Queen of the Tokyo Ballroom
When Jennifer Sky was 15, she was offered the chance to spend a summer working as a model in Japan.
When I was 15 years old, I was invited to spend six weeks of my summer break modeling in Japan. The offer came from an agency in Miami that I had done some work for, though I was hardly what you’d call a professional—I had never spent more than two nights away from my South Florida home.
On a spring morning in 1992, my mother and I drove the two hours down to the agency’s Ocean Drive offices, an Art Deco building that had been newly refurbished and painted teal. We were shown into a glass-walled conference room. Across the table sat my booking agent—a blond-haired Italian man—and the woman after whom the agency was named. She wore pointy black shoes and spoke with an accent that I was not yet worldly enough to recognize; it seemed to me like a mixture of French and all-purpose poshness. I recognized her face from some of the older magazine covers in the lobby.
Mom and I sat listening as the two of them explained the offer. Because of my age, they assured us, there would be chaperones and supervision: The agency would transport me to and from all the castings. An apartment was being arranged in advance and would be waiting for me. There would be another girl going, too, who was also 15 and was from the west coast of Florida. She would be my traveling companion and my roommate for the summer. I would never, they promised, be alone.
They told us again and again how it was possible for me to make tens of thousands of dollars. And they made sure to point out how lucky I was that the Japanese agency had chosen me.
There was not much in my upbringing that suggested I was cut out to be an international model. I was conceived in a double-wide trailer in a rural beach town, a bicentennial baby born to a pair of self-taught, self-sufficient hippies. By the time I could walk, our family had graduated from the trailer to a wooden house on stilts that my parents had designed and built away from town. The house stood on top of an elevated strip of land that overlooked the dewy savanna to the west and the Indian River to the east. It was a secret kind of place, at the end of a driveway lined with wild cherry trees, the property so overgrown that you couldn’t see our house from the solitary road. The area’s original homesteaders—some of whom were my distant kin—named it Eden.
As a child I was a nail-biter, a tree climber. I could spend the better part of a morning digging around on the nearby savanna, dreaming of other worlds. I had a cat, Harvey—a girl cat with a boy’s name—with whom I was convinced I could communicate telepathically. She would deliver a dead bird or rat to my feet, and I would collect the carcasses in my little red pushcart until my mom discovered them with horror and threw them away. I was the girl who managed to get head lice more than once a year, the one the mothers at school feared.
My parents believed in independence. My father, who had grown up in Eden, told me stories of adventure, of roaming the savanna with a shotgun under his arm and canoeing to the small islands in the middle of the river to fish and dig for crabs. When he was 15, his parents let him and his younger brother travel unaccompanied to Mexico on a surfing trip. My mother, who had been raised in upper-middle-class Long Island, was allowed to skip school to visit Manhattan as a child. They were the sort of people who trusted in my ability to chart my own course, even at a young age and even if it veered far afield of the kind of life they had built for our family in our little house on stilts.
If that life was idyllic, it was also isolating for a teenager. Magazines were my portals into other worlds. I coveted the issues of Seventeen that arrived in the mailbox at the end of the drive each month, with their pictures of beautiful coeds on the red-brick campuses of northern schools, wearing the latest plains, the subtlest tweeds, the sharpest pleats—clothing that couldn’t have been further from the cotton T-shirts and shorts of my own wardrobe.
The walls around the desk in my bedroom were papered with cutouts of their lovely faces and perfect figures. They were goddesses to me; I was fascinated by them, from their waist-length hair to the tips of their prep-school oxfords. They ruled a world so wholly unlike mine, one that contained everything I wanted to be and everything I wasn’t. I fantasized about somehow gaining entrance to it—about being sent to an international boarding school, maybe, where French cooking was a requirement. A mix of envy and lust pulsed at my temples.
So, when I was 14, I applied for a Seventeen modeling contest. I sent in a few modeling-style photographs I had, the product of a “junior charm” course I had attended at the local beauty school to correct some of the odd social cues I had begun to develop. My family was genuinely surprised when a package arrived from the magazine. In it was a letter, stating that I was one of ten finalists, and a single roll of film, which I was to have someone shoot of me and send back undeveloped to compete for a trip to Los Angeles and a feature in the magazine.
A friend of my father’s, a man who worked as a photographer for the local paper and surfed the breaks with him on weekends, agreed to take the pictures. I waited anxiously for over a month for the results. I had all but given up when another letter arrived congratulating me on being among the three finalists.
My mother and I were flown to Los Angeles and put up in the Shangri-La Hotel, in Santa Monica. The next day we were picked up at 6 a.m. in an oversize RV and taken to Malibu’s Zuma Beach. I was surprised by how chilly California could be in the morning. The Winnebago was filled with people from the magazine who had flown in from New York for the shoot: editors, makeup artists, makeup assistants, assistants’ assistants. At first I sat at attention, studying every movement around me, but I soon lost count of people and names and reverted to just smiling sweetly.
In the back of the Winnebago was the wardrobe room, with each of my “looks” or “changes” on a rack with my name on it. One at a time, I was handed an outfit off the rack; I would change, then be sent out to show the team from the magazine, who would look at me and mutter about how the outfit did or did not work well on my body type, tugging a bathing-suit strap here and a miniskirt hem there. Polaroids were taken, and then we would move on to the next hanger.
The wardrobe room was full of people, and there was nowhere private for me to change. I was self-conscious, but it slowed me down trying to hide from view without seeming like I was hiding. I wanted to fit in, to seem like I had been doing this for a while. If getting completely naked and dressing in front of everyone was the way models did it, I would do it, too. But as I did, my stomach began to ache, and I anxiously looked around for my mom.
I had no idea how much work it took to get the perfect photo—the hours of hair setting and face painting, the clipping, clamping, and pinning of each outfit. The director told me and the other two finalists to run up a sand dune, toward the camera, carrying a large wooden umbrella. We did it 40 or 50 times as the photographer clicked away and I silently barked orders at myself: Lift. Run. Smile like you mean it. That night at our congratulatory dinner, I was so exhausted that my mom had to take me back to the hotel early, after I almost fell asleep in my taco plate.
Still, I was enthralled by the hive-like energy of the fashion shoot and the rush of adrenaline it produced; I was hooked. Back in Florida, I convinced my mom to help me embark on a career. At the local library, she found addresses for several of the big agencies in Miami Beach. After some interviews and test photos, I signed with one of them. It was what the industry called my mother agency, the one that would introduce me to other opportunities outside Miami, help me make the jump from local to international work, and take a tidy 40 percent—20 percent from the model, 20 percent from the client—for each direct booking. My mother agency was the one that would send me to Tokyo.
The summer I went to Japan, my sister, three years my junior, went to a sleepaway camp in a nearby state park. There she would make fires, swim in the lake, and watch a tornado drive across the savanna as counselors rushed everyone to safety. It was the year our paths would permanently diverge. My sister took the road of traditional American childhood: camps, clubs, school dances, talking on the phone with friends late into the night. I would drop out of high school a week after my 16th birthday, get in the brand-new car that I’d bought myself, and move to Miami. Tokyo was the turning point, the definable moment when I left childhood behind.
I spent the night before my flight to Japan in the basement of my parents’ house with my boyfriend, Ryan. We bathed together, secretly, while my family slept three stories above. Keeping the lights low for fear of discovery, I lit candles. I had hoped the effect would be romantic, but instead I was a wreck, clinging to him in the dripping dark.
By the time the sky began to lighten and Ryan had gone home, I’d cried myself dry, at least temporarily. I managed to zip up my oversize duffel bag and get myself out the front door and into my mom’s car without breaking down. I refused to allow my parents to know just how scared I was to leave. There would be so many things I would never tell them about my model life.
On a layover in Detroit, I met my soon-to-be roommate, Lisa, the other teenage girl from Florida. Her father owned a small radio station on the Gulf Coast, and she had brought boxes full of cassettes with her from home. As we got acquainted over small bags of roasted peanuts, I noted the almond shape of her eyes, the bounce of her hair, the way her lips curved at the corners. This was a model, I thought—a creature that actually belonged in the world that I so wanted to inhabit, in which I still felt out of place.
Navigating the industry had been difficult for me; I still had a hard time with social graces, and I didn’t make friends easily. In Miami, I had once had lunch at an outdoor café with my booker and a visiting Italian agent. “You could be a star,” the agent said, “if only you had a better personality.” The Japan opportunity had seemed to me a challenge, a call to arms; in my child’s mind, it grew to something akin to King Arthur’s sword in the stone.
It was afternoon when we arrived at Narita Airport, where we were met by our handler from the agency, a Japanese woman who spoke little English. She took us outside to where a driver in a minivan was waiting. The highway from the airport seemed like something out of the future. It threaded between tall, mirrored-glass office buildings and shorter ones that looked like large sugar cubes and appeared to have no on- or off-ramps. I lost all sense of space and time watching the bright billboards go by. The handler said little to us, and the lack of friendly conversation was disorienting. I felt like an import, goods received. Or maybe we were simply being treated like adults.
Then we were there: a four-story building on a side street somewhere in a city of which I had no geographical understanding. We were ushered inside an elevator barely big enough for the four of us and let out into a narrow corridor on the third floor. Our handler unlocked the door to a one-bedroom unit with a small kitchenette.
The bedroom was off to the left, with sliding doors separating it from the rest of the space. Eying the two pots on a flimsy wire rack hung above the stove, I realized I would now be responsible for making my own food. Everything had the feeling of plastic—cheap, temporary, easily replaced.
After asking the driver to set our bags down, one on each bed, the woman handed us each a large foldout map of Tokyo and the address of the modeling agency, and instructed us to come by with bathing suits the next morning. This was the only time I can recall someone from the agency ever visiting our agency-managed apartment.
After the handler left, Lisa and I looked at each other but said little. The extent of what I had gotten myself into was beginning to sink in. I had been dropped into a culture so different from my own, and I was utterly unprepared for what awaited me outside the apartment door.
I had never used chopsticks before; now they were the only utensils available. I hadn’t been taught a word of Japanese, given a tutorial on how to travel safely around one of the biggest cities in the world, or told where I could wash my clothes. Once I’d built up enough courage to venture out, I was so surprised to see beer sold out of a vending machine on a street corner that I actually stopped and laughed hysterically, pointing and looking at passersby to see if anyone else thought it was amazing.
But if I was intimidated, my roommate was petrified. From day one she refused to leave the apartment other than to buy necessities and make weekly visits to the agency office to pick up her stipend. Mostly she just stayed in bed and, if I asked why she wasn’t going on the castings, mumbled something about pimples. I wasn’t surprised to come home one day two weeks later and find her packing. As I watched her methodically arrange cassette tapes in her bags, I thought what a fool she was for letting the opportunity go.
That first day, after the long flight, all I wanted to do was sit in a shower and feel the familiar sensation of water running over me. But I was shocked to find that the apartment did not have a shower. Instead it had a tiled room, a small steel tank, and a drain in the floor. This took a moment to figure out. I eventually deduced that you were supposed to throw water at your body from the lukewarm tub. I was so tired, so overwhelmed that Japan was already so different, that I didn’t know what else to do but call home.
My parents had given me an international phone card and instructions on how to use it, but it still took me several tries before I was able to figure out the magical code that connected me with Florida. By the time my mother picked up I was crying, whimpering that I wanted to change my ticket and return home the next day. She calmed me down. Coming home was always an option, she told me, but why didn’t I get a good night’s sleep and see how I felt in the morning?
The next day I awoke to an excruciating pain when I peed. This was 1992, a time before widespread Internet access and the immediate availability of medical information. It took me two tries to reach my mother on the phone. “I think you have a bladder infection, sweetie,” she told me.
When Ryan and I started having sex nine months earlier, I had asked my mother to take me to the gynecologist. While she sat out in the waiting room, I asked the nurse practitioner if I could get a prescription for birth control pills without my parents being notified. She gave me several sample packs, and I slipped them into my purse. It would take my phone call from Japan complaining of a bladder infection for my mother to learn that I was sexually active.
Later that day I made my first visit to the agency office, following the directions on the map my handler had given me. Around ten blocks away, the office was the size of my parents’ basement and crammed full of desks. At one of them, I was instructed to sign for my weekly allowance of spending money. With a wad of yen in my pocket, I went shopping for food. Roaming the aisles of a nearby grocery store, I was excited to find familiar-looking boxes of Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms. My parents had never given me sugary cereals, and I had no palate for them, but they were the only things I recognized.
In the pharmacy aisle, I picked up one indecipherable product after another, hoping to find some kind of lady-parts imagery. I debated going back to the agency and asking for help, but I didn’t want them to think badly of me. I was desperately embarrassed; it felt like I had done something wrong and was being punished. In the end, I bought nothing and resolved to suffer through the infection until my body fought it off on its own.
Outside our apartment, on the front of the building, was a mural of a 30-foot-tall, Warhol-esque yellow banana. It reminded me of the green, wet place I came from—of wide tropical leaves and eating melon slices with my daddy on the porch in the damp summer twilight. When I was out wandering the neighborhood I could see that yellow banana from blocks away.
The following day, the minivan from the agency pulled up outside our apartment to chaperone us to our first casting. Inside were several other teenage girls in short skirts, a few blondes and a lone brunette. We spoke little as the van drove out of the city center; high-rises and neon gave way to suburbs, clusters of trees waving in a soft summer breeze. The van stopped and we filed into a white-walled, four-story office building like a class of parochial school girls on a field trip.
We took a small elevator up and were led into an under-furnished conference room, where five or six well-dressed men and women sat along a table, facing forward silently like pupils waiting for a teacher to arrive. They were the clients we needed to impress, who would ultimately choose which of us would win the beauty pageant we competed in each time we entered one of those rooms. Sometimes we would be told ahead of time what the casting was for; sometimes nobody would bother.
One at a time, each of us stepped forward with a perfunctory smile and presented our portfolios. The room echoed every step of our Mary Janes, every swipe of a damp palm along the back of a skirt. Our books were passed down the line from client to client, each of them flipping quickly through the photographs and uttering small exclamations that were hard to decipher. I worried that they could hear the rapid beating of my heart. Once each of us had presented herself, some of us were Polaroided—the winners were already self-evident, and I wasn’t one of them. We filed out amid thank yous and arigatos.
That night the agency took us out to dinner at a fancy sushi restaurant. The restaurant was dimly lit, with floral wallpaper. We were shown to a large round table where we were seated in a girl-boy-girl-boy arrangement. The boys were men, actually, older and dressed in fine business attire. Out of my element, I sat mute and wide-eyed, trying to maintain a smile, while the other girls laughed and made small talk. A man next to me tried a few times to strike up a conversation before he finally gave up and turned to a frail-looking brunette on his other side.
I had never eaten sushi before, and the morsels of raw fish and rice that were placed before me were utterly perplexing. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with them. Did I pick them up with my fingers? What went into the little sauce dish next to my plate? As I sat there studying the food, terrified of making a wrong move and being exposed as the naive little girl that I was, I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Hi, I’m Kimmy,” the brunette said. “Let me help you.”
Kimmy was from Canada and 22, which seemed ancient to me at the time. Her beauty was more understated than a traditional model’s, and her hair was not the preferred color for the Japanese market, but I soon learned that she had been working in Japan for years. She was established enough to have her own apartment in Tokyo, she told me, and was the person to go to if I had any questions. Meeting her I felt relief. Here was exactly what I needed: an adviser, a mentor, a stand-in for the maternal protection and guidance I craved.
I began to settle into a routine. For the next week, I would get up early and bathe, throwing water at myself in the small dark bathroom, then prepare my body for presentation. After a light breakfast of cereal and fruit—it was all I would eat until dinner—I went outside and waited by the banana mural to meet the van.
But the following Monday morning, I received a phone call from the agency asking me to come in to the office. When I arrived, two bookers, a man and a woman, both dressed in black, told me that the agency van would no longer be picking me up.
“It’s reserved for working models,” the woman said.
“And you haven’t booked anything.” the man said.
“But it’s only been one week,” I pleaded, my face coloring in shame.
“Well, you can still earn your way back onto the van,” she said.
“Yes, we’re still going to let you know when and where the castings are,” he said. “You just need to get there by yourself. Use the subway. Use the map.” I nodded and bowed my head to hide my embarrassment, leaving as quickly as possible—here for only one week and my career was already over.
But I tried. Every day for the next two weeks, I walked to the domed subway entrance near the apartment and took the escalator underground, clutching the list of casting calls I needed to make. The subway station seemed oddly clean, almost sterile, given the number of people who rode it every day; there was a metallic smell to it that reminded me of blood. The first day I attempted to navigate the system, I stood frozen in the station for ten minutes, reaching out to feel the beautiful characters of the Japanese language on the wall, characters that I knew signaled a destination, hoping that somehow their meanings would be revealed to me through osmosis.
The train cars were packed, mostly with men in dark business suits. I stuck out among them, a tall blond alien. There was a man in front of me, his head at chin level, pressed uncomfortably against my chest; the man behind me was similarly snug, but facing the opposite direction.
I had been on the train for several stops when I felt the fingers. At first I didn’t understand what was happening. The fingers felt as if they were everywhere yet seemed to come from nowhere specific. Someone was touching my leg, petting it in a way that made my heart beat rapidly. I began to feel like the closeness of the compartment was going to crush me.
I glared at the man pushing up against me from the front; he stared straight ahead into my chest as if it were a window. My right hand was pinned down at my side and my left arm was aloft, holding on to the metal bar overhead. The hand had worked its way forward and was now poised on my right inner thigh, massaging, occasionally tickling a finger upward. I assumed a statue-like stance, not wanting to move or accidentally bump the hand up into my crotch. Then another hand from a totally different direction grabbed my butt with such force that I actually cried out.
Heads in the compartment turned to look at me; the hands quickly withdrew. I looked down, embarrassed, dazed, close to crying. At the next stop, I pushed my way out of the train and pressed myself against the station wall, propping myself up against it and catching my breath.
I began to dread my daily descent into the tunnels, to feel it in my stomach as I approached the station. I started exhibiting symptoms of what I now know to be anxiety: I stopped showering as much and eating as often. In the station, I tried different strategies to protect myself from what I envisioned as disembodied hands. I’d stand along the tiled wall, waiting until the last moment to run onto the train, hoping to position myself next to the door; at least that way, one side of my body would be protected.
Most of the time, however, I would be pushed into the middle of the car, one arm raised, grasping at the metal bar. Then it would begin. Like a recurring nightmare, the fingers inched their way around my body, trying to find a path up and under my shirt or skirt. I would try fruitlessly to catch the eyes of the man, or men, performing this invisible act, but every face I searched looked past me.
The older models had warned me that this might happen. When I mentioned the incident to Kimmy, she told me, “The men are basically harmless. It’s no big deal. Rape almost never happens in Japan.” But the experience had already affected me in strange ways. In the packed trains I found myself retreating from my own body as if into a warm, dark pool. I assumed the position of a ghost girl, absent from the moment. This ghost self would prove useful for surviving daily life in my chosen profession, too, so much so that I would come to think of it as my modeling suit—one I could put on to stop feeling.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I would never make any money in Japan—that the one or two jobs that I did book wouldn’t be nearly enough to pay back what I already owed the agency in plane tickets and weekly allowances. (The cost of renting a bed in our agency-provided apartment, I would come to learn, was four times market value; this was the industry norm.) The drive to succeed was replaced by a conviction that this was an experience I needed to endure, to survive.
The agency, meanwhile, seemed oddly unfazed by the lack of work I was getting. Of course, there was a bit of disappointment, but they didn’t threaten to send me home or cut off my funds. I was one of many girls they brought to Japan. They seemed to throw us out there like so much spaghetti at the wall, waiting to see who would stick. There came a point in the third week when I just stopped trying.
Instead, I filled my calendar with Kimmy. Each night, she called me with an update and a location where we were going to be dining, which model-themed club we would be visiting, and at what time and by whom I would be picked up. While the core group of four or five models remained the same for most of my summer, the men around us were ever changing. An anonymous cluster of elegant suits and wide grins rotating in and out of our lives.
One night I found myself in a sleek apartment, with a group of people I knew and didn’t know, a red vodka Jell-O shot slipping down my throat, leaving a sugary taste in my mouth. I stuck out my neon pink tongue at my new friend, a European man at least twice my age who was a trader on the floor of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. What was his name again?
A group of my fancy older friends were celebrating something, but I was too hammered to remember what it was. Maybe it was this guy’s birthday? That would be fun. I blinked and looked around his modern Japanese flat, all stainless steel and dark wood and paintings of distorted body parts. For the first time in my life, I was making friends easily; for the first time I seemed to fit in. Thousands of miles from home, I had found a pack of like-minded creatures.
Kimmy passed around another tray of Jell-O shots. A toast was raised. Everyone cheered. God, what was this guy’s name again? He was so awesome. “You’re awesome!” I said.
He kissed my cheek and handed me the keys to his moped. “Here you go, kiddo. Enjoy yourself, take a spin around the block.”
“But I’m only 15,” I said. “I don’t have my license yet.”
“That’s OK,” He assured me. “This is Tokyo. What trouble could you get into?”
The wind massaged my face; the lights blurred into something like a meteor shower around me. My favorite white silk shirt, the one that made me feel like an adult, flapped against the small of my back. My hand was firmly clamped down on the accelerator. I was flying through the streets of Tokyo, completely drunk. I was a ghost. I was free.
The short lesson the European trader had given me was enough to get me up and running. “Just going to take it around the block,” I yelled to him as I scooted away. Wow, I thought now as I gunned it, this is a long block.
I turned onto what seemed like a major street. Through watery eyes, I noticed the traffic slowing at a light, and I slowed down, too. The sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians. Signs and banners illuminated the night. I recognized my surroundings now as Roppongi, Tokyo’s club district, a neon and halogen world of noise and pounding music.
The sound of a horn startled me, causing the moped to teeter and wobble. I regained my balance; the traffic was moving now, the light had turned green. I gunned it again, keeping pace. The cars around me were much smaller than the ones in the States—way smaller than my mom’s minivan. I stopped again. This time I was the first one in line. The street was darker now, quieter. I seemed to be leaving the party district. Maybe I should pull off and figure out how to get back? Spotting the sidewalk, I thought, Yeah, that’s where I should go.
I began to pull over, veering right into oncoming traffic. I quickly realized my mistake, but it was too late.
My hand found the brake, and I squeezed hard. A little red car, headed straight at me, slammed on its brakes, too. I lost my balance and started to tip and slide, right at the car. Horns blared around me. Time slowed down.
By the time I regained my senses, I had come to a stop, my face inches away from the car’s bumper. The driver was still honking. I breathed and tried to get out from under the moped, but the bike was heavy and I was small. Finally, grimacing and stumbling, I managed to get free and wheel it over to the sidewalk.
I brushed the street grime out of my skinned palms, wincing. My understanding of the gravity of what had just happened—and of what had almost happened—was dulled by the liquor in my veins. Instead, I noticed that there was a skid mark and a hole in my white silk shirt—my favorite shirt. Shit, I thought: What was I going to wear to the clubs now?
Where am I? I wondered. Back on the moped, I pulled up beside a cab and shouted the only street address I knew through the open window. The driver nodded and pointed, rapidly instructing me in Japanese. I nodded, understanding little but following his gestures. This happened two more times before I looked up and found myself beneath the big familiar banana.
Standing beneath the mural, relief and shame flooded in. Then I remembered the moped—I had to return it somehow. Using my apartment as a starting point, I had a cloudy memory of where the owner lived. Winding my way through the backstreets of my neighborhood, I rode past the landmarks of the life I had been building in Japan, in spite of myself. The laundromat where on a Sunday four weeks earlier I had taught myself to use the washing machines. The 7-Eleven where I discovered the delicious seaweed-wrapped tuna and rice bundles that I now ate every day. The outdoor market where I was introduced to “Japanese chocolate,” the sweet red bean cakes to which I was now thoroughly addicted. Finally, I reached my destination. I parked the moped in its designated spot; it was probably scratched, I thought.
I staggered up the steps to the apartment and pushed open the door. Laughter, warmth, comfort—as it hit me, I started to shiver. “Hey, what happened to you?” one of the guests asked. I turned to look in a mirror. There was a streak of dirt across my lip, running up my cheek. Both of my palms were red with road rash.
Great, I thought, and started to wipe at the dirt on my face with a shirttail. But when my eyes met my own in the mirror, I stopped. Two more seconds, two more inches, and things would have been different. I breathed in deeply, wondering at the tight clump in my chest and the sudden wild desire to slam my fist into every mirror in the house.
A sound in the room called me back. I turned around; everyone was looking at me with concern and maybe a little amusement. I dropped down onto the couch between people whose names I didn’t know. Safe.
The days and nights began to run together; the former was a haze of recovering from and preparing for the latter. I ate and bathed, applied and removed makeup. A month had gone by, and I no longer thought of home longingly. When I called my parents, I kept the conversations light. I didn’t lie and say I was working—I knew I wouldn’t be able to hide the fact that I was failing in Japan. But I didn’t tell them much about how I spent my days and nights; the truth was, I wasn’t sure how I was spending them myself.
I mostly remember brief flashes: A disco in Roppongi, a pulse resonating from the speakers, and everyone joining together, living within the music. Smoke and booze and heat had loosened our collective bindings. A circle had formed, and my friends and I were at the center, holding hands and gazing at each other drunkenly. A group of older, better-traveled models had adopted me like a puppy and were showing me around the fun house that was Tokyo. Not much modeling had happened. We partied until six in the morning, slept until two in the afternoon, and repeated.
For a second, I thought of the kids back home—red-faced, nasty creatures. I thought of the way they had treated me ever since second grade when I started visiting the learning-disability tutor. I thought of how they laughed when they found out I was a model. Those kids would never believe what this Jenny was doing now!
A tall male figure emerged from the crowd and pulled on my waist. Three Long Island iced teas sloshed in my stomach as I was hoisted up, and suddenly I was looking down from atop the shoulders of a six-foot-plus hottie. Ooh la la! Oh prince, I thought, loving the attention and not really thinking straight at all. The circle of bodies below seemed to be moving in one motion, as if pulled by a single string. Here in this moment, they danced for me—Jenny, Queen of the Tokyo Ballroom!
A hand tugged at my waist. It was Kimmy. Her eyes seemed to be trying to communicate something—a warning? The giant who held me aloft pushed her away lightly and turned, carrying me off into the dark recesses of the club. But the room was crowded and my friends gathered, surrounding him. Soon my feet were back on the ground, and I was assimilated back into my pack, back to safety. We headed outside and I threw up.
The following week I booked my only photo shoot. It was an editorial gig, which is code for a job in which the model makes little to no money but has the privilege of working with better photographers and stylists—and is exposed to higher-end clients via the resulting magazine spread. In this one, I would be dressed up to look like a geisha.
The taxi dropped me off at a studio on a street of anonymous-looking warehouses. It was a large gray space and mostly empty. After I was shown my wardrobe, a line of kimonos and wraps, I was taken over to the makeup area. First the artist wiped my face down with white foundation, then downsized my lips into a red heart shape; a black wig was selected and fitted onto my head. A tight-bottomed kimono and wooden sandals followed.
The makeup area of the studio had a window that faced a line of overgrown bamboo plants. As the makeup artist worked on my face, I looked out at the wall of greenery. This was the longest I’d ever spent in a city, the longest I’d spent away from the tropical lushness of Florida. Any time I spotted a nice tree in Japan, I would stand in front of it for a moment, taking it in. I’d trace the lines of its form with my eyes and wonder what my family was doing back home.
“He’s a friend,” said the European trader with the moped as he walked me to a silver convertible, two-seat Mercedes. “You guys will love each other.” Sitting in the driver’s side was an attractive man in a crisp tan suit who looked like he was in his early forties. The car moaned with power as it climbed the highway up into the mountains, following a caravan of my Tokyo friends. We were going on an overnight trip, one that Kimmy had coordinated. It was my first time outside the city. “Crazy” by Seal played on the Mercedes’s stereo—one of the tapes Lisa had given to me before she left. I could not help but wonder why I wasn’t in one of the other cars, piled in with my friends.
The top was down, and my hair whipped behind me. My eyes watered with the force of the wind. We were far from Tokyo now; you could tell from the pine-crisp air. I had no idea where exactly we were going or even which direction we were headed. It occurred to me that I should have told my parents that I was leaving the city.
The road veered along the coast, where surfers and colorful umbrellas dotted a beach. It reminded me of home, of my daddy riding the nose of his longboard as it rose along the curl of the wave, of the way he called me “sugar.” I wanted to stop and smell the familiar brine of this strange sea, to stick both my hands in the sand as deep as they would go, and stay like that until the tide came in. I wondered if my parents would recognize me when I returned home. Just four weeks ago, I still had a touch of baby fat on my frame. I was leaner now, perhaps a bit taller even. My hair was longer, the ends split.
The car began to slow as the curves in the road became tighter. Soon we were pulling into a mountain town on the shore of a lake, then parking outside a large house. It was a traditional Japanese home with several bedrooms surrounding an open central space, sectioned off with sliding bamboo doors. Tatami mats were laid out around the wooden floors.
Out back was a deck overlooking a pristine mountain lake, which crisply reflected ribbons of the day’s fading light—the first sunset I’d taken the time to notice in Japan. It was the Fourth of July, and I suddenly felt weird and a little homesick to be spending it here. I imagined what it would be like to jump into this lake, so cold it would take my breath away.
Standing next to me on the deck were three other models, all in their teens. I spotted Kimmy. “Where should I put my bag?” I asked her.
“Oh, you’ll be sharing a room with Heather, Carla, and Amy,” she said, then placed her hand on my shoulder. “Unless you want to switch rooms later—you just let me know.” With that, she turned to the men milling about at the edges of the deck, laughing and drinking from a bottle of something strong and dark. “Let’s head over to the village and get dinner.”
The local noodle house was a small, diner-like restaurant with several long tables and a bar. Our group, which now numbered more than a dozen, took up most of the space. I ordered udon noodles and sipped hot earthy green tea from a fire-sealed clay cup. Beer and sake were passed around. I tasted both, and my body gradually filled with warmth. I giggled and joked; I loosened up. The man in the tan suit came to sit next to me, and we laughed together. I told him that I never drank back home. That I was a good girl. That I had a boyfriend.
It was well after midnight by the time we returned to the house, where we gathered around a low table. Someone opened what they said was a nice bottle of wine. Kimmy was across from me, seated on the European trader’s lap. One of the other girls disappeared into a side room with one of the men. I sat with my knees pulled up to my chest, my back against the wall, watching and listening to the conversation and dipping in and out of consciousness. The man in the tan suit sat next to Kimmy and occasionally said something into her ear.
Finally, I stood up a bit unsteadily and headed to the room I had been given to share with the other girls. I glanced furtively at the tan-suited man, who I knew was watching me. At the door to my room, I turned and saw Kimmy follow another man—not the trader—into an adjacent room. The hem of her rose-colored dress brushed the back of her knees. For a moment, as the bamboo door slid shut, our eyes met. The look she gave me was cold and clear, unlike any I’d seen on her face before.
Later that night I lay on my mat, listening to the crickets outside the screenless windows. Two of the other three model girls had come to bed, their breaths softening into the slower patterns of sleep. I lay awake, watching the ceiling fan stir the mosquito netting above us, listening to the inscrutable sounds of the house, on guard. I couldn’t stop thinking about Kimmy, replaying the look that had passed over her face. It made my back rigid with a fear that had quietly dogged me the whole trip, an instinctive sense of danger that had suddenly taken on a fixed form. I couldn’t stop thinking about our room’s sliding door with no lock.
A representative from the agency approached me shortly after my weekend in the mountains, suggesting I shorten my stay; I agreed, and left Japan a few weeks later. Far from making me the promised tens of thousands of dollars, my time in Tokyo had actually cost me money.
Back in Florida, I tried to resume my former teenage life. Riding in the back of my boyfriend’s friend’s cars. Listening to Nirvana at full volume. Putting the alcohol daze of my time in Japan definitively behind me by pronouncing myself straight-edge and vegetarian. But it felt like everything had changed while I was away—as if the world I’d known had been replaced with one that was similar but slightly off. I kept working in Miami as a model; when the principal at my high school expressed his displeasure with my increasing absences for modeling shoots, my parents offered to homeschool me. The week I turned 16, I left home for Miami, where I lived and worked for six months. From there I traveled to Milan, the south of France, and the Yucatán Peninsula, eventually settling in New York.
But the highs of the photo shoots began to dull. I started to show signs that things weren’t right, feeling disconnected and hollow, visited by nightmares. I became withdrawn and startled easily. It was hard for me to travel new routes even in familiar cities, to eat at new restaurants or even shop at the corner store. I became so timid I no longer spoke. Soon I was refusing to leave my room unless I had a job or a casting. At age 17, the peak of my career—I had just gotten my first national magazine cover, for Sassy—I quit modeling.
So I moved home to Eden. Those first few months back, I ran. I ran every night, circling my parents’ tall wooden house, watching the river and the grass beds at low tide. I settled into the idea that I was no longer a model, and I needed to find out what and who I was going to be. I ran and I breathed deeply, inhaling the smells of my raw, wild home.
I healed, or I thought I did. I went on to a career as an actress, moved to Los Angeles, and married a pop star. I was on the cover of Maxim and starred in films opposite Bradley Cooper, DMX, and Peter Falk. Then I left that behind, too. I went through a major illness; recovering from it involved removing half my liver. The pop star and I divorced.
In January 2010, now in my mid-thirties, I moved back to New York to finish college. It was a hard winter. The panic attacks came more frequently. I began taking anti-anxiety and migraine medication, but sometimes it wasn’t enough. Everything was a possible trigger: a classmate laughing when I read a section from an essay about men on a Tokyo train; a writer being openly aggressive at an after-class bar session; someone standing too close to me, staring at me, talking about me. I didn’t understand what was happening. New York was the last city I had lived in as a model, and my return had reignited all the anxiety that I had boxed away for so long. I was an adult now, and my model suit no longer fit.
When a therapist at the university clinic suggested that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, I was floored. Never had it occurred to me that the things that had happened to me in the course of my modeling career might be a kind of trauma. From the moment I got off the plane in Japan—the moment modeling stopped being an extracurricular pursuit and became my life—I had simply understood all of it as the way the industry was. Sinking into the therapist’s ergonomic chair, I clutched at its edges and wondered: Is this why I’m so scared all the time?
Then, last year, when I was on spring break from my first year of graduate school, I rented a documentary called Girl Model. The film, shot in 2009, opens at a beauty contest in Siberia. We follow a 13-year-old girl, Nadya, as she competes for and wins a two-and-a-half-month contract with a Japanese agency. She is promised care, chaperones, and $8,000 worth of work in Japan. This is a fortune for her family. Her relatives pool their money to buy her new clothing for the trip.
Nadya travels to Japan alone. She does not speak Japanese or even English. She is shown to a tiny apartment that she will be sharing with another girl; she breaks down crying with relief when she realizes that her roommate speaks Russian, too. She borrows money from her roommate to buy food, until her roommate is sent home early after gaining weight on purpose. Nadya’s mother calls her on the documentary director’s cell phone; it is the only way they can afford to talk to each other.
At the end of her two months in Japan, Nadya has booked only one job. She is sent home in debt to her agency, the promised $8,000 swallowed by her living expenses. But a postscript reveals that three months later she returned to Japan anyway, dropping out of ninth grade in hopes that the second time would be different.
When the film finished, I sat in my living room staring at the blue screen for a long time. The familiarity of the Japanese scenery was jarring; memories that I had long ago buried resurfaced. I suddenly was incredibly thirsty. My neck began to itch. I went into the bathroom and saw that I had broken out in hives all over my chest.
At the time, it had struck me as odd that the Japanese agency seemed not to care if I worked. If I was barely getting booked for shoots, why didn’t they send me home? How were they making any money off of me? They were happy enough when my roommate, Lisa, went home. The difference between Lisa and myself, I now realized, was that I was going out. I was going out almost every night. Kimmy had coordinated everything. She was the one who called me each afternoon with the time I would be picked up, who handed out the drink tickets and passed around the shots, who brought me along on the weekend trip to the house by the lake in the mountains.
I remembered back to my last day in Japan, the Monday I flew home to Florida. On my way to the airport, Kimmy asked that I stop by her apartment. I hadn’t eaten yet that day, and the flight would be long, so she insisted on making me a bowl of miso soup and a small salad. It was the first time I’d ever been to her apartment and was shocked by how nice it was. I had always assumed Kimmy was living like the rest of us, in substandard rentals our agencies would indenture us into paying off. Her apparent prosperity puzzled me. She was neither strikingly pretty nor tall nor blond, nor was she ever busy working or going on castings. Never once did she say she needed to head home early for a job; she was always the life of the party.
As I ate, I noticed for the first time that her right wrist was in a brace. She walked with a bit of a limp. I finished quickly; there was something about being here, about being alone with Kimmy, that was making me uneasy. At the door, we embraced and spoke about my returning next summer for a longer time. “The first trip is all about laying the groundwork,” she said. “No one makes money on their first trip. But I’ve been coming here for four years now, and you, you can succeed.”
She pulled me closer. “Trust me,” she said. “Everyone loves you here.”