Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Model philosophy: All in a day's work

To some they’re the beautiful people, to others they’re simply empty-headed clothes horses. But for those who do it, modelling is simply a job. In fact, top model Penny Pickard tells Greg Dixon, it’s a job that anyone can do — and it isn’t as fun as it looks.

'You really just have to shut up and do what they want. That's really the role of the model.' - Penny Pickard. Photo / Natalie Slade
'You really just have to shut up and do what they want. That's really the role of the model.' - Penny Pickard. Photo / Natalie Slade

Penny Pickard has a cold. She's had it, she says, as she offers tea and coffee, for a week. Sniff, sniff, she goes, as I follow her into the tiny, startlingly bare kitchen of her North Shore home. With the door open to the still chilly morning, it's not warm in what is usually the warmest room. In the dimly lit lounge, in a jar on a low coffee table, a couple of sweet joss sticks burn but can't quite disguise the smell of mid-winter damp.

We decide to sit outside on the stoop, in a couple of ageing cane chairs. Hers is bathed in a watery sunlight but she still curls herself up with her legs tucked under her bum and warms her hands with her tea cup.

She's dressed in jeans and a baby blue argyle sweater. Her blond hair, which belongs to a waif, looks like it might still be in bed. There is what looks like a small cold sore on her top lip. She's wearing no makeup.

Now you may think, given what I've just told you that, that there is not a hell of lot that's glamorous about Penny Pickard, one of New Zealand most successful models.

At least, not this day. But you'd be wrong.

She manages to project - and perhaps this ability goes as far back as her grunge-styled début shoot in the 1990s - a low-key allure and a casual grace, even when slouched in a chair with mussed hair and a cold sore. She has, even when she's not trying, a model's magnetism.

It is this Pickard has brought to photo shoots in New York, London, Milan and Auckland for more than a decade and half. It is this she will once again show when she walks the runways of New Zealand Fashion Week the week after next. It is this she's brought to recent shoots for Salasai and Stolen Girlfriends Club, the cover of last month's Good Health magazine and to TV's New Zealand's Next Top Model, where she's been seen handing out advice to the latest crop of wannabes.

But then Pickard, in the small and no doubt perfectly formed world of modelling, is as near to a star as it is possible to be in New Zealand. According to local fashion blogger Isaac Hinden-Miller, Pickard has graced the cover of the country's premier fashion magazine Fashion Quarterly more times than any other model. Indeed, he wrote recently on his popular Isaac Likes blog, Pickard is "probably the closest thing we've ever had to a modern-day Kiwi supermodel, besides Emily Baker".

So really it should come as no surprise, given her reputation, given her experience, they she might be able to pull off poise even when slouched in a chair. For her, that comes off-the-peg. It's her views on the business of modelling which are, well, a little more bespoke.

Of course it happened on High St. If Auckland fashion has a heart, it probably beats on poncy Ponsonby Rd. But I'd wager its soul is to be found in that narrow central city street that's so brief it almost ends before it begins.

It was in High St that Pickard was "discovered", though of course she'd been in existence for sometime. She was at the end of her 4th form year and was shopping with her sister when Glenn Hunt, from the now-defunct style bible Pavement, spotted her. Hunt sent his girlfriend over with a proposition: was Pickard interested in modelling for a Pavement fashion spread? As it happened, she was. What the 14-year-old from Papakura wasn't quite ready for was the speed of what happened next.

The Pavement shoot - which became the cover - took place in January 1994. By early May she'd had modelled in Sydney, and by the end of May she was in New York.

"[Famed New York model agent] Eileen Ford saw the Pavement pictures and said 'she's got that look of the moment'," Pickard recalls. "It was 1994, the whole grunge movement thing was big, know what I mean - it was all greasy hair and no makeup. That was the thing. I definitely embodied that and loved that style. [Ford] said 'bring her over'.

"I was definitely aware of the modelling world. I was obsessed with Kate Moss, loved Face magazine and definitely thought that life would be really, really cool. And I loved it, I loved the attention that I was getting in New Zealand but as soon as I got to New York, I kind of freaked out because I was away from my family. I was super-sheltered. I think Glenn was a little bit shocked to have this hysterically crying 14-year-old that he had to drag around the city. But I think after two weeks I was really starting to enjoy myself."

Days after arriving in New York, she turned 15. An invitation to dinner was issued by Ford.

"I was really, really intimidated by her because I'm a real sloucher even now and she was saying stuff like 'you have to sit up straight, if want to be a star you have to start by acting like one'. It was really full-on."

Over the next decade and half, Pickard's career would indeed be full-on, with work around the world modelling for the likes of Vivienne Westwood and earning fees like €12,000 for just a couple of days' work. Now 31 and working mainly in New Zealand, she was at her busiest in her teens and early 20s. Curiously though, and a decade on from then, she feels she did not make the most of that time.

"If I could say anything about my modelling career, it's that perhaps it was a bit of a wasted opportunity at that time. That's because when maybe I was on the cusp of something great, I would come home. My two months would be up and it would be like, 'my ticket is booked and I'm really homesick'. I was just a really sheltered Kiwi girl. Emily Baker, who is doing really well, just seems to be so much more confident and secure than I was [at that age]. I don't know whether I could have dealt with the pressure that she is under. I do think you have to be made of stern stuff to succeed in modelling.

"What I've done in my career is that I've never reached the stratosphere. I'm like a working model and I've managed to create a living for the last 16 years out of modelling."

That, of course, is no mean feat, though she modestly suggests otherwise. "I truly believe that modelling is the easiest thing to do on the planet."

Well, she said it.

"I don't think there is anybody who wouldn't be able to do it. When models talk about 'modelling is so difficult and so hard', it's really not. It's very easy to look good in a photograph. I think there are models who make it easier or more difficult for the photographer, but you're never not going to be able to get a good shot out of somebody.

"If you've got the right lighting, right photographer and you're taking a million shots, you're always going to be able to make somebody look amazing. When people talk about modelling as so hard, I just think 'would that the world had a model's problems'. I just think you do have to be, not realistic, but objective about the incredible opportunites you have, how much easier it is for you to make a week's wages in an hour. It's not that hard."

If this sounds like a rant, it's not. If it sounds ungrateful, I don't think it is. It's just that 16 years of modelling has taught Pickard a little more than how to strike just the right pose. There is, in any case, a philosophical complexion to her mind, one that has been reinforced over the last few years by her study, around modelling assignments, for a degree in philosophy at the University of Auckland.

Her experience and now her education have alerted her to the contradictions that come from having a job which, in her words, requires her to be the archetypal silent woman.

"We're not expected to contribute anything, verbally certainly. I've been on jobs where it has just not been okay for me to have contributed to the aesthetic. Sometimes they will ask what you think ... but it's really not our job. You really just have to shut up and do what they want. That's really the role of the model."

Her defence mechanism for that has been not to think about it too much, she says.

"I know that there have been models in the past who have become strongly feminist and regretted what they've done [as a model]. And to be honest, I probably would as well if I thought too much about it, because you are being objectified. You are, quite often, the object of the male gaze. You see it in advertising everywhere. It's a paradox. You know [as a model] that you're being objectified, but you also know what you're bringing to the shoot, because it can be a really creative exchange. So maybe that's how I reconcile it."

Success - and she should know about that - doesn't mean that a model's life is all champagne parties and flash location shoots.

"I just think it is a really lonely life and you have to make a lot of compromises. Even now, when I'm busy, my personal life definitely suffers. Maybe that's a character defect in me. But it does take a lot out of you. You're constantly analysing yourself.

"I think most models suffer from a bit of body dysmorphia and you enjoy life a lot less. You're constantly worrying about how you look, not in a vain sense, but in the way that 'this is how I make my money'. It doesn't make you much fun to be around. If I didn't watch what I eat I'd be a really happy, healthy, size 12. It's hard for me to stay a size 8, size 10, especially now I'm 31."

And, at that age, she's much closer to the end than to the beginning of her career. In the past, she thought the work would never stop. Now it's slowing down. "I think when you're a teenager and you don't analyse things too much and it's easy to be skinny, you're a lot happier. But as soon as you're holding on to your career a little bit it can make you more miserable.

"I've never tried to hold on. If it went away, it went away." She smiles her model's smile. "But [when it does] I'm not going to put myself into rehab ..." c

- NZ Herald

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