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.