My parents stared at me from across the kitchen table, stunned. They looked as though I’d just told them that our 12-year-old lab, Holly, had died.
I watched the wrinkles on my mother’s forehead get deeper and darker, and it seemed like she was aging right before my eyes. Was her hair turning gray? I once heard that former First Lady Barbara Bush’s hair turned gray overnight from the shock and grief of losing her baby daughter.
But I was not dead, or even dying. I was alive, and in the flesh. And I had just told my parents that I, Catherine Watson, their only daughter — the one with the 4.0 grade point average who my stay-at-home mother hoped would become a successful career woman, and my father secretly wished would follow in his footsteps as a lawyer — was not going to college after all.
I was, in fact, moving to New York City. To be a fashion model.
As I spoke, my letter of decline to the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts and Sciences was signed, sealed, and on its way to the admissions office. My mother cried and said that I was breaking her heart. My father yelled and said that I was ruining my life. Part of me feared they were right. To be honest, I couldn’t believe I’d actually gotten up the nerve to send that letter. I’d always listened to my parents, did the “right” thing. Never cut class. Been teacher’s pet. Made curfew. But I was sick of following the rules.
With my high school graduation just behind me, the idea of more school — only to be followed by an office job that would imprison me within four gray walls — was something that I couldn’t succumb to yet, if ever.
I was ready for adventure, for excitement, for a life less … ordinary. And I had a hunch that plenty of people stuck to the safe roads, so maybe, just maybe, I could make it on a path where everyone else wasn’t taking up so much space.
Of course, it did seem an odd choice. I’d always been so ashamed of the attributes that could, quite possibly, make me a model. Lanky and lean at 6 feet tall, I had a way of sticking out in the hallways, towering over most of the female (and many of the male) teachers. Growing up, I’d tried everything I could to blend in, to bulk up, to deny my stature: I drank milkshakes. Dressed in layers. Only wore flats. Avoided stretching in gym glass. Never stood next to the short boys in line.
But then, one day, something happened. My mother took me to Victoria’s Secret in Philadelphia to pick out my first fancy grown-up bra for my birthday. I was eying the “extreme lift” padded pushups (which I was sure would jumpstart my love life), when a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to be a model. Just like that.
“She just turned 14,” my mother said, looking a bit puzzled and slightly irritated. “I think she’s a little young, don’t you?”
“She’s perfect,” said the older woman, who was in her sixties and dressed far more fashionably than my 45-year-old mother.
She couldn’t possibly be talking about me, I thought. Is this some sort of practical joke? A sick, twisted joke? I looked around expecting to see some mean girls from school, but the place was virtually empty. I turned back around, feeling my face flush.
“You … you think I could model?” I stammered.
“I think you’re wasting your talent if you don’t,” she said. “Here’s my card. Call me when your mother changes her mind.”
But [GN1] she never did. And neither did my father. Despite all my begging and pleading. My parents said that high school was more important, that getting into college was more important. That anything was more important than “aspiring toward such a frivolous pursuit.” So I did what any girl in my situation would do. I stomped up the stairs, slammed the door, and screamed and cried into my pillow. But for the first time in my life, I felt like something special. Someone special. And my parents were not going to take that away from me.
A few weeks before my high school graduation, I rooted through my old jewelry box and pulled out the tattered business card the agent in Philadelphia had given me. Much to my surprise, she remembered me and started me off in Philadelphia to learn the ropes on a smaller scale before pushing me toward the ultimate goal: New York, New York. I did a little bit of modeling here and there, and with babysitting money I began to build my portfolio. Of course, I kept this all from my parents, assuming that once I had pictures and a little bit of income, they’d take me seriously.
But you know what they (or at least my know-it-all dad) say about what happens when you assume: You make an ass out of u and me.
The news didn’t go over so well. It took three days of the silent treatment (courtesy of moi) to get my parents to finally agree to support me in my New York dream (after all, at that point college was out for the semester, so what else could they really do?). The agreement hinged upon one stipulation: I had a year — 365 days — to achieve a certain level of success in modeling (success defined as steady work). If I didn’t become the Heidi Klum of my generation, I was to continue with college the following fall. My romantic notions of reaching fashion stardom immediately fogged my inhibitions and, before I knew it, I agreed to my parents’ proposal and managed to get an apartment and a roommate in Brooklyn, just a stone’s throw away from Manhattan.
It all happened quite quickly, before I was able to process it fully. My agent called me one day to say that Jon-Michelle LaRoché, a girl who I had met in passing — and, really, one of the most sought-after models in our little market — was looking for a roommate in New York. Was I interested in rooming with her? My heart raced at the thought, believing that the whole coincidence was quite an act of fate.
Yes, I said. And that was it.
I was set to move in on August 15, just two days before I would have started my freshman year of college. I’d made a left at the fork in the road, just before hitting the interstate, and there was no turning back now.