When I was modeling, between 1962 and 1980, models did not walk on runways. That was done by the “house model,” who made in a week what we made in an hour.
Back in the day, you only got maybe two or three jobs a week. Each job paid $50. That was plenty of money to make it to modeling go-sees. You ate chicken potpies and took buses all around town.
But in the early ’70s, people like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren decided they wanted to work with the girls on the magazine covers. They referred to us as “real people rather than show models.” The experience was great fun if you can overlook that at one show, [I went] off the runway [and] into the lap of a Vogue editor. I was not invited back to walk on any more runways.
When I began working, runway models had a certain way of showing the clothes that seemed unnatural to me. They would stop in midstride and do a twirl. They would suddenly raise their arms and hands. It just didn’t fit with my aesthetic. They were doing a fantasy, and I wanted to project the exact opposite. So I started to work with the print models. Sometimes they were awkward. They didn’t know how to walk. But I found that charming.
Model in the late ’70s and ’80s
I first came to New York from Asia. When I arrived, there were all these fair-haired women. Cheryl Tiegs and Rene Russo were the stars of the day. Nothing was working for me in New York. In New York, they want you to make it first in Europe and become a star. In the mid-’80s, Thierry Mugler discovered me in Paris. After that, other designers picked me up.
Alek Wek models a dress from Ralph Lauren’s spring 1997 collection. CreditEvan Agostini/Liaison
Model in the 1990s
When I started modeling, people kept saying, “Oh, she’s so different, she’s bizarre,” like I wasn’t quite normal. Of course there was a racist element to those conversations. People were beating around the bush. But if I focused on that, I don’t think I would have stayed in fashion. Being viewed as different only gave me more incentive. I wanted people to know that your features or your color don’t make you less beautiful. My motivation was deeper than me just putting on makeup and clothes and doing shows.
On the runway, you would see Pat Cleveland holding a giant teddy bear. You would see Billie Blair — they called her the crown princess of the runways — and Bethann Hardison. She did her walk, which was kind of like dribbling a basketball. Karen floated, Pat danced. Every one of those women did her own thing.
Billie Blair wearing an ensemble by Diane Benson in 1981. CreditRose Hartman/WireImage
Model in the 1970s
I’ll tell you something about my walk: It has to do with everybody in that audience. You just feel like you’re in heaven in front of them. I danced to the rhythm of their hearts beating.
In Europe, you went from show to show, and they changed your face, they changed your hair. New York was a business of selling clothes. You could go to every show with the same makeup and the same hair. Of course, they didn’t want you to have grease in your hair. I remember washing my long hair in the middle of winter in a little receptacle in one of those temporary bathrooms.
I think the first show I did was Stephen Sprouse. He was the first guy that did clothes that you’d really want to wear. After that, I became a photography model. I never did a live show again.