Swallowing Air

Male modelling feels like being a rock star without the talent.

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 and 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 while we lived in Amsterdam last summer; indulging the self, but claiming we were finding it.

Now, Andy was not a gym junkie, or even buff in any sense. His body was compact but proportional, toned, and above all, infuriatingly without fat, and he basically reminded me of a more 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.
When I think of him now, I think of a clawing sensation, an abominable libido on the verge of assault, a constant lack of, and thus a desperation for, money, tobacco, booze, pot, or whatever anyone had which was possible to “share”. Still, above all that, and as tepid as his mind was, you’d like him right away. He bullied you into it really, and most people didn’t resist since there was an underlying (and aggressively protected) shyness making him seem aloof.

The one time I sat with him, specifically to talk about modelling, he said everything flippantly, pushing me to rethink my questions, and making himself seem unfazed by anything. The details he took special care to illustrate gave him away easily. Whether or not I believed the anecdotes he told – of easily sleeping with female models after shoots, or smoking pot before shoots in the alley, or even how quickly he would be in and out of a given shoot – I knew that he was bragging too heavily. All the while his head was downcast toward the coffee I’d bought him, and he’d only peek up every now and then with a hope for approval, or at least admiration. Maybe I slipped up when I told him that I’d simply given up on modelling, because I couldn’t pry any tangible details from him about his own career, or why it was now over. Instead, he turned the discussion toward his hopeful snowboarding career and how much more fun it was going to be, once the winter season began.

The figure he tossed off, like a torn up chocolate wrapper, was close to seventy shoots within six months, meaning he was lying. Still, I believe that he worked for an agency, alongside guys who ended up working with names such as Calvin Klein, only because of the jealousy overshadowing those anecdotes. While his friend had been blasé about the job offer, and almost turned it down because it might mean missing out on an important game his football team had coming up, Andy pined for a job like that. It was an International brand paying close to six figures. Moreover, it offered ongoing work, as opposed to the 1-3 day shoots he and I’d had for brands you’d never heard of, or at best knew in passing. Work like that though, gave you nothing lasting or satisfying, and all the models would be left anxiously high from shoots, paid too much for too little effort, which their young minds couldn’t handle. In that anxiety, they chased the brief high of being adored and made to look superhuman in print, with the even briefer, but far more potent highs of sex and drugs and music.

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 modelling. Andy, however, was setting up to chase it all, burn out, and never even know why.

In Amsterdam, he spent a lot of time hanging around with me, and originally, I thought it was because I was such a good guy to drink and chase women with. Then, after a month of knowing each other, and one bastard of a party, he owed me what’s best identified as a fortnight’s worth of rent (at a nice apartment). After showing no signs of remorse, or of paying me back, I realised that he liked me because I was trusting, and relaxed with money. When I took my grumblings to the streets, I discovered that he borrowed money from anyone he could, including two of our bosses, and never paid it back. Over the next three weeks my fury and indignation transitioned into an ethereal pity for what was a 20 year old kid, who couldn’t grow facial hair, had delusions of being a professional athlete, no education, and no job skills.
My last memories of him are static. They show the mangled journey from smoking a joint and drinking at a bar with friends and various girls, to walking into the dawn, unsure I’d ever see him again. A familiar start to the night. Sitting in a doorway with a friend while talking to Dutch girls we’d just met on the street. On to a new bar. Andy 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'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. I think about having one more drink then going home. Andy has been dealing drugs 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 still have enough for the night and tomorrow? 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 don’t really believe he is serious and since my neck is pretty thick, he has no purchase to cut off airflow, then one of the girls pushes him off. One of our friends says he’ll hold him down while I run around the corner. What do you do? Give an addict money you’ll never see again and hope he calms down? Fight him knowing you could probably win, but not without taking some damage yourself? Or run away?

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 either side while a third questions him. I can hear his broken lines of rapid-fire bullshit and the breaths of air go down easily while I try not to laugh, wishing I could take a photo of him now.
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