Katy Gierlach is not your average model, and the fashion and photography worlds love her for it. By Mari Herreras. Cover photo by Danni Valdez of Shutter2Think Photography.
Looking at the dozens of photographs on katy awful’s Facebook page, it’s hard to figure out what’s so awful about those eyes looking back – even when the Tucson model is playing the role of desert cowgirl pin-up queen, a tough chick from a John Waters movie, or an ethereal pink-haired star child.
This is 31-year-old Katy Gierlach’s professional page, featuring projects she’s been involved in over the years and photos of the latest shoots she’s done. katy awful (lower case, if you please) is her model name, she explains, something that’s stuck from her past – a boyfriend used Awful as his last name and she decided to borrow the moniker.
Maybe the joke is on us, because once you know Katy, even after an hour’s interview, it’s hard to understand what could ever be awful about her. But it’s as simple as this: having the separate identity of katy awful helps keep her worlds separate.
“Right now it works for my dad, so he doesn’t have to see things he doesn’t want to,” she says, smiling wide over coffee at Tucson’s Café Passe on Fourth Avenue, quickly adding that her father (known to Tucson radio listeners as KXCI’s Growing Native host Petey Mesquitey), is fully supportive.
That model name is also great for Katy, who seems to create dynamic characters in almost every project she takes on. And probably the only reason it makes anyone think twice is that Katy is completely opposite to what anyone expects from someone who gets into the modeling business.
That’s why CandyStrike’s Elizabeth Denneau says she continues to work with Katy and considers her a dear friend and a creative co-conspirator. The Tucson-based fashion designer has used Katy in shows and photo shoots for almost a decade. “In this industry a lot of models think it is cool to be bitchy and will act superficial and mean. It’s what a lot of them see on TV and think it’s what models are supposed to be. Katy has zero of this trait. She’s a joy to work with and she’s willing to do anything. I mean she even put an octopus on her head, c’mon,” Elizabeth says, referring to a video Katy did with Tucson photographer Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli for Glitter Ball 2014.
Katy was covered in gold from head to toe with boyfriend Jared McKinley, a popular Tucson events producer and associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona magazine. In the video, Katy as Andromeda Katz and Jared as Kitty Quasar are flying through space to visit Tucson in search of tasty hair. While Katy is sticking her head out the window to feel the intergalactic breeze, an octopus lands on her face and eventually the window of their space vehicle.
Obviously Katy is game for anything, which may explain why she’s in demand, not just with Elizabeth but with other designers, photographers and creatives in Tucson. Says Dominic, a guy with photography gigs across the world featuring a fair amount of celebrities: “Katy is one of my favorite models of all time, in any solar system, ever. She’s of course this striking supermodel that cuts a swath of stares strolling down the street, but that’s not why. It’s that she can do über glam or über ludicrous in the same heartbeat. She can do anything. I’ve shot her as a gorgeous Alice in Wonderland, as a nine foot golden alien, as a 75-year-old man and as a Russian male bodyguard from the 1800s,” he says.
It’s the range she takes on that impresses him most – something that makes her not just a model but a brilliant actress, taking on haute couture or slapstick comedy in the same breath. “Every project we’ve tag-teamed, every one, has been pure joy cause she just makes every occasion silly and brilliant,” Dominic says. “For the Glitter Ball movie, we picked up a frozen pulpo at a Mexican seafood store and then flung the octopus, who we named Stinky, at Katy’s face five to eight times until the shot was just right. No one else would endure such torture for something so ludicrous yet so important – and stinky.”
Elizabeth of CandyStrike says this work ethic is something she rarely sees with other models. “If you have this crazy idea for a shoot, or if it’s rainy and 6 a.m., she will be there,” she says. The designer adds: “Not only is she gorgeous, but she’s gorgeous strange, too. She’s like a beautiful alien.” Those looks have attracted modeling scouts “but she’s not charmed by all of that and is just more interested in the creative process,” says Elizabeth.
The fashion designer and model reunite during Tucson Fashion Week on Saturday, October 18, at the Project Runway Showcase and Project Arizona at the Fox Tucson Theatre. Inspired by the Project Runway TV series, the event will also feature an installation by Elizabeth in the lobby of the theater, with Katy among the models.
Katy says the love between model and designer is mutual, and she became part of CandyStrike at a time when she wondered if she could continue modeling or even wanted to continue living in Tucson.
Her interest in modeling began in her teens. She was tall at around 6’1” but not athletic, and modeling seemed like a good fit. She left for New York City where her photographer brother lived. When she wasn’t modeling, she worked for her brother as his assistant, and helped her sister-in-law, who worked as stylist. “It is harsh and I’m glad I didn’t get into it at that point because I wouldn’t have been mentally prepared to handle it,” she says of her time there.
Katy grew up in northwest Tucson, but the family moved out to rural Cochise County when she was 12 years old. While she appreciates the desert and rural upbringing now, at the time it felt like they were in the middle of nowhere. At 17 she was in a major car accident and at one point doctors thought she’d have to lose her left arm. She had to deal with dozens of painful surgeries.
Today that arm is covered in a half-sleeve tattoo – not to cover any scars, but to celebrate luck. The tattoos are by legendary rapper and tattoo artist Isiah Toothtaker. In the center is Lady Luck surrounded by a bunch of other symbols of luck. “It’s a reminder of things that I’ve lived through and that I am lucky,” she says.
After the accident and all those surgeries, Katy found it difficult to hold down a job. She ended up staying with her parents, and wanted to stay in Tucson “because it was where my surgeon was and I was a little afraid to leave.”
She did continue to travel back and forth to New York. Then, at age 20, started working in Tucson doing modeling jobs for the store Hydra. It was the confidence booster she needed at the time. Soon after, Lauren Baker from Razorz Edge asked her to model for her, and that’s when she met Elizabeth Denneau.
At Café Passe, Katy is dressed in her usual casual attire – rolled up jeans, and a tank top showing the tattoos she has on both arms. A stripped headband pulls her short hair back, and her trademark nose ring is in place. She looks at ease. There’s no way anyone would dare call her pretentious, or hipster or, for that matter, awful.
Fashion was never really part of her personal identity, she says. “I always sort of did my own thing, because I kind of had to. My clothes didn’t really fit because I was so tall. I had to make do with things. At [a young] age it was really awkward. I grew really fast and all of a sudden I had a lot of limbs to take care of,” she says, laughing. “I wasn’t as much into fashion as I was into modeling. Kate Moss was someone I admired. Looking at the clothes, sure it was fun to think about how great it would be wear some giant dress, but it was about something else.”
Katy discovered that modeling, and the clothes, were about being able to become someone else entirely. As a teenager she was shy and always quiet, but it was a special conversation with her father that made her realize she could be an introvert, but still engage the world as a model. “I remember when my dad told me while I was in high school that he’s a naturally shy person.” She didn’t believe him; after all, he often spoke in front of large crowds. “But then it clicked. I realized you don’t have to be an extrovert to do stuff like that and it made pretending to be somebody else OK and easy,” she says.
She is also thankful for staying in Tucson, and for the friendships and connections she has made through modeling. Through CandyStrike, Katy met blogger and body positive activist Jes Baker, aka The Militant Baker. Their friendship has grown and allowed Katy to explore her own body issues as well as be part of Jes’s first annual Body Love conference earlier this year. Another important friendship is with Tucson photographer Liora Dudar, who has also struck a worldwide nerve with her feminist projects. Katy has worked with Liora on some of them. “I feel lucky and blessed that I’ve ended up with these friends,” Katy says. “Jes is an inspiring person. Liora and I share a lot of the same feminist ideals and she expresses those in ways that I don’t know how to through her photography. Luckily I get to be part of that.”
Katy says her friendship with Jes allowed her to better understand the difficulty she had with her own body and how people looked at her. People have assumed that being tall and skinny means she should be on top of the world, but it’s not always so, says Katy. “I’ve basically had a lot of trouble dressing for my body shape. When people say, ‘You’re beautiful,’ it doesn’t translate. That’s why what Jes is doing is important. She’s brave. I’ve struggled as a skinny person wanting to do that same sort of empowerment but feeling like I can’t because it is so idealized. So I really support what she’s doing and look forward to it become bigger than it is.”
Part of the fun of working with designers like Elizabeth is that they appreciate Katy for who she is. she says. And it has made Katy appreciate the fact that she didn’t go into high fashion modeling. “I was told ‘You’re going to have to stop dying your hair,’ and no piercing. I didn’t have tattoos at that point, but I knew that I had to express myself. I knew that that wasn’t me,” says Katy.
When asked to describe the Saturday installation at the Tucson Fashion Week event, Katy loyally declines to provide details. But Elizabeth dishes. There will be one-off gowns, jewels and, um, gas masks. It’s a post-apocalyptic cocktail party, says Elizabeth. “It’s an artist’s vision of the future and I think it will be a lot of fun – depending on your sense of humor,” says the designer. Elizabeth, who happens to be the original founder of Tucson Fashion Week, has been pulling all-nighters keeping up with her online sales, as well as working on a private label for Zappos and possibly expanding to a wholesale market.
As for Katy, her own creative energies recently took her in another direction too. She now works at Edible Baja Arizona as account manager. Part of the food magazine experience means she and boyfriend Jared travel to many parts of the region promoting the publication. For Katy it’s like closing a circle that began with the life she had with her parents in Cochise County. “I’m seeing those parts again,” she says. “It’s reconnecting me with Arizona.”