When Holly Smale set out to write a memoir of her teen modelling days, she quickly realised that the real story wasn’t in the behind the scenes glamour but rather the recollections of a shy schoolgirl completely bewildered by the spotlight.
It was from here that her book Geek Girl quickly became an account of a geeky student. “I was incredibly, painfully shy,” she remembers. “If someone I didn’t know spoke to me I’d be close to tears, I was constantly avoiding being looked at and after being bullied badly at school I was scared of everyone.”
In a classic Kate Moss discovery tale Holly was a fifteen year-old student on a school trip to Birmingham when she was scouted by modelling agency Models 1. Plucked from obscurity and suddenly thrust into the spotlight, she spent the next two years modelling on weekends and holidays. The modelling jobs ranged from editorial in magazines and the Guardian’s style section to campaigns for Benetton and high end runway fashion.
“I did some quite strange shoots where I was dressed up in beautiful, expensive clothing,” the Kennington-based author reflects. “I have an unusual face, I’m not a particularly pretty girl and they thought I had something unusual and abstract to work with.” Despite her self-professed clumsiness the model managed a couple of catwalk shows without falling flat on her face, a victory she’s still surprised by. “I walked up and down twice and was just muttering to myself the entire time ‘don’t fall over’ and I managed to get off the stage before falling down the stairs,” she recalls.
Being prone to clumsiness didn’t make the transition from timid student to model an easy one. “I was always tripping or banging into tables and I took that with me into the modelling world,” she says. “I wasn’t particularly good; my character is loosely based on me but I’ve given her a slightly better ability at modelling than I actually had. I basically spent two years a bit bewildered and didn’t understand why I was there.”
From the suburban schoolgrounds the world of modelling was an exciting and glamorous one for a teenager. “I saw it all through the eyes of a fifteen year old outsider and it was completely bonkers. I found it bewildering but suddenly I was surrounded by exciting characters and it was really creative and fun though intimidating.”
Bullied from age seven, the torment from her peers worsened dramatically for Holly during high school, particularly after she began modelling. “It wasn’t fun. If kids don’t like you they’ll hold anything against you. I was already called a geek because I did all my homework on time but when I started modelling it was worse than that; people would whisper when I walked past them in the corridors and they called me the world’s ugliest model.”
Her own traumatic experiences have made the author very passionate about addressing bullying, which she does in her first novel. “When I was twelve I was really miserable and unhappy. It really upsets me and makes me passionate about giving kids somewhere to turn to,” she says. Though the issue is played down slightly in the book, Holly has already received feedback from readers saying Geek Girl has given them more hope.
“Lots of books at the moment focus on these female characters who are invulnerable and powerful, which is great, but I wanted to create a character who was still vulnerable that girls could feel they had something in common with.”
After a couple of years Holly tired of modelling and felt she was spending more time working rather than studying and so she finally called it quits. “I haven’t gone back to it since, I hate having my photo taken,” she laughs. The author went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Masters in Shakespeare before landing a job in PR. “I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I was tiny. I wanted to be a novelist, not a journalist or anything else.”
Holly started her first “albatross” of a novel while working in PR, but upon the advice of a friend she decided to abandon it and turn her hand to a more fun topic. After writing the first three chapters of Geek Girl in a night she sent them off to agents before the book was finished. “I did it in a bit of a maverick way and you get your wrists slapped slightly for doing this because then they expect the rest of your book,” she says. The next day she received a call from the woman who is now her agent, and what followed was a stint teaching English in Japan and a few years of writing to complete the novel.
In February 2012 five publishers bid on her book, something she describes as very exciting for a debut, and eventually she signed with Harper Collins. Signed on for a three book deal Holly is now working on the second novel to be finished this month. “I don’t have a single day where I don’t wake up realising how lucky I am,” she says. She pinpoints the only downside as being home alone and not having colleagues for company, though twitter provides some solace, she admits. “I have special pyjamas especially for work, I get up and get dressed back in pyjamas.”