In the summer of 1991 Jennifer Sky, then only fifteen years old, flew to Tokyo on the promise of a glamorous and successful career in modeling. What met her instead was what she describes as the "ruthless" and "deeply patrician [modeling] industry that routinely eats up and spits out thousands of young women."
In her new e-book, "Queen of the Tokyo Ballroom," Sky tells the unsettling story of her first summer spent in a foreign land as an under-aged model. With determination and tender humility, Sky brings a personal story to an all too representative experience of the fashion industry, and a culture of trauma that is routinely made rote. Our experiences of trauma are indelible, palpable; especially the ones endured in childhood.
Via email, Sky discussed her memoir and her process of writing.
AW: The discovery of independence is a ubiquitous phenomenon in adolescence. In your book you express the desire as a child “of the woods,” to find freedom in the strange and glamorous life of modeling. But leaving school at fifteen years old and entering the modeling world—an industry which commodifies and oftentimes exploits young bodies—seems far from the mode of “self-discovery” that your parents tried as young world travelers. As descriptively grounded and conscientious, “self-taught, self-sufficient hippies,” were your parents ever worried about what becoming a model could do to your growing and impressionable mind? What was the freedom that you were so desperate to find? What did your parents believe you would find?
JS: My parents were worried like any good parents would be, and they were given assurances by my agency that I would be taken care of. They had faith that my agency would know that a teenager requires special treatment, and that a child of 14 or 15 wouldn't know how to act like an adult, and wouldn't be expected to. To allay my parents' fears, the agency said that I'd have chaperones, that I'd be looked out for, and that I'd be compensated fairly for the work I was doing. I guess my parents believed that since many young girls had gone this route before, that it was ok, that the law wouldn't be broken and I would be safe. There is also an aspect of them not knowing what the industry was like, and how could they? No one was writing exposes or sharing their thoughts on the Internet, because Internet use was still in its infancy. And fashion was really in its early days still too. It was the 90s. It was a more trusting time and "tiger moms" weren't even a concept. I wanted to go, I persisted that I was old enough, and I insisted that this was the right thing for me. I doubt my parents could have lived with denying me my dream unless the evidence was overwhelmingly bad.The freedom I was desperate to find was, I guess, what any teenager wants. They want out of their backwater town. They want to be treated like a grown up. I think my parents thought I would be taught responsibility and that I would have a tremendous opportunity to learn, travel and make money.
AW: The images from artist/photographer Takehiko Nakafuji’s “Night Crawler” series interspersed among the text, accentuated the already darkening tale of your descent into the city of Tokyo and the modeling world.In explaining his series, Nakafuji said of Tokyo: “In [this] fictitious city you … carry imagination with you as currency.” This literally seemed the case for you, often not even being able to afford food for yourself. Was it also your imagining of what was and what could be, i.e. what Tokyo offered you in the present, and what you were promised for your future career, which “bought” your way through your experience? Does Tokyo have a specific fictitiousness to it?
JS: I had no idea what to expect from Tokyo. I'd barely been out of Florida. The land that met me was something from a dreamscape, the future, a place so wholly other than that it was as if I had suddenly found myself transported to a different planet. Going into it, I was nothing but practical. I was going to make money. I was going to be a model. Then I found myself there and scared. I don't recall imagining much past getting there. What Tokyo offered when I got there was a lot of frustration and disappointment career wise. (I must have imagined myself turning into a star, but that's what a lot of little girls who are judged by their beauty hope is going to happen.) But I was also partying a lot and just living day to day. I did a lot of foolish things. In the end, it's hard for me to say if Tokyo had a fictitiousness to it. I recall my experiences as very real, but at this point in time, very hazy, because it was 20 years ago. I carry a lot of it with me still. It never had the mythology of New York or LA though. Those are cities that loom large in the American vernacular. Tokyo was just inscrutably foreign, and since I haven't been back, I probably still feel that way.
AW: An exclaiming thought that was constant in my mind as I read your book was: “Where are the adults?” You are surrounded by people who are older than you, but who never care for your well-being or safety. Either they are neglecting you or exploiting you. In this way, you do find an independence in Tokyo: the guideless—or misguided—freedom to completely self-destruct. Was this an important theme for you to convey? Was there a person who helped you to feel safe in Tokyo?
JS: This is a point that everyone brings up, "where's the adults?" It seems baffling now, especially to younger generations, that no one was there to be an adult. The Post Gen X generation is constantly accused of being coddled or improperly weaned off their parents, and I feel that it is inconceivable to many younger people, and their parents, that kids my age could be left to romp around Tokyo all on their own. It was a different time. Clinton signed DOMA into law. Women were more of a commodity than they are now. And the idea of models' rights being a child labor issue was unheard of. The fact of the matter is that there was no outlet for models to complain to. No 800 numbers,* no widespread Internet culture to give our voice a context. So no one knew all of the bad things that were happening. I was told by other models and by my agents, "well, that's just how it is." There was a freedom to a being without any backup, so to speak, but like a lot of kids, I ran wild and it ran wild over me. It was a terrible feeling, because ultimately no one within the business cared. I could have gone to my parents, but I would have had to live with a feeling of defeat. And anyway, my parents might have encouraged me to be strong and stick it out, as was the way then.
AW: Besides the short scene in chapter six in which you are twirled on the dance floor and you imagine yourself: “Jenny, Queen of the Tokyo Ballroom!” could you elaborate on the inspiration and meaning of the title?
JS: It's a title rife with irony. The child in me cherished these little victories, because day-to-day, I was like a serf, only I didn't have any work. A serf, waiting to be told what to do. I never made any money. I didn't go on many castings. I worked only a handful of times. So the small bits of camaraderie were the only thing that allayed the feelings of rootlessness and abandonment.
AW: I enjoyed many of your quick-witted descriptions of characters throughout the book—“She wore pointy black shoes and spoke with an accent that I was not yet worldly enough to recognize; it seemed to me like a mixture of French and all-purpose poshness.” By describing a few tangible features of the character you strike right into their essence. How important was the development of the characters around you, in developing and exposing your own character’s voice? How important was Tokyo as a character?
JS: Character and characterization is important in any work of writing, whether it be nonfiction or fiction. I am currently in the Fiction MFA program at Brooklyn College and our program head, Josh Henkin, is often speaking to us about the importance of characterizing with fresh details. A phone does not need to be a black phone unless that is intrinsically important to the plot of the story. In other words, don’t waste the reader’s time on building the wrong details: build details that characterize. The example you used “She wore pointy black shoes.” I chose to include these details “pointy black” because they were both true—because this story is nonfiction— but also because they would give the reader the feeling of the Wicked Witch of the West without my having to outright write it.
The characters and the character of Tokyo served to show how out of place I was during that experience. I was not ready for any of it. The way I was thrust into quasi-adulthood I hope is shown by the characterization of the more experienced girls and their implied intentions toward me as well as by the customs of daily life in Tokyo.
AW: What do you wish to achieve, personally and publically, in sharing this story?
JS: I hope that this is one more story to add to other voices that are testifying to the bad behavior of the fashion industry. Over the past fours years, a handful of other models, myself and a few others, have come forward to out the industry for its crimes against children. Human trafficking is a topic people are finally speaking up about.
AW: Any new books in the works?
JS: This story is what they call a Single and is more in the long-form realm than a traditionally sized book. I am currently working on a proposal to tell the rest of the story— the full span of my time as a child model, 14-17, and boy, there is plenty to tell. Tokyo is only the first place I was sent to. I lived in Miami when I was 16, then Milan followed, and France, Mexico, finally I settled in New York and quit fashion at age 17 ½— a week after I appeared on my first national magazine Sassy. So that book is forthcoming. It will be the true-life of a teenage model and show the full breadth of what happens behind-the-scenes in the modeling industry. Tokyo was only the beginning.
When Jennifer Sky was fifteen, she was offered the chance to spend a summer working as a model in Japan. For a girl from rural Florida who spent hours poring over fashion magazines it seemed like a dream come true. But soon she found herself all but abandoned in an unfamiliar city, attempting to navigate a ruthless industry on her own and waving goodbye to childhood on the boozy margins of Tokyo’s expatriate scene. In "Queen of the Tokyo Ballroom," Sky recounts the summer that changed the course of her life—and left her still sorting out the consequences two decades later.
Anna J. Witiuk is a student at the New School for Public Engagement, where she is studying creative writing and the incredible stories of folk. She is also a rhapsodic participant of the school's Riggio Honors Writing program. Anna grew up in the East Village and parts of Brooklyn where she honed her skills as a serial "anthropologist." She is a poet, storyteller and songstress, and is eternally grateful to the ether for its endless provision of nuanced whackos for her to write about.