A long time ago, I made a living out of traveling the world and renting my body out to companies wanting to promote stuff. In the process, I quickly learnt that the more attractive and accommodating I could make myself – the more money I’d earn.
No one ever gave me any guidelines on responsible ways to do this, or how to manage the men who responded inappropriately (back then, talking about one’s sexual currency was considered poor taste), so I just winged it, forced to learn from my own mistakes.
Many years later, via some convoluted circumstances (and the suggestion of an Italian Ambassador), I opened my escort agency ‘Bon Ton’ just shy of my fortieth birthday, a very different woman to that of my twenties. Like so many others, my guileless understanding of men and sex had caused me to endure some pretty harrowing scrapes along the way, but each experience gave more clarity on the next, finally culminating in a more insightful understanding of the basic rules of attraction. I believed, perhaps naively, that this understanding might help to offer some valuable guidelines to young women entering this industry.
I soon discovered that perception is everything. Notwithstanding their knowledge of me as a person, my stance on equality and the blatant exploitation I’d encountered in the fashion industry, friends and family were horrified when learning I’d decided to now make my living from renting out ‘other’ women’s bodies, albeit in a marginally different manner.
The rules were the same though – the more attractive and accommodating they made themselves, the more desirable they became. And the guidelines on how to do this responsibly… well they were still non-existent.
The next hurdle I encountered consisted of the young women who’d approached me for work. Although much more sexually savvy than my generation, I was surprised to discover that girls were were still being raised ‘agreeable’, and were no more assertive than I’d been. They too lacked confidence in their right to challenge disrespectful behaviour, a right that many waves of feminists had fought long and hard for.
Although well prepped on how to respond if any client attempted to push boundaries, most of the women lost their nerve when face to face with types we all know now as Trump, Weinstein or Epstein.
Our client base was comprised of the professional pillars of modern society, successful lawyers, doctors, bankers etc., men we’ve all been hardwired to respect, so the women struggled when their attempts to deflate uncomfortable situations with ‘polite submissiveness’ failed dismally. Unequivocal in their belief that respect afforded automatic reciprocation, pre #MeToo it was difficult to convince them otherwise.
The overwhelming majority seemed to prefer tolerating – then lamenting bad behaviour (especially from older men) over the less attractive risk of offending the perpetrator. They tenaciously dug their heels in whenever I insisted they stand up for themselves.
My repeated assurances that they would still be paid, and the client sanctioned, only resulted in them refusing to report offensive behaviour. The reason? They didn’t want to upset or lose him.
My (self-serving) goal had been to change the archaic image and operating systems of commercial sex in New Zealand, but instead, by insisting the women become more proactive, I was forcing them to shut down, potentially creating opportunities for the abuse to continue.
I thought about how I had reacted to male intimidation at their age.
In the eighties and nineties, Armani and Versace were the Titans of the global fashion industry. Hundreds and thousands of models flocked annually to their castings, from every corner of the world, all vying to be selected for their hugely influential photographic campaigns and runway shows. A nod from these designers could launch an illustrious career – it was Gianni Versace who invented the Supermodel.
While both were powerful and revered, Versace; effusive and passionate, worshipped the female form, whereas Armani; restrained and austere, didn’t. Aware of this, and ashamed of my ‘large’ hips, the first time I worked for Giorgio Armani I was petrified. Would he cancel me if the clothes were too tight?
I crossed the threshold of his Milan ‘compound’ and immediately found myself in some kind of dystopian future. In complete contrast to the colourful Italian chaos outside, everything inside was white, beige and sterile minimalism. A place so devoid of noise you could hear your heart beat (perhaps the only place in Italy where that was even possible). I sat waiting in reception with the other models, in restrained silence as dozens of Armani mini-mes came and went, all aloof and self-important.
Suddenly one of them stopped right in front of us. Gravely, she ushered us into a small room, one containing only lockers, and pointed to several piles of neatly folded white cotton dressing gowns and nude G-strings. She ordered us to undress and place ‘all’ of our clothing in the lockers before donning the Armani approved attire. Only then, devoid of the outside world, were we permitted to proceed into the inner sanctum and await the messiah.
Led into a second room, this one long and narrow, we sat down at the make-up bench, eyeing each other in the mirror and giggling nervously. Suddenly the door burst open and in walked Giorgio Armani. Although small in stature, his hubris, and the power he radiated was more than a little terrifying. We all fell silent.
“Who’s the girl with the bigger bust?” he demanded, smiling tersely. His smile, like everything else, was contrived and minimalist. His perennial tan, silver hair, and omnipresent t-shirt were immaculate, the same as his stylized media image. There was definitely no room for imperfection here.
The girls all turned towards me. Aghast, I looked at him, my mouth open like a stunned mullet. ME? Bigger bust?
In a second he was behind me and before my brain could register what was happening, he grabbed my tiny A cups and began squeezing them like stress balls – one, two, three, four times – then disappeared.
“WHAT???” I spat at the others, “What the fuck are you talking about? What the hell just happened there?”
“You’ve got the biggest bust out of all of us” they whinged.
“But he just grabbed my boobs” I yelled in shock.
“But he’s gay!” they shot back.
Immediately he was back again, thrusting towards me what looked to be a strip of nylon mesh, something cut from a stocking leg.
“Put this on”. The smile was now gone.
Panic stricken, I looked down at it. What the hell did he mean “Put it on”? Put it on what? Fearful of a reprise, I took the piece of stocking and made a model educated guess. Put it on like a boob tube perhaps?
With the other’s help, I managed to stretch the tiny band over my head and shoulders, then painfully extract my arms. The offending bits of fat were now squashed into one flat lump in the middle of my chest. I was now Armani androgenized.
But there was a problem, my lungs were now so tightly compressed that breathing was very difficult – laboured and raspy. Scared, I looked down at him.
The terse smile returned. “Perfecto” he said, then disappeared.
Where was my prized bravado?
Why hadn’t I challenged him when he grabbed my boobs, or rung my agency to demand legal retaliation? If I worked in a bank and the director grabbed my breasts, Human Resources would have a field day.
I didn’t want to piss him off, that’s why. Like so many women who enter the orbit of powerful men, I wanted what Armani had to offer.
That was in my early twenties. I spent the next twenty years trying to unlearn everything I’d been taught about agreeable female behaviour, and to learn how to stand up for myself. Then, when I opened Bon Ton, I tried to teach the escorts too.
But in my evangelical rush to save them, I hadn’t factored in women’s ‘innate’ desire to be desired, and to win…at all costs.