Model existence – women psychologists look at fashion modeling – includes an interview with a former fashion model

Hara Estroff Marano

Two psychotherapists take a first-ever look at modeling from the inside out and try to figure out why so many of the women who seem to have it all tend to wind up with so little.

It’s funny. Tell intelligent people you want to write an article about models and modelling and they wave a hand in dismissal. “Fluff,” they sneer, meaning they traffic only in Certified Serious Matters, not the “superficality,” the “triviality,” the insubstantiality of appearances.

Consider with ma a few things that I have long been thinking about. It’s not just the models have an unrelenting grip on our imagination and are the number one idols of young women today. Or that we all attribute to them, project onto them, attitudes and ideals that are very telling us and our society. Too, we confuse the models themselves with their images–a confusion that renders these very real women, and their real needs, invisible.

Models are ubiquitous; any reader of magazines today arguably has more contact with them than with flesh-and-blood friends and family. And, as we know, encounters with models’ images on television and on the printed page have a virtually inescapable impact; in defiance of all reason and often biology as well, most women spend a great deal of time, money, and energy trying to look like them–and their success no less than their failures wound deeply. How could anyone call the psychological transactions that take place between models and their viewers “fluff”?

So imagine my curiosity when a letter landed on my desk from two psychotherapists who were treating models, studying models, and had consulted with modeling agencies. Here’s the kicker: both of them are themselves ex-models. “We have experienced their world from the inside out as well as the outside in,” they wrote. It was in fact their own enjoyment of the glamorous world of modeling–and especially their success in eventually leaving it–that compelled them to take an unprecedented look at the makeup of models.

Fortuitously, both Vivian Diller, Ph.D., a psychologist and psychoanalyst, and Jill Muir-Sukenick, M.S.W., a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, live and practice in New York City, where PSYCHOLOGY TODAY is based. We met and we talked. Words and ideas spilled onto hours of tape. What follows is but a glimpse of the rich psychological turf models strut on. The blurring of fantasy and reality that takes place through the image of the model, I discovered, pervades every aspect of their young lives and seeps into everything they touch. Typically they are not prepared for the consequences. Then again, neither are we.


Diller and Muir-Sukenick had met through their husbands, college friends. What a coincidence–both women were psychotherapists. And both had been models, as children and as young adults, with first-rate agencies, Diller with Wilhelmina, Muir-Sukenick first with Stewart, then with Ford.

Diller was a professional ballet dancer before turning to modeling. She left modeling in the late 1970s, when she started her doctoral dissertation and internship. “I was the All-American, Seventeen-type girl. They were always casting me younger than I really was.” For a while, hers was the radiant face on a hair-color product, “even though I never dyed my hair.” Mother of three, stepmother of one, she fit our talks between breast-feeding her four-month-old, seeing patients, and working out.

Whether posing or consulting, Muir-Sukenick has been in and out of modeling her whole life. She used her sophisticated good looks and demeanor to help finance her professional education. She gave up active modeling in 1981, when the first of her two children was born. For the passt 15 years, she has been the image on the package of Fem-Iron. She is currently active in the business as a counselor to models and consultant to agencies. She and Diller are very interested in the experience and perspective of older models, women in their 40s for whom new opportunities are opening in modeling. She regularly counsels a group of older models.

What, they began wondering, had enabled the two of them to stop modeling and not become depressed, as is often the case after leaving the clothes, the parties, the spotlight, especially the spotlight, behind? “We have questioned why so many models enact a strange paradox. While they seem to have everything–beauty, access, money, adoration–many of them end up drugged out, washed up, or in some other way fallen from grace.”

Exhibit A, of course, is Gia, whose short life and painful death, from AIDS, is chronicled in Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia by Stephen Fried (Pocket Books; 1993). And so they decided to interview models in depth.

“Peopl are interested in the women we become,” Lauren Hutton has said, the famous gap-toothed cover girl who dipped out of sight in the 1980s but whose career has rebounded since she hit 50 and dents started to appear in America’s youth preoccupation. Sadly, “there is often not much to report,” confide Diller and Muir-Sukenick. “With all their assets, few models go on to enjoy what one would expect life to bring them: husband, children, a fulfilling career that lasts beyond modeling’s brief life span. We have come to believe the reason lies in the psychological makeup of the women who are drawn to the field.

“We are women who happened to model,” the two told me, “not models who happen to be women.” The difference boils down to this: “The modeling profession includes a high proportion of women with a fragile personality that makes them potentially self-destructive–women with what we call ‘extreme narcissistic vulnerability.'” In fact, they contend, “the profession doesn’t simply attract and embrace women with this problem. It actively supports and reinforces it.”


Diller and Muir-Sukenick drew on their own personal experience, their interviews, and their own professional practices. They began to see some common themes and identified two major trajectories models take. There were young women who were very successful, who did very well modeling, then left and did something else with their life, and were very satisfied. Then there were all the others, who were successful as models but, when the acclaim and adulation died down, ended up on drugs or alcohol.

“It’s like a magic carpet ride,” say the therapists. “Some come down with a crash. But some glide to a landing; they have memories of a wonderful, exciting, glamorous experience, and now their lives are ordinary.”

“I think any model will tell you that modeling’s a very unreal world,” says Diller. “You’re 14, 15, 16. You’re in this world of photographers. Lots of money. Lots of parties. Lots of adulation. And when it comes to an end, slowly or abruptly, it’s not easy to negotiate your way back into reality. I went from making tons of money working only so often, to having to work 9 to 5 making average money. It’s a letdown.”

“Making it” in modeling has nothing to do with looks, Diller and Muir-Sukenick told me. “The models who crashed shared a particular personal history. They came from a background that had not supported a solid sense of themselves. When there”s a definition of yourself a something other than just what people see, it’s easier to take the next step.”


Many models, the therapists observed, come from the lower middle class. This turns out to be crucial; they tend to have parents who are not highly educated, and they have little sense of their futures. They often grow up with a single parent, or have a childhood marked by some kind of trauma. Their parents often have problems of their own, depression, alcoholism, drug problems. Muir-Sukenick says, “They are often the oldest child who unwittingly feels a sense of responsibility and a compelling need to rescue the disappointing parent or their family.” “These are girls looking for fairy godmothers and/or knights in armor,” say the two. They are not necessarily pursuing modeling–it tends to find them, as modeling agencies regularly scout new talent in the malls of America. So when they are invited into the world of modeling, they eagerly go. “Reality is not where they want to be; it is not an affirming, comfortable, secure place.”

With an invitation in hand, many of them drop out of high school. “A girl from a more stable family that has strong values and goals is not likely to interrupt her high school education and go off to Japan [where new models now break in] without grave reservations, but these girls will. Their mothers are often more focused on the reflected glory of their child’s immediate success than on her long-term future.”

For a child to develop a solid sense of self, a parent must be emotionally in tune, responsive, and available to the child. “In our studies,” reports Diller, “we have found unsupportive, inappropriate parent-child interactions to be unusually common in the background of models who do not do well after modeling. When we explored their family history, there was frequently a relationship between the child and the mother that was not emotionally supportive.”


It is a necessary phase of development that each of us experiences being the apple of our parents’ eyes, Diller and Muir-Sukenick emphasize. The parent tells the child, “You are the most beautiful.” In this the adult acts as a kind of affirming mirror. It is the process by which the self solidifies and a child develops a core sense of having value.

Reality sets in as we grow. “There’s a gradual transition–and it has to be gradual–to feeling, ‘Well, I may be wonderful but I’m not perfect.’ If a parent builds you up too much, it creates a shakiness, and if a parent never builds you up, you never satisfy the need of feeling so grand.”

“There’s a real lack of affirmation on the part of the parent to acknowledge the child as separate and worthy,” Diller explains. Such a child can only feel good about herself if she’s pleasing that parent. The parent may applaud the child, but the message is ‘aren’t you wonderful, aren’t we wonderful, aren’t I wonderful.’

A model whose parents have nourished her self-esteem and been role models for her to idealize develops healthy narcissism. She looks in the mirror and says, “I like myself.” She acknowledges her attractiveness, feels lucky because of it, enjoys it, and integrates it with other aspects of how she defines herself. If, on the other hand this belief is not supported early in life, a child’s self is not properly developed. She becomes what Diller and Muir-Sukenick call narcissistically vulnerable. She will look to the outside world for approval. In extreme cases, she can feel so unworthy that she has a constant need to have the outside world proclaim her extraordinary, great, unique.

“To be a model is an unconscious attempt at capturing that grand feeling of being so special. It is a great draw for those models who never had the experience. It is a process they can use, if they missed the experience of mirroring or affirmation by an adoring parent, to reenact what they missed.”

An unrealistic fantasy pervades the modeling world. Many models harbor a desperate wish for the photographer to single them out as special, Diller and Muir-Sukenick observe. “They are subjected to a great deal of rejection in the face of that fantasy. Or they get the attention–until the next model comes along.” While narcissism is a stage of development and a difficulty at this stage can lead to narcissistic vulnerability, narcissism may also be a defense, a way of compensating for past painful experience–the loss of a significant person, abandonment, or profound disappointment. The glory and glamour of modeling, with grand promises of satisfaction, make it enticing.

The therapists found that models who entered modeling to support their self-esteem, who lacked a cohesive self at the outset, could have a great career–“because the modeling world supports that. The profession provides an abundance of narcissistic rewards–glamour, money, attention, all the earmarks of approval, for which a narcissistically vulnerable person yearns.”

Models have available to them many ways of masking their inner anxiety of emptiness, say the two psychotherapists, They look at themselves on the cover of a magazine and it builds them up. They have people primping and grooming them. They look at themselves constantly in the mirror, because it’s okay in their world. For the moment they may feel okay, but it’s never long-lasting.

“Once they experience rejection, once they don’t get the bookings and the narcissistic highs of the profession are in short supply, depression sets in, for which a secondary solution is sought through drugs, alcohol, or pain-relieving substitutes.”

There are, of course, some healthy models. Cindy Crawford appears to be one of them. And a rare few even become healthy along the way. Who are they? They’re the ones who can distinguish between the exernal rewards or disappointments the modeling role brings them, and the internal components of their self-worth. They enjoy the external rewards of modeling–the money, the glamour the visibility–but don’t confuse them with their self-worth. But if her sense of self-worth is always dependent on the photographer, the agent, Mademoiselle, or whatever, life is going to feel constantly rocky.

“Modeling’s a very nebulous thing,” says Muir-Sukenick. “How can it define you? You are photographed, put in a magazine. It doesn’t look like you. It doesn’t feel like you. What is it, exactly? And models are at a point of their lives when they are trying to define themselves.”


One of the most unmistakable features of models is their youth. And while that may be good for the film, it’s less wonderful for the model’s development. “For many,” says Diller, “modeling is offered at a time in their lives when they are trying to negotiate the big adolescent/adult issues–what is the meaning of life, what do I want to do with my life, how do I separate from my family. If they go into modeling, they skip over actually having to resolve them; they are swept up into an unreal world that temporarily solves some of these issues.” When the bookings stop, they’re stuck with the issues they never dealt with.

“Though we project onto them all kinds of maturity and womanliness, and they are often depicted so in images, they really do suffer in many ways from arrested development,” says Muir-Sukenick. Of the models they interviewed who eventually landed okay, or who are working as older models, adds Diller, “many of them commented about their young lives. I didn’t know what I was doing It’s amazing I got through that.”

It is one of the ironies of modeling that many of the women who do it well are not beautiful; they are photogenic. “They’re typically very tall, gawky, strange-looking young girls, who do not experience themselves as beautiful,” says Muir-Sukenick.

“So while the camera transforms them, they never feel transformed. The camera i> helping to fool the viewer, but model is never convinced. Dayle Haddon, who has felt more beautiful as she aged, told us that for the longest time she couldn’t understand why people were oohing and ahhing, because that was not her experience of herself. There are models who are the exception who feel beautiful, and models who project beauty without realizing it–and the viewer doesn’t know the difference.”

Addss Diller: “One patient of mine, a model was was in fact not that beautiful but wass a perfect body and face for people to do things to, felt that it was all a dream she was walking through. She couldn’t understand the money or the attention, so the money got frittered away. She didn’t know what to do with the men who clamored over her. Discovered in her sophomore year of high school, she had dropped out without graduating. When the dream ended, she was in debt with no resources to turn to.”


With no apologies whatsoever, Diller and Muir-Sukenick are emphatic that thB modeling agencies promote the narcissistic vulnerability of the models. This impression is that the agencies take care of the models. Openly or implicitly, the agencies take on the role of mother. The catch is–their approval is always conditions, says Muir-Sukenick. “Like the narcissistic parent, they say: ‘You have to be what we want you to be.’ In addition, the model develops this belief out of her own need to please the agent, who invariably becomes a parental figure. It is because of this combination of both internal and external factors that the agency is able to weild enormous power over the model’s life.

“Models develop a very important attachment to their agencies,” she explains. “It becomes their family. It’s a place they can go. The bookers, the people who arrange which models get sent on assignments, become like their own parents or siblings. They feel very dependent on the agency–so much so that they think they’re employed by the agency, although it’s really the other way around.

“They’ll often do anything to get the approval they need, and the bookings are the sign of approval. If the agency implies it can get more money out of this young girl if she has breasts surgically implanted, a young, narcissistically vulnerables model will do it.”

“Hoax” is the word Muir-Sukenick uses. “The model has the fantasy that she’s going to get so much from modeling. But really, she’s just being taken from, used–unless she has enough of sense of herself to take advantage of the business. The wonderful part about it is that you can benefit from it, but you have to be grounded with a strong sense of self that does not simply rely on the way you look. Of course, the agencies could help models develop this. But they don’t.”

Muir-Sukenick knows from experience. She was able to explain the psychological pitfalls of the business to one elite modeling agency in the New York and persuade management that what got the models into trouble eventually had an impact on the clients. They decided to practice some preventive medicine, and Muir-Sukenick consulted for two years. Diller, too, did the same kind of counseling work for a ballet company.

But there comes a point of conflict, says Diller, over how much the agency really supports this. Should their models be encouraged to think about these things? Adds Muir-Sukenick: “And division heads of the agencies don’t like the idea of someone else having influence over ‘their girls’–and they alwayssc refer to them as ‘their girls.’ Not ‘women.’ ‘Girls.’ There’s the concern that the more deeply you get involved in thB characer of the models, the less control the agency will have over the flesh that produces the image.”

Muir-Sukenick deliberately withdrew from modeling to go into television. “I liked working with people who acknowledged that I was intelligent. There’s little recognition of talent in modeling. There’s the talent of the photographer, who gets a lot of credit, the magazine editor, the stylist, the makeup artist, and perhaps the fashion designer. But the girl is clay.

“There are pins going up my back. My hair is plastered to one side. I can’t move too much. And I’m supposed to make love to the camera. No one ever said to me, ‘Jill are you uncomfortable standing on one leg for five hours? They will be looking at the effect. They’ll say, ‘Can someone get her hair?’ The model is not a person. She’s not valued in and of herself. There’s never any consideration of who she is. Models are not encouraged to be real people. The industry treats them as if they are only an image.”


For Diller and Muir-Sukenick, both active mothers in long-term marriages, “one of the strangest observations is that these beautiful women who you would think could easily have relationship are often not married and are without children.” What kind of cruel joke is this: Are these not the ultimate spoils beauty is supposed to win for women?

The conventional wisdom is that for models, as for ordinary mortals, beauty embodies the wish to be admired by men,. But that turns out to be not at all true in reality. “You would think that when they’re being seductive for the camera that they’re actually trying to gain the attention of men,” says Diller and Muir-Sukenick. “But it is their job to flirt with the camera.

“It seems psychologically what’s really going on is the wish for some kind of affirmation or mirroring, the kind a child wants from adoring parents. What modesl really want is something from their mother. They are looking for that unconditional affirmation of the self that comes first and foremost from the parent.”

Our blind spot to the model’s actual experience comes about, says Muir-Sukenick because “we have been looking at models through male eyes.” We think, what she’s doing is satisfying to a male–isn’t that enough to satisfy her? We make the assumption that all display is sexual and all female acion is done for the sake of men. “In fact,” adds Diller, “rarely do these women feel like they are very sexy to adult men.”

As one model told Muir-Sukenick, “That’s just acting. It’s not real.” She sharpens the point: “They’re not making love to the camera. Some feel the camera is making love to them. Which it would be–to a narcissistic individual. The woman can feel less and less self-worth if all her worth is dependent on how desirable she is in the eyes of a man. She ends up feeling she’s not getting anything in that transaction–but the public thinks she has everything.”


Not only do we falsely impute what the model’s experience must be, we mistake her effect on the viewer, perhaps because their interaction is subtle and complex. It is fashionable to talk of a body-image problem among women, but that doesn’t even being to suggest the depths to which images of models can penetrate a viewer’s sense of self.

Images of models are photographs carefully prepared, carefully selected, and perhaps even more carefully retouched. They’re not the truth. Yet we regard these photographs as representations of the truth–after all, seeing is believing. And it is our nature to negotiate the world both by identifying with and comparing ourselves to others. Advertisers, photographers, and editors actually encourage viewers to make an identification with models by casting them in real-life settings.

Although the viewer is unknowingly seeing a false person (a person who is the fabrication of the magazine, the stylist, or of the photographer), she nevertheless makes a self-comparison. She winds up feeling inadequate–in other words, narcissistically wounded. “The inadequacy women feel in looking at unreal images feeds the desire to constantly improve their looks,” says Muir-Sukenick. “And women keep looking at these images with the expectation that they will reveal how to look better. They think therehs an answer in the next image, or the one after that, but with each look they’re just repeating the narcissistic injury.


“Listen,” Diller says at one point in our conversations, “I’m a little concerned about your doing an article that my patients might read and identifies me as a model. I’ve had the experience where being known as a model was associated with being shallow.” And so we confront head on the brains/beauty dichotomy and prejudices about models.

Because we traverse the social world always gauging similarity and differences, on some still-unquantified course of identification, comparison, and competition the packaging of beauty and brains in one person can strongly influence that personhs relationship with another. When that one person is a therapist, it can surreptitiously enter the therapist-client relationship.

Diller tells the story of a patient who was herself in training to become a therapist. She was gaining confidence and success. The one day she came in devaluing herself. “She thought she could never become a successful therapist, she’d never make it in her career. I couldn’t figure out where this was coming from. Sometime later she casually mentioned that she had seen a picture of me on a box top. Until then, she had no idea I was a model.

“I felt that in seeing the box top she transformed me into some idealized figure. Before, she used to think I was pretty, but we were potentially similar in that she was going to be a therapist. Now I was in another league entirely, that of a model/therapist.”


“I grew up feeling almost as if I had to apologize that I was pretty and that I model, because other girls wouldn’t like me,” Muir-Sukenick recalls. “I worked pretty hard at winning them over. I wanted them to know ‘I may be pretty, but I like to play games, too.”

Both therapists tell the story of an ex-model who has established a film-production company. “When she goes to a meeting among men and wants to be listened to, she wears high heels and short skirts. But to be paid attention by women without envy interfering, she has to wear flats and longer skirts.”

She goes out of her way to level the psychological playing field. That’s because we need to perceive enough similarity on all sides of the table to even engage in reasonable proceedings. Suddenly faced with a step grade between what we are and what we perceived another to be, we can, like Diller’s patient, trot out our inadequacies and devalue ourselves. Or we can run out of the room. Or we can devalue the beautiful model. And so we label her “dumb.”


How did they make it? Diller and Muir-Sukenick both think the big difference between them and models who did not do well after modeling is that the two came from families that nourished their sense of self. As a result, they used modeling more than it used them. Modeling was a way station in their lives.

Says Diller: “I went through a period of my life when I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had modeled as a child, so I thought, ‘maybe I’ll model.’ But I was always thinking I was going to use the money I make to go to graduate school. For both of us, modeling was something we did with our looks to benefit some other long-term goal.”

Diller was modeling when she entered her Ph.D. program. “I remember the odd feeling of walking into my classes with all this makeup on. It was a nightmare–people looking at me and thinking, ‘She can’t be smart.’ I would try and hide my portfolio in a big bag.”

When she gave it up, she recalls, “I went through a time wondering whether I would ever experience the specialness of either being a ballet dancer or a model. But that was balanced by the pleasure of knowing I had a career that would last forever, that I would get better as I got older.”

Muir-Sukenick says it took her years to learn to enjoy her own good looks. “I was a better older model; although successful as a teenage model, I was not as comfortable with it. There’s a lot to be enjoyed in modeling. There’s nothing like getting paid lots of money for smiling, posing, and traveling. It’s a very exciting world.

“What I try to impart to my patients and client agencies is that if you help these women develop, they’ll be better models and it will increase business. It will enrich a model’s ability to project her enjoyment onto the camera. I think you see that now with Lauren Hutton. At this point, she’s much freer to project more than just her image. The viewer gets something back that is realistically based. It’s not just a pretty girl on a page.”

COPYRIGHT 1994 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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