A French model's best-seller reveals fashion's secret dark side
When Victoire Dauxerre was 17, she was an ambitious high school student in France preparing for final exams and hoping to gain admission to an elite university. But one afternoon while out shopping with her mother on the streets of Paris, the tall and exceptionally attractive teen was spotted by a model scout. He told her she could be "the next Claudia Schiffer." And with that, her dreams of an elite university suddenly took a backseat.
Instead, she found herself at the offices of the Elite model agency in Barcelona. She had no idea that what seemed like the entrance to a dream world of glamorous photo shoots and fashion shows in exotic locations was to be more akin to a personal descent into the depths of hell.
Young Victoire was eager to impress and picked up on signals quickly. At her first meeting at Elite, after receiving a critique of her walking, her measurements were taken: 34-25-36. Her weight: 126 pounds. Pretty much ideal, if not a little on the thin side for someone 5'10". But actually, not ideal enough — as she would soon learn — to walk the catwalks at New York's upcoming Fashion Week, which was to be her first assignment. "OK, we'll lie," the agent allegedly told her, "Because you are never going to get into the clothes." Luckily, she had time — eight weeks — to lose the necessary inches and pounds.
So, ever the hard worker, Victoire deliberately starved herself, losing 22 pounds. Her new diet? Three apples a day and diet soda (the bubbles helped her feel full). She allowed herself a piece of chicken or fish once a week.
Her strategy proved "successful." She was booked not only for New York Fashion Week but for back-to-back haute couture shows in Paris and Milan as well. She worked for first-class designers and labels such as Alexander McQueen and Miu Miu and soon joined the ranks of the 20 most in-demand models.
Over the next eight months, Victoire continued to appear in shows for the most exclusive design houses. But behind the glamorous facade lay a painful truth. Victoire was suffering from anorexia. The thinner she got, the more self-critical she became, convincing herself that she had to lose further weight. Soon her starvation diet was not enough. She then turned to laxatives and experimented with bulimia.
The most confusing part of the whole situation? All of her pictures were manipulated so that her face wouldn't appear so gaunt and to hide the bones in her sternum. "So that’s how it works," she observed. "We lose kilo upon kilo so that they choose us, only for them to put it all back on as they see fit." The industry knew how to avoid criticism. If fashion journalists were to be backstage at a show, a spread of snacks was laid out for the models, who were of course pros at showing a happy face when the cameras were focused on them. But when the coast was clear, many girls would force themselves to vomit.
"The girls on the runway now would probably say that I'm lying," Victoire said. "If they want to keep working, they can't say anything. There's a real code of silence in the industry."
Finding her life degrading and meaningless, Victoire felt she had lost herself. She was alone and depressed. After eight months of modelling in which she had earned over $100,000, she decided she'd had enough and abruptly quit her modelling career. "No one understood," she recalled. "Everybody was telling me I had a dream life, but I had never been so miserable."
After returning home, Victoire went through a period of binging, regaining all the weight she had lost and then some, reaching a healthy 140 pounds. But the psychological battle wasn't over. Distraught about her weight gain, one afternoon she collected all the pills she had stashed around the house and swallowed them. Luckily, her 12-year-old brother found her and she survived.
In 2016, Victoire decided to publish a book about her experiences in the modelling industry, her ongoing struggles with body image, and the health problems brought about by her eating disorder. The book became a best-seller in France shortly after her testimony before a government panel led to a law banning the use of ultra-thin models in French runway shows.
The book's English version, Size Zero: My Life as a Disappearing Model, is due to be published next week.
In it, she reveals her experiences with the pressures to be thin, and the famous designers who she feels dehumanize the women they work with, treating them like coat hangers.
"You can’t talk; you are not talked to. You don’t have a first name any more; you are a nationality and an age. You are like a piece of fish at a market." She recounted a backstage incident where she was naked apart from a flesh-colored thong, being examined by middle-aged men. "It was weird. I had never even had sex. The first time I showed my body it was literally to everybody. They wanted you to be sexy on the catwalk but at the same time they wanted you to have the body of a girl. It was so f***ed up."
Regulations banning the use of too thin models have been passed in some countries, but others — such as the United States — are lagging behind. Many of these laws require a physician's statement to attest to the model's health.
"A doctor would have detected my weak pulse rate," Victoire said. "He would have noticed that I was losing my hair, that I had osteoporosis, that I no longer had my period."
Today Victoire is 24, a healthy US size 6, and says she no longer owns a scale. For the past six months she has had no anorexic relapses. She is living in London and hopes to pursue an acting career. Looking back on her time in the fashion world and anticipating the release of her book in the US, she hopes she can help other young models see the realities they are signing up for.
"It’s the book I wish I’d read before signing my modelling contract, because you have no idea what it is really like on the inside."