Head Shot

By Victoria Nixon

How does a Vogue model confront a double family suicide and live a normal life?


How vain it is to sit down and write if you have not stood up to live
– Henry David Thoreau

London 2012. Opening night at a friend's art exhibition draws a good-looking, fast-moving crowd, the flashbulbs so frantic I don't see who's furiously tapping my shoulder. It's another pal and former model with a towering young admirer in tow. She skips off into the crowd parking her suitor with me, and I soon discover why.

The lofty one's dark city suit neatly belies his state of mind. Grabbing two large vodkas from a passing waiter, he snorts them both in seconds and they clearly aren't his first. Thirtyish, clean shaven with hooded slate-grey eyes and a drained face, he fixes me with a deep unnerving gaze:
"Tell me, is it true that you Sixties models all shagged like stoats and married for money?"

He may have been joking, and he wasn't the first to ask.
But he will be the last. Foto-fit features do not guarantee a mind devoid of thought.
I gave him my best 'bright lights' smile and left him to it.

I'd never given the Sixties much thought since living them, life too full-on to dredge lost memories. Yet that unabashed question from a wasted city slicker delivered the nudge I needed to clear the junk from the trunk which languished in my loft. To put an end to being forever labelled by a vacant stare in a vintage glossy.
That's not how it was. That's not how I was. This is how it was.

Before 1963, the British fashion model had a graceful hauteur and fitting name. Fiona Campbell-Walker, later Baroness Thyssen, was a premiere beauty. As life changed fast, she gave way to the startled waif with enormous eyes who looked into the camera as if she'd only just noticed it. By the height of the Sixties, this look was so perfected it ceased to be interesting, paving the way for us lot: a motley gaggle of post-Shrimpton, post-Twiggy models whose names were rarely known, but whose faces made us fortunes. Neither pouty hair-flickers nor rich men's trophies, we didn't fit in the box or stay between the lines. Our allure was coltish and unruly, and we wanted to be strong and empowered. 

My generation of models never morphed into media personalities, rarely managed pure chic and never worried about our weight; we just got on with the job. Astounded as I was to be named 'The Face of 68' by a national newspaper, it was no big deal. I was happiest working around Europe, not focusing on – or deserving of – that Twiggy kind of fame, not wanting my youthful face to be the one defining element of my life.

The unkempt look reigned because quirkiness and innovation were prized in a time when meaning replaced narcissism. It wasn't what you wore but what you were that counted – our style was never to flaunt wealth, flap labels and drip jewels. That was too frocking far. And why marry for money when we made plenty for ourselves?

We were a fearless, defiant brigade who quickly learnt that high-fashion hedonism did not preclude danger and destruction in this radical new era. But we recognised good luck when it waved at us, always grateful for a ticket to see the world with a paid-for smile, aware of the gamble that a minute area of placement and position of eyes, nose, ears and mouth could confirm or cancel a fortune. And so it was – long before Germaine ever thought she needed a bra, let alone considered burning it in Melbourne – that we teenage girls took destiny into our own hands and headed off to work in foreign climes with zero fuss, armed solely with a determination to see new worlds with the knowledge that life's best teacher is experience.

We didn't do it to be liberated or considered equal to men – we already thought we were. There was no deep feminist philosophy, we simply wanted our freedom in a different way: to make our own money, to determine our own fate, to have adventures in unknown locations before walking away to do something useful, productive and rewarding. We knew photographic fashion modelling would be a career of diminishing returns, ten years max, with the door closing slowly before it slammed shut forever.

Yet that staccato, free-wheeling restlessness, that desire to escape the humdrum was way more extreme in me than the others. Adventure followed me everywhere, but so did constant tragedy, and as long as I kept on running there was no space or time for memories. I could lock away my tangled thoughts, avoid being ambushed by grief and never be touched by sadness.

But how far did I have to run to leave my past behind?

Now – half a century later – I am about to open that trunk to dump the modelling junk. And to be free of the decade I've never ever confronted. It feels strange, bone-close, as I lift the Louis Vuitton lid, cobwebbed thick and sticky with age. One glance, just one, is all it takes for my past to howl from every corner. Those ten years of faded tear-sheets ram back into my life as each reveals its real story. Not of pouting lips and vacuous smiles, but of high swings felled by the devastating self-destruction of my family and friends. For also in that trunk is the hard evidence of their too-brief lives: the hand-scrawled letters, the soul-touching poems, the nicotine-stained postcards, the fun-time photos - and the dog-eared press cuttings of their premature, puzzling, untimely deaths.

No longer is this about binning the junk. This is about confronting the psychological agonies of those I loved, and of acknowledging that the shock of unexpected suicide, of purposeful self-death never leaves you.
A never ending absence.
That never known reason.
The guilt that haunts.
And the confusion of separating those friends who were pains in the neck from those with real pain in their heads during that 'anything goes' era when it was cool to smell a touch, hear a taste and touch a sound. Recognising that my independent, maverick life was too often splintered by the men I chose so poorly, as I tried to rescue them from themselves.

This is tricky. Will my baggage be any lighter if I ditch the junk from the trunk without inhabiting my past? I live a happy life now, ever grateful to those I love. No need, surely, to re-live to relieve the opposing hands of the fate I was dealt. Writing a self-story will not be an act of catharsis. It won't purge me of my demons – it will simply embed that painful story deeper inside me.

But I need to know. Why couldn't those loved ones cope?
Why the hell did they find it necessary to shorten their lives?
Now there's no-one left to ask. And I need to know.
And now I do.

I've rescued myself from that frozen past. The trunk is unpacked. I'm no longer what happened to me but what I chose to become because of it, and writing this book has not defeated or destroyed me. Lifting a difficult and sensitive subject out of the darkness, facing and owning those memories with courage and hope has strengthened me, made me less frightened of love, helped me to learn and understand why conditions of the mind are so complex, why people suffer the ultimate mental pain I never had to deal with in my time amongst them.

Suicide bereavements don't define me. But my strength to confront them does.
This is not a misery memoir or an 'I know best' self-help rant. It's a story of love that brings back to life special people – to honour their brief incandescent bright-burning presence – so they can live again within these pages.
So we can learn vital lessons to preserve future precious lives.
This is the story of what was in that trunk, those secrets from beyond the glitz.

Please join me on my journey through a hidden world where there has always, always been more to fashion than ever meets the eye. 

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