In her debut novel, model and actress Paulina Porizkova follows Jirina, a gawky 15-year-old Swedish girl who spends the summer in Paris as a model.
In the process, Jirina experiences life's highs -- wild parties, feeling beautiful -- and lows -- womanizing photographers and unfriendly fellow models.
Porizkova, who is married to musician Ric Ocasek, is also the author of a children's book. The following is an excerpt.
It's not as if I'm scared to fly.
Even after the divorce, my mother usually scraped together enough money to take us on a reduced-fare vacation each year. But this trip is different. My mother, her ever-changing boyfriends, and my little sister Kristynka are still snugly ensconced in our small apartment back in Lund, while I am on my way to Paris, alone.
Well, alone except for Britta, whom I met less than an hour ago here at the airport. After introducing ourselves, we immediately sized each other up. Britta, with her long golden hair, dark eyes, and soft curves is nearly my exact physical opposite. I have straight brown hair cut in a bob, pale green eyes, and am as tall and flat-chested as the guys in my ninth-grade class. That I got selected for the high-fashion world of models not only confused my classmates, but also made me suspect I was the target of some elaborate joke. I still half expect someone to pop up from behind a hidden camera and laugh in my face, like on that American TV show.
"Flight 343, final boarding call," a female voice announces over the loudspeakers.
I look over at Britta. She is standing with her mom near the security gate, hugging tearful good-byes as I wait on the other side. My own mother had full confidence in my ability to make it to the airport by myself, though the trip entailed three buses, a ferry to Denmark, and an additional bus ride to the terminal. "If you can't get to the airport on your own," she said, "how are you going to model in Paris all by yourself?"
"What would you ladies like to drink?" the stewardess asks with the kind of smile all flight attendants seem to spray on before starting their shifts. "We have a nice red Jacques Dubois, Beaujolais Village, and a crisp white Burgundy."
My jaw drops to the vicinity of my knees. This is the first time anyone has taken me for a grown-up. I nudge Britta. She may be my modeling competition, but right now, she is also my only potential friend. What better way to break the ice than to share in the bounty of a stewardess who has mistaken us for alcohol-worthy adults? But Britta looks as though she's fallen asleep.
"What?" she moans, and opens her eyes.
"Drinks," I tell her, wide-eyed, nodding toward the wine bottles held up for our inspection.
The stewardess, seeing my expression, retracts the bottle and her grin, and grabs a can of Coke. "A soft drink, perhaps?"
We each get a Coke, Britta completely unaware of our missed opportunity.
She sits up and rubs her eyes. "Sorry, I must have dozed off -- I had a late night with Lars yesterday." She sighs. "He's worried I'm gonna forget about him or something, you know, being around all those gorgeous French male models and stuff. But I told him -- 'Look,' I said -- 'I'm sixteen and you're twenty; if we find somebody else, then it just wasn't meant to be, right?'"
I nod understandingly, as if I ever had a real boyfriend. Bengt hardly counts.
She pops her can open and pours the Coke into her plastic cup. "So, how do you pronounce your name, anyway? My mom and I couldn't figure it out from the spelling."
"Yee-ree-na," I tell her, mangling my actual name, Jirina, in the familiar Swedish way. The correct pronunciation, Yee-r shi-nah, I hear only at home. My name has always been a sore spot for me. Why my parents cursed me to navigate a world of Anikas and Gunillas with a name that so clearly indicates an immigrant background (a communist background at that), was, and still is, incomprehensible to me. To top it off, there is also my last name: Radovanovicova. It's a mouthful even in my parents' native language.
"Wow, is that, like, Russian?" Britta says. I think I can detect a slight wrinkling of her nose, a common reaction to my "communist" roots.
"No, Czechoslovakian." Not that that's much better. "My parents are from there. But I was born in Sweden," I quickly clarify, "so I am Swedish."
Britta looks at me with raised eyebrows and I'm immediately afraid she doesn't believe me.
"You want to see my passport?" I offer.
But she just shrugs. "I believe you," she says, and takes a gulp of her drink. "So, how did you get discovered?"
Relieved, I babble on about my best friend, Hatty, to whom I owe this outing in the clouds. It was her obsession with fashion and makeup that led her to find an ad in the local paper for a modeling seminar, run by a "famed modeling scout to the most exclusive modeling agencies in the world," whose only requirement was a fee of twenty-five kronas. Hatty seized this as an opportunity to offer her services as a makeup artist to a bunch of model wannabes and convinced me to tag along to keep her company. The class was held in the living room of the famed scout, and we turned out to be her only clients.
Malin, an older woman with dyed-red hair set in waves, pale, papery skin, and arched, black, stenciled-on eyebrows, looked like a nineteen fifties glamour shot that had been crumpled into a ball and smoothed out. Her living room was a mess of photos, many of which were old modeling shots of herself. They consisted of hand and foot ads from ancient newspapers. She removed her brown sneakers to let us admire her famous feet and I noted with a touch of horror that her toenails were long, filed pointy, and the same dried-blood color as her fingernails. Malin fluttered her hands about her as she went through stacks of magazines, clicking her nails against glossy pages. "Did you know Mia is missing a finger? No, you wouldn't because of the way she has learned to hold her hands. Do you see this smile? How real and inviting it looks? That's because this girl is really smiling, inside. Do you understand? You have to feel the smile on the inside." For three hours, we sat on her couch, nodding politely as she shuffled through page after page of models with perfect teeth, abundant hair, and never-ending smooth legs, while she pointed out their poses and expressions with a steady torrent of words, of which I retained about a third. How to merge this information with my life remained a mystery. At the end of the so-called seminar, Malin nodded at me and announced I had definite possibilities. She didn't specify, and as Hatty and I walked home, she was convinced Malin was talking about modeling. Yeah, right. Only a few days before, my classmate Pelle had whacked me over the head with his history book to "kill the lice," though my hair was, as always, spotlessly clean.
I don't tell Britta this part. Instead I describe my meeting with Jean-Pierre -- the owner of Sirens agency in Paris -- which Malin had set up right before my fifteenth birthday. The meeting took place on a bench in a mall and lasted all of five minutes. Jean-Pierre complimented me on my pretty skin, told me he appreciated conservatively dressed girls, and asked me if I wanted to model in Paris over the summer. As if I'd say no. Britta finishes her Coke and orders another.
"Hey, are you gonna eat those nuts?" She eyes my pack of peanuts. I put them on her tray. I haven't the slightest hint of an appetite.
"How about you?" I say. "How did you get here?"
"Well, I was shopping at the mall with my mom and they had this contest thing. So my mom signed me up, they took a Polaroid of me, and I won the contest. The prize was meeting Jean-Pierre, to see if I would fit in his agency." She pops a handful of nuts into her mouth and chews with relish, her mouth open. My mother would slap me if I ate like that. "What did you think of Jean-Pierre?" Britta asks, munching away.
"Uh, he was nice. I didn't really hang out with him," I say and try to ignore the squelching sound of nuts and saliva.
"I think he's hot. My mom said he looks like Alain Delon."
I compare my impression of Jean-Pierre's cow eyes and overbite to the dashing French actor. "They both have dark hair," I concede. "But isn't Jean-Pierre kind of old -- like thirty or something?"
"I like older men," Britta says with a wink. "My mom thinks it's because my dad died when I was a baby."
My Coke burns my throat. "I'm so sorry!" I'm suddenly no longer resentful of her loud chewing. At least I have a father, even though his presence in my life is as intangible as the Holy Ghost.
"It's okay," she says and pats my arm. "I don't remember him at all."
She shakes the last morsel into her mouth and pulls out her Walkman. It's the new model, bright yellow and waterproof. If I had the money for one, I'd definitely get the smaller metal one.
Britta puts her headphones on, shutting me out. I take my book out of my backpack: Kafka's The Castle. My father's only comment about my summer plans was to voice his fear that my IQ would shrink to my bra size. He handed me the paperback before I left, making me swear I'd write a twenty-page book report to hand him upon my return. The cover of my book shows an ominous silhouette of a castle set against a deep red background. I open it, but after the first paragraph, I space out. My hopes and anxieties are as high as my current altitude. I lean my head against the window, which is warmed by the high sun and vibrates like a purring cat. I'm on my way to Paris! Me, the girl with an unpronounceable name, second-hand clothes, and a smile that reveals wide-spaced front teeth. When Hatty informed everyone at our school of my summer plans, it was greeted with the same disbelief as if she had just announced I was a secret love child of King Carl Gustaf. I stood at my locker where someone had scribbled in black magic marker, "Hot chick NO, hot chicken YES," a few months back. Despite my vigorous attempts to remove it, it remained imbedded in the orange paint; a clear, if somewhat faded statement of who I was. But now, I was someone different. I was someone to be envied. I straightened my back for the first time in nine years, and felt the unaccustomed warmth of self-confidence. That is, until Kristel slammed her locker next to me and, with a toss of her hair in my direction, exclaimed, "Well, if that can be a model, then even Fatty Hatty stands a chance."
Hatty, to whom I owe this outing in the clouds. Of course, her name is not really Fatty, or Hatty for that matter. Her Egyptian mother named her after Queen Hatshepsut, which forever condemns Hatty to people "sneezing" her full name and shouting, "bless you!" I must admit she's a bit on the pudgy side, although she has the most beautiful, black, almond-shaped eyes. We bonded immediately on our first day of school, since I had the dubious honor of bearing the other unpronounceable name and questionable background.
The engines of the plane suddenly switch from an even purr to a heavy rumble. My ears pop. I know this signals a landing and my stomach twists into knots. With a sweaty palm, I shake Britta.
"Wake up, we are about to land."
She opens her eyes and, for a fleeting moment, I think I detect in them a hint of panic mirroring my own. She removes her headphones and leans over my lap to look out the window. We are floating through dark rain clouds. Drops of water streak the window. The noise intensifies and I yawn to unclog my ears. "Are you scared?" I shout to Britta, who has resumed her position.
"Gosh no, what is there to be scared of?"
Britta has a nice, sleek suitcase with polished metal locks, but it hits the luggage carousel at the very end along with my lumpy orange duffel. So much for my theory that nice luggage travels faster.
We get in line for a taxi and inhale French air, which seems mostly composed of cigarette smoke and diesel fumes. It's a little past noon and the flat, leaden sky threatens rain. My stomach lurches uncomfortably. At this point I'm not sure if it's due to hunger or nerves.
By the time we get into a taxi, sharp raindrops tap the windshield. The car also smells of cigarettes, but if I roll the window down I get wet. Windows up -- I can't breathe. So I alternate between the two as I watch Paris approach.
At first, the city is an indistinct mass on the horizon. Soon, we leave the billboard-littered plains behind and enter upon avenues lined with trees and the elegant, haughty buildings of the city. Magazine stands grow from cement like pointy green mushrooms. A red blur of a woman walks her poodle. In outdoor cafés customers peruse newspapers under burgundy awnings. A man with a beret huddles against a wall, trying to light a cigarette. A stone wall drips with blooming lilacs. Short women in perfect shoes clutch thin baguettes under their arms. Eventually, the avenues become small twisted lanes overflowing with boutiques, gourmet shops, and bakeries.
Our taxi comes to a stop and we get out in front of a large green door. It leads into a courtyard, set with cobblestones, where a brass plaque hangs on the smoky glass doors of a carriage house. The engraved letters, darkened by time, announce SIRENS.
I wonder if anyone would notice if I puked into the nearby potted palm. I fall back a little, so Britta walks in first. The people who gather around us in the square white room are at first indistinct, but then I recognize Jean-Pierre. True, his eyes are large and rich brown, shaded by lashes any woman would kill for, but Alain Delon he's not. I smile at everyone with my lips closed, so as to not reveal my teeth, though pretending I'm mute doesn't seem a viable long-term option.
A pretty brunette with a pug nose eyes me suspiciously; a blond woman with very short hair and an Asian guy both wave hello. "Bienvenues" and "Bonjours" are exchanged.
My stomachache has intensified; I am in immediate need of a bathroom. It's located behind an L shaped white Formica desk with four chairs. From within, I overhear the smatter of rapid-fire French and realize that if I hear them, they certainly hear me. I flush obsessively, unsure of which is worse, the explosive sound of troubled intestines or the repeated rumble of someone trying to cover it.
When I finally exit -- closing the door firmly behind so no offensive odor escapes -- Britta is being shown around the office. In truth, there is not much to see. The desk takes up most of the room and the white walls are lined with black-and-white checkered posters of passport-size heads, which on closer inspection don't bear much resemblance to actual passport pictures, since every person exhibited is too gorgeous for real life. I glimpse a few faces familiar from magazines and Hatty's sermons: Evalinda, the blond Swedish goddess; redheaded Mia who, according to Malin, is missing a finger.
We are shown the intricacies of the desk, where the three people I've just met, "bookers," sit all day, taking and making phone calls, booking jobs. When they get a call for a girl, they fish around for her chart from a deep round bin set in the tabletop, a sort of Rolodex set on its side. The charts have a month's calendar printed on them with cryptic words scribbled in ink or pencil across the days: Confirmed, On Hold, Second Hold, Booked Out.
Our charts are pulled out, blank and clean.
But my name is there!
All conversation is conducted in English, which is a relief. I, like everyone else, have had English classes from third grade on, and am by now perfectly comfortable with the language. My French, started in grade six, is still on par with a three-year-old's. I understand the small exclamations that litter the booker's English, the "ah bon's," the "ça va's," and the "comprends," but unless they ask me for a yellow pencil that just so happens to be on the table, I will be out of my depth.
The pug-nosed brunette introduces herself as Anne, and pulls out a tape measure.
"We must now see your sizes, so we can write them on the chart and also on your composites," she says.
I have no idea what a composite is, but there is no time to ask.
Anne winds the red-and-white strip around Britta's chest, waist, and hips with a slight frown. "Dis donc," she says. "You are a little fat. Have you gained some weight since Jean-Pierre saw you last?"
I'm shocked. Britta has a perfect hourglass body.
Britta blushes. "My mom hasn't had the time to cook lately, so I've been eating a lot of pizza."
Jean-Pierre sidles over to her and puts an arm over her shoulders. "The pizza no more. Tu comprends? Only the healthy French food now and you will be fine."
Britta laughs with obvious relief. Her measurements, thirty-six, twenty-five, thirty-five, are noted, as is her height, five-eight; hair color, blond; and eye color, brown. This does not in any way do her justice. Why not describe her hair as gold with hints of champagne, and her eyes as chocolate?
The bookers scrutinize her perfectly manicured hands at close range, debating whether she merits an "Extraordinaire" under the heading of "Special Qualities," and decide against it. Britta doesn't look too crestfallen. She sits on the countertop, kicking her legs and chatting with the short-haired woman, whose name is Odile, I think.
Anne slides the tape around my sweating body. "Thirty-four, twenty-two, thirty-three," she says, and smiles. "Perfect."
This is a word I have never heard in regard to myself. I flame up in gratitude.
"You are" -- Anne pauses, pencil hovering above paper -- "what? Sixteen, yes?"
"Fifteen," I correct her.
She looks at me with momentary surprise. "Mon Dieu, si jeune," she mutters. This I understand from my school French. My God, so young. I hold my breath. Is that bad? Should I have lied?
"Listen, we will say you are sixteen, for purposes of, um, taxes. Okay?"
I nod my head frantically. Right now I'd agree to have both my arms amputated if it meant staying in Paris. The thought of going back home -- to drizzling skies over windswept fields, our cement apartment block, and, worst of all, my mother, smug in her knowledge she was right -- that no one else wants me either -- is as pleasant as a slow death from mushroom poisoning.
"I finished ninth grade," I tell Anne. "You see, I started school a year early, so I've always been in class with kids a year older anyway."
"Ah bon." She nods, seemingly satisfied. "So let us then keep it our little secret." She jots down my height, five-ten; my eyes, green; and stops at my hair color.
"Dis donc," she says, "what color would you say your hair is?"
The first thing that flashes through my mind is "poop brown," a term Kristel and Anika came up with. Greetings of "poop head" and "frog eyes" were liberally thrown my way whenever they passed me in the hallways.
I shrug uncomfortably. "Brown?"
Anne laughs. "Mais oui, brown. But it is like the brown of this small animal, I cannot think of the name."
Mouse? Rat? Embarrassment for showing up with the hair color of "a small animal" stabs through me. Come to think of it, nearly all models I've seen in magazines are blondes.
"It will come to me." She waves her hand and writes down "brown."
Then she asks me for my photos and waits patiently as I free them from my underwear in my duffel.
There are three of them, printed on eight-by-ten glossy paper, all from my one and only photo session to date. The first photograph is of my face in muted pastel colors and soft focus. My eyes are staring at some invisible spot behind the camera, which was in fact the photographer's balding pate. He was a soft-spoken Indian man who ran a pizza parlor by day and did test photos for Malin as a hobby. The other two are black-and-white prints of me sitting in a window, dressed in a lace camisole and a frilly skirt. It was an attempt at copying Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby/, which fails in part, I think, because of the clearly visible toggle from the drawn-up blinds that hangs next to my left ear.
Anne hands them around, and everyone comments on them too quickly in French for me to fully understand -- something about beautiful eyes, and something else "ça va pas," which I know means "is not good." I break out in new sweat. Is it my teeth? So far, nobody has mentioned them and I've been feeling as though I've gotten away with a naughty prank. Will they be my undoing now? I remember Mother once mentioning to an Uncle that I would be quite pretty if it weren't for my teeth, and I've tried to smile with my mouth shut ever since. I anxiously glance around at the bookers, but they have moved on. Shoji, the Asian guy, brings out a water-blue portfolio embossed with a gold Siren logo, and slides the photos under transparent plastic. Anne hands me the portfolio and adds two books with the same covers. "This little book contains all the information you need, plus addresses and phone numbers to all the photographers and studios," she says as she waves the thinner one. "And here," she says, opening the first page of a diary, "are your appointments for tomorrow." Britta comes up behind me and looks over my shoulder. "How do we get to them?" she asks Anne. "Does someone drive us?"
Anne laughs. "Ah non. This you must learn by yourselves, you will have many to go to." She tells us to get a Plan de Paris and leave plenty of time before the appointments -- which are called go-and-sees -- "in case you get lost."
We scoop up our bags, books, and portfolios, and lug them outside. The rain hasn't let up. But somehow, rain in Paris, rather than being depressing and cold, seems mysterious and romantic, like a thin gray veil over a beautiful woman's face. Jean-Pierre pulls up in his car. Britta eyes it with obvious admiration, which seems to please Jean-Pierre. "Not many people in France have a Rolls Royce," he says proudly. I can't help but think it looks rather like a white refrigerator on wheels. Jean-Pierre helps Britta with her suitcase and opens the front passenger door for her while I struggle to heave myself and my bag into the backseat. Jean-Pierre steps on the gas and we speed off to settle into our home for the summer: his apartment.