Lessons I Learned As An Unsupervised Teenage Model in ‘90’s Tokyo, Part I

I have a PHD in navigating unusal life situations and a complicated relationship with my mom.

Valerie Michaels
11 min readDec 13, 2023
Autographed copies of my Taiwanese Mademoiselle cover available while supplies last!

Kind of like lead paint, catholic priest babysitters, and high fructose corn syrup, sending your daughter solo to Japan as a teenager to model is probably mostly frowned upon these days. As a parent now, my blood pressure drops at the thought of my daughter leaving home for the first time to land in a foreign country with no drinking age to share a two-bedroom apartment with five other roommates all in their early to mid-twenties. It was an absolutely crazy time and I had more fun than any sixteen year old from Salem, Oregon should have ever been allowed. Some people have keg stands, toga parties and tailgating. I have hostess clubs, conveyor belt sushi, and the faint whiff of stale Parliament smoke.

How it started, how it ended…

Before we get all judge-y let’s access the thousands of hours of therapy I’ve accumulated and just address the glaring issue with this entire messed up situation-my hair in the above photos. On the left we see an adorable, blonde girl with perfectly straight and normal hair, and on the right we have my 6th grade perm-meets-braces grimace. It was right around this time when I demanded the forced hair fermenting I’d been subjected to since the age of five immediately cease. I’m sure there is a human rights initiative enacted by the UN that now bans this barbaric mutilation, but until I was old enough to stand up for myself I was stuck with my mother’s mantra that ‘curly hair was the only pretty hair’ that landed me in the hairdresser’s chair with burning perm solution on my scalp. If I’m being fair, this is probably around the time my mom started to refer to me as ‘difficult’ and ‘smart mouthed’. Said with love, Mom. Luckily for me, she was able to let go of her straight hair prejudice, my ugly ducking started looking a little more like a swan, and the modeling world soon after came a calling!

My first test shoot, age 15 and sans curls

I wasted a lot of time resenting my mom for forcing a booknerd to abandon academia for her complete and total focus on my physical appearance and the pending financial opportunities they represented. Ironically, what kept me from encouraging even a passing interest in modeling to take root in my 6 foot tall daughter was precisely the same reason my mom put me on a Northwest Airlines flight with an entire suitcase filled with Kraft Macaroni and Cheese: regrets. I skipped out on the college experience on my never-ending quest to make mom happy and my daughter will be taking classes and getting double majors, masters, and PHD’s into her 40’s after absorbing all my lamenting about not pursuing a higher education. My homecoming queen mom married her high school football star sweetheart and never left Salem, Oregon and by the time I came along as her late in life “whoopsie” pregnancy after three boys, she was ready to watch me fulfill all her missed opportunities. Like mother, like daughter; rinse and repeat. Don’t we all wonder what life would have been like if we’d married different people, gotten better grades in school, or took that semester in Italy? Isn’t that what you have kids for?

Lexington Queen Nightclub, Roppongi, Tokyo. Thank you to Wikipedia and Kengo Takahara for these photos.

Now that we’ve wrapped our heads around the psychology of how I ended up there, I have a confession to make….every single day was complete and utter parentless joy and Liam Neeson’s services were surprisingly never needed. Once my more mature roommates recovered from the shock of my solo arrival, they quickly got past my age and went about making sure I had a graduate level understanding of how to navigate the nightclubs, all while I completed junior year classes via fax machine. All you had to do was show your ‘Zed Card’ or ‘Composite Card’ with your photos and agency listed to the bouncer and you were in-with drink tickets, no less. No age requirements, Japan sells full bottles of alcohol in vending machines on every street corner (along with a million other weird things) and not one time did anybody ever even ask me how old I was. Lexington Queen was by far the best and coolest nightclub in the Roppongi section of Tokyo. One night I came straight from a shoot and made the absolute cardinal sin of walking in too early and deciding to hit Java Jive across the street because my friends weren’t there yet. As I was walking back up the stairs, two American guys coming in wanted to know why I was leaving, so I told them my friends still hadn’t arrived and they turned around to follow me back out the door. I thought nothing of it. Cut to the next time I tried to walk down those famous steps when I was unceremoniously ‘access denied’ and had to turn around and go back home alone because all my friends weren’t about to leave on my account. I couldn’t speak Japanese and nobody would tell me what in the Santori was going on until one of my friends deciphered it a week or so later and filled me in on how moronic I was. “You’re getting free drinks so guys come here to meet models, you can’t leave and take paying business with you, duh.” It took me weeks of pleading and maybe even some tears to be allowed back in. Thank heaven the owner begrudgingly allowed it or I would have never met Prince when he was visiting my gorgeous Canadian roommate, Alyssa. I got to sit next to his 300lb bodyguard and tried to peek around him to watch while they talked and sipped Chivas. I was instructed not to make eye contact with the symboled one after he very limply shook my hand and moved half a banquette away from me. I’m pretty sure I screamed underage from across the room so I have to give him props for that level of discernment. Future me has been in her fair share of tough situations in life where I had to rely on the only thing I had at the time, my experiences, and I learned some things from that night that I’ve never forgotten:

  1. You never, ever enter a room without immediately finding out who is the host and introducing yourself.
  2. Know your place in the pecking order. You may not like it and it can certainly change, but only if you’re humble and gracious.
  3. Absolutely nothing is for free so if you’re on the receiving end of someone’s generosity, make sure you understand the terms before accepting or breaking them.
  4. A real sincere apology goes a long way, especially when you’re in the wrong. Ego, schmego.
  5. This was the start of my love of going out by myself. If you don’t feel comfortable, just try it once. I’ve met the most amazing people just having dinner by myself at the bar.
  6. And most importantly, the best parties all over the world have the same three things in common: free booze, beautiful people, and rock stars if you can get them.
The two food groups: Hard Rock Cafe and McDonald’s

Before you could come over to Japan on a modeling visa, you had to go through a screening process and be chosen from your photos by one of about a dozen agencies. They sent reps over to the states to see hundreds of girls in a hotel conference room, kind of like a cattle auction. I think we even had to pay for the opportunity, and I remember being measured with an actual measuring tape, in my underwear, in front of complete strangers. Measurements were everything, I distinctly remember this. My mom had found the business card of a model scout who had stopped me on the street during a summer concert series in my back pocket while doing my laundry and 3 months later I was in my skivvies learning how many centimeters my hips were. Once they picked you, they fronted your airline ticket, apartment rent, and weekly allowance. Looking back now, I’m not exactly sure who sorted out my finances. I had no idea how much I was getting paid (all the job sheets were in Japanese), how much my apartment was or even what the exchange rate worked out to, it looked like monopoly money. I just know I did really crappy catalogue jobs that were 12 hour days and I never really had any extra cash and my agency back home didn’t seem to have any idea either. I worked a lot right when I got there. Young, fresh-faced, blue eyes, I had all the makings of a top model for their market, it even caused some friction with my roommates when I started getting jobs right away. Before you stop reading because I sound like an arrogant twat…Enter, Hard Rock Cafe and McDonald’s. After about six weeks, the jobs got harder to get but since a couple new girls arrived I just assumed they received the same preferential treatment that I had. One day I was told not to get on the van for the daily round of 10–12 castings all over Tokyo, but to meet with my booker at the agency. Shuki delicately tried to explain to me that the soy sauce was not causing my face to retain water and that my clothes were not shrinking in the wash because it was the first time I’d done my own laundry. The girl who used to cry on the bus because her nickname at school was “skinny” was long gone and she was replaced by the girl who had eaten her (previous) body weight in hamburgers and french fries. The newly added Vodka Cran section of my food pyramid probably didn’t help either. I may not have gone to college, but I did a semester in AP Freshman 15. (I watched the entire season of Tokyo Vice anticipating this storyline and was sorely disappointed! She stayed skinny and she had the whole money thing worked out too.) Gyms were not a thing at the time, so I was commanded to walk 10 miles a day while the rest of the girls went on castings. One of my favorite roommates from Canada stepped in to help me grocery shop and taught me to “cook” for myself. Her favorite recipe? Fettuccini noodles with broccoli and mustard. Something I proudly made for my parents when I got home and that they actually ate with a straight face. So many takeaways from this specific experince:

  1. Walking really is the best and most accessible exercise. I love walking to this day and when I have days I don’t want to get out of bed ever, walking is something I know helps my mental health, not just my thighs.
  2. Just because something has always been a certain way is no guarantee that it will stay that way. Change is the only constant.
  3. How things should be are almost never how they actually are. There is a lot wrong with the above section, there is in fact a lot wrong with this entire essay, but I’m not holding on to any of that. The most messed up situations I’ve ever been in are the ones I’ve learned the most valuable lessons from.
  4. If you don’t take things personal, life is a lot easier. Nobody likes to have a surprise reveal party where you’re the only one surprised to learn that you’re fat. I imagine addicts who go through interventions and spouses who are the last to find out their partners are cheating know what this feels like. Walk the ten miles, go to rehab, and file for that divorce-we all get surprised in life by the results of our choices, blaming someone else for your circumstances is small dick energy.
  5. Plain yellow mustard is disgusting on anything other than sandwiches and hot dogs. I don’t care if it has less calories than Alfredo sauce.
“You’re so elegant. No, YOU are.”

I never really planned out what I was going to write for this, I just thought it would be fun to write about modeling in Japan as an American teenager because looking back on it, the whole thing was totally fucking nuts. I’ve never found spending time in the past to be depressing, I love checking my rear-view mirror, its comforting to remember insane situations I found myself in and realize things do generally manage to work out. Although this narrative is starting to feel like some overly quirky self help book: “What Taking The Subway Home From The Clubs At 5 AM With Japanese Commuters On Their Way To Work Taught Me About My Spiritual Practice!” Life goes through so many different stages, you can try to imagine what the next one holds for you, its certainly easy to get focused on that-and as we get older, hyper-focused on trying to control the shape of it. I’ve found lately that its easy to look to other people to tell you who you are or what to do or just accept their projections onto you as accurate. I have done that subconsciously for 40 years, and it’s a cop-out, especially if you blame your past or others for your situations. Maybe I’m just getting older, but people seem to be getting crappier and meaner to each other as the days go by. Regardless, I keep finding glimpses of all the old incarnations of me piled into the new versions, almost Fibonacci sequence-ish. So I think its worthwhile to pull out the telescope and look back as far as you can through your personal time-space continuum to find the ballerina, or the D&D kid or the college baseball player and look for those little pieces in who you are today, like the exploding stardust that makes up the atoms and all matter in the universe. People today especially like to take a snippet of someone’s life, maybe even their worst moment, and try and tell them that’s who they are. When I run up against a difficult person who thinks they can say what kind of person I am, all the evidence of the real me is right there in my past and it makes it easier to ignore them. All the wins and all the losses add up to a person that’s constantly changing but someone that I wouldn’t change places with anyone else.

One last fun one where you can see the fries starting to show…

I know I labeled this part one in the obvious anticipation of a part two, but I have no idea what that looks like right now. I just know I have stories for days from this time period and the next time I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll probably write some more about it.



Valerie Michaels

Media entrepreneur and documentary film producer. I wrote a lot about the past and random stuff I find interesting. Instagram: @mizzzmichaels