Sitting across from me in an immaculately tailored dark blue jacket, Melanie Gaydos is so petite she seems almost like a child dressed up as a model. She picks at the cuffs of her coat as we talk, the only sign of her anxiety. This is her first in-person interview.
“A lot of people don’t realize it, but I’m actually quite nervous all the time,” the Connecticut-born, Brooklyn-based Gaydos tells me at one point. Then, as frequently happens during our sprawling, multi-hour conversation, a smile flits across her face. “But I’m a survivor.”
She needs to be. Although she has been modeling for nearly three years, was flown to Europe to star in a video for the band Rammstein, and has had (or has lined up) shoots in New York, Los Angeles, Madrid, and Berlin, Gaydos is still finding her place in the world of high fashion. As she’s quick to point out, this is in part the same struggle any young woman has when trying to break into that nearly impossible industry: the fight to get work, avoid being exploited, and make the fashion world take notice. For Gaydos, however, this already difficult task is complicated by a rare genetic disorder called ectodermal dysplasia, which “affects your hair, teeth, nails, pores, skin tissue, and sometimes even bone formation.”
Ectodermal dysplasia affects everyone differently. Gaydos has a relatively severe form, which has meant a lifetime of people being scared of her, or assuming that she was cold, “a bitch,” or even mentally disabled—things that are patently untrue if you talk with her for even a minute. Indeed, if her medical condition has done anything to her personality, it has rendered Gaydos a remarkably self-aware and self-confident young woman.
“I didn’t want to live my life the way other people thought I should,” Gaydos says of her childhood in Connecticut, ”and I certainly didn’t want to be the sort of person that other people wanted me to be.”
After moving to New York to study art at the Pratt Institute, Gaydos began experimenting with being the person in the picture, as opposed to the one making it. Her first modeling shoot came about almost by accident. After emailing a photographer whose work she admired, she was invited to sit for him. Although she had always hated having her picture taken, she found she loved modeling from the very first click of the camera. After that, she began picking up work on Craigslist, and, eventually, from the amateur modeling website, ModelMayhem.com. Soon, she was doing two to three gigs a weekend.
“I never had any difficulty finding a shoot,” Gaydos remembers, though she would only work with people whose vision she found compelling. Somewhat retiring in person, she has a powerful, almost regal presence when the cameras are on, and her art background gives her a broad understanding of composition, color, and angles.
As she gained experience, Gaydos found herself wanting to create images that told a story and conveyed emotion, much as she once had as a visual artist. She was less interested in selling the clothing and more in making the viewer have an experience, which is what she believes separates commercial work from high-fashion modeling. “Besides,” she adds with the grin of a confident fashionista, “people are going to want to wear the clothes that I wear anyway.”
Looking for new opportunities, Gaydos began sending her portfolio to the big names in the fashion world, nearly all of whom told her she was too much of a “risk.” Just thinking about it makes her roll her eyes. “If you’re afraid of taking risks, why are you in fashion?” she asks in exasperation.
Not that she doesn’t realize the challenges facing her. “You should always understand where you are in the industry,” she says philosophically. When people tag and share her images online, “the word ugly is almost always with each photo.”
“It’s not anything I haven’t heard before,” she shrugs. “But I never thought of myself as ugly, and I still don’t.”
Her look is an opportunity, and she intends to make the most of it. But she also has to contend with photographers looking to exploit her as a one-trick pony to shock their audiences. Most of her career, she says, “has been trying to make good choices so people understand that I’m a serious model” and not just a unique face. Gaydos knows it would be easy for her to rest on her look, and not bring the vitality, the depth, and the spark that separate supermodels from the pack of wannabes. She feels sorry for those girls who think they can rest on looks alone. If you want to be a true model, “you can’t just be a body that’s there,” she cautions.
Eventually, Gaydos wants to join a high-end fashion agency, but knows it might be a while before that day comes. “I don’t think I can just walk in and they would accept me,” she says. “I have to get people to understand where I’m coming from. I have to earn respect.” Far from intimidating, the prospect seems to excite Gaydos. She demands to be taken seriously, much as her photos demand attention. So far, she’s found more success in Europe and Mexico than in America, but she has faith that as her body of work grows, “it will help other people be on board with the Melanie train.”