Nude in Black and Blonde

March 13, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Posted in Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories, Modelling Stories | 14 Comments
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It’s 1963 in Los Angeles and I’m twenty-two and restless, bored by office work and trying to revive my career as a figure model. Pictures of me as a blonde have appeared in a dozen men’s magazines, so my hair is now black. Change the hair colour, change the name and readers will think it’s a new girl. That’s what people in the business believe.

My agent books me with new photographers and between sessions I work at one- and two-day office positions for a temp agency. When not on a job, I share stories with other girls living at the Hollywood Studio Club. We’re all young and employed – or trying to find employment – in the entertainment industry. A few of my friends seek stardom, but most, like me, are just looking for a bit of glamour, some excitement. Figure modelling is not a long-term career. My future, I believe, lies in finding the right man, but since my “great romance” disintegrated eight months earlier, no special man has turned up.

Black hair may be hindering my quest for a new relationship. In my case, it appears true that “blondes have more fun.” But as a brunette, I’m getting more bookings.

In mid-June, Bill, my agent, phones to arrange a modelling session with Elmer Batters. I met Batters once, in Bill’s office, and vaguely remember seeing the two men hunched over my photographs. A matched pair, I thought, two middle-aged jowly men, with forgettable faces, thick waists and thinning hair.

The next morning, Batters parks in front of the Studio Club and I slip into the passenger seat clasping the leather hatbox that stores my modelling accessories: black bikini panties; black garter belt; black bra; sheer pink baby-doll peignoir; tight blue slacks; blue sweater with buttons opening down the front; open-toed gold shoes with two-inch heels; and a makeup kit containing eyeliner, mascara, eyebrow pencils, and several shades of lipstick.

I’m wearing white bikini panties, a white garter belt and an armour-like white bra designed to support large breasts. Its clasps are unfastened; when they are hooked, the bra’s straps pull tight, leaving deep red grooves in my shoulders. So I’m wearing a dress over a loosely swinging bra. My long-sleeved, flowing shirtwaist dress is white with a green leaf pattern; it’s office apparel, not a modelling accessory.

Elmer Batters drives east towards the San Fernando Valley and then beyond into the desert. He says little. Most photographers attempt to put me at ease by conversing prior to a shoot.

We ride for an hour until we reach a desolate road, finally stopping at a derelict movie set. Not much remains except scruffy wooden planks and crumbling plaster buildings. Beside this deteriorating structure is a railway track leading nowhere. A gurgling stream runs nearby; no other sound permeates the silence.

From the back seat of his car, Batters pulls out black nylon stockings with seams that he asks me to exchange for my pale seamless ones. He also hands me a pair of black stiletto shoes. But he doesn’t want me to remove my dress, just my bra. He shoots pictures of me in the dress, top buttons open, with my breasts revealed but still supported, making them appear full and firm. I pose on a concrete ledge dangling my legs over the creek, leaning against the front of his car, sitting on a faded wooden sidewalk and standing in front of a tattered screen. Finally, he asks me to remove the dress. Now I’m wearing only white panties, white garter belt, black nylons and black stilettos. With no support, my breasts droop.

Behind the buildings is a rusty dump truck, its front wheels propped on blocks. I’m beside the truck. Click. My foot rests on the high step below the cab. Snap. After Batters covers the tattered seat with a towel, I sit sideways. Clack. I’m inside the cab, curled in the grungy passenger seat, my feet resting on the dashboard. Whirr. Was it only a week ago that I was lounging seductively on a red brocade sofa?

I rely on photographers to tell me how to pose my body; I control the tilt of my head and facial expressions. But sometimes Batters shoots photos before I’m ready – so there’s no seductive smile, no sparkle in my eyes. And he doesn’t seem to care about my sagging breasts.

After I climb down from the cab, he leads me to the railway track where I totter on one rail wearing the stilettos. No longer worried about my looks, I concentrate on keeping upright. My feet are sore. I’m wobbling. The shoes must go! Returning to the car, I remove the hated footwear and change into my low-heeled pumps. Batters sighs. Then he guides me to a cluttered room with a low ceiling and slight mouldy odour. I straddle a rusty bathtub in my stocking feet, balancing on tip-toe. A dirty mattress covers much of the floor. Batters rolls up his towel to make a pillow and I lie on this mattress, but my body is stiff and I don’t smile or look towards the camera.

Batters snaps his photos quickly. Then we leave that stuffy cellar and head for the car. While he stores his cameras and tripod in the back seat, I fold my dress, carefully pack it in my case and then slip on my pants and sweater. Despite being parked in the shade, the auto is hot. Batters opens all four doors. When shooting in the crisp desert air, a gentle breeze cooled my semi-naked body. Now sweat runs down my forehead. Batters rummages through his back seat, finds two Coke bottles and flips off the caps. Although the pop is warm, I sip mine gratefully.

I start a conversation and Batters responds. We talk about the weather and then I introduce the topic of models and their looks. My ideal is the Playboy image – the glamorous, full-bosomed beauty.

Batters presses his lips tight. He says, “Men don’t want to look at fake women.”

“They aren’t fake,” I respond. “Men like to look at pretty girls.”

“No, they don’t. They want to look at the type of girls they see every day. Ordinary girls … naked. Girls they know they can get.”

He twists to the back seat, gropes around, and pulls out a magazine. Flipping it open, he shows me a page. “Look,” he says, “She is my most popular model because she doesn’t look special. She looks like someone a man can date.”

I glance through his photos. The model is average-looking, but she does things with her mouth that remind me of oral sex. When I point this out to Batters, he doesn’t respond, but instead tosses the magazine into the back seat and starts the car.

We stop at a bungalow in the San Fernando Valley. Most of my modelling stints occur in houses – places belonging to friends of the photographer – but previously these have been upscale homes, tastefully decorated. This is a shabby one-bedroom cottage with cracks at the bottom of the door. Its furniture appears to have come from a thrift shop: pink sheers covering the front-room windows, a matted sheepskin rug in front of an old tan sofa; a starburst clock above the fireplace mantel; a lime-green lamp; and, in the bedroom, purple curtains matching a purple bedspread.

I smell no whisper of perfume, no whiff of food. The place feels unoccupied – another forlorn setting, different from the desert but emitting the same sense of loneliness.

Before shooting begins, I hurry into the bathroom, splash water on my face, dab it dry, reapply my lipstick and touch up my eyebrows. I attempt to fluff my hair but my bangs stick to my forehead. In the desert, my hair had a soft wave; it flattened in that hot car. No hope for the bangs; backcombing gives the top some lift. Batters may not want me to look pretty – but I do.

I emerge from the bathroom wearing black underwear and embodying a new resolve. When he seems about to shoot, I lower my eyelids and don’t raise them until I’m ready. Dipping my chin, forming a half-smile, I look into the camera lens; this is my technique for simulating sexual desire in my photos. I hold my chest high and my shoulders back, raise my arms whenever possible, and thus make my breasts curve upward and appear fuller. Batters takes photos of me sprawling on the bed, stretching over the sofa, and sitting, cross-legged, in front of the fireplace. In only a few shots am I totally nude; in most, I’m wearing black panties, garter belt and nylons – and sometimes my open-toed gold shoes.

A lot of the time, Batters’ head is bowed while he views me through cameras. When he looks up, he doesn’t meet my eyes. Is he shy? He seldom speaks, simply waves an arm to direct my movements.

Finally we finish and he drives me back to the Studio Club; I have just enough time to clean up before walking downstairs to join friends for dinner.

That night in bed, I cannot stop thinking about Batters’ comment. He takes pictures of “ordinary girls.” In person, I do look ordinary as a brunette. In photographs, it’s different. The contrast between dark hair and my pale complexion can appear dramatic. That’s why some photographers place me in lavish settings: kneeling by an electric blue wall, reclining on a red brocade sofa, or huddling among lush green foliage. But I have large eyes, a stubby upturned nose and rosebud lips – childlike features, not dramatic ones. In person, with dark hair, I do not look striking. Men never fawned over me before I became a blonde.

Photographs be damned. I hate vivid colours. With fair hair, pale makeup and subdued clothes, I feel at ease; men notice me. I want to be blonde again.

The next day, I purchase hair supplies. To save money, I’ll do it myself. I’ve watched hairdressers bleach my hair for five years. How difficult can it be?

***

I have orange hair. Bright. Orange. Hair.

Around my scalp is a one-inch halo of pale yellow hair. The rest, the part previously dyed black, is now orange. I mix another package of bleach, cover the orange for an hour, then wash it out. My hair is a slightly lighter, even brighter, orange.

I wear a wig to dinner and consult with girls at several tables.

“You should go to Clairol,” one suggests. “They’ll know what to do.”

Unknown to me – and most other people – Clairol maintains a private salon in Hollywood where new products are tested. The girls chosen as models receive free hair services.
The next day, at Clairol’s beauty parlour, a colour expert examines my hair. She says, “You should have used a colour stripping process before you tried to bleach dyed hair.”

I’ve never heard of their colour stripping product. It isn’t sold in regular stores with their bleaches and toners. If I’d gone to a hairdresser…

The colour expert applies the stripping solution, waits an hour and washes it out. My hair is a slightly dimmer orange. “There’s no way to get the dye out now,” the expert says. “We’ll have to use a toner to mask it.”

Miraculously, she finds one, a dark blonde toner that turns my hair golden. A stylist trims the frizzled ends and I leave the salon with an appointment in two weeks. I will be their training model for “what to do when disaster strikes.”

I visit my agent to show him my new look. He takes four head shots, examines the prints and says they appear fine. He doesn’t have another photo session lined up but says, “There’s a big job coming soon. A soft core movie. It’s going to be another Immoral Mr. Teas.”

I know that Mr. Teas was a surprise hit featuring bare breasts and humour. However, Bill’s contacts in the entertainment industry are limited to photographers; he processes their colour film. A year earlier he couldn’t arrange trade show employment for me. Now he thinks he can get me a movie part?

I visit the temp office and they have a two-day job with a talent agency, one that evolves into a two-week position. My first day there, Martin, an entertainment lawyer, drops by, notices me and asks me out. Maybe I don’t have model bookings but I’m having fun, as Martin escorts me to restaurants and nightclubs. I’m blonde again. My social life has revived.

A month later, Bill calls. The movie job has come through. A four-day booking. One hundred dollars a day, double my usual rate. Fantastic!

Later, I reflect. How did I get this job without an audition? Topless girls in a soft core movie don’t need to act but they must look alluring on the screen. How a model moves in front of the camera is just as important as breast size.

Two days later, I drive to the studio, a warehouse in the San Fernando Valley. A makeup artist applies foundation to my face and neck (but not my body), and then skillfully highlights my lips and eyes. She is followed by a hair stylist who backcombs my weakened hair to give it volume. I join two other girls. We’re all clad in skimpy black satin underpants and black nylons (with seams) that have tight elastic bands to keep them from falling down (so no garter belts). I’m wearing my gold shoes with the two-inch heels. The three of us are standing outside the makeup room, awkwardly staring at walls, because there has been a delay in shooting our scene; the crew and movie camera are in another section of the warehouse, filming an episode that was supposed to be completed yesterday. Shivering in the cool hall, I drape my blue sweater around my shoulders and clutch the top.

A familiar face appears. Elmer Batters. He catches my eye, holds up his right hand and crooks his finger to indicate “come here.” He leads me to a room containing two large beds and begins taking photos, this time working with me, watching my eyes, waiting until I’m ready. He is the film’s still photographer. I know now how I got this gig.

14 Comments »

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  1. Ah, yes, all the promise of glamor/wealth/power in the world of capitalist gain . . . and then the reality. Another illuminating chapter in your young modeling career. I look forward, as always, to your next story, Shannon.

    Dave “Beer&Bikes,” in the old days!)

  2. Good story and well written did not need pictures. Trusting things are well. Regards to all. E

    ________________________________

  3. Elmer Batters knew how to take a photo of a woman. With your mistaken Playboy ideal, a young model would naturally fret about her figure flaws. Elmer understood his middleclass male audience. They would see your perceived faults as authentic. Gloria Dawn was attainable feminine perfection. That’s how you got the gig.

  4. Screw Elmer’s pedestrian perception of the “middle class” market. So many of his photos were dorky and unflattering by any standards. Just embarrassing. Imagine more than just a few of his models showing his screwy pictures to her daughters and nieces. Let alone paramours.

    Hefner’s Playboy didn’t blow away the cheap mens’ magazine market by accident. Many men then were wowed at seeing a woman as a goddess, a la Varga/s and Petty before him in Esquire, as well as captivated Playboy’s buy excellent writers.

    And a few of us still prefer to see our females as goddesses (wives, friends, and models). Most also-rans will cheapen any subject to mere commodities. But, a few will ELEVATE, especially in this case, the gorgeous female, a la Playboy. Gloria deserved elevation. Lack of agent connections/brains or Playboys’ preferences at the time only prevented her from being photographed as she was: a Playmate of the Month.

    And a should-be Playmate of the Month with a PhD, a university teaching career, fine writing skills and a ferocious urge to publish and protect her images/work is nothing to be sneezed at. Just find another model with such a resume.

    Let’s credit Gloria/Shannon as she deserves!

    David Belknap

    • David, I’m sorry you understood my comment to be anything less than a compliment. It certainly wasn’t my intention. I offer my sincerest apology to Shannon for any slight on my part.

  5. This story was written in the present tense because I was trying to provide a picture of a young girl (I was young then) whose primary concerns regarded how she looked and whether she would meet the “right” man — and her belief, at that time, that how she looked was the “hook” that attracted the right man. So both Danis and David were correct in their comments. I was rather shallow at that time. Most of us were. At the Hollywood Studio Club most of us didn’t talk much about our careers; we talked a lot about our boyfriends, even though we were “liberated” enough to want a career. (Most women our age had already opted out of the work force and were married.) In many ways we were the forerunners of the women’s liberation movement that was about to take place, yet we were still held back by the mindset of the times — the emphasis on physical looks and finding a husband. I tried to convey this in the story.

    I also wrote it because I had been asked, several times, what a typical model assignment was like. Well here was one. It was unique in the sense that all were unique. But Elmer Batters was not famous when I worked with him; he was just another photographer trying to make a living. When I had this critiqued by my writing group, what many of them couldn’t understand — and still cannot understand — is that going into the desert with a relative stranger and taking off my clothes (or in Elmer’s case, most of my clothes) was just another working day for a figure model. No big deal. I don’t think they got that. They think that I should have felt something — remorse, fear, some intense emotion. Instead all I was concerned about what looking good in the photos.

    I also wrote it to give some insight into Elmer Batters particular style and appeal. There is a desolate quality to many of his photos that others could not emulate. It was more than just featuring legs, although in most of the photos that showed up from that shooting session my legs were prominently featured. He didn’t look so much at the model’s face. I think that after viewing the pictures he took of me on that first shoot, he noticed that my eyes were important. The photos he took on the second occasion we worked together more forcefully highlighted my eyes. (The left-hand photo in my “header” on the Gloria Dawn Photos website was taken by Elmer Batters.)

    • Redeemed! Thank you Shannon… I too was struck by your daring venture to a remote location with a strange photographer. My naïve perception of this era is through a noir eye. I guess I’ve seen Chinatown and L.A. Confidential too many times. But then I made the assumption that you trusted your agents (Bill M.) judgment. He must have known the reputations of all the circuit photographers.

  6. Thank you Shannon for sharing this story and all of the others you have written. I am sorry about your bad experience with Elmer Batters. You are right men do like to look at pretty girls. I think you look best as a blonde.
    You are probably the only former adult/glamour model who is proud of her past and willing to share her modeling and life experience. This makes it all the more precious.

    • My experience with Elmer Batters wasn’t “bad.” We just had a short disagreement — he had one point of view and I had another. My photo shoot with Batters was unique, in the sense that all photo shoots were unique. But I only had one somewhat bad experience during my entire career and that wasn’t with Elmer Batters. And the consequence of that “somewhat bad” experience was that the photographer didn’t get many usable photos. Batters got a lot of usable photos.

  7. Thanks for another informative blog. The place else could I am getting that type
    of information written in such an ideal way? I’ve a venture that I am simply now running on, and I have been at the glance out for such information.

  8. […] There are a number of Donna Cole photos floating around the internet.   Donna Cole was the name attached to them, but they were photos of me, taken by Elmer Batters on the second occasion I worked with him (see “Nude in Black and Blonde” published in onmemories). […]

  9. […] a blonde wig – the session is described here); and (5) Elmer Batters (the session is described here). While modelling as a brunette I never cut my bangs and so, with each new assignment, they […]

  10. […] a blonde wig – the session is described here); and (5) Elmer Batters (the session is described here). While modelling as a brunette I never cut my bangs and so, with each new assignment, they […]

  11. Thank you for this great piece of writing, Shannon. I never even met Elmer, and for some strange reason I associated him with the East Coast end of the business. But in one respect your experience brings back memories of every male photographer in the business–They all had at least one “theory” of their business, and they clung to that theory regardless of all evidence to the contrary. I had more contact with editors, mostly Larry Shaw. They were looking for pictures they thought would sell their product, usually magazines. Editors did not have grand theories. But your observation that everyone in the business believed that changing hair color made a “new” model is spot-on. And thank you for mentioning dating the lawyer…


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