Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007
My friend Kelly needed a nude model. She was profiling an artist for a TV segment she was producing and needed someone for him to paint. Nude. I was not at the time, nor have I ever been a nude model. Yet for some reason I was her first call.
“You’re perrrrrfect for this, Cole,” she cooed in a frighteningly convincing tone that only TV producers possess. I was not perfect for this; I hate myself and am not frequently naked in front of strangers. But still she went on. The sell was easy—he was an abstract artist, so it’s not like there would be pictures of me all over the Internet that would interfere with a future in politics or as star of High School Musical 3. She appealed to my vanity: I would be on national television, and when it was all over, I would get to keep the painting. I would be art. Cool.
And wasn’t it a sexy, adventurous thing to do? Or to have done? To tell your grandchildren? While it wasn’t necessarily something on my Life List—traveling, skydiving—I had to concede it was intriguing. It was sexy. To be that woman. Carefree. Unselfconscious. Bold.
I was definitely not that woman now. I was already worrying that cubism might make me look fat. But maybe I could be that woman. For a few hours, at least.
Suddenly, the picture crystallizes effortlessly in my mind. A Paris loft. High ceilings, open windows, white, gauzy curtains blowing in the breeze. Draped naked—no, nude—across a luxurious chaise. There are pillows involved. I’m eating grapes. A gorgeous, young art student with a shy smile and dark eyes. Jean-Claude. No—Jean-Paul. He looks at me intently. I tell him I’ve never done anything like this before. “Shhh, shhh,” he says. But in French. We don’t speak. His looks at me from the top of my head down to my toes, slowly as if trying to register each line and curve of my body. It’s not sexual, but it is very, very intimate. I feel simultaneously embarrassed and excited. He looks at me as if I am already a piece of art that he is trying to interpret and digest. We are like this for hours. And while nothing happens, it is like making love.
Um, where was I?
Right. Kelly’s TV segment … the day of the shoot.
I keep the 1890, Anais Nin-fantasy firm in my mind as I climb the seven flights of half-broken stairs in the dank building in New York City’s East Village. It smells like a mix of turpentine, sawdust, and rotting corpse. It’s June and I’m sweating my ass off already. Still, I think of the Paris loft that waits at the top of these stairs. Walking down the long, dark hall, following the sound of voices and the clatter of equipment being set-up, I think of Jean-Paul, and his kind eyes. “Shhh, shhh …”
I enter the studio and I am face to face with WHORE!—what appears to be the artist’s masterwork. It takes up an entire wall: the word “WHORE” in blood red—paint, I hope—underlined, with an exclamation point for emphasis. As if the word “WHORE” taking up an entire 8×10 wall didn’t get the point across, he added an exclamation point. I can’t take my eyes off it. I realize I am going to be killed today and I think about all the things I should have done in my life: Traveling. Skydiving. Posing nude. Just maybe for a different artist.
The television crew is setting up lights. The studio is dirty and relatively bare except for the angry paintings on the wall, some which appear unfinished, blank canvases being stretched. The only furniture is a rectangular folding table with paints and brushes. There is no place to sit, much less drape yourself. There is paint and cans and jars of paint everywhere. It’s the kind of room where you understand that no matter how careful you are, there’s no way you’re going to walk out of there not completely covered in paint.
I notice a distinct absence of pillows and grapes. I see the man who must be the artist. He’s slight and harmless-looking, grungy, not unattractive, with dark hair and eyes. He is talking to the audio guy. I stand in the doorway. Everyone stops what they’re doing. They look at me. They follow my gaze to the WHORE! painting. They look back at me.
“Cole’s here!” Kelly breaks the silence and comes over to greet me. “Thanks for doing this,” she says under her breath, then to the room with a forced squeal, “We’re so excited!” To the camera guy, “This is Cole, she’s the model.” She punches the word “model,” and I feel the weight of the subtext.
“Hello,” I want to say. “You’re going to see me naked in 15 minutes.” Kelly introduces me to the artist. Hello. You’re going to see me naked in 15 minutes. On the one hand it seems pointless for me to be wearing clothes even now, yet I also feel it is very, very important for me to keep my clothes on as long as possible. Part of me doesn’t want to do this anymore. But it’s like standing at the end of a cold swimming pool. Jump!
I try to make light of it. The cameraman films shots of the studio. Every time he passes, I pretend I’m about to strip. The artist and I make small talk. Then we’re interrupted.
“Who’s Lindsay?” the cameraman asks as he zooms into one painting on the wall. I walk over to check it out. The painting has little notes glued into it … “I hate Lindsay. I hate Lindsay. You are a bitch, why did you leave me?” I glance uneasily at the cameraman. He mouths “eek.” I am suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude that there is an entire TV crew present to film me while I am posing nude for this guy.
“This girl,” the artist answers. “This girl I met at a coffeehouse.” He sighs and seems like he doesn’t want to talk about it. No one presses. “Stuck-up bitch,” he continues. “I don’t know who she thinks she is. You know, girls act like they like you and then one day …” he stops. I am hoping Lindsay was not the last woman to model for him.
It’s time for me to take off my clothes. I kind of wish there were a changing room, not that there would be any point in that. I’m pretty sure that in the Jean-Paul fantasy there’s a changing room and I re-enter the studio in a robe, which I then let fall to the floor elegantly.
It’s strange for the people in the room to be watching me, but equally as absurd for them to turn away. What’s secret about the act of me undressing, when they ‘re going to see me naked in seconds? Yet for some reason this feels so personal. The only people who’ve watched me undress have been people I was sleeping with. Usually right after they watch me undress.
I take off my shirt, trying not to make eye contact with the cameraman, the audio guy, the production assistant, and the artist. Kelly and I look at each other in disbelief. We laugh. I unbutton my jeans. She puts her hand over her mouth as if to say, “Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re really doing this.”
I’m standing in my bra and underwear. There is seriously no turning back. Bra. Underwear. Now I am naked. Okay.
The artist walks over to his canvas. The cameraman adjusts a light. The audio guy picks up his boom. Suddenly no one seems to notice me. “HELLOOOOOOOOO!” I call out. “I’m naked!!!”
I stand there before the artist. It immediately feels as if we are alone. It’s awkward, sure, but strangely, I no longer feel exposed, as if it’s the most natural and normal thing in the world for me to be standing naked in front of this man. He doesn’t say anything for what feels like a long time. Just looking at me.
“You’re beautiful,” he says, softly.
In any other circumstance, I would respond with an uncomfortable laugh, or—more likely—I would tell him he’s full of shit, tell him to shut up. But when he says this, I am strangely touched. I simply thank him. Part of me—for one brief, brief moment of self-love—agrees with him.
He tells me to pick a pose I can hold for a while. In a big “fuck you” to any feminist ideals I might hold, I fall immediately, and without thinking, into a total pin-up pose—standing with my legs slightly apart, back arched, hip cocked to the right, arms up, bent at the elbows, and resting on my head.
“I like it,” he says, “it’s sexy.” I roll my eyes.
He stands at the giant, blank canvas. He looks at me, then at his paints, then the canvas again. He takes up the brush.
It’s so fucking hot in the studio, already I can feel individual beads of sweat—under my breasts, down my stomach, the inside of my thigh, under my arms going down the side of my body. Moving only my eyes I peek at the painting. I see broad strokes of lavender curves. The artist tells me to look at him, not the work. I try, but apparently not hard enough, because he tells me again several times.
He looks sometimes at my body, but mainly into my eyes. It’s too much for me to meet his gaze directly, but there’s nowhere else to look. We don’t speak. It’s not sexual, but it is very, very intimate. I feel simultaneously embarrassed and excited. He fixes on me as if I am already a piece of art that he is trying to interpret and digest. We are like this for hours.
Then he’s done. The painting is beautiful. Eight-feet high. She is all curves—lavender with rose-colored breasts, long hair with wild waves of yellow and red and blue. She is goofy and at the same time lovely and strong. To an outside eye, in no way identifiable as me, but I look at her, through his eyes, as if into a cartoon mirror. I marvel how this is different from every other painting in the room. His style is angry, red. Violent, angular brush strokes. This is the opposite. He surveys the work and tells me he’s never painted with these colors before. I look at the painting again and wonder, Did something happen between us in these hours? Did he capture something? Is there some essence unique to me that came through there on the canvas?
I’m giddy. I still haven’t put my clothes back on. The cameraman is changing tape. I had completely forgotten the crew was there. They seem awkward and silly in their clothes.
I can’t wait to have the painting in my house. The artist tells me it will take a day or two to dry. Rats. I hadn’t thought of that. He asks me if I will come back to pose for him again—he’ll pay me—and he wants to do an entire show. I’m hooked.
Leaving the studio, hitting the cool, night air I come down to earth. Do I really want to go back alone to that remote, dirty studio where no one can hear me scream? My cell phone is ringing. It’s the artist. He tells me what a great time he had and how much he loves the painting and he hopes he can paint me again. I thank him and tell him I love the painting and I had a great time too. When I come out of the subway about 30 minutes later, there is a voicemail from him. Telling me what a great time he had and how much he loves the painting and he hopes he can paint me again soon. I don’t call back. Ten minutes later, he calls again. He asks if I got his message and wants to set up a time for me to come back and pose for him. I tell him I’ll call him tomorrow. An hour later he calls me back. I don’t pick up; he doesn’t leave a message.
He calls the following day and asks when I can pose again. I ask him if the painting is ready for me to pick up and he tells me I can get it when I come back to pose. I ask him if I can bring someone with me. He says that won’t work. It’s officially weird now. I think of “WHORE!” I gently tell him I have to go. He continues to leave messages. At first he asks me about posing; when his calls go unreturned the messages turn angry, telling me I’m “like all the other girls.” I hope he’s not referring to “all the other girls” he’s killed.
What happened to the feelings from those few hours in the studio, feeling a part of this secret, artistic transcendence? What happened to this creation that happened because of him and me?
After two days, he stops calling. I realize I’m never going to get the painting. I’m pissed, but at least I’m not tied to a radiator in his basement being skinned alive. It’s important to weigh the pros and cons.
Kelly got laid off shortly after the piece aired, so I never received a tape of the show. Even though all I did was pose nude, in some way I feel like I got a little screwed. Which, of course, is how the Jean-Paul fantasy ends. Just a little differently.