It’s a quiet evening in Midtown, New York City. Former East student Karly McNeil sits on her bed under a heated blanket wearing a ribbed green sweater, hair mushed into a bun atop her head. She is raw. No makeup, no sleek dresses or perfectly straightened hair and erect posture — she saves that for the runway.
2014 is her year. McNeil is fighting for her spot as a high profile model, living on her own in the nation’s fashion capital. She’s taking advantage of an opportunity while it lasts — one that she almost threw away.
Despite the snow storm bearing down on the East Coast, McNeil is preparing for a busy week. She has received her schedule for tomorrow via email. As a model, every day is spontaneous. Sometimes she’s posing before a camera on set, or striding down the runway in sky-high heels. But most of the time, McNeil is auditioning. In two weeks, the world’s most fashionable will flock to view the top designers’ newest collections at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. McNeil’s days are filled, hustling on and off the train between different casting calls for different fashion lines and designers.
Hundreds of girls will line the corridors of an office building or store, waiting to be scrutinized. They each will slip into their heels, walk down an imaginary runway, politely take the criticism and exit. Most times, designers won’t like McNeil’s elongated features and freckled face; but doesn’t matter. There’s six more calls that day. For every 20 casting calls, she’s lucky to book one client.
“One person can hate you and the next person will absolutely love you,” McNeil said, “There’s so many different views of beauty.”
But the fast-paced life of a New York model came about somewhat unexpectedly. In eighth grade, McNeil’s family sent a holiday card out to their close friends and family. Among them was supermodel Cindy Crawford, wife of one of McNeil’s father’s friends. After seeing McNeil’s angular face and slim figure, Crawford called her parents and encouraged them to find a local modeling agency for McNeil to work with.
When Jen Mangan of Exposure Agency in Kansas City first met then 14-year-old McNeil, she saw a future for her. Her 5’10”, long-legged figure was only the beginning; the confidence McNeil exuded when interacting with adults and young people alike was a cornerstone to the future success of a budding modeling career.
“She’s got a very strong personality, she’s very confident in who she is,” Mangan said.
That confidence would become important to McNeil later on. From an early age, McNeil has been dancing and singing onstage in theater and choir. She’s passionate about the performing arts, acting in multiple Frequent Fridays and as the lead in the Indian Hills Middle School musical her eighth grade year. That background would come to aid her in daily casting calls. Clients and designers seeing hundreds of girls a day would pick her apart. McNeil’s thick skin would not be broken by the harsh criticisms of the fashion world.
In a matter of weeks, the newly brace-less 14-year-old had gone from high school freshman to professional model. She had an agency that would soon send her all over the country, from Chicago to New York for gigs and photo shoots.
McNeil has bounced between NYC and the suburbs of KC since midway through her sophomore year, living with other models under the care of a chaperone. She walked in Fashion Week as a 17-year-old. Spring break, winter break and some summer months and long weekends were spent at the apartment in NYC. But McNeil’s fast-paced life was almost derailed at the beginning of this school year. In August, she arrived in New York for yet another stint of casting calls and photo shoots. But New York was not what she had remembered.
“You’re supposed to wear all black here, so everything is one line and very sleek, and I came and I was wearing birkenstocks and long floral hippie skirts, and just not caring too much,” McNeil said. “They wanted me to straighten my hair and middle-part it every day, and I was just in such a free spirited kind of mood at the time.”
After a light-hearted summer month with her friends, going to concerts and just hanging out, the idea of acting and looking clean-cut and proper revolted her. She was homesick, and she didn’t want to hide who she was.
“I felt like I was being put down or stifled,” McNeil said.
So McNeil called her parents, and three days later she was on a flight home. McNeil wanted modeling to be over forever. She wanted her friends. She wanted to be herself, in her own clothes, without anyone telling her what to do.
As the school year progressed, McNeil began to find boredom in the monotony of the school day. She had trouble even showing up to class. She had lost discipline. It became obvious that her opportunity was running out. She was a young, fresh face. Now was her time. Waiting until the end of college, or even the end of high school like she had originally planned, would have taken away from her prime modeling years. She knew that her homesickness from the previous trip probably would have diminished after a few weeks.
“[I] realized that I could be having a full career and making money, and I was just bored with school and kind of ready to move on and go into my next part of life.” McNeil said.
New York was beckoning; there was no better time the present than to model. Realizing that she indeed could be the sleek, put-together model the clients were looking for, she began to reconsider her decision to stop modeling. She would miss her friends and her family, but McNeil began to realize that it was worth it. She wanted the life of the city to break up the monotony.
The apartment still had an opening. Spring Fashion Week was on the horizon. It was an escape from school, it was exciting. And this time, she was all in.
In early December, McNeil dropped out. She passed her General Education Development test (GED) and moved to New York. It was hard saying goodbye to her closest friends, but nothing was harder than saying goodbye to her family.
One child of five, McNeil is close with all of her siblings, especially her younger brother Jack. McNeil and Jack, although 10 years apart, share a special relationship and the distance has been tough for both of them. McNeil’s mom, Katie Barnes, says that they jokingly call McNeil Jack’s “little mama.”
“He said he wished he had a magic machine, so that he could make her appear and disappear,” Barnes said.
But with Facetime and texts, McNeil is remaining close with her family. She can’t help but miss her home from time to time. As 17-year-old living far from her family, she goes through expected struggle. Last weekend, she had landed a callback with well-known fashion brand, Calvin Klein. She called her mom to tell her.
“I was like ‘oh my gosh, aren’t you so excited?’” Barnes said, “And she was like, ‘no I’m just homesick.’”
Barnes misses her, but knows that New York is best for McNeil and that it’s also not forever. Her career will be peppered with visits to KC, ski trips with her family and the opportunities to hang out with her friends at home.
For now, her plan is to stay in New York City until March, and then to come home for the spring and summer. McNeil hopes to move back in August and live in her own apartment. Next year she plans on trying to get on the international fashion scene, making appearances in style hubs like Milan and Paris.
“I’m glad that I’ve moved on and can fill my days with things that are important to me,” McNeil said, “things that I feel as if are taking me somewhere.”