The Dupri Twins
By Jim Lewis
23 Jan 2008
It's all very easy to take for granted when we press the button. We hear the shutter click, and the camera does our bidding for the millionth time; we don't think about it, that's what it's supposed to do. Be it a flower, a tree, a crowded street, we take the very action of freezing a moment in time, a piece of time unique unto its own and will never be repeated, for granted. Our minds look for the next stimulation within nanoseconds subsequently. And maybe, with great wherewithal and proactive creative thought do we appreciate that frozen moment in time when we see that image again. We should admit it's rare that we sit back and feel lucky we were able to grab that moment.
Until it is someone else's life. This is the brief story of Melanie and Alison Barber.
They were born on May 12, 1978. As models, Melanie and Alison went by the Dupri Twins, calling upon their French heritage. These two astonishing women came into my life in the year 2000.
From my learnings about them stemming from their families, they were, like most twins, inseparable. Their parents, blessed and cursed with their daughters' great beauty and propensity of not being the most disciplined in their scholastics, had a rough go of it. They had to not only keep track of the other siblings, but to also keep Melanie and Alison grounded enough to make it through school. In their late teens and early 20s, they garnered quite a bit of attention. The wrong kind of attention came from jealous boyfriends, and parties that were filled with alcohol and more attention-givers. School wasn't working and these were the distractions they came to depend upon.
They began modeling by doing small calendars, most notably for a photographer working on a swimwear one geared toward the women of University of Delaware. I stumbled upon the Twins while planning a calendar I was to shoot in Mexico. Their beauty struck me, and I knew these two were destined for greatness, especially if they linked up with the right photographers and networked with the right people. I had never seen anything like the Barber twins.
They came to Mexico and the friendship began...we took some amazing shots while the other models marveled at their beauty and potential. There was no jealousy or the atypical model in-fighting when someone is prettier than the other. I remember models saying they wanted to hate the twins, but they couldn't because they were far too kind and sweet. All the while, the twins remained quiet, standing where they were told, posing as they were directed, not wanting to make a fuss or a problem. They were probably the most humble and self-depreciating people I have ever known, never really knowing what the big deal about them was all about.
When we began to market the calendar in 2001, one of the first stops was New Orleans. The twins were excited to travel, and had not been there before. In retrospect, bringing them onto Bourbon Street might not have been the smartest idea but it was illuminating none the less by the end of our trek. When we started down Bourbon Street, we entered by ourselves. By the time we got to the other end, we were being followed by throngs of people and admirers, and beads showering from the terraces. One would think the President was walking down the street by the parade shouting behind us. I had gotten them off the street into a restaurant just to avoid the following crowd, which eventually dispersed once they found other libations and distractions. I remember one saying to me, "Why are they following us? We're not that special." I told them what occurred proved otherwise; without a doubt, there was something about the Dupri Twins.
To know them was to love them. Their humility knew no bounds but their bond together was infinite. They got into an argument that very trip; one stalked off in anger. The other one cursed out her sister under her breath (and then quite loudly) and then lamented loudly why her sister ran off.....she's not supposed to do that, why would she do that, damn ****. Simply put, they were irrevocably two sides of the same coin....Melanie was the negotiator, the serious one..Alison simply did whatever Melanie advised. Melanie did all the talking on the phone while Alison sat in the background, throwing out an idea or two...unless Melanie didn't like the idea. They could fill in each other's sentences until the maddening point and beyond. When you told them about it, they had not idea what the hell you were talking about. Yes, it was like that with them. It drove you crazy, but they never stopped making you marvel and grin. Most of all, they loved their parents, their family, and each other with the full vigor and innocence of youth. These were not the atypical superficial model-types, which I believe is what brought everything that was good and pure, but also bad and tempting to their doorstep.
Their modeling career pushed on. The pinnacle came when they got the invite to the Playboy Mansion to test for Playmate through a photographer I knew. They tested, hung around Hugh Hefner for a few days, and it was decided by Hef that they were going to be stapled in history as Misses November 2002. The future was in front of them, the magic realized. They appeared in FHM, and other magazines subsequently.
When I was photographing the twins, I was shooting them for glamour and capitalizing on their look. Clearly, they were not runway models but they could shoot swimwear and make it to Playboy, which was their dream, one they were on the cusp of achieving.
The partying ways did not stop, however. One night, during a drunken party, a fight erupted and a drunken guy tried to use his car as a weapon to go after the other guy. He hit Melanie instead. I remember the pictures she sent me of her bruised face and body; looking back, she thought it was funny but she became depressed over it. The accident created a nervous tick in her neck/face area and she resorted to drinking to quell it. The drinking became an ever increasing problem, but more parties awaited.
On April 20, 2002, after a night out with Alison (they never went anywhere without each other), Melanie drank herself into oblivion. The "acute intoxification by the combined effects of ethanol and diphenhydramine" was the perfect storm that killed her. The next day, Alison placed a screaming phone call to her father but it was too late. Melanie's brief stay with the rest of us was over, just shy of her 24th birthday the next month.
The phone call came to me and I was devastated. One can't fathom the unfathomable. Alison cried in my ear for I don't know how long, and to this day, I don't remember much. Maybe the mind is merciful that way. All the time we spent was a blur, and every year that goes by, a faded memory with a faded voice. The memory of her voice crying hysterically that day, however, will never go away.
Playboy rescinded their participation with Melanie gone, their dream vanishing right before Alison's eyes. She received a personal note from Hefner telling her of the news. I called their offices and begged them to use the pictures from their test shoot at the mansion, as there was plenty to choose from. They said no, it wasn't to be.
One of the pictures I took of them on a couch in Mexico, which is one of my best, made it in to American Photo after Melanie died. It was originally shot for my calendar and was the shot that got them noticed for Playboy. When I met their mother, I was cringing as she walked up to me holding the calendar. I was ready for the worst. She said to me, "thank you for making my daughters look so beautiful". From a mother, that meant the world to me and was the biggest compliment I ever received on my work.
Alison picked up her modeling about a year after Melanie died, shooting with me and others. I believe she has been on hiatus since 2006. Melanie's death was something she simply couldn't shake and never will. Imagine losing the only person in creation that could complete your sentences for you. I still keep up with Alison today; I guess that makes us old friends officially.
To this essay, it means this. Take care in your shooting. Time is a real breathing thing, and it can do wonderful things or ruthlessly steal from you. Ask anyone who has lost a loved one, and in this case, for no damn good reason. Melanie was my friend; she was Alison's sister, her twin. She was a daughter, a best friend, a cousin, she was someone to a lot of people. And what we have left are memories of a sweet light that flickered out far too soon, and the pictures we took that will keep her forever young on screens and paper.
I was lucky to be one of the few that captured her image during her brief life. More so, it's a privilege to have photographed them both. That's how we should approach our shooting. I thank every model I work with for letting me photograph them, and I think of Mel every time. She made me realize that the closet thing we have to immortality is the photographed image. While it doesn't speak words, it freezes time, the very thing we didn't have enough of.
Remember that next time you're shooting. Take an extra second to detail, try to do it right the first time. Capture a fleeting emotion that will never come back as the seconds tick away. Photographing someone is a privilege; don't squander it by thinking any less. Thank them, and you'll have a meaningful reason for doing so.
To anyone who didn't know Melanie, her images might not mean very much. To those of us who knew her, these frozen images are the closet thing we'll have of Melanie for the rest of our lives. She will be beautiful forever. Because of those pictures, I remember her more than I remember the shoots...a sweet girl, the gentle voice, so shy eyes, a radiant smile, a vibrant personality and a bond with her sister that none of us could ever humanly comprehend. The Dupri/Barber twins changed the way I shoot and how I shoot forevermore, to which I am grateful beyond words.
I miss Melanie every time I see a picture of her that I took, it never fails. She also reminds me of the ongoing and unparalleled privilege I have as a photographer.