Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Tokyo 2005. I go to meet the head of my agency, and enter his office. He yells “3 cm!” My hips are 3cm off “perfection”. Everybody starts talking quickly in a language I didn’t understand. But their reactions, their facial features revealed the disappointment, the distress. I’m shown the contract: I could not – under any circumstances – diverge from “standard”. I’m told I have a few days to correct the situation. Else, I’d be responsible for all expenses and the contract would be void. A thousand thoughts rush through my mind; I feel overwhelmed. Alone, thousands of miles away from all I know, the only people supposed to care for me are disappointed, almost angry. I feel hopeless and start crying. I pick up the phone … but had nobody to call. My agent would be upset at me; my friends would not understand; my mom would suffer and get scared. They were all so happy for me, they had confidence in me. And I disappointed them all! I feel like running away. What should I do?
As unlikely as it seemed back then, the decision I was about to make would lead me to be where I am today.
I was born on a December night in 1987 in a small, bohemian town in Northern Romania, a place where time seems to have stopped. In this most traditional society, my family’s position has been shaped by my father’s achievements: a PhD in Engineering, the title of “elite inventor”, published author, and founder of the first local newspaper. This placed my family high up on a societal hierarchy unwritten by anyone but followed by everybody. It was imperative that my brother and I maintain, or even surpass, the educational level of our father. Perhaps this explains why I received books and not dolls as birthday presents. That environment shaped my values and aspirations: family, education and the quest to discover (and conquer) the world.
When I was 16, my parents let me take a few weeks off from school to go to New York and represent Romania in the Ford Supermodel of the World Contest, the most prestigious international modeling competition. I placed 1st runner up, and my life would soon change radically.
I found myself in expensive hotels, wearing high heels and long dresses, surrounded by people whose primary concern was the color of my hair. Everything seemed from a Universe so distant just a few weeks before. It was very exciting, but unknowingly, I embarked on a difficult road for a 16 year old. Soon, I realized I lost my independence: I was told where to stay, what to wear, and even what to eat. And the roller coaster began: too many people “interested” in me, the loneliness of the hotel rooms; the pressure of expectations, the fear of failure; the unforeseen circumstances, the weight of decisions I had to make all by myself; adapting to new cultures, the yearning for everything I left behind.
I didn’t feel I changed. So why were old friends retreating from my life? Slowly, I realized I didn’t belong anywhere anymore; I didn’t know where “home” was. I had to retrench, to redevelop my own life style and my new me. What initially started as an adventure became a long process of discovering myself and the world, a world which suddenly became much smaller, and a lot more familiar.
The learning and adaptation curves were steep and stressful. Additionally, my already grueling travel schedule had to accommodate my high schools exams. But I kept a promise: I graduated 5th in my class, and entered – also 5th – the most prestigious liberal arts university in Romania. This marked the end of two challenging, deeply formative years. Afterwards I began to grow more secure in my new life and in my new world. And I began to find my place in it. My career had driven me before; now I was beginning to gain control of it. The months spent alone in the big fashion capitals of the world; the multitude of new, captivating people I met; the diverse cultures to which I had to adapt; the realization I had suddenly stopped being seen as a child; the decisions I took that impacted many people in different corners of the globe; all these led to a premature and forced maturation. I was pleased to become mature sooner, although I had the regret of skipping one of the most beautiful parts of life, adolescence, along with all its innocence and emotions.
I experienced a lot during these years. But fundamentally, what impacted me most? It was the day I first landed on JFK, the day I was told “I love you”, the day I held my newly born cousin, the day I signed a contract that condemned me to loneliness, the day I had to walk away from love to pursue my career, the day I turned 18 and flew halfway around the World to keep a promise to my old friends, the day I managed to escape Tokyo in search of happiness and emotions, the day Keith Richard sang for us "This place is empty without you", the day I learned happiness can make you cry. It is a combination of experiences many have at my age, along with things most experience later in life. A similar mix, perhaps more complex, is reflected in the person I became over the years. Every person I met, every culture I experienced, every place I visited, the all left their mark, and shaped me into who I am today: a true citizen of the World, a mosaic of colorful influences. This explains why New York is my new home. The energy, the culture, the diversity, the flux of people and ideas give me a feeling of belonging. More importantly, I see myself reflected in New York, and I see New York reflected in me.
**This excerpt is part of my admission essay for Columbia University.