Written by Jen Brister

Lifestyle

(Don’t) Picture This

As a dedicated non-follower of fashion, how would Jen Brister get on at her first professional photo shoot? Pretty well, as it turns out. If you don’t count the incident with the shoes, that is. Or the face. Or the “moving arms”.

Claire Jones Brister Style

Illustration by Claire Jones.

Two years ago I took part in a photo shoot for a magazine. This isn’t me boasting, OK this is me boasting, but it’s also a factual fact. In the lead-up to the shoot I’d been asked all kinds of questions, from “Who is your favourite fashion designer?” to “What skirt shape best suits your body?”

Sadly I was unable to respond to these questions because I HAVE NO IDEA! Do people really have a favourite designer? I struggle to have a strong opinion about the two cardigans I own. I don’t read fashion magazines, or worry about what accessory matches the buttons on my blouse. In fact, I don’t own a blouse or, for that matter, a skirt.

I’m not saying I don’t like to look good. Of course I do and I would love to think that other people might think I have a certain style and finesse.

OK, maybe finesse is pushing it. I’m basically hoping they don’t think I got dressed in the dark, or that I only have peripheral sight, or worse, that I simply can’t dress myself. I can dress myself if someone is in the same room telling me what to wear: “TAKE OFF THAT V-NECK JUMPER; YOU LOOK LIKE RONNIE CORBETT.” Fashion, for me, is a bloody minefield.

Meanwhile, I’d explained to the stylist that I didn’t want to be put in a skirt or a dress or anything flouncy. So she suggested I wear a suit. Which is fine. You know, a suit. You can’t go wrong with a suit. Can you? It wasn’t long before heels were mentioned – can I wear them? Not really, no. Would I consider just standing in them? Er… yeah, maybe. Apparently the trousers will cover the shoes. Won’t that look weird, like I’m on stilts or something? What if everyone else looks really glam and I look like I’m going for an interview for a job as a legal secretary? I don’t want to look like I’m temping for Office Angels. IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK?

In the end I email the stylist and try to explain to her in detail exactly what my look is. “Hi, I just want to give you a couple of tips on ‘my style’. It’s quite unique and… er… classic.” I’ve heard people use this word before and I’m pretty sure that I’m on the right track. “I like to wear clothes… like… you know, T-shirts and jeans and shoes and stuff… so… I really hope that helps.”

It doesn’t. Bloody hell, how does Alexa Chung do it? How does she know that pop socks with patent brogues and a puffball skirt will look so good together? She’s clearly a genius, because I’m looking at her thinking, “You know what that outfit needs, love? Tights.” Clearly I know nothing.

“I’m standing as though someone has shoved a rod up my bum and is pushing me forward on a pair of tin cans tied to my hands with string. In short, I look like I need help.”

Three days later and I’m at the shoot. They’ve gone with a blouse and trousers. I’m told I look “AMAZING.” As only a woman in a blouse and slacks can. If I’d known I looked this good I would have shopped at M&S sooner. My look is also enhanced by makeup which I’m told makes me look 10 years younger. I believe them because it sounds a lot better than, “Are you going to bleach your moustache or what?”

I’m amazed at what makeup has done to my face. Prior to arriving I had dark rings round my eyes, acne on my chin and a five o’clock shadow. Now, I am positively glowing! Every line and blemish on my face has been pumped full of L’Oréal filler.

I am so worth it.

I’m surrounded by women telling me how good I look. “JEN YOU LOOK SO GOOD!” Oh my God, do I? Do I really? “Yes! Now slip on these heels and go and get your picture taken!” I oblige and slip on the heels. OK, that’s not strictly true, I put one heel on and stare about me with a look of panic.

“Can someone give me a hand here? Sorry, I’m just having trouble standing… I don’t think I can feel my left toe, is that normal?” I have that feeling of defeat I used to experience as a teenager when trying to put lipstick on unguided. Robert Smith had nothing on me. Here I am again, a woman in her late 30s who can’t even stand in heels. There are women up and down the country who can not only stand in them, they can walk, run and even skip in them. Why has no one ever given these women some kind of award? These shoes are so uncomfortable! I’m standing as though someone has shoved a rod up my bum and is pushing me forward on a pair of tin cans tied to my hands with string. In short, I look like I need help.

“I’m told I look ‘AMAZING’. As only a woman in a blouse and slacks can. If I’d known I looked this good I would have shopped at M&S sooner.”

“What do you think?”

“Jen, you look… er… maybe take the shoes off for now.”

Finally at the photo shoot I’m told I can just stand still but move my hips, which I do. This doesn’t seem so hard after all.

“Jen, can you remember to smile?”

“What? Yes, sorry am I not smiling?”

“No, you look like you hate someone.”

So, I just need to stand, swing my hips and smile…

“Jen, you need to do something with your arms, they’re very stiff.”

“What do you want me to do with them?”

“Just move them about, but try to make it look natural.”

Right, fine, so I just stand, swing my hips, keep smiling and move my arms.

“OK Jen, your smile looks demented…”

“What? Sorry, I was focusing on my arms.”

“Don’t forget to smile.”

“I am smiling, this is how I smile!”

“Remember to put the weight on your left leg and push your hip out…”

“WHAT? I CAN’T! I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT MY ARMS AND FACE ARE DOING!”

“I can dress myself if someone is in the same room telling me what to wear: ‘TAKE OFF THAT V-NECK JUMPER; YOU LOOK LIKE RONNIE CORBETT.’”

In the end a white box is brought out and I’m told to sit on it.

“Jen, if you can just sit on the box, lean back a bit but bring your arms forward and tilt your head a little to the left, as you would naturally.”

AS I WOULD NATURALLY? Mate, I have never sat on a box in a studio in Holloway with three safety pins pinned to the back of a Nicole Farhi blouse with three inches of makeup on my face and a pair of heels that are challenging my ability to walk without the aid of crutches. NONE OF THIS IS NATURAL. Obviously I don’t say that. Instead, I say something like, “This is a lot of fun! Sorry, what am I doing with my arms again…?”

Suffice to say I haven’t been on a photo shoot since. Which is just as well as my last ‘fashion’ purchase comprised a pair of Birkenstocks and a crew neck jumper. Still, I learned a lot; not least that in a photo my ‘happy face’ is also my ‘constipated’ face. No, I didn’t keep the picture.

@JenBrister

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Written by Jen Brister

Jen Brister is a stand-up comic, writer and comedy actor. A regular performer on the UK and international circuit, she has also written for BBC Scotland and presented for BBC 6Music.