POND’S, Neutrogena, and other spa and skin care products comprise the commercial beauty industry. Their advertising images typically feature beautiful models with (apparently) little or no makeup, gorgeous features, and radiant skin.
I was convinced that I could not do this type of modeling. Considering myself a body model (with long limbs good for fashion), I didn’t think I had the necessary Julia Roberts style facial features (large, wide-set eyes and wide smile with plump lips) that seem to be popular for beauty campaigns. Sure, I had nice high cheekbones, but I always thought I had more the face of a classic era Hollywood actress, one with sleepy eyelids and a small, thin-lipped mouth.
I felt that my smaller features didn’t translate well on camera without the help of heavy makeup, false eyelashes, and extra lip liner. This was the makeup used in fashion images, the striking colors and contrasts accentuating the eyes and lips to make them look larger. Wearing this type of makeup provided me a costume of sorts for my face. In it I felt confident and beautiful and I performed tremendously for the camera. Without it I felt naked and “not enough” to produce a great image.
Swimming in this self perception during commercial and lifestyle photo shoots (which typically have very light makeup), I would attempt to compensate for my lack of having the right features by trying to rearrange and enlarge them by pulling around my facial muscles. Where I came up with this dumb idea I don’t know as you can’t change what you look like, but I was bull-headedly determined to make it so. But tense facial muscles just made me look stressed out and weird, worsening my images instead of improving them.
I finally decided to do something about this and contacted Lesley Pedraza, my photographer friend and a former model, to give me a lesson in modeling with my face. Arriving at her studio in complete paralysis, I confessed what was locked in my psyche—that I wasn’t pretty enough to compete with the other models without the assistance of strong makeup to enhance my features.
I had not grown up modeling like the other models in my category had. I felt like a B-Team player of sorts, not at the same level as the other models who had been working since being teenagers. I had been carrying this anxiety around for months and telling Lesley brought a rush of stupid tears, which embarrassed me on top of feeling inadequate.
Lesley looked at me thoughtfully, confessing that she did not understand at all where this sentiment was coming from as she thought I was quite attractive and she always saw me as a confident business woman.
She asked me to explain to her what I thought was wrong with my face. I confessed to her that I thought my eyes were too small, my lips too thin, and my mouth too small. She nodded and then on her computer pulled up the Ford and Wilhelmina model websites to show me the pictures of the other models in my division.
“Which of these girls do you think are beautiful?” she asked.
“All of them!” I said.
She asked me to pick one, so I selected a beautiful woman with a headshot of her looking off into the distance. She had warm brown skin and beautiful eyes and lips and a wistful dreamy expression.
“Now I want you to take apart her face… the same way you take apart your own face,” Lesley said.
I was really taken aback. I was staring at this woman, admiring her beauty, and feeling that I could never look like that. What did she mean ‘take apart her face’? She had a beautiful face; there was nothing to take apart.
Lesley repeated the question. After staring at her in confusion, I finally said, “Her eyes are different sizes, she has a bump on her nose, and she has slightly crooked teeth.”
Lesley countered: “But you still think she is beautiful, right?”
Lesley, drawing on her many years of personal experience modeling, explained, “That is because she is relaxed and connected to the camera. She is not apologizing. She is herself and isn’t showing any self-judgment. You don’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.”
I began to see what Lesley was saying as we repeated the same exercise with other models. After a full hour, I finally got it. Perhaps my face was just fine. Perhaps all I needed to do was connect with the camera and give my face to it willingly—without hiding, judging, or pulling away in fear. I wanted to try.
We took a bunch of practice images that day without fancy clothes and basic makeup. I had nothing to hide behind, I was just me. With Lesley coaching me through staying with her and not running away from the camera, she could see when I disconnected from her in my eyes and facial muscles. Each time, she gently coaxed me back.
I was pleased with my relaxed and approachable expression in the final images. I had made great strides.
My booker at Wilhelmina New York loved the images we got from this shoot and picked SEVEN of them for my portfolio. I was on the right track—I had created the impact I wanted and my pictures were finally strong enough to stand against those of the other Wilhelmina models. My face had not changed; I had simply relaxed and looked into the lens as if it was a friend or someone who knew my soul. The result? My agent saw a beautiful girl and a good picture.
My Los Angeles booker at the Bella Agency also loved the images and immediately began submitting me for commercial skin care and beauty campaigns. I was excited about this: Bella thought I was beauty campaign material!
The sales person in me pounced on this. The general rule in selling is to make it easy for the client to see you as the solution to their problem. I wanted to make it easy for them to see me as their skin care model. I needed a real beauty shot in my portfolio- one that looked like a POND’S or Neutrogena campaign.
I was ready to go for it and Lesley, bless her heart, agreed to help me make it happen.
We began planning, including selecting plants that we often saw used in these types of shoots—lilac, lily, aloe, lavender, and orchid. I zoomed off to Home Depot to pick them up for the photo shoot and left with one additional plant that called to me artistically every time I walked by it: the ornamental chili pepper. It was so colorful and sang with life. I was sure we could figure out some creative use for it.
At the shoot, our makeup artist Jenny Black began by applying heavy cream foundation all over my face, chest, and upper arms. The creamy mixture evened out all of my skin to the same shade and made it glow. Then she contoured and highlighted her work, the lighter and darker shadows enhancing the overall look of my face.
While Lesley tested lighting, Jenny gave the plants a quick makeover as well, wiping their leaves with a wet cloth and spritzing them with water to give them a pretty shine.
For the first series of images, we didn’t use any plants at all.
I focused on wearing the adoring, relaxed expressions that Lesley had taught me in my catalog lesson, pretending I was staring lovingly at my husband and children, and perhaps my dog, doing something that was so cute that I was just bursting with love for them. I worked on bringing this expression out from the inside, giving myself to the camera lens with no judgment and full emotion, and projecting love and peace.
This is where acting came in. I never considered modeling to be all that much like acting, but I was indeed pulling emotions into my imagination that wouldn’t normally exist while I was sitting on a stool in Lesley’s garage studio surrounded by reflectors.
The pictures where I actually felt something, when my smile was real and my eyes were loving, turned out to be the good images. Because Lesley was focusing in so closely on my face, any untruth showed through, so if I was smiling without really feeling it those pictures did not communicate or connect in the same way. That difference made all the difference.
One technical aspect I noticed was that, with Lesley’s camera zoomed in so close on my face, one tiny movement on my part had an enormous affect. If I had my hands near my face and I bent one finger a little, the angle and overall look of the picture changed. I could keep my head in exactly the same place and alter the emotion in my eyes slightly and the picture became totally different again. Or, I could tilt my head or move my nose ever so slightly to one direction and the picture would change yet again.
Lesley explained it to me: Fractions are everything in beauty.
We continued the shoot and I posed serenely with the lily and the orchid. When it came to the chili peppers, I asked Lesley to try something fun and sassy. I went for it with no judgment on my face or in my smile (I was typically self conscious about my thin lipped smile), laughing and giggling with the spicy chili peppers. It was my most creative moment of the shoot and I had a blast.
I learned three things at this photo shoot:
- I can indeed do commercial beauty photography.
- I have to feel genuine emotion inside myself to create a picture that communicates to the viewer.
- When shooting a beauty campaign, subtle adjustments (vs large changes) will give the client all the shot options they need.
I truly enjoyed this photo shoot. For the first time I felt comfortable really giving my all to the camera and not worrying so much about what I looked like. Even through my critical eyes I thought the pictures looked beautiful and professional. As it turned out, sharing my vulnerability about beauty shoots brought my modeling forward as a whole. I was ready to begin competing for these jobs.
Onwards and Upwards.