Under the clear plastic tent in the garden of Paris' Château de Maisons Laffitte, strains of Wagner's Tannhäuser soar through the air and brightly colored fireworks burst overhead. Swathed in gold lamé, an ethereal creature glides down the staircase, shoulders swaying, hips rolling, almond eyes at once distant and alluring. Rising to their feet, more than 1,000 onlookers—fashion editors, department-store buyers and well-heeled private customers—burst into applause, saluting the silken creature before them as much as the designer Kenzo, who has orchestrated the showing.

At 30, or thereabouts, Gloria Burgess is one of the world's top runway models, that particular breed of mannequin (unlike Cheryl Tiegs or Lauren Hutton) whose forte is strutting live down a designer's stage, displaying high-priced creations. During showings of the Paris collections, which run for a week four times a year, Gloria works as many as 25 shows, modeling for a gilt-edged roster of designers such as Kenzo, Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. After the Kenzo show, the capper to this Paris season, she will strip off the gold gown, wolf down a sandwich and grab a bus home, there to steal a scant five hours before rising to catch an early plane to Brussels—or Athens—for another show there.

During the whirlwind days and weeks of back-to-back shows that constitute the "seasons" in the world's fashion capitals, Gloria is in high gear almost constantly. "There is so much nervous energy that some nights I can't sleep," she wails. "I have nightmares about a man standing outside my window holding a dress." But one of Gloria's talents is masking fatigue. The next day, when she strides down the runway, only she will know that she has blisters on her heels, a pulled muscle in her thigh and a lingering case of the sniffles.

Yet it is more than professional stoicism, exotic good looks and her lanky 5'10", 114-pound body that brings her up to $20,000 for a single week's work; what sets Burgess apart are her grace and experience. "There are many beautiful women, but not many have the right character," says Tokyo designer Issey Miyake, who discovered her. "She knows how to move, and she can communicate my clothes. She is the best—clearly one of the top five models in the world."

All of this comes as a pleasant surprise to Gloria, who never wanted to be a model at all. As a teenager in Washington, D.C., where her father was an electric company supervisor and her mother a homemaker, she was offended by suggestions that she ought to try modeling because she felt people were implying she couldn't do anything else. Determined to demonstrate otherwise, she studied political science for a year in Islamabad, Pakistan, then headed home to Washington to become a dancer. Eventually, she landed a job jazz dancing at a Tokyo supper club, where Miyake spotted her in 1974. She reluctantly agreed to model in one of his shows, but, humiliated when a dress slipped off her shoulder baring one of her breasts, she quit modeling and went back to the U.S.

But Miyake won in the end. Gloria returned to Tokyo a year later and got work with top designers immediately. Within a year she was headed for Paris. So glowing was her reputation that she landed two jobs within hours of landing at De Gaulle airport, before her clients had even caught sight of her. When she was inadvertently an hour late for an Emanuel Ungaro show, the prestigious designer held the curtain for her, greeting her with fluttery cries of "Gloria in excelsis deo."

Backstage, though, the glamour wears thin. Conditions are as hectic as in a short-order kitchen, with clothing racks, makeup tables, rows of shoes and boxes of accessories all jammed together with no room to spare. Picking her way through the maze, Gloria settles down before the makeup mirrors, where two hairdressers yank her hair into one exotic do or another and a cosmetician plies his art to conceal a catastrophe: three pimples on Gloria's cheek. After a wardrobe mistress shoehorns the model's size-10 feet into size-eight shoes ("It's a hazard of the trade," says Burgess), Gloria is ready to make her appearance. The designer gives her a final, frenzied once-over, then she is out on the runway looking—suddenly—as cool and sexy as if she has stepped from a garden.

To preserve that look of imperturbable freshness, Gloria tries to stick to a regimen. During the exhausting days of the Paris collections, she rises at 6 a.m. in her small studio apartment and eases into an hour of exercise, yoga, meditation and prayer—"the hour that keeps me sane," she says. After bathing, she downs a quick breakfast. She prefers a concoction of wheat germ, oatmeal, yogurt, fresh fruit and milk, but if she is rushed, she says, she simply gulps down two raw eggs and goes on her way. Throwing on a four-year-old pair of black leather pants and a sweater—a roomy one, so she won't muss her hair or the carefully applied eye makeup and skin base—she heads out the door for a withering 12-hour day of fittings and walk-ons. By 9 p.m. she is searching wearily for a cab in the rain, then heading home for a few precious moments alone. She brews herself some lentil soup, reads a little Macbeth, works on her knitting, sets up her next day's schedule during an hour on the phone with her agent, then washes and dries her hair. By 1 a.m. she is back in bed, ready to get up tomorrow and do it again.

Despite the furious pace and the pressure, for Gloria the compensations are obvious. She has been able to buy a $160,000 three-bedroom house in Washington, D.C., as well as a sumptuous wardrobe at discount. And since her services are called for only eight months a year, her leisure time is substantial. Last year she spent six weeks in India with a modeling pal, and between seasons in Paris she swims, writes songs, plays guitar, practices palmistry and goes to church—things she rarely can do when she's working. She has even managed to find a steady boyfriend, whose identity she will not reveal. "It's hard to be a model and still have a normal personal life, but it is done," she insists. As for the future, Gloria believes she has 10 more years of modeling left and refuses to accept the persistent rumor in the fashion business that nonwhite models have lost their cachet. "I don't think," she says dryly, "that skin color should go out of fashion." In her case, at least, the evidence is all on her side. To the designers who sing Gloria's praises, nothing could be more basic than black.

  • Contributors:
  • Pamela Andriotakis.