By John Woodford
In 1994, Jillian Shanebrook wrapped up dual master's degrees in Asian studies and development economics in Ann Arbor and headed to Indonesia for a teaching job. Not long after her arrival she was surprised to find herself one of Asia's top magazine models.
Shanebrook had left Ann Arbor "yearning for a Southeast Asian odyssey," but one of a more conventional sort. A fellow student had told her of Indonesia's "dazzling sunshine, electric-pink bougainvillea, leafy palm trees and smile after smile of warm people," and that led her to contemplate "an Indonesian adventure of my own.
She visited the University's Career Center and applied successfully to a Princeton University program that got her a job teaching English to students at Gadjah Mada University in Yogakarta on Java, Indonesia's main island.
Though apprehensive at first about what it would be like to live alone across the world without family or friends, Shanebrook, a New Yorker, quickly acclimated herself to "Yogya," as her new home is nicknamed. And why not? Yogya's climate offered her "early mornings of luminous sunlightas soon as I was out of bed, I would step into my garden and breathe in the fragrant orange hibiscus, ginger plants and banana trees and listen to the roosters declaring their place on earth.
"I was mesmerized," Shanebrook continues, "by all of the new sights: becaks (bicycle rickshaws), legions of motorcycles, tiny warungs (food stalls, assembled and taken apart each day), intense sun and veiled women, often riding motorcycles. Outside the city, there were stunningly green padis (rice fields) tended to by lean barefooted farmers."
Adding to its geographic pleasures, Yogya is also a center of Javanese culture, home to wayang kulit (shadow puppetry), gamelan (traditional Indonesian music) orchestras and classical Javanese dance.
But while Shanebrook was taking in the splendors of Java, she sensed after a few months that the viewing was going both ways. "I began to notice that people were watching me on the streets and murmuring about my appearance," she says. "I was attracting attention because I was very tall compared with most Indonesians, and being one of the few Western women there, I had relatively 'exotic' features."
Being abroad alone gave her a sense of having no boundaries to her identity, and she began to "toy with the idea" that she could recreate herself, and, specifically, given the attention she was drawing, that she might turn herself into a model.
"I had never before given modeling a serious thought," she says. "Modeling had always seemed like a trivial pursuit. At home I was a student, and my identity was wrapped up in the pursuit of knowledge—a view encouraged by my father, a college professor, and my mother, a psychotherapist. For me, success was intelligence, and I worked vigorously towards that goal, graduating second in my class at Union College, summa cum laude. Yet in Indonesia, with the realization that I could try whatever I wanted to and adopt a completely new persona, I thought, why not try modeling? If I failed, it would just be a good story and an intriguing experience."
While entertaining such thoughts Shanebrook happened one day to accompany a friend who was getting a haircut at a hotel salon. The salon director approached her and said he was organizing a fashion show. She said she was interested and was sent to the show's designer for an audition. "The designer surveyed me with a trained, steely eye and asked me to sashay a few times back and forth across her studio," Shanebrook says. "My sashay apparently sealed the deal—she hired me and arranged to use me for newspaper and magazine advertisements for the show. A couple of days later I saw myself in the local Yogya newspapers Minggu Pagi and Siang Ini. There I was, pouting and advertising the fashion show, strangely enough looking like a model."
Shanebrook got used to the behavior of the photographers, most of them males who could become raucous and even "a bit googly-eyed" as they urged the models to perform.
The runway sets up "an almost confrontational dynamic," she says. "Given the importance society places on beauty, it's not surprising that some women react strongly when models are literally 'put on a pedestal' largely for their looks. Some embrace the spectacle, others do not. I had certainly felt envious plenty of times watching models parade around."
After Popular magazine, Indonesia's top men's publication, invited her to Jakarta, the capital, for a photo shoot, Shanebrook found herself in star status. "What fascinated me," she says, "was that I hadn't done anything remarkable. I had walked down a few runways. I was attractive but certainly not the most beautiful girl in Indonesia." Her best assets, she decided were her perseverance in following her inclination and "a healthy dose of good timing."
So there she was a few weeks later, with her face looking out from every kiosk throughout the Indonesian archipelago, in a nation of nearly 200 million people. "Inside, the cover story was over a dozen pages with a multitude of photographs, describing me as an 'upcoming sensation' in Indonesia," she says. "The entire affair was surreal—was I on my way to becoming famous? Was this all there was to being famous?
"I went to my local newsstand to buy extra copies and the clerk was very surprised to notice I was the young woman on the cover. I quickly attracted a crowd and started signing autographs. My main thought as I stood there signing magazines was how strange it was that someone would desire my signature, and I lamented that my usual signature didn't really have any 'flair.' The whole experience felt like some kind of fluke, just a strange situation I had found myself in."
Shanebrook went on to more cover shots in several magazines. Then she was voted Indonesia's top covergirl and cast in the Southeast Asian version of Charlie's Angels. Next came shoots in Fiji, Ireland, Australia and other locations prized by glamour photographers. And this year, there she was, in her homeland's People magazine, featured for her odd dual teaching-modeling career.
Today, back in New York where she teaches English at Brooklyn College, Shanebrook still models in Asia occasionally and also writes popular culture and travel articles for Asian publications. And she's just published a book about her adventures so far, Model: Life Behind the Makeup (Blue Bali Books), which you can read all about at www.jillianshanebrook.com, Amazon.com or find at a bookstore.