My name is Nadié and I am nineteen years old but my agency tells clients I’m sixteen—that I, infact, just turned sixteen—so it is as if I’m sixteen every day because people keep smiling and wishing me a “happy birthday” whenever they meet me.
Everything in this country, it seems, gets lost in translation. When I arrived, people called me Natalie, Nadia, Nadine, Nena. The agents at Fusion had so much trouble pronouncing my name that they stopped saying it altogether and now they call me something else entirely. It costs less to print comp cards without accent marks—something about special codes for symbols—so now I’m Nadie, which, where I come from, means Nobody.
I walk in through the sunlit morning.
The wall-length windows bathe the wooden floor in shadows and I see half a dozen people slipping in between racks of clothes, a steamer, a long, black, conference table, an ornate mattress, and a row of mirrors. I am slipping too; moving like a ballerina because I used to be a dancer and the most that came from it is my body—Fusion calls it elastic, lithe, supple, but sometimes I feel like I am barely-there.
No one has congratulated me on reaching sixteen so I say hello, drop my saddlebag and ask where the restroom is. I see two stylists standing hips out and turning a man’s head like it is on a swivel, deciding on the hair’s part, I think, or maybe the amount of glue to apply. I had seen him before—was it on television, or a bus stop? Or maybe a magazine?—but we had never met in person. In New York City, it seems natural that everyone eventually sees everyone else—whether on a billboard or on the street.
The man smiles, moving his eyes higher, looking right at me through the mirror’s gaze. He is tan, a darker shade than me, with hair that is between brown and blond and eyes that are either brown or green—I can’t tell. It is not the distance but the way the light frames each iris, as if they altered every time he blinked. I did not want to stare and now I was, wide-eyed and curious. I have always been curious. I think that’s what made me move to New York City in the first place.
When I return from the restroom, nothing has changed, except there are more people slipping between everything, moving quickly and with small cardboard cups in their hands; the scent of roasted coffee and toasted croissants rising in the studio. I run my fingers under my halter top and around my navel, hearing my body talk. It speaks some more and a tall, wiry man I recognize from the casting welcomes me. Art Director.
“Clothes make the man,” he says, pointing to a black tent. Two assistants are unfolding and unzipping it, and taking turns hopping inside.
“Or woman,” I add, managing a smile. Lips barely parted.
“Of course,” he says, sucking in his cheeks and then sighing. He points back to the tent. “Dressing room.”
He is holding a clipboard and I see the schedule: chance meeting on Broadway, a sequence shot—pedestrians moving, smiles and laughs from a café, suggestive looks under the awning—a romp in the bedroom. Lunch at noon. He walks me over to hair and makeup and as I brush past the other bodies, I look at him—the other model—and he is still smiling or smiling again or always smiling. He has thick, dark-red-almost-purple lips.
I sit down next to him and he turns his face to me and I notice he is reading a script. One Life To Live is scrawled across the manila envelope unfastened on the counter. He tells me his name and I tell him mine, my real name. The stylist standing over us moves his head in place, pressing both of his hands to his temples, then continues snipping away, the small scissors so close it almost feels like it is my hair that is falling on my shoulders to my feet.
“Ever done this before?” he asks, pointing to the lingerie arranged on the rack across from us. Sheer, lace, nylon. Another stylist dabs his neck with cotton. A romp in the bedroom.
“Of course,” I laugh. “Just not in photos.”
I hear the sound of film rolling before I see the men crouching behind us and around us, both of them balancing big, black video cameras on their shoulders. I remember the papers I filled out at Fusion the day they booked me for Harper’s Bazaar. There will be a second camera crew at the shoot. A reality TV pilot. Nothing to rehearse. No nude shots, of course. Statutes and definitions. Clothes, noun: a covering for the person. Implied terms and conditions. Sign here, and here. Bravo.
“One crew filming another crew filming Chris …” Chris recites, turning to me again. “I wrote about this situation. Now I’m living it again.”
I nod my head as one of the cameramen rises and juts sideways.
“A tracking shot,” Chris says, nodding his head toward a lens. “Living it again,” he repeats, whistling. I turn to him.
“We all are.”
When we break for lunch Chris is already sitting on one of the leather couches in the lobby with his legs crossed, staring at a pamphlet.
“I study menus like they’re letters from Rilke,” he says, not looking up.
“I don’t know what Rilke is—” I reply, pointing to the flimsy purple paper folded in his hands. Hill Country BBQ is etched across the front. “But it must be very interesting.”
He nods and shifts his body so I can join him on the couch. He starts talking about food— breakfast, lunch, dinner, and of course, dessert. And then we get on the subject of chicken and he tells me he read a news report that said that men always go for the breast and women for the thighs, the tender parts, the dark meat (does he notice I am staring at his legs?) and I say I am beginning to get hungry. “Ravenous,” he returns.
When I turn back to him, he is looking at something else—writing fast, moving his hand fervently across the pages of a small, spiral-bound notebook.
“What are you doing over there?” I ask, but his gaze remains glued on his notebook. “Are you writing a letter to Rilke?” I try, smiling, and finally, he turns his eyes to me and laughs.
“I’m a writer,” he says.
“A writer?” I repeat. He nods mechanically, like he is used to the question, or at least the question mark. “I thought you were an actor,” I say. “An actor who writes, or a—”
“Writers make the best actors,” he says. I inch closer. Maybe I think I am about to receive some important advice, something they don’t teach you in the crowded conference room at Fusion.
“Writers make the best actors,” he repeats. “Because they write their own stage directions, and scene descriptions, and—” he says, and now he inches closer, almost blowing breath in my ear. “If the studio is smart, their own dialogue, too.” He pauses and I wonder if this is my cue or if the gap is intended; a space he can hold, or behold. “And even if they aren’t speaking it (he points to his eyes), they’re thinking it.”
I don’t know what to say so I tell him I am going to order the thighs. The wiry man with the clipboard appears above us and starts speaking, talking about out times and flesh thongs and syndication rights and potential residuals but that’s really as much as I get because I am thinking about the reason why I am here. Besides the last shot—striped sequin satin gown from Alexander Wang—I am just a prop and this shoot is Chris Selden’s. Or rather, it belongs to neither of us; it belongs to Harper’s Bazaar; it belongs to their Night on the Town feature and the promotional video they are shooting alongside it, the reality TV pitch, and the best models, Fusion always told me, are the ones that can sink into the feature, the frame, the clothes, the image. The best models sink into the photograph.
They are pulling my leg or at least pushing it into place when Chris smiles that same smile and puts his lips close to mine and whispers in my ear: todo está bien, tranquilízate, and I can see we are from the same place, or somewhere nearby, except he speaks without an accent and I am rolling my Rs and mixing my Ys and Js and feeling foolish and at the same time petrified, rigid and stiff, and I think I probably look more like a mannequin than a model but I wish I was a ghost, a nobody, utterly invisible, because the first thing that shows up in photographs are human emotions like fear.
Chris takes my hand and presses it closer to his chest. I wonder what he is thinking, and if I could read the book he is writing—I mean the narrative in his head—if I could read his mind, I would read it in italics and parentheses:
(It is the naked truth but it isn’t real and what it is is aural intercourse because I am only listening. Listening for the sound of stage directions and camera flashes and my own distorted voice, too, on each command: speaking louder and kissing harder and touching more touching and doing everything with the volume turned up because the boom mic and the camera and even its micro-macro zoom lens can’t catch subtleties, slight expressions and gestures, or whispers, and especially the sensations of being here at this moment and this place, with this girl, Nadié was it?) She wrapped her legs around him naturally, like they were meant to be there, springing from his ankles and calves and the back of his thighs like the roots of a tree, like tree branches, and they held the look—the feeling, the before-the-kiss-and-after-the-realization-that-lips-are-imminent—and more shouts interrupted the moment, this moment, and then they relaxed, both of them, all of them, in the back and on the bed, unclasping their limbs and breathing because the camera was out of batteries (or how it feels for her, and what it is she must be feeling now, or tomorrow looking back on it, or what she’ll be feeling remembering it alongside the sight of whatever it is they’ll print or release on video, streaming across months, years, eternity …) and after a few tense moments—the socket! the charger? where is it?—they faced each other again, this time in-profile, one pillow dangling from his outstretched palm, the others perched under the shimmering sky—
“You have this tendency,” Chris says, spinning the swivel chair around to face me. “You sneak up on people like a suggestion.”
“A whisper,” he continues. “A tendril of air.”
I don’t laugh. I want to ask him if this is how he always talks or if he’s reciting lines for Rilke. Instead, I ask him what he’s doing. A stream of images radiate from the enormous iMac monitor. Images from an hour ago, two hours ago, the whole morning, and Chris is scrolling through the day.
“Fascinating how many we take,” I say. The photographs are bridging, blurring, moving faster, moving more like the pilot of the present (is there a fishpole hanging to my left?) than the frames of the past.
“This is nothing,” Chris returns, spinning the chair around again to face the computer, clicking, moving, scrolling. “When Randall Mesdon shot me for Levi’s Go Forth six years ago, a lot of people were still using film.”
“Film?” I ask. I point to the cameramen that were—even now—hovering around us, hovering through us. “For video?”
Chris shakes his head. “Ever been in a dark room?”
“Never,” I say, smiling, briefly showing my teeth. “Not unless you count the bar on Ludlow.”
“I saw how Go Forth developed,” Chris says. “How it took shape.”
Chris starts talking about enlargers and safelights and chemicals and water. “And voilà!” he slaps his palms together. He is still scrolling, or trying to, but the arrow on the toolbar won’t move. The monitor had frozen on a black cloud where my face should have been. Overexposure, I murmur.
Chris spins back around to face me.
“A star is burned.”
I am standing erect, as upright as possible, when they begin measuring the distance from my waist to my toes and drape the sequin satin over my neck. I look at Chris and he is smiling again; he always seems to be smiling, or half-smiling, or at least smiling with his eyes. But it is his eyes. Green or brown or maybe neither. Those deep, melancholic eyes give him away.
I have never seen anyone so confident and so sure of himself, and at the same time, so desperate. It’s as if there’s a sandglass sifting in his head and he seems to think the top bulb is always on the verge of emptying. Maybe I am seeming too much, or seeing too much. I have a natural curiosity. That’s why I came here in the first place. To find things out.
“Your body is a perfect match for this fabric,” a woman says, holding a plastic clip in between her lips. “To be honest,” she pauses to fasten a zipper and removes the clip, letting it fall to the floor, “we don’t even need to pin you.”
Another voice: “You slip right in.” Coming from behind me.
“He’s right,” the Art Director says. He is still holding his clipboard, except now he is smiling.
They all are. “That’s why you’re here.”
Tell me again? I want to ask, but my lips remain shut. More hands move over and around me, flattening out the satin waves that ebb every time I breathe.
“Wrinkles …” someone mutters.
“There’s hardly any,” another answers.
“You are a canvas, honey,” the woman that dropped the clips purrs.
“You don’t wear the clothes,” the Art Director says. He lets his clipboard fall to the floor to situate my shoulders. “The clothes wear you.”
“Perfect fit,” a voice hums.
The photographer is nearly flat on his stomach, legs spread on the wooden floor, camera tilted, shooting skyward. It creates structure, he is saying. Body.
I take a look at the wall-length windows, and now it is the moon creating the shadows.
“Nadie—you’re a gorgeous backdrop!”
“Turn your head more—”
“Look away, don’t look here—”
“Now that’s a pretty picture—wouldn’t you say?”
I walk in through the pale light.
“That’s why you’re here—”
To find things out.
“Nadie—” I am Nobody.
“How to begin a story about identity? In 2016, it feels appropriate to start on the act of appropriation; an anti-origin story where no one knows who anyone else is, or where they’re going. Probably, no one cares enough to notice.
Enter: mistranslation; Nadié, a common name that when removed from its cultural context and thrust upon North American ears, literally becomes “nobody.” Unaccented and unmoored, Latino female identity is submerged and suffocated by the mostly white, male gaze of fashion. The violence of the camera, like the gun, becomes evident in their propensity to possess and abolish: the goal isn’t to birth stars; it’s to burn them. Eventually, the human body itself is subject to the same mistranslations; the way an arm and leg look when captured from different angles through a high-precision lens and hand-held reflectors, the tone and tenor of a voice when it’s recorded for film. Technology often makes the real feel more real by removing all its natural elements, defamiliarizing experience until we experience just traces, the specter of identity in the age of the Internet. I often feel like I’m looking at someone I’m looking at for the first time when I watch the video play back. I’ve only ever seen photos of Cuba and Poland, where my father and mother, respectively, were born and lived.
I’d never written a ghost story before.”