I did my first nude photo shoot a month after I turned 18 and aged out of the foster care system. I circled an intriguing ad in the back of a free weekly paper: Nude model wanted. I called. I didn’t consider that it could be dangerous, nor did I tell anyone where I was going.
“Would you like to undress here or in the bathroom?” I don’t remember what the photographer looked like. I only remember the canvases propped against the walls of his sparsely furnished house. Nude women with abstract faces posed against the muted backdrop of his furniture.
“The bathroom, I guess,” I said, looking at the floor. That soon out of foster care, adults were authority figures. I had no agency against them. The photographer pointed down the hall.
“There’s a robe on the back of the door.”
I undressed on autopilot and came out of the bathroom wearing his oversized robe. I took it off and folded it over a chair. He asked me to mimic the poses in the paintings. I sat on the couch. I leaned against the wall. I wasn’t afraid. Mostly, I wanted to do a good job. He said I was pretty. I wondered if he liked me.
Two hours later, he folded cash into my palm as I walked out the door. I waited until I got into the car to look. It was $50, more money than I’d ever had at once. Elation bloomed beneath my sternum. I might have squealed involuntarily. I had been working part time at a dry cleaner and earned minimum wage. I put in my two weeks’ notice the following week.
I spent my teens in foster care as an escape from domestic violence. When I aged out of the system, my aspirations included becoming a writer, which I was aware of, and being loved, which I wasn’t. I combed the ads for new modeling gigs every week. Then I’d arrive at another stranger’s house or hotel room. I would take my clothes off, smile or pout for a few hours, and leave with cash.
I basked in the attention, seeing myself as a sexual being with power for the first time. In foster care, I wasn’t allowed to date. However, as a model, men paid me for little more than looking into their lens and saying yes with my eyes. There were few “casting couch” incidents and fewer predators. As naive as I was, I somehow knew which ads not to call.
“I sent your photo to Easyriders Magazine,” another photographer said, referring to the motorcycle culture magazine that featured babes along with bikes. “Their monthly centerfold contest.”
I was in my 20s, gorgeous and nude save for a pair of sky-high heels. I reclined on a chaise lounge in his basement. He pressed the shutter. I shifted my hips and reframed my face into the open-lipped pout you get when you utter the word oh.
“You won,” he said. He pressed the shutter again, capturing my only genuine smile of the afternoon.
“Oh, my God, what does this mean?” I didn’t let him answer. “A centerfold — I never thought — oh wow, I mean — wow, this is huge!”
Amateur modeling was my primary source of income. I was scraping by, but it was better than the drudgery of minimum wage jobs I was qualified for. The centerfold was an impossible dream come to life for a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. I knew I was a statistic before I knew what the word meant. A centerfold was glamorous and important, two things I believed would somehow transform me.
The other nude models I knew aspired to be in adult magazines. A centerfold was the apex of our careers, not only for the achievement itself but for everything it could lead to. I envisioned myself in magazines. Dare I dream of Playboy next?
I left the shoot with the magazine photo editor’s email address. Driving home, I practiced what I’d write. “I’m emailing about the centerfold you picked me for.” I spoke the words aloud with the radio off. The centerfold you picked me for.
Everyone I knew took their clothes off for money in some capacity; models I had posed with and strippers I knew from the cocktail waitress shifts I picked up when shoots were slow. That was more often than I admitted to myself. Spending time in foster care and then posing nude was a demarcation line separating me from those who held steady jobs and knew nothing about being nude in front of strangers.
The centerfold was going to change things. I was on top of a beautiful mountain while the other women around me were still clawing their way up.
Easyriders flew me cross-country to pose with a shining blue-and-chrome bike. The shoot was two months before my summer issue would be released. I wore a thong that matched the motorcycle’s trim. I wore a cheap wig. The makeup artist gave me pinkeye, but I wouldn’t find that out until I got home.
Modeling was usually slow in the summer. I opted for a waitressing gig at a new, upscale restaurant instead of my usual strip club. The position was temporary, just until shoots picked up again in the fall. The centerfold gave me enough confidence to believe I could earn money without taking my clothes off.
I lied on my application, aced the interview, and got the job. The clientele reminded me of the well-heeled do-gooders who would arrive in luxury cars and donate large sums of money to my last group home. My co-workers were attractive with perfect teeth and impeccable uniforms, always at ease with their tables. They embodied everything I was not.
I played the part well, mimicking the other waitresses with their tasteful makeup, low ponytails, and diamond stud earrings. Mine were CZ, too large and sparkly. I struggled with the table settings and the wine list, but not enough for anyone to notice; it was a convincing masquerade.
The job was difficult. I smelled like food when I got home. My feet hurt at the end of each shift, but not in the same way standing in heels did. However, I liked keeping my clothes on and being accepted by co-workers who had no reason to question how I had grown up or what other jobs I’d had.
“My Easyriders centerfold just came out. They have it at Barnes & Noble.” I was inside a restroom stall on a break between tables, speaking to a photographer on my phone. It was afternoon, well before the dinner rush. I picked at a dried drop of red sauce on the leg of my pants. Then someone came out of a stall.
I felt my stomach drop; I had thought I was alone. I flushed the toilet for effect and cut the conversation short, praying that it had been a customer. I stepped out of the stall after I heard the bathroom door open and close. My hands shook.
“Nobody will know it was me,” I whispered to the now-empty restroom, then walked out.
A co-worker leaned against the wall. She was gregarious but I always sensed I wasn’t her favorite. She made eye contact without speaking as I passed. I looked at the floor, then momentarily forgot the incident as I occupied myself with a new four-top in my section.
The shift was slow. A little while later, most of the other servers were gathered around a table in the empty party room, and I wandered over to join them. My ears pricked up at the comment, “I’d never do that to myself.” I wanted to know the gossip and edged toward the group. Someone’s diamond earring glinted in the dim lighting. I heard the words, “You can tell she’s a slut,” when I was close enough to see what they were looking at.
My centerfold lay open on the white tablecloth, silverware pushed to the side. It seemed impossible until I remembered that Barnes & Noble was two doors down from the restaurant. I turned around to walk away. Laughter erupted at my back. I don’t know if they saw me or if someone told a joke at my expense.
I hung my apron on a hook near the manager’s office, signed credit card slips peeking out of the server book in the pocket. I wasn’t sure if what I was feeling was shame or rage. I left through the back door without telling anyone.
The centerfold hadn’t transformed me. I wasn’t on top. Instead, it was a grand gesture of debasement, something to be ridiculed while I was trying to blend in. I’d picked up shifts for my co-workers. We complained about our tables together and discussed big tips or getting stiffed. I thought I pulled it off, but I wasn’t one of them, and I knew I would never be.
I wondered if they recognized something less than in me that I hadn’t seen in myself. I saw it then; trying to straddle two worlds made it devastatingly clear that I only fit into one of them.
Back in my world, I rode the centerfold wave. There were magazine covers, magazine spreads, and video box covers. It was easier to book shoots in the fall and winter after my centerfold was released. However, even at my busiest, I was still scraping by.
I posed for photos at events and smiled for tips. Men pulled me close to them, tucking my petite frame into their armpits. In this way, a bubble formed to protect me from being judged ever again.
I turned 30. Nude modeling is a young woman’s game that gets harder to play the older you get. So I went back to school, graduated with a BA in management, and transitioned to a corporate career. The only person I kept in touch with was the photographer who owned the studio where I often shot in the year before I quit modeling.
I had always felt accepted by my peers as a model. However, I knew it was something to hide in the corporate world. I kept my head down and blended in, diligent about preventing another centerfold incident.
But I was no longer scraping by and bought diamond earrings for myself. Real, this time.
When things got stressful at work, I missed the freedom modeling afforded me. However, I valued the steady paycheck and the benefits enough that I rarely longed to be back in front of the camera.
Sometimes I reached out to the studio owner when I wanted to let my guard down. We developed a friendship that turned into a relationship, and we got married a few years into my corporate career. He’s the only one who has known me as both “the model” and “the office worker.”
The shame I remembered from the centerfold incident kept me from even hinting at the kind of life I’d led; I knew what was at stake if someone found out. I wasn’t too concerned about being discovered because I’d always used a stage name and I purposely kept my face makeup-free and my wardrobe boring so that I could blend in. There was no way I’d jeopardize my new life on purpose.
A few years ago, I was downsized from that corporate job. I wasn’t worried. I’d made what began as a newspaper ad into a career. Then I’d gotten a BA and turned it into another career. I knew the ropes and I could do it again.
I took over as studio director, an easy decision for my husband and me to make as a couple. I handle almost every aspect of the business — admin and bookkeeping, client relationships, community outreach, teaching studio lighting, and managing our model program where we promote local and traveling models.
At this stage in my life, I’ve come full circle. I’m accepted in this business. It’s the only place I’ve felt like I could be myself, and my achievements are no longer something to hide.
I see myself in many of the models who come into my studio. They’re young enough to be my daughters, promoting themselves on Instagram and OnlyFans in the same way I used internet forums and back-page newspaper ads. There are few places aside from my studio where I can say, “I had a centerfold,” and know the other person will understand what it meant to me all those years ago.
I was a girl from foster care, a young woman who tried and failed to fit in. I’ve remade my life multiple times, and my life today is another iteration of that reinvention. I no longer care to convince anyone that I’m doing it right.