Camera has been kind to model-photographer

By Mel Novit

Jennifer Girard has worked both sides of the camera, as a model wearing the designs of Yves St. Laurent in Paris and as a photographer snapping an NFL player wearing nothing but briefs. Her life has rarely lacked color.

At 19, Girard, a Chicago native, went to Europe with the intention of going to college but decided to travel around instead. She eventually ran out of money in Paris, where she auditioned at the famous Gaslight club to be a singer-dancer. There was one small problem: She couldn't sing or dance.

"But they hired me anyway because I was American and I had great legs. That's all they cared about," Girard says, laughing.

While working at the Gaslight, Girard caught the eye of a Swiss-born Frenchman. She married him shortly thereafter and quickly found herself the mother of twin daughters, living as a hausfrau in Switzerland and carrying not only twins but 40 pounds of extra weight.

A few years later, she shed the weight and the husband and returned to Paris to model, signing with Yves St. Laurent for runway work.

Still in her 20s, Girard returned to the United States and became a model for TV commercials, some of which were for McDonald's and Dairy Queen. Sometime in her 30s, she decided her modeling days were numbered. After her years of observation, photography seemed like a natural progression.

"At that time there weren't many single moms around and I knew I had to earn a living for me and my daughters. I wasn't getting any [child] support from my ex-husband so I knew I had to do something," she says.

Girard opened a small photography studio in her Chicago apartment and began taking headshots for aspiring local actors and actresses. Her business grew, and she since has photographed celebrities, sports stars and politicians, including former President Clinton, Halle Berry and Tom Hanks, to mention a few.

Points of interest in her job: [I'm] constantly surprised and amazed by the people who come through my door everyday. One day it's an ad executive from Leo Burnett and then a female impersonator from the Baton Lounge. Or it could be Carol Channing. I even shot a nude pregnant woman. And I got Tim Wrightman (former Chicago Bear) to strip down to his bikini briefs.

On work: Everything's different [from when she started]. It's all computerized. A year ago I closed my darkroom and learned Adobe [a photo software program]. I am still taking classes five hours a week to learn state-of-the-art photography. It was hard to do this after 27 years but I knew if I didn't I would be out if business.

To relax: I do Bikram yoga in 105-degree room three times a week. I travel every couple months on some kind of retreat for meditation, chanting or yoga, or to a health-related place. When I go to the Bahamas I live in a hut and yoga all day.

On single motherhood: I didn't compare myself to other families. I just did what I had to do to take care of my family. Now, my daughters are 36 years old and one of them has followed in my footsteps as a photographer; the other one is a belly dancer.

On turning 60: I'm not senior citizen. I am a "tribal elder." When I photographs weddings I have to be up and down on my knees all the time. I see groomsmen [in wedding shots] who can barely get off the floor.

Fruits of her labor: I have a lovely home and studio in the city and bought up some choice pieces of real estate before my Lakeview neighborhood became trendy. Now, it [real estate] is sort of my sideline business.

Looking ahead: Who knows, I may have to reinvent myself all over again. I've got plenty of time. My mother's turning 90 and still has plenty of spunk.