I Was A Nude Model (Cosmopolitan, April 1969)
I Was A Nude Model
From Cosmopolitan, April 1969
I kissed perfect strangers for romance magazines…I shot faithless lovers for detective pulps…and then I was discovered by Playboy.
A lively chronicle by Alice Denham
The first time I posed nude I was scared to death.
I had done pin-up jobs- brief but not bare - for magazines, advertising layouts, and record-album overs. But often, when .my model agency sent me to see a photographer, he’d say, “With your body, you should do figure modeling.” When I asked, “What’s that?” he’d say something like, “Nude, you ninny, sans clothes, topless.”
I avoided the issue as long as possible. I had become a model to support myself while writing my first novel, not to parade around naked. Finally, even my trusty agent said to me, “If you expect to make a living in this business, you’d better do figure modeling.” Modeling, you see, is geared entirely to physical type. If you’re a string bean, you do fashion modeling; if you look sweet and all-American, you’re a housewife type - good for TV commercials; if you’re large bosomed, you either do figure modeling or forget it.
So there I was, waiting alone in my isolated top-floor apartment for the photographer for the photographer to arrive for my first nude-modeling job. The photographer, Larry Fried, had insisted on the apartment rather than his studio, to get a natural home background. He had also warned me not to put on any clothes that would leave marks on my body. All clothes leave marks on my body - bras, half-slips, panties, garter belts, skirts, and hip buggers; obviously the young lecher was setting me up for a seduction. (Seduction I didn’t mind, when conducted directly; but when disguised as photography it seemed rather threatening.) What could I wear? I settled on a plain, totally opaque housecoat.
Larry came in, sweating from the four flights of stairs, smiling is gentle, friendly smile (disguised lust, I had no doubt). He prowled around the apartment picking shooting areas, set up his equipment, and announced we’d use only natural light from open windows (so we don’t turn on lights, and the neighbors can’t see and he can pounce on me when he wishes, I thought). At that point in my career I knew nothing about makeup and fixed my hair like someone who’d been living in a tree for the past ten years.
We began shooting, and when Larry aimed the camera at me, I couldn’t help feeling it was a sort of phallic weapon. So eager it was - click, click, click - and Larry was so close. He kept sweating, the camera shook, and Larry’s eyes bulged strangely. When we ended up shooting setups of me on the bed, I was terrified; I had my arms crossed tightly over my bosom and my legs tucked defensively up beneath me.
As it turned out, Larry’s use of natural light was lovely and sculptural; the shots were quickly sold, and I was launched as a nude model. Larry explained that I looked so scared I seemed virginal and susceptible, which helped sell the pictures. Later, he confessed it was the first time he’d ever shot a nude model and he was frightened himself.
Then, gradually, I realized that I might have to keep doing this. Oh, God, I thought, what am I doing in this business? In some ways I had the same feelings I had when I ceased to be a virgin. But few part-time occupations pay as well as modeling in the nude. Would I really rather be a waitress, an airline stewardess, or a hostess at the U.N.? Should I give up the novel entirely and try to get a full-time writing job? I had written radio commercials before. No, I decided; I’d stick it out for as long as it took me to do the novel.
How does a girl get into any kind of modeling? In my case, simply by wanting to and asking about it. My first short story had been published when I lived in Nevada, and, thus encouraged, I moved to New York to tackle a novel. I hadn’t consciously planned to model (but then, why did I have all those color shots taken of myself?). I’d planned to write copy again (but then, why didn’t I take that job when it was offered?)/ One night my actress-roommate and I went swimming with a girl who modeled. I asked her if she thought I could model, too. “I don’t really know,” she said, “Go see my agent.”
I did, and he looked at the color shots. “Have a composite made,” he suggested, and without daring to ask what that was, I said O.K. A composite turned out to be three or four shots of the would-be model in different poses, printed on a single sheet; you have fifty or a hundred made up. You then leave those with photographers, ad agencies, and magazines when the interview you. The interviews are called “go-sees.”
Modeling may seem glamorous, but it’s rather like being on a continual job hunt. My feet hurt just thinking about it. For every little one-hour job, your model agency may send you to see any of the following: the photographer, ad agency, magazine, manufacturer, casting director of the TV commercial firm. You smile, chat, and show your scrapbook of photographs in competition with what seems like half the other models in town. Naturally, you’re all dolled up, every hair in place; perspiration does not form on your pretty face nor does city soot smite your brow. The investment in clothes, makeup, shoes, and taxis is the same whether you’ve interviewed for a one-hour job or a six-day on-location stint. And the competition is enormous. After a year of calling on hundreds of possible employers, I learned to be very selective, and I only went on go-sees when the jobs seemed to fit my type.
Nude modeling ranges from the sublime to the censored - from the artful, soft-focus nude (the kind you see in fashion magazines) that makes you glad to be a woman to the sort of bizarre junk that is sold under the counter in the seedy parts of town. (Let me raise my right hand now and say that I’ve never posed for the latter.) Most figure models work for both commercial and amateur photographers. A model’s prestige depends on her commercial jobs, but about a third of her income is from the amateurs - or hobby photographers. She may also work for commercial artists who do not sketch her from life; they work from a photograph.
There are three general categories of nudes: the Arty Nude, the Sexy Nude, and the Kooky Nude. They overlap. The Arty Nude - no clothes, either soft focus or very contrasting lighting, serious face - is done for fashion magazines and perfume ads and photography competitions. It is elegant and by far the best class of photography. Such jobs are done by high-fashion photographers and pay the most - seventy-five to one hundred dollars an hour. A girl who can land five such jobs a year is a star.
The Sexy Nude - little exotic bits of costume and a big Marilyn smile, usually in color - represents 75 percent of the business and is done for and by almost everybody. Mainly, you see Sexy Nudes in pin-up magazines, men’s adventure magazines, and trade magazines; or on record-album covers, paperback book covers, calendars, in sales brochures and presentations, mailing pieces, advertising shows, and amateurs’ pockets - almost everywhere that women don’t look and men do. The quality of the Sexy Nude depends a lot on the girl who does it. If she looks pretty and sweet, so does the picture; if she looks hard or cheap, the picture will too.
Now, the Kooky Nude - humorous costumes, props, or situations - was my favorite. Example: I posed as an Indian, wearing only a feather headdress and ankle bracelet, being dragged off as a trophy by a male Puritan, who was fully dressed in black - this for a record cover. Sexy and Kooky assignments pay fifty to sixty dollars an hour.
While we’re on the subject of money, there’s a lot of lying about the money models make. I knew one figure model who never worked for less than one hundred fifty dollars an hour. I was impressed until I discovered she never worked. Generally, I received fifty to sixty dollars an hour from commercial photographers, and charged the amateurs forty dollars for two hours (my “two-fers,” a boy friend called them). At the same time, of course. I also modeled fully clothed. For that I get forty dollars an hour, but those sittings were few. The less I had on, it seemed, the more in demand I was. Eventually, I found I could live on two or three jobs a week while writing the novel.
After a model gets her first composite made the modeling agency is apt to send her on go-sees to all the detective and romance magazine. Most models get their start that way - a sort of on-the-job training in how to project wildly, for the camera. For the romance magazines I kissed perfect strangers, and for the detective pulps I shot faithless lovers. If you think the illustrations are pretty gory and tasteless, well, everyone involved in publishing them is quite cynical and amused by it all. I soon began to take these assignments as lightly as the people who assigned them, and meanwhile I was learning valuable pointers about facial expressions.
At some stage a model may be, as I was, discovered by Playboy. To tell it straight, I discovered them. Looking at the magazine, it seemed obvious to me that they wanted their Playmates to project as girls who would not take their clothes off in the course of their normal work. I had my literary agent propose the idea that they reprint my short story and use me as Playmate-of-the-Month in the same issue. They could say I was a writer, and prove it with my story. Playboy bought the idea and flew me to Chicago, where Hugh Hefner (himself) met me at the airport.
This was in the early days of the magazine, and Mr. Hefner was a fledgling publisher, as I was a fledgling model. (I doubt that he is still meeting planes). Probably neither Mr. Hefner nor I would have thought the shots we ended up using, good enough, a year later. The black-and-whites (clothed) were shot by a news photographer in a tiny office with a sixty-watt bulb dangling overhead. The color pictures came out fuzzy but passable. I pretended to be casual, yet modeling nude, at the time embarrassed me. It was always easier if the photographer was an older, daddy type. In this case he was but Mr. Hefner was there, to. Onward and upward with the arts!
Somehow - I can’t imagine how - I neglected to inform my mother of my impending appearance in Playboy, but a helpful cousin showed the magazine to her when it came out. Mother reacted promptly and predictably. “Stop that dirty nude modeling,” she wrote! Since I had become addicted to eating and paying the rent, I pretended I hadn’t received the letter.
If Larry Fried launched me, Playboy magazine established me. By late 1956, having just appeared as a Playmate, I found modeling jobs much easier to come by. I began to hit the pin-up magazine pages regularly. Then I moved up the invisible ladder to the Arty Nude and Kooky Nude. I posed nude for a typewriter manufacturer, a chewing gum company, a national magazine, and a major newspaper. You never saw them? No. Because they show these pictures where the boys are and the ladies aren’t: at sales meetings and advertising shows. The pictures for the national magazines were poses of me stripping out of an old-fashioned costume into a towel. They were put on a pinwheel at an advertising show and tagged “ad exposure is the key to sales.” I was wearing a gorgeous blue-and-pink feathered hat: I held a book that partially covered my bosom.
So what was the attitude of the writers who were my friends at the time and of men in general about my nude modeling? The young writers thought it was a gas. Most of them worked at other jobs, too, and felt I’d hit on a great five-year plan for writing a first novel. As for men generally, a casual introduction at a party might go:
HOST: “This is Alice Denham. She’s a model.”
ME: “And a writer.”
HE: “What do you model?”
ME: “I’m working on a novel.”
HE: “Wait a minute now. I’ve seen your picture. You’re a nude model.”
HE: “How about dinner?”
For the most part very few men were shocked by my modeling, and many were rather titillated. The fact that I seemed to be intelligent helped to minimize any bad effect. One thing is sure: Being a nude model is a good way to meet men. They hear about you and out of curiosity want to meet you. You can tell the bad types almost instantly. They’re the tough-voiced guys who phone blind and say “Charlie from L.A. told me to look you up.” “Charlie who?” you ask. “What’s it matter, baby?” they say, thinking you’re in another business. You, of course, hang up. (It’s best for a nude model to have an unlisted telephone number.)
Contrary to the popular image, most commercial photographers are as sweet as lambs. A few have temper tantrums, but usually photographers are extremely easygoing and take great pains to help a model feel relaxed. They know they will get a better facial expression if you’re not tense. On a figure job, everybody in the studio takes special care to treat you like a princess in her bath.
Once when I was asked to pose for a bubble bath ad, the photographer was just a little too nice to the people who hired him; he told the account executive from the agency he could bring the account men to “supervise” (this means watch) and the account men also brought the client. And there they all were - eleven men on a bench in the back of the room - waiting for the show to begin. Now, modeling nude is not the same as being a stripper or a topless waitress; though many people see the results in a magazine or o film, the actual shooting is rather private. When I emerged on the set and saw them all there, I was so annoyed I asked, “How’s the rogues’ gallery?” They had the grace to appear embarrassed, and after my outburst they hardly dared glance at me.
To my surprise the chewing-gum modeling job led to a go-see for a TV commercial. The gossip in the business is that if you do figure modeling, no one will hire you for commercials. It just isn’t true. I got the commercial job, which paid seven thousand dollars in residuals over a two-and-a-half-year period and took only half a day to shoot. (We ciykd gave finished it in an hour, but TV commercials are produced like minimovies. We had our own rancorous, cigar-chewing director with beard and beret, and enough crew to shoot a convention riot.) I was a bar girl wearing a candy-striped dress who did little more than entice a cowboy who entered the saloon set; I flipped his gun aside and threw him a pack of that dandy, chomping gum. At the last moment the agency panicked about my cleavage and placed a lace-handkerchief barricade across the top of my dress.
When I got home, I got ten phone calls, from strange men, considerably more than usual. I guessed what was up, and it had nothing to do with the commercial I’d just shot. Later that evening, several amateur photographers with whom I regularly worked also called, “What magazine?” I asked wearily. “Nugget,” they told me, a “six page spread.” That’s usually how I found out I was on the stands in some sort of reprint. Inevitably, two days later, I got another imperative note from Mother: “You must stop that filthy nude modeling!” The Puritan ice may be melting in most Americans’ veins, but not in Mother’s. I could understand, but I couldn’t do what she wanted.
The more magazines you’re in, the more work you get from amateurs. After each magazine appearance, you’re in their limelight. Some amateurs are not altogether easy to handle. I worked with them at supervised rental studios and for their camera clubs. Those I trusted I let shoot in my apartment - my “two-fers” at two hours for forty dollars. Since the amateur has no commercial use for his pictures, now and then it would occur to one of them that he could visit a call girl for less than he paid me. I’d smile and say, “Yes, but I’m paid to frustrate, and that’s much more expensive.” I always acted very businesslike and went from one costume- or lack of it - to the next, rapidly. I offered coffee but never a drink. I’d found that if I gave anyone a drink, he would want to talk for hours afterward - usually about how awful or how wonderful his wife was.
Sometimes, before these jobs with the amateurs, I’d be putting on my makeup and deciding on costumes, and think, this is really bizarre! Here I am, alone in my apartment, fixing my face and hair as if for a date, but then, instead of putting on a dress, I’d put on a negligee and the man I’m waiting for, instead of taking me in his arms, will stand ten feet from me all evening with a little box and take pictures, not of me but my image. Instant theatre!
During this period with the amateurs I also did modeling (not nude) at trade shows and conventions. I say modeling, but actually it was everything from acting in skits for a frozen orange juice account to explaining an electrocardiograph machine for an electronics company.
My novel was approaching page 200 and my hopes were high about finishing it, if I survived the rigors of my job. Meanwhile, somebody had decided I was a stunt girl. For a swimming pool manufacturer’s winter ad, they chopped a hold in the ice of a frozen pool while I went outside in my baby-blue bathing suit (and baby-blue skin) and was rubbed down with snow. I next jumped in the hold in the ice and posed, smiling furiously, for about two minutes before they hauled me out of the water (temperature: thirty six degrees). On another occasion, to publicize a circus at New York’s Coliseum, a million dollars’ worth of Harry Winston jewels were pinned to my black bathing suit and I perched on the trunk of an elephant that lifted me high above the crowd.
Finally, there were movies. Half the town seemed to be grinding out nudie movies or doing inserts for foreign films. Altogether, I appeared in eight movies, doing bits in the better ones and leads in the nudies. The theatrical qualifications you need to play the lead in a nudie are zero. “Acting” in one is like spending a day in the country, interrupted by a little work! At the nudist camp where I did the filming for one nudie, the management insisted that the producer, the cameraman, and his assistant undress as well as the models. There was much raucous laughter as we disrobed. I assure you, it’s easier to be nude than to look at nudes. The finished film was forty-five minutes of boredom, starring a feast of bosoms and behinds.
Once I appeared in an Ingmar Bergman film, Illicit Interlude, although Mr. Bergman was unaware of my being in his movie. We shot a nude swimming scene in New York to replace the properly bathing suited one in the original Swedish version. It got past the American censors because “Everybody knew that nudity was natural in Europe!”
And how did I feel about my nude modeling career? Did I feel corrupted by exposing my body? In a way, it was like being seduced, which I define as sleeping with a man when you don’t want to, but then liking it. I hated to interrupt my writing to do the modeling jobs, and I got tense just thinking about everybody seeing me naked. But as I posed, I would relax, and it would occur to me that those crazy people were paying money - plenty of it - for the privilege of seeing me in the buff. Surely, I was lucky to have this harmless “con game” going. I almost felt I didn’t deserve all that money for such insignificant work, and it lasted only an hour or two, after all. To sum up my emotions: I started out feeling like a pitiful victim of a sick society, and ended up feeling like a pagan queen!
How did the modeling affect my love life? It didn’t. During that period I went with a philosophy professor, a press aide to a governor, a mathematician, psychologist, a Mexican architect, a Spanish doctor and a young English banker. They weren’t put off by my temporary profession - nor were the mothers they took me home to meet.
Finally, my novel was finished and I decided to “go straight” as a full time writer. My agent sold my book to Bobbs-Merrill, who published it in 1968. I called it My Darling from the Lions, but when the paperback version came out a couple of moths ago, they changed the title to Coming Together. Now my mother tells me that my novel is dirty. You can’t win.