A Model Life


I knew there was something sad, something deeply disgusting, about this whole modeling business,” writes Waris Dirie in her autobiography, Desert Flower, recalling her first assignment— posing nude for an art calendar.

In plain, sweet prose, Dirie, a Somalian nomad turned high-fashion mannequin, describes an almost unbelievably hard early life in the bush, her flight from an arranged marriage at age 13 to the slums of Mogadishu, and her subsequent arrival in London as a servant in her diplomat uncle’s house. When her uncle and aunt, who aren’t particularly nice to her (they won’t let her go to night school to learn English, watch TV, or take a single day off in four years), leave Britain, Dirie gets a job as a cleaner at McDonald’s and a share in a room at the Y. Stunning beauty finally opens the door to what is perhaps the only high-paying career where illiteracy is no impediment: modeling.

Though Dirie has become famous for launching a crusade to end female circumcision, her book succeeds not just as a polemic against that sickening practice and its attendant horrors, but as a classic chronicle of immigrant hardship and triumph. Still, no matter how high she flies, Dirie remains clear-eyed:

While modeling is fun— and I admit to loving the glamour and glitter and beauty of it— there’s a cruel side that can be devastating for a woman, especially a young one, who’s insecure. I’ve gone in for jobs and had the stylist or photographer exclaim in horror: “My God! What is wrong with your feet! Why do you have those ugly black marks all over them!” What can I say? They’re referring to the scars caused by stepping on hundreds of thorns and rocks in the Somalian desert; a reminder of my childhood, when I walked for thirteen years with no shoes. How can I explain that to a designer in Paris?

If Dirie’s confessional always rings true, Irina Pantaeva’s Siberian Dream (the much maligned memoir craze has expanded to the runways of late) raises suspicions practically from its first page. How is Pantaeva able to recollect elaborate conversations she had at the age of three? What are we to make of the talking UFOs who visit her one night in her hometown of Ulan Ude? How is it that, unlike Dirie, she manages to escape any number of luridly described attempted molestations unscathed? Pantaeva’s future is altered numerous times when a complete stranger pops up in a grocery store in Siberia or on a park bench in Paris and comes to the aid of our heroine, offering her a way out of some daunting dilemma.

Pantaeva paints herself as a breathless ingenue— an eskimo Holly Golightly— from the time she takes on the bureaucracy at school (she wears multicolored leg-warmers and tells her teacher stuff like, “Since we’re all equal in the Soviet Union, then I no longer have to listen only to you. We are equal as people, so now it is time for you to listen to my ideas about how to live and what to think. This is what equality and freedom mean to me”) to her days in France, where she is shocked, shocked to find out an elderly moneybags wants more from her than a pretty smile.

Reading Siberian Dream is like being trapped with a loquacious drunk at 3 a.m.: Pantaeva tells long, self-aggrandizing stories, like the one about her flirtation with one of the Dalai Lama’s monks, or another describing a disastrous trip to China (she is shocked, shocked to find that she and her fellow mannequins are taken for you-know-whats). Many of her paragraphs (supposedly written by Pantaeva herself, since no other writer is credited— though by her own admission she didn’t know a word of English until recently) end with annoying homilies: “Oppression did not always have to win— creativity and passion could conquer. It was possible,” reads a typical entry.

Some combination of providence and nerve propels Pantaeva’s spunky spirit westward (she claims she is the only Soviet citizen ever to succeed in getting a visa from Paris to the United States). Once safely across the
Atlantic, Pantaeva, not content to just brag in print and wiggle down catwalks, snags a
minuscule role in a Woody Allen film, and even launches a jewelry line. (What next, nuclear medicine?) Dirie’s future has taken rather a
different course: she is currently a United
Nations Special Ambassador, fighting for the elimination of female genital mutilation.