“How an insecure foodie modeled her way to just desserts”
Remember the movie Mean Girls? (Of course you do.) Do you remember how some girls reacted to Regina George’s bullying like this? Lisa Siva is not one of those girls. Siva, a Plan II and English junior, instead took revenge by becoming a model. AND a successful food blogger who enjoys nothing more than a spoonful of Nutella, French cuisine, and her mother’s pho.
“The modeling industry is famous for not liking conventional beauty, and they go for sort of the weird looks,” Siva said. “The successful model is always an ‘ugly duckling’ story. Everyone hates hearing it, but it’s true.”
The list is endless: braces, gap-teeth, big lips, too tall and skinny, too fat, no boobs, big boobs, and even race and sexuality. Countless famous supermodels who were once the butt of jokes now flaunt said butts on the runway, including black modeling pioneer Tyra Banks, plus-size bombshell Crystal Renn, gap-toothed Dutch beauty Lara Stone, plump-pouted Victoria’s Secret Angel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, biracial Baby Phat mastermind Kimora Lee Simmons, and the world’s first transgender model, Lea T.
Like for Cady Heron in Mean Girls, Siva’s insecurity crept in around the start of high school.
“I walked down the hallways, and people would yell, “nerd alert!” after me. And I was, like, so uncomfortable with myself. I just hated the way I looked. I remember waking up one day and thinking, “I would not mind if somehow my face became Keira Knightley’s face, because that would be wonderful.”
Turning to modeling as a solution to insecurity with her body image, Siva submitted photos to every agency under the sun: Page Parkes, Kim Dawson, Campbell, Leap, Ford, IMG, Red, Click, Metropolitan, Angels. However, one by one, she was rejected every time. Eventually, modeling was pushed onto the back-burner as Siva began her college career, where she got involved with Spark, a university fashion publication of which she is now editor-in-chief, Austin fashion magazine Tribeza, for whom she is an editorial assistant, and turning her first love, food, into a witty blog run from the kitchenettes in the Carothers dorm.
“I’ve had to learn, like, how do you lay out stories, how do you style a shoot, how do you arrange for the specifics of the photo shoot to take place?” Siva said of her experience with Spark, where she said she learned how the fashion industry works.
Originally awed by the glossy pages of Nylon, Seventeen, and Vogue (especially Vogue Paris and Italia), Siva had always perceived fashion as superficial. However, she said, “It’s not, especially if you see some of the things that the really creative minds do, like Nicola Formichetti or Alexander McQueen. They take fashion as an art...It’s not just something to put on your body...It is art, but it’s art that you can wear everyday.”
A distinct, charming spread in a 2005 issue of Vogue called “Daytime Drama” was the catalyst for Siva’s fashion flip. The spread was graced with doll-faced women suited up in stunning ball gowns—in the middle of a laundromat. As Siva delighted over the models flinging soap suds around and draping themselves over dirty laundry in their haute couture, she couldn’t help but think, “the juxtaposition of everyday life and fashion is so meaningful, because that is the way fashion works. It’s an art that transcends this sort of lofty realm of art and into everyday life.”
It’s this very idea that Siva said Spark tried to convey to the campus community: that instead of the typical inundation of Nike shorts and baggy t-shirts, college-aged women have options. It’s all about achieving a clean-cut silhouette rather than high-end labels or prices.
“What we want to do is open up a new world of fashion to people and let them know that, yes, this is accessible,” Siva said. “You don’t have to dress in an Alexander McQueen gown, but there is this whole world of fashion waiting for you.”
After spontaneously and successfully modeling for a UT student fashion show in 2009, Siva’s classmate sent a photo of her from the runway to her agent, who was instantly interested. After an uncomfortable meeting in which an insecure Siva was made to change into a bikini for an on-the-spot shoot with this man she had never met before (“I think it was my first indication that the fashion industry was radically different than anything else”), she had earned her foot in the door to opportunity.
However, over time Siva became dissatisfied with this agent, who she chose to not name. Later, Siva discovered her classmate had broken off her contract with him after he requested her to pose nude in a public park in Austin without a location license or any kind of permission. Several months later after no communication, the agent called Siva crying and told her he had moved to Montesino, Cali., after his wife had divorced him.
“You can meet a lot of really unprofessional and unsavory characters in the fashion industry,” Siva said about that experience. Although she began to distance herself from the agent, she remains grateful to him for the connections she made.
Experiences and observations like these were catalysts in Siva’s passion for the TheModelAlliance and its cause to protect and empower models, whose rights are often disregarded in the industry.
“Even still today, models are told to put up with a lot. We have to be told, you know, ‘it’s okay if maybe we don’t get to eat in between castings and you’re hungry. It’s okay if your feet are really hurting after running around the city in five-inch heels. And, I mean, if a casting director comes onto you, just smile and play along.’ And there are a lot of things that models have to put up with that I really feel like models shouldn’t.”
This exploitation of models is possible and models go along with it, Siva said, because they are told from day 1 that they are disposable, that they have to change, whether that means lying about their ethnicity because that’s what the client wants or taking birth control pills to clear their skin.
“From the beginning, you learn that you’re dispensable, that you don’t have a support system from your agency, and that if you don’t do it, somebody else will,” Siva said. “If you’re not willing to take your clothes off, somebody else will. So it’s really hard to stand up to that system. It’s an industry that turns out workers that are easily exploited.”
Siva said she is lucky that she has never suffered serious abuses. Every girl has pressures, but she said the key is for models to figure out where their boundaries are. However, that is a learning process.
Siva recalled posing on a stool for her first photo shoot in New York when the photographer suddenly came up behind her and unhooked her bra. Lacking any basis for comparison to know if this was normal or to know what to do, Siva went along with the shoot and said nothing. Nowadays, she has learned to say ‘no’ when asked to pose nude or topless, ignoring the guilt trips and emotional manipulation the photographers often employ in response.
“You’re really plunged into this seemingly glamorous world, and you have to figure out what the rules are for that world,” Siva said. “It’s like starting a new game and your goal is supermodel status, but you don’t know the rules of the game and you don’t know how to reach that status. So there’s kind of a learning curve.”
As a ‘straight-size’ model, meaning a model fits into the typical size 0-2 the average model does, Siva said she meets the physical criterion for anorexia. Yet even then she was instructed by her agent to lose her back fat and slim her thighs, which she said was absurd.
“You learn very quickly that you can’t please everyone,” Siva said. “You have a commitment first and foremost to yourself.”
For Siva, part of that commitment is her lifelong passion for food, which comes first and foremost. Growing up with her Vietnamese and Indian family and their cuisine, Siva also began to follow various food blogs around high school, with a particular fascination with the classic sophistication of French cuisine and moleculargastronomy, a culinary movement that takes a scientific approach to food (think Dr. House in Season 6).
Siva now maintains her own popular cooking blog and writes about food, even interviewing Top Chef Texas winner Paul Qui. She said she wouldn’t ever sacrifice food for modeling, especially since modeling is only a temporary job and it’s important to have a more sustainable career.
But nailing a spot on Seventeen’s model approval list for future photo shoots sure doesn’t hurt.
Photo Credit: Enrique Vega (http://www.enrique-vega.net/)