(Read Part I)
Even when Lillian was a child, the desire to model was in her - people often said that she looked like Tyra Banks and that planted a seed. But it wasn’t until a high school fashion show that it became a concrete passion.
During practice, not knowing the other models made her very shy, but on the night of the show, she shocked everyone. Something came out of her and she wowed the audience with her confidence. She was contacted by Gibbons Company and Style Bermuda, and began modeling here on island.
Then, when a friend pulled out of a trip they’d planned to New York, Lillian decided to go anyway, and use the time to meet with agencies in hopes of being signed. Her family joined forces to make it happen. One sister helped her to research open calls and prepared her schedule. The other sister’s phone bill was super high that month as Lillian called around to make appointments. An amazing family friend that lives in Jersey drove her around.
Portfolio in hand, Lillian went to several agencies. She laughs now at the quality of her pictures, pulling a face to describe how awkward she looked. “I was only 17 so didn’t know my body yet. All I knew about modeling was from America’s Next Top Model and looking at magazines.” Despite that, she says everyone was very sweet to her. “People make it seem like the industry was so mean, but that wasn’t my experience. Maybe because I looked like an innocent young girl. They’d tell me I was beautiful. They’d still say no and turn me down (laughs) but it wasn’t bad.” Lillian signed with a boutique agency during that week in New York. She was with them for two years, before moving on to the widely known Trump Models.
She remembers only one negative experience during that New York week, when a man kept pointing out other models telling Lillian she needed to look like them. He made her turn around and then yelled at her that she must lose her butt. Worried that her naturally small frame couldn’t handle it, she remarked that she didn’t want to look sick, and he began screaming at her. But Lillian didn’t take it on. “I’m already so skinny, I didn’t want to look anorexic.”
Of course, the industry has had a reputation for pushing models to be smaller, skinnier, to a point that they are unhealthy. But regulations are changing that, and magazines are banning ads where the models look too small.
Lillian calls this a ‘sticky situation’ because some of the models aren’t sick, they are naturally small. She also believes that, while some models she knows have eating disorders, the industry doesn’t create that situation.
“Most of them had image problems before they modeled. I would never judge a model that has an eating disorder, because anyone can have symptoms of developing a disorder. If you look at yourself in the mirror and look at your stomach and are like uggh, and decide to skip a meal, then you could be developing symptoms. Everyone has been guilty of it. It’s just how far you let it develop into something. And for some people it’s about control… If they don’t feel in control of their life, they can become addicted to controlling their weight.”
There’s no getting around the fact that if you’re a model, what you look like is going to be a concern for you… and for your agency. When I remark how interesting it is that someone who so hated being compared to someone else growing up would enter the fashion industry, she says that those early comparisons are probably what allows her to not take negative criticisms to heart now.
“You learn really quickly not to take things personally in the fashion industry, or you’ll go mad. I let things go. I don’t let things faze me. People will say things about me or to me that are just ridiculous. It is such a fickle industry. One day they like you, one day they don’t, so you really can’t take any of it personally. You just have to like yourself.”
“I’m so glad that I’m grounded in God, because He doesn’t allow me to meditate on negative things. You have to meditate on good things. If you keep thinking about ‘what’s wrong with me, why didn’t I get picked?’ Nothing is wrong. Sometimes they don’t want my look. Sometimes they are racist. But I don’t dwell on it.”
Lillian speaks about the lack of diversity in modeling, saying that because clients only ever select a few black models, they are constantly being compared to each other. And with fewer models of colour, there are constantly issues with ‘black hair’. Lillian’s hair is often tousled to see if it’s real, or is damaged by stylists unfamiliar with black hair, or she has to show up with it already styled. “This bothers me, but it will get better with more black models.”
Now in her fourth year of modeling in New York, Lillian recalled how tough it was in early on. She was homesick and would often call her dad crying, saying how she missed home. Models only make money when booking jobs, which wasn’t happening. Plus she had no established credit history in the States, so it was impossible to get an apartment and she had to rely on living with friends. Even eating consistently was difficult. She still remembers gratefully one booking agent who remarked on Lillian’s lack of energy and, when she explained that she wasn’t eating properly because she didn’t have the money, gave her $100 for groceries.
ut then, the jobs starting coming, she began earning money, and now, after moving 6 times between homes of friends in her first year, she shares a beautiful 3-bedroom apartment in Harlem with two roommates. “It was definitely a testament from God that we got this apartment.”
Her faith features very strongly throughout the conversation. She speaks about her ‘friendship with Jesus’ as being a key factor in her success, believing that all she has achieved has been because God has made it so. She often will highlight a scripture that resonates with a specific thought. And for the beauty of the ocean to helping her get up the bank in the rain, she thanks Jesus. Even in a country like Bermuda, where the majority identify with Christianity, her intensity is unusual, and she admits that her newfound faith was awkward at first for her family and friends.
Being one of her Instagram followers and having seen her Miss World videos, I was very aware of her beliefs - she often hashtags and shouts out to ‘her Jesus’. I’d wondered if, as someone who is not religious, I would find it uncomfortable, but actually I found it interesting. She actually doesn’t view herself as ‘religious’, and eschews the judgmental nature of most churches. She is a member of the Rock Church, an international non-denominational church that is known to attract many young people, especially artists. A friend was invited to a service and she went along.
“I was like, Jesus is awesome. How did I not know about this? In Bermuda, when I was little I would sometimes go to church with my cousin, but it wasn’t a regular thing. I would pray though, so I think I always wanted to have a relationship with God. It’s so incredible that I had to become a model and move to New York in order to find that relationship.” She has since become a youth minister, and talks to most people she meets about Jesus.
When I ask her how she aligns her faith with the fashion world, a space that is known to be filled with things that many say the Bible does not agree with – partying, nudity, drugs, homosexuality – she speaks about it from two angles.
“I do not separate modeling from my relationship with God. If I did, then I would be closing myself to all of the good things He can do for me in my modeling career. God wants us to have success, so if put my faith in a separate box, then I would never see what He can do.” She speaks about God opening doors for her, sending jobs her way when she is turned down for others, and so she is always very vocal about her love for Jesus, seeing herself as a testament. Her agency knows this and has never told her to ‘dumb down’ this part of herself when modeling. She wouldn’t agree to do it anyway. In terms of what many religious people consider to be sins, “I don’t even look at it in that way. Whatever someone is dealing with that is between them and God.”
Homosexuality? The Rock Church, like many others, welcomes those who are looking to ‘overcome same-sex attraction’. These sorts of conversion therapies are quite controversial and are jokingly referred to by some as ‘Pray the Gay Away’. But Lillian hasn’t known about this being offered at her church. “At the Rock Church all are welcome. I have never asked anyone if they were gay. I don’t care. That is between them and God.”
Nudity or over-sexualised images? “My contract with my agency says no nudity. But that’s more because those pictures would be there forever and I don’t think I want my grandkids looking at them. In moments after a job where I’ve questioned whether I made the right decision, I’ve prayed on it, and God has always sorted it out. I think God has my back and knows my heart. So if I was asked to do a photoshoot with nudity, I would pray on it, and God would give me the answer. And if I don’t know what to do, or regret it later, the film may become unusable or ensure the client doesn’t use those photos. He has my back.”
When asked about dating “I am looking for that man who will build ministry with me, who will build business with me. Someone who can grow with me. We are going to be awesome together.” She believes that God will send him, and that she’ll know. When I ask how, we giggle when she jokes “Ummmm I don’t know, maybe a light will shine down?” As for sex, Lillian saves that part of herself ‘as a gift’ for her future husband. She smirks saying that this also teaches her self-control.
Towards the end of the interview, the clouds cleared and the sun came out bright and hot. We decided to go for a swim to look for turtles, and as her long legs tiptoed in, I teased her about trying to avoid the sea grass. (What is it about Bermudians and seaweed?) I asked her how she deals with being away from the ocean, living in the ‘big city’, all the time. And while she admitted that it’s possible to be surrounded by millions of people and still be lonely, she still has lots to accomplish. She doesn’t put a timeline on her modeling, but of course, there will be an expiration date. She dreams of buying a small cottage here on the island and hopefully a big yacht for her dad. So that’s where the ‘business-building’ comes in.
“I had a moment a while back where I got really depressed thinking that all I can do is model, believing the ‘dumb model’ stereotype. And then a friend pointed out how good I am styling shoots, and suggested I could be a creative director, so I’m really interested in that. Models are so adaptable. We use our resources around us all the time. So there’s a lot I could do.”
Ultimately the ‘Lillian Lightbourn Brand’, with a website, blog, designs, and more is on the agenda. She wants to be a voice for models as well, providing them with information about their rights, and forming a unified body so they won’t be taken advantage of. She’s also interested in starting a Rock Church here in Bermuda.
“Anything is possible. I feel that I’m a testament to that. We aren’t all going to be good at everything. But you find what you ARE good at, and focus on that, push on that. If you have faith in Jesus and in yourself, you will be surprised what you can do.”
(Published on Bermynet.com on July 24, 2015)