Smile Politely

It’s the journey, not the destination

Rachael Luesse is likely to be at some important photo shoot right now in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s been there before, last May doing work for Moda Model Management. When she did this interview for the magazine, Luesse was home in Champaign for the holiday season. Her work requires her to travel very long distances, but she is completely happy with meeting the demands an industry such as modeling poses. “I beyond love my job,” said Luesse. “I love everything about it.”

I imagine that the majority of successful models would share some of Luesse’s feelings. What makes her situation unique, though, is not the fact that her career now seems to be on the rise — spreads in Elle and Glamour, in addition to serving as the face of the department store Foschini in Cape Town (Moda) — it is the journey to get to this point.

Luesse was just a newborn when her family moved from Tuscon, Arizona, to Senora, Mexico, in 1993. Joel Luesse and Shelle Hartzel taught English as a Second Language and Spanish at a local school throughout their daughter’s early years. “When I was five, my parents relocated us to Champaign,” Luesse said. “They wanted to live closer to family and a good school system.”

Shortly after coming back to the United States, Luesse contracted Kawasaki Disease, a condition that causes inflammation in the walls of arteries throughout the body. It took multiple transfusions before Luesse made a full recovery.

Unfortunately, only a few years later, Luesse’s appendix burst at age nine. For nearly two months, multiple surgeries were performed. Luesse’s body was rejecting medicine and she was losing weight at a fast pace. “The doctors told my parents to start making funeral arrangements!” Luesse said. “I remember spending my little brother Aaron’s birthday in the hospital. We were just working as hard as we could. It was like anything else, you just fight as hard as you can.”

Luesse eventually made a full recovery and was able to enroll back in school in Tolono. The next time she was in the hospital, about a decade later, it was by choice. “I used to have this birth mark on my face, and during my junior year of high school, I had it removed,” Luesse said. Within three months of the removal, Luesse had been scouted and signed by Factor Women, a modeling agency based out of Chicago Illinois. “For me, I had always been this awkward girl in school,” Luesse said. “I was just going to do the whole college thing. It was incredible how the change caused people to view me.”

About a month after Luesse returned to her job as hostess at Le Peep restaurant in Champaign, a booker for Factor happened to stop by for breakfast. Before she graduated from Unity High School, Luesse worked with Factor in Chicago, and the following summer, she moved to Manhattan, New York, to work for another agency, Wilhelmina. “New York was really different than the small town I was used to,” Luesse said. “It made me realize that there are different ways of life. You can do anything with your life. There are different types of success and happiness.”

With this fresh perspective, Luesse went forward with her original plan of attending Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to study psychology. But a week into her freshman year, everything related to both school and modeling would be put on hold. “I got a call that my father had gotten into a car accident and crushed a part of his spine,” Luesse said. “It totally messed him up and no one knew if he would ever walk again. It was terrifying.”

Luesse moved back home to Champaign to do what she could for her family: “I just needed to be there. Everything took a backseat. Everything was put on pause for about seven months.”

Thankfully, Luesse’s father made “a miracle recovery,” and on the one-year anniversary of his accident, Joel ran and completed a three kilometer race. His daughter mirrored a similar passion and drive toward getting back into modeling.

Prior to the accident, Luesse had thought about pulling herself out of SIUC to model full time. It was an idea that came to fruition the summer following her father’s accident. That’s when Moda came calling. They wanted to see Luesse in person. “When you go [seeking work], you’re taking a shot in the dark,” Luesse said. “You pay for your flight. You pay for your hotel. You can go to the casting and if they like you, everything is great, or they can not like you, and then you go home in debt.”

Moda saw something they liked in Luesse and for the rest of the summer, the model was busy. In addition to doing spreads and work for Foschini, Luesse walked in multiple shows during the Mercedes-Benz Cape Town Fashion Week. “It all worked out really nice,” Luesse said of her summer in Africa. “I missed my family though. I was in a different country surrounded by a totally different culture.”

The seven-hour difference in time between Champaign and Cape Town made communication difficult. “The internet was really limited,” Luesse said. “I’d get to talk to them for, like, an hour every once in awhile and it would always be, like, seven in the morning their time.” Being away from her support system definitely affected the young model: “When you’re in an industry that is based solely on looks, it helps to have people around you who love you just because you’re you.”

Joel and Shelle had backed their daughter “in everything” she did. “To be honest, I owe my parents everything,” Luesse said. When she originally decided to pursue modeling, her parents were completely open to the idea. “They always had pushed me,” Luesse said. “They taught me that if you want something bad enough, you can get it. You just have to figure out a way to do so.”

Meanwhile, younger brother Aaron was Luesse’s “best friend.” Her foundation was thousands of miles away. “It was tough, but worth it,” Luesse said. “I got to experience so many new things and meet so many new people. It was insane, and I would never take it back.”

At the end of July 2012, Luesse was back in the United States. After the New Year she returned to South Africa, where she is expected to work through March. “Afterwards we are thinking of Hong Kong or Australia. I’ll keep my fingers crossed hoping for the best.”

For Luesse, the destination is not as important as the work itself. “Every time I go on the runway, and the lights come on and everyone is looking at me, it feels like it’s my first time,” she said. “It’s hard to explain. I don’t know if I have had a favorite moment yet. Hopefully, something huge will come along, and I’ll say, ‘This is it.’”

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