Having make-up applied in Persona

“NO. Right foot points THAT way. Not like that.”

Sighing quietly, I walked back to the end of the makeshift catwalk and tried again to walk. Then I tried again. And again. The model-cum-instructor Tumba eyed me impatiently as the other models watched half-interestedly as I received a crash course in their profession. As my nerves grew and confidence dimmed, my walk became wobblier. Stopping was tricky and my turns were a joke (to no one). I swore to myself that on the night I would somehow do better.

When my male model friend Fardeen had called the night before to ask whether I’d take part in a fashion show, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I assumed, rather frivolously, that it would be a bit of fun. Just the week before I’d written a feature about Tootli Rahman’s fashion show, and I was thrilled by the glamour of it. However, when I turned up at the underground nightclub at the Radisson the next morning, I quickly realized that I was the only novice, and that the TexBangla Fashion Show was a deadly serious affair, to be held in the ballroom the following evening. Five hundred guests had been invited. I recognized several of the models from Tootli’s show and couldn’t digest that this time, I would be walking alongside them (or behind them, whatever). When the only other foreign model arrived, a six foot blonde German, I took one look at her and realized that I would find no comfort in the way that she walked. I trooped out behind the other models as we practiced the choreographed routines around strategically placed scarves and bags. Did I hold my head up high? Looking back, I could almost say with certainty that I did not.

At one point Fardeen took me aside and said, “Listen – when you are walking down the catwalk, you must believe that you are the best looking girl in the world. Think sexy.” I mumbled back an okey-dokey and then tried to fake an attitude, which was as close as I could come to believing the unbelievable.

After a few hours of rehearsals I had to leave for the office. When I told Luna the choreographer, she looked concerned but let me go. In any case, I had understood little of what she was saying to the others in Bangla. When I got home that night, I walked around in circles in my small living room. It was the best I could do.

If it hadn’t felt real the day before, it certainly did when I walked into the ballroom the following morning. Men were high up on ladders arranging the lighting, while others scurried around dragging cords. Dance music thundered out from an impressive sound system. There seemed to be a hundred men attending to the preparations for we 30 models. We each had scraps of paper which were used to draw sketches of the stage, which was shaped like a fork. Little dotted lines indicated where we would walk, and numbers indicated where we would stop and/or turn. I could never make sense of what I had drawn and when I made several mistakes, I realized that missing the second half of rehearsals had left me very under-prepared. “Just follow the person in front of you,” whispered Keralie the German – as she was to say another 30 times before the night was over.

During lunch I chatted with a few of the models, who were, on the whole, pleasant and friendly. I asked one of the tallest models if she had been modeling long. Not so long, she said, but her career had really taken off after winning Miss Bangladesh 2007. I choked down my rice before congratulating her.

The male models then had the afternoon off, whilst us girls went to Persona in Dhanmondi for hair and make-up. I asked Fardeen whether he ever wears make-up and with a crinkled nose he replied, “Only if the designer insists.”

I’ve never in my life seen a bigger beauty salon than Persona in Dhanmondi. It was a labyrinth of partitions, mirrors and bustling women in green aprons. When I sat down, one the senior beauticians (identified as such by her purple apron) handed a magazine cut-out to the beautician assigned to my case. The model pictured was wearing very thick sparkling blue eyeshadow, with bright pink lipstick and heavy blush. I wasn’t sure that such hues would suit my fair skin, green eyes and red hair, but figured it made sense for the overall design, as one of my appearances included being dressed entirely in blue. A beautiful young bride was seated behind me, and I watched her reflection with fascination as her face became ever more striking. Then I noticed that she was having difficulty breathing, so I turned to my own reflection, feeling humbled. Happily, my make-up artist created nothing short of a transformation and I was finally starting to feel slightly excited. I was directed to a different cubicle, where my hair was parted down the middle and two pigtails were teased to the point of resembling bird’s nests. I was never going to be the best looking girl in the world, but I had to admit it looked cool.

As we returned to the Radisson in a Persona mini-bus, I watched with amusement as men on the street stared first at one model, then another, and then realized with gaping awe that the bus was full of giggling, made-up models. The models themselves seemed only faintly aware of the commotion they were causing.

The last few hours before the show were excruciating. My palms and feet were sweating, I hadn’t memorized the six catwalk processions, and I was terrified of falling off the stage or steps. And there was nothing to do but wait. The thought of people staring at me – only me – and evaluating my body with high expectations made me feel sick, so I fought to kick the thought out of my mind. I asked the models what I should be thinking to achieve the right facial expression, which I had observed was an almost serious frown. “Don’t think about anything,” came the unanimous reply.

We continued to sit and fret in one of the two tiny “green” (backstage) rooms before we were finally told to collect our outfits. I was handed a brown paper bag with my name on it. The first way you can tell that you are not a real model is because not everything looks good on you – as I discovered to be the case with the first dress I wore. It was, as they say, unforgiving. As I stood behind the stage waiting for my cue, I knew I hadn’t been so nervous for years.

On the ramp

Out I went. I stood at the start of the stage, with one hand on my hip, waiting for the previous model to reach the catwalk’s first step. I raised my chin so that my eye level was above the crowd and began to walk. And then came the unthinkable – as I reached the middle of the catwalk, a third model turned from the fork of the stage and I nearly crashed into her. She glowered at me and I mouthed “sorry” – which was obviously inappropriate in the presence of onlookers. I swung around and walked straight off the stage, missing the other two parts of the routine. I was supposed to have waited for the second model to reach the steps, not the first, and thus I had ruined it.

Backstage, I wanted to crawl inside a hole. I swore at myself, before realizing that no one backstage – other than the model who had nearly run me down like fashion roadkill – was aware of my mistake. And crucially, that included the choreographer, who was by this time in a high state of agitation with everyone and everything. The fact that I had “gotten away with” my blunder was the only reason that I successfully fought an instinct to flee the premises.

My second outfit consisted of simple green jeans and a yellow tunic. I hadn’t expected to model casual wear and I felt a bit alarmed, because I knew the attention would revert to my face/legs/arms/bum. But it was fine – I was still acutely self-conscious, but this time I made no mistakes.

I retrieved my yet unseen third outfit amidst the chaos of the green room. It was far too small to accommodate so many models, and yelps of frustration and trodden toes were coming in yet shorter intervals. As a journalist working in Bangladesh, I’ve grown accustomed to working with large numbers of men and comparatively few women. As the atmosphere in the green room grew more heated, with clothes flying and girls bustling for the mirror, I longed for the different energy of the newsroom. Whatever else this experience taught me, it certainly reaffirmed my love for journalism.

And oh, that sparkling blue dress. I have never, ever, appeared in public in so little. I am not a waif so the mini-mini-dress was therefore about two sizes too small for me. I was terrified that I would show more of myself than the designer originally intended. To make matters worse, the choreographer tied a blue scarf around my head, covering my hair. Without my big hair-do I felt twice as exposed, and was reminded of the European bathing caps worn in the 1940s. Big hips were in back then, I thought wistfully.

But I did it. And as I stood alongside the other models for the finale and we applauded the now-smiling choreographer as she graced the middle of the catwalk, I was finally able to smile. And now that it was just about over, I allowed a thought to pass through my mind. It was the words of the novelist Mark Twain, who said, “I’m glad I did it. Partly because it was well worth it, but chiefly because I shall never have to do it again.”

Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 4 June 2010