Posted on Jul 21, 2002

Before she made it to the covers of Indonesian fashion magazines, Niskayuna native Jillian Shanebrook was a self-described geek.

“I was really a social outcast in middle school. I was kind of a geek and used to eat lunch in the bathroom because I had no friends,” said Shanebrook, who would outgrow her shyness and become a popular model in Indonesia years later.

Shanebrook, now 33 and an English teacher, discovered that she had a knack for modeling — something the once-studious child never dreamed possible years earlier. When Shanebrook got to Niskayuna High School, she stopped spending lunchtime in the bathroom but remained a bookworm who rarely socialized.

“I did eat in the library in high school because I didn't have a lot of friends and I felt awkward,” Shanebrook said. “I was intent on being a success academically. I didn't go to parties much. I was a nerd.” She got involved in sports, joining the track, tennis, ski and swimming teams and began to “bloom,” as she called it.

Still, Shanebrook was devoted to her studies and was a National Merit finalist. After graduating from Niskayuna High School in 1986, Shanebrook went to Brown University, then transferred to Union College, where her father teaches engineering and she could go to school for free.

A lifelong fascination with Asia inspired Shanebrook to study in Japan for a year as an exchange student. “I was very interested in Asia and the whole exotic nature of it,” Shanebrook said. “I wanted to go really far a way too because I always felt like such a wimp. When I had gone to summer camp, I cried and went home early. I missed home when I was at Brown.”

It was time for a change.

“I remember thinking: `I am going to be like John Wayne.' He was my symbol of strength and character,” Shanebrook said. “I wanted to change myself and get tougher.”

Even more intrigued by Asia than ever, Shanebrook applied for and got a fellowship at the University of Michigan in the Asian studies program. The funding evaporated after Shanebrook's first year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but because of her background in math, she was offered a spot in an economics program.

After two years at the University of Michigan, Shanebrook decided that she'd had enough. She dropped out of the economics program before earning her doctorate degree but graduated with two master's degrees — one in Asian studies and another in economic development.

Asian studies

“I had had enough of being a study hound,” Shanebrook said. “I thought there must be more to life.” She always wanted to see the West Coast, so in 1994 she took off and lived in Portland, Ore., for six months while she researched Asia _ where she had her sights set on spending some time.

Shanebrook found out about a Peace Corps-like program run through Princeton University that sends people to Asia. There was no academic credit or pay for the program but living expenses were covered. After a crash course in the Indonesian language, she headed for Yogyakarta, which is on the island of Java in Indonesia.

She taught English to college professors who were coming to study for advanced degrees in America. She lived in faculty housing and had a family of three servants who had quarters behind her bungalow. Shanebrook said she lived comfortably on the $200 she was given for expenses.

Indonesia is a Muslin country but is not as strict as Middle Eastern Muslim countries. Women aren't required to cover their faces with veils and are pretty much treated equally to men, Shanebrook said.

She was one of about 20 Western women who lived in Yogyakarta and noticed that people stared at her because she looked different. At 5 feet, 6 inches tall, she towered over many of the native Indonesians.

The curiosity Indonesians had with her appearance made Shanebrook begin to toy with the idea of modeling. She went to a few modeling schools and never heard anything but one day met a clothing designer who asked the 120 lb. Shanebrook if she'd like to be in a fashion show.

That was the start of a modeling career that Shanebrook would later write about in her book.

Supermodel walk

“I was very nervous . . . I was terrified that I was going to topple over in the heels but I thought I might be able to pull off the supermodel walk I had seen often in fashion shows,” Shanebrook wrote in her book.

“Walking very erectly, shoulders back, head high, shaking the hips ever so slightly, tossing the hair selectively and, most importantly, conferring a look of utter indifference and superiority.”

“In all honesty, my girlfriends and I had been doing this walk past schoolboys since age 12,” Shanebrook wrote. “So I slipped on the heels, sashayed back and forth across the studio. Apparently years of practice paid off.” That first job modeling sportswear paid about $10 but it was the start of a career that would land her on the cover of several magazines.

Though she would model bikinis for Indonesian magazine covers, she rarely wore shorts because it wasn't socially acceptable. She did one photo shoot for a magazine with an Indonesian actress who she had seen on TV.

“It was hilarious. I was thinking, `I'm just this little English teacher, nerd girl from upstate New York and I'm on this modeling shoot with this starlet,' ” Shanebrook said.

Shanebrook also had the opportunity to spend a day with then-first lady Hillary Clinton when she visited Indonesia. “It was exciting to be in this alternative reality. I could do that in American but in Indonesia, I was something special.”

Shanebrook's younger sister, Julie, said she was “totally surprised” to hear about the venture into modeling. “I didn't really think anything of it at first. She would report back that she was going on magazine shoots and doing runway assignments and that she'd make like $50,” said Julie Shanebrook, who is 32 and living in New Jersey now.

“Then the magazines started arriving in the mail and they said Jillian F. Shanebrook on the cover,” Julie Shanebrook said. “I was like, `Wait a minute, I recognize those cheekbones and I've been following those knees around my whole life.”

Shanebrook's mom, Joan, who works for the state Office of Mental Health, said she was pleasantly surprised to see the magazine cover shots of her daughter. “When she sent us some of the magazines, I thought, `Wow, that's our daughter,” Joan Shanebrook said. “It looked like Jillian but she looked very sophisticated.”

Lack of privacy

After nearly a year in Indonesia modeling, people began to recognize her and she was often asked for her autograph.

She had to wear disguises when she went out in public. A fan stalked her and broke into her bungalow in the middle of the night before she chased him out. After that 1995 incident, Shanebrook decided it was time to head back to America.

“That was the straw that broke the camel's back at that point I decided I had to get out of there, Shanebrook said. “I felt like I couldn't go out that much. It felt like I didn't have any privacy anymore.”

Shanebrook returned to Portland in 1995 to run a school that gave intensive English-as-a-second-language lessons. After a year, she moved to New York City, where she got a job as an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College teaching English as a second language.

She has worked there for six years. Shanebrook has continued to model off and on _ mainly in Indonesia.

“I did pursue some modeling in New York but had very different experiences. I am just one of thousands of women and on the short side,” Shanebrook said. “I did some print ads for clothing companies but they were very low end jobs.”

Shanebrook, who is single, lives in New York City with her dog. She says that she and her boyfriend, who she met in a “dive bar in Brooklyn” and fell in love with at first sight, plan to get engaged soon.

Back in the area

Shanebrook, whose parents still live in Niskayuna, will be back in the Capital Region in August to promote her book at local bookstores. Shanebrook's former Niskayuna High School 11th grade honors English teacher, Lillian Turner, said she wasn't surprised that her former pupil wrote a book.

“I remember she was a fine student and a very pretty girl,” said Turner, who is now director of the International Charter School of Schenectady. “It's not usual or typical for a student to go on to write books but the work that she would have needed to do to be second in her class at Union Colleges would have suggested that she had the wherewithal to succeed at that project,” Turner said.