‘How do you feel about your legs?’ asks Mel, head of costumes for Matilda Temperley’s project Human Zoo: The UGLY Cards. Before I even have time to consider the possible implications of this relatively personal question, the explanation is thrust upon me: ‘we want to turn you into an uber-sexy King of Hearts’. Gazing at the outrageous ensembles and unusual characters displayed on the exhibition’s 56 photographic playing cards, I start to wonder just how ‘uber’ she might mean.
Matilda, who gave up her career in tropical infectious diseases to become a photographer, has teamed up with the charmingly-named agency UGLY Models and costume shop Prangsta to create this set of stylised portraits. Each card highlights the self-expression of her subjects, who include transgender body modification artists and people with tattoos that make Cheryl Cole’s look subtle. As my experience of self-expression so far extends to an ear piercing that closed up and a dodgy home peroxide job, I accept their offer of an ‘UGLY’-style makeover, expecting to be transformed into the burlesque star of my dreams. Yet not even the thought of waking up as Dita Von Teese can settle my nerves completely as I enter the temporary studio set up at the Cock ‘n’ Bull gallery under Tramshed in Shoreditch.
As soon as I arrive, I am blown away by the quality of the costumes and the creativity involved to compose the most striking image possible. Prangsta make all of their clothes from scratch out of recycled materials and one-off vintage pieces. The red harlequin leggings I am given to squeeze into are fresh off a BBC Alice in Wonderland set, whilst the finishing touches I spy on the other models, such as delicate sparkly butterflies sewn into a pink wig or carefully layered multicoloured underskirts, relay an attention to detail that is breathtaking.
It’s time for my transformation. As I am laced into a corset, given sparkly red heels and a whole lotta bling, I start to feel like one of the many celebrities that Prangsta have styled in their fancy-dress wares. I am taken over to the vast cosmetics table where a cabaret performer known as Mr Pustra gives make-up artist Pablo from Argentina the simple instruction to make me look ‘bad-ass’. ‘Just do whatever you like’ I say, foolhardily. Pablo gives me new eyebrows and a scary King face. ‘Very Debbie Harry’ remarks Mr Pustra.
My costume is completed with the addition of a swirling cape, a crown and a cane made out of a snooker cue with a sparkly doorknob on the end. I have never felt more like Snoop Dogg in my life – my dizzle Mr Pustra turns it up a little with a slick of hairspray, and I am ready to rock.
However, there is a catch to all this poseuring, which I have forgotten in the fun of dressing up – as soon as the camera is pointed at me my face freezes. It turns out modelling isn’t as easy as it looks, and even Snoop can get self-conscious. Mr Pustra urges me to ‘do a sexy face! Destroy the camera! Be fierce!’ while Matilda says, ‘No, no. Relax your jaw. Just be casual’. I settle for a half-grimace and hope that UGLY models isn’t too true to its name.
The finished result: a little disconcerting, but I quite like it. Go and see the exhibition before its too late – that’s an order from the King of Hearts. Katie Forster. Photos: Ruby Eyre.
Human Zoo: The UGLY Cards is at the Cock’n’ Bull Gallery, below Tramshed, 32 Rivington Street, Shoreditch, EC2A 3LX until September 19. To enquire about dressing-up sessions e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Prangsta, 304 New Cross Road, New Cross Gate, SE14 6AF hire costumes and accessories. They also organise birthday and hen parties. Call 020 8694 9869 for details.