The Fifth, the Swede, the Russian, and Me
May 15, 2013 | by Elisabeth Donnelly
“Would you wear this?” the Swede asked. His honey-colored hair flopped over one eye. He was in a much-loved ragged, red jacket that looked expensive on his lanky frame.
I wore my best-fitting jeans and my favorite shirt, a cowboy shirt with pearl-clasp buttons and that perfect stich in the chest pocket made for cigarettes or pens. My curly red hair was extra poofy, spiraling away from my head, thanks to some mousse applied by the Swede. The pièce de résistance of my outfit was this poncho-thing that could’ve been designed by Jennifer Beals in Flashdance for a Western-themed dance night, a beige sweatshirt stretched out into a boatneck collar, draping across my chest, festooned with fringe. I looked like a cowboy’s sidekick. I felt silly.
“I’ve never really worn fringe before,” I said. “I plead the fifth.”
It was my semester abroad. I was twenty years old and living in London. I had never been a particularly good liar, having been blessed with a round moon of a face that registered every thought. But as I assimilated among the English, a people with whom I assumed I’d get along very well, being of clearly similar native-of-Boston stock and having a love of nineties Britpop, it was becoming clear to me that I had a more pressing social problem: I did not know how to tell a white lie. I didn’t even have the grace to realize when you should tell a white lie. In my own well-meaning way, I was becoming a bit of an asshole. “I plead the fifth” was my catchphrase. In England.
I had taken to this catchphrase while working for a Hollywood director on a TV pilot. As the production moved into the shooting stage, using the director’s house for a set, my days involved moving the director’s boxes of stuff into his brand new, recently purchased house. I spent a lot of time in his office, organizing the objects that made up his life. When I stopped for a minute, I would get introduced to members of the crew. They’d ask me what I thought about the director’s films. Fingering copies of his latest DVD, the blue-tone poster showing the giant, blue head of a superstar, I would reply, “I plead the fifth,” or, “I like Wes Anderson’s films,” proving my superior taste, I’d hoped.
Later, exhausted from the physical labor, hiding from the bag-holding demands of the lead actor, I would take a ten-minute break on the warren of director’s chairs on set, sitting next to the set nurse, watching the leading actress smoking and fending off the producer’s advances. He was mostly talking at her, telling her, “You’re so Marianne Faithful! Have you ever heard the song ‘Sliding Through Life on Charm?’” A pause. Silence. The cigarette went to her lips. The producer went on, “I’ll bring it in for you tomorrow. We can listen to it”—another pause, low voice—“in your trailer.”
The next day, the actress’s model boyfriend was on set, taking a seat next to her in the warren of chairs. He slouched like a champion. He had exquisite cheekbones.
He was the first model that I had seen in person, in real life, free of the capricious whims of the camera. And unlike future models I’d see—an alien species, crudely drawn praying mantises with particular attention paid to the cheekbones or the eyes, all angles and depths, lines gone exquisitely wrong—this model had a beauty that was something special. He had a quality. I, on the other hand, did not have a quality. I had hair.
But one day, shopping on Portobello Road, the Swedes found me, handed me a flyer, and they thought I could be a model. I had always thought of myself as smart, not pretty, and I was intrigued enough to show up in east London that weekend. It was such an anomaly. Some people had charm, cheekbones, chutzpah; all I had that spring was the Fifth Amendment.
After the Swede took digital photos of me, he paired me with a Russian girl. She had sharp, feline features and feral little teeth. I envied her pretty white summer dress. We had to hold hands like we were going to spin around in a circle, carefree and so happy wearing these clothes. He shot us in Super 8, telling us to converse, circling around us as we stood in front of a white drop cloth. She smiled goofily at me. I started to talk. I kept talking. “You’re Russian? I have a Russian literature gap. Haven’t read Dostoyevsky yet. I want to, though. And I own Dead Souls, so that’s very exciting. It’s funny, right?” She nodded. She said she had read Anna Karenina. I replied, slowly, “Anna Karenina … Wow. Just so … tragic!” I hadn’t read the book but I knew about the train. We had a moment that felt like friendship. Then the Swede thanked me and I went home.
I had nearly forgotten about the experience until I came back to America. At the hairdresser’s, I flipped through a magazine that had a short article citing the Swede’s “awkward chic” fashion line. That night, when I got in front of my computer, I pulled up the Swede’s website. It had a series of photos, making up a grid of fashion. Row after row of doll-size girls. The Russian appeared in the majority of them, with other cool girls on the edges.
And then there was me. I was only in one photo. Something like awkward chic in action, an absolutely terrible model. Grinning madly, hands on my hips, one leg pointed forward, as sassy and American as cowboy fringe.