You can judge a book by its cover

A pointed Smurfette, cover shoot, Yvonne Todd, 2021.

The pencil was on loan from Waitakere College.

It wasn’t until I was tapping the model’s redhead with it—as though she was an egg I might crack—that I felt things were working.

The pencil became the irritant. As writing is often an irritant for me. Each point bearing down on me from above, all I have to do is write something brilliant that’s never been said before. No pressure.

Tap. Tap. I felt quite purposeful perched on a stool above the model, just out of shot, menacing her slightly with the oversize papier mache pencil. I was the Stanley Kubrick to her Shelley Duvall. The model radiated an air of defiance, as the pencil nib nudged her skull.

Behind the scenes of our cover shoot, Yvonne Todd, 2021.

The model was a twenty-three-year-old marketing student from Hamilton. It was her first shoot, even though she’d been on the agency’s books for three years. She arrived at Yvonne’s North Shore home that morning in black pants and a white top.

“I guessed the client must have asked for a redhead,” she said.

“We did,” I replied.

Yvonne and I had been scrolling agency websites for redheads with brown eyes. Several were unavailable, others I rejected (“too good looking,” “that one has a koala vibe,” Yvonne’s nickname for me has always been Koala. “Are you Australian?” someone once asked at a party in the nineties. “No.” I replied.)

The shoot was in the lounge. The couches and Yvonne’s kids Lego swept to the side. The backdrop hooked on a rod and rolled down like a ceiling to floor curtain. A light erected. Yvonne’s 35mm DSLR camera placed in pole position. “I’ve been doing this for nearly thirty years,” Yvonne said.

Her makeup artist was there and Yvonne’s two sleek yellow cats, slipping in and out of frame. We had briefed a Shirley Manson grunge vibe. In the days prior, Yvonne trawled Savemart for dresses, the pencil was from the Waitakere art department where she was working on an artist in schools project. I found a Magritte-esque pipe and a fake graduation cap at LOOK SHARP! I folded my mermaid tail into my luggage and took off for Auckland. We had one day to get the shot for the cover of my new book—a memoir of all things called Things I Learned at Art School.

Yvonne and I last created a photo together over twenty years ago when I was still at art school: a double spreader for Pavement magazine. It featured a calla lily, exotic and penile. At her parent’s home on the shore, we captured the lily against a slick black background, Yvonne’s ultra-feminine hand cased in a dainty mesh mitten, her fingers bedecked with false nails. In the photo, she pointed one index finger at the lily’s phallic yellow spadix, aping the touching composition from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.

What had changed in the interim?

Nothing much. Yvonne lived in a house on the shore (now her own.) I still lived in a dinky rented flat. She was a renowned artist. Me, a writer. “You’re a scrapper from Huntly,” Yvonne said. I spent 6 months in Huntly at the age of seven but remember it well. It’s in my memoir. “What if it doesn’t work?” I said.

The model had started the shoot in a stripey turtleneck, emitting a Tori Amos vibe, but I could see she was struggling. “Pretend you’re not nice,” I said. Bluntness always one of my chief characteristics. How do you help someone embody you as a young art school student who once dressed up as Alice in Wonderland for a lame video?

“Don’t worry,” Yvonne said as I followed her down the hall to her studio. A ranch slider looked out on to her green unkempt pool. She searched through boxes for a miscellaneous prop. Her personality always a balm on mine.

Then we went back to the lounge, and I told the makeup artist to do the model up with big sixties Twiggy eyes—she had to look more like a classic Yvonne Todd photo—and we cracked out the Alice in Wonderland costume. Then the weird-ass Smurfette rental from a Russian on the shore, then my mermaid tail. There was a moment in the haze of that suburban afternoon, when I was poking the model’s head with the giant pencil, Yvonne was saying, “Yes, that’s great”, her husband Colin waving a circular collapsible reflector off frame, the model’s red hair billowing. “That’s good”, click. “No, too much hair!” click. “Yes, that’s good, the right amount of hair”, click, and I knew we had it. But we didn’t stop.

This article was first published in Art News New Zealand, Winter 2021.