Texas native Chandra North’s aspirations of becoming a model seemed impossible after a number of setbacks. Rejected by the grand doyenne of fashion, Eileen Ford, for not having a nose worthy of the beauty industry, Chandra proved her detractors wrong and has appeared in advertising campaigns for Missoni, Valentino, Dior, Gucci and Alberta Ferretti. I caught up with Chandra by phone at her home in Dallas to talk about those challenging times and reflect on what she learned about herself through that experience.
When I was doing my research, there was a lot of mythology around how your career began. Did you always have an interest in fashion? I know that you made the transition to New York and then it gets gray from that point.
That’s a good way to put it. When I was growing up I did ballet for a long time. I did that for about 12 years and studied in San Francisco during the summer. I always saw myself doing ballet but in my mind and in my fantasies I was living in New York modeling. I always had an interest in modeling because my mom worked downtown in the couture department at Neiman Marcus so I was exposed to models. I remember when I was around 12, Karl Lagerfeld came and did a show in this theater with big sets and it wasn’t like a typical fashion show; it was a kind of presentation. My mom was really hoping that I would do something a little more artistic. She didn’t see the best side of models and so she wasn’t particularly encouraging about it but I can kind of see why she wasn’t. At the time I think she just wanted to see me finish high school. Anyway, around the time I turned 16 I chopped off all my hair and bleached it white blonde. I was at the swimming pool and this gorgeous guy approached me. He told me I had a good look and asked if I’d ever thought about modeling. I knew my hair was not exactly commercial looking but there was a model named Jenny Howarth at the time and there were some girls you would see in editorials that made me think maybe there was a place for me.
Did you think he was hitting on you?
Of course, but it turned out he was a gay. I thought it must really mean something because if he is not hitting on me, he actually thinks I can be a model.
He was really honest and told me I wouldn’t be right for everything. He set me up with a friend of his, who was a photographer, and the photographer’s boyfriend did hair and makeup. I started doing shoots with them and they were so patient with me because I was so self-conscious. It is a lot different when you are on set and you realize everybody is staring at you. Not too soon after I dyed my hair a more normal color and I started doing shoots for catalogs and some stores here in Dallas. Then my agent, here in Dallas, took my book up to different agencies in New York. I had a lot of baby fat because I hadn’t grown into myself and I was turned down by almost every agency. Eileen Ford said I didn’t have a face for beauty and would never do beauty stuff which is funny because Kate Moss came around and you didn’t have to be 5 feet 10 inches. I had met Steven Meisel and he liked my work but my lack of height was a concern.
You’re 5 feet 8 inches, right?
Yeah, and they prefer people who are 5 feet 9 inches. Steven said I should think about going out to Los Angeles and become an actress. In the meantime, I came back to Dallas and started asking myself what I was going to do next. I didn’t want to live in LA, I wanted to be in New York. During this time the grunge movement was starting and I went back up to New York for the summer. I received a phone call from his studio and Steven was wondering if I knew anybody with long hair. My boyfriend had long hair so he came up and we did this story for Italian Glamour. Steven really loved his look so he went on to do that really famous picture in American Vogue with Kristen McMenamy.
So that was Daniel in the Grunge and Glory shoot?
Yeah, exactly. He had his moment, short-lived thankfully, because I didn’t want to date a male model. Then we went over to Europe to build my book and I was still trying to figure out if I wanted to model.
What was the defining moment that you knew you had made it?
Probably when I booked my first runway show.
So for you it sounds like it was more of a slow burn.
Do you think in retrospect that you appreciated it more because you had to work harder for it?
You could look at it so many different ways. I was fully aware and full of adrenalin, I mean there were so many pinch myself moments.
I think that it’s a very unusual experience to have in life and very few people, particularly at the level that you were doing it, experience that.
What’s interesting to me is that there are girls constantly posting pictures of themselves on social media and they are not necessarily models. They have this confidence but I wonder if they showed up on set if they would be able to handle it.
I think that there is a disconnect between what people think modeling is and what modeling actually is. Young girls in particular have access to social media that didn’t exist before. A lot of girls study what they think are the right angles and moves. In their heads they think what they are posting on Instagram translates but it doesn’t always work for high fashion.
People ask me if I think they can model and I tell them I am not an agent; I have no idea. I often ask them why they want to be a model and what they hope to get out of it.
Exactly. That’s the gray area, not to cut you off, but there were many times where I asked myself what I was doing. When I was 24 I had a hairdresser tell me not to tell anybody my age. Now, I think Daria was close to 30 when she started really doing well.
Do you remember there was some controversy when Agyness Deyn’s real age came out? It was so ridiculous because she was a great model. She’s so pretty. I thought that her age was irrelevant.
Right, it’s totally crazy.
You stepped back from modeling for a while and moved to upstate New York. In hindsight were you trying to extract yourself from that environment to have some semblance of a normal life again?
It was a baby step away from the city before I came back to Texas. There was this other part of me that thought, I’d been married for seven years and maybe I’m supposed to have a baby now. I didn’t want to wake up one day and think I forgot to have a baby. I missed the little things too like driving and big open skies.
Looking back on your career, what advice would you give to your younger self, to that girl in Texas struggling to make it?
First of all, I would tell myself to get some contact lenses so I can see. I would tell her to believe in herself no matter what and be patient and brave and stand up for yourself when you need to. God knows, if you don’t people are always willing to tell you what’s wrong with you, you know.
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