HERE ARE A FEW PRONOUNCEMENTS from model Kristen McMenamy, the fashion world’s newest self-styled truth-teller. First: “I am the only model that doesn’t lie about her age.” And: “The girls [models] have to be honest and admit that they do not exercise three times a day. And they smoke and drink.”
And: “We’re just normal people.” Maybe so. It’s just that “normal” isn’t the first word that springs to mind when contemplating McMenamy—who is, indeed, 28, just as she says. Our 5’10” lady of the invisible eyebrows, short spiked hair and pigeon-toed runway walk has, in fact, developed a sizzling career out of her very peculiarities. Dubbed Harper’s Bazaar Model of the Year in January, McMenamy, based in Paris, has also landed contracts with designers Gianni Versace and Calvin Klein. “There’s something about Kristen’s face,” says fashion photographer Steven Meisel, who helped McMenamy develop her look, “that is different, but she’s very beautiful.”
That talent has brought her far from suburban Easton, Pa., about 50 miles north of Philadelphia. The third of seven children of Charles McMenamy, a chemical engineer, and his wife, Eileen, a nurse, Kristen was so gawky as an adolescent that her classmates at Notre Dame High School nicknamed her Skeleton. “I used to hate myself so much,” she says. “If I could have been anybody else. Anybody.” Escaping into the fantasy world offered by fashion magazines, “I lived through the models’ lives,” she says. “They were my idols. But I never thought I could be really like them.”
Nevertheless, McMenamy took a modeling course while in high school, then went to New York City to look for an agent. “Eileen Ford said, ‘Get out of my office. You will never make it,’ ” she recalls. “I think you should never say that to a girl. I was devastated.” (Ford says she does not remember the incident.) Still, on a lark, McMenamy, who was tending bar, entered a Cosmopolitan cover-girl contest. A couple of months later she got a call from an agent who had seen her photo in the magazine’s reject pile. The agency provided her with a one-way ticket to Paris. Eventually she got steady work in Europe but could not seem to get major bookings either abroad or during her return visits to the U.S.
So in 1991 McMenamy rebelled. “Since I couldn’t conform and look like the girl next door,” she says, “I decided to go the opposite way and be a weirdo.” She chopped her hair off”, dyed it black and voilà! “Jobs happened right away,” she says. Next, she made her eyebrows disappear. “Now I bleach them. Plucking got too painful. And I’d made my point.” Not to mention her career.
Off the job, McMenamy, according to Meisel, is “wild.” The model concurs. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but I love a good party. I love to go crazy and dance and have fun.” Though she acknowledges that “drugs are wrong,” she admits to drinking and doing pot and cocaine occasionally—-but, she says, never in professional settings.
Her love life, too, is on the wild side. She’s seeing Hubert Boukopza, 43, a Parisian club owner she met three years ago at a party. “He’s the funniest person I know. He’s like a big retard.” Living in a quaint one-bedroom apartment in Paris overlooking the Place de la Nation and working almost constantly, McMenamy sees Boukopza only about once every two weeks. That’s often enough, though, for tempestuous fights that get written up in the gossip columns. “Oh, we do fight. It’s true,” McMenamy says. “But I hit him.” Still, she insists, “I love him. We read the stories and laugh.”
There’s one thing this unconventional model knows for sure: that she who laughs last laughs best. “I don’t model for the money,” McMenamy says. “I do it for the fame. I love the fact that I am famous for being who I am, and I was laughed at before for being who I was.”
ALLISON LYNN in New York City