by Isabella David
It was the summer of 2008 when I posed for the cover of The Village Voice’s Queer Issue. Gay marriage would not be legalized in the state of New York for another three years. Not even a decade ago, but it was a different time. Even though gay marriage wasn’t legal, I felt that living in a big city exempted me from worrying about narrow-minded provincialism.
I didn’t realize provincialism is a state of mind not an actual state of the union.
I thought I didn’t need to compute how the law or how some small-minded people still felt about gay marriage when I agreed to pose for the cover. What I computed was the honor it would be to pose for an iconic paper like the Voice—a paper I hoped one day to write for, although that’s fast becoming more of a pipe dream due to budget cuts than the idea of a chubby, pasty theater actress like myself modeling.
Not least of all, I computed how talented the crew for the shoot was: Virginia Bradley regularly styles for Vogue. Nikola Tamindzic, our photographer, had been recently profiled in The New York Times. I happily agreed to his concept, involving me and the beautiful Julia Standefer, clasping each other in an almost passionate embrace.
What I didn’t compute was any negative consequences that shoot might mean for my career, not least of which was the effect the heat would have on me. It was my very first official modeling gig. Julia was an old pro and radiated coolness, her makeup pearlescent throughout the shoot.
Me on the other hand?
At one point, I literally collapsed from the 95 degree heat. It didn’t help that the statuesque Julia was so much taller, I had to wear 5 inch heels under a long, black wool John Galliano gown in order for my lips to parallel her lips. She stood barefoot in the photographer’s living room. A mattress stood on end, providing our backdrop.
I could sense her discomfort, and we had to stop periodically to let her exhale and relax. The concept was cinematic in scope, different from a regular modeling shoot. It was part of why I’d been selected. At that point, I’d been a crazy New York city theater actress for two years. I didn’t see anything too wildly difficult in holding a lovely Julia close to me, pretending passion. I’d played drug addicts, housewives, victims of abuse, even murderers. I’d played a lot of parts that weren’t me, and what with the glamorous gown I had on, apart from the heat, I was having a lot of fun playing this one.
However, when we took individual shots, I found it challenging to look into the camera without flinching. Julia on the other hand sent the crew into ohs and ahs of admiration when she posed. She simply stood there, yet there was so much more to it: she radiated confidence, ease, glamor, beauty, innocence. It was a lesson to me: there was an art to modeling. The evening ended with shots on the street in another Galliano get-up. When I didn’t have to look at the camera, I was happily lost in the character I’d created. When asked to look into the lens, I resembled a deer in headlights. All in all, it was a very satisfying night: I learned a lot and made several new friends.
A month later the cover came out. I probably broke several laws, emptying one of those ubiquitous, red Village bins that pepper New York. The image Nikola crafted showed all of the character-building with none of the painful 5 hours of labor that had gone into creating it. (At one point we had to break, so the hair stylist could run to the bodega for orange juice. I’d fainted from the combination of the heat and the sheer heaviness of that wool gown.) I was blown away by the artistry of illusion and by the team effort that went into one picture. To say I am proud of that image is to understate it.
Naturally, it took pride of place in my burgeoning “book”—model speak for the book of 9×12 pictures models used to carry around with them before iPads started taking over.
I don’t have to tell you that I’m not a lesbian, because my sexual orientation shouldn’t matter in the context of character-acting, but it did. I fell in love with my husband all over again when I found out he’d experienced 15 minutes of fame in the ‘90s, working as a peer counselor who went around to high schools talking about gay rights. Later when he was interviewed for the “straight athletes” chapter in Jocks: True Stories of America’s Gay Athletes by Dan Woog, Woog marveled that my husband never once prefaced a comment with “not that I’m gay.” The excuse is an apology. And what is there to apologize for? What does a person’s sexual orientation matter or say about their worth as a human being? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever.
And when it’s a matter of art, shouldn’t it matter even less? Obviously, this is still not the case, as many people objected to Matt Bomer being cast as Christian Grey. Why, because a BDSM-obsessed billionaire turned Prince Charming is a realistic concept to begin with? It’s about the character you’re playing.
Personally, I thought The Voice cover was beautiful, powerful, and expressed sapphic love in a sweet, respectful and unusually non-exploitative fashion. I didn’t realize yet my concept of the New York modeling world was tinted with the lens of the New York theater scene. I didn’t see myself as a commodity, branding herself with a carefully crafted image, but as an artist trying to learn and experience as much as she could. I didn’t realize clients would see the image as provocative, and I still wonder why they did, when so many modeling shots feature half-naked bodies or heavily pouting expressions. Julia and I were fully clothed in couture, gazing at each other, not even quite kissing.
In fact, when one bridal designer reached the picture in my book, her reaction could be described as nothing less than apoplectic. Her eyes widened with almost comic horror, bulging out of her head, and then she shut my book with a snap, practically shoving it into my stomach and asked me to leave the casting.
I remember as I stumbled out of the hotel room, I saw all around me long, white gowns lovingly laid out on the beds and couches of the suite. I remember thinking they were the mirror opposite of the long black gown I wore in that shot she’d found so offensive. And I remember wondering why was heterosexual love sanctified and homosexual love treated as less than worthy?
It made me see marriage as a sort of benediction of hypocrisy. I won’t say I made a Dax Shepherd/ Kristin Bell/ Angelina Jolie/ Brad Pitt level promise never to marry until gay marriage was legal, but I did feel as if I’d seen the curtain pulled back on the other side of the 40 billion dollar wedding industry in a time when gay marriage was universally illegal, and what I saw was a lot less pretty and sweet than that cover that had so offended.
Needless to say I did not get that job. I’m sad to admit I thought about removing the picture from my portfolio, but ultimately, I decided I didn’t want to work with people who viewed art or sexuality through a distorted lens of their own neuroses.
When I married my husband four years later, I chose a white dress, but it was short and plain and only cost a couple hundred dollars. I could wear it again and again and planned to. Best of all, we got married at city hall.
There were plenty of gay couples in attendance that day, waiting in line with us. I thought back to that hot night in the Lower East Side when I stood for five hours in a black wool gown, and I thought of how I had unwittingly been standing for more than a modeling shot. I had stood up for the world I want to live in, where sexual orientation is just a choice and doesn’t define a person.
Best of all, I’m glad to see times are changing, how differently that picture is already viewed. In fact, even the conservative wedding industry is showing signs of change: this season’s Say Yes to the Dress included several episodes with same-sex brides, shopping together.
Sometimes I can’t believe how much has changed from the bad old days when my husband had his life threatened for daring to speak up for gay rights to only eight years ago when I lost work for posing for the Queer Issue to now when in a lot of mainstream media orientation is viewed more like a couture touch for a character: something to put on or take off, depending on the sweet soul’s choice of the individual person.
There’s still a long way to go as has been shown by the recent ridiculous bathroom controversy, as ridiculous as finding an image of two women hugging offensive, not to mention any individual who agrees with Donald Trump. Still, I think the strides that have been made in less than a decade are inspiring.
Isabella David is an actor and author of The Voices of Women, shortlisted for the 2015 International Venture Award. She’s also an editor at Easy Street—a books and culture off-shoot of The Lascaux Review. Other work has appeared in Tampa Review, 100 Word Story, Adbusters, Hello Giggles, and elsewhere. When not working on her first novel, she mothers a menagerie of animals and children, who are all almost (as in not at all) potty-trained.