As a child, I was a shy, tall, and bookish girl. In elementary school, I was most comfortable sitting squarely in the center of the classroom – away from the rowdies in the back and the keeners in the front. From all appearances, I was destined to be a librarian or at the very least, pursue a future in academia.
But in the summer of 2001, my supposed future abruptly changed. Walking out of a public restroom at the Calgary Stampede, I fell directly into the arms of a modeling scout.
Immediately, I received a lecture from said modeling scout regarding the fat content of mini donuts I was happily scarfing down with my girlfriends. Then, to my surprise, the scout dragged me over to a booth and pleaded with me to enter the model search that was being conducted as part of the Stampede. I timidly signed up, unsure of what to expect and suddenly conscious of my lack of fashion sense. After all, I did grow up in silkscreened Northern Reflections sweatshirts. The scout, however, was adamant that I had a future in “the biz”.
I didn’t win the contest. I’m sure it went to some girl who didn’t eat mini donuts.
Unexpectedly, I received a call from the same scouting agency in Calgary a few days after the Stampede had ended. They were interested in sending some shots of me to other agencies around the world. Growing up in the wilds of Southern Alberta, the world of stilettos, fashion shoots and runway shows was completely foreign and scary, but also alluring. I approached with caution, wanting to see the world, but not deprive myself of the values my parents instilled in me since I was a young child. When this Calgary agency alerted me that one of the foremost modeling agencies in the world, IMG, was interested in representing me, I jumped at the chance to travel to New York City.
Coupled with fitting the beauty esthetic of the time – tall, thin, and angular – I was told that my features also photographed well. Thus, I was quickly accepted into the IMG fold. According to the ‘fashion experts’, I was as versatile as they come: a body for the runway and a face for cosmetics. From the runways of New York City, London, Paris and Milan to the studios of renowned photographers and the covers of magazines, my life soon evolved into something far beyond my small town Alberta imagination.
I have often been thankful that I was a ‘late bloomer’ in the industry. While models typically begin their careers as impressionable tweens, I started in my early twenties. Fortunately, I had a deeply rooted sense of self worth and a healthy support system already established before facing the scrutiny of fashionistas, casting directors, agents, designers and Anna Wintour herself.
The pressure has often been immense, not only to maintain physical attributes, but also exude a certain aura of success. Strangely enough, to be a model is to face rejection repeatedly and often in rude and unflattering terms. I have been directly informed that I am too tall, too skinny, too fat, too pretty, or too angular for certain jobs. I have had my portfolio slammed shut and shoved back at me and been measured head to toe, right down to the width of my fingers!
In addition to these constant physical judgments, living out of a suitcase can be a lonely and unsettled life. Hotel rooms and endless rounds of free cocktails are shallow and empty. Thus, wherever I went, I became acutely aware of an overwhelming theme: nothing is as it appears on the surface. Like a Barbie doll, a fashion model is primped, styled, and airbrushed to unattainable heights. At a typical shoot, I will spend several hours in hair and makeup transformations, try on countless clothing ensembles (which are pinned or tailored to my specific measurements), be photographed under perfect lighting conditions and STILL be Photoshopped. Consequently, early in my career, I was often discouraged by the face value of my job: representing a beauty ideal that is a myth.
As my years as a model went by, however, I realized that there is more than meets the eye. My journey through the fashion world has taught me invaluable lessons in life, love, and faith. I have learned the importance of seizing certain opportunities and wisely denying others. In many ways, I have lived a life beyond my wildest dreams of travelling the globe, living in world class cities, and working with some of fashion’s top talent. I have been blessed with a career that has spanned over a decade and offered me a window into the inner workings of the fashion, advertising, and modeling industries.
Many times, my life as a model has been a rollercoaster ride of acceptance and rejection both professionally and personally. In a world of perfect body measurements, expensive designer labels and the equation of physical beauty with personal happiness and fulfillment, it is often a challenge to remain grounded and balanced. In fact, it has taken me years to embrace my uniqueness as a gift instead of constantly comparing myself to other images or models. Now in my 30’s, I am grateful to say that I am more comfortable in my own skin than ever. Recently, a client told my agent that they thought I was “improving with age”. While my mind’s eye compared myself to a wedge of stinky cheese, I decided to take it as a compliment.
Needless to say, I haven’t touched a mini donut since the Stampede. I do, however, advocate eating three healthy meals a day and allow myself indulgences that I work off through yoga, Pilates and running. Educational goals are indeed important and at the moment, I am finally finishing that English degree I started before an unexpected journey swept me away. While I am now comfortable on the runway in sky high Louboutins, I’m still that little girl who loves to curl up in a corner with a good book.
Marla Boehr is a Canadian fashion model from Lethbridge, Alberta. She was persuaded to enter the Mode Models 2003 model search when she attended the Calgary Stampede. She has since appeared on the covers of ELLE and Flare and has modelled for campaigns including Asprey, Lancome, Lida Baday, Tristan, and Warehouse.