The wrenching physical transformation-for-fame story — think Rita Hayworth zapping her hairline into submission — might be dying out, but Selena Forrest has a pretty compelling one. The 16-year-old was discovered while she was headed to Huntington Beach with her brother and cousins. A security guard came over to confiscate alcohol from their cooler, which put a damper on their plans, but the day soon took a better turn. “While that whole encounter was going down,” Forrest recalls, “this lady ran out of a restaurant and was like, ‘Have you ever thought of modeling?’” Doubting whether she was legit, “I kind of blew her off.” But the woman soon introduced Forrest to what would become her first agency, L.A. Models.
There was just one problem: She had to get her braces off first. “I called the dentist and they were like, it’s gonna be $1100 to take it off before the due date and $300 for a retainer. So I was like, Oh no.” Instead, she grabbed pliers and did the kind of DIY job that would make an orthodontist squirm. And suddenly, there she was, a metal-mouth no more.
Months later, she was signed to Next Models and opening Proenza Schouler’s spring 2016 show. (She did a little victory jig after walking off the runway.) “After that, there were people I didn’t even know rooting for me,” she marvels. “My cousin said, ‘You need to look yourself up on Tumblr’ and there were all these GIFs.” The designers, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, “were just so cool. Like normal people,” she recalls now, in the Soho headquarters of Next, nibbling on an egg salad sandwich her agent grabbed from the deli around the corner. (“She was so sweet and hugged us both and said thank you before she left — a surprisingly rare quality these days,” recalls Hernandez, who calls her “currently our favorite girl out there.”) She’s one of the stars of Proenza’s fall ads; another designer duo, Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow, cast her in the brand-new DKNY campaign.
Forrest’s grit didn’t come to her overnight. Born in Lafayette, Louisiana, she evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. At the time, she was young enough that she didn’t understand what was going on and thought it was “a fun thing,” because it meant that she got to move to California — first San Pedro, then Long Beach, then the Riverside area, changing schools each time. It gave her the resilience she’d layer need in a nomadic, sometimes cold industry.
She comes across as eerily confident for her age, but not every aspect of her ascent has been a breeze. “Honestly, the whole ‘walk’ thing was so hard for me. I hate heels, period,” she says, gesturing to her sneakers. “But clients started to like that boyish walk, so that really helped me out. I didn’t have to make my walk perfect and model-y, so that was cool.” And she hasn’t yet adjusted to the street-style photographers who swarm her after shows. “I get a little awkward when they’re like, ‘What are you wearing?’ and I’m like, ‘Clothes,” she says, laughing.
When she started modeling, she had never left the United States. But now long-haul flights — to Havana, for Chanel’s cruise extravaganza, to Rome to walk Fendi’s glass runway over the Trevi Fountain, or to Paris for the haute couture shows — are part of her routine.
“I recently went to Rio,” she mentions casually — that would be for the Louis Vuitton cruise show. Swanning down the ramp of the Oscar Niemayer–designed Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, she looked serene, but “it was hard to tell that right before the show, I started throwing up. Most of the girls had a virus, like 20 girls, and we all were staying in the same hotel,” she says. “After the show, that night, Louis Vuitton had a doctor sent to my room and he came to my room and gave me this strong [B12] shot in the butt.”
The next morning, she had a 5 a.m. call time for a photo shoot and found she couldn’t get out of bed. “They’re like, ‘They’ll even shoot you in bed, they really want to shoot with you,’” she remembers. Ever the trouper, she got up, rallied, and went to set. “And it turned out to be really fun.”
Not every day is as gratifying. “It can be pretty degrading,” she says. “You can be treated like a nonhuman, but you just gotta think of the money.” At one point, the conversation turns to diversity on the runway, where she’s one of too few models of color, and specifically to Balenciaga’s all-white cast this past season. “If your clothes look good on everybody and if you’re that confident about your clothes, then you should put them on everybody,” she says. Then her expression turns playful. “Did you see the shoot where I was in Balenciaga just mean mugging?,” She pulls up the photo shoot on her phone, and she indeed is making her trademark face, which could be called “fashionably unenthused.” “See? Black people look good in their clothes …and I look amazing!”
Forrest is just as uncensored when talking about her sexuality. She recently posted a meme of a lipsticked Kermit the Frog on Instagram that read, “Straight girls love to flirt with lesbians. Bitch, you will wake up next to me. This is not a game.” When I ask her about it, she says emphatically, “I love girls. Or, you know what, I just love people. So, that’s what it is. I don’t really categorize it, but if there was a category, I would probably be bisexual. But I have never been with a guy.”
Ultimately, she is hard-nosed about what her career has allowed her to do: “take care of myself without having my parents involved.” She misses her friends back home — she calls that “the sucky part” of the job — but she still goes back to California to see them, and she’s closer to them than her fellow models. “I try not to have a whole bunch of model friends. That’s just not me.”
Instead, she’d like to focus on getting more magazine covers. “I’d literally like to do all of them. Me on every cover, that would be pretty cool.” She mentions a recent shoot with Karl Lagerfeld, and I ask if she’s been to his famous home library in Paris. “I haven’t seen it,” she says smoothly, “but I’ll definitely let you know when I do.”
Styling by Rebecca Ramsey. Hair by Yoichi Tomizawa at Art-Dept using Bumble and Bumble. Makeup by Yacine Diallo at Bridge. Fashion assistance by Indya Brown.