An early head shot by David Kennedy.
It all began when she ran away from home. Karen was an athletic Jersey girl who "started late at 19" in the modeling world. She transplanted her "white-skinned, exotic-featured" self in New York City at that tender age and realized, while she might not be as advanced as other aspiring models, she was an ideal size and could make a good enough living to pay herself to learn.
Her first ads were quintessential hippie, taken in 1975 or '76 for one of those import companies that specialized in bohemian essentials like kaftans & daishikis. Karen pounded the pavement like any good model, spending four years between Paris, New York, London and Milan before discovering a warmhearted agent in Giorgio Piazzi, and nailing a city poster for OMSA pantyhose which still runs to this day. Through her connections in Milan, and later in Germany, she landed on-location shoots by 1978 to exotic locations like Bali and the Canary Islands. Among them was a shoot in 1980 with the renown photographer Art Kane, which entailed forty dives off a 32-foot high dive. "Sure, I can do that", she thought. Ouch! She was black and blue head to toe afterward.
First time in print - Karen's wearing a "Cher crocheted halter dress" at left,
and a "halter and striped drawstring pants" at right, made for importer M. Naqui in the mid-1970s.
She was getting some print work, mostly lingerie, modeling for Roger Prigent and the early Victoria's Secret catalog through the Zoli agency. When she booked a series of days for Montgomery Ward, she was sure her future was set. The catalog published her photos, and she had a wonderful experience shooting for them, but one soon day she received a call from her new contact in Montgomery Ward's casting. The girl who had previously pushed for her thanked her for a job well done, and then delivered the heartbreaking news that Karen would not be hired again.
March 1979 headshot from the Zoli facebook.
Though Karen had worked well, her type was wrong, because she had exotic features but pale white skin. It was a huge blow to Karen that she could not make it in mainstream American catalogs. Zoli abandoned her after it was clear that she'd not bring in the fast, easy print dollars. These were the years of Christie Brinkley, after all, and the look was already defined. Karen just didn't fit it.
Karen went cold-calling to the swimwear showrooms on and off Seventh Avenue and stumbled upon Gaybar where she met the notorious Dorothy Rydell, once a Broadway dance gypsy and then the hottest saleswoman in the swimwear market. She was looking for a more European type to scale up her presentation and found a kindred spirit in dancer Karen. This began seasonal work for Gaybar Swimwear & Lily of France Lingerie for years to come and opened up the world of showrooms on and off Seventh Avenue, where the steady income gave her the opportunity to pursue dancing classes, acting classes and auditions in addition to modeling.
A 1979 contact sheet from Zoli.
In The Presence of Greatness
Tina Leser also gave her an early break in her showroom on Seventh Avenue. This showroom specialized in beaded gowns and throwback dresses for her aging clientele from the 1950s & 60s. Tina Leser is a fashion icon best known for American casual wear, who maintained a loyal audience and decades on Seventh. To Leser, svelte Karen was "the fat girl". Yet Karen remembers Leser as a little chubby herself, with dyed black hair, "a lady from the 40s who kept her look from 1949 and didn't change", wearing gingham tops & capri pants or muu-muus into the 1980s.
Above, a nostalgic look to this logo from an early 80s Victoria's Secret catalog.
Below, a page from the catalog with Karen wearing Lily of France.
One of the most demanding designers Karen worked for was Pauline Trigere, who to Karen had "hair like a wig" and was always wearing a Chanel-type suit. Karen remembers modeling Chanel style coats for her, heavy and woolen in prints with rolled collars and three-quarter sleeves. Trigere ruled her old-school salon as a grande dame, telling Karen "don't insult me with your nerves!" as Karen worked. Trigere was "very little but very tough" and apparently had her own set of nerves to match.
The designer had the mixed fortune of hiring inexperienced Karen for her first "fitting". Fitting was a great way to make money if you could stand very still for hours. In those days, a good fit model could make $250 an hour if she had the perfect measurements and the perfect attitude. Karen was a little fidgety, and scared of the pins. Petite, French and commanding behind thick glasses, Trigere looked up at her and barked, "Stand steel! And doon't be seelly! I have nevair stoock anyvone wis a peen!"
Karen in Blackglama mink for Givenchy.
Soon fashion took a turn as the 80s geared up, and Karen was in the thick of it. By then, modeling was her life. Karen worked not only the runways but as a showroom model, where the audience was primarily buyers and the models showed a variety of designers in one room - and in quantity. "You get road rash on your hips by putting so many dresses on so fast." The number of models in a showroom varied; at Gaybar/Gottex she was the only one, while other showrooms had several.
In the 1980s Karen was introduced to Randolph Duke, now a popular couturier for red carpet appearances. They met when Gaybar bought out Gottex and brought in Duke as a hot new designer to revitalize the historical company's dowdy image. A good-looking "golden boy" recently stolen from among Anne Klein's swimwear designers, Duke had worked prior at Halston as well. Gaybar offered him his own atelier and a generous budget to begin his own fashion line while he renewed Gaybar's image.
Duke's ambition was to create his own label, which takes enormous overhead with the cost of fabrics, marketing, workers and three or four shows planned for Europe. His vision gave Karen opportunity. Duke spurred her to go to Europe every season. Karen spent 1986 to 1992 doing the shows and showrooms in Paris where she learned on Duke's behalf but worked primarily for other designers. Duke himself did not show in Paris, beyond a few private appointments for investors which were not successful. Sometimes shows were with Lagerfeld, Rykeil, Balenciaga, Chanel, but more frequently it was for smaller, lesser known designers and countless "tea rooms" for store buyers' appointments.
A polished mid-1980s composite, with all clothes by Randolph Duke.
The work kept her current for Randolph in New York, who as a designer could not transition to Paris as easily as the models. "[The models] would get there a month before season", in March and again in October, "do the cattle calls, book as many shows as possible while enjoying the city from our tiny garret rooms." Her accommodations were often coldwater flats with a shared bathroom, but usually the rooms were clean and charming if spare.
"It was modeling boot camp in the most glamorous, beautiful and often dirty and tough town! You learned the language and the subway system and got yourself to dozens of auditions or bookings all over Paris every day. Sometimes you received no money for weeks. Paris was very expensive and you always had to live very tight, but the shopping was unbelievable, so you gave up eating to buy the great clothes."
An advert for Randolph Duke's Soho showroom.
On & Off The Catwalk
In that first season in Paris, she remembers her first major fashion show for Sonia Rykiel in 1986. "Pink Floyd's The Wall was new, so that will time it exactly. I actually heard that song for the first time on that runway in Paris, I remember the moment, looking up and around, crowded, cameras flashing, the speakers thumping... this older-than-old transformed cathedral with statuary of saints and ladies dark above me, sliced with the stark modern white runway and blinding catwalk lighting."
She worked a few major runways and lots of minor runways around the world, which were still grand for a Jersey girl. But her power was in the showrooms, where the audience were buyers from Saks and Burdines, Bendels and Lord and Taylor, who came to Paris or New York for appointments at the showroom. Here the models showed the collection to each buyer as they belabored each dress or suit purchase to fill their designer departments every season. The models showed hundreds of items each day to a nervous and demanding group.
A 1950s-inspired look by Duke.
And she always worked for Randolph, rushing home from Paris to accommodate his schedule. She fit every outfit in his collection for six years as his top model. From drawing to dress, she stood while fabric was draped, pinned and each creation built on her. "I was his muse and deep friend for six-ish years." His pet fashion statement at the time was 1950s references like sheer polka dot scarves and Donna Reed gloves. "He made me wear white sheer pantyhose in the summer, which was our grandest source of contention. He dressed me up like a Barbie doll for every occasion. Every party, every outing was an opportunity to advance himself. He was not beyond scandalous behavior to accomplish his goals... He was absolutely driven and eventually worked up four complete collections a year. He grew to be enormous and controversial."
A vintage throwback ensemble consisting of tailored suit complete with peplum and ladylike gloves.
The relationship grew more demanding, as Randolph could be "heartbreakingly cruel". He relied on her totally as he grew more famous and his budgets for shows grew larger, but he would not compensate her for the thousands of hours she worked. He was abusive and nervous, hiring and firing a steady stream of couture talent. She remembers preparing for a show once, she'd dress and walk for him, he would critique and rely on her. Then, right before she'd go on the runway, Duke would look Karen up and down, give a big sigh and a disparaging look. Suddenly she was pulled from the show. "He would critique me before the runway to the point that he found better models and could not use me on the runway anymore for his image. But the classiest designers did use their fit girls on the runway, and their imperfections were forgiven, and that was the issue between us."
Though designers were known for their difficulties, to Karen he was the worst. And the not-paying became a real problem after Karen signed with the Ford Agency in 1990. "On the one hand he was hiring Christy Turlington for $10,000 and then he would beg me to bring him my B model friends and not pay us because we should be honored to work for him. Which we were!" she says laughing, but the agency wouldn't allow her to work without compensation.
An Audrey-inspired Karen in print for Michoel Schoeler's spring 1988 collection titled 'Think Pink'.
Without Duke, Karen had time enough to explore new jobs and soon found print work open to her. In 1990 Claudia Schiffer unwittingly created this opportunity. Before Claudia's rise to superdom in the late 80s, models never successfully worked more than one area. A model was either print or runway, never both. There had been a disdain for girls who could not glide down the runway in the traditional style; those who could not walk could do print. That had been a total delineation.
"I remember the week that it happened," she recounts. "Claudia Schiffer did a show for Guess, and the press went crazy. Claudia could not walk, she was pigeon-toed and knock-kneed, but she was so photogenic that even if she was stumbling, the press got great photos." Suddenly the runway world opened up to the print girls. These girls did not have to walk well, or throw off a jacket like Liz Lee did for Geoffrey Beene for twenty years, or move like Dalma, the ultimate runway diva. The ability to walk the stylized walk actually became a hindrance; designers did not even want the girls to keep in time to the music. Girls with the old style became dinosaurs and were relegated to such clients, as the press transformed what had been a rather private industry into a glitzy parade for the public to ogle and emulate.
A sexy, elegant look wearing a Randolph Duke design.
Yet by 1990 Karen was not so much a part of this group; she was delighted with every print job she landed, but the new generation of models were younger and different. Karen had been a dedicated model but began to branch into acting & dancing roles. Meanwhile in the modeling world, contracts disappeared, decades of loyalty evaporated and model rosters began to change weekly. "There is so much available talent [today]", Karen says. "There are few lasting supermodels now, unless they become celebrities." Designers and models alike quickly learned to exploit celebrity in order to maintain the limelight and the paycheck.
By this time Karen in her late thirties was working not only in print, but also in the entertainment industry, all the while continuing showroom work at the better showrooms in New York. Her favorite was the Louis Feraud showroom where she flourished from the end of the 1980s until about 1996. Feraud was an excellent client for Karen, as they had a fashion show every morning during Fashion Week for about 25 buyers and then work in the afternoon that together created a full-time position. And after Fashion Week, the appointments and showings went on for several weeks afterward. In 1996, working for Feraud was over. "All of a sudden they look at you, and they hate you." And so it goes...
Fulfilling the needs of the fur shows, Karen wears a violet shearling sportcoat by Givenchy.
Landing On Her Feet
Karen's success was due to her persistence. As a self-proclaimed B model, Karen worked her status to her advantage. B models are anonymous relative to the Christie Brinkleys of the world, yet they can have the longevity supermodels lack. They avoid a fickle public by never becoming a specific focus of the media. Karen, on the other hand, was a dedicated workhorse who realized the power of continuing to succeed however quietly as a B model. In poring over the old photographs she spots former "stars of the runway", Appalonia, Pat Cleveland and others who burst brightly on the scene and then fizzled, handicapped by drinking, drugs or simply the inability to hold the public's attention. By the 1990s, fashion was always looking for the next great model discovery. It was really up to each girl to pay attention and continually reinvent herself, as long as she was able.
While modeling, Karen developed another income away from the catwalk as well. She's a terrific character actress who once won herself an upgrade "from lowly extra to guest star on The Cosby Show" in 1997. And she's been a background performer in dozens of films, working with Al Pacino, Bob DeNiro, Brad Pitt, John Cusack, Susan Sarandon and many more. Her most recent speaking role was a part on Law and Order, thanks to the flexibility that steady modeling work provided.
For Givenchy again. The card reads "parquet Russian sable poncho
reversible to cashmere, trimmed with Russian sable tails".
That glamour, it turns out, was only a veneer and soon a transparent one to Karen. As she matured, she saw differently the harsh personalities and hidden horrors of the business. Once while working at the snooty but impressive gold-leafed Oscar de la Renta showroom, Karen opened the wrong door "and there's this stripped huge factory room filled with fifty Vietnamese with holes in their fingers sewing away". The stark contrast was unforgettable. And in the social scene as well, it was difficult to handle the extremes. Karen watched generations of models come and go. They were often dazzled by the glamour, sex, drugs or rock & roll playing out in front of them. The most beautiful girls with the highest career highs often burned out the fastest.
At a Revlon hair show in 2000.
As many of her beautiful colleagues fizzled out from playing too hard, Karen continued to work hard as a dependable and glamorous unknown well into her forties. After 22 years in the fashion industry, Karen's acting ability took first priority with roles on stage & screen in both New York and Florida where she's been active since the late 90s.
She remembers the business of being a model most, how the girls were commodities, hoping to be "right" for the designers hiring and therefore continuing to work. Competition was understandably fierce. She looks at a long-forgotten and beautiful photo of herself almost in surprise. "We never felt beautiful. You could not enjoy your beauty! There was always someone more beautiful, more look-appropriate, more confident. The whole nature of success is confidence, yet your confidence was shaken every moment." And despite the incongruity, Karen portrayed success itself as a model as she worked the fashion world for decades.
She sums up, "I had a thirty year career in the finest showrooms in the world" due to beauty, brains and incredible persistence. Her most recent endeavor is a resurrection of style and another reinvention of herself. After decades in front of a camera, Karen's most recent project is behind it as a photographer. Karen O'Shea Creative is her new ingenue, a company that photographs models for portfolio work.
---Karen O'Shea & April Ainsworth
Reference: O'Shea, Karen. Personal interview. November 26, 2006.