Actress Jennifer Sky Tackles The Modeling Industry's Darkest Secrets In "Queen Of The Tokyo Ballroom"
"When your body is a commodity, where's the line?"
When she was 16 years old, Jennifer Sky left her home in small-town Florida and spent a summer in Tokyo to pursue her dream of being a model.
At 17, Sky reached the peak of her modeling career when she appeared on the cover of Sassy magazine.
And then went on to have a successful acting career as well, appearing on shows like Xena: Warrior Princess and Cleopatra 2525.
She also appeared on General Hospital, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and CSI, amongst others.
Now 37 years old, having traversed the inroads of the beauty and fashion industries, Sky is an authoress and an advocate for young models.
She sat down to talk with BuzzFeed about her latest book, Queen of the Tokyo Ballroom, an exposé centered around her summer in Japan.
On her decision to tell this story now:
I think right now there seems to be a little more flexibility with alternative voices, with women's rights movements and with worker's rights movements. At the base level, my story is a child labor issue. There are very young women being sent abroad and being utilized in ways that a child shouldn't be... [Now is a good time to tell this story] because there seems to be a voice now for people who are not just the old boy's club. There is a voice now for people of color, for queer people, for women, and I think that's really incredible.
On the problem with teenage models:
I was a professional model when I was 14, 15, 16 years old. I don't look like that anymore. I'm 37 now. My skin doesn't glow like that, my body doesn't look like that, I'm an actual woman now. I'm not a teenager. When you're a teenager you look a specific way, and when you're a woman you look a specific way. By covering our magazines with young girls, the fashion industry makes older women feel bad about how they look, so they'll buy whatever products you're selling. When you're dressing up a teenager to look like and sell products to women, that's when we get in trouble.
On changing standards of beauty:
Everybody uses Photoshop, even if they say they don't, but I am seeing a change. Kate Upton — while she's an unreal, distinctly beautiful creature — has created some flexibility in accepted body types. She shows what it is to be an adult woman, not a teenage girl. She's curvy and she doesn't look like she's starving herself. Women's voices, as people who want to see their own images on magazine covers, are pushing back and being heard. Lena Dunham is on the cover of Vogue.
On the challenges of effecting change in the industry:
The unfortunate thing for me, as a models' rights activist, is that I am a lone voice here. I'm a lone voice talking about what happens to these children, utilizing my own experiences and highlighting them, saying this happened to me, this is actually borderline human trafficking. This is borderline child labor, a borderline slavery issue. Let's look at it like that. I'm using my own experiences to open up the conversation around that, but I am one of very few people. I have so many models contact me all the time, saying they wish they could talk about it. But anyone who's getting their income from the industry, and is still within the industry, is terrified. People at Condé Nast can't write about any of this. I've spoken with some of the biggest journalists in the industry. They're interested in this story, and they want to write big, huge features about it. But they can't. Because Anna Wintour runs Condé Nast.
On the need for models to unionize:
Acting on Xena was an incredibly empowering experience. It was so comfortable to be a girl, to feel powerful and sexy at the same time. To wear short shorts and wield a sword. A lot of what empowered me as a woman and as a human being was that we were all part of the Screen Actors Guild. SAG protected us because we were only allowed to work eight hours, and the producers were required to ask us if we were comfortable working for longer. They were required to pay us, and keep us safe. There's no such thing for models. If a model needs to get to the top of a cliff, she has to rock climb. This woman is not a rock climber, she's a model who probably hasn't eaten for three days. It's dangerous, but there's nothing protecting her or making sure she's compensated.
On choosing to leave the modeling industry:
I was 17, living in New York, I was at the peak of my career. I was on the cover of Sassy magazine, which, at the time, was a big deal. But when it was sent to me, I looked at it and there was no life left in that person that I saw. I just looked sad and I couldn't take it anymore. The life had been pressed out of me. It's an industry where, as a woman and as a child, as a minor, you were basically told you have no rights. You're told what to do, and if you don't, there's somebody else right behind you that will. When I saw that cover, all of that became clear to me, and I left New York. I went home to Florida and began healing.
On the silence of models:
We can see how powerful people can diminish a child's rights. We're seeing that now with Dylan Farrow. Woody Allen, because he's very powerful and because he's a man, can very easily shut down her story. Why would a 7-year-old child make that up? Children are uncorrupted. It's the same thing within the modeling industry. There's so much power higher up that young girls' voices, when they try to say they were abused, are pushed down. Terry Richardson is worth upwards of $60 million. He has abused young girls over and over and over again, both above and below the 18-year-old line. He manages to get away with it. When it's young women versus powerful men, the men can get away with whatever they want, no matter how disgusting it is.
On the dangers of young models working abroad:
I was sent abroad and I was put in very inappropriate situations. I was sent to Mexico, I was drugged, and I was made to do a topless shoot. They remove you from the United States because here, we're protected. Abroad, we're unchaperoned, we're alone, we don't speak the language, and we can't advocate for ourselves. The modeling industry should be treated with the same laws and contempt as the human trafficking industry. When your body is a commodity, where's the line?
The following is an excerpt from Queen of the Tokyo Ballroom, published by the Atavist:
"He's a friend," the European trader told me. "You guys will love each other." He walked me to a silver convertible, two-seat Mercedes. Sitting in the driver's side was an attractive man in a crisp tan suit who looked like he was in his early forties. I was fifteen.
The car moaned with power as it climbed the highway up into the mountains outside of Tokyo. I'd come to the city a month earlier, in June 1992, a teen model who'd been loaned to a Japanese agency for the summer. The agency I'd modeled a few times for back in Florida had set up the arrangement. I stood to make tens of thousands of dollars, they'd told me—and seeing as I was just fifteen, I would have chaperones and supervisors looking out for me at every turn. Instead, here I was, heading out into the Japanese countryside with a man more than twice my age.
A group of us were going on an overnight trip, one that had been coordinated by Kimmy (not her real name), an older Canadian model who had been in Tokyo for the last four years. Since coming to Japan, I hadn't done much modeling, but I had spent a lot of time with Kimmy—a sort of den mother to us teen models, she had filled our calendar with parties. While the core group of four or five models remained the same for most of my summer, the men around us were ever changing: An anonymous cluster of elegant suits and wide grins rotating in and out of our lives. "Crazy" by Seal played on the Mercedes's stereo. I could not help but wonder why I wasn't in one of the other cars, piled in with my friends.
The top was down, and my hair whipped behind me. My eyes watered with the force of the wind. We were far from Tokyo now; you could tell from the pine-crisp air. I had no idea where exactly we were going or even which direction we were headed. It occurred to me that I should have told my parents that I was leaving the city.
The road veered along the coast, where surfers and colorful umbrellas dotted a beach. It reminded me of home, of my daddy riding the nose of his longboard as it rose ￼along the curl of the wave, of the way he called me "sugar." I wanted to stop and smell the familiar brine of this strange sea, to stick both my hands in the sand as deep as they would go and stay like that until the tide came in. I wondered if my parents would recognize me when I returned home in a few weeks. Just four weeks ago, I still had a touch of baby fat on my 15-year-old frame. I was leaner now, perhaps a bit taller even. My hair was longer, the ends split.
The car began to slow as the curves in the road became tighter. Soon we were pulling into a mountain town on the shore of a lake, then parking outside a large house. It was a traditional Japanese home with several bedrooms surrounding an open central space, sectioned off with sliding bamboo doors. Tatami mats were laid out around the wooden floors.
Out back was a deck overlooking a pristine mountain lake, which crisply reflected ribbons of the day's fading light—the first sunset I'd taken the time to notice in Japan. It was the Fourth of July, and I suddenly felt weird and a little homesick to be spending it here. I imagined what it would be like to jump into this lake, so cold it would take my breath away.
Standing next to me on the deck were three other models, all in their teens. I spotted Kimmy. "Where should I put my bag?" I asked her.
"Oh, you'll be sharing a room with Heather, Carla, and Amy," she said, then placed her hand on my shoulder. "Unless you want to switch rooms later—you just let me know." With that, she turned to the men milling about at the edges of the deck, laughing and drinking from a bottle of something strong and dark. "Let's head over to the village and get dinner."
The local noodle house was a small, diner-like restaurant with several long tables and a bar. Our group, which now numbered more than a dozen, took up most of the space. I ordered udon noodles and sipped hot earthy green tea from a fire-sealed clay cup. Beer and sake were passed around. I tasted both, and my body gradually filled with warmth. I giggled and joked; I loosened up. The man in the tan suit came to sit next to ￼me, and we laughed together. I told him that I never drank back home. That I was a good girl. That I had a boyfriend.
It was well after midnight by the time we returned to the house, where we gathered around a low table. Someone opened what they said was a nice bottle of wine. Kimmy was across from me, seated on the European trader's lap. One of the other girls disappeared into a side room with one of the men. I sat with my knees pulled up to my chest, my back against the wall, watching and listening to the conversation and dipping in and out of consciousness. The man in the tan suit sat next to Kimmy and occasionally said something into her ear.
Finally, I stood up a bit unsteadily and headed to the room I had been given to share with the other girls. I glanced furtively at the tan-suited man, who I knew was watching me. At the door to my room, I turned and saw Kimmy follow another man—not the trader—into an adjacent room. The hem of her rose-colored dress brushed the back of her knees. For a moment, as the bamboo door slid shut, our eyes met. The look she gave me was cold and clear, unlike any I'd seen on her face before.
Later that night I lay on my mat, listening to the crickets outside the screenless windows. Two of the other three model girls had come to bed, their breaths softening into the slower patterns of sleep. I lay awake, watching the ceiling fan stir the mosquito netting above us, listening to the inscrutable sounds of the house, on guard. I couldn't stop thinking about Kimmy, replaying the look that had passed over her face. It made my back rigid with a fear that had quietly dogged me the whole trip, an instinctive sense of danger that had suddenly taken on a fixed form. I couldn't stop thinking about our room's sliding door with no lock.