Jennifer Sky

Warrior Princess Diaries

1992 – New York

“Are you a virgin?” She whispered through berry-colored lips as we changed into our next outfit.

“No,” I reply, uncomfortable discussing this with a girl I just met but also enjoying the instant intimacy it produced. 

She was tall with wavy raven hair and even at fourteen, one year younger than me, she was already full figured with a radiant smile. Her name was Liv Tyler — the daughter of a rock star and a supermodel. I knew right away she was from a different dimension than me. 

We giggled about boys. I shared with her which brand of birth control pill I had secretly gotten myself on nine months ago when I began having sex. She told me about a guy she was seeing, older I think. She said she was ready. 

I had a crush, I confess.

 

The ‘story’ we were hired to shoot was about ski clothes and I was nervous. Vomit nervous. This was my first big New York shoot and the first time I’d been to this city on my own and I felt out of my element. I was used to the beach as my backdrop: water, sand, bikinis. This was the opposite. A chilly studio in the middle of a metropolis filled with fake snow. How did a teenage girl from the coastal swamps of South Florida get here?  

It was 1992. August. And I was fifteen. I’d just returned from a summer abroad modeling in Japan. It had not gone well. But back home on the continental U.S.A. – I was a star rising. Before I’d left home and everything I knew for my traumatic turn in the Land of the Rising Sun, Seventeen Magazine had done a centerfold feature on my life in Florida as the “Surfer Girl.” The issue was a hit, and I became an instant fan favorite. I was “It.”

They wanted me, this time in New York City. 

I was given a room in the Plaza hotel. Which I thought was ironic because back then the Plaza hotel stood across the street from FAO Swartz — a place I’d visited many times as a child. But now, at the ripe old age of fifteen, I no longer fit in that world for kids. I belonged on the other side of the street — one gilded with false profits. 

 

The large studio was white, industrial and cavernous. A backdrop hung in the middle of the space and artificial snow was piled in front. 

Liv and I each had our own makeup and hair artists, so we would be “camera ready” at the same time. The first picture featured both of us, two girlfriends in pink parkas. We giggled and bumped hips. We pretended to almost fall over. We whispered sweet nothings in each others ears. We were having real-life genuine teenage girl fun. 

This was rare for a fashion shoot: fun. Real fun. True, honest, smile inducing fun. 

I began to gorge on the feeling, to be seduced by it — the adrenalin kick was heaven and this beautiful person beside me its high priestess.

All the while knowing that as soon as I acknowledged this joy, as soon as I began to trust its mere existence, I would come to realize that this euphoria was only an aftereffect of a feeling. The mind is weird like that. Being in the moment is not really possible. You are always one step behind – remembering the moment you just lived, and by the time you realize you’re in it, the moment is gone. Like a negative left in a dark room.

This dissociative vibe was only heightened by the waves of anxiety from the stress disorder I was developing. PTSD from sexual assault is like that. Here one moment, gone the next, swamped in a fog of adrenaline and cortisol, deep diving in the dark pool of your self-ghosting mind. Japan had been bad. The fashion industry was worst. 

 

We move onto the next shot, a single of me. I am changed into a blue spandex overall ski pants and white turtleneck that I am told makes my boob look good, then take my place in front of the photographer’s discerning lens. 

When I first became a model I was shocked how many people felt like they had rights’ over my body. I was always being pulled at and prodded; patted down and felt up; dusted off and stripped away— without any nod to consent. The only time when I was allowed to indicate that I was a real-life human, was when I was on set in front of the photographer. 

That’s when this tiny dancer turned on and sprung to action: a smile, a laugh, a hip shot, a pout. I went through my arsenal of motions and emotions, giving him a selection to pick from. But something was missing. Now that Liv wasn’t my partner in crime. And my turn was over quickly — too quickly. 

There’s an unspoken energy between photographer and model — like an artist and his muse. If the photographer doesn’t see the talent in the subject before him, doesn’t feel it in his camera, the model intuitively knows and will not be able to perform to her best ability. Similar to the connection between a prima ballerina and her audience, if the energy in the theater is off on a particular night, the pirouettes will not be as tight. 

The photographer, a man going by the name Barry Hollywood, gave me a pinched smile as he announced the next set.

Liv was up. In a pink suit with pom-pom balls bouncing around, she giggled and pranced, she spun and danced. She was alive. She was full. She was everything. I wasn’t. She had the Midas touch.

 

Most of the day I sat on the sidelines, forced to watch her make magic, knowing that I hadn’t passed an unannounced test. That night I received a call from my agents giving me the bad news. I was boring. 

I was in my room at the Plaza hotel. I’d never been in a hotel so garishly decorated and I remember hearing this ridicules reason and staring at the baroque wallpaper and the obnoxiously ornate crown moldings and thinking: not boring. 

I felt like Cinderella and midnight had come. 

Barry didn’t like me. I was boring. I’d been on hold for a Seventeen cover shoot the following week and Barry was the photographer. I was not his muse.

My booking was canceled, my plane tickets changed. I was to return home ASAP. Do not cross Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars, (which is how much models are paid for a cover shoot).

After four years of being a child worker with no workplace rights, I’d learned the hard way that a photographer being abusive towards a model was Casual Friday behavior. I’d learned the hard way that a models’ place was to be seen and not heard. I’d learned the hard way that fashion was a world where a young woman’s rights were worth less than the clothing she wore. I knew there was no point in objecting. The roses had been handed out and I was not a winner. 

I looked around at the ersatz gold leafing of my room in the Plaza hotel and thought about the kind of people that built these types of rooms. Scratch the surface and everything looks ugly underneath. 

I was sent back to Florida on a Friday. 

 

A year and a half later — ten months in Miami, two months in Milan, two weeks in Mexico — I returned to New York, one of America’s top models. 

For nine months I lived and worked in New York.

I dwelled in a loft in TriBeCa and ate morning muffins from a new restaurant called Bubby’s. I moved agencies to Wilhelmina and into their model apartment in Murray Hill. I did campaigns for Bongo and Pepe Jeans. Life was seemingly peachy.

In January 1994, I was 17, I was offered a cover on the hottest magazine of the moment: Sassy. 

 

I arrive at my Sassy Magazine cover shoot on time and fresh-faced. 

While the nightlife lifestyle was ever the siren, ready to lure young models like oysters to a feast, after a narrow escape in Japan – I’d gone straightedge and career focused. I worked. I read. I slept. I went on castings. Barry was right; I was boring. 

The shoot was in a studio along the Chelsea Piers. The loft was a clinical blank room waiting to be filled in. Along one wall were racks upon racks of puffy pink and peach dresses, side-by-side with boy-model suits in a kaleidoscope of blue. 

I recognized some of the crew from a previous shoot I’d done with Sassy and we hugged and exchanged pleasantries – who had a new boyfriend, whose heart was still broken, who was done with dating forever – and work began. 

The makeup artist worked on my face, as a hairstylist began to gather my hair into hot rollers. Face cream, concealer, foundation. A thick line of loose white powder is set under each of my eyes to protect the base from dark pigmented eye shadow specks. The make-up artist lines the inner most rim of each eye before moving onto liquid pencil for the top lid. 

The boy arrives— he is cute in a cool-guy, passively friendly way. AKA the dude was a dick. But this was a better type of male counterpart to be assigned to. The other, the one that was into you, those could get quite gropy.

We wave and shyly smile as he sits in the chair next to me for his own hair and makeup application. They powder his nose and gel his hair, while tiny flowers are placed between my perfectly pressed pin curls. 

It occurs to me that I am smack in the middle of the photo shoot version of the prom I never got to attend: hair, makeup, nails, a lineup of fluffy dresses, an attractive suitor. I know this Sassy prom is not the real thing, but I am excited in the same fluttery way as I imagine I would have been on that night: my mom pinning up my hair, using cheap drug store spray to keep it shellacked in place while my skinny little sister sits slumped in the corner wearing her Raggedy Ann nightgown announcing that she is hungry. I would have gotten a manicure at the mall and picked a dress from the Bloomingdales sales rack. This is your night, girl. Enjoy it. The memories will last forever.

That’s when the photographer arrived and my stomach sunk. 

What were the odds? 1 in 1000? 1 in 10,000? 1 in a million? I know that fashion is a cult and the circle is ever constricting but come on, serendipity can’t have this twisted of a sense of humor. Yet… here’s Barry. 

Barry fucking Hollywood. The man who’d once single handily ruined my career; he was back for round two. I felt like throwing up. 

Instead, I plastered on a smile and did my job. I was a child professional after all and the one lesson I learned from working in the fashion industry for those three grueling years is that what I had to say, think or feel, meant nothing. And even if I did have a legitimate complaint, which I have had many times in the past when truly terrible things were happening to me, it didn’t matter. I’d learned time and again that no one was going to sick up for me, so I might as well grin and bear it and get whatever torture I had to endure over with. 

The adults in the fashion industry were all a very specific kind of beast. I would come to know a term to properly describe them: sadists. 

Sadists are people drawn to positions of power over people that have little to no ability to fight back for themselves. Sadists are the ones that abuse children in church. Sadists are the ones who use a uniform to kill people at a stoplight. Sadists are the ones that buy a beauty pageant in order to use women as bargaining chips for business deals. 

The sadists who ran the fashion industry didn’t care when crime happened to the child workers they hired as models; in fact, they liked it. 

This was the mid-nineties, a time before the World Wide Web. I didn’t have Twitter or Facebook or Snap to post a cry for help. I had myself and my instinct to survive.

I knew from experience if I acted like it bothered me, it only got worse. So I learned to push the pain down, to act like it didn’t matter at all. I put on my ‘model suit’ and turned invisible inside. If they didn’t care that I was being harmed, I wouldn’t care either. 

For the camera, the boy model and I go through our simulated couple maneuvers. We cuddle. We laugh. We pretend to stare meaningfully into each other’s eyes. We pretend-act exactly like a real teenage couple on the biggest night of their lives. When we are instructed to kiss, an overwhelming tension begins to grow inside of me. 

Now, because of the past three years I spent working full-time in the modeling business, because of the things that happened to me during that time, I supremely disliked being touched by any man other than my boyfriend — and sometimes not even him anymore. But being kissed by someone new? Well, that was in a galaxy far, far away. 

I told myself, coaxing silently, that it was only part of my job, as the boy and I turn towards each other moving in. 

He had smoker’s breath and smelled like the night before. 

It occurred to me that my feelings were probably not that dissimilar to a real girl going to prom: dry mouth, dry lips, wet palms. I tried to focus on how the dresses were pretty, like cupcakes: dresses for a princess. 

 

A month later, my agent, Susan, messengers over a copy of my Sassy cover. 

As I waited for the delivery, I remember looking out at the balcony of my agency-operated apartment. I remember looking at the mattress I put outside hoping the February chill would kill the bedbugs left by one of its previous occupants. 

When the magazine arrived, the pinnacle of my modeling career, the girl in the photo seemed sad. I looked at that sad girl on the cover of a magazine. I looked at her for a while, processing that that girl was in fact me. Then I started to cry. It all hit me at once. If this didn’t make me happy, this thing I’d been chasing all around the world, then why the fuck was I here? 

The next day I made my plans to leave this world where all the smiles you see are fake. But fate had one more click in its ruby slippers.

 

A few days before my departure, I stopped by the agency to pick up my final paycheck. That’s when Susan handed me the copy of a script. 

This is how I found myself, at 17 in 1994, sitting on the floor in a corner of Wilhelmina, reading a pilot script for Xena: Warrior Princess. I couldn’t put it down. I remember feeling enchanted by this incredible land of make believe. But this was a very different kind of make believe then I’d been used to — in this land, women ruled.

That day, I auditioned on tape for the role of Gabrielle, a farm-girl who becomes a fighter. 

Although I did not get the part, I eventually made my way to Los Angeles, where four years later I was cast in the stunt-heavy role of Amazon warrior, Amarice.

 

1999- New Zealand

A rubber-helmeted Roman takes a swipe at me with his plastic sword. 

I dodge, parry, and finish him off with my signature, two-at-once upper-cut dagger move. Dead, he joins a pile of his buddies lying in a heap.  

“CUT. PRINT. MOVING ON.” shouts the director from behind a row of monitors. 

Scratching at my wig of wild red hair and tugging at my leather short-shorts that have ridden up, I walk over to my Sensei, the stunt coordinator who taught me the tightly choreographed dance, to see how I did. He gives me accolades and adaptations.

It’s just another day in ancient Greece. 

I have been an Amazon warrior for the past six months. My character’s name is Amarice, and she has the reputation of leap-before-you-look exuberance, a firecracker temperament and heartfelt loyalty. She’s a character that gets under your skin in a way that makes you shimmy. During my tenure as a woman who kicks butt, I will co-star on six episodes from the fourth to fifth season of Xena: Warrior Princess

I stood still while a make-up artist rubbed my legs down with a sponge that felt like a wet slug – touching up my ‘leg muscles.’ There were so many parts of this job that reminded me of my former life as a model, and so many that reminded me how far I have come. 

Here in Xena’s world the first thing anyone ever asked was, “It this okay?”

In the middle of a fight scene, or between a set-up, they would ask if I needed to take a breather, assuring me that my stunt double could do this or that move if I wasn’t comfortable with it. 

At first this kindness confused the lightening out of me. I had never before been given the option to say no. Since I was fourteen-years-old, it had been made clear to me that I was to do as I was told. I was a prop with no voice, a baby doll with no cry. The maxim, children are to be seen and not heard, was built and branded by fashion. But in Ancient Greece, where girls ruled, my personal safety was the first thing on everyone’s mind and out of their mouths. 

Consent came first. 

Looking out over the rolling hills of the Lion’s Head location park on the outskirts of Auckland — a wide, yellow, grassland, dotted all around with life-sized dioramas of everything from pagan villages to fully-functioning pirate ships —I sighed and smiled and thanked all the Gods in Olympus for showing me the way to Xena.

 

I arrived in New Zealand a week before I was scheduled to begin shooting. There was quite a bit of prep for the actors that worked on Xena, and while the show was not my first acting job, it was definitely my most physically challenging. 

Each day I was picked up by a blue van and driven out of Auckland’s downtown center. We transitioned the Viaduct Harbour with its high-masted sails, the location for several World Cup sailing finals. We passed restaurants that I would come to find made the best sticky-date pudding on earth, we drove through round-a-bouts and along green lanes. 

Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city with one million residents. The north island reminded me of Ireland, in that it was mostly bright green rural lands rarely blemished by signs of human life. It is a no-nukes country and aggressively environmentally friendly. New Zealand is often a jumping off point for scientists on their way down to study the effects of climate change on Antarctica.

From the passenger seat I watched the sheep pastures go by — wool being one of New Zealand’s main exports. The free-range animals were too numerous to count. About 20 minutes out of the city, we began to make turns into a wooded area that soon became a series of barns. This is where I would be dropped off for my two-hour horseback riding lesson. 

As a child in rural Florida I had ridden horses a bit, but my family was a surfing clan and not really the horsey type. I would always be a bit intimidated by the pretty animal’s ease of power and large human-like eyes. 

The corral smelled of hay and heat and beast. I was assigned a horse that would be my on-screen partner. Her name was something sweet, like Buttercup. 

All Amazons rode horses. Amarice was not the tallest, nor was she the smartest of Amazons, but this girl had moxie for miles- so for her, riding a horse was a no-brainer. 

For me though? Different story.

For several days straight, each afternoon, I made the trip out to the corral where Buttercup would be waiting, saddled and fed. My trainer would hold the reins, steadying her, while I climbed aboard. Once mounted, we’d circle round and round, faster and faster, following our trainer. Accelerating from a walk to a trot to a gallop —I would never achieve the all out wind-in- my-hair freedom of a break away run. I’d spent too much time being told to hold my pose.

On the back of my Herculean horse was where I first began to figure out exactly how acting was nothing like modeling. My trainer asked often how this or that pace felt? Was the saddle tight enough? Did I want to feed Buttercup a carrot? In Xena’s world, people cared. Here they wanted my opinion. Here I was seen and heard.

Here I wasn’t Barbie; here I was Leia. 

Perhaps the main difference, then and now, is that actors have a union and models do not.

I was even asked if a scene or a piece of dialogue seemed true to the character. Before each script was shot, all the actors and producers gathered in the on-site production office for a table reading where any words that ‘felt unnatural’ would be cut before we stepped on set.

There were several times that Executive Producer, (and Lucy’s husband), Rob Tapert, turned to me with a sincere look on his face and asked if Amarice would do something or say something “like that?”

They even wanted my consent on the copy? At first I was speechless, but gradually my voice came back and I learned again what it felt like to be heard.

It was probably the combination of my love for reading and this time during Xena that allowed me to consider, that even though I was a woman who was dyslexic, I could possibly someday become a writer.

Each week, we collected around a long square table – the Warrior Princess and her Knights. In the middle would be a selection of snacks. I remember Lucy enjoying the cookies and quipping to her husband Rob, with classic Kiwi humor, that she would only have a few.

Lucy was as striking in person as she was on screen but in a subtly different way. While tall, she was not the large, brawny woman I’d seen on my television at home. I would quickly learn that in TV Land, muscles can and will be painted on. Without missing a fated beat, my character’s first line on camera to her was, “Xena? I thought you’d be taller.”

 

Once I’d completed horseback riding, it was on to stunt training. While riding a horse was something akin to riding a bike — once you knew how to do it, you just had to re-mount. — fight scenes were different every time: they were tightly choreographed dances with pretend sharp objects.

In a large, chilly warehouse, crash pads were laid out in sequential patterns. Four burly guys — that in real life played hardcore rugby on the weekends, occasionally coming to set with a black eye or broken finger — stood waiting for me to beat them up.

My character was given a sword secured into a saber that was strapped onto my back. I was also given a dagger attached to my right hip. With the sword in my right hand and the dagger in my left, I could fight with both blades, sparring with more than one assailant at a time. I had come up with this two-blade-at-once technique and would increasingly utilize it and enjoy working with both swords —enough for the stunt director to notice and build it into my scenes. 

When the producers realized I was surprisingly good at fight scenes, they increased them. 

After one of my lessons, I was taken to the studio for a costume fitting. The warehouse was tall and wide and made of steel. It was lined with row after row of calf-skinned, breast-plated costumes, some of which would be passed between the background-players of the Amazon nation. It smelled damp, like a hot glue gun, mixed with something feral.

The woman who designed my Amarice costume, Nila Dixon, would eventually leave Xena when Peter Jackson called and asked her to lead the costume department for his version of Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings. Nila would go on to win an Oscar for her design on Jackson’s trilogy. While both Xena and Gabriel wore skirts, and occasionally pants, Nila put Amarice in shorts. 

In shorts, my character was able to do roundhouse kicks and catapult onto a bareback horse. The leather was snug at first, but it heated and stretched, eventually forming nicely to my in-motion body. 

There is one truth about acting that actors don’t often speak of. A person cannot play the character they are portraying if there is not a little of themselves in that false persona. I was Amarice, only a little more genteel: the twentieth-century version. I had her balls-to-the-wall sense of adventure. I had her side-eye suspicion of authority. I had her love of both men and women of all cultures and backgrounds. I laughed and sneezed like a seventy-year-old man, and so did my dearest Amarice. In many ways, she was my best me. 

In Amarice, I rebuilt the courage that the fashion industry had stripped away.

 

When I was a little girl growing up in Florida, I liked to do the things my daddy did. My father was a surfer, so I learned to surf. My father was a poet, so I wrote poetry. My father went to karate class one night a week. Having tried and totally failed at gymnastics, (the sport my little sister excelled at), I took up the more masculine karate, just like my daddy did.

In martial arts, I learned about our center of gravity and that in a fight, it is important to stay centered. I carried this lesson forward into Amarice, and while I learned to fight the warrior princess way, I also personalized it.

Amarice kept her stance wide and low, her center of gravity close to the ground- so she could quickly parry blows with both hands. The way I held the daggers was also something that came to me organically. One up and one down, so as to be able to defend from all angles, this made the most logical sense to me. Logic was also something I learned from my father. Why fight with one, slow moving sword, when you can be a crouching, double-knife wielding dervish? And this was exactly what I, Amarice, became.

It was a gradual transformation, but the longer Amarice rode alongside Xena, the stronger a warrior she evolved to be. The longer I wore my warrior princess skin, the better it fit.

I trained and grunted and war-cried my way through that strong disassociation from my modeling days. I slashed my way out of model/mannequin passivity and into stuntwoman empowerment. I developed into the woman I always knew I could be.

I became a warrior – in a princess suit.