No matter where you’re from, don’t be afraid to reach for your dreams.

That’s the message from former Belenite and working fashion model Kristen Olguin.

“Explore things and maybe if it doesn’t work out, then at least you can mark that off your list,” said Olguin. “Being from a small town, I always felt like everything was out of reach almost. We’re all just figuring things out. Things change and life is throws you curve balls and you just have to go through it.”

Photo courtesy of Paulina Gwaltney
Being a model means bringing a designers piece to life no matter what the material, as Kristen Olguin does here in a dress made of trash bags created by Paulina Gwaltney.

Growing up, Olguin dreamt of being a model, but never felt like she fit the criteria. Describing herself as “stick thin” and not tall — at 5-feet, 7-inches she falls short of the typical industry standard of 5-feet, 9-inches and taller — Olguin pushed her fantasy to the back of her head.

She and her parents, Daniel Joseph Olguin and Miriam Reyes, moved from Grants to Rio Communities in the early 1980s when she was only 4 years old. Her father’s parents, Daniel and Chrisofora Olguin, lived in Jarales and the family goes back several generations, she said.

As a child, Olguin remembers restaurants from one end of Main Street to the other in Belen, riding her bike all around their neighborhood, visiting Timan Park and going to movies at the Oñate Theater.

Photo courtesy of Molly Gomez
Kristen Olguin at Belen High School in 1994.

Her parents divorced when she was 14, and Olguin lived with her father for a while in Jarales, near her grandparents, before moving to the Duke City to finish high school.

“That was different, a lot more rural. We actually lived on Olguin Road,” she said.

She would walk down the ditchbanks with her brother and cousins to a little store called Junior’s.

“We’d walk back and sit by the ditches, listen to the Beastie Boys and eat our snacks,” she said. “When it got dark, we were always afraid of La Llorona and would run home.”

Her mother remarried and moved to Albuquerque, and Olguin joined her for her final two years of high school.

“I can’t believe I moved. It was kind of scary. I didn’t really know anyone,” she said.

Growing up, Olguin said she was “nerdy, smart, always on the honor roll. I just read all the time and was really into school. When I hit high school, I was a little less into school and more into my boyfriend,” she laughed.

It wasn’t until she was out of high school, in 2004, when she saw an announcement for a calendar contest for an Albuquerque radio station that the desire to be a model resurfaced. Not thinking she’d have a chance, Olguin went and was called back, eventually landing the December page.

She was featured in a second calendar, but when she reached her mid 20s, Olguin decided it was time to move on.

“I thought I was too old, that it was time for other things to happen,” she said. “Now, I’m like that was ridiculous.”

Photo courtesy of Instagram user jonesj443
LA Fashion Week 2019 — wearing Hopeless Cause Atelier.

More than a decade later, she went to a rooftop fashion show with a friend at the Hotel Andaluz hosted by Albuquerque-based Hopeless Cause Atelier, which bills itself as social wear with a social conscience.

Her friend introduced Olguin to the designer, Dara Romero, and a few days later she messaged Romero on Instagram, saying it was nice to meet her, and if she ever needed a model, to let Olgiun know.

Romero responded, asking her to walk in an upcoming show.

“I’m freaking out. So, we get fitted, do all these rehearsals and then have the show,” Olguin said. “I know everyone thinks, ‘Oh, you just put on clothes and walk around.’ Now I know — those girls made it look easy and they’re trained. I have to pay attention to what I’m wearing, how I’m walking and then, I didn’t even know how to walk.”

A lot of Googling and YouTube later, she had an idea.

“I’m watching all these videos, trying to imitate it. I did such a crappy job,” she says, laughing. “I mean, it didn’t look bad from the outside, but when you’re a trained professional, looking at me, you’re going to be like, ‘Oh wow …’ I made it through though.”

Olguin must have made a positive impression because shortly after her first runway show, Romero asked her to walk in her show at New York Fashion Week.

“She’s basically taken me everywhere. She’s the reason I’ve been able to go to New York Fashion Week multiple times, LA Fashion Week,” she said. “That opens up other opportunities. You meet people — people see what you’re doing.”

Olguin and Romero were on the cusp of fashion’s pinnacle — Paris Fashion Week — last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on that plan.

Since her initial show for Hopeless Cause in 2017, Olguin has improved her skills by asking other models for help, she said.

“I’ve met girls who have been modeling for years. They are so nice; the community is very supportive. I haven’t met any mean girls yet,” she said.

With the support of other models and practice, Olguin has honed her skills.

“You don’t feel natural but it’s OK,” she said, holding her shoulders back to demonstrate. “Basically, you want the clothes to flow. That’s the way they want you to walk.”

Walking in runway shows is often viewed as the crowning achievement of a model’s career, but Olguin said that’s not the case. Walking the runway is the very beginning of a career, and is often unpaid work.

“It’s amazing clothes, and it is fun, but it isn’t what people think,” Olguin said.

A runway show can require models to show up as early as 6 a.m. for a 4 p.m. show. Once they are dressed and have had makeup and hair done, then they wait.

“In all that time, you don’t eat or drink if you didn’t bring your own snacks,” she said. “Sometimes, they’ll be provided but it depends on the production company.”

For the most part, models in runway shows aren’t paid, unless they are already a big name in their own right, such as Kendall Jenner, Olguin said.

“Sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to get in magazines, but even then it’s not thousands of dollars. For a big magazine, if you get the cover, you can get like a few hundred dollars,” she said. “If you’re a working model, you have to sign job after job after job. Some models can go into debt traveling.”

For Olguin, modeling is her part-time passion. Her day job as a medical coding analyst for the University of New Mexico Medical Group pays her bills and provides her benefits.

Olguin is also working on a marketing and business degree, which she hopes to use to do marketing for the medical group or freelance for local businesses.

In the modeling industry, there is a lot more diversity of designers, as well as representation among models that reflects people of all body types, ages and ethnicities.

Photo courtesy of Erink Photography
British GQ October, 2018 — wearing Hopeless Cause Atelier.

Being able to work with Romero and Hopeless Cause and designers like Korina Emmerich, who focuses her line on the environment and indigenous women, has made Olguin think differently about being a model.

“It’s an honor to work with someone who really cares. There’s more than just the love of fashion,” she said. “It makes me kind of think about who am I going to walk for? What do they represent? That makes me want to work with only certain people.”

Olguin is often asked if she is Native, and that is a bit of a tricky question to answer. Using a home DNA test, results show Olguin is Spanish, Puerto Rican, specifically Taino Indian, Nigerian, as well as some New Mexico Pueblo Indian, she said.

“It doesn’t tell me which pueblo though, and I don’t know where to go to figure that out,” she said. “If it’s accurate, I’d love to find out more about that heritage. I have been a part of some projects working with Indigenous designers and that has been a huge honor. Native fashion has been growing and that’s amazing.”

Looking to the future, Olguin said, as a model, she’d still like to make it to Paris Fashion Week.

“I don’t care if I’m 50 years old. I will go and do it if Dara will have me,” she said.

As much as she enjoys being a model, she said it’s not her everything.

“It’s not the big dream it once was. I love it and appreciate it and I’m so grateful,” Olguin said. “I’m honored that anyone would even have me modeling for them.”

At 40 and on the short side, she might be unconventional for the modeling world, but Olguin urges everyone to live a little piece of their dream.

“With life, things change and you grow, so I have to be open to what it brings me,” she said. “If there’s something that’s just calling you — if it’s modeling, getting a GED, opening up a business, being a mom — I think people should follow whatever feels good and feels right to them.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.