Several years ago, I was assigned by a major men’s magazine to interview a supermodel who was being photographed to appear on its cover. During the course of the interview, the model became so totally offended by me and my line of questioning, she pulled out of the deal entirely, and wouldn’t even allow the photos of her from the shoot to be published. Needless to say, this article died an ignominious death without ever being put into print. All the names have been changed.
...For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us...
Ranier Maria Rilke, from Duino Elegies
“No really, I am such a GRANDMA,” the supermodel and Victoria’s Secret Angel Ilka protests. She is sitting crosslegged and coltish in the armchair next to me at our extravagantly-set lunch table in the oval dining room in a private luxury villa at Caesar’s Palace, ordinarily reserved for high-rollers or narco-state dictators. It’s a $27,000-per-night marble extravaganza, hidden in of the back labyrinths of the casino, away from the flipflop-wearing Great Unwashed; it is full of lush squiggly carpets, real art, and deep pink bathtubs, multiple fireplaces, important dead Romans. Today, it has been reserved for Ilka’s photo shoot.
I have been lurking around for hours trying to find a moment to chat with her.
Ilka’s long delicate fingers are tweezing inch-size bites of romaine lettuce from a gold china plate; occasionally she pops one from her glossy pink nails into her glossy pink mouth. I am rolling my eyes on the inside, because for Ilka, this is “eating lunch.” The translucent white silk robe she is casually falling out is her version of “wearing clothes” (although to be fair, it is the first fabric to cover her upper body all day.) It is around 3 in the afternoon; Ilka has already put in a long morning, rolling around in a top-shelf sexual lather on a white bed in a room with silver paisley wallpaper, before an audience of 7-10 people including the deliriously pleased photographer, several dead-serious wardrobe women, makeup and hair stylists, and a SWAT team of other lighting, technical, and whim-catering professionals.
‘Oh COME ON,” I said, mock-bullying her in my authoritative ‘Little Girl I Am A Terrifying New York Gorgon” -voice…because the last thing this kid reminds anyone of is anyone’s Grandma.
I want Ilka to speak more freely than she actually wants to. I want to ask her manly, butch questions, because this is a men’s magazine, I am a feminist, this is Las Vegas, and she is a Victoria’s Secret model. I am trying to establish a solid compartmental line — at least in my own head - between Professional Beauty and Professional Sex, particularly in a world where Playboy magazine has forsaken the pinup and any women’s high-fashion magazine contains editorials that would be serviceable porn in any previous decade. This distinction is especially blurry in Vegas, where there are motorized billboards of would-be Ilkas in lingerie being driven down the strip in various chrome-mudflap/pinup poses to advertise the local escort services, and Ilka is here because of her starring role in what is arguably the most extravagant lingerie-show on earth.
The wardrobe room contained two full racks of killer couture gowns and fur coats, none of which were actually intended for Ilka to wear.
“Oh no, she’ll just use these as, like, props,” said one of the wardrobe ladies, who was busy fussing over the bedspread which served as the staging area for Ilka’s actual wardrobe: an array of lacy underthings and spangly leather strands and tiny harnesses that in another context could easily be mistaken for teacup dog jewelry.
True enough, in one of the earlier shots, Ilka had loosely tied one of the fur coats around her waist. She was wearing a black ribbon around her breasts which kept falling down. I noted with some interest that Ilka never seemed to even notice when this “top” (which I suspect was born a headband) fell down.
I mention that she looks very comfortable naked.
“I’m Swedish. I am much more comfortable naked. Everyone in my family walks around naked all the time. The first thing I do in my apartment is take all my fucking clothes off. It is the ultimate freedom!”
In Sweden, Ilka played professional women’s basketball; this makes sense when you watch her rolling around topless in a black satin g-string on a hotel bed. For all her sex-ravaged Barbiedoll hair-flipping and point-blank, eye-drilling eroticism, the spectacle of Ilka Working is much like watching any seasoned professional athlete at the top of her game - her undeniable professional skill demands respect. The foreplay-tossed bed is her home stadium parquet floor, and you, future viewer, are her favorite basketball. While the camera is clicking, her face and body enact a steady, liquid current of wedding-night moods — from the nervous kitten to shyly sultry and crushed-out. From Curious but Afraid, she suddenly upshifts to Innocent Yet Begging for it; within six seconds, she is suddely brazen and orgasmically urgent. She knows how to thrill the photographer; she intuitively rolls her fingers up and over her baby-pink nipples with a militarily precise, geometric camera-angle exactitude that Serena Williams would respect.
“Oh, what a way to get up in the morning,” the photographer gushes appreciatively.
She has been inspiring the photographer, Jorge, all day — I found him in the hallway earlier with his brains happily percolating.
“I’m trying to find the story,” he explained, watch-gears spinning in his pupils.
I ask - is he looking for a narrative?
“No! It’s poetic!”
“Do you ever encapsulate a shoot down to a literal narrative?”
“No,” he insists. “It’s visual. It’s a mood.”
Ten minutes later, Ilka emerged from the dressing room wearing a transparent silver organza dress spattered with mirror drops — an invisible chandelier made of bejeweled Mothra-wings — and Jorge got his ‘Eureka!’ moment.
“It’s the showgirl on her own, after the show or before,” he said excitedly, staring into the back of his camera.
When I ask what Ilka would do if she had super-powers, she skillfully launches into her favorite cause: human trafficking.
“If I was Batwoman, I would bring down all the pimps in the world,” she says, to the delight of the lunch table. “I’d have powers of manipulation to bring in the FBI and the police, and I would bust down pimps, rescue girls, and give them help.”
Would she exact revenge?
“I would be beating pimps full-time! I would make them sell their bodies on the street. I would make them wear the same oufits they made the girls wear.”
She does not, I discovered, have any favorite weapons.
“I am really good at boxing. Weapons are for pussies. If you want to fight you should do it with your hands. You can’t be afraid to knock someone out.”
I thought I would bring up cars, because Ilka has an interestingly mechanical relationship to her own body. It is almost as if she doesn’t live in it so much as she responsibly owns it. It’s an expensive, fine-tuned, expertly shellacked, weapons-grade competition vehicle that she works through — a professional extension of herself, like the condo-priced camera stuck to the photographer’s eye, or the hairstylist’s Maserati of a blowdryer. During the day of shooting in various changings into new jewelries and fishfeathers, Ilka appeared to walk in and out of herself. She inhabits her body with startling consciousness until the clicking stops and everyone agrees the shot was ‘got’ — when she exits the frame, she turns suddenly, visibly OFF. Off camera, whether smoking, picking her nose, or wandering blithely topless through a hall of tattooed lighting assistants, she is totally unself-conscious and as remarkably OFF as she was remarkably ON a few seconds ago. It’s a neat trick of energy conservation particular to athletes and veteran stage performers — they can make all their molecules suddenly flamingly AGLOW on cue — then splat down into boneless, invisible inkblots offstage. Smoking on the couch between shots, Ilka may be technically in her body, but she is only idling it in Park. The second the camera shutter opens again, however, she has already blown through the gate like a missile and your eyebrows are vaporized in her contrail of white heat.
When asked about cars, she expressed an affection for late-model sedans.
“I love vintage cars, you know, from like the 80’s or the 70’s, that have a really big back seat that is just, like, a couch, where you can just chill.” From her description, I was able to gather that she prefers diamond-tuck upholstery.
Like any supermodel, Ilka is an evolutionary freak of nature — a radical, previously-unimaginable algorithmic breakthrough in flesh that renders previous flesh technologies obsolete. Though comparatively short for a model, she’s still a a tall weightless, baby-Brigitte-Bardot 3.0-prototype with a face that somehow defied the normal shiftings of adulthood, and remained in the unblemished preadolescence of third grade.
Her improbable eyes, the backlit blue of an exclusive white-beach snorkling cove, are approximately the size of serving-spoons set at a beguiling slant in an otherwise human-size head. In proportion to her triangular, cat-shaped face — her isosceles cheekbones, her elegant, barely noticeable curl of a nose, and her pointy little infant-chin, her eyes look Bambi-huge, almostto the point of cognitive dissonance. In a roomful of ordinary mortals - even relatively attractive ones - Ilka appears to glide around inside an extra-dimensional bubble from her own fine-point manga planet, while everyone else is struggling thickly and lumpily beneath the low-ceilinged panels of a Cathy cartoon.
When she gives you a good listen, she makes a point of turning on a blaze of eye-contact - she gives you what Bill Clinton would call a “hard listen.” Her unnatural eye-size, combined with the fact that professional models tend not to make any facial micro-tics or mini-movements - sets off a series of clanging Freudian Uncanny Valley Alarms in your brain — the vertiginous weirdness of This human is wrongly perfect! Danger! The Singularity! - and makes you forget what you’re saying mid-sentence and swallow the wrong way. Artists and philosophers since the ancient Greeks have rolled around in the idea that beauty is terror, and: although she’s quite easy and amiable, Ilka exemplifies this — there is no escaping a sense of the slackjawed idiot-awe that cavemen must have felt first time they ever saw a major forest fire, or a hair-free ass.
But Ilka, despite the fact that it is her profession to look super-ridiculously, projectile-nosebleedingly sexy, and for all of my efforts to corrupt her conversationally, really is some weird kind of innocent that makes no sense - the child princess-bride on her wedding night, ready and eager for her Royal virginity loss in a fortune of white stretch-lace —but in a beautiful, unsullied, non-Vegas escorty way. I can’t figure out the math of this, and shrug it up to: this is just her natural talent; the job she was built to do. We don’t resent Michael Jordan for his effortless slam-dunks, or idiot savants that can memorize a nation’s bus schedules. Ilka’s superpower makes people who gaze at her salivate and claw at their belts, and this is the point of her. If you’re not ogling respectfully or just ogling, you’re denying a phenomenon that is bigger than you. Your arms are too short to box with God; you shouldn’t try to jump over the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle; your zipper’s resistance to Ilka is equally futile.
It is much simpler and more natural to simply believe in Ilka, and her contention that in Sweden, she is just a normal Grandma, in a land where Grandmas look like that, and everyone is naked all the time.