One icy Sunday afternoon in January, 17-year-old Molly Bair’s father drove her to the local indoor tennis courts in suburban Philadelphia to hit a few balls with a high school friend.
That night, she would be on a train to New York for a photo shoot; and a week later, on a plane to Paris for the haute couture catwalks.
The unlikely itinerary sums up Bair’s budding fashion career: a whirlwind trip from the mundane life of an American teenager to the rarefied heights of international style and back again — accompanied by no small amount of adolescent bewilderment.
“I would never think that a girl who spent most of her childhood with a unibrow, glasses and a Yoda shirt would be in Vogue Italia,” Bair said from her parents’ home, where she still resides when she’s not working.
At 6 feet 1 inch tall, Bair is hard to miss with her gangly stature alone. Add the high cheekbones, intense eyes, symmetrical face and prominent ears, and it’s a design for constant queries about her lineage from passersby.
“People are always asking me, ‘Where are you from?’ And I’m like, ‘America … I’m American,’ ” Bair said.
But she said the features that earned her teasing nicknames like “praying mantis” and “alien” growing up have set her apart with a coveted allure in the fashion industry.
“I’m kind of, I guess, embracing that alien, rat, demon, goblin, gremlin sort of vibe and going with it,” she said.
Bair said before she started in fashion, people would often approach her at the mall to ask whether she was a model, but she never gave it serious thought, especially as she struggled with her looks as other girls matured.
“I still kind of resemble a 13-year-old boy,” she joked.
She equated modeling with commercial beauties like Victoria’s Secret models with their long locks and tan, svelte forms.
But on the editorial side of the spectrum, it’s often the quirk that works — and it has helped her forge an unusual bond with fellow models.
“I think it’s because we’re kind of a community of people who have always been the strange, tall, skinny people,” Bair said. “It’s crazy how I’ve instantly found so many people who are so similar to me. It’s really weird. I’ve never been able to make friends so quickly.”
Bair was only discovered last July in a New York City flea market by an agent from The Society Management, who said they represented top talents like Victoria’s Secret angel Adriana Lima and runway mainstay Lindsey Wixson.
“I had no idea who those people were. I thought it was a scam,” Bair said. Still, she took the agent’s email address and allowed her to take some quick head shots before laughing it off with friends.
After realizing that the agency was not only legitimate but one of the top agencies in the country through a quick online search, she and her mother traveled back up to New York a week later — and “everything started to happen.”
In less than a year, she’s walked for major-league designers like Chanel, Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler, Prada and Giambattista Valli, as well as appeared in Vogue Italia, W Magazine and a campaign for American brand Coach.
But there’s still a learning curve, especially for someone who three months ago was filling out college applications and thinking about majoring in computer science or a career in environmental lobbying.
“I wore heels one time before fashion. And it was at my eighth grade graduation, and they were platforms … and I actually fell down the stairs. So I’ve always had a kind of very unhealthy relationship with heels,” Bair said.
But beyond the superficial, Bair said the career has given her a new look on acceptance, an odd take to hear in an industry that’s often criticized for its unrealistic beauty standards.
“I think being a model and being in fashion has really opened up my eyes to beauty in general. I think that beauty really comes from uniqueness.”