On an October evening in 2010, Brad from San Diego was online, looking for flesh.

He scanned through a picture-sharing forum, another repository of beauty, famed and anonymous. “This was not the first time I had looked at pretty girls on the Internet,” says Brad. “I flew through photos.”

Then, he stopped.

She wore a sleeveless gray top and black underwear with a hint of lace. The Greenwich Village sun cascaded on her mane of auburn hair. Her gaze was soft, otherworldly.

Her name was Susan Coffey.

One of the first photos of Susan Coffey that Brad came across (Photo courtesy Inush Yoon)

One of the first photos of Susan Coffey that Brad came across (Photo courtesy Inush Yoon)

“Wow.” Brad Googled her.

The results were unsatisfying, a smattering of social networks, but no central place of worship. On a whim, Brad registered the domain name SusanCoffey.net and began gushing, declaring her the “faerie queen of beauty” and “Miss Stunning.”

Two years later, Brad’s site is the first result when a Google user searches for Susan Coffey. With her blessing, he meticulously catalogs hundreds of photos, writes rapturous blog posts and even interviews Coffey’s collaborators. Yet, Brad lives three thousand miles from Coffey and has never met her in person.

“There’s something about Susan that makes you want to help her,” says Brad, who works in the healthcare industry and tries to remain semi-anonymous to protect his own privacy.

A banner image from susancoffey.net

A banner image from susancoffey.net

Brad’s site is the most visible example of the phenomenon that is Susan Coffey, a 22-year-old independent model from suburban New Jersey who has been propelled into digital ubiquity by thousands of strangers after first surfacing three years ago on the website ModelMayhem.

Roughly a hundred new people “like” Coffey’s Facebook page every day, and her total fan count recently exceeded 103,000. On DeviantArt, one of the largest online creative communities for sharing artwork, photos of Coffey have attracted over 29 million views, and the company flew her to last year’s San Diego Comic-Con as a representative.

“It’s incredible. She’s become the Internet redhead,” says Sito Alvina, a Toronto-based photographer who is Coffey’s most frequent collaborator. “Susan is like the Queen of DeviantArt.”

Beyond her control, Coffey’s image is plastered onto YouTube trance songs, consumed and repurposed for desktop wallpapers and drawn in tribute by fans in pencil, ink and paint. She is a fixture on the social news site Reddit, the anonymous image board 4chan, and virtually every forum that skews toward testosterone. Even her identity is up for grabs, with dozens of fake social media accounts leeching off her recognition, regurgitating her photos to steal a sliver of her adoration.

A sketch of Susan Coffey by Brad posted to DeviantArt, based on a photo by Sito Alvina

A sketch of Susan Coffey by Brad posted to DeviantArt, based on a photo by Sito Alvina

For Brad, promoting Coffey has become a mission, and she is his creative muse, prompting him to rediscover an interest in drawing. He doesn’t have any aspirations to enter the fashion industry and considers his site to be a one-time endeavor. He briefly added advertising to susancoffey.net, but found that it “cheapened” the site, so he removed it. Ultimately, Brad expects he’ll pass control on to another committed fan, and he tries to keep his subject in perspective, to remember that Susan Coffey is a real person.

“You start to form this image of her,” he says. “But she’s just a girl, with good points and bad points.”

Still, perceptions have begun to move reality. In August, Coffey was featured on the cover of Mexico’s Maxim en Espanol magazine, which approached her through Brad’s website. In July, she was on the cover of an independently published romance novel called “The Heart of Aces.”  Her face has appeared in advertisements on the PATH train for a 125-unit condo tower in Jersey City. She’s occasionally recognized by riders when she takes the train into New York for photo shoots.

*   *   *

There are thousands of attractive women on the Internet, many of whom pursue more sexually explicit paths. And there are the unknown faces, who surface for a few blog cycles, only to be buried by the next nubile thing. But no one has achieved Coffey’s prominence and longevity with so little context. She is an enigma, a tabula rasa for desire. She has no agent, no publicist and no outside financial support. “She’s not trying that hard,” says Brad.

In fairness, Coffey’s attention is captured by the mundane. She spends most of her time studying at Rutgers University, going to class and doing homework. Her modeling concerns are rudimentary: paying for gasoline or train tickets, obtaining outfits and filling her schedule.

But the “girl-next-door” persona has made her all the more appealing. In an age of disturbing diets and exotic workouts, Coffey appears effortless. She is lithe and long-limbed at five-foot-seven and 110 pounds, and says she never exercises, aside from the rare session of yoga. She has, however, been a vegetarian for nearly five years because of her love of animals; she has a fluffy white dog named Luna and a green frog, Potato.

Coffey’s only obvious unnatural enhancement is her hair, dyed L’Oreal Feria Rich Auburn True Red, which she settled on after trying blond and other shades to replace her natural brown. It has become her signature look, flowing seamlessly with her pale skin.

“Word of mouth is all about authenticity,” says Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who has extensively studied online virality. “You feel like you are helping her by sharing her,” he adds.

After studying the sale of consumer goods, popular YouTube videos and The New York Times’ most-emailed articles list, Berger has concluded that sharing is tethered to human emotions, but that not all emotions are equal. Items that evoke sadness or contentment are unlikely to spur the clicks and conversations that lead to virality. In contrast, articles that induce indignation (think insensitive jokes about rape) or anxiety (bomb threats, anthrax attacks) create a “physiological arousal” and fuel sharing, according to Berger.

But the most effective emotion for transmission is “awe,” a revelation that transcends surprise. Or, close to what Brad was feeling two Octobers ago.

*   *   *

Coffey regards all this attention with a mixture of gratitude, unease and disbelief.

“I’m thankful for it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have anything right now, but it definitely does make me feel uncomfortable sometimes, she said in an August meeting at a café in her hometown, a leafy hamlet of around 13,000 residents in central New Jersey. “It goes both ways. Sometimes it’s a little creepy.”

In person, Coffey has a subtle spray of freckles, which are usually concealed by makeup. Her skin is tanned from a recent trip to the beach, richer than the alabaster of her images. Her hair is also darker, as her red dye has faded, and she’d recently gotten bangs, which cascade across her forehead. She is pretty, but approachable.

Susan Coffey in New Jersey (Photo by Roland Li)

Susan Coffey in New Jersey (Photo by Roland Li)

Coffey’s town, the name of which she’d rather not reveal, has one main street lined with small shops and trees, bisected by a railroad line that transports commuters to the bowels of Penn Station. She lives with her parents and fourteen-year-old brother, a natural redhead who just started high school. She’s lived in the same house her entire life, set on a quiet corner, with a big yard and a well. Her room is in the attic.

She regards her trips into the city for photo shoots as a necessary burden, with urban crowds and the sprawling subway system denying her the freedom of her Honda Civic, which she calls “possibly the most generic car ever, but it gets ridiculously good gas mileage.”

“I like to feel like I’m in control of where I’m going,” she adds.

The irony of Coffey’s ascent, and her image being plastered all over the Internet, is that she is far from an exhibitionist. Her perpetual self-description is “shy,” and she enjoys the solitude and quiet of her pastoral upbringing. She doesn’t hunger for fame, and her popularity still baffles her.

Coffey remembers taking the train into the city for her first New York photo shoot around three years ago. The dread is still palpable in her voice as she recalls being convinced that “something horrible was going to happen” as she strode up the stairs to meet a stranger at a photo studio. “I thought the guy was going to be crazy,” she says, but it was all in her head. Soon, the shoots became routine.

Months later, Coffey would work with a New York photographer named Brandon Herman, who runs a Meetup.com photography group called the New York Pinup Club. Coffey, wearing a Navy blue coat, posed among the lush, saturated colors of landmarks like Grand Central Terminal and the Brooklyn Bridge. In those photos, the fear is gone from her face.

If she’s able to find work as a fulltime model, Coffey would probably move to the city to cut down on her commute. But it’s a transition that sounds like a concession, rather than one sparkling with ambition. “I don’t really like it, to be honest,” says Coffey of New York. “I would accept it because I know it’s the fashion capital.”

When Coffey first expressed an interest in modeling, back in middle school, her parents were open to the idea. “They’re not the kind of parents that would tell me that I can’t do something,” she says, but they didn’t have the time to help her.

Susan Coffey on the New York City subway (Photo courtesy Brandon Herman)

Susan Coffey on the New York City subway (Photo courtesy Brandon Herman)

After high school, she enrolled in Montclair State University in hopes of working on the design or merchandising side of the fashion industry. But the small, suburban campus became too familiar. “I wanted something different,” she says. Coffey enrolled in Rutgers, after initially having balked at the idea because so many students from her high school class of 120 had chosen to go there. But with over 40,000 undergraduates, it was the new environment she had been seeking.

Coffey, who commutes to school for financial reasons, attempted to charter a community service sorority in the spring; it decided it didn’t want to be associated with her modeling career, and turned her down. So, she has stayed away from school organizations, but is kept busy majoring in communications and minoring in psychology—a route that is flexible but unfocused. “All the stuff I like couldn’t be a career. I’m just thinking typical office job, but when I think about it, it makes me kind of sad,” she says. “Monotony kind of scares me.”

*   *   *

Coffey has constructed a cocoon around her personal life. Although she checks her DeviantArt page every day, she rarely reveals more than an image. She abandoned Twitter after a short stint because she didn’t see a need for it. She keeps her online identity, particularly risqué lingerie shots, quarantined from her friends. If pictures spill over into her personal Facebook account, she untags herself. Although her friends are supportive, Coffey considers any social reminder of her second life to be “awkward.”

She has a boyfriend, whom she says is also supportive, but he bristles at the virtual advances of strangers, who regularly chime, “Let’s go out,” or “Let’s get married.” Coffey is not phased. “They’re so arbitrary,” she says. “I just take it as a compliment.”

Sometimes, Coffey wonders if she would have been better served using a pseudonym, rather than her real name. “I’m worried one day I’ll want to get a real job and that was kind of a mistake. But it’s too late to go back, so I’m not holding back,” she says.

After years of work that has drawn a loyal Internet following but only small financial paybacks, Coffey now seeks validation. In the coming months, she plans to submit her pictures to the major New York agencies and attend open casting calls. “I feel weird saying I’m a model, because I’m not with an agency,” she says. “I want to be official.”

At 22, Coffey is already old for high fashion, where models start as early as thirteen, and she’s a few inches short of the five-foot-ten ideal that struts the catwalks (there are rare exceptions: Kate Moss is also five-seven). Coffey’s massive fan base is a powerful tool, but one that might not impress the establishment.

Photo by Roland Li

Photo by Roland Li

“I think she does have a gorgeous face,” says Shae Cooper, director of new faces for BMG Worldwide, a boutique modeling agency. But Cooper swiftly adds, “It’s not just about being a pretty face. It’s about the whole package. It’s not just about a guy who thinks she’s hot and likes her on Facebook.” Cooper says that Coffey’s shyness c0uld be an obstacle, and she would have to deal with the whims of a client who could force her to make tough choices such as abandoning her signature red hair to conform to a job.

Although fashion is a gigantic global industry, with over $1 trillion in annual sales, models are often treated more like migrant laborers than movie stars. The industry has long been voracious, churning through an endless stream of anonymous waifs. But even those who get regular work can struggle to survive. There are no salaries, only one-off assignments, which provide compensation in the form of clothing, prestige and money, in often unfavorable ratios. Health insurance and 401ks are alien concepts. Nothing is permanent. It’s a testament to the powers of marketing and fantasy that drive so many to seek so little.

So far, Coffey has done all of her work independently, which means that she keeps all of her fees, but she finds it hard to get paid gigs. She is currently seeking another job, while she attends Rutgers, in order to fund her travels. In contrast, an agency will typically pay for a model’s initial portfolio, which is seen as a standard investment, and then take a commission fee of around twenty percent of future work. The agency is essentially a matchmaker that connects clients like corporations, publications and designers to hopeful young men and women.

“We tell our models, we can put you in front of any client. At the end of the day, it’s your job to book it,” says Cooper, of BMG.

But it’s hard to differentiate yourself enough to get to that point. “There’s so many people. It’s overwhelming sometimes,” says Coffey. “The online world is so different from being with an agency. I don’t think they’re comparable.”

Even with her popularity, Coffey’s life is a constant hustle, but she is not picky and says she is open to any type of work. When asked if there was a dream photographer or designer that she longs to work with, Coffey demurs. “It’s not something I could obtain right now. I’m so used to taking what I can get,” she says.

As Coffey was returning to Rutgers in September, thousands of models descended on New York’s Lincoln Center for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. The red carpet of the 2012 Style Awards was dominated by celebrities; the media assailed bold-faced names like Katie Holmes and Carolina Herrera with barrages of flashing cameras. Meanwhile, anonymous models, striking with their towering bare legs, strode behind the cameras, plucking wine glasses from stone-faced servers and disappearing in the crowd. On Fashion Week’s runways, it was Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors that provided the buzz, not the girls who wore the clothing. The key question always is, “Who are you wearing?” rather than, “Who are you?”

Scenes from 2012 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (Photos by Roland Li)

Scenes from 2012 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (Photos by Roland Li)

Ashley Mears, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University and a former New York model herself, calls it a “winner-take-all” economy, where the few women at the top earn most of the spoils. But even that halo has dimmed. The days of the imperial supermodel are over, and magazines favor celebrities from film and music over chilly imports from the runways. Editorial work is also hardly a breadwinner; most models earn just a few hundred dollars for appearing in a holy tome like Vogue, and some publications will offer snacks instead of money.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported that the median model’s income was $33,000 in 2011, but typical salaries vary dramatically. Highly successful catalog models earn six figures, while the less fortunate may end their careers after just a few months with thousands in debt. To become a superstar with a million-dollar fragrance campaign “you still need the machine behind you,” says Loretta Volpe, acting associate chair of direct and interactive marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who has worked with brands like CoverGirl, Clairol and Izod. There are a few Internet success stories, like Kate Upton, the bubbly insurgent who used her own YouTube fame to break into Vogue, defying the traditional look of high fashion, but she is definitely an exception to the rule.

But the prospect of a career is still alluring. For Coffey, modeling has not yet become lucrative but it has grown from a hobby into the most likely way of transcending her small town existence.

“There’s just not a lot of stuff that I can picture myself doing as a career. I know it’s so rare that you can do what you love for a living,” she says. “I have this opportunity and I don’t want to pass it up. I really want to give it all that I have. At least if it doesn’t work out, I know that I tried.”

At an impromptu photo shoot in her hometown in August, Coffey glows in front of the lens, angling her body precisely toward the camera and offering a crescent moon of a smile. She is looking less shy girl from Jersey, more ready for another magazine cover. Still, she’s realistic about her chances. “I dream about being a big model, but I know I need a backup,” she says.

Balancing between art and reality is nothing new for Coffey’s family. Her mother used to paint as a hobby and now works at a chemical company. Her father is employed by Sharp Electronics, the U.S. division of the Japanese television manufacturer, but Coffey remembers him playing guitar around the house when she was young. He tried, but failed, to get her into classic rock. Instead, like so many teenagers of the early 2000s, she fell for the emo scene. One of her early favorite bands was Something Corporate, a piano-laden rock quartet from southern California. Coffey took piano lessons for a couple of years at the end of high school and now loves covering pop songs. She would pounce at the chance to become a musician, but fears she doesn’t have the talent.

Her other big hobby is “World of Warcraft,” the enormously popular online role-playing game, which has ten million active players. Coffey plays as a female Draenei Elemental Shaman, an earth disciple that flings arcs of lightning and jets of lava at her foes.

Coffey’s boyfriend introduced her to the game, although he was initially hesitant to disclose to her that he played at all. Then, about a year-and-a-half ago, he asked Coffey if she wanted to try. Reluctant at first, she soon had to get her own account because she was playing so often. Like many players, she was taken by the variety of rewards for tasks that vary from killing dragons to catching fish. “I get obsessed with achieving stuff,” she says.

However, Coffey tends to avoid the game’s largest dungeon expeditions, known as raids, which require a mixture of number-crunching keyboard gymnastics and often lead to volatile emotions. “It’s not a good community there. You suck, and they’re just like, ‘Get out,’” she says. “I like to help people out or just talk to them.”

Coffey rejects the notion that playing “Warcraft” satisfies a desire for a new identity, yet her modeling work shows that she understands the need for constant reinvention; she is keenly aware of her fans’ perpetual hunger for new and different images. “I feel pressure to post constantly,” she says. “I get anxious when I know I haven’t posted in a while.”

*   *   *

The mythology of many top models begins with a singular discovery, a chance encounter where an agent whisks an unknown away to gilded catwalks and the pages of glossy magazines. Coffey had no such revelation, but her ascent has been steady, thanks to the help of strangers, like Brad. It has been a journey, not merely physical, but a path that has built a web of fellow artists, who all cope with economic reality.

Shortly after college started, Coffey was working as a cashier at a local Victoria’s Secret, wondering how to begin modeling, when a customer directed her to Mike Kortoci, a photographer near Ridgewood, N.J., about an hour to the north.

She remembers arriving at Kortoci’s studio in October 2008,  filled with dread, and then being taken aback by his boisterous direction. And there was the camera.

“It kind of freaked me out at first,” she says. “You kind of expose yourself.”

Kortoci told her to mentally chant, “I’m so sexy, I’m so sexy,” turning perception into reality—and it seemed to work.

It’s been years since the shoot, but Coffey’s image has stayed with the photographer. “She’s one of the girls that I have a hard time forgetting,” says Kortoci, who calls her face “a polished diamond.”

He touts Coffey’s physical gifts, which require minimal makeup and postproduction, and he also underscores her willingness to learn and gain control of her body. “A girl that is just pretty is not enough,” says Kortoci, a former sculptor from Albania who speaks with a light Baltic accent. “You have to perform in front of the camera.”

Distinctive images still have undeniable value. Kortoci’s best-known photo of Coffey is heavy on sheen. He’s studded her eyelids with silver and transformed her into a windswept cover girl that ended up on Kortoci’s business card and the front door of his studio. “I want to look like her,” clients would tell him.

“She was worth not charging,” he says.

Photographer Mike Kortoci (Photo courtesy Mike Kortoci)

Photographer Mike Kortoci (Photo courtesy Mike Kortoci)

After creating a portfolio with Kortoci, Coffey was directed to ModelMayhem, an online social network that is a proving ground for aspiring models, photographers and stylists. Members create profiles showcasing their work and can send out solicitations or announce open calls to diversify their portfolios.

Coffey began working with unknowns, assembling a portfolio shoot-by-shoot and vetting references to ward off creeps, and fleeing in the rare uncomfortable situation. After toiling for a few months, Coffey was approached by Insuh Yoon, the first photographer who stood out to her, in the spring of 2009.

Yoon’s primary tools are simplicity and sunlight, a style which produces shots that have become quintessential Coffey, including the first photo that Brad saw, shot in a rented studio in Greenwich Village. Yoon, who was born in Seoul and grew up in Queens, is benign in person, exuding a serenity that’s a blessing when dealing with new models. “I don’t consider myself part of the industry,” says Yoon, who takes graduation photos by day to finance his more artistic pursuits.

Coffey and Yoon spent a scorching summer day in 2010 at Coney Island with Layla L’obatti, of lingerie and loungewear brand Between the Sheets. Coffey rotated through a dozen outfits, changing inside a makeshift cover of shower curtains and plastic piping.

Yoon has since moved in a more explicit direction. He recently launched an “Anonymous Erotica” series, where he photographs nude women without revealing their faces or names, allowing them to fully embrace their sexuality. In some shots, Yoon puts his left hand into the frame, appearing to fondle or even penetrate his subjects with his fingers. But as Yoon recalls from his first meeting with Coffey, she was always adamant about staying clothed. She had drawn a line.

That barrier likely stemmed from an incident at the dawn of Coffey’s career. In early 2009, she went on a photo shoot with Vincent Arthur, an amateur photographer in eastern New Jersey. In a forum post on ModelMayhem the following year, Arthur describes working with a new model on her first nude shoot, around the same time he shot Coffey, and paying her “modestly.”

Arthur writes that he’d been contacted by the model two months after the shoot, requesting that he remove her name from the nude photos. She was worried that they would cause “problems” in the future, he adds. Arthur complied, but kept the images in his portfolio, and a year later they began circulating around the Internet and were linked to Coffey. He notes that the model—whom he never named publicly—offered to buy back the photos for the price of the shoot, but he hesitated.

“The photos in question are special to me because they were the best I had ever taken at the time. Some might think they still are. Either way, they were a breakthrough to another level in my development,” Arthur says in the post.

When he realized that the photos were being spread widely without his consent, he resolved to take action to have them removed. Arthur also eventually agreed to delete the photos from his website in exchange for the original fee and another clothed shoot with the model. But despite his efforts, the photos are still out there, like a scar that’s impossible to remove.

Coffey initially denied she was in the photos, but no longer does. Still, her actions, seen as a deception, prompted a maelstrom of callousness from her online followers, upset at a lie that they saw as a betrayal. One user on Reddit was indignant, posting that “she could have easily benefited from it. A public desire to see certain content from a person can easily be turned into money for the performer, but she ruined that possibility, and at the same time, a lot of her credibility.” Other users scolded each other for considering her a “pure thing,” while simultaneously lusting after other girls.

“I’m just trying to never mention them again, and maybe it’ll just go away,” says Coffey now. “There’s nothing I can do.”

The incident reflects the duality of Coffey’s relationship with her audience. She is adored as a feminine ideal, yet she’s often treated like a commodity rather than a human being. Perhaps that isn’t so different than being a big-time model.

Although Coffey is determined to evolve, there’s pressure to be complacent and give the crowd what it wants, which is typically a natural look, preferably in lingerie. Coffey braces for complaints when she’s photographed with heavy makeup, or when she tries something different, like dressing up in latex and brandishing knives. Yet another complaint is that she appears expressionless or aloof. She seldom smiles on camera, and almost never with teeth.

“The problem is, if you’ve already branded a look and somebody’s shooting you, that’s the look they want,” says Coffey. “A lot of times I get stuck in that.”

Coffey’s greatest artistic leaps have been with Alvina, the Toronto-based photographer, who was born in the Phillipines and studied photography at Humber College in Toronto. He learned the techniques of a lost age, film processing and darkroom development, but went on hiatus as digital photography became dominant. A friend rekindled his interest, and he moved into glamour shots. In an age of quantity, Alvina stood out to Coffey for his selectivity. He is picky in choosing collaborators, and each shoot becomes part of his endless pursuit of perfection.

*   *   *

On Nov. 29, 2009, when Coffey was 19, she and Alvina drove to the Essex County Jail, an abandoned brick prison, overrun by vegetation and graffiti, in Newark, N.J.

Built in 1837 and closed in 1970, the jail has become a magnet for the curious. For Alvina, a science fiction buff, urban exploration is not merely a glimpse into the past, but a look into the decaying future. “In a million years from now, this is what the world will look like,” he says.

Coffey and Sito Alvina at the Essex County Jail site (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)

Coffey and Sito Alvina at the Essex County Jail site (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)

He documented the trip and posted a video on YouTube, which now has over 100,000 views. Coffey wears a red Rutgers hoodie, jeans and thick black books and carries a bag of clothing and a point-and-shoot camera. She squeezes through a gap between the stone and corroded bars.

Parts of the building are shrouded in darkness, so Alvina switches to night vision, creating a sort of benign “Blair Witch Project” effect. Documents and debris are strewn across the floor.

Coffey gasps at deserted dining halls and grabs the files of an inmate for a souvenir. She punctuates her excitement with some profanity. The duo strides across a row of corroded prison bars and a mess hall, encountering a suspicious lump in a cell. The footage soon cuts to their departure.

Coffey in Essex County Hospital (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)

Coffey in Essex County Hospital (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)

In between, Coffey strips down to a striped shirt and underwear, braving the chill. She transforms from a giddy teenager into something more. It remains Alvina’s favorite shoot. “It was rewarding because she appreciated being there,” he says.

The following spring, Coffey and Alvina went to the nearby Essex County Hospital, an imposing brick complex in Cedar Grove, N.J., nicknamed Overbrook Asylum because it commands a view of the diminutive Peckman River. For decades, Overbrook served as a mental institution with a morbid history, before closing in 1975. The New York Times reported in December 1917 that its boilers failed, leading to the death of 24 patients.

Overbrook has had a restless afterlife. There have been various efforts over the years to convert the site into housing or parkland, and segments have been demolished. The Red Bank, N.J.-based developer Hovnanian Enterprises wants to erect new apartments, but remains locked in lawsuits with the township. A few buildings remain, stone ghosts in a world that has moved on.

The remains of the past—surgical masks, a broken scale and an out-of-tune piano—appear in another YouTube clip of Coffey’s photo shoot. On one wall, “Phantom” is spelled out in blue marker. Coffey wears a wedding dress, juxtaposing purity with the decay. Her hair is an elaborate tangle of maroon, courtesy of Selda Cortes, her favorite stylist, who accompanied the pair.

Cortes is a kindly hairdresser from Spain, who dreams of getting her work featured in Vogue and opening her own salon. When she was growing up, she would practice styling hair with her sister. “Girls always like to play with dolls. She was my doll. She was my sketch,” says Cortes. “I love people and making them feel comfortable.”

Cortes attended makeup school in Spain and began as a freelancer after moving to the U.S. She now works at a salon in Tribeca, but mixes in more artistic projects through online connections like ModelMayhem.

Like many, Cortes marvels at Coffey’s natural glow. “She has a unique look” Cortes says. “She transmits that.”

One of Coffey’s biggest gifts is that “she doesn’t need that much,” says Alvina. “What really charms me as a photographer is when I’m shooting someone, I don’t have to tell them what to do.” However, he hopes that she can become more assertive. As they moved around the hospital that day, he repeatedly adjusted her pose.

Selda Cortes and Coffey (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)

Selda Cortes and Coffey (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)

As the day faded, the trio prepared to depart, but they ran into one final obstacle. A policeman caught them as they returned to their car and began interrogating Alvina about why they were trespassing. He bluffed that he was practicing wedding photography outside and feigned ignorance about the hospital. They escaped.

Three years later, Coffey and Alvina have since collaborated in Toronto, where they shot the photos that appeared on the cover of  Maxim en Espanol. She’s crisscrossed the northeast and hopes for future trips to Europe and beyond. But most days, she wakes up at her parents’ house in suburban New Jersey and drives to classes at Rutgers that fail to excite her—at least compared to what she feels when modeling.

Coffey will graduate in January and faces a looming decision: build upon the fantasy or trudge into reality. “Am I going to pursue this?” she wonders. “Or am I going to get a job and accept my grown-up life?”

It’s clear which way her fans hope she goes. As one of them wrote recently on her Facebook wall, with no sense of hyperbole:

“Dear God, thank you for our Susan.”

*   *   *

Roland Li has written about business and culture for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and New York Observer. You can follow him on Twitter and see more of his photography here.