Monday, December 15, 2008

Melissa Walker on the Fashion Industry

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Melissa Walker is a writer who has worked as ELLEgirl Features Editor and Seventeen Prom Editor. All in the name of journalism, she has spent 24 hours with male models and attended an elite finishing school for girls in New Zealand, among other hardships. She's written Violet on the Runway, Violet by Design and Violet in Private. To find out more about Melissa, visit her website at

What first made you want to write the VIOLET series and what was your road to publication from there?

As soon as I started peeking behind the scenes of modeling and fashion as a magazine editor, I knew that I wanted to put a "real girl" in the middle of this crazy world, a girl who would see it from the outside and be like, "Holy crap!"

I did things backwards. First I contacted a fantastic YA writer I know, Carolyn Mackler, to ask her advice on pitching a YA novel. She directed me to Kate Seaver, an editor at Penguin's Berkley JAM, who was looking for new writers. Kate took a look at my magazine clips, and I sent her a one-page summary of what I imagined Violet on the Runway would be about. She asked to see the first two chapters, so I sat down to write those and sent them in.

Shockingly, she came back with an offer. I was thrilled, but also scared, so I asked her to give me a week to find an agent. I asked friends, and YA author Kristen Kemp, whom I know through ed2010 and, was particularly helpful in my search -- she gave me lots of solid advice. Enter Doug Stewart of Sterling Lord Literistic, whom I had met at a book party five years earlier (my first book party in NYC!). I spoke with a few agents but really felt a connection with Doug. We talked, we signed.

Doug thought that we should shop the summary and chapters around, so we did, and FSG also made an offer. Then he asked both Penguin and FSG to have their very best offers in by Monday at noon. (It was a total old west showdown, at least in my mind).

In the end, Berkley JAM was promising to put the book out faster, they wanted three books total (FSG wanted two and were going to wait a couple of years to publish), so we went with Penguin. The money was similar at both places.

What’s your background in the fashion industry?

I started at ELLEgirl in 2003 and edited features until 2006. I indulged my tulle and taffeta habit as the 2007 prom editor at Seventeen. In between -- and especially now that I'm freelance -- I do a lot of writing, editing, and reporting for magazines like Glamour, Teen Vogue, CosmoGirl, etc. Every once in a while I get to do a fabulous story, like recently I talked to John Galliano backstage at the Dior Cruise show for Glamour UK.

Did you do any special research for the VIOLET books, apart from your own job within the fashion industry, in order to create that universe?

My time at ELLEgirl especially gave me insight into the fashion world and how newer models live in NYC (which can be glamorous, scary, thrilling, and a little dark all at the same time). That knowledge kind of overlapped with my long-time dream of writing a teen novel about a small town girl in the big city (original, right?). The fashion world thing gave it more focus and helped me nail down the plot. The research was really already done, and it came mostly from attending fashion shows and photo shoots and interviewing models for ELLEgirl.

In book one, Violet, teenage wallflower, is scouted by a representative of one of the top modeling agencies in New York. Have you seen this happen often?

Yes; it really does happen. Kate Moss was scouted in an airport, Selena Breed (the Lancome spokesmodel who often does readings/talks with me) was scouted in a post office. If you have an of-the-moment model look, you will get approached at some point. Agencies fly scouts to different cities to find new girls sometimes.

Violet goes through a major transformation throughout the series but it’s not without many successes and failures. Were the events that most influenced that change—the “La Gordita” incident, for instance—based on real life facts or were they entirely fictitious?

Those were entirely fictitious, but I did mean them to be realistic. Girls who become big stars go under that microscope and have the press watching every move and ice cream cone consumed.

One of the main and most recurring topics in VIOLET is Violet’s constant ups and downs with her self-image, to the point where, in VIOLET BY DESIGN, she starves herself. What’s your take on the standards set by the fashion industry, to both models and girls everywhere?
The industry standard—especially for runway models—breeds unhealthy behavior. For girls who aren’t naturally bone-thin (and that’s 99.9% of us!), the only way to keep that kind of body is to engage in some sort of eating game. There are amazing girls like Ali Michael (link) who’ve spoken out about these practices and bowed out of the pressures, but then there are other girls who’ve come from depressed homes or poorer countries where they are the big earners in the family, and the obligation to keep earning (and to stay thin) feels like a huge burden, I’m sure.

As far as girls watching the fashion world, I know it affects them too, and I only hope that they can appreciate fashion for what it is, and find healthy role models elsewhere. For myself, I try to love the clothes and not idealize the stick-figure bodies who walk in them. It’s unrealistic, and—to me—a little sick looking.

Now, to put all the blogospheres whisperings to a rest: Are there plans to write a fourth VIOLET book? Even if there’s not, do you have a vision for a possible fourth book?

I do have a vision for book 4, but there are no plans for it to happen at this point. It’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely that there will be more Violet books. I hope everyone is okay with the ending of book 3. I did try to make it hopeful, because I do have so much hope for Violet.

Given the stigma surrounding the fashion industry, it’s hard for outsiders to see the positives. Could you tell us, based on your experience, the parts of it that you liked?

Thank you for asking this! Sometimes I feel like a Fashion basher, but the truth is: I love the fashion world! First, the personalities you meet (photographers, models, agents, designers, stylists, makeup artists, assistants, even interns!) are amazing—people are wild and wicked and flamboyant and catty and effusive and bubbly and charming all at once. It is NEVER boring. Second, the pure joy of some of the clothes that come out of the fashion world is enough to make a girl want to twirl and twirl. I do know that what you wear isn’t who you are, but it’s fun to feel gorgeous sometimes. Third, the fashion world is pure creation—it’s all about dreaming big and having heart and pursuing passions. People who do that rise to the top, and I think doing those things means living a full life, in whatever field you’re in.

Many condemn models for not being good role models. Do you believe it is within the models’ responsibilities to be positive influences? Is there any model you believe is a good role model for girls everywhere?

I’ll mention Ali Michael again because I’m so proud of her for telling her story in graphic detail in Teen Vogue and on the Today Show. (I blogged about here here: link). She’s a true role model.

However, I don’t think models need to be “role models” necessarily—99% of them are not famous, and even the ones that are may be only known to the fashion-obsessed part of the general population.

Honestly, I think designers should be the role models—it’s their name in lights as scary skinny girls strut the runway. So, I say to them: Make a bigger sample size? A 4, maybe? Or—dare I ask—a 6? Let real-sized women walk for you. Show us what we’d look like in your clothes after a slice of cake. And I say that to magazine editors too. We’ve got to make a change.

Finally, many condemn the fashion industry as anti-feminist. What do you have to say to that?

I think women dress for other women, and the fashion industry is run by women and gay men, at least mostly. If we could stop comparing ourselves to models, our friends, our neighbor, that skinny biatch at the desk next to ours, we could celebrate each other in all our shapes and sizes. I honestly think men already do that… they’d much prefer Marilyn Monroe’s shape to Twiggy’s. So why can’t we women celebrate healthy curves for ourselves?

I worked on this story for ELLEgirl, and I’m still proud of it, because we asked girls to tell us what they LOVED about their bodies, and they all look absolutely stunning.

Thanks, Steph, for having me and for asking such insightful questions. I loved doing this interview!

Thank you for giving such an insightful interview!

For the comments section:
What are your opinions on the fashion industry?

Girl Week is a week-long event here on the blog celebrating strong YA heroines and feminism. Find out more about it here.

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Micol Ostow said...

Great interview--Love Melissa and VIOLET.

Unknown said...

That was great! I love Melissa and really want to read her books ASAP.

Melissa Walker said...

Thanks for including me in this incredible Girl Week, Steph!

Gabbi said...

I miss ElleGIRL... I loved that magazine!

Sarah Woodard said...

I love Melissa and her books.

Anonymous said...

Great interview!

I've only read Violet on the Runway which was awesome, and I have the other two but no time. Soon, though. :P

My thoughts on the fashion industry...I really have none. What? So I'm not into fashion. But I'm into books. Some people aren't into books but they're into fashion.

I guess my problem is the preoccupation with having to have models of a certain body type, which like no one actually has because you can never actually be thin enough. I wish the fashion industry would be all right with models who wear a size 2 or 4, 'cause seriously, that's plenty thin. No need to be any tinier, especially when it's unhealthy.


Anonymous said...

Great interview, and I've been dying to read these books for ages!

Anonymous said...

Ahhh I love this idea of the Girl Week here on Reviewer X. I love all the things discussed!!! As for the fashion/beauty industries... I have conflicting opinions regarding them. On the one hand I feel like they make women/girls feel bad about themselves because we are always comparing ourselves to others... the skinny women, the girls who look good in the clothes that don't fit us right, the gorgeous ladies who we will never be. But on the other hand fashion is a type of art and I love art. I have friends who want to enter the fashion industry and I don't see them as being superficial or fake at all (though the industry does come off that way) but as instead having a huge love for design and fashion. They are artists and visionaries and I'm trying to reconcile my normally grim picture of these industries with what I see in my sister (who wants to be a model/is doing some modeling) and one of my best friends (who got a scholarship into design school).

Alea said...

Yay! Great interview! You know what I'm excited for? Melissa's next book! Is it up for pre-order yet???

Amee said...

Wonderful interview! I love Melissa. She is so awesome. A role model herself!

Shalonda said...

I really like Melissa. She is so genuine!

Anonymous said...

I love the fashion line clothing. Sometimes the designers can go a littlllle crazy though. And the whole entire pressure of be skinny be skinny does sit well with me.

Oh Ali Michael is soooo pretty.

Em said...

Very cool interview, Steph. I enjoy these books because I never really know much about the fashion industry so it was enlightening to read about Violet's entry into that world.

jocelyn said...

I think that fashion itself can be way cool, but the industry needs a change! Forcing models to be unhealthily thin and 99.9% of the time only featuring models who conform to that standard is NOT OKAY. Fashion is creative and there are lots of gorgeous clothes out there, but the way the magazines make girls and women feel about themselves is horrible. I'd probably love fashion if I opened the pages of a fashion magazine and saw all sorts of people, but I don't, and that needs to change.

Anonymous said...

I loved the Violet series and it's no wonder that it's so amazing with Melissa's background.
My thoughts of the fashion industry... I sometimes do feel that the images of men and women are being portrayed as a perfection most people can't achieve. I worry mostly about younger girls and boys who may not be old enough or aware of the realities of the industry.

Anonymous said...

Wow -- what a powerful interview! I followed the links and my eyeballs kept getting bigger and bigger. I'm a size 2, but I would never be able to be a model -- I'm 5'3". Guess what -- clothing on me never looks the same as it does on a 5'8" chick who's also size 2. I'm all for models becoming regular, beautiful girls again!

sweetmelissa818 said...

Yay! I love Melissa, this was a great interview!

ellie_enchanted said...

I think that the fashion industry really needs to work on having more realistic standards of beauty -- and so do we, the consumers/viewers.

I haven't read any of Melissa's books yet, but I want to badly.
*sigh* All my non-existent kingdom for a book!

Wow, I'm making lame jokes today.

Shooting Stars Mag said...

Awesome interview. As for the fashion industry, I never really payed attention to models or clothes growing up (i dressed a bit like a tomboy, though i wasn't...) and I still really don't. I think it's awful that people compare themselves to models, but i do agree that they can't be kids' role models. It's not realistic honestly.

I always tended to look at the people in my life more than anything.


sexy said...


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Hey! For some reason, this embedded comment form makes most people click twice before the comment is processed and published. It's not you - it's just that it's a new Blogger feature with kinks and all that. (But I adore it and don't wanna get rid of it!) I removed Captcha to make the process easier. You don't have to rewrite the comments twice; just click on SUBMIT twice and it should work. If not, email me. Thanks! -Steph