I Was A Nude Model. A Photographer Said He'd Help Me — But His 'Help' Came At A Painful Price.

"I’ll always wonder how many other models The Photographer offered to help. I suspect that I was one of many."
A photo from one of the author's modeling shoots.
Photo by Domenic Cicala
A photo from one of the author's modeling shoots.

My old modelling portfolio is filled with adult magazine pages. In one, I’m posed in a garter belt and towering heels on a 20-year-old magazine cover. In the pages of that issue, I’m a naughty librarian with a bun. My tight skirt is on the floor, and my blouse is unbuttoned. I pose with my legs spread, and I touch myself. I’m smiling, looking at the camera. In the last shot, I’m on all fours, holding a black stiletto with my tongue extended toward the heel.

I’m a cowgirl in another magazine. The sunlight is golden across my skin, and I’m nude, save for a cowboy hat and a skimpy denim vest. In another magazine, I’m “Girl of the Month.” In the “interview,” they say that I’m 6 inches taller than I am and a college student who enjoys sex as a form of exercise. In this set, I’m only wearing thigh-high stockings. My lips are full and glossy, and my legs are spread in every shot. I look at the camera without apology.

In those magazines, I knew what I was doing. The money was good. Anyone who looked at the photos would believe that I was pleased to be there.

The Photographer’s studio, an airy Chicago condo with floor-to-ceiling windows, had lots of natural light. Every room could be turned into a photography set by changing around the decor. Our shoots were professional, and a female makeup artist was always there. Her job was to ensure that I looked flawless and was attended to. I felt that way, working with The Photographer.

I was grateful for the work. I’d been modelling nude for years, mostly smaller gigs and occasionally with amateur photographers who paid well and understood that photo shoots didn’t come with any expectations of sex. The Photographer’s status made me feel special and important — part of an exclusive team.

I was single and had a strained relationship with my mother, who’d packed me off to foster care at 13 when the state told her to choose between her abusive, alcoholic boyfriend and me. I don’t think she could have known that I’d spend the following decades searching for someone to choose me.

The Photographer and I worked together so often that year that we became friends of sorts; I loved the attention, I loved playing dress-up, and I believe he liked working with a model who showed up on time and wasn’t on drugs or a diva.

I didn’t recognise the occasional mood swings I was experiencing as panic attacks. I had no other way to pay the rent. I was in my 20s, and I’d been posing nude since I aged out of foster care at 18. Without job experience, I was sure that nobody but a photographer would hire me. I knew my lifestyle didn’t hold a future for women past 30. I thought about this a lot. It was easier to ignore it and do nothing to take care of myself, another thing I was good at.

The author's modeling career often included shoots for advertisements.
Photo by Francs Hills for MotorBrands USA
The author's modeling career often included shoots for advertisements.

The Photographer and I talked in passing about me getting older. There were magazines featuring older models, but they were mostly triple-X and the women were always posed with men. I’d never done that and wasn’t willing to go that far. However, I knew this was ahead of me if nothing changed.

I never talked about my panic attacks; without a name for them, I just thought I was depressed and tried to ignore them. Our shoots were a means to an end: Magazines were resume builders in that industry, and I hoped they’d lead to shoots that resulted in more magazine work.

The Photographer suggested applying at Central Casting, an agency that hired models for advertisements, nonadult movies and television roles. I laughed at the absurdity of it. Central Casting was the real deal. No matter how many magazine covers I had, nude modelling meant nothing at that level. Central Casting models didn’t take their clothes off. I needed a professional modelling portfolio to apply. Hiring a photographer to shoot photos that could compete with agency models would cost more than $1,000. I considered the wardrobe, the makeup artist, a skilled photographer and the cost of the prints. A professional portfolio felt out of reach, and I didn’t know who to ask. The Photographer offered to shoot it for me at no charge.

This was a ticket out — a way to stop posing nude in front of strangers. I was so grateful to have him looking out for me. We set a date for the shoot and I shopped for clothing at a department store. I pored over women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping and Shape, fantasising about posing with a blender and a canister of meal replacement powder in a bright kitchen. This kind of modelling needed a different smile — an expression that said I have not fucked up my life and this product is great. I smiled in the mirror for long hours, memorising how my face felt until I could get it right without looking. I arrived at the shoot with an array of outfits that looked like they belonged to a stranger.

In the portfolio from The Photographer, I’m smiling in every shot. My makeup is natural, in a way that says she doesn’t need much makeup. Each photo captured a facet of commercial modelling; I was fresh-faced, posing with leafy greens in a colander, stretching in yoga pants and a matching sports bra, and holding a journal and a white coffee mug. In one, I wore a pantsuit and held a briefcase. In another, I wore a shimmering evening gown with dangling crystal earrings.

Each page in this portfolio tells a story, sells an object that you want to buy, or portrays a persona that you want to be. I’m girl-next-door pretty in these pages meant to convince a casting agency that I’m versatile enough to be in any advertisement. As told through this portfolio, the story of my life is as bright and pure as the sunlight filtering through the windows in the shots of me wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and holding a single gerbera daisy beneath my chin. Although it was the first time we’d worked together without a makeup artist or assistant on set, I was accustomed to being alone with photographers and thought nothing of it.

The author posed as Poison Ivy for a comic-themed shoot.
The author posed as Poison Ivy for a comic-themed shoot.

On the first page of this portfolio, I’m wearing a green dress and sitting on a rattan lounge chair. Natural light bathes the scene. My skin is radiant. The background is out of focus, but you can make out a brick wall and a large potted plant behind me. My nails are manicured into natural French tips. I recognise myself in the photos, but the poses feel like a costume I wore once.

I would like to write a scene where I describe The Photographer moving closer to me as we shot the green dress, maybe joking about taking a close-up as he pressed the shutter. I might describe how the atmosphere changed. I could use a cliched phrase like “deer in the headlights” to illustrate how it felt when he got too close. I might say, then, that his hands were on me, and here, it could go either way. I push him off in one version. I gather my things and leave, planning to report him when I get home. In another version, because I was single, we have a passionate encounter pulled from a romance novel’s pages. We get married, and there is some variation of happily ever after in a wedding gown that costs more than my car. I don’t remember when he stopped pressing the shutter on his camera. Instead, I remember lying on the lounger, staring at the ceiling instead of at The Photographer’s head between my legs.

I drove home with the incident little more than a flyspeck in my mind. I understood what quid pro quo meant for women like me. I also knew I’d never shoot with him again.

I picked up the portfolio a few weeks later and left quickly. Then, I sat on the couch in my small apartment and looked at the photos. He’d transformed me into another person — a variant of myself who might’ve come from a privileged, storybook family with a trust fund and two loving parents. I never took the portfolio to a casting agency because I didn’t think I was good enough. To clarify, “good enough” is different from “attractive enough.” I thought they’d somehow know about my past, both in foster care and as the person I believed I was at the time, someone only good enough to take their clothes off for money.

I placed the portfolio on the top shelf of my closet and let it collect dust in a place I couldn’t reach. I went back to my life, back to $100-an-hour photoshoots. I paid my bills. I did laundry and went grocery shopping. I had panic attacks. I turned 30 a few years later and went back to school. Both portfolios — the one from The Photographer and the one with the adult magazine tear sheets — moved with me from apartment to apartment. Each bedroom closet had a top shelf that I couldn’t reach without standing on a chair, and they lived there. Out of sight, out of mind.

I didn’t know that “normalise” was the word for what I did, or that I’d been doing it since I was a child growing up with domestic violence. When the #MeToo movement gained traction, I ignored it rather than come forward with a laundry list of situations I’d put myself in. The #MeToo women could point to a perpetrator — it didn’t count if you did it to yourself. Those years were behind me, and I believed it was my fault. There was no reason to rattle the bones of long-buried skeletons.

Yet, for nothing other than the odd compulsion that makes one press at a bruise, one day I found myself trying to visualise the photos in The Photographer’s portfolio without looking at them. I remembered a headshot with soft lighting and baby-pink lip gloss. Then, I thought of the green dress. I remembered myself on the lounge chair, and I felt sick. What was this clutching pit forming at the base of my sternum, the place where my panic and anxiety always chose to take on a physical manifestation? I didn’t understand what I felt, so I pulled the portfolios from the shelf. Maybe looking at them would help. Why now, many years later, would what The Photographer did to me become a thing?

Shortly after the author met her husband, she retired from modeling.
Courtesy of T.J. Butler
Shortly after the author met her husband, she retired from modeling.

I consider what allowed me to pose nude for so many years, even as it gave me panic attacks and made me feel bad about myself. I was good at compartmentalising; I felt like one person at the library and the gym, sans makeup and in my workout clothes, and another person when the makeup and heels came out. I knew I wasn’t two people. Then again, the young woman who wrote melodramatic poetry and wanted a friend didn’t have the same armour as the one in the green dress.

Most people envision seedy characters and illicit arrangements when they think of adult content. This wasn’t my experience. The Photographer, with his spacious condo and professional makeup artists, had the most professional team I’d ever shot with. It was also the most explicit work I’d ever done. Back then, I knew that if I didn’t make a change, I’d soon be expected to shoot content far beyond my limits. I left the industry a few short years after with a business degree and, later, a job that had nothing to do with the way I looked. It was a relief to blend in after so many years of trying to stand out.

I’ll always wonder how many other models The Photographer offered to help. I suspect that I was one of many. While I can’t speak for every model who shoots adult content, most of us are grateful when we find a friend in the business. However, rather than being a trusted friend offering to assist me in planning for my future, The Photographer abused his position of power. I remember the fear and powerlessness as clearly as I remember the dress I was wearing when I felt that way. Those feelings are a reminder that being “good enough” was something in my head, that I have the power to say no with words as well as body language, and that not everyone who offers to lend a hand can actually save you.

Note: Some details have been altered to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned in this essay.

T.J. Butler writes fiction and essays that are not all fun and games. She is the author of “Dating Silky Maxwell,” a short story collection that Bust Magazine called “gritty, realistic, often unnerving, and far from glamorous.” Learn more about the collection and connect with her at TJButlerAuthor.com.

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