Malaysia and the Chimps: Part I by Elsie Ramsey

It was winter in Milan and I was 17.  Our apartment, leased through the agency, was clean but tiny and situated in a part of the city covered in graffiti and dog feces.  My mom and sister were with me, all three of us sleeping in one room night after night.

I was in the agency having a check in, being looked over by bookers for any signs of weight gain, when one of them asked if I wanted to spend a week in “tropical paradise”.  Well, of course.  The sun hadn’t broken through in weeks; the subway and apartment had become claustrophobic.

I was in Milan to collect “tears” for my book.  Those precious, precious tears: magazine spreads that would fill my book with legitimacy.  I needed differentiation; images showcasing how my face could be used for any purpose because it was a blank page.  My young, babyish face, stripped of makeup, shouldn’t speak for itself.  That was for the client to do.

So this week in tropical paradise would yield tears.  Almost no money, about $150 for a week of work, but the hope of more bookings in the future and the trip was the real payment.  These seemed like excellent terms: I certainly didn’t need to think about my answer.  It felt like a turning point; a better late than never appearance of the glamour I’d begun to worry didn’t exist here.  There had been none so far, only bitterly cold photo studios, slavishly long unpaid shoots and the mounting financial costs associated with being a beginner.  

My mom and sister were elated.  Or at least it seemed that way.  We all wanted the same thing; some success for our efforts.  I wondered if they had begun to think we’d all made a big mistake.  I certainly had.

So the booking was confirmed and plane tickets were bought.  I’d asked no questions or even met the photographer.   

This is the information I had: 

We would be shooting on an island in Malaysia (Borneo) that used no electricity and was known for its world class scuba diving.  

All the stars could be seen at night.

There would be another American model.

The pictures were for Grazia magazine.  

This was a bathing suit spread.   

The lack of electricity and plumbing did not appeal.  I wasn’t seduced.  But that was a small matter and would yield fun stories.    

Days later I was on an endless flight.  Fifteen hours and thirty five minutes from Milan to Kuala Lumpur with one stop over.  I sat between the American model who fell asleep instantly with a blanket shrouded over her head, and the photographer who was covered in tattoos and sun damage.  

I hadn’t factored in the toll such a long flight would take; how it would make the last leg of the journey in a tiny motor boat seem like so much to ask.  I hadn’t had enough boating experience to know that I should have put my hair in a ponytail. My hair whipped around my face pleasantly, resulting in a rats nest I later had to untangle for an hour.

The water and sky were unbelievably beautiful.  It was dusk when we softly made landfall on the island, preserved in all its virginal glory.  The little waves did their gentle lapping and I had the feeling I always had when I found myself in beauty.  It was pure, unadulterated gratitude, characterized by wonder at the enormity of God.

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