Robin Meloy Goldsby takes a (cat)walk down memory lane.
Like most odd situations in my life, this one starts with a pair of shoes. Cruising around on Facebook one morning when I’m supposed to be writing, I’m distracted by a fabulous pair of pumps, way too high-heeled and (I assume) way too expensive. Pale powder pink—austere but hopeful—the color of a newborn’s cheek, with a small platform, a little bow on the vamp, thick high heels, and an ankle strap. They would be perfect shoes for a dress I don’t yet own. I haven’t been booked to play for a Parisian garden party, nor have I have been invited for summer tea in Vienna, but if either of these things were to happen, I would be flawlessly dressed if I owned these shoes. I decide to track them down.
I see the shoes on the fan page of a store called “Fusskleider,” a pricey but gorgeous boutique located in Bergisch Gladbach. This swanky neighborhood isn’t far from Schlosshotel Lerbach, where I play the piano every weekend.
I send a message to Dörthe, the store’s owner (and the wife of a jazz pianist I know). She tells me the price. I consider buying them, but I remember we’re paying college tuition for our son, saving for our daughter’s education, and have several record and book projects to fund in the near future. 2012 was my Year of Health. 2013 is our Year of Investment. Investment in pale pink platform shoes doesn’t count. With a heavy heart I tell Dörthe that the shoes are a little out of my budget.
“Well, she says. “We sell more than just shoes. Jeans! Beautiful dresses! Handbags! I’m presenting a fashion show in a few weeks. Want to model? I’ll pay you with the shoes.”
I am no stranger to the barter arrangement. Several times I’ve exchanged my music or writing skills for wine or beauty spa treatments. But shoes? This sounds like a perfect deal.
Then I come to my senses.
“Are you crazy, Dörthe?” I ask. “I am fifty-five years old, not even close to being a size Extra-Extra Small, I am, in fact—gasp—a Medium. I’ve avoided Botox, I have wrinkles, and last time I checked, I have all my original parts.”
“Perfect,” she says. “Except for the Botox part, you’re like most of my customers.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to hire my daughter instead? She is sixteen, 5’10,” and, you know, model material.”
“If I put a sixteen year old on the runway my customers will not be happy. A sixteen year old looks good in anything. But you, now, that’s another story. If they see you looking good, they’ll figure there’s hope for them.”
I think this is a compliment, but I’m not sure. Just the other day someone told me I looked good in a photograph because the camera was so far away from me. Little things like this creep up in my life all the time. Little stabs disguised as compliments. I’ve gotten used to being over fifty and invisible—I’ve even grown to enjoy it—,but that doesn’t mean I have to wear a burlap sack and hide in the bushes, does it?
There is the issue of my Titanium foot. At this time last year I was recovering from joint replacement surgery on my right foot. I had to go up and down the stairs on my behind. I had to wear a Frankenstein boot for six weeks. How can I possibly model for a store that showcases tight jeans and high-heeled shoes? Then I remember Heather McCartney and her appearance on Dancing with the Stars. I figure if she can win a dancing contest with a fake leg, then I can be a runway shoe-model with a fake toe.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll do it.”
I’m not thrilled about removing my invisibility cloak, but I’m not at all nervous about the show. This will not be my first time on the catwalk, although I am several decades out of practice. I modeled in my younger, thinner years in Pittsburgh, where I did informal shows for the Joseph Horne Company, and passed out samples of cologne and perfume while wearing designer dresses at Saks Fifth Avenue. I even walked in a runway show for Donna Karan, when she was starting out as a designer for Anne Klein. The show was at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall, and the clothes were works of art. Donna had it together, even back then. She was nice to me. I was nineteen at the time, and her kindness meant a lot to me.
Then, disaster struck. The events manager at Saks discovered I was willing to wear costumes, that I had no problem at all dressing up as Mrs. Santa Claus, Cupid, or the Easter Bunny. I became the Saks “costume model,” which sounded good, paid better than the standard modeling jobs, but kind of crushed my fantasies of working in high fashion. All the models wanted to wear Dior and YSL, but I was the only one willing to sport a cupid costume. On Valentine’s Day I pranced through Saks in a red leotard and wings, shooting rubber arrows at unsuspecting customers. What can I say? It was 1977.
The next time Ms. Karan was in town, on Easter, I had to walk the runway in a rabbit suit. Carnegie Hall, in a rabbit suit. There aren’t many models who can boast of such an achievement. But I was eighteen years old, making a living, hopping and hoping that my career in fashion might help pay the bills while I worked on my acting skills. Occasionally the Saks fashion director would take pity on me, scoop a designer dress out of her designer trunk, and toss it at me like a designer bone. But most of the time the fine ladies of the fashion office costumed me in some type of designer synthetic fur with matching ears. I wanted Chanel, I got Peter Rabbit.
When I moved to New York, I hooked up with a modeling agency that booked a lot of B-level runway shows in the outer boroughs, on tacky cruise ships, in Long Island country clubs. Contrary to Pittsburgh, it seemed that every young woman in Manhattan towered over me. They were taller, thinner, had better bone structure, and carried beautiful portfolios of amazing photos taken in exotic places. There I was, the girl from the Golden Triangle, trying to be glamorous, trying to be something, anything, trying to pay my rent. I knew I didn’t have the looks for print modeling, but thought I might have some runway success. But in New York, there was way too much competition. Even snagging the lesser shows involved hand-to-hand combat. I couldn’t even get a Cupid gig.
Better, I thought, to stick to the piano. There were tens of thousands of aspiring models in NYC, but only a handful of female pianists. Who knew? I like to tell people I quit the modeling business, but it would be more honest to say that it quit me. I escaped from the world of fashion and planted my skinny behind on a piano bench, a decision I’ve never regretted. Now, the only time I wear a designer dress is when it’s black, loose, and easy to accessorize. There’s a surprising assortment of choices if you’re willing to be invisible.
With my runway gig as an elder model here in Germany, I’m making a comeback from a career I never had. I’m thirty years too late and twenty pounds too heavy. I don’t know if the shoes are worth the catwalk down memory lane. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that Heather McCartney get ahead of me.
I tell my family.
“You? A model? On the catwalk?” say my two kids in unison, a teenage chorus of horror and disbelief. At least they’re not laughing.
“Sure,” says John, coming to my defense. “Your mom is a good walker. Just watch her walk.”
I pull in my stomach, toss my hair, and do a couple of loops around the dining room table, simultaneously sashaying and serving scoops of lentil salad. No one seems very impressed, by either the walking or the salad.
“You know,” I say to the kids, “I trained with one of the best walkers in the world. Tempest Storm!”
“Here we go,” says Curtis, rolling his eyes. “There’s a story coming, I can feel it.”
“Tempest Storm?” asks Julia. “What a name! Was she a model? Was she a Weather Girl?”
“Was she a runway trainer? Like Jorge?” says my son, who is a big fan of Jorge Alexis Gonzalez Madrigal Varona Vila, the Germany’s Next Top Model runway coach with the world’s longest name. Jorge (pronounced Hor-hay), a tall skinny Cuban guy who wears towering high heels covered in sequins, speaks broken German and shouts things like schtrut your schtuff Chica, Chica! at the girls as they schtruggle and schtumble on their platform shoes. It is impossible to not like Jorge.
“Well,” I say. “Tempest Storm was neither a model nor a runway coach. She was different from Jorge. She was, uh, a stripper.”
This is not going well.
“A stripper? You took walking lessons from a stripper? Was she also a pole dancer? Mom, modeling in public is weird enough, but if you say you’re going to take your clothes off and pole dance I’ll have to go to school with a bag over my head.”
“No, Julia, no pole dancing. I don’t have the upper body strength. Anyway, many years ago—okay, like thirty years ago—I was hired as an actress to play the part of a stripper in an old fashioned Burlesque show. Tempest Storm was an aging, but very famous, real-life stripper. She was also in the show, and she gave me walking lessons.”
“Like Jorge!” says Curtis. “Chica, chica!”
“A little,” I say. “A little like Jorge. But Tempest had a tad more, shall we say, experience.”
I still remember Tempest standing behind me during a rehearsal at the Folly Theater in Kansas City, Missouri, her hands on my hips, whispering toe-heel, toe-heel in my ear as we coasted in sync—a tag team stripper machine gliding like twin Dorothy Hamills across an iceless stage floor. The spotlight threw blue light on us. Tempest was wrapped in a white satin robe with marabou trim, I was wearing rehearsal sweat pants, a Chatham College t-shirt and high heels. She was fifty-three, I was twenty-three. She had a curtain of red hair trailing over her graceful shoulders, breasts that defied gravity—I could feel them poking into my back—and the sexiest walk I have ever seen. I coveted that walk.
Tempest and I slithered to stage right and slid stage left—the key, she said to me, was to create a flow to my movement, to never let the audience sense my feet were hitting the floor. I should float above the stage, she said, my arms hovering like wings, my pelvis guiding each liquid step to a seamless soft-landing on the scarred hardwood floor.
I stood backstage every night and watched her. She was the opposite of invisible. She was a star, a floating star. I practiced and practiced and never got it right.
“Don’t worry, darling,” she said to me when I expressed my frustration. “You just need another thirty years of practice. I could teach you how to crawl, too, but that’s a lot harder.”
“Now’s my chance,” I tell the kids. “I’m going to channel Tempest Storm on the runway.”
“Forget Tempest, Mom,” says Curtis. “Go with Jorge.”
I show up on the day of the show and relax when I see that the clothes I’ll be modeling are hip and figure-friendly. Except for the jeans. When did it happen that blue jeans, once the comfort pants of choice for leisure time and outdoor activities, became modern day persecution devices? The jeans assigned to me feature spaghetti legs and a zipper that’s about an inch high. Really. These jeans are so low my butt crack is showing. I look like a plumber, or an extra on the Prison Break set.
“I think you need a smaller size,” says Steffi, the dresser for the show.
“NOOOOO!” I say. “These are, uh, perfect. I can’t sit down in them, but they are perfect for, you know, walking.” The jeans are paired with very high green shoes. The shoes are fantastico. I am also wearing a loose orange cotton cardigan. Lucky for me, it disguises the muffin top created by the “waistband” of the jeans. Meanwhile, my actual waist is so far north of the waistband I feel like I’m wearing pants that are in a different postal code.
A festive scarf—bright orange, grassy green!—ties everything together. It’s almost time for the fashion show to start.
Excitement! There’s news. Heidi Klum’s mother is in the audience. I’ve played the piano a handful of times for the Klum family. I like them, mainly because they like music. But the idea of having to model in front of a supermodel’s mom strikes me as bizarre. All of the sudden I feel kind of vulnerable without my piano. I feel sort of, well, visible.
I text Curtis to tell him that Heidi’s mom is at the show.
“Ask her if she knows Jorge,” he writes back.
The other models, Andrea and Anke, are also “real” looking models, but they’re a little less real looking than I am, mainly because they are a good fifteen years younger. Maybe that’s what happens to women as we age. We become more real. The thought comforts me.
These jeans are killing me. I feel like I’m being eviscerated by the crotch seam. Death by denim. But I am double-Spanxed and determined to stay positive.
The things a girl will do for a pair of shoes.
The store is small, the runway is more of a gangplank than an actual catwalk, but many of Bergisch Gladbach’s most elegant ladies have shown up for a glass of champagne, a cupcake on a stick, a strawberry dipped in chocolate, and a chance to see the spring collection.
Here we go.
I fling my scarf over my shoulder—don’t we just love a fun accessory—and plop onto the runway on my green high heels. The music blares. My titanium foot is holding up, my ankles aren’t wobbling, and I’ve got enough oxygen to suck in the muffin-top for the three minutes that I’m in the spotlight. So far, so good.
“Robin is wearing jeans by So and So of Italy,” says Dörthe. “The ‘boyfriend-jean look’ continues this spring—loose, relaxed, and comfortable.”
I’m glad they didn’t give me the tight jeans. God. These pants might well have been used as a medieval torture device.
Chaos reigns in the dressing room. Three models, one dresser, heaps of clothes on racks, in piles, on tables. It looks like my daughter’s bedroom, times three. Shoes and straw handbags (800 Euro!) sit on every surface. Somehow Steffi holds it together but she counts on us to stay organized.
Once I peel off the jeans, I’m in heaven. Now I get to wear silky tunics with ankle boots, stretchy dresses with leather jackets, full skirts and linen tops, and oh, oh, oh, the shoes!
I’m in a footwear-induced twilight coma—wondering which pair of these shoes I should select for myself—when I step onto the runway in a taupe silk shift with a soft leather jacket. Gorgeous. I smooth down the dress and realize I’ve put it on inside-out. Not good. What to do.
“Look—it’s reversible!” I say. No one seems to mind, the champagne is flowing, and to tell you the truth, the dress looks pretty good no matter how you wear it.
I also have a misstep with a shoe that’s not properly buckled. I’m wearing the powder pink pumps with the ankle strap—the shoes that seduced me into this situation in the first place. Once I reach center stage I realize my foot is flopping around in the shoe. I can’t walk properly so I have to slide and shuffle to make my way. Too bad I never mastered crawling with Tempest Storm. It would come in handy right about now.
We are scheduled for two shows. On the break in between, I take myself out to lunch. It’s probably not very model-like to have a pig-dog lunch in the middle of a show day, but I am starving. Besides I know I’ll have to put those jeans on again in a few hours and I’ll need the energy to get them over my hips. So I order a salad and a giant baked potato. There.
I sit in the chi-chi restaurant by myself, watching the beautiful women out for a Saturday latte or espresso. There are so many of them here in the land of Heidi Klum, each one thinner, taller, and more picture-book lovely than the next.
The smaller the town, the tighter the pants. The higher the heel, the younger the girl.
They enter the restaurant and look around, waiting to be noticed. I wonder, if like me, they will need three decades to figure out that it’s way more fun to be heard than it is to be seen. I doubt Tempest, Heidi, Heather, or Jorge would agree with me, but that’s okay.
I dig into my potato, take out my notebook and start writing, grateful, once again, to be invisible.
Next show at 2:00.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People.