My neck aches from gazing at the clear glass ceiling in the Grand Gallery but I don’t know what else to do. I’ve studied every detail of every painting on the teal walls and still I wait.
The smell changes from antique polish to vanilla-musk, heralding the entrance of the cutting-edge make-up team. Futuristic goddesses with angled hairstyles, straight faces and clean monochrome lines, they are alien to anything I’ve seen. Walking straight by me to the foot of the stairs, they begin the liberation of their cosmetics from their Tardis-like Samsonite cases.
A carnival of dresses enters from the left, wheeled by four animated women, who laugh and chat. I’m relieved to see embroidered screens being erected and hope I can change behind them. This is my first time.
The theme for today’s photoshoot is Vintage Hollywood, and every colour, shape and fabric of dress is here, along with a myriad of underskirts, shoes and bags. As the hairstylists join us and search for sockets for their equipment, I think how different this is from my everyday life - a life where sales assistants grimace when I ask for a garment in my size, or point me to dull clothing designed to cover and never to dazzle. I thought decent plus-size fashion didn’t exist, but it does and with the average Irish woman taking a size 16, here they call it real-size. I like that.
A young man approaches me with intent, his jet-black eyebrows and beard manicured, his velvet purple suit moulded to his narrow physique. He click-clicks across the mosaic floor, his Lego-hairdo firmly fixed.
“Well, hello beautiful! I’m Marc with a C and you must be my lady from Real Agency?”
He’s already walking so I follow him. He turns and examines my face too closely. I feel myself reddening and divert my gaze but he raises my chin so I have no choice but to look into his dark eyes.
“Stunning,” he declares. “What is your name, mysterious one?”
Orla Maguire, I tell Marc with a C and he clicks his fingers. A tall ice-blonde instantly appears at his side.
“Look at her, Tegan babes. Can you see it? Tell me you can see it,” he pleads and she studies me through the fringe of her sharp bob.
“Jane Russell?” she asks. He claps and smiles widely, displaying perfect teeth. I run my tongue over my own. Summoning the beauty team, Tegan directs in a language I don’t understand. I’m crowd-surfed into a high chair and plonked in front of a mirror surrounded by bulbs. Then, I’m turned 180 degrees to face a painting of an ample woman with a young girl on her lap. Lady and Child by Stephen Slaughter, the description says.
I drift into the painting as the team work away, wondering when a fuller figure stopped being sexy. I remember my last weight-loss class. The leader, Shirley, put a grey plastic chair in the centre of the room and invited us to think back to when we first felt ashamed of our weight. After a few moments, she asked how many of us were children.
We all raised our hands.
“Imagine that child is sitting in this chair,” she said.
The lady in the painting has a dour expression and reminds me of Aunt Eithne’s face when she first saw me after Mammy died.
“You’re awful fat. We’ll have to get you on a diet before you burst,” she’d exclaimed, hauling me off to a seamstress to let out my school uniform. Standing in my cotton vest and knickers, I tried to hide my thighs and little pot belly as they whispered about me.
I was nine years old.
“What terrible things do we say to ourselves?” Shirley asked.
Orla the Orca, the size of Majorca.
“Now, say those things to the child in the chair.”
“You can’t, can you? If you wouldn’t say it to a child, you shouldn’t say it to yourself. Now, travel back in time to meet your younger selves. Go to the chair and tell that little girl what you wish you’d been told back then.”
Women approached the chair, some crying silently while others hugged. I didn’t move.
I remember myself, a child who never knew her father and had just lost her beloved mother. A child, confused and alone, in need of love, not judgment. My heart breaks for the life that followed and the innocence that was lost forever.
“Hon, are you alright?” Tegan asks, dabbing my eye.
“I’m so sorry I’m probably ruining your make-up,” I say, wiping a tear.
“Not at all love, we’re just finished anyway. Take a look.”
She spins me around to face the mirror and my mouth falls open. The whole team surrounds me and claps.
I feel the tears coming again and Tegan smiles, squeezing my hand and I cherish her touch.
“Thank you,'' I say. “Thank you for making me look like this.”
“Our job was easy Hon, sure you’re stunning,” she replies and I look for hidden cameras. That’s twice I’ve been called stunning since I arrived, a word I’m not used to hearing.
But she’s not joking.
I stare at my reflection. I am stunning. I look back at the painting and see the child is holding the hands of the woman and I feel my mother with me, embracing me. It’s time to love myself as I am, as I was - Lady and child.