“Seriously, I once spent the day wearing an octopus as a hat.” These are the words—uttered by Alana Zimmer—that elicit a wry smile from a waiter delivering her a glass of water at the tea room in New York’s Baccarat Hotel. The supermodel, who hails from Kitchener, Ont., has just finished posing for her cover story with FASHION, a project that marks her 10th anniversary in the business. After experiencing a decade of outrageous clothes, people and places, Zimmer is feeling mighty nostalgic.
“Honey, I did a shoot where I actually had to place a steak and a hot dog on my skin,” she says, laughing about a gig, which took place early in her career (it predated Lady Gaga’s meat dress appearance at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards). “I’ve also been photographed with a cow’s heart on my chest for a long period of time—God, that really tested me!” To get through hours of sitting with slimy tentacles and gushing organs, Zimmer, 28, has a trick. “In this business, you have to meditate,” she says. “I’ll always put up with the craziness of the industry—I’m no diva—but meditation makes me realize that the job is temporary and some sacrifice could create a strong image.”
It is this above-and-beyond work ethic that has made Zimmer one of a handful of Canadian beauties to have » such a long modelling career. Her journey is unique: The editorial jobs she’s been hired for flip-flop from undeniably commercial (she and her boyfriend, model Nick Rea, appear together in Forever 21’s fall campaign) to genuinely artful. Zimmer—whose chameleonic features have allowed her to be a part of Missoni, Sonia Rykiel and Jean Paul Gaultier campaigns—is often cast not just to pose, but to become a character for the camera. This includes her eerie portrayal of Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale from Grey Gardens—a 1975 documentary on two of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s isolated, feline-hoarding relatives—in a shoot for Vogue Spain. “I took on the [persona] of a weird cat lady. I was Little Edie for the whole day. It was so satisfying,” she says. Zimmer’s depiction of the Virgin Mary for photographer Miles Aldridge is among the lens master’s most beloved pictures. “I got to fake cry and roll my eyes like a possessed person. I love the weirdness.”
Like most tales of supermodel discovery, Zimmer’s is based on happenstance: She was slinging greasy pizza and overcooked pasta as a waitress in her hometown’s East Side Mario’s. By chance, Milan-based fashion writer Celia Sears (a Canadian who is now a freelance fashion editor and producer for Vogue Black online) was dining there. She approached Zimmer, insisting she connect with model agent Elmer Olsen. Shortly afterward, at the tender age of 18, Zimmer was walking runways. “It was all Celia,” Zimmer says, with a sigh. “Give her the credit, please. She was the one to guide my career. She’d give me tips, tell me who and what to avoid, and introduce me to great fashion minds.” Zimmer’s official coming-out party transpired after she walked her first major runway for Marc Jacobs. It was then she discovered that fashion runs on a 48-hour clock. “You have to realize you’re on other people’s time—it’s annoying, but you have to kind of let go and be patient,” she says. “If this is what you want to do, you have to do it.”
During the Spring 2007 fashion week season, Zimmer walked more than 60 runway shows. “I had not slept for like 40 days straight that season,” she recalls. “I made 15 grand, bought a handbag and saved the rest.” By the time she turned 26, she owned an apartment in Manhattan. Getting paid to wear beautiful clothes and travel to posh places are definite perks of the job (her favourite trip was to Nairobi’s Giraffe Manor for a Harper’s Bazaar UK shoot, where Zimmer fed the tall African creatures from her hotel window). Yet Zimmer says she has stayed in the game so long for reasons beyond wanderlust.
Navigating the various style tribes of Paris, New York, London and Milan stirred Zimmer’s interest in human behaviour. Last winter, Zimmer enrolled at New York University, where she’s studying psychology. “In this job I’ve become more and more interested in communities,” she says. “Working on teams with different personalities and trying to adapt to them is key.” Type A personalities such as Karl Lagerfeld, traditionalists like Giorgio Armani and free spirits such as Jean Paul Gaultier fed her desire to learn more about unconventional behaviour.
“Designers are risk takers. They’re all eccentric and willing to take charge,” she says. “In order to deal with a big ego, you have to become someone with a big ego.” One of the people she learned this from was her mother, who stayed at home until Zimmer was 16 to help raise her and her brother, who lives with mental and physical disabilities. “My mom has always been a strong woman. If I’m really taking charge of something, I feel like I’m like my mother—she’s always fighting to make sure my brother has a better life.” Zimmer says that at times it has been difficult to harness the same sort of chutzpah in her industry, which has a distinct pecking order. “I’m not the loudest person in the room, but if you’re working one on one with someone with extreme confidence, you have to bring it.”
When she’s in her 30s, Zimmer wants to continue growing in fashion but has reservations about focusing solely on modelling. “Being a model, you’re very full of yourself and your own prosperity,” she says. “I want to help people.” However, throughout the decade Zimmer has spent on various catwalks (Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton and Hussein Chalayan, to name a few) she’s noticed the perceptions of her occupation shifting drastically.
“When I first started, it was cool to not answer interviews and to not be nice, but I’m Canadian. I’m so friendly and smiley,” she says. “Then America’s Next Top Model came out and [everyone] thought we were all catty and gossipy. Now it’s cool to be a sellout, which is so interesting because you have to be posting what you’re doing every single day online.” Zimmer’s other concerns with the modern world have to do with genetically modified fruit, vegetables and meat—what she calls Frankenfood. “I’m taking a genetics class this semester and learned that [corporations] are cutting out part of the natural food molecule and replacing it with a chemical part—right into the DNA of the food.” She has also been known to volunteer at a soup kitchen in the East Village and has encouraged her 39,000 followers on Instagram to join her in peaceful protests like the People’s Climate March. In her downtime, she hikes with her two dogs, does yoga and tears into classic novels. Her latest read is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. “It’s incredible,” she says. “The characters are going through the Industrial Revolution, and we’re kind of going through a technological revolution, so the attitudes between both [our worlds] are similar.”
Inspired by modern-day groundbreakers, Zimmer names Christy Turlington as her role model. “If I can work and live the way she does, I’d be so happy,” she says. “Christy is not exploiting her life every single day. She seems happy and involved with her family. She went back to school and she’s a genius. She pushes herself to be a part of great causes. That is the kind of greatness I can only hope for.”
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