The Veteran Nude Model Shares the Challenges and Rewards of Holding a Pose
Nude model Leslie Miller no longer hangs at crowded art galleries on First Fridays in the Crossroads Arts District. But her likeness likely does.
“You see an amazing piece that’s selling for hundreds of dollars — and it’s of you,” Miller says. “So I don’t go to First Fridays anymore, because I’m already there. Why go? What’s the point? You can really take an ego trip, and I just choose not to do that.”
Miller may not want to be gratuitously recognized in public. But the nine-year veteran of working without a stitch on is never wary of rolling out a blanket and holding dramatic poses for drawing, painting and sculpting students at the Kansas City Art Institute and other art education spaces around the metro.
Wherever she’s put on a pedestal, Miller is mindful to maintain the underlying humility that helps her do the job.
“I have my prayers,” she says. “I meditate to hold certain poses. It’s a big spiritual thing for me.”
But it’s also a showcase for Miller’s supremely confident modeling style, which she thinks of as performance art.
“I’m a queen when I’m up there,” she proudly says of her pulchritudinous purview. “It’s my domain. I literally bring you into my environment. I try to engulf you.”
Miller is a native Texan and lifelong practitioner of reverse painting on glass. She moved to Kansas City in 1998 and became an executive secretary at Sprint, “but the corporate world didn’t work for me at all,” she recalls. The years that followed included the opening (and, alas, closing) of her Bella Mosaics & Creations art gallery in downtown Kansas City.
In 2010, Miller’s essential curiosity — and need for fast cash — led her to answer a classified ad for nude models at the Kansas City Art Institute. She knew something about modeling from her childhood experience as a print model. And she wanted a gig with enough flex time to do her own art. It can’t be too bad, she thought. Why not give it a try?
“I didn’t really know what to expect in the interview,” Miller remembers. “I wasn’t sure — do I take off my clothes? Because, in modeling, they really want to know what you look like. They were like, ‘No!’ They needed a body. I knew what to expect the first time, because they gave me paid sessions where I shadowed another model. And now a lot of models shadow me.”
What do beginners in the buff learn from Miller? First and foremost, that it’s actually physically demanding work. After Miller checks in with the class instructor — although, she says, “most instructors around town know that I know how to do this, so they don’t give me any instruction” — a typical modeling session consists of four or five 20-to-30-minute posing blocks, with five-minute breaks between blocks. Miller might start with a block of 30-second “gestural” warm-up poses, followed by a block of more dramatic five-to-10-minute poses and eventually a single pose held for an entire block — or longer.
“If I’m sitting in a 20-minute pose,” she says, “they might want me back in that same pose for the next 20 minutes and then the next 20 minutes. I may be in that pose for three hours.”
Which is when funny or worse things can happen to models.
“Some models are in a chair and they fall asleep,” Miller says. “And other things happen that I am definitely afraid of. You get snoring and drooling. Something coming out of their nose. Bodily things happen, but everybody’s body is different. Some people can’t do vegetables or meat before, or they have an issue. For me, it’s beans. I stay the hell away from beans — and broccoli.”
“Almost the hardest thing to do is just sit in a chair for a portrait. You can’t move your face and you have to stay that way sometimes for hours. And it’s tough, because students can get frustrated. They’re like, ‘Oh, she moved!’ Well, it’s life drawing. I’m not a dead mummy.”
One ultra-important piece of advice for anyone taking up nude modeling: Don’t lock your legs by any means. “Because you will fall over yourself,” Miller promises. “It’s never happened to me. I’ve seen it. It’s horrible.”
How do art students react when there’s a nude modeling accident? “They freak out,” she says. “But it depends on how severe the situation is. I’ve seen a model friend of mine actually bust her teeth.”
Miller counts several nude models as friends but acknowledges that the local nude modeling community — which she guesstimates at 60 to 100 people — is largely disconnected.
“We’re like the most secret society — we don’t even know each other,” she says. “I’m not kidding. I know, tops, maybe five. It is competitive and that’s a problem. That’s why we don’t know each other for the most part. You don’t want to know who’s working what. You don’t want to know how many times one model gets called versus another.”
Some nude models may simply want to stay in the closet to avoid being judged, Miller says.
“You tell people that you’re a nude model, and they’re like, ‘wow,’ and it becomes instant sex,” she says. “I felt I was in the closet for about the first year. How do you tell your parents that this is what you’re going to do? I think I told my dad over the phone and he just went dead silent. My mom was like, ‘Well, I could have figured, because you didn’t like to wear clothes as a kid. We couldn’t keep them on you!’ She was not shocked at all. And she’s an artist, too. I had to explain to my dad, ‘I’m working for schools. I’m not in a club.’”
Then there’s the whole dating thing for a nude model.
“It’s tough being a model and being in a relationship,” Miller says. “Some men are like, ‘Oh, I love it, what a great idea,’ and you don’t necessarily want that. They kind of put you on the trashier side of life. The other extreme is like, ‘I really don’t want all these guys looking at you.’ They still take it as a sexual situation and it’s not at all. So I get it out there right away — how is he going to respond? I’ve been doing this for nine years, so it’s obviously not a problem for me.”
While she has no qualms about assisting art students by way of her anatomy, Miller isn’t an anatomy expert just yet. So she pays close attention to what’s going on in class, gleaning what she can from instructors as well as students.
“I listen to everything the instructors say and I’m actually able to learn,” she says. “Sometimes they’re lecturing. Sometimes they might use a wooden rod to point where lighting is hitting certain muscles.
“A lot of times I’m allowed to walk around during breaks and look to see what the students are doing. I wouldn’t say it’s encouraged, but that’s just who I am. And they let me, because they trust me. Once a student wrote me a full-page letter that’s now in my scrapbook. It was about how I inspired her and pushed her forward and gave her confidence to do her art. I was bawling for a week.