I am in a house in Crouch End sitting on a strange sofa, in strange clothes, a ‘sophisticated housewife’ pretending to sip coffee from an empty cup. Every now and then someone comes over to change a cushion I’m leaning against or fuss with my hair. I gaze into the distance and laugh as though amused by an invisible guest.
It’s odd being back in front of a camera. Aeons ago, I did this for a living. Coming back to modelling after so long reminds me of the bizarre dual existence I once led. Yesterday, I resembled something out of Lord of the Flies, up to my knees in mud and rain as I dug up my vegetable patch. Today, I’m the focus of a fashion shoot.
During a break, I return to the make up artist, Connie, who has set up shop in a corner of the sitting room. Inexplicably, someone has thrown open all the sash windows and no one has thought to close them. It’s freezing. Connie’s suitcase is like a conjurer’s box, full of coloured palettes and brushes, hair products, strange looking pots and metal eyelash curlers. She is very focused on her job, her small hands moving across my face with efficient speed. My eyes, maddeningly, are watering and I keep having to dab at them. They have been irritated for months, due to chronic dryness, but since getting the tiny drains in my eyes plugged, all they do is water. It’s like I’ve got my eyes open at the bottom of a swimming pool; everything is blurry. I worry about spoiling the make up but Connie brushes my concerns away. Waterproof mascara, as I will later discover when I am back home and can’t get the wretched stuff off, does what it says on the packet.
With a final dab of my cheeks, Connie holds a mirror up to show me her handiwork. I study my reflection. Mmmm. My eyes look quite dramatic but I’m not sure about the lipstick which goes by the alarming name ‘toxic mandarin’ or how she has straightened my hair; the rather severe side parting makes me look like a school matron.
I put on a print dress which we shoot in the kitchen. Someone gives me a glass tumbler as a prop and off we go. The photographer, a quiet, slight-framed man sporting a neat mustache is a silent presence behind the lens. This does nothing for my confidence. It should be a collaborate affair. Instead I am forced to rely on instinct, feeling my way into the mood of each pose. What does he want; smily and relaxed or a little haughty? More varied angles? Am I elongating my neck enough? Are my hands fluid and soft? Who knows? It’s like playing one way tennis: the ball just doesn’t come back. I catch a glimpse of myself on the computer screen that has been hooked up to the camera. What I think is conveying soft and dreamy looks a little stern. I jiggle my jaw to release any tension.
When my eyes start to pool, Chloe brings over a tissue. I turn my head in a contemplative pose and gaze out of the window onto the small, patchwork gardens below.
‘Stay like that,’ the photographer says, vocal for the first time, ‘but bring your face a bit more to me.’
I do as I’m asked, edging my head towards the camera and stare at the side of the fridge but that’s the extent of the feedback. Not even an attempt at rapport. All I have to feed off is the rapid clicking noises of the camera.
Once the photographer is satisfied we have the shot, I climb three flights of stairs to the master bedroom and get changed. All the outfits hang from the door frames like strange works of art with the accessories laid out on the bed. The client selects a sleeveless, burnt orange dress which fits me like a glove. The jacket, an aboriginal print in a curious palette of pastel colours, however, is shapeless and at odds with the dress.
‘Doesn’t really work, does it?’ the client says, echoing my thoughts. She’s young and I can tell is new to the job. ‘I don’t want to lose the jacket though.’
I suggest holding the jacket against my hip instead of wearing it, demonstrating what I mean and she stops chewing her bottom lip, nodding her approval. I force my feet into the leopard print shoes which are, along with all the others, too small, throw on some jewelry and together we return downstairs.
The photographer has set up out on the small first floor balcony. It’s like stepping into the arctic. I start to shiver but try to think warm thoughts and force my body to relax, smiling into the lens. It’s frustrating getting so little feedback but I’m into it now and have to assume that if nothing’s been said, it’s because the photographer and client like what they see.
Back inside, I am given a cup of tea and slowly warm up. It helps that someone’s had the good sense to finally close the windows so the heating’s taking effect. The dining table is littered with various snacks; fudge cake, chocolate biscuits, plastic bottles of water, the usual suspects, but sugar will only give me a temporary boost. I’d rather have the rice salad I brought, unobtainable and keeping cool in the fridge.
The client tells me that one of the owners of the house is going out with the girl who plays Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones. This pricks my interest as I am a big fan of the books. It turns out that no one else has read them but they’re all mad about Prince Oberyn, one of the new characters in the latest TV series. I refrain from saying he’s not long for this world.
We move to a first floor bedroom for the next outfit. Half the room is taken up with lighting and camera equipment. There is a metal bed and an electric guitar prominently displayed. I stand next to the grey taffeta curtains and listen to what the client wants from this shot while the stylist uses a bulldog clip to stop the top I’m wearing from gaping at the front, while Connie applies another layer of lipstick. Then we’re off again. I alter my body position with each click of the camera trying not to notice the two disturbing paintings that dominate the white walls ahead. In one, a green devil with multiple mouths is eating naked people from a burning cauldron. The people are screaming.
‘Interesting choice,’ I comment during a break in shooting.
‘I think the owner’s mum painted them,’ the client says evasively.
Which explains why they haven’t been consigned to a local skip. Even so, I’m not sure that in Sansa’s shoes, I could even contemplate sleeping in this room. I’d have nightmares.
Connie curls my hair, then opens a flattish tin of what looks suspiciously like wax. Rubbing her hands vigorously together, she coaxes it into my hair to stop rogue strands from sitting up. I don’t say anything but wax is a bugger to get out. Washing it the normal way won’t work. It leaves the hair heavy and unyielding and frankly, you feeling suicidal. The secret is to apply baby powder before wetting the hair. Still, I have to admit the wavy look is an improvement, as are the pale, nude lips and dark, smoky eyes which I do my best to ruin with my dabbing.
As I take my place on the stairs landing, the photographer voices his approval and brings the camera in close. He makes encouraging sounds for the first time and I widen my eyes, hoping that the sudden pooling doesn’t look like I’m about to cry.
With two outfits remaining, we run out of time. Connie leaves – I know she has a small child to collect – but I agree to stay on. I’ve survived five hours on adrenaline, an extra half hour won’t hurt. And I might get some good pictures out of this. Both stylist and client rush about with added urgency, moving things out of the way while the photographer plays with the light. I make small alterations to my make-up. The wax has made my hair a little stiff so I add water to bring back the shape but I’m not sure it helps. Ironically, we do get the best shots, one with me in a dark green wool dress surveying my reflection in a cheval mirror, then of me lying across the bed, propped up on my elbows in capri pants and a pale blue sweater.
Suddenly, it’s all over. Everyone seems happy with the day, the mood convivial and relaxed now our jobs are complete. I change back into my own clothes, grateful to be wearing comfortable shoes after posing for so long in heels and rescue my lunch from the fridge. The photographer takes my number promising to email me some of the photos, then sets about dismantling the set.
I step out into the chilly afternoon sunshine, shoving on sunglasses to hide my make-up and head, unnoticed, for the tube.