clock menu more-arrow no yes
Ahron R. Foster

My mom was a world-famous model. It took me decades to finally feel beautiful.

The comparisons began in my baby carriage. Confronted by my big brown eyes peeking out from under a bonnet, people turned to Mom and said, "She looks just like you!"

From those days until now, anyone who met us together has said the same thing.

There was a catch. My mother is the former Patsy Shally, a world-famous model who graced the covers of Vogue and Glamour in the 1950s. I, on the other hand, was never considered beautiful by my peers. Sweet? Okay. Knockout? Definitely not.

It was all in the timing.

I turned 13 in 1979. Beauty then was tan, blonde, big boobs, boyish hips, and looking great in a bathing suit. Beauty was Christie Brinkley and Farrah Fawcett.

Yes, I visited a modeling agency in my teens. No dice.

I decided to finally execute the idea I'd toyed with for years: I would recreate my mother's magazine covers with me as the model

Mom, from her great-beauty perch, dismissed the trends. Brinkley and Fawcett were "strictly underwear model material." A real model's job was to look good in clothes, not out of them.

Fair point. But that line of reasoning didn't influence high school boys. The worst part: I had a baby face and looked five years younger than I was. People called me "cute." Any woman of my generation will tell you "cute" is a curse word.

Then, in my 30s, I was getting my hair done. A woman a few chairs away kept glancing at me.

"She's beautiful. Is she famous?"

I was finally coming into my mother's looks. Over the decades, the world mellowed its stringent blonde stance. As I passed the 40 mark, the baby face, my cross to bear for years, became an asset.

And as I approached 50, I decided to finally execute the idea I'd toyed with for years: to step into my mother's shoes and test the match. I would recreate my mother's magazine covers with me as the model.

Here are two of the covers I wanted to recreate:

The original covers.

Mom's participation was key. She was, after all, the original model and the point of reference. Everyone would want to see Mom now, as she is today. She's still gorgeous.

Just as I had my motives, Mom had hers. When she explained the importance of the concept, Mom would say, "It's about aging. We shouldn't be invisible. We matter."

If it was ever going to happen, it had to be soon. Time was running out. Mid-2015, an alarm went off in my head. How many years had I left to resemble Mom in her youth? As for Mom, how many years had she left at all?

The planning was massive. A team was required: photographers, a stylist, hair and makeup people, the studio and lighting equipment. I combed Etsy and costumes shops for exact matches to clothes on 60-year-old magazine pages. I found a leopard-skin headdress; I read corset reviews and bought one; I consulted with a florist on a species of pink rose; I bird-dogged an elusive yellow jacket. I made a hat.

Then it was showtime. The project years in thought and months in the making was finally happening.

We faced dozens of obstacles.

I was 5 inches shorter and 10 pounds heavier than my mother at the height of her career. Also 25 years older.

The weave of the tulle required for a Vogue replica was too dense. The roses drooped after being exposed to the cold January air. The lights blew when the hairstylist put on the hair dryer. My skin was dry, and the foundation was caking. The yellow jacket I needed for a Glamour facsimile was so popular that I had to order it three times from Belk as successive sizes went out of stock. We were going to have to make do with a sloppy 10.

Those were just the little things. As for the bigger ones:

We were trying to restage million-dollar cover shots in a raw rehearsal space in the Atlantic Theater Company with a photographer I knew because he was my hairdresser's son. As for the model in question? I was 5 inches shorter and 10 pounds heavier than my mother at the height of her career.

Also 25 years older.

Yet there was one huge factor in our favor: People still said, as they had for as long as I could remember, I was a dead ringer for Mom. Would that be enough?

Behind the scenes at the shoot. (Ahron R. Foster)

"What does it feel like? Your looks. I mean, getting old?"

I was uncomfortable asking.

Mom considered.

"I have big eyes, high cheekbones, narrow waist. I'm thin with great hips, great hair, and great shoulders." She shrugged.

She didn't elaborate. But I got what she meant: You won't always be young. But you'll always be beautiful.

The idea shook me with its importance. I wished I could transmit it to the millions of pretty women Botoxing and nip-tucking their way through middle age. If the essential assets are in place, there's no need to fuss.

The next thing that hit me: What if you're not beautiful?

Ugly. That's the name of a memoir by Robert Hoge, who was born so deformed that his mother initially refused to take him home from the hospital. Even after dozens of surgeries he is still the average person's idea of ugly. I turned to his book for answers.

"Our faces are our passports," he wrote. "Our faces let us look out and know others and let them know us. They do not do so without bias. My face was my passport, just like it was everyone else's. It was also my express ticket into the ugly club."

Society's reaction, though a big factor, is still only one ingredient in the recipe for any person feeling beautiful. We all know plenty of objectively beautiful people who look in the mirror and see "ugly."

My mother's lesson: The best thing you can do is to acknowledge the truth of your body and deal with it

The concepts of beauty and worth were literally connected for Mom.

She got her start in 1944, when she was 13. Her father was a laborer, and the family of eight lived on East 65th Street, back when it was a hive of tenements. As luck would have it, there was a modeling agency in a townhouse across the street. Mom went with some girls and was taken up to the building's roof for test shots.

Her rise was quick. She modeled after school for catalogs like Sears. By the time she was 17, she'd dropped out of high school and was working for Harry Conover, the top modeling agent of the '40s and '50s. The money was just too good. She helped buy her mother an apartment in Queens, sent her brothers to college and her sisters to Katharine Gibbs.

Mom understood the value of her beauty, probably down to the penny. It pulled her out of Irish-immigrant poverty, into a contract with Eileen Ford, onto magazine covers, and out for screen tests. Mom's face was so ubiquitous that her pictures still pop up today. She appeared in last May's issue of Vanity Fair, in a feature on Eileen Ford.

Mom ran in glittering circles, where she met and married my father, of the Southampton Murrays. Famous for their hundred-acre beachfront estates and marriages to Vanderbilts and Fords, they were known as the "golden clan."

Mom's career ensured her own children would go to college.

The author's mother at a photo shoot overlooking Venice's Piazza San Marco in 1952. (Courtesy of Patsy Shally)

Mom telegraphed her pragmatic principles of beauty to her girls. Don't say you're a size 6 when you're really a size 8. You're not fooling anyone. If you're a brunette, be a brunette. If the skirt looks better with a girdle, then wear it.

I learned from Mom's clear-eyed assessment of me that I have long legs but a short waist. I have a classically beautiful face but will never pull off clothes like my broad-shouldered sister. On my small frame ("from your father's side"), five extra pounds will "show like nobody's business."

Mom didn't mean any of it as criticism. She meant it as fact. Her lesson: Know what you have and make the most of it. Hurt feelings only get in the way. The best thing you can do is to acknowledge the truth of your body and deal with it. Beauty for Mom was almost disembodied, like a vase or a piece of furniture — an object to be positioned for best advantage.

While Mom believed you should always try to look your best, there was a limit to what she would tolerate in terms of primping, hairstyling, and makeup-ing, as well as money spent on clothes. Her attitude clearly implied, "Enough with the drama and nonsense! It's not as if you have to be pretty to eat."

The result of Mom's steely-eyed approach has been one of her greatest gifts to me. Despite babyish teen years, acne-plagued adulthood, thinness and chubbiness, slurs by mean girlfriends, boyfriends, and ex-husbands, I have never, for a moment, not felt beautiful. Instead, I felt in control — of what I put on my body, my face, and, most importantly, into my own head.

The author as a girl.

Mom and Dad arrived on set as we were working on recreating the Glamour cover.

A leopard hat clung to my head with hairpins, and my lips had bright red lipstick on them. Binder clips ridged the back and sides of my yellow jacket.

Mom looked me up and down with the coldness of a stranger. Wow. She was mad. All the hassle I was putting them through had finally gotten too much. She was sorry she'd ever said yes to this. Then her expression changed.

"Oh, my God! That's Anna." She wasn't mad — she hadn't recognized me.

Ahron, the photographer, gestured with his head. The hairstylist and makeup artist helicoptered around Mom, brimming with questions. Here she was, in the flesh: the woman whose image they'd been studying for weeks.

I resumed my pose, a shoulder-arching, lumbar-torquing backbend Mom once made look easy. The stylist tugged shoulder pads and pincered clips. We'd already been at this single shot for nearly an hour. It was the most difficult image, and the most striking. Ahron wanted to tackle it while everyone was fresh. My left leg quivered with muscle strain.

I turn 50 this summer. My looks are about to change. How will I feel about the loss? What will replace it?

"What do you think?" Ahron asked Mom. "You're the expert."

Mom smiled and crossed her arms. Looks like we're done, I thought. I shook out my legs and stretched my back.

"You know, Diane Arbus did that original photograph," Mom said.

Though her short-term memory is starting to fade, Mom's long-term memory is like a maximum-security prison.

Ahron's eyebrows shot up. "I don't think our shoulder position was quite right," he said.

After another 20 minutes, I stepped off the white paper.

Back aching, I downed a couple of Advil with a taste of water. Too little water would give me a stomachache. But my corset precluded all food and most bending motion, including sitting on a toilet.

A few more notes on the corset:

  • The garment was required to emulate Mom's 18-inch waist. I only achieved 23.
  • The corset was not cheating. Mom wore one in all her work.
  • The ubiquitous fainting in Victorian novels was not dramatic license but rather an accurate depiction of life. I felt lightheaded after a brisk walk across the room.
  • Putting on a corset is a two-person job. Minimum.

I resumed the stool for my next style while Mom took the set.

(Ahron R. Foster)

The most stirring shot of the day came when we recreated Mom's Vogue cover: a weddings issue that features her in a crown of roses.

It was a big ask — requesting that a dignified 85-year-old woman don a bridal crown and strip down to her slip. "Is that okay with you?"

"Sure." Mom's lightly perplexed expression said, I'm a model. I'm here to work.

Experiencing Mom in this identity was new to me. She retired right after she was married, so I never knew her modeling side. "She was obviously a professional," Ahron said. "Taking direction perfectly, she moved from pose to pose effortlessly and had not one complaint about any of my requests."

I think Mom also sensed the Vogue shot served her purpose about older people not being invisible. About beauty and aging.

In the original Irving Penn Vogue cover, Mom's beauty is so intense it's a stab of pain.

Next, there's my version. I'm clearly my mother's daughter, but not the same. Finally appears the ghostly image of my white-haired mother wreathed in roses and shrouded with tulle.

How better to tell the story of woman than as a bride, her starring role through most of history? All fairy tales lead up to this moment, then leave off. Mom and I were pushing past the ending.

It is July 1956. Mom is the fresh bloom, the ingénue and prize in marriage.

Today, on the brink of turning 50, I am the November rose, the last of summer.

At 85, Mom is still gorgeous. She is the petals pressed in a diary. Their original form is clearly recognizable, now faded but infused with memories. This bride is the most poignant and most exquisite of the sisters.

(Ahron R. Foster)

We're in the middle of an explosion of photography the likes of which the world has never seen. In Central Park, where I walk my dog every day, you're lucky not to get beaned with a selfie stick.

I am satisfied having pulled off what I set out to do. There I am, dead ringer or pretty darn close, on Mom's covers. I am particularly proud of the McCall's image. I spent three hours the night before making that hat.

All photographs are a moment in time. A concoction. A creation. An accident of light and color. All of it — the selfies, the crazy projects like mine — is an attempt to stop time.

These days, everyone is so rushed that time speeds faster than ever. Maybe this partly explains the mania for pictures: Everyone wants to stop time.

Now comes the next challenge: I turn 50 this summer. My looks are about to change. How will I feel about the loss? What will replace it?

I hope Mom can show me the way across the next Rubicon, though she may not be around for much longer to do it.

Anna Murray is CEO of eMedia LLC, a technology consulting company, and a writer. Her essays have appeared in Soundings Review, Piker Press, Adanna, and the Guardian Witness. Her recently completed new novel is represented by David Black Agency. It features a once-famous model and her look-alike daughter.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

Explainers

What will the Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races mean for Biden?

TV

Succession turns a box of doughnuts into a stealthy statement about abuse

Culture

What Dave Chappelle gets wrong about trans people and comedy

View all stories in The Latest

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.