Cassie’s frank memoir about life as a model explores how the fashion and beauty industries objectify and exploit women. She tells her story with insight, humour and self-awareness. Read on for our discussion about the impact of this memoir on her life, tips for writers and what she is working on next.
In the book, you explore the emotional cost of exposing your body, yet your memoir revealed your soul. How do you reconcile the two?
It comes down to control and ownership. Once I became a model, I didn’t really have much choice – I was told to feel lucky and to shut up and put up with it. In writing, I had full control and ownership. I owed myself to be as honest and raw as possible.
Can you tell us a bit about the book?
How to Dress a Dummy casts an unwavering eye at the myriad ways in which women are taught that they’re not enough.
For as long as she could remember, Cassie Lane yearned to be somebody else. Not only was she socially awkward, she was odd-looking. Miraculously, at sixteen, Cassie’s prayers were answered and she got boobs – big ones! Suddenly the centre of attention, she went from gawky bogan to international model, strutting catwalks from Milan to LA. But beneath the gloss she discovered a world of exploitation, where living off your looks can attract as much scorn as admiration. Her search for a version of herself she could actually like took her from Hollywood parties, to an island ashram, and reluctantly back into the spotlight as an AFL ‘WAG’, a position where one wrong step can get you labelled a ‘slut’, ‘skank’ and ‘stripper’.
In time the gawky bogan came full circle, and Cassie grew to understand that beauty is not about high cheekbones or a 24-inch waist. True beauty is found in the imperfect and vulnerable.
Did you show your friends and family before it was published?
No. Everyone I wrote about knew what I was writing, and which parts of their lives were involved. Where applicable I changed their names and even asked them to choose their own pseudonyms.
It was important to me that I tried to see the story through their eyes, to never demonise anybody or presume I knew what they were thinking. In the end, I came to realise the only person I was really brutal with was myself.
I was reluctant to show anyone a draft of the manuscript because I’ve learnt through my experience in journalism that people will always want to change things to suit their interpretations of a story. Memories are imperfect, they therefore differ between people, and I didn’t want anyone else’s ‘version’ to impede my own. Neither is right or wrong but I felt I needed to stay true to my story.
How did your friends and family react when it came out?
I had terrible anxiety after I gave the final draft of my MS to the publisher. I didn’t sleep for three nights. I worried about exposing information about my family who are very private. But in the end, the only negative reaction I got was from the AFL crowd when I talked about what it was like to date a footballer. The funny thing is that everything I included in the book was already available in the public domain through, for example, news articles. So, I wasn’t saying anything particularly scandalous but I was still attacked for daring to suggest that the AFL had a few issues with misogyny.
How did you feel after publication?
The book was celebrated when it came out. I was on the front cover of the Herald Sun and The Age. I was very busy with the publicity of the book and it’s all anyone asked me about for a while. But then, about a year later it all died down and it felt a little anti-climactic.
I was glad I wrote the book and I feel it was an important book to write, because the messages it contained about the many ways women internalise misogyny were important to call out and deconstruct. And yet, I have to admit, it feels a bit strange that all those incredibly personal, private thoughts are still out there in libraries and bookstores for people to read.
Writing a memoir is such a cathartic process and once you’re done, you’re sort of ready to move on, but you realise it’s never going to go away and that can feel a little daunting. In saying that, I’ll never regret writing it.
Would you write another memoir?
I’d definitely write essays. Maybe if I thought of something worth writing an entire book about I would. This book focussed on one element – the objectification of women – there was plenty about my life I left out.
Do you have any tips for memoirists?
Read voraciously. Devour as many literary memoirs as you can. Mary Karr is the queen of memoir, read her. When you don’t have time to read, listen to audio books. I listened to David Sedaris’ books so many times I can now recite most of it.
It’s not essential to have an amazing life to write good memoir. It’s about finding the truth in everyday life. The skill is in recognising the human condition. You can’t write about yourself unless you get to the core of being human.
You are seen as a feminist voice. Is that something you plan to continue?
My masters thesis, the first version of the book, had a feminist theoretical component so I studied topics such as the objectification of women thoroughly. And I get asked to speak about feminism because of my book. I am still very passionate about the topic, but I am also interested in so many other things. I suppose I’d prefer not to get pigeon-holed.
What are you writing now?
I work fulltime as a feature writer and copywriter. I’m also working on a novel.
What do you see as the key differences between memoir and fiction?
I was at the Byron Bay Writers Festival recently watching a range of fiction writers and I realised that my memoir incorporated many elements of fiction – characterisation, dialogue, story arc and so on. But while we apply the same tools, for me, the creative process was different. Memoir begins from truth. Once I chose a theme, I mined the relevant stories within my truth. For fiction, I begin with a theme and create a world to support that theme.
What stood out to me most at the Writers Festival was Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, said, “I’m just a problem solver.” That’s exactly how I feel. With fiction I have a broad brush, I start with the solution and weave back to create the problem.
Can you give us a little teaser about your novel?
It’s a literary thriller based in a hospice with an interesting female anti-hero for a protagonist. I explore themes of death, love and finding our truth and the many ways we try hinder that process through fear.
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Next time: Social Distancing the Melbourne Way