Student models balance high demands of fashion and academic worlds

By Brianne Johnson, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 6, 2012

As 3 a.m. approaches, the dim street glows with the fluorescent spotlight under which LSA junior Dana Pennington waits. Ankles aching and arms straining to fend off the invasive winter air, she listens for the next call.

“All right, for this next take, just smile, laugh, jump around — have fun with it,” the director says.

Ignoring the blistering pain of too-tight heels, Pennington nods to the surrounding crew. A music-video shoot tonight and a Sociology exam tomorrow morning — as a full-time student and part-time model, it’s all just a part of life.

Facebook may be the hot spot for folders of your roommate’s best angles and that freshly photoshopped profile pic, but for many students on campus, looking good means more than 14 “likes” — it’s a career.

“You’re getting judged on exactly how you look … most people feel that way on a daily basis, but (as a model), that’s your career. The way you look is how you make your money,” Pennington said.

With the opportunity to walk the runways of local designers and slither into extreme makeup and atypical fashion (cardboard and paper gowns, anyone?), many students turn to SHEI Magazine to dip their manicured toes into the modeling industry. As the University’s student-run fashion magazine, SHEI offers models a peek into the profession. For Business junior Cynthia Zhang, who has worked as a model since the age of 16, her four years at SHEI have blossomed into bookings with fashion chains such as Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Rag & Bone and Saks Fifth Avenue.

SHEI welcomes students of all backgrounds and serves as the medium through which first-timers like Art & Design sophomore Grace Treado gain exposure to the surreal world in front of the camera lens.

“Someone told me to go to the SHEI model call, just on a whim in between classes,” Treado said. “They just called me back … and they were like, ‘We want you to do a shoot, and next week we have a fashion show coming up and we need extra people.’ ”

The publication is a celebration of fashion in which aspiring writers, photographers and stylists express their passion for the industry through an annual issue. SHEI employs models for events and student-conceptualized photo shoots, as well as providing opportunities with local designers. In Pennington’s case, it got her a gig in a music video for Ann Arbor-based band The Hop's single "Hi Tonight."

Weekends consumed by spending hours sunk into a make-up chair, stylists molding a model into an unrecognizable version of herself, ten minutes of the constant shutter of a photographer’s camera — a tedious, repetitive process is involved in creating the glamorous illusion. When asked about the dedication required for the “sporadic” career, each model bemoaned the growing time conflicts, which interfere with her second life as a student.

“Before I do any modeling things, I make sure I get my schoolwork done,” Zhang said. "And if I have to choose between the two, I definitely go with school. That’s what a student’s supposed to do, right?”

Despite the tiring conditions, Zhang revels in the ability to evolve in front of the lens, pioneering the extreme designs in which fashion transcends the racks of local boutiques and solidifies as art. For Zhang and Pennington, the runway is a stage and the model is the performer and the audience, enthralled by the very act in which she takes part.

“It’s your moment on stage,” Zhang said.

“I am (scared by it), but that’s the reason I like it … Knowing there are so many people that I’m directly … putting the show on for, it’s really exciting,” Pennington added.

As a model and photographer, Treado appreciates the creative and technical aspects of posing for the camera. Describing fashion as one of many creative outlets, she expressed surprise at the respect she has gained for modeling as an alternative form of art.

“It proved every expectation I had about modeling to be wrong,” Treado said. “I thought if I started (modeling with) SHEI, I’d dress in a couple of pretty outfits, like maybe my face will show up in a magazine and that’ll be it. But this was all edgy and conceptual and weird.”

Whether it be trekking a carpeted runway in 7-inch Louboutins or rushing through the next outfit-change of a hectic show backstage, models not only suffer for their art, they suffer for the art of others — designers, photographers and stylists. For Zhang, Pennington and Treado, models work to represent a collective vision. As described by Treado, artists embrace a multitude of creative outlets, but “fashion is just a different one.”