An Interview with Former NYC Runway Model and YA Author, Nicole Gabor
“I think it all started with a feeling of what I wanted to say,” Nicole Gabor types as we begin our online chat interview. Although it would have been fun to dress up and meet in person somewhere in New York City–at a Greenwich Village coffee shop or maybe lunch at Alice’s Tea Cup on the Upper East Side–alas, we are both at home, staring into our computer screens, and taking some time out from the evening bustle of family life.
Nicole and I met online when we both joined a women writers forum on the popular writing platform, Wattpad.com. A journalist and published children’s book author, Nicole was posting chapters of her first YA novel, Catwalk on the site in order to receive constructive feedback from beta readers. Her writing and the story hooked me immediately.
Nicole Gabor, former NYC fashion model turned journalist and children’s and Young Adult book author.
The protagonist of Catwalk, Catherine Watson, is a somewhat sheltered 18-year-old from the suburbs of Philly. She leaves home and, despite her parents’ misgivings, goes to New York to try her luck in the high-stakes world of fashion. With snappy dialogue and the kind of setting details that can come only from real-life experience, Catwalk gives readers a chance to walk in Cat’s five-inch, strappy Manolo’s down the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan; to go dancing in private night clubs where one encounters the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly; and to strut down runways wearing the latest couture during New York’s fashion week.
It’s the kind of exciting life many of us secretly, or not so secretly, fantasize about. It’s why people watch television shows like America’s Next Top Model and subscribe to Vogue and other fashion magazines. Supermodels are written about, read about, and gossiped about with a fervor once reserved for movie stars. Reading Catwalk gives readers a unique opportunity to peek behind the light, muzzy curtain of publicity and to catch a glimpse of the darker, less glamorous reality of the industry.
Nicole’s own story reads something like a novel. She was born in Colombia–her father is Colombian and her mom American–but she grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia. Unlike her character, Cat, whose parents sent her to Catholic school, Nicole attended public school. “I led a pretty sheltered childhood,” she says. “Philly wasn’t far away, so when you were old enough to take the subway into the city things got a bit more exciting.”
Photo of Nicole Gabor in her earlier modeling days.
After her modeling career, Nicole attended Rutgers College of Arts and Sciences. After graduating with a degree in English/journalism, she married an English teacher, launched a journalism career, and started a family.
In the midst of all that, she wrote Catwalk.
“I wrote most of Catwalk before my oldest was born,” she tells me. “When I was writing the novel, I would wake up before work at 5 a.m. each morning and get about an hour or so in a day. I had a goal of 1000 words a day, and I usually came close to this,” she tells me. “I actually kept a tally on an index card right next to my computer screen, and each day I added to it. My entire novel was completed and listed on this index card, word by word!”
Follow along as Nicole and I chat about motherhood, modeling, and the writing life.
Shelley: Your YA novel, Catwalk, is set in the world of the NYC fashion industry and modeling. What inspired you to write this particular story?
Nicole: Catwalk is loosely based on my experiences as a fashion model in New York City and Philadelphia when I was in my teens and early 20s. Starting at age 17, I worked mainly as a runway model, and was lucky enough to walk the catwalks for top designers like Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang, and Badgley Mischka. I did not become a super-model or get to buy my own penthouse overlooking Central Park (dang!), but I was successful enough to earn a steady income that helped pay for college.
During this time, I was really struggling with things that most almost-20-year-olds struggle with: What am I going to do with my life? Am I going to take the traditional path and get a “normal” job after college, or am I going to try to make it in fashion – a career with a very high failure rate that doesn’t play by the ordinary rules of life. (Incidentally, I chose writing, which I think is the only other career that has a higher failure rate!)
While I was modeling, I also met and fell in love with my husband who really inspired much of the love story in the book. He’s an English teacher and he really helped to make the book better in so many ways. He helped me with the plot, story arc, pacing . . . so many things. And since he’s “in” the book, it didn’t take much convincing to get him to read it and suggest ways to improve it!
Shelley: How many of the events that happened in the book are based on true-life experiences?
Nicole: Many of them were inspired by things that happened to me or to my friends. And then some were just there to move the plot along.
Shelley: Did you love modeling? Was it as exciting and glamorous as it looks?
Nicole: There were perks to being a model–free clothes, photo shoots, and bragging rights for family and friends–but it’s nothing that I would recommend to my nieces or to my daughter. For that to happen, a lot would have to change.
When I modeled in the late 1990s, things went on that would never be acceptable in any other profession. While other industries (like acting or teaching) had unions, labor laws, protection for minors, and other things that help secure a safe work environment, the fashion industry had literally none. It was a free-for-all. Girls as young as 13 were regularly sexually harassed, propositioned, threatened if they didn’t take certain jobs that were lucrative, exposed to alcohol and drugs, forced to change in public, and–what we have all heard before–harshly criticized for their weight, leaving many with body image issues.
This is one reason why I wrote the book, to spread awareness and to give impressionable teenage girls an inside glimpse into the so-called “glamorous” life. I wanted teens think about their choices in life and question what they’re willing to do for fame and success.
Although many of these shady practices still go on in the fashion industry today, it’s beginning to change. There’s a group called the Model Alliance that is lobbying for safe working conditions for models in New York and doing some really amazing things. It’s about time!
Shelley: After modeling, what did you do?
Nicole: I quit modeling at 22 and began my career in journalism. I started in broadcast journalism and worked for the local CBS news stations in New York City and Philadelphia. But broadcasting seemed too much like modeling for me at the time (newscasters were referred to as the “talent” and often had the egos of supermodels!) and I knew that I wanted to write, so I started searching for newspaper jobs. I began writing for trade magazines for physicians and sort of developed a “health” beat. I freelanced at local newspapers and health magazines (including Prevention and The Philadelphia Inquirer) and finally landed my dream job at KidsHealth.org, the Web’s #1 most-visited site for children’s health: www.Kidshealth.org.
Shelley: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Nicole: From the time I was a little girl, I would write stories and make up characters in my head. My grandmother was an artist and she really inspired me. She gave me a lot of confidence and made me feel like I could do anything that I put my mind to. I always knew that I would do something in the arts. I loved to sing, act, dance, and write. English was my best subject in school, so I took the path of least resistance and majored in English/journalism at Rutgers College of Arts and Sciences. I graduated with honors. My dream would have been to become a classical singer (I am a soprano and had a voice scholarship in college), but my stage fright was so bad that I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle that long-term. I choose writing because it was still a way to perform and practice an art form, but the creative process was very private so something that I could cultivate behind the scenes.
Shelley: What would you tell your 20-year-old self if you could talk to her now as an adult?
Nicole: I would tell her that “It’s OK if [gasp!] not everyone likes you.” This is a hard lesson that I’m still learning, but I think a very valuable one. As long as you like you (and the people you love like you) that’s really all that matters. So, stop trying to please everyone and stop being so nice. With women, I think niceness can sometimes be misinterpreted as a weakness.
The second thing I’d say is “stop complaining about your body.” Just wait until you have three kids–then you’ll have something to complain about. Believe me, “no boobs” is better than “low boobs.”
Shelley: What do you think you bring to writing, now, with some experience behind you, that you could not have brought with you, say, as a teen writer? Or a writer in your twenties?
Nicole: When I graduated from college with a BA in English, everyone asked me why I wasn’t going to be an English teacher (what else are English degrees for!?!), but I didn’t feel like I could transfer knowledge if I didn’t have much to give. I think most of what we learn in life is on-the-job training. I am fascinated by relationships, how we relate and interact, how relationships can change, and people can grow over time. I felt like I needed to have some life experiences under my belt before I could have something to give back to others, and–specifically with writing–something to say.
For my writing to be meaningful, I need to have something to say. I have a lot more to say now than at 17. And twenty years from now, I hope to have more to say that (hopefully) helps others.
Shelley: You hit on something there about experience and having something to say, that is, theme (or themes.) Readers respond to character-driven stories, and, well, depth, even if they don’t recognize it.
I’m interested in your path to publication, starting with the children’s books and then getting an agent before ultimately deciding to self-publish under your own imprint.
Nicole: When I was right out of college, I began writing kids’ picture books and early readers for an educational ESL (English-as-a second-language) company. I answered a blind ad. I got lucky. Over the years, I’ve written about four different series of books for them. More recently, I started writing for Highlights for Children’s preschool magazine High Five. This has always been a dream of mine, as I read Highlights as a child! I submitted a few stories to them, and the rest is history!
The process to publication for Catwalk was a bit more complicated. Back when I was modeling, I would jot down ideas and notes. I was really inspired by the chick lit that I was reading at the time, mainly Helen Fielding and Sophie Kinsella. I thought “Hey! I can do that!”
It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I actually gathered all my notes together and started writing the book. Before that, I attended some writing conferences, and worked in newspapers with other aspiring fiction writers and we would talk almost nonstop about writing, so I felt like I knew a bit about the industry and what the “traditional” steps were for getting published back then. I wrote most of the book before my kids were born and revised it quite a few times with help from my husband and writing friends. I also hired a developmental editor who helped me flesh out some sections.
Then, I spent over a year finding an agent. I probably sent out close to 100 queries and finally landed an agent. She was a very established agent at a successful New York agency. She was excited about the book and sent it out to positive feedback, but no bites. There was another teen modeling book that had just come out at the time so that didn’t help my cause.
After that, I was pregnant with my second son and decided to try out Wattpad, a site for beta-readers. That’s when the book just took off. It was a featured book, and before I knew it, I had like 100K reads of the novel, just within the first year. It was crazy and wonderful all at once. The book was so popular on Wattpad, that I decided to take it one step further and publish it myself–on my own terms without the usual holdups of traditional book publishing. Now I knew there were readers out there looking for content like this, and I was ready to share it with them.
Q: Awesome! How do you balance your family life, career life, and writing life? These are realities many of us have to juggle.
A: Um … I still haven’t figured that out yet, lol. And, like most other parents, for me the pandemic just added about 100 more layers of complexity to everything. Last spring, I was working 40 hours a week with a toddler in the house, two (first- and third-grade) boys who had meltdowns over hours of schoolwork, technology fails, and a husband who was teaching in the house. We also got a puppy because we are THAT crazy. It was a real struggle, and I had to put all of my writing projects on hold. But things fortunately got easier and the boys went back to school full-time. I have slowly gotten more “me” time to write during my daughter’s naptimes and movie-watching (no mom guilt!). I know this is a time in my life where my family obligations will always come first, and I’m OK with that. For now, I can work on promoting my book and–when I have spare moments–reading and writing down ideas for the future. It’s a constant juggle, but I know it will get easier as my kids grow.
Looking regal and happy for a bridal shoot in Philadelphia Bride magazine.
Shelley: What is one thing you’ve done that you are very proud of?
Nicole: I think giving birth pretty much tops my list. And raising three smart, kind, and beautiful children with my supportive husband. Balancing wifehood, motherhood, and work in all its various forms is a constant challenge. I am pretty proud of myself for averting a complete nervous breakdown, actually.
Shelley: Achieving and maintaining that kind of balance is certainly an accomplishment, and I’m thinking you probably deserve a vacation, especially after 2020 and lockdown with a young family. If you could go on a vacation anywhere in the world (or a research trip), where would it be and why?
Nicole: I am a closet Francophile. My husband and I lived in Strasbourg, France for a month (we were ridiculously lucky) while he did a study abroad trip for law school a few years back. We would go back there to relive those romantic, carefree pre-baby days. And, as a side trip, we’d take the train to Paris to go on a “Midnight in Paris” tour (one of our favorite Woody Allen movies!)
And then, if we could take it to the next level, we would time-travel back to attend one of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s fabulous cocktail parties.
Shelley: I would join you on that time-travel vacation, and I’d love to hang out with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas listening to them discuss art with Picasso. Good thing we have books so we can, in a way, experience that time and place.
This is just a funny question I like to ask people. What kind of old lady do you see yourself becoming MANY decades from now?
A: Well, I’m not sure, but my husband is pretty convinced that I will be one of those wrinkled old ladies who wears too much blush and mascara and looks like a clown. He’s probably right. I don’t think I’ve ever left the house without make-up on. I definitely take after my grandmother there, who always had to “put on her face.”
Oh, the vanity!
Nicole Gabor is a published author of more than twenty children’s picture books and early readers and an award-winning health writer and editor. She lives in Delaware with her husband, three young children, and their Goldendoodle named Ginger.
Catwalk is due out July 2021. Sign up for her newsletter on nicolegabor.com to receive updates and ordering information.
Shelley Burbank is a journalist, novelist, short fiction writer, and ghostwriter. She loves to write about authors and other creatives both online and in print. If you have a story you’d like to share, contact her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn to talk about possible collaboration or an interview. Sign up for her newsletter for chatty, personal essays and much more, and of course, check in to the blog to read more essays on topics of creativity, writing, authors, and art.