There was a time in my life when I was pretty much willing to do anything for money — as long as it was legal. As an aspiring writer living in New York City, it made sense to take work that gave me as much freedom as possible. Need a clown for your kid’s birthday party? No problem. Helicopter flight school bookkeeping? I’m your girl. I just never thought I’d end up modeling. My nose was too big for my face, my curly hair unpredictable; I didn’t think of myself as pretty. To say I wasn’t comfortable with my beauty would be an understatement. But what I lacked in confidence I made up for with adventure, so when a friend of mine told me about a guy who got people jobs modeling things like gloves, wedding gowns, lingerie and shoes, I thought it was a long shot but I went to see him anyway.
Abbott Kleinman was supposedly a legend in the body part modeling industry. I didn’t even know there was an industry for that kind of stuff, and I was slightly skeptical when I stood outside the dilapidated and slightly creepy building in the West 40s.
His office was the antithesis of what I’d expected of a modeling agency. It looked more like somewhere you’d go to hire a private investigator — dank and a little sad with gray walls and office furniture that looked like it was left curbside for trash pickup.
Abbott was more like his furniture than my idea of the legend he was supposed to be. He was quite old, which gave him a legendary credibility, but he was also no more than five feet tall, missing a few teeth, and his suit hung loosely on his frail body.
“Let’s see what you got,” he said, pulling out a tape measure.
It was weird being measured by a stranger, at first, but Abbott was like somebody’s kooky grandfather, chatting easily about all his “girls” whose pictures adorned the walls. They were pretty, and I was sure he would get around to telling me I wasn’t model material.
“Let’s see your feet,” he said matter-of-factly, pulling out one of those old-school, Buster Brown-style foot measurement contraptions.
It turned out I had the perfect feet for shoe modeling. Abbott knew everyone in the business and assured me I’d get work. I’d never been considered “perfect” for anything. As me and my perfect feet floated out of his office and into the life of a shoe model, at twenty-four I felt pretty for the first time in my life.
There are many kinds of foot models. “Shoe models” model shoes, while “fit models” work directly with the designers to make sure each shoe fits properly before it’s produced. There are also “show models” who walk in the footwear industry’s runway shows four times a year. These are not to be confused with “runway models” who walk the catwalk during fashion week. They are a whole different breed.
Each type of modeling requires a different shoe size. I’m a size seven, which is a good size for fit modeling. Typically, fit models wear a size six or seven, though some places will size up to an eight. These are considered best because they’re in between the smallest size (five) and the largest (eleven) so it’s easier to scale up or down from the prototype. My feet are thin, but not narrow. It also helps that my toes are all similar in length – no rogue pointers here! The work was not what I’d expected, though. While I was hired for my feet and their ideal measurements, the designers were counting on hearing what I thought about the shoe. At first I was shy and afraid to say anything that might be negative. I thought the right approach was to be upbeat and excited about the designs.
“They said your input wasn’t helpful,” Abbott told me when the very first company I fit for didn’t ask me back.
I was confused and a little bummed out because my idea of being a model was looking pretty and getting paid for it. I never thought I’d have to pay attention and have an opinion. That reality only added to the fact that I never felt like a real model, especially when people, after finding out, would say, “A model? Cool! Where can I see your work?” I’d then have to explain that while I was a model, I wasn’t the type you’d see in magazines.
I had to make a choice early on: Did I care about the image of being a model, or did I want to be the best damn fit model I could be? I chose the latter and began working exclusively (and regularly) with a few different shoe companies.
The money can be quite good — an average of $100 an hour — but freelance fit models don’t work consistently. Some weeks I wouldn’t work at all, and then the next I’d work almost every day. I couldn’t exactly count on it.
Plus, it was actually much harder work than I’d expected. Some days, I would be on my feet for six to eight hours in shoes that were in the early stages of design. That meant tight straps, steep pitches (like standing on your tip-toes), and uncomfortable soles. At the end of the day, my knees were hurting, my lower back tight and stiff, and my eyes sore from maintaining a pleasantly interested look all day long.
Don’t get me wrong, it was interesting, but it was work. Even though I was a fit model I still had to keep my feet well groomed and presentable to the public. Sometimes my pedicures wouldn’t match up with my schedule, so I’d carry around a sharpie that matched my toenail polish and “touch up” my feet on the way to fittings. It limited my choice in nail polish, but chipped toenails were a no-no in the business.
Upkeep goes way beyond your feet, especially when you’re fitting. There can be as many as ten people in the room during a session, and these people get up close and personal with your feet — and legs. Part of the design process is determining whether the shoe looks good for the leg in addition to the foot. Having smooth and newly shaven legs is a must. Nobody tells you that, but I never wanted to show up with hairy legs. A couple of times, I got called in after I’d left home which meant I had to get creative and somehow shave my legs on the go. (Thank you Zara dressing room in the Flatiron district.) I’ve spent many frantic moments pretending to try on clothes while dry-shaving my legs with a disposable razor purchased from Duane Reade.
Another perk was free shoes. One smaller company I worked for would sometimes ask if I preferred to be paid with shoes. I loved their designs and would almost always opt for the shoes. There’s also something about wearing a shoe made for your foot that fits perfectly.
Most of the designers I worked with were professional and quite human. I thought I had the skin for standing around and not flinching every time someone asked, “What’s up with the strap at her ankle? Doesn’t it look funny?” or “I don’t like the way the shoe sits on her heel.” I took it personally, albeit quietly. I handled it by secretly vowing to be better, more perfect. Of course, my feet were the constant in the mix — that’s what I was hired for. But that didn’t stop me from wanting them to be more perfect. Yes, my measurements were perfect for their needs, but that’s as far as my perfection went. Instead of embracing the job, I made it a measure of my worth.
What started as validation — being the perfect size — became a constant source of anxiety. I wasn’t perfect, no matter how pretty my feet were. The confidence I gained from being a model was flimsy. I couldn’t take the self-imposed stress of standing there always worrying that they’d find something wrong with my feet and fire me on the spot. Eventually I got tired of trying to remain perfect, shaving on the fly, homemade pedicures and the lack of structure in my life. Saying goodbye to shoe modeling was like taking off a heavy blanket that once felt good, but also weighed me down. I’m glad I did it, but I’m much happier just having pretty feet.
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Clay Hickson is a freelance Illustrator living and working in Chicago, Illinois. His work is influenced by 1980s post-modern design combined with a little Northern-California-New-Age-Hippy aesthetic and a splash of West Coast Airbrush. Aside from doing Illustration work, Clay runs a small publishing company called Tan & Loose Press.