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From Modeling to Homelessness: My Journey

From Modeling to Homelessness: My Journey

At the age of 20, Michelle de Swarte was strutting the catwalks of New York Fashion Week. Then 9/11 happened. She and a group of fellow models were suddenly stranded in a city that had become a war zone. The next thing she knew, an unknown man had offered to fly them out to join the runways in Milan. But he wanted to meet them all first. His name? Jeffrey Epstein.

De Swarte met the late financier and convicted sex offender briefly at his Upper East Side mansion, and, getting a bad feeling, she declined his offer of a free ride. “I’ve fared better than most, I’ll say that,” she says now. “I’m lucky that my experience was very much on the periphery, and I wasn’t affected by it too much.” She admits that “life in itself was quite surreal at that time.” Just a few months before, she’d been pulling pints at the Prince of Wales in Clapham, scrimping and saving her wages.

De Swarte’s life has taken many surreal turns. So many, in fact, that she’s made a TV show based on her experiences called Spent – and the Epstein encounter doesn’t even make it in. The BBC Two comedy-drama, which she wrote and stars in, follows Mia, a model forced to return to London from New York after she ages out of the industry, runs out of money, and files for bankruptcy. The show, De Swarte is at pains to emphasize, is only semi-autobiographical. She reckons “20 percent” of it is true.

“I, like Mia, was a model, catapulted into a life that was very different to the one I grew up in,” the 43-year-old tells me. “And I, like Mia, didn’t save a goddamn penny. I spent money like it was on FIRE.” The word becomes “FI-YAH” when she says it – two syllables. “Then I, like Mia, had to return back to the country that I’m from, after being away for nearly 20 years, without much to show for it.” She also, like Mia, is queer, and was raised by a Jewish mother on a council estate in Brixton. But Mia and Michelle are not the same person. “You’ve got to use your imagination and build on characters, if nothing more than for the legal reasons!” she lets out a hearty, dirty cackle.

Spent opens with Mia crash-landing in South London, where she’s pretending she’s “booked and busy.” But she’s not. Her sleazy old agent, Mills (Matt King aka Super Hans from Peep Show ), can’t get her a proper modeling job – so she ends up looking after dalmatians for a “power lesbian.” She’s effectively homeless and spends one night sleeping in the car of a kind woman, who’s partial to dogging, in a London park. Yet, in her head, she’s still living in her old glam life. “Is this cold press?” she asks a friend who brings her a bottle of juice. “It’s giving concentrate, babes.”

De Swarte’s long limbs are draped across a leather sofa in her publicist’s office; her style – silky shirt, high-waisted black cords – is elegant. You can tell she was once a model. The glasses are oversized. The afro is honey-colored. The lilac nails are immaculate. And she is a hoot, her laugh an unabashed one that makes me think of cigarettes. As she recalls the mad events in her life, she shouts and does numerous impressions of her head exploding, those manicured fingers shooting away from her symmetrical face.

She has done stand-up on and off for the past decade. “Like most comedians, I take the grimmest, darkest, most unfunny parts of my life and find humor in them,” she says. “I used to love, as a kid, listening to mum and her friends chatting in the kitchen. Sometimes they’d talk about really tragic events, but it always ended with laughter, you know? My teenage years were in the Nineties. So this is before people were going to therapy. The therapy was being able to talk about something, and then make it palatable by laughing about it.”

But Spent is about many things beneath all the laughter. First and foremost: aging out of the modeling industry. De Swarte calls it her “Cinderella moment,” when “suddenly it’s five past 12, and your glass slippers turn into Reebok Classics, and your carriage turns into an Oyster card.” “I think there’s something funny in that,” she says. “And with fashion, when you choose to use your beauty as your currency, it can be a hard transition out of that. Basing your identity on how you look is… well, it’s a head-f***.”

When her modeling income dries up, Mia struggles to curb her spending addiction. We see her telling her accountant she has a “visceral aversion to cheap s***.” “Mia is trying to fill a void,” says De Swarte. “It’s that instant gratification. And that’s very much like me. But the pendulum really swings between the stuff that I really care about and the stuff that I don’t.” De Swarte will happily splash out £100 on a skin cream, for example, but won’t buy organic food because it’s too pricey. “Make it make sense!” she cries.

Mental illness, more widely, is explored in the show, with both of Mia’s parents suffering crises. “I have loved ones who struggle with mental health,” says De Swarte, “but I don’t think there’s a human on the planet who doesn’t. It’s so funny that we call it mental health. I’m like – ” she starts to yell, incredulous – “‘Who has a clear bill of mental health? No one!’”

De Swarte has been through a lot. Being a Black model in the Noughties was not easy. “I’ve experienced a lot of racism in the industry, but I’ve also been the benefactor of its colorism,” she says. Back then, there would often only be one Black model per show, and De Swarte would be chosen over others because of the lightness of her skin. “It was about my proximity to whiteness,” she says. “They didn’t want to use someone who was of a darker hue than myself." In Spent , Mia scoffs over a casting call for an “ethnically ambiguous” model. Read: not white, but not too Black. De Swarte saw countless casting calls like these during her career.

The industry also had a huge MeToo problem. In Spent, we see a 15-year-old model dancing with a much older fashion mogul and being plied with cocaine. “Creepy guys are 10 a penny,” says De Swarte. She says she was exploited herself, and doesn’t believe there’s a single model who wasn’t in some way. In the show, Mia witnesses the abuse of power and tries to dismiss and normalize it. De Swarte was less afraid to speak out – once being sent home from a shoot by former star fashion photographer Terry Richardson because she called him a pervert. He has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple models over the years, allegations he has denied.

Before De Swarte was plucked from obscurity and scouted as a model, her Brixton upbringing saw her surrounded by women. “I lived with my mum, and my gran lived in Streatham with her now wife,” she says. “There were no men, really. Just my poor little brother, when he was born.”

She had a few stints living in Women’s Aid shelters, for victims of domestic abuse – once as a child, and then again when she was older. “Through my own relationship in my late teens, I ended up back there myself,” she says. De Swarte left school at 14, before her GCSEs, and was scouted at 19. She never made any money from modeling in London, but when a New York agency picked her up and she moved out there, that’s when everything began to change. Soon, she was modeling for the likes of Burberry, Gucci and Versace.

It was when she started entering the “twilight years of modeling,” as she calls them, at around 30, that she turned to comedy. “Clearly, I was partying a lot at the time, because how delusional do you have to be to think that you can transition from modeling to stand-up?” she laughs. It worked, though. She has performed stand-up everywhere from Edinburgh to Las Vegas, and has appeared on Live at the Apollo, The Last Leg and Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

As for De Swarte’s personal life in her thirties, she’d rather not get into the nitty gritty of how it fell apart. She does say, though, that she lived in LA for a bit, and has “never been in better shape because I was so bloody depressed… my life had imploded and I worked out more than I ever have since. I was just like –” she starts to do a sing-song voice – “‘I think I might be homeless, but I have a six pack… all is not lost.’”

Her family of women had never asked her about her plans for marriage and kids as she got older, because she “grew up with women who were single mums and were giving it a very honest, transparent, low Yelp review. Obviously, I didn’t take their advice [on relationships] completely because I did turn my whole mid-thirties into a steaming pile of s***,” she says, throwing her head back in a husky laugh, “but luckily, no little humans were reliant on me, so I was able to try to reinvent myself.”

Eventually, in 2019, she decided to head back to London. “I moved back here because I’d been homeless for a couple of years – but in the sense of doing cat sitting and staying on people’s sofas. I wasn’t being completely honest with myself about how bad things had got. But I knew that the gig was up.”

De Swarte credits the comedian Katherine Ryan with kickstarting her acting career. They knew each other from the stand-up scene, and Ryan cast De Swarte in her first acting job, in her Netflix show The Duchess. Then came HBO/Sky horror comedy The Baby. And now she has Spent, her very own BBC series.

“Katherine really empowered me,” she says, “in a time where I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m about to turn 40. I’m living in a box room. In Plaistow. How the f has this happened?’” There go the manicured hands again, shooting up into the air. A beautiful head-f, enacted in real-time.

‘Spent’ begins on BBC Two at 10pm on Monday 8 July

Source: The Independent