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Five days a week, Shannon Ashby works as a design engineer, creating pressure vessels for big companies across the country. However, at the weekend, it’s another story. She pulls on dresses, sits for an hour in hair and makeup, and then gets in front of the camera for a modelling shoot.
I interviewed the eighteen-year-old engineer/model (originally from Lincolnshire) about her double life:
“I work at Wefco Ltd, designing pressure vessel storage containers for air, gas, water and oil. Most recently, I designed one for a landfill site that would collect water to test for harmful chemicals before it can be filtered back into water sources. The company has also built petrol tanks for fuel stations at Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and site gas tanks for Siemens. I’m working towards an HNC in Mechanical Engineering at college and, eventually, I’d like to move into the more practical side of engineering as a career.
“Then, in December, my friend’s mum, who works as a body painter, told me she knew someone who needed a model for a networking event. I went along, and it was a big venue. There were ten different photographers, different settings and enough outfits to sit for the same photographer several times. I met a lot of people and made a lot of connections; the photographers took a liking to me and I’ve been going to more and more events since.
“I model for local photographers at similar networking events. These events are set up to establish professional links in the area, helping photographers practice skills with shots, lighting and camera work. It’s mostly trial and error; half the shots go wrong or don’t come out quite right but that’s what these events are about.
“At smaller shoots, it’s lowkey and less serious. We’re there having a laugh and it’s a lot more fun. But bigger shoots have a more intense atmosphere. They need to get certain photos done, so there are rotas to follow, ‘ten minutes with this photographer, then ten minutes with that one.’ It’s in these shoots that some of the girls get sponsored dresses and jewellery to wear from companies.
“One of my favourite shoots has to be the ‘posh event’ – we wore prom dresses and the photos were gorgeous. Everyone put so much effort into it and it really paid off. Plus, I didn’t have to do my own hair and makeup, and I got to wear different clothes, which makes a change because all the clothes that I wear at shoots are my own, so there’s nothing eccentric.
“I also did a wedding dress shoot which was amazing because the dress was stunning – even though I had to spend two hours in hair and makeup. It was so unexpected; I’m only eighteen so I was stood there posing, thinking ‘I should not be in a wedding dress, right now.’
“The next shot that I’m really excited about is a milk bath shoot. Basically, they fill a tub with a pale-coloured opaque water, throw a load of flowers in it, and it creates this interesting background for the photos which is stunning.
“Modelling is at the complete other end of the spectrum to Engineering and the two don’t compliment each other. My hands are engineer’s hands – they’re battered and bruised 24/7 – so I try to hide them in shots as much as I can, which can be difficult. I struggle to do my own hair and makeup because I’ve never had much practice; I’ve never had to wear makeup every working day because there’s just no point for my industry. There are different levels of modelling: I do the basic stuff (fashion and portrait) but above that is lingerie and nudity which, because of my professional career as an engineer, I could never go into.
“Engineering also means that I don’t have a lot of time after work so it confines modelling to weekends. I’ve done one shoot after work before but we didn’t have much time and it was so busy. Working solely on weekends makes it difficult to go out, as well, because hangover shoots do not work well…
“I went out the night before, once, just on a low-key night for a few drinks. But when I got to the shoot the next morning, I was so hungover. The photographer wanted me wearing heels in the shot and I kept falling over, I was exhausted and feeling so rough. Plus, the constant flashes from the cameras had my head spinning; there’s nothing worse than trying to suppress a dry heave during a photo shoot.
“I try to keep the two jobs separate: my engineering colleagues don’t even know about my second life. I don’t think it would necessarily make things awkward but I don’t think it’s their business – it’s my thing, you know?
“Being a model never crossed my mind before. I struggled with confidence for a long time and I never considered getting in front of the camera. But it has honestly boosted my self-esteem so much – it makes me more confident in myself. Teenagers get told by media that they’re not good enough, they’re not pretty enough, and even if they think highly of themselves, they’re labelled conceited. Modelling, though, is such a supportive environment and I would 100% recommend it to others for its mental health benefits.
“For proper models, I know that there’s an atmosphere of pressure but, for us, we’re all different. We’re tattooed, we have dyed hair, we’re curvy, we’re bony, we’re racially and sexually diverse. Of course, conventionally pretty models still dominate the industry, but the photographers love us for being individual. There’s been a huge push for more unique-looking models – you don’t want everyone to look the same in every shoot.
“I would love to organise a body positivity photoshoot because of all the stigma that comes with modelling – ‘you have to be skinny, you have to be flawless.’ I want to raise money for a body dysmorphia charity and bring in a range of models that don’t necessarily represent society’s version of perfect. I want people from all different backgrounds and life experiences, people who have disabilities and different conditions, individuals of different races, genders and sexualities, with scars and body art to boot. I would aim it at everyone, not just models, and involve men, as well, to demonstrate that men have the same difficulties with body image as women.
“Not everyone is the same and it’s nice to challenge stereotypes. Not every girl fits the convention of a model, not every man is athletic and muscled. You need to feel comfortable in your own skin.”