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Confessions of a Former Model: On Faith and Hour-Glass Figures

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I was a model back when bust-waist-hip measurements were bandied around like batting averages on baseball trading cards. Those three numbers were printed in Miss America programs until 1985.

Mine were 34-22-33.

Like Twiggy, I was tiny, but I feared that my bust was inadequate. So did others, apparently; implants began making the rounds among American models. The idea just didn't hold up to my core values. That's not the way God made me, I decided. I'm not going to get into that. My newlywed husband, Dick, backed me up. He liked me just as I was.

I got over those superficial concerns, joined a Bible study and rediscovered my Christian faith. Ultimately, three decades of modeling -- from 1970 to 2000 -- brought me closer to God. I worked to develop my inner and outer beauty, embracing the adventure of each shoot and dropping to my knees to thank Him for every opportunity.

There's nothing inherently un-Christian about modeling. It's all how you go about it. Tonight's much-hyped Victoria's Secret fashion show is not only a blow to average women still feeling stuffed from Thanksgiving and bloated by holiday treats, it's semi-pornographic. To call it anything else is to deceive.

When I modeled, I held fast to modest standards: no "skin shots," as they called them, and no swimwear (not even a one-piece), which put me in the minority. Most of my peers were goaded by twin goals: making money and making it big. If skimpier clothing brought fatter paychecks, they sprang for it.

My agent -- who was Catholic, like me -- knew and respected my boundaries, so I never had to decline a job. I believe God blessed me for my uncompromising stance, giving me abundant work. It felt like a gift from above.

Getting Started

I didn't set out to model, but every girl wants to feel pretty. My older sister and I spent endless hours gazing into the mirror together, comparing every little detail. My mother stressed virtue over vanity. She was never one to compliment my looks.

"Beauty is what beauty does," she would say. How you behave, that is, determines whether or not you are attractive.

"I firmly believe that God doesn't see the outside," she also told us. "He sees what's on the inside." That's why we girls frequented Mass and confession. Pure thoughts, pure souls.

My sister was a stand-out at school, a cheerleader and the Homecoming Queen. I was searching for my own niche, so it was a welcome bit of attention when, at 16, the owner of a local petite store I frequented asked if I would model their clothing. Back then, that meant posing in a storefront window like a manikin and periodically moving to catch shoppers' eyes. Funny, looking back on it, but at the time I was tickled pink.

I fielded a few inquiries inviting me to model for some cause, and when I had my senior picture taken, the photographer asked if he could use my picture in his advertising.

After Dick and I married and settled in California, he started his own business as a management consultant and we sought additional sources of revenue. I had been working as a dental assistant for meager pay, and we decided to see if there might be something to this modeling business. I was 20 when I marched into the office of Mary Webb Davis Modeling Agency and told the receptionist with an air of authority, "I have to see Mary Webb."

Miraculously, it worked, and I found myself face to face with Mary herself, perched behind a desk in her horn-rimmed glasses with her little dog (named Mary Webb) at foot. Inside I was a nervous wreck, but I forced myself to play it cool, to make like Grace Kelly, "Her Serene Highness." Dick and I were starting our new life together and I was going to do whatever I could to support us. I would never let them see me sweat.

"I really want to model," I said, standing my tallest and looking Mary square in the eye, "and I want you to represent me."

She grinned. "Well, you spunky little thing, let's see what we can do." She sent me to a go-see for a McDonald's commercial and I landed a background role, donning figure skates and desperately trying to stay on my feet. They paid me $100 an hour, which felt like a $1,000. After a few hours of work, I returned to the agency, where Mary agreed to represent me.

The Ford Girl

That led to a series of gigs. I was too short for the runway but was hired for many commercials and print ads. I modeled for various banks, and my petite stature made me popular with car companies trying to make their vehicles appear bigger -- Ford Lincoln Mercury, Buick. I drove prototypes whose breaks didn't seem to work.

"Don't look so scared!" a director once told me, as I wondered whether the car would stop.

Every shoot brought a new environment, and I feigned Grace Kelly serenity while clinging to my favorite Scripture passage, Psalm 23.

By the time Dick and I moved to San Diego and I signed on with the Mary Crosby Talent Agency, I had hit my stride. Having three kids didn't deter me, though I felt enormous pressure to lose the baby weight. I was rigorous about a healthy diet and regular exercise. I saw it as part of the job.

Dick took pictures of me for my portfolio so we could be spared the professional photography fee. He was so proud of me, and we were so in love. Occasionally I worked with a flirtatious director, but I just focused on coming home from a long shoot, totally exhausted but eager to see my sweet children.

I was thrilled to be featured in a national SeaWorld commercial with print ads that ran in major publications like People magazine. It paid $1,000 plus residuals, small checks that brightened our mailbox. Dick's Navy friends across the country called to say, "I saw you on TV!"

The Bigger Picture

A model's value, by definition, rests in her looks, a dangerous premise for impressionable young women. Thankfully, I managed to stay grounded, anchored by my faith and family.

All I had to do for a dose of humility was walk into Mary Crosby's agency and check out the other models, whose beauty was jaw dropping. When I landed a gig, I figured it was just because they needed a brunette or were looking for an All-American type. Somehow, modeling affirmed my dignity but not my ego.

Over the decades I came to recognize how fickle our standards of beauty are, which also eliminated some pressure. Thick eyebrows came in and out and in again, and I didn't worry about keeping up. I just tried to be me. I lived a clean, simple life, and since I felt good, I hoped that would translate to looking good.

The industry has changed dramatically. Today's models all resemble Barbie, a far cry from the natural beauty that dominated my day. Compared with classic beauties like Jean Shrimpton, Kate Moss doesn't stand a chance. There's something else they're looking for now, and I don't know what it is. I'm not sure I would want my granddaughters to model.

I do know God works through each of us, in every profession. I believe we are made in His image and likeness, and the light in our eyes matters more than the size of our waistlines. I was fortunate to model in a time and fashion that allowed me to remain me -- no compromises, no regrets -- so I could look in the mirror and like the person I saw.

Martha Lyles' Modeling Composite
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