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"That's Not Who I Am": Model Melanie Gaydos On Industry Objectification And Ectodermal Dysplasia

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photo by Yuki Takeuchi / via Instagram

NYC-based model Melanie Gaydos is having a pretty good year. In addition to walking several shows for NYFW and self-booking a ton of others, she's been inciting a flurry of press as of late for her success as a model with a rare genetic condition called Ectodermal Dysplasia, which affects her pores, hair, nails and teeth. Gaydos, however, refuses to allow that to define her as a model, actress and artist, which has also meant deflecting the tone-deaf reactions of narrow-minded agencies, photographers and fans. Check out our Q&A with her about single-handedly revamping model beauty standards and taking no prisoners in the process. 

So why did you start modeling initially and how? 

When I first started modeling, I actually started on Craigslist. It was just a summer job, because I moved to New York to go to Pratt for drawing and painting. This guy asked me to shoot at a club and it was my first shoot and it was actually so scary, it was one of the most nerve-wracking shoots I'd ever done, because I was so new -- but I looked at Craigslist because in New York City if you're like "indie" and looking for work, Craigslist is always a good starting point. I met a lot of really cool fashion photographers who were just looking for unique people to shoot. I guess a lot of people just take very well to me because they're so used to shooting your stereotypical lookbook models who are like really boring, so they're happy to meet me. And I knew that I could make money at it because all these fashion people weren't gonna find anyone else like me.

Do you have a favorite shoot that you've done? 

My favorite art photographer I've ever worked with was Christian Martin Weiss. We always do really fine art stuff that's really inspired by like Renaissance painting. And we just get along really well; if you look at my portfolio, probably 75% of it is his photography. His work is really dark and romantic, just like me. But in general, when I'm working with an art photographer, they're like "Oh, you're like the perfect fashion model," so I've realize that I'm really my own genre right now. I don't know, we all respond to things differently.

What about agency stuff?

I was talking to IMG earlier this year because after I walked in NYFW, one of the models was talking about me, so an IMG booker approached me. But eventually they decided I wasn't appropriate at the time. It's like weird for me to say, but I was really upset by it, especially since I've been told "no" all my life and I'm normally pretty used to it. But I guess I was just really excited for IMG because Kate Moss and all the Victoria Secret Angels are signed to them and I thought it'd be kind of my "in" to the fashion industry. But I'm learning that I'm not them, I'm my own person, even though I'm still open to an agency and applying to a few more. But I'm thinking more and more that it's not such a big deal to me, because I mean, I've already gotten so far and have done so well self-managing. I'm thinking I need a talent manager more than anything.

That's interesting. Everyone's been going crazy for "inclusivity" in the fashion industry as of late. What are your thoughts on that?

I mean a lot of fashion people actually don't work with me because they think I'm a gimmick -- like I'm just a trendy thing right now. And I admit there's been a lot of campaign in the last two years where they've had girls [like me] for the shock value, but then after that campaign, you don't see those people working with them again. You know the objectification is all a part of everything. 

The issue is people judging other people because they look at someone who they don't identify with [and it freaks them out]...I get so much fan mail, but a lot of it is like back-handed compliments like, "I came at first to make fun of you, but then I started listening to you...and realized that we're more alike than I thought we were. It just showed me how shallow I am and how uncomfortable I am with myself," and I'm like, "Oh, well I'm glad that your life is changing...". 

People have said that about some people like Miley Cyrus though. After all, there's been backlash for what some people interpret to be a faux-altruistic patronage kind of thing.

Actually [Miley and I] are friends. She followed me on Instagram a few weeks ago. Miley was honestly someone I wasn't sure what to make of --I didn't really like her up until this past year when she came out with the Happy Hippie Foundation. I think that's really cool, because she just started taking on more social responsibility. Before I was really freaked out by how she had like midget strippers on stage and the little person said that it was a miserable experience for her and that she felt objectified, while Miley said, "Oh, all these women wanted to be there for a reason. I was giving them a platform to truly be themselves and to own their sexuality." But I think over the past few months she's been coming around...even since she's writing to me. 

You also mentioned being in a rut earlier, right?

Yeah, I was mostly bummed out because I didn't really have a lot of fashion work going on here in New York and I've been working on a lot of film stuff like a lot of horror movies. Horror movies are really easy for me to do, but I only really like to do them in like a strong mindset, particularly if I have a friend on set. Otherwise, if I just show up to set, I get kind of stuck in my own [head]. I meet directors who love the shit out of me because when I'm put in a certain light...it's really easy for me to transform into whatever creature that they want. And what people fail to realize, even with fashion modeling, is that just because I look a certain way doesn't mean that's my life. I think it's just because other people don't get it because they're not living in my body. When I was younger, I was definitely sort of trapped in that because I felt like [horror movies were] where I kind of belonged -- there was nothing on the outside that I kind of identified with. It's what I related most to because I was in such a dark mindset, but now, I'm like struggling because when I'm in Fashion Week, like fashion models are like, "I'm really proud of you and your work" and "Oh, I really like your dark, goth stuff." And like, okay, maybe I have that image that I've retained and sure I can play it up, and maybe if I conform to that ideal I'll make a lot of money, but to me that's like selling out and that's not who I am. 

Do you feel like that'd almost be too easy? 

Yeah, I mean the horror movies are just like an easy thing for me. People who are doing horror movies, they see me and know I've done that before, but I don't promote it yet because I don't think people are ready to look at me and have an open mind. A lot of my career now is trying to convince society that, "I'm just like you!" And that's not something I live my life thinking about, but it is a large part of my career, especially in the fashion world. There are a lot of models that try to look like aliens now and it's cool to shave your head or whatever, and I'm like, "But I really am an alien and I don't have to try!" They think they can simulate that ideal without actually having to live it. 

Hahaha shit I do in the Hollywood Hills ;) <3 Ph. @juliashoots #imwaaayup #ifeelblessed #melaniegaydos

A photo posted by Melanie Gaydos (@melaniegaydos) on

Yeah, there has been a lot of that going around.

I think everyone's true motive comes out at some point, like a lot of people ask me what my childhood was like and yeah, my elementary school was pretty terrible. But someone once told me that a real friend would never ask you what it is you have [or stuff related to that] because they see you for who you are, and I totally agree with that. Obviously I'm in the fashion world, so I have to talk about this kind of stuff, but even today I have some people who I think are my friends and then they ask me something like that, and I mean I'm kind of like...it makes me think differently about them. I'm not a model because I have Ectodermal Dysplasia, I'm really not. Even when I first started art modeling, it wasn't even a thing that I talked about until I started doing interviews and it became this big media thing. Obviously, it makes me who I am today, but I don't feel the need to rest my head on the pillow of Ectodermal Dysplasia. I would like to make a difference for just human beings in general so that they can achieve a deeper level of connection and understanding of themselves, because I truly believe that if you're so comfortable with yourself then you wouldn't have a problem with anyone else.

Yeah, and I think you touched on it before like the objectification of your image. How does that make you feel, just being objectified in an industry that already objectifies so much? 

I used to be really upset by it, especially when I went to a fashion photographer and their end results were these scary, intimidating pictures. Now I don't take it personally because I know a lot of people just pick what stands out most to them, and I'm kind of the opposite of their life. But if I do a shoot and feel kind of fucked up about it, I'll take it as is 'that's what that photographer is and that's who they are at this time.' I used to think that a lot of fashion people, that once they shot with me, they wouldn't want to work with me again, but, it's the same exact thing with art people. With art people, they're supposed to be really open minded and creative, but they only [draw and paint] me one way...I think really great photographers can work with anyone and can take them as they are. It used to shock me a lot when I looked at photos and I looked like a creature or a dark fantasy character. I just take it for what it is, obviously I'm not that person. 

But obviously, they want to get that image so I might as well give it to them. But I've been learning how to make the best of that situation and it's really just about me connecting to the photographer as a person and trying to get them to see where I am as a person. I really want to do a swimsuit shoot, because it's something nobody thinks I could do. Visually, I'm like the opposite of someone like Gigi Hadid or Taylor Swift, but I'd like to kind of play with my own self-identification and morphing. Because I can be a chameleon and shift into whatever. Maybe it goes past the physical and it's a lifestyle thing. People are really into Gigi and Taylor because that's the lifestyle that they exude. You know, like Gigi is a Cali girl. I guess I just want my life to be like that so I'm not stuck with some darkness. I honestly feel like some people would rather me sit in the corner, in the dark, hating my life forever, because that's how some people respond to my life and modeling career.

How do you combat that?

This year, I'm really working on finding myself again. And that's why I started modeling, actually. I stopped wearing a wig when I moved to New York and that was a really big thing. I didn't know how to style myself or dress or anything just because the way I saw myself completely changed, because all my life I had like over 40 wigs. I wouldn't wear wigs every day necessarily, but just having hair was something to sort of hide behind. And I started modeling because I hated my life at the time and I knew I was at a plateau -- if I kept going in that same mental state I was at, I probably would've done something drastic. And that's something I do, whenever I'm feeling stuck. I really try to change it. 

So this year, I've been really working on being super confident with who I am and breaking new barriers. And it's really hard for me to do, especially with people who are my friends now in New York. A lot of people still don't get it, they can say they're so open to me and what I do...they really love what I represent, but they're not ready to actually take it in and apply it to their life and really think about it. Like I saw a Facebook thing about someone posting pictures of overweight people dancing and make fun of them and I was just like, "How can you possibly say that you're all about who I am and what I represent when you're making fun of someone?" It's really weird to see that a lot of people are like that. That they're just not self aware.

Click HERE to see exclusive photos of Melanie in a new '70s punk-inspired shoot

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