a Timely Story of Sexism in the Seventies
Photo: Jaap de Graaf.
It’s 1973, and top model Janice Dickinson says to Bee Berger, “I’m Super Model, and you’re Stupid Model.”
Just two weeks out of high school, Bee leaves home and puts herself on the doorstep of Christa’s modeling agency in Paris. Climbing the stairs, big photographs of famous models intimidate her. Christa looks her up and down, flips through her portfolio and says, “too tall for us.” Bee says she works all the time in Holland. “Do you do nude?” Christa asks.
“I came for the couture shows,” Bee says, “and I don’t do topless.”
Bee has her eyes on the prize: becoming a fashion designer. Modeling is her entry into the profession, and the way to finance her dream. Nothing stupid about that. The modeling industry is fraught with sexism, but Bee’s pursuit of economic independence and a fulfilling career is powerful feminism; Bee is a Super Heroine for all time.
I spoke with author Barbara de Vries about her book, Stupid Model, which is described as a work of fiction based on actual events.
Wendy Townsend: How long did it take you to write the book and how much of it is autobiographical?
Barbara de Vries: With starts and stops, it took me 20 years to write and illustrate the book. Over time, Bee became a character, like an exaggerated version of myself. Most things in the book actually happened, and I handled them pretty much the way Bee does, but it is from the perspective of time that I can see the strength in her/my action. However, when it happened I just did what came naturally to me.
Cutting right to sex, I asked Barbara about one of my favorite scenes, where Bee takes complete pleasure in her sexuality, without apology, and kisses a photographer. It’s a safe place to do so. The photographer poses no threat, they’re both young, both working to take some great photographs that happen to be sexy, because that’s the industry, that’s the commodity, and the photographer gets Bee going, encouraging her sensuality and she enjoys it. He pulls out a furry rug and she really gets into it, rolling around “like Bridget Bardot,” and when he comments that it’s getting “cheesy,” she could be a cry-baby and act hurt, but no, she continues to work. She’s learning about posing for the camera while at the same time having the natural, human female experience of her own blossoming sexuality. And she responds by kissing the photographer. She’s neither seducing him, nor forcing herself on him. He hasn’t asked to be kissed, but he’s receptive; he returns her kiss. I don’t believe anyone could say the scene is sexist toward women, or men. It’s charming.
I grew up believing it wasn’t ladylike to kiss a boy unless he kissed you first. My mother didn’t teach me, it was just there. At school dances, girls were “wall flowers,” lined up waiting to be chosen by boys.
WT: I loved that you kissed the photographer spontaneously, how did it come about?
BDV: Without a role model father figure in my life, and a feminist mother, no one told me not to. It was all new to me and I was turned on by that first photo session and acted on it. There really were no voices in my head that held me back, and told me it wasn’t cool.
Illustration by Barbara de Vries. Photo: Jaap de Graaf.
Illustration by Barbara de Vries. Photo: Jaap de Graaf.
Photo: Clare Hunt.
When I was a young girl I studied the beautiful models in fashion magazines, and wondered if they were friendly, but was told they had a reputation for being bitchy. Stupid Model shows what it’s like being a model. Who wouldn’t be bitchy, navigating an industry where you’re constantly scrutinized and made to feel insecure, always comparing, wondering, am I beautiful, will I work?
Janice Dickinson is quite a force in the story; she’s rude and mean. Bee is scared of her, and when she says, “I hope I’ll work,” Janice responds to her sincerity. Putting an arm around her she says, “If you’re serious, you’ll work… Don’t be afraid to be super-ambitious.”
It seems that models can be ruthless and cruel with each other, but also compassionate. Fashion is, after all, the ultimate place where women are pitted against each other.
WT: Bee seems quite conflicted about Janice. Can you tell me more about that?
BDV: I was young and naïve and I wanted to like my roommates in Paris. Janice was scary but compelling. I rather hoped that she was a good person underneath all the bravado –she was incredibly funny but there always was a sense of danger about her. She took no shit from anyone and she just made me want to be stronger and more like her.
The most powerful scene in the book is when Bee has had enough of taking sexist shit from Courreges and confronts the famous couturier. After she’s been ordered to strip for him, been mocked for the way she moves on the catwalk, and the show’s hairdresser has cut off all her hair, she is summoned to the production office and told, “Monsieur Courreges no longer needs you.”
Wearing nothing but underpants and a scarf tied around her chest –which she loses along the way — Bee goes tearing through the building and shouts, “If Courreges doesn’t want me, he should have the guts to tell me so himself.” Chased by assistants and dressers down corridors and stairs, and finally through double doors, Bee finds “the maestro”: “…when I lurched at him I had the brief satisfaction of seeing fear. Maybe I scared him because I was so much taller, maybe it was my asylum-style hairdo or maybe he knew that, when our eyes met, he was in that moment the personification of all male rejection throughout my entire life.”
Someone grabs Bee and slaps her across the face and she is thrown out of the building. She packs her things and catches the six o’clock train home to Amsterdam.
Illustrations: Barbara de Vries. Photo: John Swannell.
WT: Representing patriarchy and sexism, Courreges rejects you/Bee, but he can’t stop you. Do you feel that’s at the heart of the story?
BDV: Yes! For years it was my go-to funny dinner party story. Like my most embarrassing but also defining moment. It’s when I took charge and started doing things my own way. It’s where I began writing the book and then I worked my way backwards and forwards. Of course my life didn’t get better for a while, but at least I had some kind of blueprint to work from, as in: “You don’t like ‘em? Fight’em!” The worst they can do is throw you out!
WT: Each page of the book is a collage of your drawings with photos and clippings from magazines and newspapers. You say that you’ve always kept a scrapbook and that when you were done with the text you felt “compelled to illustrate the whole experience.” Can you tell me more about this?
BDV: As a designer I’m a visually driven person. My journals always had more drawings, sketches of things I saw, clothes, buildings, patterns, than words. After writing the whole story it made sense to also illustrate it. At first there were just a few pages, but I couldn’t stop and really enjoyed creating each page as its own record of the events around Bee. It works a bit the way Instagram works, like a visual narrative of our lives, with humor and selfies and personal art – the way we would like our lives to look all the time. I also wanted to appeal to the sensibility of my kids’ generation and at the Miami Book Fair, young people were drawn to Stupid Model and really looked inside it, at each page and image.
In the acknowledgments de Vries says that her three daughters helped her remember what it was like to be 17, and are the motivation for finally getting the book out:
“They live in a world where, now more than ever, beauty is sold as the most important yet elusive thing in a woman’s life, and I wish they (all of us) could be more carefree about our looks.”
WT: Would you agree that the book is a love letter to your daughters, to the girl you were, and to women in general?
BDV: It is a celebration of being yourself as a woman, and finding the voice that best expresses this. As an older woman I can write about Bee/myself in an objective way. We are so self-unaware at that age, it is hard to remember what you didn’t even know yourself, so knowing my daughters better than I knew myself at 17 really helped. I think carefree is a good word right now. Everything is so intense and we are all so afraid to do and say the wrong thing. We judge each other heavily, but how about accepting that we are great as we are, individually rather than uniformly?
One of my favorite drawings in the book is of the clothes de Vries made for the Australian International Model show, the Waterland Collection. The clothes are playful, but never silly, they are tailored, showing off a woman’s form, yet they are comfortable. Carefree does come to mind. I think de Vries always had this wish for women. The clothes she designed, and the drawings in the book show it.
WT: Does what you create celebrate the strength and beauty of being female?
BDV: I think women who feel like themselves in the clothes they wear are sexy. I don’t know why this happened, but suddenly so many women are dressing like what they think is sexy – short tight dresses, dangerously high heels, too much cleavage etc. To me they look uncomfortable and stressed. My clothes always celebrated femininity rather than sex, although it would be hard to argue that the collections I did for CK at Calvin Klein were not also sexy.
WT: When did you start designing and making clothes? What was the first thing you made?
BDV: I started by making outfits for my Barbie and Skipper dolls. I was nine or ten years old. I filled sketchbooks with my designs. We lived in a big house in Amsterdam, and my mom rented out a room next to my room to a very short woman who made her own clothes. I was very tall and skinny for my age and had a hard time finding clothes that fit. She taught me how to sew and soon I was making everything from clothes for myself to my friends and boys in bands. Toward the end of high school I was also making clothes for boutiques in Amsterdam. I always wanted to become a fashion designer.
I love the part where Bee is getting on the boat with Jimmy –she’s his hostage, really—and she flirts with one of the caterers and Jimmy says, “Don’t flirt with the hired help. It’s low class.” And Bee says, “But dear Higgins, I am low class.” De Vries included a hysterical drawing of a hand rising out of the water flipping the bird beside a photo of the author smiling, and the words “flirting with the hired help.”
Illustration by Barbara de Vries.
WT: Is it like the rejection of the elite?
BDV: Maybe more a rejection of male authority than elite. Growing up in Amsterdam in the sixties I hardly knew what the elite was. Elitism had been more or less extinguished by World War II and socialism. You know that Dutch expression? When you act like a normal person you act silly enough? That was our motto. My father died when I was two, my stepfather ignored me for 15 years and eventually left with a much younger friend of my mother. My rebellion was against men. I had to prove that I didn’t need them.
WT: Did you have an easy time publishing this book?
BDV: Not at first. I had two great agents who tried to sell the manuscript to mainstream publishers, but their reaction was that I wasn’t a famous household name model. Like I hadn’t slept with Mick Jagger and hadn’t been on the cover of American Vogue. They wanted to publish gossip about other celebs. So on the cover of my book it says “Written by Me”, a tongue-in-cheek reaction to the celebrity branding culture. A good product is a good product and a good story is a good story. A celebrity name doesn’t change the content. It goes back to trusting yourself and your own voice, I’d like to appeal to readers who trust their own instincts and tastes rather than uniformly being told what to like and think by the various media in our lives.
I couldn’t agree more. I don’t really need to read stories about supermodels, I’m much more intrigued by a story about someone I can identify with, and that’s Bee. When I was young, I did try to model and I glimpsed Bee’s world. If I’d had Stupid Model back then, I would’ve been able to say, “Oh, so this is what it’s really about, this is the job, it’s what I can expect to do if I really want to make it.”
I could cry “spoiler alert,” but it’s not, because you have to read the whole story to find out how it all happens! Turning to the back of the book, one sees the cover of Cosmopolitan, Australian Vogue, and more. Bee is not perched on some pedestal of fame, she’s become a pro, and doing work she’s good at. This is the kind of girl I can relate to, a girl who is ambitious, and courageous and who achieves success. It’s not about becoming a superstar; it’s about fulfilling a dream of meaningful work that’s chosen by her, not for her.
WT: Books often come in categories, but it is hard to categorize Stupid Model. Is it a memoir? Fiction? A graphic novel? Is it for young or older women? Or men and boys?
BDV: Again, why try and make it predictable? Why not try and create something that has not been seen before? Celebrate individuality? At this point I am no longer fighting male authority but the culture of homogeneity. This notion that in the end every city, every mall, every neighborhood looks the same and every child thinks the same because of what they are being fed by their phones and computers, really scares me and needs to be challenged.
WT: What’s next? Are you working on another book?
BDV: Yes, I am working on a memoir about my days at Calvin Klein, where I was director of design and started the CK brand for Calvin. We first hired Kate Moss and essentially forever changed the way jeans and underwear are worn together. It was an amazing time and another period of my life that was transformational. So I enjoy writing about it and sharing it.