Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lunch with Liskula Cohen

“Being a model is just a job. It’s not a lifestyle. Is it artistic? Yes. But it’s just work.”

Liskula Cohen is certainly in a very good position to make that statement. During her career, she has appeared in fashion shows for some of the modeling world’s most prestigious designers, including Armani, Ferre, Chloe, Ralph Lauren, Alma, Bluemarine, Escada, Montana, Balenciaga, Versace, Erreuno, Norma Kamali, Adrienne Vittadini, Chado, Marc Bouwer, Chanel, and Betsey Johnson, to name only a few.

Such a litany of achievement is impressive even to someone like me, whose knowledge of the worlds of modeling and fashion could fit between the two ‘o’s in Zoolander. Of course, it is an axiom of human nature that what people lack in facts they will make up for with knee-jerk preconceptions – in the case of models, that they are vapid, arrogant, self-absorbed, and cocooned in a glamorous lifestyle that detaches them from the rest of the world. Considering that this was the first time I had ever met a model, I couldn’t help but contrast the real woman eating lunch across from me with the caricatures that exist about most successful models.

And make no mistake about it, Liskula is a VERY successful model. At five-feet-ten-inches tall, with long blond hair, light blue eyes, and a slender figure, it is easy to see why so many modeling agencies (Bryan Bantry in New York City, MC2 in Miami, LA Models in Los Angeles, Heffner Management in Seattle, Spot6 Management in Toronto) are eager to represent her. Her career has taken her to the ends of the earth – from Sweden and England to Germany and Italy, from South Africa and Mexico to Australia and Japan. In the process she has worked with some of the greatest photographers in the fashion industry, including Rico Puhlman, Alex Chatelaine, Sante Dorazio, Steve Shaw, Martin Scholler, Pamela Hansen, Dimitri Mavrikis, Scavullo, Marco Glaviano, and William Klien. Her image has been seen on the covers of magazines such as Flare, Cleo, Amica, Anna, Vogue, Elle, Sportswear International, W, and WWD. Even couch potatoes have no doubt seen her on commercials for Garnier Fructicus, Target, Danon Yogurt, and Wella.

This is an impressive resume, even for someone who has been in the business for more than half of her life. “My first show was in Toronto” – Liskula is a native-born Canadian and proud of it – “when I was seventeen”. One year later, her career took her to Paris; by 1993, she had decided on establishing a home base in New York City. Reviewing such an impressive expanse of time inevitably led me to ask:

“What is it like being a model?”

She asked for clarification – and rightly so, since I would have been equally befuddled had someone asked “What’s it like being a writer?” I elaborated:

“What do you think about while on the runway?”

“Mostly ‘Don’t fall.’”

The wind thus removed from the sails of my inquiry, we began casually chatting, and as we did so I realized, to my pleasant surprise, that she is absolutely nothing like the caricatures. The conversation rarely turned to herself, and on those occasions when I attempted to steer it in that direction (I was there to write an article about her, after all), she seemed genuinely disinterested in the subject. Having been around more than my fair share of narcissists, I know how to tell the difference between the egomaniacs who put up a façade of diffidence in order to show off their humility and the down-to-earth people who genuinely find talking about themselves to be – well, pretty boring. Liskula fell quite firmly into the latter category.

In fact I found that she was, all in all, a pretty normal human being – which is to say that she did not exude glamour or superhuman poise, did not walk between raindrops, and was neither conceited nor vain –but that she DID possess the same collection of individual quirks that are far more telling of who a person is than any resume or dry recitation of lifetime milestones. Some of my most prominent recollections include my drawing attention to her tendency to play with her hair, to which she responded by identifying the exact clinical name of that particular habit (Trichotillomania) as well as a treatment facility in Arizona where people can receive treatment for it (obviously those more sorely afflicted than her); her helping me pronounce the pentasyllabic fare on the Italian menus; my listening to her very humorous elaboration on a quote from her Facebook status, “The more I meet men, the more I love my dog”; her admonition that I apologize far too often; and in general the two of us having the kind of casual chit-chat that would be quite unremarkable were it not for the incidental fact that it was taking place between an internationally renowned supermodel and the pudgy pending playwright.

I’m not quite sure when it occurred to me that maybe it would be a good idea to write an article about the real Liskula Cohen. Part of me was no doubt motivated by the peculiar passion to which so many writers are prone – namely, to find out what goes on in the minds of other people. On another level, I probably saw the endeavor as being necessary, even long overdue. This wouldn't have been the case would had it not been for the explosion of vicious lies that were suddenly spread about Liskula all over the Internet by an anonymous blogger. When Liskula attempted to find out her attacker's identity, the blogger hid behind the First Amendment, and when Google refused to assist Liskula, she pressed a trailblazing lawsuit. A lengthier exploration of this story will be published in the December 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, but the short version is that Liskula's legal case was extremely successful - a judge ruled not only that defamatory language is unprotected by the First Amendment (which is a given), but that the right to free speech online does not include lack of personal accountability for what you say. Considering the far-reaching ramifications this case will thus have on the implementation of First Amendment law in cyberspace, Liskula Cohen's case has the rare distinction of having made legal history.

That said, it has not been able to stop the scurrilous lies being propagated about her online. Far too often, the things we read about people are crafted to conform to our pre-existing impressions about them (based on their race, their religion, their gender, their political stances, how they look, what they do for a living) instead of helping us reach any sort of deeper understanding of the human beings they truly are. Saying what people expect to hear is easier, more profitable, and for many a lot more fun than challenging preconceptions. As a result, the practice flourishes.

The problem with this tendency is that it encourages a strange sort of de-humanization, one wherein we begin to see people not for who they are, but for the roles we have assigned them. It is convenient, even tempting, to believe that the beautiful women who appear in our commercials and on the covers of our glossy magazines are both larger-than-life enough to warrant our obsession yet petty enough to deserve our contempt. Such assumptions make it seem okay to spread lies about Liskula Cohen, or mock and exaggerate the weight gain of Tyra Banks and Jessica Simpson, or ridicule the personal lives of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. Once we have reduced them to stereotypes, we can ignore their humanity, and with it, the need to feel personally accountable for the pain our words and actions cause them. As Liskula herself noted:

“You always have to prove to people that you’re human. People think, oh you’re a model, so you have to be this, or you have to be that. I’m just me. Modeling is just my job.”

So what did I learn from all of this? Mainly that the woman with whom I had lunch that Tuesday afternoon was a nice and intelligent human being named Liskula Cohen, someone who I am pleased to call my friend and who just so happens to be a damn good model.

For more information about Liskula Cohen, please read the following links:


rachina85 said...

Wow, this is a good one. Lucky you, getting to meet someone who's on the forefront of Internet law (though I'm sure that's not what she intended, which somehow makes it even cooler). Nicely done, Matt. Way to network.

Stella said...

I have had the pleasure of working with Liskula and all I can say is, she is professional, smart, compassionate and funny, not to mention real beautiful outside and inside.

La Hora Antes del Alba said...


La Hora Antes del Alba said...

This is all very interesting. I like how you are interested in delving into the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Liskula, but not moreso than you would be in any random person. Also, way to go, Liskula! It's nice to see people taking on such a huge technocracy as the internet, and uplifting and empowering to see something done about the crimes that take place in that sphere. Nice article, Matt! :)

EllaQuent said...

Thank you for writing this! I have known Liskula since she was a child and can only say how proud I am that she took a stand against the malicious slander that was being spread by this obviously jealous coward. The fashion business is full of bitchy people who try to build themselves up by tearing others down. Liskula isn't one of them.

Anonymous said...

This is so true...

jane said...

liskula has been my friend for 10 years....amazing girl and a great friend....i have nothing but good to say about her....luv ya...xoxo

Gorga said...

Excellent article, my friend!

Anonymous said...

I have known Liskula as she was a peer during my own modeling career although her career did eclipse mine with the cailber of photographers she worked with. I hadn't seen her in years but she was there to help me out when I gave her a call. She is a real sweetheart.

A friend.