In this exclusive essay, Jules Ohman shares her favorite “bad” modeling tips.
I was a terrible teenaged model. I failed at pretty much everything you could fail at. But the incidents that once brought me shame, as a self-conscious and shy high schooler, I now find pretty funny in retrospect. These experiences were extremely fun to write into my debut novel, Body Grammar. Lou, the novel’s model-protagonist, repeats many of the same mistakes. If you’d like to know how to fail at modeling (perhaps you already have, as I continue to in every group shot) here’s some advice to get you started. Follow in my and Lou’s footsteps. Or do the opposite of everything here.
Wash your hands
One of the most shame-filled moments of my modeling career came when I was seventeen. The photoshoot was for a jewelry line; an easy day because they didn’t photograph your face, just your hands, neck, and ears. I spent hours getting my nails done for the ring shoot, the manicurist spending vast amounts of time on intricate details around my cuticles that would be photographed in high definition. As a gender-nonconforming teenager, the only times I’d ever had my nails done were after much coaxing by my friends for school dances. I had not been a fan then but appreciated the artistic vision of the manicurist on this shoot. It was just taking a long time, and I really had to pee.
The manicurist finally released me to the bathroom. After I was done, I washed my hands out of habit. When I came back, the manicurist looked at me in horror. The polish on my fingers was completely destroyed—chipped and flaking, like a tiny bomb had gone off. I apologized profusely, but she had to spend another hour retouching it. I included it in the novel because it still haunts me and will probably haunt Lou for the rest of her life, too.
Smile at the wrong time
I once got a talking to by a modeling agent because I scowled too much on photo shoots. In truth, I’d just been practicing. On camera, I had to scowl like I’d never scowled in my life, conjuring every gym teacher who had ever told me to run another lap. This ran counter to the commands from every adult who had ever pointed a camera at me as a kid: Smile! Say cheese! For months, I had to train my mouth not to smile at a camera, to control the reflex of it. Now, when I look at the photos of myself modeling, I think I overshot the scowl a little bit. It’s a little more murderous. Meanwhile, a 90s childhood had taught me not to smile at strangers, who might actually murder me. This is the one tip on this list I think you can try out randomly. Frown in the group shot at the baby shower. Smile at the person cutting you in line at the pharmacy. See what happens.
Chin up, eyes down
Right before our wedding, our six-year-old niece was giving me and my wife tips on how to look fancy in photographs. “Chin up, eyes down,” she directed. This went against everything I had learned as a model about how to look good in a photograph, and everything Lou learns, too. Back then, I was directed to keep my chin down and my eyes up, to embody something like a frail animal right before they get hit by a truck. But our niece’s advice rings truer to me now. Sure, you might not be a huge fan of the face angle, and you might have a limited view, but you’ll definitely look fancy.
One of the most entertaining scenes to write in Body Grammar takes place in the courtyard of the Louvre, at a Chanel fashion show. Lou is wearing the collection’s wedding dress. She is teed up to have a shining moment, the pinnacle of her modeling career. Instead, she falls off the runway.
I used to have nightmares regularly about falling in heels on a runway, and still often trip in sneakers just walking down the sidewalk. When I was on my first solo NYC trip, I fainted in a dress on a photo shoot. I hadn’t eaten breakfast because I was so nervous, and I’d been repeating a half-lunge for the photographer when I got lightheaded and blacked out. I fell onto the concrete floor, but, luckily, an extremely alert and athletic photo assistant intercepted me before I hit my head. Lou is also intercepted on her way to the floor. If you want to fail at modeling: don’t stay upright. Embrace the drama of it.