Catwalk Confidential, Part 1: Robyn Peterson on Modeling and '70s Fashion

It's easy to mock the world of professional modeling from behind the comfort of our laptop screens and the forgiving waistbands of PajamaJeans. (Pass that bag of Late Night All Nighter Cheeseburger Doritos, please.) But every day, professional clothes hangers, we mean models, must face grueling denial, physical fatigue, and a series of existential conundrums. For instance, are they really wanted only when they're 17 or younger? What happens if they are, in fact, too sexy for their shirts?

Robyn Peterson aims to answer many of these burning questions from the model's point of view in her one-woman production, Catwalk Confidential, which opens this Thursday at the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater. A Miami native, Peterson was swept into the world of Paris modeling in the early '70s, at the tender age of 16.

She quickly became a top model in the era before supermodels, when the industry was even looser and more grueling. What's it like to be made to feel ancient by age 20? With its constant hand-wringing over age, this cautionary comedy might have you dropping the Doritos and reaching for the Retinol eye cream, stat. 

Expect scandalous tidbits about photographers such as Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, and designers such as Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint-Laurent. Though there's no dress code for the performance, we suggest that, no matter how comforting, you leave the Crocs and Snuggie at home. 

Cultist recently spoke with Peterson, who now splits her time between Massachusetts and Los Angeles, about her modeling career and the play's genesis. The Q&A was as juicy as she promises the play is, so we've handily broken it up into two parts. In the first part, she talks Valentino in Miami, the importance of the Sears catalog, and booking her first job in Paris -- for Italian Vogue, no less!

Cultist: When you were growing up in Miami, how did you first get discovered as a model?

Robyn Peterson: When I was about 14 or 15, my mother sent me in to return a dress to a store called Martha's. It used to be in the Bal Harbour shopping center, and Valentino was in there getting ready to do a fashion show. My mother said to Martha, "If you don't get my daughter into the fashion show, I'll never buy another dress here!"

And that's kind of how it started. From there, I went to New York City. My sister went to New York first; she won a modeling contest for Miss Teenage America. I went up with her, but she decided she hated it, and left and went back to school. I stayed, and from there I ended up going to Paris and staying there on and off for about 10 years.

Had you been interested in modeling at all before that first show at Bal Harbour?

Absolutely not. My mother just thought it was a fun thing, and she was horrified when I actually became a model. This is not anything she wanted. She really wanted me to become a nurse or a teacher, or all the things you did back in the '50s and '60s. 

Did you get to meet Valentino then?

Oh yeah, sure. He was there and I worked with him, and I worked with him after that. In my show, first of all, I have a whole piece about my first fashion show in Paris, which was for Karl Lagerfeld, who now does Chanel. In those days, he did Chloé. 

I have all the fashion photographs from then, from all the big names like Helmut Newton and Alice Springs and Guy Bourdin. The backdrop of the show is all vintage photographs. It's really a peek into this hidden world of fashion and haute couture that was happening in Paris in the '70s. 

When all the American girls came over -- well not just American, there were English and Swedish -- we brought a whole different sense of street fashion to Paris. In those days, the designers would make a collection, and if you could afford one of those dresses, your body was then molded with whalebone and corsets to fit into the look they wanted you to be in. And we arrived with no bras and jeans and headbands, and Marvin Gaye singing in the streets! 

I remember asking Yves Saint-Laurent, "What is the one thing you wish you had designed?" He said jeans! Because everybody wears them. And this was a time when everybody was very unique. Now we all buy our T-shirts 10 for $5 in a pack from China. We don't have that same kind of fashion style any more; I don't think people have time for it any more. 

That whole lifestyle back then was a lifestyle on loan, really. You were able to live with these great photographers and do these great things for a very short period of time.

That hasn't really changed in the fashion industry, though.

Well I think it's even quicker now! I managed to stay in the industry for about 10 years. I think it's an even quicker life span now. The girls start at 14 nowadays, and they're by themselves. Although I lived in a pension across from the agency, and it was filled with models, and all of us were teenagers. 

But now the business is so many more media outlets than when I was doing it. When I was doing it, there were just magazines and newspapers and commercials. Now you've got all this online stuff, and it's such a voracious appetite this business has, and the girls come in and out very quickly.

Do you think it's positive that there are more media outlets now, or do you think it creates a disposable attitude about everything?

I guess it does make it more disposable, because like I said, it's a very voracious appetite. I did a show in Los Angeles about a week ago at the Agenda Loft, which is a fashion loft. The next morning, the photographs and the press on the show went out to 30 million people online. That's pretty stunning! Usually you get a review, and whoever buys the paper sees it. But they have to fill that web site again the next morning with stuff. So yeah, I think it is a hungrier business than it was then.

When you first got started, had you been interested in high fashion at all?

No, absolutely not. I mean, I always liked clothes. My mother was into clothes. One of my thrills was the first time I went to the Arsht Center, because they saw my show at t the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. So I hadn't even ever been there, because I hadn't thought to bring my show there, and I went down there to see them. 

When I was a kid -- you're probably too young to remember this -- was when the Sears & Roebuck catalog would show up, and you could buy clothes there. So you'd fold over the page of what you wanted, and we had an allowance and we could afford one or two things in the catalog. It was a big, big deal. 

Then I went down to the Arsht Center and there is the Sears Tower! I feel like I'm full circle. That's where I bought my first pair of flats, the Sears Tower. And here I am now bringing this play, where the whole fist third of it takes place in Miami Beach, here to Miami again! It's a whole full circle Sears thing!

The first third of the show takes place in Miami, so how far back into your own personal history do you go before you get into the meat of the modeling part of it?

The meat of the show starts very quickly. The show is very fast-paced. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When I first wrote the show, I wrote it for eight characters. I was in two new works festivals at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles,  and they suggested I make it a one-person show because as a first-time playwright, you can't get eight characters up onstage. It's too expensive. 

So I made it all into a one-person show, and combined a lot of different aspects from different characters. With the Miami piece, I tried to get that innocence and naivete and that energetic desire to have a job and work that young girls have. 

What happens when you make decisions early in your life, when they stay with you forever? It's also a piece about aging, in a business that has no tolerance for aging. They've only allowed a couple of women to get older -- Lauren Hutton can be older, but there aren't many of them.

You went to Paris at 16. When did you start feeling the pressure about age?

Right away. I was told to lie from the moment I started modeling. I was told pretty much that they were looking for 14- to 15-year-olds. You'd say, "Okay, fine." They'd say, "How old are you?" And you'd say 14. 

I remember going to one appointment in New York, and there was a whole group of girls sitting there. We all wanted to work, and we all wanted to make money; we didn't make money in those days like the girls do now. It was a much different pay scale back then. 

But I remember saying to one of my friends who was just walking out, "How did it go?" And she said, "Say you're an Aries." This photographer only wanted to work with an Aries! So every gal I knew, when I was leaving, I'd say, "Say you're an Aries!" I think everyone who went in there was an Aries!

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Arielle Castillo
Contact: Arielle Castillo