Jan Dunning chats Mirror Me, a fashion fairy tale

She also recommends us some modelling-related books and shows.


Jan Dunning, a former Gucci model, has written a teen thriller about fashion and influence, titled Mirror Me. The YA novel follows Freya whose life is turned upside down by Bella, the glamorous former supermodel who’s about to marry her dad. Hoping to know if Bella has any sinister plan, Freya goes undercover into the intimidating world of high fashion. With Jan’s background, there is no doubt that Mirror Me will give readers great insights into the fashion world. Today, we had the honour of chatting with Jan about adapting the modelling world for her YA story. 

How did you make the transition from modelling to writing? Were there any surprising similarities?

In the mid nineties, I was at art college, and had only a passing interest in the world of high fashion – so when I was scouted by a model agent at Glastonbury Festival, I was taken aback. The experience was a turning point, however: after I finished my degree, I moved to London and became a model for many years, travelling almost constantly between Paris, Milan, Tokyo and New York.

Although I had some success, modelling never satisfied me. It’s not a very creative job. A model is not required to have a voice – you wear what you’re given and do what you’re told. If you do have an opinion, you generally have to keep it to yourself – or you can write everything down in a diary, like I did. I think I always knew it would come in useful.

Since I was a teenager, I’d wanted to write a novel, but while I worked in fashion I was too busy. Even when I finally stopped modelling, I wasn’t ready to write about the experience. It needed time, and distance. Photography was my gateway to creativity at first; a bridge to a place where I could finally find my voice.

Modelling and writing would seem to have nothing in common, but there are similarities you might not expect. With both, I’ve been able to be an observer, quietly taking notice of the chaos happening all around. Modelling, like writing, can be a solitary world. I travelled the world but spent long periods of time alone; I got to know myself and like my own company. Modelling made me patient, thoughtful, more perceptive; those traits are pretty useful for a writer.

You were a model for a decade but was there anything you only learned about from researching and writing this book?

Many things in Mirror Me come directly from my experiences, both bad and good – the awkward photoshoots and the humiliating castings, the backstage buzz of Fashion Week and the thrill of striding down the runway wearing a designer’s work of art. I recall all these moments vividly and I loved writing about them. But I still did my research. Time has passed since I was a model; the fashion business has changed. I talked to contacts who still work in the industry; they helped bring my story up-to-date. Some things I learned: models rarely carry physical books (portfolios) these days, and they hardly ever go on castings, except for the shows. One change for the better is the safeguarding rules protecting young models. Age limits, consent forms and chaperones are now the norm. Then there were the bigger changes – I had no idea how much social media impacts on a model’s success. Girls are encouraged to build a visible online presence; clients see it as desirable, a way to extend their reach. And beauty standards, of course, continue to change and evolve. Many of today’s models-of-the-moment would barely have worked twenty years ago. Very slowly – still too slowly, really – fashion is becoming more inclusive and diverse.

How did you balance between sticking to the reality of the high fashion world and modifying it such that it fits a YA story?

It was important to me to write an authentic book, but I wanted it to have an exciting plot. So I took a few harmless liberties – the timeline for Fashion Week, for example, is pretty quick! But I guess the biggest way I modified the story for YA is in deciding to make it a retelling. Mirror Me is Snow White, with subtle shades of Dorian Gray. Obviously, I never met any supernatural supermodels (well, not that I’m aware of) but I knew I wanted to write about beauty, modern ideas of perfection and the responsibility of influence – and it just felt more engaging to do that through the lens of a contemporary fairytale – less preachy for readers, more fun and magical overall.

Do you have any recommendations for modelling related shows, movies or books? Is there a gap for modelling related books?

I’m not that interested in modelling related shows. I’ve dipped into America’s Next Top Model, but there’s a big difference between reality TV competitions and what you actually do as a jobbing editorial model. I do like Glow Up, though – the artistry is so inspiring. There are two must-see fashion films for me. I absolutely love Zoolander, it’s such an affectionate send-up of the fashion world (and Hansel is so hot). I also love The Devil Wears Prada for many reasons, but especially the scene where Miranda Priestly explains to Andy about the origins of her cerulean sweater. It’s really smart, and shows that, even if we mock fashion or try to opt out of it, it’s impossible to escape its influence.

Book-wise, Holly Smale does a great job with Geek Girl in conveying the humour and absurdity of the business, and I love the neurodivergent representation. I’m yet to read Juno Dawson’s Meat Market, but from what I hear, it’s a hard-hitting take on the darker side of fashion, post #MeToo. Going way back, a much older book I love is Voyage In the Dark by Jean Rhys. Written in 1934, it tells the story of Anna, a chorus girl and artist’s model in Paris, trying to get by in a world where beautiful women are easily exploited. The author was writing from her own experience. It’s lyrical and gorgeous and it still resonates. As for a ‘gap’ for modelling-related books, I’m not sure. With Mirror Me, I tried to strike a balance between tribute and critique. The fashion world isn’t perfect ¬– far from it – but I wanted readers to have hope. In the end, the book argues for fashion that’s inclusive, creative and diverse, and encourages teens to express their fierce, authentic selves.

Mirror Me by Jan Dunning, published by Scholastic, is out now.
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