Melissa Song recounts her uphill journey — and what she’s learned along the way.
Though I’m not even 40, I’ve already lived a thousand lives.
My freshman year, I went to three different high schools — and by the time I was 17, I had already lived in 30 different homes. To say that I’m able to adapt would be a serious understatement.
When I was 22, I asked myself, “How can I work and travel?” Even though I was only 5’7, I decided to model. After being told over and over that I was “cute, but nothing special,” I chopped off my long hair to a short, platinum blonde and kept trying.
Finally, I was taken on by AriA, a Chicago agency, and from there, life was a whirlwind: I booked jobs no one thought I would, and it felt good. Chicago to Miami, LA to Milan, Paris and all over Europe, I found myself always at the right event, meeting the big man who was going to “change my life.” If you model, you’re always welcome: Cannes Film Festival, private yachts, helicopter vacations to St. Tropez, $10,000 bottles of Champagne — beautiful insanity!
But I yearned for something I had never had in my life: roots. I moved back to Chicago and within a year I was married to a local businessman and had a baby on the way. Life was calm; life was good. I was a stay-at-home mom and part-time model, helping with the family biz and beginning to dabble in photography. I helped here and there with money, but it was more of a cushion than a necessity.
Then, in what seemed to be overnight, life as I knew it took a turn. The economy crashed; our business closed. We left Chicago and headed to LA, where my husband had a job opportunity. Being a model and photographer, it seemed perfect for me — but my husband was lost. LA wasn’t for him at all; after a year, we separated (though we both returned to Chicago to stay near each other for our son).
Thrust into single mama-hood, I panicked, and soon, I was out of money. But as every single mom knows, the panic only lasts so long — after that, survival mode kicks in. I went from taking photographs of my friends’ kids for extra cash to selling everything I owned to pay the rental deposit on my new home. I sold every piece of jewelry, my car, handbags — if it was worth something, it was sold. Gone were the days of yachts and Champagne — now it was boxed wine and a used Camry.
It was a rude awakening, but there was no time for drama: I had a son and a life that needed tending to. Every opportunity to pull out the camera and call myself a photographer, I took it — paid or otherwise. To this day I haven’t taken a photography class, I’ve never even read the owner’s manual (what mom has time?!) … total on-the-job training. I put myself out there, knowing full well I was out of my league. But it didn’t matter; this was do or die. I’ve become a chameleon, always me, but always adaptable. And it’s working. I’m working.
It’s not just baby pics anymore — I’m photographing models, executives, restaurants and events for my company, Melissa Song Photography. I’m tested daily, but somehow every month I keep making it happen. Every month I surprise myself and, I’m certain, others as well.
My son “T” told me today that when he grows up, he wants to be a photographer like me because I’m very interesting. I thought that was the best compliment. He is the reason I continue to fight, to reinvent, to smile. I finally have my roots —and everything for us is growing in a good direction: up.
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