• Sarah Merrell

High Heels to Two Wheels: How Modeling Prepared Me for Motorcycling

I wasn't one of the lucky models who were "discovered." Quite the opposite. When the door to the industry didn't open for me, I knocked the door down and let myself in. After all, I had wanted to be a model for as long as I could remember. Growing up, I was self-conscious about being too tall, too skinny, too awkward and too shy. Looking at models in magazines I thought they were everything I wasn't. They were attractive, glamorous and confident. And so it became my dream to be one.

In my early teen years, I begged my mom to take me to model searches, but each one turned out to be a scam. So once I was old enough to drive, I looked up photographers and paid one to take portfolio images. I then went and had them printed, found the mailing address for big agencies like Wilhelmina, Ford and Elite and sent them off. I waited for a response but it never came. So eventually I took matters into my own hands. I looked through newspapers for upcoming events and found a fashion show in my area. I called the contact listed and flat out asked them if I could model in the show. The woman was hesitant since I had no experience, but I begged her to let me in. And that's how I got my first modeling job. As it turns out, when it comes to modeling, sometimes getting your foot in the door--even if it's just a toe--is all you need.

While in college, I shot with photographers for free to build my portfolio. And every day I had a routine of practicing my poses and runway walk in the mirror. I had no one to teach me, so I learned on my own watching videos online and copying the poses in magazines.

When Maxim came to my university to hold a model search for their collegiate publication, Co-Ed Magazine, I lined up with the other hundreds of girls for my shot. I looked around and I was one of the only ones who came prepared with a portfolio book and comp cards. That extra effort is what I think set me apart and gained the interest of the casting director. Later that night I got the phone call that I was in. The day of the photo shoot was like a scene out of my dreams. I felt like royalty. They booked a suite at the poshest hotel in town and they flew in a hair and makeup team, wardrobe stylist and photographers. When the magazine finally came out and I flipped through the glossy pages to a full-page shot with my face staring back, it took my breath away. I was one of those women I had longed to be. That single shoot was a turning point. It was a national magazine with Maxim attached to the name and shined on my modeling resume.

After that, modeling became much easier because I had experience, a portfolio and a resume. However, modeling is not an easy job—and not as glamorous as it may seem. The call time for fashion shows is usually early in the morning and it’s a long, grueling day filled with fittings, rehearsals, hair styles that hurt your head and shoes that make your feet ache. Some of the garments you can’t even sit down in. Photo shoots are also uncomfortable. I’ve had to shoot swimwear outside on cold winter days and sweaters on hot summer afternoons. I’ve had to attend launch parties for magazines where I’ve been groped. I once had three bookings in one day and was so exhausted I could barely drive home after. And it all must be done with a smile and no complaints, because there is no shortage of models and I could easily be replaced. We’re merely glorified clothes hangers.

The industry also does zero sugar coating and it will eat you alive if you’re not careful. People can be cruel and I was picked apart. No matter how much I dieted or exercised, designers or my manager at the time complained my hips were too big, my butt too wide, my teeth not quite white enough. Makeup artists pointed out blemishes and hair stylists mentioned my split ends. So I worked constantly on my appearance but it was never good enough. I was in magazines and on runways yet I still felt more insecure than ever. I looked in the mirror and only saw my short comings.

Mentally, this was hard on me and led to a period of self-loathing and a difficult, dark time during my life. But sometimes it takes reaching a low to have an epiphany and make a positive change. Through the support of my family, my faith and a good therapist, I worked on learning to love and accept myself, flaws and all. It took time, but I developed a healthier body image and a new sense of self-worth. It was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. But I’m so thankful I finally overcame my demons.

Despite what I went through, I didn't quit modeling. But I had a new outlook and I was a significantly stronger person. I started to pick and choose the modeling jobs I went after and would work repeatedly with the people who were a positive influence. And when people weren't so nice, I gained the ability to ignore it. I found a modeling agency that accepted me as I was and treated their models and actors with respect and decency. This agency, Gage Models & Talent, began to feel like family. I started booking more modeling jobs than ever and was cast in national TV shows and commercials and landed a gig working as a TV fashion correspondent. I went from being a model to being a model coach and fashion show director and it gave me a chance to teach young models about self-love, self-confidence and a positive body image. Although being a model was a dream of mine, in recent years I've begun to cut back due to a new passion: Motorcycling.

During an interview with Blue Ridge Motorcycling, the editor asked me if I feel my career as a model helped prepare me for motorcycling. The answer was yes, absolutely. I had to work hard to become a model and there were times I thought that maybe I should just give up. In my early years, when the agencies weren't responding and I was begging my way into fashion shows, I felt discouraged. But in the face of rejection and criticism, I persisted. So when I began learning to ride and it didn't come easily--when I had fall-downs in the parking lot or couldn't get the hang of the clutch--I remembered how hard I worked to achieve my dream of being a model and I didn't give up. And if I can make it in that cut-throat industry, I can certainly make it as a motorcyclist. Today, I use the same determination I used to claw my way up the ladder in modeling as I do now to drop seconds at track days or win pit bike races.

Recently, as my Instagram following has grown, I've found my account isn't immune to trolls and the occasional hater. I suppose it's the nature of social media for people to hide behind the keyboard. However, the sense of self-worth and confidence I learned during my experience as a model has enabled me to ignore it. After all, I can count the negative comments on one hand which is less than 0.001% of my followers. I'd say that's pretty good! I've also learned to accept the fact that I'm not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but that's ok. Overall, sharing my motorcycle adventures and journey through social media has been extremely positive. I've made new friends and connections and gained new experiences.

Although I may not be modeling as much as I used to in order to focus on life on two wheels and my career in marketing and public relations, if you follow me on Instagram you'll get a glimpse of it in my posts. Sometimes I post riding photos or shots from rides with friends or track days, but I also post photos of me modeling with my bike. My history as a model and actress will always be a part of what makes me uniquely "me", so it's natural for me to combine my two passions (although motorcycling is now #1).

No matter what I pursue on two wheels I'm thankful that because of modeling, my skin is thicker, my self-worth is stronger and my confidence is bigger.

You can follow me on Instagram at @sarah__merrell


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