Relationships & Divorce
Relationships & Divorce
Modeling My Mother
In recreating my mother's most famous magazine shoots, I opened the door on memories that would soon be forgotten.
Mom and I sit in stylist chairs. Mom is her 86-year-old self, in a straightforward gray turtleneck, wearing her signature red lipstick.
Today, I am also Mom — the fashion-model version of her from 1956, with a leopard Juliette cap perched on my crown, wearing a pinch-waist yellow jacket and the same red lipstick.
The idea for the photo shoot began with a simple question:
Do I really look like my mother?
I got a lot of opinions on the project. The most common: I was an irredeemable narcissist. My mother was an internationally famous fashion model. Comparing myself to her seemed, at the very least, lacking in humility.
But I wasn’t the one who started it.
Wow! You really look like your mother. If I had heard it once, I’d heard it a thousand times. From the lady in the dry cleaner, my third-grade teacher, aunts, uncles, meter readers. In recent years, when Mom’s pictures started popping up online pinned on dozens of Pinterest boards, the comparisons rekindled.
The purported resemblance between us was a decades-long part of my personal story. I figured I had a right to road test the concept, staging Mom’s covers with me in them.
You might ask — why was Mom herself at the photo shoot? If the project’s goal was to see how close I could come to replicating her covers, Mom’s presence was not strictly necessary.
Something told me she just had to be there. For one thing, she was an authority on the original images. Also, my mom — like all moms — represents a possible future me. It felt important to capture her now, as she is today.
And to be perfectly honest, I was a little curious about whether she still had the magic.
I felt an urgency to execute my project. Mom was losing her memory.
I was on my own with the crew for the grueling first half of the day.
My shots took hours, giving me a new appreciation of my mother’s career. I’d always looked at Mom’s covers and thought, “What a glamorous profession!” Who wouldn’t want to get dolled up and have their picture taken?
Then I actually had to do it.
Anyone who’s ever gone through wedding photos knows an attractive pose for a photograph is usually the most unnatural and backbreaking stance. I had to freeze in position, wearing heels, and a corset (we were replicating the 1950s after all), while the assistants adjusted a finger, a curl, a light setting.
When Mom arrived on set at noon, I collapsed into a chair, leopard hat still a-clinging. The stylists swarmed Mom, dusting powder on her face, touching up her hair.
My family was, just then, in the denial stage of Mom’s memory loss — noticing it, not talking about it, and pretending it would go away. It was the horror of the idea, that Mom’s acute mind was in its final act.
So, I was glad Mom seemed on her game. Glad she bustled in with outfits, energetic and ready to go. Glad to have her next to me, surveying me with a professional eye, almost like a colleague.
Actually, exactly like a colleague.
Mom leaned over to me and asked, “Do you remember the time when we were in Venice with King Farouk at the bar?”
The reference was lost on the two Gen-Z assistants. King Farouk? If they thought anything, they might have landed on a modern-day minor Saudi prince, who, for unknown reasons, frequented a bar in Venice with me and Mom.
I’m a decent history buff, so I knew the basics, later filling in gaps online.
King Farouk was the last king of Egypt, deposed in 1952.
His actual title was His Majesty Farouk I, by the grace of God, King of Egypt and the Sudan, Sovereign of Nubia, of Kordofan and of Darfur.
But who’s counting?
At 32, Farouk signed his abdication at gunpoint. He left Alexandria in his royal yacht, while a full orchestra played him off. In the hold of the boat rested dozens of crates labeled Champagne, but were rumored to contain gold bars.
Mom looked at me, waiting for a reaction. Did I remember the time in Venice with King Farouk at the bar?
“Oh, yes,” I said. “What a night!”
I must have given an appropriate response, because Mom smiled conspiratorially and gestured with her head to where my dad was standing watching the photographer adjust lights.
It was as if Mom had taken my hand, and together we walked through a door labeled Venice, 1956.
If I had any question about the durability of Mom’s talent, the answer was quickly obvious. While it required hours and dozens of prompts to coax expressions from me, Mom accessed her gift as if she were flipping a switch.
The photographer uttered nothing other than, “Perfect, right. Yes. That.” In 15 minutes, Mom’s first set of pictures was done.
Yes. She still had the magic.
I watched Mom work, Farouk on my mind.
It was obvious that he sought Mom out. Divorced in 1954, Farouk was dubbed the “king of the night” because he frequented nightclubs in Rome — and, we now know, bars in Venice — in search of models and starlets.
Mom would have been at the head of that pack. She was Eileen Ford’s top model, on the cover of everything, auditioning in Hollywood, one of the most beautiful women of her generation.
Farouk was not simply a playboy. As later events revealed, in 1956 he was on the lookout for a long-term companion. Mom could have had him as a husband. He would have been a good choice.
I was reminded of The World According to Garp. In Garp, a plane flies into a house and Garp says, “We’ll take it! It’s been pre-disastered. We’ll be safe here.”
Farouk was the embodiment of pre-disastered.
His disastrous lineup included:
- Losing the Sinai to Israel.
- Surrendering a 150-year-old dynasty.
- Accepting a wedding gift from Adolf Hitler, a Mercedes 540K.
All his bad things had already happened to him. (And you had to consider the gold bars.)
But people want to create their own, new problems. Mom married her version of royalty, my dad, an American-style prince and playboy. Their disasters — my dad’s drinking, financial trouble, dad’s cancer, now Mom’s memory loss — were all ahead of them.
As for Farouk? Just a few months after he met Mom at the bar, he settled down in Rome with an Italian opera singer. He dropped dead in 1965 at only 45 years old. People gossiped he was poisoned. The opera singer lived as long as Mom.
No one could ever say what happened to the gold bars.
I changed into a T-shirt for my next round, my hair and makeup more natural because I was attempting a headshot, Mom’s most famous cover, the Vogue photograph taken by Irving Penn.
Mom saw me exit the changing area.
“Anna! When did you get here?”
And just like that we were on the other side of the door.
I took the opportunity offered by Mom’s momentary clarity. Would she be willing to pose for something we hadn’t planned, but which, today, seemed absolutely necessary? Would she also recreate the Vogue cover?
Mom looked at me as if I might be simple-minded. “Of course.” She said. “I’m here to work.”
Through the incredible bride series and for the rest of the afternoon, Mom continually conflated past and present, zipping over to the 50s, fast forwarding to the recent present, and suddenly rewinding six decades.
In the end, I got what I came for. Some shots of me are uncannily like Mom. Some aren’t. Some are just a fun exercise.
The day itself became a meditation on time, on age, on self as mother and mother as self. It reinforced that having a mother is a lifelong journey toward sameness, or separation, or both.
I physically became my mother. I traveled to her past, met Mom as a remembered model friend, and understood her in a new way. I also served as a kind of time-machine mirror, standing next to my mother as her 25-year-old self in 1950s garb, while she appeared as herself at 86, in clothes of Y2K, her arm hooked in mine.
And Mom’s memory loss operated as the conductor’s baton, directing the whole beautiful tumult.
Today, a few years later, I realized I captured Mom at practically the last moment it was possible to do so. The following summer she had a stroke, and has been housebound ever since. When she sees pictures of herself, she says, “I look like just a grandmother.”
Dad is with her every day and they’ll be celebrating their 60th anniversary in July. Watching her now, I’ve concluded she has no regrets about her choices — gold bars or no. While we travel through the time-door often, Mom has never again mentioned King Farouk.
Anna P. Murray is the author of Greedy Heart, a fictional tale about inheritance, attraction, greed, infidelity, hoarding, and morality during the financial crash. Murray began her career as a teacher and journalist before founding an early stage web company, tmg-emedia, which built many national brands’ first websites.