Alexandra Cunningham currently has a lisp. For the 30-year-old, this is just the latest example of how annoying the modeling industry is.
“I love what I do, but there are so many things about my industry that I hate,” Cunningham says. “Recently, my family and I did a Gap campaign, and I felt really good about it. After, my agent [asked] me, ‘Oh my God, have your teeth always looked like this?’”
Enter Invisalign and said temporary lisp. Despite these pithy comments ranging from ridiculous to incredulous to mentally damaging, Cunningham has persevered in the modeling industry after getting a late start at 25, when she decided to pursue a career as a model full-time.
“I had a lot of things I was good at, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she says. “I liked to draw, but that doesn’t mean I wanted to make a living out of drawing. I liked to work out, but didn’t want to be a Pilates instructor. I had a hard time honing in on what I was supposed to be doing.”
Now a fixture in modeling under the moniker Alex Undone, she uses her platform as an opportunity to shine a light on some of the industry’s issues such as fatphobia, ageism and racism. When not on set, Cunningham takes her daughter to see anime flicks (in Japanese), walks the dog with her fiancé and hosts a YouTube talk show titled “Let’s Talk About It.”
District Fray: What’s your day-to-day like as a model? That’s what people are probably most interested in, especially considering you have a 10-year-old daughter, too.
Cunningham: Something that brings me great joy is crushing the fantasy of being a model.
Please, crush the fantasy.
I walk the dog, meditate and work out. Sometimes, I’ll get ready for virtual casting calls, so I’ll have to stage the house. My favorite spot to be is having an audition, a job and a check on the way — all at the same time. I prefer to have all three in constant rotation. It’s a lot of waiting. You do all this work and audition, and it’s too much for them to come back and tell you, “You didn’t make it.” I’m auditioning all the time and it’s my job to stay healthy [and] eat well. The clients think I look like whatever my most recent digital is, so I’m constantly keeping up with that.
When did you start modeling?
I did some photoshoots in Germany when I was 18, but got pregnant and everything was put on the backburner. At 25, I tried again. I had been shooting locally with photographers in the DMV [Ed. note: Cunningham was living in Richmond at the time]. I’d drive down to Atlanta on my own dime. I was a freelance artist with no representation. I just knew the industry was scouting girls at a ridiculously young age. Most women who are 25 in the modeling world have already been doing it for 10 years. It sucks to be in an industry that considers you old at 25. I knew the reality of what I was getting into, so I packed up my car and drove from Virginia to LA.
Did that prove to be the catalyst?
I was like, “Mom, I’ll be back in three months.” Like, I was just going to raise so much money, secure a place and come back for my daughter. The joke was on me. I was there for eight months, and it was terrible. I couldn’t get signed. Everyone in LA told me my look was “so New York,” but no one in New York was signing me, either.
Of course, there’s a happy ending to this journey, right?
I did get signed, and the agency was such a scam. I won’t name them, but it’s every parent’s worse nightmare. After that, I went to New York, got signed there and it’s been a hustle since 2017 onward. But the work has been consistent and I feel like it’s finally paid off.
Do you think getting established as a model in your mid-20s with a little more life experience made the transition to treating it as a job easier for you?
I was still susceptible to so much of the bullshit. Coming in at 25, I still wrestled with having a healthy body image. I still wrestled with body acceptance. I still wrestled with having a consistent and healthy way of eating. We live in a fatphobic world already. At 25, thinking about how sensitive I was in attaching that number on the scale to my worth, my heart really goes out to the younger models in this industry — and especially the ones who don’t have someone looking out for their best interest. It would have ruined me had I came into the industry any younger.
You’ve mentioned some of the bullshit and misconceptions of modeling, but it seems like you really do enjoy it. What’s kept you coming back?
I’ve always been very expressive. I’ve always viewed my body as a tool. For me, when I was on set, it was always about the art. It wasn’t about fashion for me. I liked making shapes with my body and expressing emotions. That’s what drew me to it. When I’m not on set, I’m shy and introverted. But when I’m modeling, I’m able to put a different hat on. Off set, I’m Alexandra and I’m goofy and awkward. But on set, it’s Alex Undone in the building, and it’s go time.
Does talking about problems in modeling via Instagram and other mediums make it even more important to you to act as a voice for change from the inside?
I want to break through those ideas. At this point, I want to be an example and a voice for the girls who are doing it but think they can’t. Modeling isn’t about how you look: It’s about selling a product. I know that doesn’t sound glamorous, but it’s hard work. What people don’t see is chasing jobs, dealing with rejection, and getting picked and prodded at.
Have you seen significant changes in the industry over the past five years?
I’ve seen some changes already. For example, when I started, I was told not to disclose that I had a kid. But now, you see moms breastfeeding on the runway and all sorts of campaigns. But my daughter is 10 years old now, so it took a while for that change to take place. I hope to continue to be a changemaker and a voice.
You also host a YouTube series titled “Let’s Talk About It,” where you and Faiven Feshazion talk about topics from identity to hair. How did that get started?
That’s always really brutal: doing all that work and getting 30 views [laughs]. Initially, we started as just a girl’s night conversation about things bothering us on IG Live. We had too much to talk about, so we went from Instagram to a different platform. It’s something we both had the time for during the pandemic, and we wanted to talk about real stuff. We have candid conversations about any and everything — nothing is taboo. For instance, we had a recent episode go up titled, “Am I Still Gay?” because I’m engaged to a man, and a lot of people think your sexual identity is tied to your partner. Our goal is to have those conversations and hold space for the types of topics people are discussing.
You’ve done some shoots with your daughter (and fiancé, too). Does she have any interest in following in your footsteps?
People ask me all the time if I would want [my daughter] to model, and the answer is absolutely not. She has no desire to be a full-time model and I don’t push her to be one. The jobs we do get, she knows those are to start college savings early, and she also gets to spend a little bit of what she makes. A lot of money is going to [anime] cosplay, currently. She’s really into video editing these days. I feel like whatever she does, she’ll be behind the scenes.
Oh, she’s into anime [Ed. note: So is our interviewer]. What’s the flavor of the month right now?
“Demon Slayer” just came out, but it was rated R. I wanted to take her, but I [also] wanted to be able to take a nap.
I’m not into anime. I used to watch Pokémon. I had the holographics!
Well, did you take her to see the movie?
Yeah, we went. They said the characters were immature, but some of the violence was gory. I wasn’t able to sleep because I had to assess the violence the whole time. Personally, I thought it was fine.
What’s your favorite aspect of modeling?
I’m not behind a desk and get to do something different every time with creative and artsy people.
The fatphobia, racism, ageism, etc.
What’s the coolest piece of fashion you own?
I bought these completely exaggerated Miista square-toe boots, and I love them so much.
What’s the least practical piece of clothing you own?
It’s this top I got from Instagram. It’s really nice, but it’s made for people with no boobs. So if you have mom boobs, it doesn’t really stay put. When I wear it, I have to put everyone around me on boob watch. It’s a nice top, but it’s not functional. You know: fashion.
What’s the weirdest gig you’ve ever done?
There was a peacock on set and I had to pour alcohol blindfolded. [I’m] not sure how they tied the peacock into the brand.
What’s the strangest prop you’ve dealt with?
Every now and then, you do a job that makes your soul die, but it’s usually just over-the-top makeup and wigs.
What’s a line of advice that stuck with you?
There’s an Oprah quote. I’m going to butcher it, but she said: When you see someone dolled up, you attach a certain feeling to the look. And when you find yourself dressed up and elevated in this position, you discover you don’t feel how they look. I took it to mean: We all look at other people and assign how it feels to look that way, even if it’s not true. None of us feel how they look. I think [the quote] is about imposter syndrome.
What’s your favorite hangout spot in D.C.?
There’s a restaurant called CHIKO, and it’s so good. All my favorite spots are food-related [laughs].
What was the moment you realized you made it as a model?
I got a check so big that I had to call my bank to get the daily deposit amount raised. It felt so good, but it also took five years.
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