The majority of models are used to having their professional value defined solely by their bodies. It’s a wholly predictable occupational hazard. Social media followings, experience, and demeanor matter but for each and every model the body is the ultimate decision maker.
For years dancer Olivia Burgess wasn’t placed in that position. An Alvin Ailey graduate who who came to New York to pursue a BFA at Fordham University Burgess’ body was a mere vessel, a conduit to her talent, but not its source.
After being sidelined by a career threatening injury during her studies her body became more important than ever as she went on more and more modeling castings while her fate as a dancer remained undecided. In this arena it wasn’t about what she could do with her body it was about her body itself.
“I was always used to getting criticism but that was about my dancing and about my skills,” said Burgess in an exclusive interview with Hello Beautiful.
“You know those are all things that I can improve and change but you know my body type, that’s something I can’t change but so much.”
Not only did she not have the ability to change the firm thighs and prominent shoulders that creative directors didn’t consider “high fashion” she also didn’t have the inclination. “My priority was always to have an able body that could facilitate my dancing. It was never to change myself to fit into modeling because that was never really my priority so it was difficult to get rejected for certain things because of my body type.”
The judgement was tough but it wasn’t surprising. She says, “I kind of fell into this already knowing that I was potentially going to be defeated just because I wasn’t really what they wanted and I wasn’t like an easy sell just because of my body type. Not only am I athletic but I was also curvier than most models.”
Many people disassociate from their bodies after experiencing serious injuries but Burgess responded to the experience with curiosity.
“I really had to go back and look at why I got injured in the first place and I realized that I was pushing past pain that I shouldn’t have been so I really had to rediscover my body and tune into it because going through those few surgeries there was no way that I wanted to find myself on another operating table.”
In order to tune into her body she had to tune out to all of the catchall “advice” offered to her.
“People are always trying to sell you the best diet trend or the best protein pack whatever it is but everyone’s body is different. Everyone needs different things. What works for one person isn’t gonna work for you necessarily and you kind of have to be patient to find out what works for your personal needs,” she said.
She maintained that healing didn’t happen overnight. “It’s a process. I think that we’re so used to instant gratification and just getting things quickly in this day and age but there really are no shortcuts to getting to know your body. You just have to learn how to be patient with yourself. Do your research take the time and in the long run your body will thank you for it.
As she faced the realities of the physical, she relied on the “mental toughness” that the dance world had built when she continued submitting herself to modeling gigs despite all of the rejection she faced.
She says, “I was happy that I didn’t get discouraged and I didn’t stop because yes it took time to find those people that wanted to work with me but they are out there and things are changing.”
An example of those changing times is Chromat including her their diverse runway show and Athleta and Nike opting to celebrate the way she could move instead of criticizing the form that movement had created.
“It was nice to be hired for the way I am versus me trying to be something that I wasn’t,” she continued.
“It was definitely trying on my patience and time. I didn’t really know if it was going to work out, if it was going to happen for me, because of those things that the industry didn’t like about me at first,” she said. It might all be happening now but that doesn’t mean that every door glides open as easily as she leaps through the air on shoots.
“I think that it worked out and that’s not to say that I don’t get turned down today because of the way I am but on the flip side of that I get hired because of the way I am.”
Ultimately no matter how many major ads she does the ultimate control over Burgess’ modeling career is in the hands of those doing the casting. That’s part of why she doesn’t let spending time in front of the camera serve as her only creative pursuit.
Her burgeoning second career as a photographer allows her to do the choosing. She visual narrates stories for viewers to take in snap by snap.
Concerns about critical perception have no place in her creative process. She says, “I try to focus on things that interest me whether they’re understood or not.”
This is particularly empowering for her. “Especially because I don’t have so much control over my career and whether I get cast or not. My photography is really the one thing that I can use, aside from my dancing as well bring across what I like and what I want to show so it’s total freedom.”
Soon she will be bringing that sense of freedom to her first large scale installation. Her voice perks up as she talks about working with other artists to bridge the gap between audience and performers across different mediums.
“Whatever beauty I see in the subject or place is what I try to bring forward and often times it’s not something that appeals to everyone but I’m okay with that because that’s what I want to do.”
The perception of her body might be up to someone else but when it comes to expressing her eye she’s in total control.