the course of my five days in the fortress (all blank walls and glassy floors and stillness) I glimpsed the owner of Inditex himself, a native of A Coruña and the richest man in all Europe, sitting at an identical desk to the hundreds of broad desks scattered over the vast, football-field-sized floor that housed the Women’s division of Zara. Lunch break lasted an hour and was taken in a canteen like an upgraded school cafeteria where food was plated by white clad lunch-ladies and -gents presiding over reservoirs of tuna salad, roasted chicken, rice and gazpacho. The owner, Mr. Ortega, could be seen some days sitting at a table on his own, eating dry potatoes and rice pudding from a tray like the rest of us, only he was worth $84 billion.

I was excited to be at Inditex. I’ve always admired Zara's online imagery: this relatively young brand has gained wide recognition for its immaculate presentation, characterized by rich lighting, elongated photograph angles, artsy crops, inventive garment styling, and, most interesting to me, distinct models. Zara ecommerce has, most improbably, become an arbiter of taste not only in the fashion industry but in the modeling one as well. I was dying for a view behind the curtain of this coveted production. 

And what I found, in the studios on the Women’s floor of Zara in the complex of Inditex in the province of Galicia, Spain, was that Zara’s ecommerce shoots proceed like a well-oiled machine: during my stay there seven or eight models came to work every day and five studios functioned simultaneously, each furnished with a stylist, art director, photographer, model, and hair and makeup artist, wending their collective way through the racks of pre-styled outfits allotted to them to shoot each day. I discovered, too, that the days were very long—there was no end to these racks. Finish one and another will roll into the room, for merchandise is boundless and the turnaround from memory card to lightening-paced. This rhythm was interrupted solely by the punctual, 2:00 excursion to the cafeteria to eat, rest my feet, check my phone, get to know the people I was working with: those trivial but essential transactions that designate being human. Aside from this, all other moments were scoured from the husk of the day, in the relentless pursuit of an unquantifiable quota. I found, really, that I couldn’t wait to get away from Inditex.

Each evening when I was restored to my hotel by a company car, weary and glad, I visited a small market across the street and bought ridiculously cheap groceries from which to cobble dinner; if I had plans to go out with the hair & makeup artists I’d purchase simply a massive 2 liter bottle of this fancy brand of water called Cabreiroá—for .65 euros! These would cost six dollars had it been the US, and, enthralled by my discovery, I consumed a whole bottle each night. I was reading Silent Spring, about pesticides and how they accumulate in and kill earthworms, birds, fish, cows and humans alike when sprayed on crops or roadside shrubs, and I wasn’t sleeping because jet lag has a uniquely severe impact on me. Nightfall in my hotel-room meant confinement, desperate or bored; brought with it a certain strandedness that stemmed from the fact that in this conservative Spanish town things closed early, retracted, darkened, folded with sundown into sighing, seaside silence. Stifled in an impotent wad of bedsheets, I was dry-eyed, wide-eyed, unyielding: myself, a water bottle, and pages of pesticides.

What does it take to convince oneself of a thing’s realness, to make oneself believe a step in one’s life is truly in motion? I wonder often when I’ll realize that this, this here existence, this lonesome night in a hotel or buffeting plane ride or wasted hour haunting Instagram or vigorous day on set—this is actually a part of my larger life, a constituent in the compilation of memories I’m gathering from this earth that all hold equal legitimacy, that will all be equally irretrievable and divine in hindsight? As I near the close of my fourth year of modeling—an occupation I never foresaw or fathomed for myself—I find I quite often wonder how one knows when one stage of life is over, depleted, and when one should propel oneself into the next. 

On my last evening in Spain I climbed the Mount of San Pedro, a hill to the West of the central A Coruña. I made the ascent with Jane Moseley, a model I’d met that week at Zara, and with abottle of Cabreiroá. At the peak stood an old WWII bunker overlooking the Atlantic, and Jane and I sprawled on the grass beneath a weathered green cannon with its snout craning out to sea. Stuck in the grass was a sign that read, “El Parque del Monte San Pedro No Utiliza Pesticidas.” The Park of Mount San Pedro Does Not Use Pesticides.

That day photos were already appearing on from our week of work. There I was, seeing myself through a Zara lens: that signature rich lighting, elongated photograph angles, artsy crops, inventive garment styling. Seeing myself as one of the models I'd deemed "distinct," when I felt on the contrary most prosaic. What I did not see in those photos was my tiredness and jet lag, the torturous slowness of the clock as I waited for it to reach 2pm, the clothes racks to my right that always stayed full. Nor did I see my room in the nH hotel with its twin beds and intermittent doubts. For nights in A Coruña gave me plenty of time to attempt what I’ve attempted these four years since I started modeling: to rationalize this career as my reality, to reconcile my self with my work. With every renewed attempt, I find myself a little more desensitized to the exquisite and ludicrous juxtaposition I generate with the function I perform; I find myself forgetting how unlike me it all seemed at first.

The next day I flew home, via a stopover in Madrid. By that time I was able to fall asleep at the appropriate hour--had finally adjusted to the time change--and with more rest under my belt held a much sunnier outlook on the world. Still I was glad to be going home, and glad to have witnessed at last the Zara phenomenon in action. I was glad to have visited this misty ocean town and to have a place in this bizarre business I currently call my own, even if I keep my distance from it: modeling, though a cakewalk compared with countless other jobs, is hardly ever as glamorous as the pictures it produces. It is handy, however, for life experience. For spying on billionaires and picking up Spanish curse words and tasting wild blackberries on a hillside beneath World War Two cannons. For making friends in a glorified cafeteria. For tit cheese.

Strange things that Happened while I was wearing Gold

Zuzu Tadeushuk

I was scared of being bitten, but getting pooped on never occurred to me. By the end of the evening I’d fallen victim to both. I was standing in a thin and sparkly gold summer dress on a lawn in Chelsea, NYC, and I carried a parrot on my arm—a Poicephalus parrot, to be precise, that was small and pink and bore the misleadingly sweet appellation of Rosy.

This was the Stella McCartney Resort ’18 presentation, and while presentations are a method of debuting a collection generally more casual and unconventional than a full-blown fashion show, this presentation landed beyond the pale: this presentation was a party.

Tonight there was no slippery catwalk, no solitary strutting under numbingly loud music and austere, distant rows of seated onlookers. On the contrary, tonight there was just mingling, mulling, loafing about in the temporarily-tropically-themed garden of the Theological Seminary on West 20th street. Tonight there was a live reggae band headed by none other than Bob Marley’s second-youngest son, an open bar, pineapple bowling (is that a thing? I’d never seen it until now), and tonight, of course, there were parrots.

My job, and my fellow models’, was delightfully simple: we were to convey Stella’s pieces, on our silent, graceful, expensive frames, among the party guests with their tropical cocktails in hand and precarious heels on the lumpy lawn. This format promoted interaction between the guests and the clothes they were here to view, and also between the guests and the models ourselves, for after an hour had lapsed and it was judged that all the editors and bloggers had had sufficient time to conduct a detailed surveillance of the collection, we models were all allowed to get drinks and explore the garden and dance and, if anyone could figure out how, do some pineapple bowling. And it proved an eventful evening, as work goes. Over the course of the next two hours and one and a half margaritas I quite randomly:

 —was given a booklet of Ginsberg poetry and a kiss on the hand by Michael Avedon, grandson of Richard of that name

—was introduced to Terry Richardson, by David Bellemere 

—got mammoth blisters on my pinky toes that have taken two weeks to heal

—was posed with by Lily Collins (in my capacity as relevant Stella-branded prop)

—was shaken hands with by Chris Rock (didn’t know who he was until the model I was with excitedly explained he was the goofy voice behind Marty in Madagascar)

—was pooped on by a parrot

—was bitten by a parrot

—admired the back of Alec Baldwin’s head from the bamboo pedestal where I was standing while my feet were photographed by the New York Times…

How did an unremarkable girl from the suburbs end up here? How can it be that the modeling contract I signed back in High School and shy as a mouse wind up working out, wind up being anything more than the scam I expected it to be, a pipe dream? I’m not usually one to feel star-struck or impressed by a lot of famous names in one place, but tonight, I had to admit, I felt a wee bit incredulous. 

Encounters with Homeless

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Two Enlightening Days in San Francisco...

San Francisco has perhaps the most stark, and startling, economic disparity of any city I’ve traveled to in my itinerant years as a model. Well, I take that back...visiting the world's biggest mall which was built by near-slave labor in Dubai probably takes the prize. But San Francisco  had the greatest disparity I've seen in any American city. I was shocked to arrive there this week, on a searing blue day, and check into a boutique hotel with a high-tech gym and refined Danish-modern furniture after having driven past block upon block of homeless, shirtless, weathered men and women, sitting, sleeping, pacing the sidewalks. This may have been especially evident to me because my hotel was located on the frontier between Nob Hill, one of the most ritzy residential neighborhoods of the city, and the Tenderloin, an area known for being a sort of hobo jungle, a homeless headquarters of the West Coast and possibly the nation. 

The name “Tenderloin” can be traced back to the 1890’s, and, as one legend has it, was derived from the fact that officers assigned to patrol the area were able to afford quality meat cuts (like tenderloin) because they received “hazard pay” for working in such a violent area. Or so the old story goes. I heard a number of such rumors about the Tenderloin while in San Francisco: Uber drivers were chatty. One alleged that New York non-profit organizations working to alleviate homelessness in the Big Apple had started buying homeless New Yorkers one-way tickets to San Francisco. Another asserted that many of the homeless residing in the Tenderloin were war vets, and that their presence there had begun in earnest after Vietnam. Another driver claimed that one particular block in the Tenderloin, on Turk street, had so much violent crime that parking had been banned on both sides of the street in an effort to discourage the problematic drug transactions that are made possible by sheltered spaces. 

In addition to hearing rumors about them, though, I also had a fair number of encounterswith the homeless of San Francisco. On the day I worked for Everlane here this week, we shot in a studio in the Mission District of San Francisco, just a few blocks south of the Tenderloin. Upon arriving at the studio, with photo equipment and garment racks in tow, we discovered we couldn’t use the elevator because a homeless man had moved into it and was at that moment attempting to scale the elevator shaft. By the time we had heaved all our supplies up the staircase, the police and fire department had arrived with ladders and pellet guns, and soon the man was extricated, handcuffed, and lead, shouting hoarsely, to a squad car. He wore a hot pink Hawaiian shirt and jeans, backwards. 

That evening after work I was walking past Saks Fifth Ave (far off Fifth!) when I heard a violent shout close behind me and two security guards exploded from the store’s main entrance in furious pursuit of a large and wooly young man clutching a shiny plastic package under his arm. They cornered him on either side of a lamppost and he threw down the box. Was it a perfume? A Kylie lip kit? On the first floor they usually only sell jewels and cosmetics. 

I wasn’t disconcerted by the homeless people themselves as much as I was by their staggering numbers. Here was intense destitution concentrated smack dab in the middle of a progressive, tech-centric metropolis, of one of the most expensive cities in the world (did you know SF recently eclipsed Manhattan in cost of living?)! And the Tenderloin seemed like such a commonplace phenomenon, like a banality to those who live here and know the situation and accept it as part of this city’s reality. Not that it shouldn’t be accepted; there’s nothing inherently wrong with a municipality incorporating into its culture, identity, and legacy a constituency which by definition exists separate from the city, living physically within its bounds but not contributing to nor partaking of its collective economical and political endeavors. Nothing wrong with living amidst or alongside this unorthodox village…but perhaps something wrong with not spearheading, and offering, an alternative? I’m no sociologist or political scientist and I don’t presume to know what should or could be done, but simply from the casual position of one human thinking of other humans I feel perplexed that this severe situation exists at all, and wonder that nothing has been successfully implemented to alleviate it. I am perplexed by the scale of this population of dispossessed and displaced people, perplexed by its coexistence with the multi-million dollar townhouses no more than six blocks northward, perplexed by its apparent permanence. 

There I was, enjoying the glee of simply being in California which a novice East-coaster necessarily experiences on her third and still dreadfully brief encounter with the spacious, the relaxed, the innovative West. I'd become a California enthusiast, though due to the shortness of my visits, only on a regrettably superficial level: I know little of actual life here, but am enamored of the açai bowls, the perpetual sandal weather, the easy pace, the yoga studios, clichés, the direct, earnest sun. And there, in the midst of my aesthetic, pretty lifestyle-y hoopla, in the midst of the things I expected of California, I found a really un-pretty lifestyle, I found a thing I did not expect of California. It was another of those revelations of the road, a reminder that human society, no matter where or when, is a slapdash arrangement at best, and that it almost always leaves someone out. Many someones, it seems. 

I left San Francisco after one day of work there and one of leisure, and returned home glad to escape the flagrant smell of urine on the sidewalks but dismayed to give up the beaming sun drenching those white Mission District facades. I departed feeling full of good coffee, full of good luck, astoundingly privileged. I left with an increased appreciation of elevators and with a tiny gold chain at my collarbone, which I’d bought at Saks, on the first floor. I left with disparity on my mind, and the vast chasms that can exist between the realities of humans who are after all so fundamentally alike. California, like all points on this globe, has its helping of stench and suffering along with its juice bars and ocean breezes. But the streets of mild San Francisco, I realized, may not be the worst streets to call home. They're the least artificial paradise I know.

A Different Easter

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Dior, Tokyo, and the Benefits of Bean Paste

On Easter morning every year I wake up early—usually to walk to a spring in a gritty red hillside near my house and splash cold water on my face, my head, walk home. This year, though, I woke up early to catch a plane. To Tokyo.

On Easter morning this year JFK was deserted, my flight on Japanese Air was under-booked, and I got to curl up across two adjacent seats while furiously typing away at a Frankenstein paper due that week for my Literature class. I was headed to Japan for Dior’s reshowing of their Spring ‘17 Couture show— it’s customary, I hear, for big luxury brands to take their collections on the road in Asian markets, where many have lucrative client bases. This particular reshowing was of the show I'd already walked in Paris, and was to occur on the roof of a new Dior boutique in a high-end district of Tokyo called Ginza. 

But that was still two days away. First came fittings, which afforded us a few nights to (attempt to) adjust to the 13-hour time difference and explore Tokyo, and which felt for all the world like summer camp. A luxurious camp, of course, cause we were all—models, designers, atelier, casting, hair and makeup—put up in the Grand Hyatt in Minato, where our buffet meals in the French dining room were covered by Dior and our fittings took place in a conference room now overgrown with studio lights and racks of taffeta gowns. For three days I shared meals, and a room, with fellow models, and spent my mornings with a pair of other American models wandering the streets of quirky Shibuya and commercial Harujuku. One morning we went to a gallery of cat statues painted on by various artists, and for $15 bought and painted our own plaster cat figures on the spot. Another morning we went to “Kiddyland,” a five-story toy store fabled among Japanese pop-cultural enthusiasts for the unfathomable softness of it’s stuffed pillow-creatures and unprecedented variety of HelloKitty gadgetry. Yet another morning, I went to the National Art Center to see a retrospective of Yayoi Kusama’s painting, garish and lonely and polka-dotted. That wasn’t with the American girls but with a Dutch model—a comment, perhaps, on the distinction between the European and American ways of seeing a place?

But this place, what a place it was. Japan was fantastical and bizarre and inventive. I went there doubtful that I would enjoy it (I’ve always been enchanted by Europe and the Mediterranean; by Asia never), but I left somewhat under Tokyo’s spell. The city was crowded and bustling, but in an impeccably organized, tranquil way: subway platforms were patrolled by stewards who directed us and helped us on and off trains; crosswalks soared above streets on pedestrian overpasses, allowing traffic to move below; and on escalators all the Japanese stood to one side to leave a lane clear for those in a hurry, a practice I find New Yorkers perpetually disregard.

Fascinating was the artificiality of many aspects of the culture (I found a profusion of plastic surgery clinics, diet pills in cucumber-print sachets advertised as “New Yorker’s Superfood Diet,” arcades of photo-booths offering filters to brighten your skin, blush your cheeks, enlarge your eyes). Equally notable, however, was a contrasting authenticity, a quirkiness and idiosyncrasy which made Japan unlike any country I’ve traveled to yet, and which made it surprisingly endearing. Drug stores sold plastic Totoro molds to shape sticky rice in kid’s lunch boxes, and city buses had eyes painted on them. Starbucks peddled cherry-blossom lattes, grocery stores stocked green-tea-flavored Reeces, cantaloupe KitKats, Borsch-flavored Lays. It seemed to me that Japan thrived on a fusion of the high tech with the whimsical: all was aesthetically designed, modern, high-quality and, above all, surprising, imaginative.   

When at length the day of the show arrived, that imaginative spirit was not absent. Night had fallen by the time all Dior’s guests were seated on the benches looping around the maze of catwalk on a rooftop commanding a sweeping view of Tokyo. A strong wind had risen and the hair-stylists were mourning the instant demolition of their handiwork as the show soundtrack thundered up from the bowls of huge speakers stationed around the rooftop and we filed out into the warm gale like birds or lilies being torn at and billowed and flung on the night. Needling my way into the wind wall and along the roof’s perimeter, I could see the winking city below me and feel my gown streaming behind me, and the six minutes it took me to complete the circuit were enchanting and exhilarating and made me worry I would lose all my layers of taffeta or be swept into the audience in a dropping purple wad like an iris after a rain. The music boomed, the wind battered, the view glittered and the sky was vast and vehemently mauve. Moments like this, when all your senses are overwhelmed, are filled and roaring with magnificence, are like being removed, existing externally for a moment from your body and seeing time swell around you. Like standing on a pedestrian overpass and watching the traffic stream by. 

At the airport on my way out of Tokyo I stocked up on sweet mochi filled with bean paste and some children's origami sheets that I’ll never use but that looked adorable. It was a few days after Easter and I had turned my Frankenstein paper in, and walked for Dior for a second time in my career. I’d walked a show as imaginative and unusual as the city it occurred in, I’d seen artifice and authenticity and how each was equally valid to the identity of this culture and this experience. I’d been enchanted by Tokyo, and it was a few days after Easter. Who knew bean paste could taste so sweet?

Hairy Situations

Zuzu Tadeushuk

I have a fair quantity of curls on my head. They're no ringlets, of course, but moderately coiled nonetheless, and usually unruly. It's something I consider a defining feature of mine, and something I struggle to protect, because on 90% of my modeling jobs my hair is straightened. Exhaustively straightened, unrepentantly straightened. It strikes me as a knee jerk reaction—as soon as they see me enter the room, and almost without considering what they're doing, hairstylists plug in their irons, section off my hair, and set to work on what can be up to an hour spent transforming my appearance. This has come to distress me over the past two years, and so I was especially conscious of, and peeved by, a certain occurrence backstage at a show this winter…

It was an occurrence which probably no one else noticed, but it struck me as discriminatory, and racially discriminatory at that. The reason it went so unnoticed, I believe, was because it reversed the target of discrimination as we know it. Now it’s true there’s a degree of danger in the throwing around of the word discrimination, and it’s also true that there are plenty more gravid instances of the thing to be found both elsewhere in society and within the industry of Fashion itself. But with full knowledge of these facts, and utmost deference towards them, I still found myself driven to examine this particular incidence backstage because it pivoted on myself and twenty odd other models—and our curls.

The season was Pre-Fall, the collection one largely of furs, gypsy skirts, and silk evening gowns. Small teams of hair and makeup artists were on site to primp us for the shows, and once we were all dressed and in “lineup,” I noticed that the hair stylists had left the hair of all the African American models natural, untouched almost, with its unique volume, texture, and structure gloriously intact. All the caucasian models, on the other hand, had their hair exhaustively straightened by flat-iron into exaggerated linearity that defied, in the cases of hair with wily texture like my own, the very keratin of each strand on our heads.

This pattern revealed a fundamental inequity in the reasoning which had been employed in determining the hair-styling procedure for a given model, for if the decision of which model’s hair to straighten and which model’s hair to let alone was not based on a consideration of the original state of the model’s hair, which I was living proof it was not, it could only then be based on a consideration of skin color. Hence the application of the flat-iron, an instrument that parches hair follicles and splits brittle hair ends, to say nothing of the damage incurred through the toxic sprays and mousses that aid its efficacy, was purely discriminatory, and racially so. It went unnoticed, by all but me, because of its trivial, even frivolous nature and its inconsistence with racial inequity as we more frequently see it: this particular differentiation recognized a right (the right to naturalness) of African American models and denied that right to caucasian models.

And it is this, the right to naturalness, that suffered here most. For this irrational approach to hair styling championed what one ought to look like over what one does look like, subordinating recognition of nature to veneration of archetypeand, as this archetype involved the correlation of ethnicity with appearance, hence of stereotype. It was clear that amid the haphazard backstage preparations, someone, consciously or unconsciously, had divorced corporeal authenticity from ethnicity—two things which should naturally be conjoined—and superimposed a certain artificial feature on a certain ethnicity with no firmer basis than the hue of a hide.

I don’t seek to justify or condemn the decisions of the hair stylist at this show, but rather question how the industry of Fashion can claim to be culturally liberal and ‘cutting edge’ while perpetrating, and hence exemplifying to the masses under its influence, ethnic stereotypes of appearance. Differentiation by race is a slippery slope in any scenario, but in this industry it is uniquely dangerous for the very reason that thousands of people, youth especially, follow, admire, and hang on its every dictate and insinuation. In selectively applying electricity—the heat of an iron—to alter a person’s surface, the designer, the hair stylist, the presentation of this collection at large jeopardizes society’s appreciation for the full scope of variation in human traits, the exquisite idiosyncrasies that make us ourselves.

More often than not, a fashion model’s situation is little applicable outside the surreal niche that is our industry. The lesson learned from the hair straightening case, however, actually can be applied elsewhere, for few would deny that human beings in general should be valued without having to be revised into more aesthetically acceptable, more socially coherent variations. As the designer of the show said of me when he came backstage to review the preparations that morning, “I wish her hair was left a little more her own,” and I personally wished it had been left entirely my own! If Fashion be the bastion of style and individuality, it has a duty then to value individuality, and a duty to diminish, not fortify, our culture’s long-ingrained differentiation between races. In that sense, and in the sense that it remains deceptively covert, this is one trend, I think, that bears bucking. 

My friend Luisana and I, walking one after the other at the same show. 

Rare job with my hair left natural

What Wasn't and What Was

Zuzu Tadeushuk

And How They Met in the Middle

AH, at last. This is a satisfying feeling, this walking on moss, sinking the heels of my spindly black slippers into the sod with each step. This is a satisfying feeling, walking for Dior. It’s January and Couture week in Paris and I’ve never walked for Dior before. I came to expect I never would, and I don’t really realize I truly am until in the very act of it, rounding a bend of this forest runway constructed by famed florist Eric Chauvin within the walls of the Musee Rodin. 

“Look where I’ve landed,” I think to myself. “Smack in the greenery, and the couture fantasy of Dior,” and I fall into rhythm with the music and concentrate on kicking my long skirt out before me and gaze all the while just above the heads of the audience members. And just above their heads are hedges, a backdrop of leaves upon leaves upon leaves, and just a moment ago backstage I uploaded my last blog post, about Frida and her botanical bent and “the unbearable beauty of leaves.” And this particular detached line I’ve just typed unspools itself in my head at this moment, an unexpected collision of my literary and physical realities, I couldn’t have timed this better if I’d written it. It’s a symphony of strangeness in my mid-runway mind, and it’s heightened by another memory I can’t help but evoke, a rather less recent, but more related recollection…

My first ever couture fitting was for Dior. The year was 2014, the month July, and I was 17 and staying in a Montparnasse walkup with my mom and brother for the duration of the Paris couture season. At 10 pm one memorable Sunday night—the night before the Dior show, in fact—I was picked up by one of my agents and spirited across the Seine to the Right Bank of Paris and the grand, imposing Dior headquarters. 

With chic white sofas and walls all made of mirror, the interior struck me as one of those carnival funhouses that aim to get you lost. This, however, was not exactly a funhouse for me. I was petrified. Through a lobby of mirrors, down a hall of mirrors, and into an elevator of mirrors, I arrived at the basement fitting room awed and trembling. Dressed in one dress after another and sent into the inner sanctum to walk for then-creative director Raf Simmons, nothing worked. First the shoes I was given to wear were two sizes too big, strappy and spindly creations that had a habit of remaining on the floor while my foot moved forward across the showroom. Returning a moment later with my shoes stuffed and taped in place, it was simply that the overall effect of my outfit wasn’t what was desired, and this was the case also with the second outfit they tried, and the third, and the fourth… At last, the fifth look I donned hit the spot, whatever spot that is where an image, a draping of fabric and nuance of color, a synching and a sheen resonates as the realization, or near recreation, of a sublime artistic vision. 

What did the trick in the end was a black nylon jumpsuit, billowy and almost parka-like, synched at the waist with a black studded belt. A black nylon jumpsuit, and Raf saw that it was good. A black nylon jumpsuit, memorialized on me in a polaroid to be tacked to my rack at the show the next morning. 

Hunched behind a large glass table, Raf Simmons was a mastermind of modern couture. Throughout all the five hours I spent down in that fitting room he was chain smoking and pleating his dark, wild eyebrows. I recall wondering if he always looked so menacing, or if it was just because it was three am now and less than twelve hours remained before these looks, some of which were still held together by pins and many of which were as yet unassigned to models, would be sent down one of the most highly publicized runways of the year. Under those circumstances, I thought, I’d scowl too. 

When my outfit was in order, my shoes labeled with my name and packed away with the appropriate glues and tapes for the next day, I was dismissed, and stepped out into the cool, silent street. It was just before dawn in Paris. A car took me back to my apartment to crawl into bed beside my brother and fight the odds for sleep… 

But it turned out the next morning that the black nylon jumpsuit hadn't hit the spot after all, or rather that Dior had found someone taller than me with whom to hit it, and just like that my thrilling couture debut was off. I ascribe devotedly to the belief that something good blossoms from every hitch or mishap of our lives (increased citizen unity a silver lining of Trump’s election?), but at that time I was still getting used to the unglamorous nature of my occupation—the rejections and uncertainties—and I had to try hard to find the good in being dropped from Dior on such shatteringly short notice. 

I could, I thought, appreciate the fashion insight that my night in Dior’s basement had offered me: a closer look at an industry I had just been inducted into and was still considerably confused by. I had been given the chance to observe the inner workings of the most elevated and elite of our culture’s sartorial strivings, and I was struck by how just like everything else it was. Men and women rushing to pair shoes with dresses, trembling over a fraying serge and exulting at a harmonious marriage of hues. I remember wondering at the apparently trivial nature of spending hours, nights, debating the matching of a shoe to a dress when set against the bigger picture of the world today. But for those who work in fashion, wasn’t this their bigger picture, their world? A mode of expressing beauty, a yearning, human grasp at perfection…

I step buoyantly off the magical moss catwalk. I’m grinning hopelessly, happy for many reasons, not least of them the fact that I managed not to trip over my long dress or leave a shoe behind in the turf. Two and a half years after that initial nerve-wracked Dior fitting, I can say I still worry just as much about falling on a catwalk as I did when I got started, and two and a half years later I can say I take this job’s gains and losses in a bit better stride. I can say I’ve learned loads about la mode and the line of business I now call my own—many blog posts’ worth, in fact; sleepless nights’ worth, transatlantic flights worth and elusive jumpsuits’ worth. Two and a half years later I can say I’ve seen the intersection of literary and physical reality and the unbearable beauty of leaves. Two and a half years later I can say I’ve walked for Dior. 

Ah, at last.

Growing Out of a God

Zuzu Tadeushuk

My first morning in Mexico was memorable. My first morning in Mexico found me crouched before a conceptual wooden toilet seat in someone’s conceptual underground home wearing a conceptual white canvas tunic—and vomiting. I was on the set of a shoot for Vogue Mexico, and our location was the Mexican architect Javier Senosiain’s “Organic House,” located ironically on a man-made green hill on the outskirts of Mexico City. I was struck by the fact that this hill, brilliant and sculpted under which the house wound its tunnels like so many hollow plaster tentacles, was truly made of real grass, maintained less than an inch short. I was struck by the view of the city, pink and smoggy, from up here. I was struck by how difficult it was to run down the halls of this house due to their slippery carpeting and the fact that no surface, on floor or wall or otherwise, was even slightly flat. Unfortunately, I was also struck by the Mystery Bug—and run down the halls is what I was repeatedly compelled to do, in quest of the wood-finished restroom. 

The Mystery Bug is something I get every few weeks, irregularly. It’s been plaguing me for over a year now, but I still don’t know exactly what it is: I randomly get a headache, neck-ache, and…entre le puking. It has caused me to cancel jobs before, like J Crew one morning in New York, but never jobs for which a client flew me across a continent and paid to lodge me in one of the nicest hotels in Mexico City, with a pool and a breakfast buffet that included squash blossom quesadillas and fried plantain filled with pineapple chutney. There was obviously no canceling here. There was only not eating and not drinking, abstaining from tasting the fried plantain (tragic I know) and even from drinking water in hopes that an empty belly would preclude regurgitation. 

It did not. Within the first hours of that shoot it became evident that the bug intended to run its course and would let nothing stop it—not even a crew of twenty strangers depending on me, scrutinizing me, dressing me, photographing me, making me up and and remaking me up after I returned greenish from the bathroom. It was a rather inauspicious introduction to a country I had been so excited to visit… 

I was in Mexico for two days, the first to shoot and the second to explore, an extension I’d added myself when I realized that this job in this location afforded me the opportunity to fulfill a dream I’d long fostered but never truly imagined fulfilling: a visit to the Casa Azul. This is the name for the home of Frida Kahlo, twentieth century painter, wife of Diego Rivera, and my idol of many years. You must know of her (let me rephrase, you better know of her), cause she’s just mildly 100% amazing, and also cause she’s gained mainstream popularity in recent years for exactly what is so riveting about her: her potent self portraits characterized by striking honesty and raw emotion; allegorical ties to animals, embryos, nature; the unbearable beauty of leaves. The artist was born, lived, and died in a broad and shady compound in the borough of Coyoacán, forty minutes’ drive from my hotel, and it was there that I now turned my sights.

It was December and pleasantly warm in Mexico City, and on that expectant morning of exploration I was up early and ready to make my pilgrimage. Breakfast and a six dollar Uber ride later I stood in the wide red gate of Frida’s blue abode, notebook in hand and a grin on the kisser. Before me lay a courtyard of rustling palm trees and fountains, benches Frida rested on and trunks her pet monkey scaled, paths Frida strode and sky she gazed (or glared) at. The dollop of light she admired, the faux Mayan ziggurat Diego built to display his collection of primitive Mexican statues. 

Inside the house were exhibited a bunch of Frida’s enthralling paintings and sketches, some photographs of her dinner parties with exalted artists and persecuted communists, and plenty of eccentric paraphernalia left over from its distinctive inhabitants. The rooms were decked with native art—papier mâché skeletons, cloth puppets and oversized crockery—the walls painted bright, near neon colors, and the textiles woven of floss in clashing shades of pink, yellow, and green. Very clashing…almost tasteless it suddenly seemed…

As I walked through the home of this sort of personal talisman of mine, I realized that Frida up close was not the same Frida I’d dreamed up, and deified, from afar. I realized that I worshipped her less than I thought—not her, exactly, but her vast significance, the symbolism of Frida in my life. For all these years she seemed to speak for me, to express some truth about selfhood that I felt akin to and apart of; and this was real and genuine for a certain time and place (high school, suburban New York). But as a different individual in an altogether different sphere today, embryos, tears, and technicolor suffering no longer hold the same draw. In fact, it dawned on me in that house that day that I now mainly cherish Frida in her capacity as link to a previous incarnation of my own self, a fossil of the spirit and story of another me.

It’s one more phase of my own evolution completo, described in the brushstrokes of another woman, and one more reminder that we are all essentially equal in character—that even the most formidable of our species contain a myriad of cliches or inconsistencies, tightnesses or loosenesses, funny smells. The unbearable beauty of leaves. We all have that too, fanned glistening and glorious behind the bushy-browed, smolder-eyed pith of our individuality.

As I stuffed my notebook back in my bag that afternoon and made my way out of the courtyard of the Casa Azul, I was grateful I’d made that pilgrimage. To pay homage to a past god of mine on behalf of a past me who’d wanted so badly to do so: to pay homage to that past me, too. The visit put me on terms with Frida Kahlo more equal now than servile—and put me on the market for new idols.

It was a day almost as unexpected as throwing up on a shoot for Vogue Mexico—and it was a day almost as memorable. The Vogue shoot, however, didn’t turn out all that bad itself, considering my focus was more on remaining upright and keeping my eyes open than on embodying some vogue-worthy vision. By nightfall all parties were pleased; the stylist approved of the images, my nausea had subsided, and the sun was setting in a fury of rose and russet over the distant city. Frida once wrote “I paint flowers so they will not die.” Painting flowers, or writing blog posts, we all have some way of preserving the things that characterize our days on earth. Of immortalizing a brief reality for years to come—whether it’s a conceptual toilet, growing out of a god, fried plantains not tasted. The unbearable beauty of leaves…

Italian Holiday

Zuzu Tadeushuk

My Visit to Bizarre and Beautiful Bari

People gave me weird looks when I said I was going to Bari. “Alone?” they kept asking. When I assented, they’d wordlessly scribble their phone numbers on napkins or backs of cappuccino receipts and press them into my hand. “Let me know if you need anything, OK?”

It got to be disconcerting. Evidently I hadn't done enough research into this little town on the Southeastern coast of Italy where I had decided to spend a few days after wrapping up my modeling gig in nearby Bernalda. The photographer, the producer, the stylist...everyone on the set seemed concerned about my choice of Bari as vacation-getaway meets writing-retreat: everyone, that is, but me.  

The city of Bari dates back to Byzantine rule, when it acted as a prominent trade port and cultural intersection where merchants rubbed shoulders with the likes of Peter the Hermit and Pope Urban II. It played a vital role as loading and departure-point of the first Crusade in 1095. Four hours by train from Rome and an eight hour ferry ride from Greece, the city is best known nowadays as the theological capital of the world for devotees of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children and travelers. The relics of this saint were stolen away from their original resting place in Myra (in modern-day Turkey) by Italian clerics during the year 1087, and enshrined in the basement of the broad, white Basilica di San Nicola that spans the central piazza of Bari. By virtue of this theft (regarded by Barians rather as the fulfillment of the Saint’s dying wish), Bari has become the destination of pilgrims who come from all quarters of the globe to pay homage to St. Nicholas.

This is the only thing I bothered to notice when I googled Bari upon receiving word I would be flying in and out of the city for my job with a Bridal company shooting on the Mediterranean coast during the last week in October. What I didn’t know prior to booking an AirBnb in the heart of Bari was that it has a reputation in the region for being a rather unsafe city. In the last decade, it seems, an influx of African refugees has pooled within the newer, industrial neighborhoods appending Bari, which are characterized by bland housing projects, squalid kebab joints, and faded public parks that are used, in the broken English of my Italian host, for “drugs, selling lots of drugs, and bad things like this.” 

I quickly realized upon entering the city that this may not have reflected the quintessential Italian lifestyle I had been craving. My taxi driver locked the car doors when we idled at a traffic light. As a conspicuous foreigner—and a tolerably attractive teenage girl—I worried that I had made a great blunder in neglecting to thoroughly investigate a place that I had chosen to inhabit, if only for three days, entirely alone. After my years of traveling solo for modeling jobs, could I still prove so foolish? And…what was the fee for changing an Alitalia booking on day-of notice? 

But my spirits rose when we reached my address: fortunately for me, the part of the city in which I had by some stroke of luck selected an apartment was the Old City, the very section of Bari that dates back to the first Crusade and is filled with crumbling stone archways, low, ruddy turrets, and a mesh of steep alleys wide enough only for motorbikes and pedestrians and nonnas selling crockery. In fact, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas itself was a mere four minute walk from my door! 

The reassuring circumstances of my location did not of course guarantee that I was entirely safe. But I believe I was as safe alone in that Airbnb as I likely would be anywhere else in this struggling post-globalization world of ours. Over the next few days I sought out things that make me comfortable—cappuccinos, churches, artwork. Naturally, I spent a few hours exploring—practically absorbing—the Basilica di San Nicola, and even dropped in on the saint’s remains, which, according to the saleswoman in the Cathedral giftshop, secrete myrrh in their sarcophagus. The myrrh, I was told, is gathered in beakers lowered down there on the saint’s Feast Day in December. Apparently it works miracles. 

And my days in Bari did indeed prove miraculous. Outside the Cathedral, the streets were teeming with pigeons underfoot and crisscrossed overhead with laundry so dense you couldn’t always see the sky. Beneath fluttering sheets and nightgowns I discovered makeshift religious altars built into the very walls of the alleyways and bearing candles in jars, plastic flowers and postcards of saints. Whether you are religious or not, such things can’t help but make you feel secure. 

And whether you are adventurous or not, Bari is a wealthy city when it comes to opportunity for adventure. If you wander down the last unassuming side street at the Western end of the piazza, you find a pinched stone stairway hewn into the wall. It ascends steeply out the warren of alleys and onto a bright, broad promenade atop the rampart surrounding the Old City which sheltered it from hostile neighboring city-states in days of yore. From here you can glimpse the Adriatic Sea beyond a stand of indigenous palm trees and order a coffee at a nameless espresso bar with standing tables only.

I learned that you don’t sit on the granite benches overlooking the sea because they act as community ash trays. I learned that not a sole in Bari speaks English, and that even their Italian differs hugely from the standard strain of Italian spoken in Rome. I learned that the best food in a place isn’t always the regional food—I happened on a sequestered Greek bistro called Gyrosteria Yannis where seven euros got you a killer mezze platter that was large enough to supply you with your next few meals. 

At the Cathedral store I picked up an icon of Saint Nicholas. Painted by hand on a square wood panel with egg tempera and genuine gold leaf, it was no small investment, but being an amateur iconographer myself it stole my heart much in the way Barians stole St. Nicholas from the Turks: audaciously but with professedly noble intentions.

This icon now hangs on my wall at home to remind me of what a delightful discovery Bari was, and what a bizarre alignment of fortune, too. Had I known more about the city in advance I would likely never have booked a place there. But after being compelled to probe this rather unlikely destination, I wouldn’t exchange my days in Bari for a month anywhere else in the world. Though my experience here may not have been quintessential, it was inarguably authentic: in Bari I needed to guard my suitcase on the sidewalk and double lock my door at night. In Bari I needed to communicate entirely through hand gestures. In Bari I needed to prove I was not so foolish after all. But in Bari I never once needed the phone numbers my photoshoot friends gave me. I never once encountered a reason I’d have been better off somewhere else.

Shi-Shi Shooting

Zuzu Tadeushuk

(A Far Cry from Swamp Shooting!)

One day I went to work and it took me to a rich lady’s apartment. Arriving at the address emailed to me I found out my shoot that day was in the lavish Upper East Side residence of an old-money New York socialite, who’s name I will not say. I was early, as usual, and it was seven something in the morning. I got a coffee at the only place open on the block— a fancy French patisserie called Maison Kayser that had mediocre cappuccinos and croissants that looked very fresh in the window which I did not buy, and took the antique mirrored elevator in the left back corner of the building courtyard up to the sixth floor. 

There was only one door in the small alcove of a hall outside the elevator up there, and I thought I was in the wrong building. Usually if I have a shoot in someone’s apartment it’s a photographer’s, and not to generalize photographers but that turns out a lot to be a sparse living space doubling as photo studio in an idiosyncratic walk up with funny people on the stairs. This place was not usual. I knocked on the only door, and a short young woman with short platinum hair opened it. She only had an oversize t-shirt on, she must have just gotten out of bed. I was convinced I had made a mistake, it was a Saturday morning and I felt bad that I had woken some nice girl up early when she had maybe been planning to sleep in till ten, but she assured me I was in the right place and showed me in. 

I was awed as soon as I entered: with a secret thrill of disbelief I found myself standing in a white paneled hexagonal room with a marble table and a gargantuan ceramic chandelier above it,  a chandelier that looked to be even taller than me from cross bar to finial. Three doors led to three different halls with even larger chandeliers and even heavier furniture: the living room had chairs made of sculpted mineral, melted metal or granite, it could have been either. The coffee table books in there were huge too. They were all about fashion and art and practically could have served as coffee tables themselves, and I wanted to look at them. 

The woman disappeared to brush her teeth and I sat uncomfortably drinking my coffee in the vast spotlessness of the living room sofa, which luckily was not granite but velvet and functional for sitting, I think. The woman reemerged only when the stylist of the photoshoot arrived, he seemed to be her friend and they made mimosas in the kitchen with Cuvee Cartier brut she had in her fridge, the only thing she had in her fridge, it was unopened and over the course of the morning they finished it between the two of them and at lunch sent out for some Veuve. 

The woman was very chill, she did not hover or overprotect or worry about her expensive stuff, just had mimosas. I was surprised that the only time she cautioned the photo assistants was when they were moving the solid stone chairs and she said Be careful not to scratch the floor. I thought she seemed incredibly bored. The shoot itself was pretty hands-off too, except for doing my hair, which always takes stylists longer than they expect, and we shot simple pictures focused on “elevating denim.” The photographer was earnest and young, probably only two years older than me, and we worked well together. When twelve hours later we wrapped, I had done a lot of sitting on the floor, slouching on tables and beds and looking chicly listless, eaten half the bowl of M and M’s that was on the kitchen counter, and made good use of the spigot in the kitchen wall that was really fancier than the word spigot does justice to that brewed cappuccinos on demand. Considering it was a day of work, it felt a lot like day of vacation, a day of a life I see in movies and don’t often imagine regular people living.

I wondered the whole time what it would be like to be the woman, to live there in that grand quiet neighborhood by the 6 train with trees down the avenue centers and be able to walk to Central Park in the mornings and get fresh croissants from the place on the corner and have enough money to not know what else to spend it on but solid stone chairs and a room exclusively for high heels. I wondered whether that was something you planned in advance, a room full of heels, or a habit you grew with your growing income? I wondered why you feel a teeny bit of disdain for people who have tons of money, and who live like it? Maybe it’s just the people you grew up among, or the places you’ve been that lead you to think this way. Is it that you assume you could make better use of the tons of money if it were you who had it; do something more meaningful with it, because you're a meaningful person because you grew up without tons of money and had more material challenges to be creative about… But being middle class doesn't always mean you have more contact with the strapping-ness of humanhood, does it? 

Not always, I’m sure: how cushy your life is depends on how you use your wealth. And if you or I had the wealth wouldn’t we like to use it just the way this woman uses it? I think so. I think I’d like to have a cappuccino on demand spigot in my wall. I’d like to have circular blue screens in the doorway in each room that control the air temperature in that room alone so you can chill the kitchen while you have the oven going to bake potatoes and heat the bathroom before your bath at the same time. That’s something I would do, no question. But, at the same time, I want a life that engulfs the grittiness of humanity. Can an extremely wealthy life and a life of raw world experience not cohabit one person’s existence— does it have to be one or the other? 

The shoot will come out in November, and the anticipation of it’s coming is the most annoying and fun part. By now I’ve forgotten what the pictures looked like. But I don’t forget what the woman’s platinum hair looked like, or what the modern artworks on her cathedralled white walls looked like. I don’t forget how staggering it was to walk into such a luxurious place and feel like I lived there for a day, or after ride the $10 van with no air conditioning back out to Spring Valley with the Jamaican immigrants shrieking in Patois the whole way and the sporadic English insertion of baseball stuff they must have been debating. Grittiness, after all, adds dynamic and texture to a life. I can always brew my own coffee. And I have no alternative at the moment.  

When I went to the bathroom before leaving the apartment on my almost two-hour commute home, the hand towel hung over the sink made me smile. Black embroidery on it said “If I keel over in Walmart, prop me up at Neimans.” It suited that day in my life very well.

The hand towel...

How Marc Jacobs Might Have Fractured my Foot:

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Might have, I say, because I still don’t know for sure. What I do know is that nine days later it’s still hurting when I walk. It happened mid Fashion Week at a callback casting, last Saturday at Marc Jacobs offices in Soho. Katie Grand, the riotous and revered stylist of the collection, and Marc Jacobs, it’s designer, were reviewing the final cut, so to speak, of potential models for their Spring-Summer show a few days later, but Marc was barely present, and kept leaving the room to supervise the moving and rearranging of garments on shiny metal racks. The casting director was not present either, but her smokey-eyed assistant was, and asked the models to put on slip dresses and large (7 inches high) platform heels, and to get in line to walk for Katie. The only pair of boots available when it came my turn was two sizes too big, not a good way to start.

I went into the viewing room anyway when my name was called and crossed to the wall where they take a polaroid. I carefully stepped in my big high heavy boots onto the paper that they use as a backdrop, and my step was too wide a step and my left foot wobbled when I transferred my weight onto it and I was on the floor next minute in an awkward crouch and a loud thundering of the paper backdrop that I tried to lean on. The long and narrow platform had rolled sideways just the slightest and that was it for my chances at Marc Jacobs.

I didn’t mind my humiliation at the moment so much as I worried about how the innards of my left foot were aching and how maybe that was the end of my New York Fashion Week before it had even begun. No such luck, though, for when I regained my feet I found I could indeed still walk, though it hurt to, and Katie Grand grinningly asked me now to walk my runway walk for her, which I did without mishap although I might have looked like the tin man cause I was stepping extra careful.

Two hours later my agent called to tell me that Marc had put me on first option, meaning they wanted me still to potentially do the show, and I did not understand it and was not surprised when in the end they never called for a fitting. Who would book a girl who had faceplanted in the very shoes she’d have to wear out on the catwalk? Someone fond of excitement, perhaps, someone I’m sure but not me. I have a doctor appointment on Thursday to find out how my foot is, and until then it's a Might-be-fracture, and it's by Marc Jacobs so I'll wear it with éclat. If my foot is not whole, at least my sense of humor is, and the peculiar insanity of my modeling job proceeds.

The Agonies and the Ecstasies of a Creative Family

Zuzu Tadeushuk

An Anecdote from our Vacation, Three Weeks Back...

I’m walking through woods carrying a large bowl of fake blood. We made it after lunch with some red food coloring and powdered sugar we found in the kitchen of the cabin we’re renting on the north-eastern shore of Lake Doolittle, the shore that sees the sunset. We’re staying here for a week, my family and our friend Sophia’s family, seven of us total, and all week we swim in the lake and boat on the lake and hike around the lake and photoshoot in and on and around it. Today we’re shooting at it’s far western tip, where the water grows murky and shallow and peters into mud flats that smell like ancient fishy farts but look beautiful with their rushes and moss humps like islands. Nicolai has chosen the fishy inlet as the location for what we’re about to shoot, the second segment of his newest “editorial,” a collection of photos with a constant theme. Reclaimed by the wild is the theme this week. Dressed in a khaki green polyurethane parka, black bikini bottoms, and inscribed on every inch of my skin with fake scratches and scrapes sketched with lip-liner that was once my mother's, I carry the bowl of blood ceremoniously along the path by the lake shore that takes us to the marsh. 

It’s hot and humid here and when we arrive Nicolai begins to sprinkle me with fake blood like holy water, and it’s sticky and smells sweet and I hope it doesn't attract more mosquitos. When we were shooting yesterday he was smearing me with mud he scooped from the bottom of the lake using a kayak paddle, and today like yesterday I complain a lot of the discomfort. That’s the thing about shooting with your brother: you can object to the annoying things he makes you do. You can’t do that with other photographers, the serious and professional ones you work with in the city, so I always make a fuss when I pose for Nicolai, partly because he makes me do more outrageous things than anyone else and partly because, well, I can. Of course I end up doing whatever irksome task he asks, though, because ultimately I trust his vision and know that the image he’s chasing will be worth the anguish of wading barefoot in a black and squelchy bog, as I did yesterday, or climbing into the upturned root bulb of a dead and centipede-infested poplar tree, as I’m doing today. 

Luckily, on shoots like these that we do at Lake Doolittle, I have our friend Sophia always nearby holding the LED light-wand aloft, and she came knee deep in the swamp mud with me and I thought to myself whatever found me would find her too and maybe four foreign feet would be more intimidating to bog creatures than two. I knew the fish and frogs would stay away, but I wasn't sure about the muskrats, I’ve been bitten by one here before, and what I felt most afraid of was the leeches I’ve spotted like small ribbon clippings flowing under the water’s surface with their soft black backs and flat, white undersides. 

No leeches appeared though, and today we are shooting on dry land, maybe too dry and about to disintegrate as I stand on it. I’ve climbed about halfway up the overturned root bulb and Sophia climbed up beside me with the light wand and we blow at the insects that move onto our arms and legs with terrible speed. My limbs are getting a good workout clinging to the wood and we shoot for almost an hour with the tree and other logs around it and then we use up the remaining blood in our bowl and shoot me standing gory on a bridge. Now we’ve lost the light and we’re all hot and hungry. It’s near dinnertime and our parents will be waiting at the cabin and I think tonight we’re having spaghetti. We trundle the quarter mile back along the shoreside trail to home, and Nicolai’s already enumerating his ideas for the next shoot and I’m already insisting I won’t do it, I have real blood on my hands from holding on and unless you’re more considerate dammit I won’t shoot for you anymore Nicolai and this time I mean it. Why would anyone voluntarily place themselves under their brother’s jurisdiction? I wonder this every time and yet I invariably find myself sooner or later knee deep in another swamp for him, or another blood bath.

When we reach the cabin he rushes straight to his laptop to upload the photos to Lightroom and begin the editing process. Half the creativity and half the work still remains for him to do; he’s excited and in his zone and it’ll take all our efforts to coax him away for the spaghetti. In the meantime I strip off my wet and sugary clothing and with Sophia jump into the lake. The lake here is cool and deep and there are no leeches. There is just bliss, what bliss-- nothing rivals being in this lake when it comes to being free. Let’s just hope sugar-blood doesn’t attract big fish like it did mosquitos…