Swallowing Air – Being a Male Model is Like Being a Rock Star (without the talent)

Originally published in Warp magazine Australia (2012)

There’s a look you can see in a photographer’s face when they’re “asking” you to pose, that tells you this isn’t a serious job, and you’re not really important. In fact, you’re barely alive. When I first tried to become a male model, I was 18 and desperate to become an actor. The next time I tried, I was 26 and dating a model (…that didn’t work out). I saw the look each time, but my mind was riddled by youth so I didn’t think anything of it.

A million young men and women will pose for a professional and never notice this look, because modelling affects you too powerfully to have ever prepared for. Waves of self-importance, and validation, lap at your face and toes, you become enraptured by an idea, chained to a heavy hope, and submissive to a desperate trust in your looks. It just might ensure that your life won’t be as fraught with despair, uncertainty, struggle and loss as you’ve heard it is. After all, the world holds this up, you hold it up, as something special, and so it has to mean something, this “beauty”. But, then what?

For Andy Shelby, being a model was an excuse to feel in control, and to not feel; just another way of escaping any sense that he wasn’t the king of the world. In his mind though, it was about fucking the best looking girls possible, and not having to really work. I never knew him as a model, but I knew him well enough to understand the man he was while we lived in Amsterdam last summer; indulging the self, while claiming we were finding it. He wasn’t buff in any sense, just compact, toned, and proportional. He basically reminded me of a tanned Justin Timberlake, with a deeper voice. Worse than that, he only ever wore loose-fitting tank tops, and he took them off whenever he could. Even when they were on, he’d typically be playing with the sides, or lifting it all up to wipe off negligible amounts of sweat,

“I don’t know man, I run hot. I’m always hot. It kind of sucks sometimes, because I get so sweaty but like, the girls man, they like my body and everything….Last night, I was fucking this one girl, for like half an hour, and I’d had one of those pills and I hadn’t come yet, so I was dripping sweat on her, I mean burning hot, and she goes, ‘You’re on fire. You’re fucking me so hard, but you’ve gotta stop.’”

When I think of him now, I think of a clawing sensation, an abominable libido on the verge of assault, a constant desperation for money, tobacco, booze, drugs, or whatever anyone else had which he didn’t. Still, above all that, you’d like him right away. He bullied you into it but most people didn’t resist since there was a hidden shyness making him charmingly aloof.

He claimed he’d done close to seventy shoots within six months, meaning he was lying. Still, I believe that he worked for an agency, doing the kind of 1-3 day shoots I’d done for brands we’d never heard of, or at best knew in passing. Yet, that meant being around guys who worked with real names like Calvin Klein, and his obsessive jealousy overshadowed all of Andy’s crappy anecdotes. He pined for a job like that, with just a lazy desire for something to be given to him. He didn’t know what it was like to work, he didn’t even know that the guys who did that work found nothing lasting or satisfying in it, nothing but what they gave themselves. There just isn’t enough beyond the lens. You have to do something else, go into another industry to fill in the guts beneath a fragile surface, which spasms under the whims of passing trends. The eerie reality only seemed to flicker into my peripheral as I was looking arrogantly at my portfolio shots for the first time, and later it popped my eardrums with a flash while I was spending the money. It felt like being a Rock Star, except that I had nothing lasting to show for it. Modelling for an artist in a respected piece seemed valuable, yet you held only the seeds of whatever became of the piece your efforts, in an appearance, were pointedly ephemeral. If you wanted to last you needed more, you needed to step beyond.

Andy however, was setting up to chase it all, burn out, and never even know why. He was just a 20 year old kid who couldn’t grow facial hair, owed everyone serious sums of money, and had delusions of being a professional athlete, no education nor any job skills.

My last memories of him form a static, mangled journey from smoking a joint at a bar with friends and various girls, to walking into the dawn, unsure I’d ever see him again:

Another familiar start with a few friends and eating a pill we are fairly sure is going to be laughably mediocre ecstasy. Sitting in a doorway with a different friend while talking to Dutch girls we’d just met on the street. Feeling my skin itch and suffering waves of uneasiness in my stomach. On to a new bar. Andy has been doing coke, and he drank my beer. Laugh at each other’s inability to make sense. A girl won’t do a body shot unless she can drink it off of me. The guys laugh at me, but it felt good. Smoke a joint in the smoking room. Andy has been doing a lot of coke. He’s paranoid about people following him. He flips from rubbing his chest, singing along to Justin Timberlake as though it’s a deep, deep song, to wanting to fight a guy in the corner that’s up to something. His voice had a cutting tension to it, as though someone was stepping on his chest, but that wouldn’t explain the coldness in his eyes; big and flicking around above a grinding jaw. It’s almost 3am. I can’t piss in the tiny men’s room because it feels weird. I leave the bar to find an alley. I don’t come back for 20 minutes. The other friend who ate the pill is laughing after every oddball sentence and stroking people as he talks. I think the pill is weird, but a lot is going on. I think about having one more drink and finishing a thought, then going home. Andy has been dealing coke all night, and ripping the buyers off. I snatch a fifty saying,

“I think you owe me this remember?”

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, man?”

“You owe me another two hundred, I need this, ok? Good.”

“You better give that back!”

It goes on for a few beats, then he is trying to strangle me against the wall with our friends either side. I mutter “Thank you” to the Dutch police officers that are gruffly standing me up and patting me down for weapons. Andy is held firmly by two cops as a third questions him. I can hear broken lines of rapid-fire bullshit as he refuses to empty his pockets. I smile and the air fills my lungs easily while I try not to laugh, wishing I could take a photo of him now.

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