By Linda Wallace

Author's thoughts on the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Friday, August 25, 2006


During the days approaching the Better With Time Modeling Contest, I noticed a strange reluctance to do anything that might mar my appearance. I put up a batch of plum jam like I do every summer when the red plums on my backyard tree ripen, but this year I fretted over the brown stains on my fingers and nails. Normally, I ignore the stains or maybe even admire them as a badge of honor for following the arcane craft of my grandmothers, but now I was afraid the judges choosing the finalists for Macy’s Seattle Better With Time Fashion Show in October might reject me because of my ugly hands. Should I pumice the calluses, paint the nails and stop using them, effectively relegating my hands to the status of a 12th century Chinese woman’s bound feet—considered beautiful but ultimately useless?

Other activities took on an aura of danger. My bicycle’s back tire was off whatever the name of the thing is that connects the tire to the frame. With great difficulty, not being particularly mechanically inclined, I put it back on by eliminating the kickstand. Now black grease joined the brown plum stains under my fingernails, but I was all set for tooling around the neighborhood. But what if I crashed and scratched my face? Or broke my leg and couldn’t walk down the runway? I went on the ride anyway, but I’m embarrassed to admit I hesitated before setting out.

Do celebrities—real fashion models, actors, TV news anchors, etc.—live their lives under a cloud of worry over their appearance? Do they forgo work and fun in fear of disturbing their perfection? If so, what constricted lives they must lead.

In my first post I related buying a classic pantsuit for the modeling competition. The clerk who rang up my purchase was one of those impossibly gorgeous young women who inspire speculation over their off-duty gig. I told her I was participating in her store’s older-woman fashion search and asked her what she thought of the pantsuit. I said I actually preferred funkier clothes and described an alternate outfit consisting of pieces I already own: a short bias-cut brown skirt, long top with a wide, big-buckled woven belt over it, vintage orange denim jacket and high, sling-back heels. Which outfit did she think the judges would like better—classic or funk? She said my own clothes would be better because I would stand out. She thought everyone would wear something similar to the liz claiborne suit.

So what to wear? Back home I tried on the new outfit. It was nice but so ordinary, so career-woman businesslike. I experimented with several combinations from my closet but finally settled on the new liz pants with a favorite old shirt, lots of dangly necklaces and flats. It’s the outfit in the photo. My husband took the picture right before I left for the contest. I would be comfortable if not particularly splashy. Of course, my husband said the gold chains looked like something an aging male wannabe disco dancer would wear nestled in his chest hair. Thanks so much, sweetheart, for the vote of confidence.

Saturday morning, the day of the contest, I was fairly calm—more nervous, really, about finding parking in downtown Seattle than I was about the competition. I usually take the bus when I go downtown, but today I didn’t want to work up a sweat walking to the bus stop. It turned out there was a parking structure directly across the street from Macy’s, which I luckily drove straight to without circling around and around the block looking for a space. It cost $12 to park, but oh well, it was a special day.

The doors were supposed to open at 10:00 a.m., but when I arrived at the third floor Stewart Street Room right on time, there was already a humongous line doubled back on itself down the hall. Each semifinalist was allowed to bring one guest for support, and the crowd was abuzz with excitement. And, boy, was the beautiful salesclerk wrong! Never before had I seen such an astonishing collection of fashion statements—everything from beachwear (no bikinis but clamdiggers and tube tops) to flowing flowered dresses dripping with ruffles and bows that I could picture a southern lady wearing on the verandah while sipping a mint julep. One woman sported one of those gigantic picture hats with a three-foot brim. Another looked as though she’d borrowed her granddaughter’s rave clothes. There might have been three classic suits.

It took a long time to check in. We were each given a number printed on a plastic sheet to identify us for the judges. Mine was 69. I did not take that to be an auspicious sign. The contestants took advantage of the long wait to consume the fruit, cheese, cookies and beverages provided and compare personal histories and their reasons for and expectations of signing up for the fashion show. One woman asked if anyone else had had any disasters while preparing for the competition. While choosing her outfit, she couldn’t see herself from head to toe in her mirror. She had a different shoe on each foot and wanted to see which one looked best with her skirt, so she stood on the toilet seat in her bathroom. Yes, you guessed it, she fell into the bathtub, ineffectually scrabbling at the towel rack on the way down. She bruised her backside but fortunately was not seriously injured. She was more worried about the skirt than getting hurt. A waffle-shaped soap scum design was printed on it from the bath mat, and she was afraid the imprint would prevent her from returning the skirt to the store. The accident convinced her it was not the thing to wear to the competition. Some blotting and a blow dryer rendered the skirt returnable.

Once we were all seated around the ominous, looming runway, the Macy’s event coordinator greeted the 137 semifinalists and their support groupies and introduced the judges: herself, her assistant and a talent scout from the TCM Modeling Agency. She asked for a show of hands of all the contestants who were in their 50s. Maybe 60 to 75 percent of the women raised their hands. Then in their 60s—a few dozen, including me. 70s—maybe six or eight. 80s—I think I counted three. 90s—yes! There was one woman who was 93. The coordinator read one of the essays we were all required to submit to be chosen as semifinalists. She said it represented the theme a good many of us had expressed—being grateful for the time, now that we were older and had paid our dues by raising families and working at careers, to pursue our own personal dreams.

Then, on to the competition. What brave women! Attempting to be something we’re not with grace and style. Trying to be different, moving down the runway in a unique way with that little extra flair that makes someone a winner. Some women removed a jacket and flung it over their shoulder, occasionally hitting themselves in the face in the process. A few untied long scarves from around their necks and twirled them in the air. One woman pulled off a hat to reveal blond curls that cascaded to her waist. Some women walked with elegance, some had a sexy walk, some bouncy and, yes, some were awkward and clunky. But the audience supported everyone, no matter how clumsy, with enthusiastic applause. And when the 93-year-old woman took her turn, slightly tottery but game, she was rewarded with a standing ovation. Really, it brought a tear to my eye.

My group was called to line up before the stairs leading to the runway. I had been having a great time grinning maniacally at the women who had gone before me and clapping for them hard enough to make my palms sting. I didn’t think I was especially nervous, though I had noted that my upper lip was trembling when I’d reapplied my lipstick earlier, but now as I approached the runway, my smile began to fade. Practicing my walk at home, I’d decided to adopt the strong stride I’d seen the contestants in the Miss F.A.T. (Fabulous And Thick) beauty contest I’d watched on TV use rather than the mincing, one-foot-directly-in-front-of-the-other gait that couture models employ. I’d planned to take a couple of turns in the middle of the runway and in front of the judges’ table, maximizing my few moments of fame, but once I was up the stairs I shot down the runway as though I were racewalking. I was back in my seat, finished before I’d realized I’d even begun. The woman sitting next to me, who’d done a near-professional job of modeling early on, asked me, "Did you have fun?" I said, "Yes." She said, "Well, that’s all that counts, then." I should have practiced more.

So, I wasn’t chosen as one of the 15 finalists. I won’t get to model in the fashion show in October, though I do plan to enjoy the consolation gift of a complimentary facial massage from Shiseido, one of the Better With Time sponsors. My brief fashion career is over. I’ll have to go back to just being a writer. You can check out my books at

My beautiful, almost-professional seatmate wasn’t chosen, either. In fact, looking at the winners, it was hard to determine what criteria the judges had used for their decisions other than picking the 93-year-old who was so clearly special. I wonder if I’d ignored the lovely salesclerk’s advice and worn my classic pantsuit I would have had a better chance. Maybe I would have stood out more and won. Maybe.


At 10:00 AM, Blogger EilisFlynn said...

Congratulations on your blog, Linda! So you didn't make the finalists--no big deal, because you did something you'd always wanted to do.

And I know you'll keep doing wonderful things that you can blog about. I look forward to each entry.


Post a Comment

<< Home