December 2009

Elizabeth Hildreth


An Interview with Kathleen Rooney

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, and the author, most recently, of the collaborative poetry chapbook Don't ever stay the same; keep changing and Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object. In late October 2009 she was interviewed over e-mail about the latter by Elizabeth Hildreth, herself no stranger to the world of professional nudity. They discuss, among other things, why art modeling is probably neither as sexy nor as boring as you might think, how to tell whether you happen to be nude or naked, why photography is arguably more creepy than painting, and why forced epiphanies in creative nonfiction -- in general, even -- suck.

I've been wanting to read your book for a while now. Frankly, I think I held off because I was kind of afraid. I'm close to the subject, and the title sounds so... sexy? Which, of course, exactly represents people's ideas about nude modeling. Like it's total French cinema, with beautiful women rolling around on mattresses -- their labias all front and center and lit up like a painting. Anyway, when the book came in, I looked at the cover and thought, well it doesn't look overly girly and silly and inappropriately sexy. Anyway, I started reading and it was just... not what I expected at all. So smarty pants. And funny. Not to mention, really, really accurate. I was reading portions of it to David [Abed, my husband, a figurative painter] this weekend when we were on a car ride, and I would wait for his response, which I expected to be, “Well, not really” or “Not always.” But passage after passage, it was [long, long pause] “Yeah.” [Even longer pause] “That's about right.” So where did the idea for the title come from? And who was your audience while you were writing this? Who did you anticipate might read it?

The Live Nude Girl part of the title could certainly come off as a saucy bit of bait-and-switch, but that was intentional. When people would find out that I worked as an art model, some of them -- like you and your husband, who are close to that world -- would not bat an eye, but others would be all, “Like, naked? With no clothes? In front of men….?” and they’d envision scenarios that were a lot more dramatic and salacious than what typically occurs. So when I wrote the essay that I eventually used as the springboard for this project, I was trying to target the broadest possible audience: people who had misconceptions about the profession (or just didn’t know much about it at all) and people who were well-versed in it. The former might come to the book expecting The Red Shoe Diaries or something equally “erotic,” and then would hopefully be entertained anyway, despite the lack of that soft-core-itude, and the latter might come to the book expecting me not to “get it right,” and then be pleasantly impressed by how much I nail it. I added the somewhat tamer subtitle My Life as an Object to pull a similar subversion of reader expectations -- as many people know, art modeling can be violently boring if you lack the right mindset. You’re just standing/sitting/lying there nude for hours on end, and if you can’t enter an almost meditative or thoughtful state, you’d probably find it one of the single dullest jobs in the world. But if you do have that imagination -- that ability to hold your own interest with your own thoughts -- it’s satisfying. So I wanted the subtitle to suggest, as is often observed, that being a model is like being a piece of fruit or furniture at first glance, but upon closer examination, it’s dynamic: the object is thinking, the object could be judging you back. Also, I wanted both title and the subtitle working in tandem to cause readers to consider the objectification of women, and the empowerment and submissiveness that circulate around nudity, especially female nudity.  

Like, naked? Yes, like, naked. Except not really, because you spend a considerable amount of time in your book making the distinction between nude and naked. I remember being exposed once, no pun intended, to the difference. A model I’ll call Lani (who was actually our babysitter and is now in her second year of med school) had a terrible habit of forgetting to bring a robe. So every 15 minutes when she would take a break, she’d just grab her long-sleeved t-shirt and put it on. Just the t-shirt. No pants. No underwear. And then inevitably she’d bend over, get a peanut butter sandwich out of her bag, and stand next to me, eating and talking -- about school, her fight with her boyfriend, her trip to Mexico. And the entire time, I just kept thinking. “Oh my god. Peanut butter, no pants.”  I could barely keep it together. On the other side of the spectrum, a model/dancer I’ll call Rachel said to me once, as she was posing nude on the stand, “Yeah, I constantly have to change in front of other dancers. But I hate it. I never walk around my house without clothes on either. I’m just not ‘a naked person.’” Says the only person in the room with no clothes on. Can you sort of break down the nude/naked difference as you understand it? 

I’d so never do that; I only ever ate my peanut butter sandwiches clad. In the book, I quote Kenneth Clark’s explanation that, “To be naked is to be deprived of your clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.” So in other words, nudity is being clothesless with a purpose and therefore feels, to me at least, more deliberate and empowered, whereas nakedness is sort of unintentional, and therefore more careless or even vulnerable. Because this distinction feels so noticeable to me, I guess I have a more Rachel-esque orientation than I do a Lani-esque one; I have no trouble at all being nude on the model stand, but when I have to be naked, like if I’m changing at the gym, for instance, I get nervous.

As a model, I always wanted to be either nude or clothed, but never naked if I could help it. The times when people had me pose in a state between full nudity and full clothedness -- like when somebody was all, “Oh, that bra’s nice, let’s go with that” or “Let’s keep the undies” or had me pose in stockings like in an Egon Schiele (who is one of my favorite artists, but still) were generally my least comfortable, least confident times. That state of being in-between seemed more “naked” or exposed than just being one hundred percent nude -- it felt somehow less decisive, or like I had slightly less control. And I also knew models who could just hop off the stand, slip into their flip-flops and mosey naked around the studio checking out students’ drawings, but I always preferred to put on my robe during breaks. For one thing, it was cold, but for another, it seemed more respectful of other people’s limits in addition to my own. For years, I used my husband’s blue and green Pierre Cardin plaid flannel robe, and I still miss it. I have a robe, but it’s big and dark pink and luxuriant and fluffy and hard to carry around discreetly, whereas his folded right down into my bag. I wore that thing until it was threadbare. And then, when I finally had to retire it, we were both so sentimentally attached that I made part of it into a pillow. It’s on our couch now.

Speaking of eating, I loved reading about the instructor who would call attention to your slightly fuller stomach after you would go to lunch and -- gasp! -- eat.  Basically telling her students: Don’t paint the stomach for at least two hours. [Subtext: Fatty ate a bagel!] Just pick a point in time and stick to that shape. My husband totally disagrees, by the way -- says that’s where the atelier gets it wrong. A painting should be made up of a collection of movements, a collection of different “yous” over time, and should expand/contract as the life object does. That’s the whole point of painting from life. That said, my husband, like your teacher, loves the ectomorphs -- though unlike your teacher, not because he “hates fat models.” It’s just that his human figures represent nonhuman things -- e.g., throat cancer, the invention of fertilizer -- and the more fleshy the figure gets, the more human and “individual” it gets, and the less able it is to stand in for something else. A body that looks like some sort of universal machine is less likely to call up sex and confound/conflate his messages. You bring up these sorts of observations in your book when you talk about Chris -- his sculpture of the morbidly obese model. And his paintings of you which you described as having “no one Kathleen Rooney” in them.

That’s a smart observation. When you’re sitting for a portrait which is supposed to be comprised of “a collection of different yous over time,” modeling can be a very self-specific experience. But maybe more often than not, it can be a very self-effacing one and it works better if you’re able to kind of let your personality go, and even let your flesh go -- like not go crazy and multiply, but go away. The same instructor who gave me heat for eating during lunch would also compliment me on being “the thinnest model I have ever seen!” And while the former comments irritated me, the latter made me weirdly proud.

I got pressure from my agent at the time (who is no longer my agent) and editors to whom he was showing the manuscript to explore the thinness issue more explicitly by which he meant that I should try to make it into more of an anorexia memoir/self-help book about coming to terms with body image. This guy said during one call about a particular editor’s response, “You know, Kathy, it’s really too bad you’re so well-adjusted; this would be a lot easier to sell if you had an eating disorder.” At the time I was younger and more polite than I am now. The slightly older, slightly wiser me would probably have told him to kindly eff off. I probably should have. Although I know he was joking (and laughed it off at the time), his “joke” isn’t really funny from a number of angles: first, he doesn’t really know me and why I have or haven’t put certain personal material in the book, and second, it’s sort of gross that in many circles (mostly ones that are commercial to the exclusion of all other considerations), creative nonfiction/memoir is considered viable only if the writer publicly discloses terrible, humiliating secrets and somehow abases herself (and maybe ends up with a “happy ending” about how she survived issue X, and you, dear reader, can too). I find that fake and crass and limiting -- to the writers themselves and to a genre which to me gets so much of its power and readability by being so flexible and capable of including (or choosing to exclude) so much material.

Sucks to have self-esteem and be writing a memoir. Yes, if anything, I enjoyed how your actions in the book came out of thoughtful decisions -- and how in control you seem in most situations. (The only lapse in judgment maybe being when you answered the ad in Craigslist and spent the day being boob candy as part of some creepy suburban hobbyist’s “snaps” collection. Even that didn’t turn out as bad as it could have. Despite walking away feeling a little dirty, you came away with $200 bucks for an hour’s work.) Not to mention, there’s a certain sense of control that you gain from repeatedly exposing yourself/making yourself inaccessible. You write specifically about this strange coupling: your own naked vulnerability with the impossibility of being touched, which is erotically frustrating and fulfilling at the same time. I enjoyed the passage where you and Jeremy run into his friend on the train and you describe feeling… vaguely unfaithful… because of the complex nature of the artist/model relationship. Did you share any of these feelings with your boyfriend, then fiancé, then husband Martin? [Some would argue the most secure man in the world.] Or did a lot of this just knock around in your head without ever being shared until you started writing the book?   

Aww, Martin. Growing up, I never thought I’d ever get married because I would never find a guy to whom I wouldn’t periodically have to be all “You don’t own me”/ “You are not the boss of me” / “Stop expecting me to stifle my goals and dreams in favor of supporting yours.” But Martin, who really has to be one of the most secure, patient, supportive people (male or female) on the planet, has never made me feel that I have to defensively explain any of my decisions (which as you observe above can occasionally be questionable). But to answer your question, you know that E.M. Forster quote, “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?” He writes that in his book Aspects of the Novel, but even though LNG is nonfiction, the quote applies. I didn’t know how I felt about a lot of my reasons for modeling and my experiences doing it -- including my relationship with Jeremy and other artists to whom I felt especially close -- until I started to step back and assess them for this book.

Relating to the idea of self esteem and security, I’ve always wondered: How is it, looking at thousands of images of yourself -- some of which, based on the skill of the student, may make you look like a monster? You quote Kenneth Clark in your book as saying, “One person’s god is another person’s monster.” The reverse has to be true, too, right? I suppose there’s some comfort in that as a professional model.

It can come off as sort of touchy-feely/Pollyanna-ish nonsense when I say it, but I say it because it’s true: art modeling is one of the few arenas in contemporary life where all body types -- all races, all ages, all sizes, all genders, you name it -- are necessary and welcome and respected for the capacity they have to be beautiful. I cannot emphasize enough how valuable this space has been to me personally, and how valuable it is to the culture at large. It seems so necessary to have at least one consistent source of visual output that doesn’t require everybody to be a preternaturally young white female with a Body Mass Index that hovers at starvation level.

That said, there are few things I can think of that can be more uncanny -- in the true Freudian sense of the unheimlich, as he describes it in his 1919 essay The Uncanny -- than looking around at a room full of not-quite-right, or even “monstrous” student representations of “you.” It’s creepy. But I like creepy, so that’s part of why I like modeling, too.

My husband and I were talking how Michelangelo took this piece of marble that nobody could handle and came up with David, and the perspective is skewed so purposely for looking up -- but if you brought him to life, he’d have this gigantic head and itty-bitty body. He’d look like a monster. A monster or a movie star. I especially liked your quote: “…I have left a little fossil record of my body through the years, a string of former selves, silly and brave.” Funny that you’re so drawn to modeling and writing, two more ways of cheating death.

Not to totally contradict my above statement about how models of all ages are necessary and welcome, but modeling for me started at least partly out of a sense of better-do-it-while-you’re-young. Not because I won’t be “good-looking” enough to do it when I’m older, but because in speaking with other, older models, I gather that it can get harder with age, and that poses that were no bigs when you were in your twenties become markedly tougher as you make your way up the decades. More than wanting to do it while I’ve got the bod, such as it is, I was raised Catholic and although I’ve moved away from those traditions, I have an ever-present sense of death as a lurking possibility, even though I’m “only” 29. All those the-end-is-nigh reminders in the Bible, like the whole Matthew 25, “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour,” are hard to shake. You don’t know when it’s going to be game over forever, so if there’s something you’re curious about or think you might want to do, whether it’s standing nude in a roomful of strangers or writing a novel, do it now. Carpe that diem.

Speaking of carpe that diem. Let’s talk about sex, baby. I thought it was kind of hilarious when you write about your friend texting you, and I paraphrase: I just went to a strip club! Guess you know a little about what that’s like!!! Though even more hilarious was a review I read of your book that made the argument that even though nude modeling is definitely NOT a form of sex work (as you rightly point out in your book), your book is likely to be shelved along books about working in the sex industry. And sitting next to them, your study of a safer, less loaded kind of nudity will be -- sorry, Kathleen -- boring. What a weird argument. The same body used in art modeling could conceivably show up in the sex trade. Just like something knitted could show up as part of a conceptual art show. And a book about knitting/craft arts could show up in roughly the same section of a bookstore as books about conceptual art. Yet, how would that lead to the question, “Who’s going to read about knitting when they could read about the very exciting topic of conceptual art?” Um, people interested in knitting? How do you respond to such criticism? Or for that matter, the comment that you, as a model, know a little about what a strip club is like, if you know what I mean, heh heh.

If I may bust out the Forster again, he says that “The work of art assumes the existence of the perfect spectator, and is indifferent to the fact that no such person exists.” When I get a negative review, it helps, kind of, to think of that. But when I’m writing, it helps to think of that even more, and I definitely wrote LNG with the mythical perfect spectator in mind -- the kind of spectator who would not be of the mindset that some subjects can be dismissed because they are categorically “boring.” This particular reviewer seemed to come to the book with a pre-fab agenda that sex and sex work are subjects whose interestingness trumps the interestingness of all other topics, and I disagree.

I let my texting friend know that, although I am interested in how in art modeling (unlike other jobs, but like sex work) the work is deeply dependent on your physical body, but that’s where the similarities mostly end. But since art modeling is not of the same instant spicy interest to many people in the way that prostitution, say, is, the challenge for me as the writer was to write about a relatively quiet, still subject in a vital and engaging, but above all, honest style. I achieved that and am happy with the book, but I know it’d be nuts to expect everyone else on the planet to agree, so that’s okay.

That same reviewer also took offense with your statement “For every kinked-out wannabe stripper I run into, there are a dozen down-to-earth, intelligent, confident models…” because she thought it was dismissive of women in the sex trade. Oh well, can’t make everybody love you. I did remember that particular passage from when I first picked up the book, simply because I thought, Wow. I’ve never met any strippers in modeling. Seems like a terrible fit. The money isn’t all that great. And I would argue, as you do, it’s a good job for daydreamers and maybe not so much for performers. If you’re looking for attention, you’re not going to get it; you’re going to get a sore leg. Not to generalize, but okay, to generalize, in my experience, dancers, yogis, pilates instructors, massage therapists, aromatherapists, reikis, acupuncturists, and people with those types of alternative interests are flooding the doors. Once my husband had a model who was a musician/just slightly undercover Raelian. You know, the French cult members that claimed they created the first clone baby named Eve through their organization Clonaid? She started telling me about her religion and this kind of "sensual meditation" practice that involves “humming” (hmm) and later I visited the Raelian website she gave me the URL to, and there was a UFO floating across the homepage, and I thought, "She's was totally trying to Rael me. I was almost Raeled!" Then she invited me to a Raelian potluck so she could feed me potato salad, and get up in my girl parts, and talk to me about UFOs, and their awesome cult leader Rael, a former French race car driver. Maybe a little off-topic. Sorry. Er, how can I bring this back around? Run into many Raelians in your line of work?

I love this story, and I am glad you managed narrowly (or maybe not so narrowly?) to avoid getting culted. And I’m glad you pulled out the above statement, because there I’m not denigrating strippers per se, but rather trying to indicate that there were really only a couple stripper-esque types that I encountered, and they never worked out because of those cross-purposes you describe: a wrong place, wrong type, better luck elsewhere kinda deal. A person who seeks satisfaction in stripping is not going to find it in art modeling, probably, and vice versa. Not in all cases, but they seem like largely separate tracks.

As do photography and painting in some ways. Can we talk about your relationship with the camera contrasted with that of the canvas? I loved the passage when you talk about your long-term dread (that I completely share) of photography -- since you were a child, i.e., “a walking Nerdtown, population: me.” And, still, how getting your photo taken during modeling “always hurts a little, but when someone does it over and over again, it begins to feel like they want to kill me”  and “kills your potential” and “pins you down as ugly with no option for beauty.” I mean, I hear you. No argument coming from this end. But what especially strikes me as funny is your sister/closest friend in the world is a photographer, an amazing one. How does THAT work? Have you come around to loving being photographed?

Until this past February, I was so photo-indifferent/averse that I didn’t even own a camera. Part of this probably has to do with my orientation toward the world being more verbal than visual -- I religiously keep notebooks and journals and am frequently that-girl-with-the Moleskine, shamelessly/potentially obnoxiously jotting my direct sensory impressions of experiences as they are happening. And then there’s my sister Beth, who does the same thing, but with her camera. What makes it possible for me to comfortably hang around with Beth (which by default means I am going to get photographed a lot as a matter of course) is more tolerable/less mechanical than posing for another professional because my understanding of her purpose and intentions for her photo-taking is much higher, just because I know her so well. One of the elements of photography that makes me like posing for it less than painting is the sheer speed with which it is possible to capture not just one, but hundreds of images in rapid succession. If somebody is painting or sculpting you, it’s going to take a long, long time, and you are most likely going to notice that it’s happening if the painter or sculptor is in the same room with you. People with cameras can potentially take your image without your even knowing, and can also get all they require from you in an hour-long session and then never really need to see you again. Photography modeling can feel disposable, whereas I’m more interested in a sustained artist-model relationship.

Yes, nobody’s going to sneak up and paint your portrait, that’s for damn sure. I remember when I first met David, I was so excited to watch him paint. Then I did. It was like watching golf on TV… if the game lasted 9 months. David takes photos sometimes for references, and, actually, I sense it makes him quite uncomfortable. He has a special lens so he can stand way way back from the model. I think he’s afraid to get all up on them with his camera. It can be creepy, as you noted -- because of its quickness and because it’s strangely mechanical and overly close at the same time. I want to talk about your anti-ending ending. I thought I could smell the obligatory “here’s what I learned during summer camp” coming down the road to greet me, when you suddenly jerked on the brakes and were like, here’s what I learned: Nothing. Bye! Well, not nothing, but that the process of modeling for you was a continual search for connections with people, or with ideas, however flawed or incorrect they may be -- thus, ending with Bill Knott’s brilliant “Misunderstood,” poem. Pretend you’re writing, oh, anything, for The New Yorker. Now that some time has passed, can you tack on a nice, epiphanic paragraph to LNG for us? We love them so. Surely one Life-Changing Experience has come to surface?

Ha. Good question, but: Hell no. There is no epiphany. Though I do appreciate your asking. Another feature of a lot of popular contemporary memoir (in addition to obligatory tell-all self-abasement) that I don’t like to read and that I don’t want to write is the forced character arc -- the big “here’s how I ended up changed and transformed” kind of conclusion that you might expect from a character in fiction. Maybe sometimes that happens and people’s life experiences operate like cute Freytag’s triangles, but that has not been my experience with nude modeling, so I couldn’t write the book that way. Although I am interested in art as a way of seeing the world that helps to frame and make sense of what would otherwise be an incomprehensible mess, so I’m glad you found my non-ending ending satisfying. Also, my next big trick will be to write a novel, so maybe, through adopting that art-is-the-lie-which-tells-the-truth angle, I’ll be able to arc it up and toss in a transformative epiphany. We shall see.

Okay, I’ll be awaiting he future epiph with bells. Interesting you should talk about using art to frame things out and make sense of the world. My most favorite passage of the entire book is at the end when you talk about how artists make sense of the world by disregarding sense -- by ignoring all physical constraints and realities: “I have heard that Ingres added an extra vertebra to the neck of his Odalisque. Picasso scrambled his loved ones’ features. Modigliani made their faces in almond shapes. Giacometti melted his people into metallic wires. Such are the things we do for our visions. Such are the things we do for love.” Yep. You said it. I just retyped it. Kathleen, thanks for sharing your vision of the book (and of the world) with me. I’m sure our “perfect spectators” are pretty happy about it, too.  

Thanks so much for asking me these questions!

Elizabeth Hildreth recently translated Anna Aguilar-Amat's poems from Catalan to English and has been working on a collection of English to English poetry translations titled [Insert Poet] I Love You. She has a master's degree from New York University's creative writing program and works as an instructional designer. She lives in Chicago and with her husband David Abed and their two daughters.