Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Leaving your mark

I've posted on this topic before, but it never fails to intrigue me: scars. There's just something beautiful about the marks left on our body from truly living and experiencing life. Scars are proof that we've lived and survived, and that's something amazing. I was again reminded of this topic after reading the article below by Padma Lakshmi, host of Bravo's Top Chef and a former model. She has a very noticeable, sizeable scar running down her right arm and does not cover or hide it from the world, which is quite amazing. See her article from the April, 2001 issue of Vogue below and prepare to be amazed.

Almost Flawless
by Padma Lakshmi

Can a terrible scar suddenly become a thing of beauty?

It depends, discovers Padma Lakshmi, on who's looking at it.

The accident happened on a Sunday afternoon filled with sunshine. I was fourteen years old and on my way back with my parents from a Hindu temple in Malibu. The traffic was quite heavy for a Sunday. I remember thinking how strange that was. Then there was a loud bang, and I looked out the windshield and saw nothing but the prettiest blue sky. I thought I was dreaming because I'd been nodding off, but then I realized we were part of that blue sky. Our red Ford Mercury sedan was airborne. Flying in a car felt like an exhilarating hallucination, an unbelievable ride that oddly remains one of the most beautiful images in my memory.

We were in the air for what seemed like a very long time, flying off the freeway and 40 feet down an embankment. We hit a tree dead-on and it stopped our fall. Blood, glass, dirt, and leaves were everywhere. We seemed to have been buried alive. The tree trunk had fallen directly on top of our car. I remained conscious, covered in glass, for the 40 minutes it took for the paramedics and firelighters to get through the traffic. They used the "jaws of life"—giant metal upfront cutters—to open the car roof like a sardine can. A helicopter landed in the middle of the highway to take my parents away. An ambulance carried me to the hospital. I finally passed out. When Iwoke up hours later, I had tubes coming out of several places in my body. My right arm had been shattered and my right hip had been fractured. After surgery, I regained the use of both of them but was left with a long scar on my arm. It was half an inch wide and seven inches long. I wished I’d had a conversation with the doctor and asked him to cut on the underside of the arm instead, where the scar would have been hidden. Now it was too late. But my parents and I had been fortunate. We all survived.

When I first got the scar, I was self-conscious about it. I perfected a casual pose that hid it under my left hand and thumb when my arms were crossed. But I also knew my scar was a symbol of my survival. The surgery that put it there had saved my arm. After nearly a year of physical therapy in the mornings before high school, I could once again stir pasta, dance, embrace others, throw a Frisbee or football and, in countless other ways, be a normal American teenager.

Two months before the accident, my mother and I had met a photographer who begged her to allow him to take photos of me for his book. Grudgingly, my mother had held the light reflector for him under the Santa Monica pier. But she disapproved of what was going on. After all, I was only fourteen. The photographer promised my mother not to show the pictures to any modeling agency unless she agreed. A year after the accident, we stumbled on the pictures in a drawer. Now that I had a caterpillar of scarred skin crawling down my arm, it seemed ridiculous to imagine that any agency would be interested in such an imperfect specimen. My mother, I felt, was secretly relieved.

I went to college on the East Coast. I had always stood out for my height, my skin color, my very long hair. But now, all people noticed was the scar. "It's such a shame," they would say. "She's so pretty, she could have modeled." It angered me that people saw me as a ruined beauty. Inside, I felt I was pretty. But while I loved fashion—I knew about everything from Elsa Schiaparelli and Chanel to Halston andJohn Galliano—I never thought I was pretty enough to model, even without my scar. The closest I had come to seeing someone like myself in a magazine was Yasmeen Ghauri on a Cosmopolitan cover in a pink satin dress. Still, I envied those women and kept a secret list of photographers I dreamed of working with: Steven Meisel, Irving Penn, Peter Lindbergh, and, of course, Annie Leibovitz, all the while pretending the scar didn't matter. I was concentrating on higher things.

Then I was cast in a college play. The director worried that my scar might be distracting, so someone in the theater department who was good with makeup offered to help. Night after night, she covered the scar with pancake makeup and powder. Onstage, I was liberated. I felt like another person: not just in character but as another me, who didn't have a scar. By the end of the run, I had learned to put the makeup on myself.

In the last semester of my senior year, I went to study in Spain and was "discovered." An agent spotted me in a Madrid bar (I was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt) and asked if I'd ever thought of modeling. "No," I said, "I'm in college." As if that made me superior. "We have many college girls who model part-time," he answered. The next day my friend Santiago, who was determined to meet models through me, tricked me into going into the model agency under the pretext of saying hello to a friend. At the agency, they insisted on measuring, weighing, poking, and prodding me until I couldn't stand it anymore." I have a scar," I announced. No one was listening. "A very big scar," I boomed. I pulled up the sleeve of my turtleneck and revealed my secret. Then there was an interminable silence. Then Josette, the owner of the agency, said, “Have you seen a doctor about that?”

I felt awful and hated Santiago for taking me there. The phone rang. Josette answered it, then asked Santiago something in Spanish. "We're going to Elle magazine!” he cried out. After that, I did jobs where I wore winter clothes or used makeup on my arm. In one case the client even sprang for retouching. By the end of the summer, an Italian agent paid for my ticket to Milan. My first year in Italy, I got modest work as a fitting model for Gianfranco Ferre, Prada, and a catalog or two, but nothing more. Then I went to see Helmut Newton's agent, who took Polaroids of me in my undergarments. I had been modeling for a year and was immune to the humiliation of being photographed in my underwear. But I hated such appointments because I was very sensitive about my scar, which had become a professional problem. I knew I would get only so far with this aesthetic handicap. (Also, the waif phenomenon was in full swing—and I was a voluptuous 34C-24-34.) As I undressed behind a partition, I told the agent about the scar. "Don't worry, Helmut likes scars," he said. Soon afterward, my booker told me Newton wanted me for a privately commissioned photo, but that it involved full nudity. I agreed, but a few days before the shoot I began feeling more and more anxious. I had never posed completely nude, and two days before the appointment I did something I've never done since. I canceled the job. Needless to say, my agent was furious.

That week I made an appointment to undergo chemical dermabrasion to take some of the dark pigment out of the scar. I was frightened. A doctor in Los Angeles had once stuck a six-inch needle under the surface of the scar and shot it with cortisone. This made the scar flat but left me terrorized. In Milan, another doctor treated it, inch by inch. As anyone who has had dermabrasion will tell you, it's excruciatingly painful. I had never known such agony, even in the car accident itself. But it actually worked. The scar peeled to a neutral color quite close to the rest of my arm. This would be much easier to cover.

Then a miraculous thing happened. Helmut wanted to book me again, for a Lavaz-za calendar (with only partial nudity). I said yes. When I arrived at the shoot, I found that one of my closest friends, Antonio Gazzola, had been booked as the makeup artist. His presence was a good omen. In those early days, he was somehow always there at the right moment. Backstage, he used to whisper to me in Italian that I was just as beautiful as all the other models and that my scar made me special. He knew how anxious I was about the scar and would tell stylists they didn't have to check the sleeves on my rack, because he would make it disappear. Of course they always gave me the clothes with long sleeves.

When Antonio was done, Helmut came to say hello. He treated me calmly and comfortably, as a grandfather might. I began to feel at ease in my own skin; but when he caught a glimpse of my arm, he shrieked, "What have you done?" "Didn't they tell you about my scar?" I began to panic. "Yes, yes," he answered, "but why have you erased a part of it? You've ruined the beauty of it. Antonio, get your paints out and restore that mark to what it was."

I couldn't believe it. I felt like a queen. I can still remember Antonio smiling with a brush between his teeth as he touched up the scar, adding wine-colored lipstick to the lightened areas. "Crazy business," he murmured under his breath. He knew what I didn't: When the designers found out I had shot with Helmut because of my scar, not in spite of it, they would all want to use me. Already models with tattoos and piercings were showing up in American ads for Calvin Klein, and Europe often followed America's lead. Helmut would give everyone in Milan and Paris the courage to use me without camouflaging my scar, Antonio said.

He was right. I was soon booked for an eighteen-page shoot for Italian Elle. Then I shot a campaign with Aldo Fallai and was booked for many shows in Paris, from Ungaro to Sonia Rykiel. At the shows they still checked my sleeves—but now they were checking to make sure the sleeves were short, so that everyone would know who I was under all that makeup. Because I spoke Italian, I was a favorite of the news crews that covered the shows for the style-conscious Italian media. Eventually, RAI television asked me to join the cast of Domenica In, the biggest show on Italian television. I asked the director about showing my scar on TV. "Everyone knows that Padma has a scar," he said. "Don't cover it up."

In my career as an actress, the scar is no longer an issue. I cover it when necessary, but I prefer not to, especially in my private life. I love my scar. It is so much a part of me. I’m not sure I would remove it even if a doctor could wave a magic wand and delete it from my arm. The scar has singled me out and made me who I am. “Everyone knows that Padma has a scar." Now I know what Antonio whispered to me is true. The scar does make me special. I've started seeing my body as a map of my life. I can tell a story about every imprint life has made on my skin: the mosquito bites on my back from when I slept under the Sardinian sun the summer I first fell in love, the scrapes on my leg from the rocks in the Cuban sea during the filming of my first movie. In her introduction to Women, by Annie Leibovitz, Susan Sontag asks, "A photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?" I believe it most certainly is. A photograph can change the way you look at yourself, though it's more complicated than that. Perhaps it was under the right light, or the right lens, that I really saw myself for the first time. I have Helmut Newton to thank for that. People have told me that my scar makes me seem more approachable, more vulnerable; that it inspires a certain tenderness. Ironically, the greatest gift fashion has given me is the courage to expose what is most vulnerable, to be proud of my body. Including my scar.


Mom's Review for you said...

Coming to you from Take It From Me blog Hop. If you want another blog hop, I would love it if you would visit mine:

My blog hop with be up every wednesday! Thanks!

Big Mama said...

I have a facial scar from being electrocuted when I was three. They did one Plastic Surgery, and wanted to do another when I was 18. I am so glad I didn't do it. It is a part of me and who I am, so I could so relate to this post!!!
Thanks! I am not following from the blog hop!

Best Kept Secrets said...

Saw you on Welcome Wednesday and am now following you!
I love scars. I have lots and I love having them there for stories and memories.

Natalie said...

Thank you for posting this! I have often wondered how she got her scar. I love reading about her story. I am so glad that she is embracing it! :)


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