Courtney Rust: Chicagoan of the Week

Admittedly, when I first heard what Courtney did for a living, a montage of red carpets, flash bulbs, false eye lashes and sequins came to mind. I guess I was hoping her job had her trapped in a perpetual production of La Cage Aux Folles, just so I could live vicariously through her.

“It’s a lot like being a plumber,” Courtney said.

Courtney Rust is a photo stylist, based in Chicago, IL. While she works all over the country, most of her jobs are local, and she chose Chicago as a home base for very specific reasons. After graduating with a degree in photography from Northeastern University in Boston, she relocated to Chicago for the amount of stylist work available here. She began as a photographer’s assistant, and eventually started doing freelance work as a stylist. She was attracted to, and remains committed to, the Chicago market because it is big but not too big, full of talent yet not pretentious or as cut-throat as NYC or LA, and there is a lot of ad work to be had. Chicago also offers a great deal of aesthetic diversity, she says. “The best places to photograph in Chicago [are] in the meat packing district, Salvage One and Montrose Beach.  It’s nice that we have so many options here:  From old industrial parks to fields with wild flowers!”

Of course, my first question was, how is such a seemingly glamorous job at all analogous to unclogging drains? Courtney explained to me exactly what being a photo stylist entails, though she says it varies by gig. Typically though, Courtney shops for a living. Don’t get too excited plastic burners: she also does a lot of returning, and is hated by most sales clerks in Chicago. For example, say Courtney is responsible for the costumes and props for a print ad. She will go buy outfits, roughly 45 separate outfits for a three-actor shoot, she says, so there are options for the shoot. She has spent up to $50,000 on a job, only to return most of that merchandise, as out of those roughly 45 outfits, of course, only three are chosen. All of these purchases go on her personal credit cards as well, and what the production accepts, she is reimbursed for. Everything else is loaded back into her car and returned. “Reverse shopping,” as she calls it, is so much a part of her job, that she named her blog “The Returnist.” She knows the stores with the best return policies and the worst, making her a wealth of knowledge you think is useless until you receive a lot of weird wedding gifts.

While schlepping clothes and shoes and props to and fro might not sound like the best time, it still didn’t make me think, “Ah, yes, just like pulling a dead hamster out of the toilet.” Courtney explained that while she may not encounter dead rodents in small spaces, she does spend a lot of time crawling on dirty floors, climbing to precarious perches, and dropping leaves off a rooftop to make an autumn scene much more picturesque. This is not a job done in stilettos.

One of the things I most adore about writing is having an excuse to meet people, pick their brains, and ask them about their lives. People are fascinating. When you’re nine and people ask you what you want to be when you grow up, a job like Courtney’s does not come to mind. Her job runs the gamut, and she must embrace creativity and business practicality to make it work. She is bothered by slipped bra straps and other foibles most of us don’t notice. Chiefly, though, she is an artist who found a way to make a living by creating and making the world a little bit more beautiful, which is something, I think, always deserves praise.

When Courtney isn’t crawling on her belly in a photo studio or climbing on top of roofs, she can be found enjoying Chicago through a lens as well as sans camera. “My favorite fancy restaurant is Graham Elliot. My favorite restaurant that I can actually afford is Urban Belly,” she says. For shopping (and returning, I suppose), Courtney loves Broadway Antique Market, Post 27 and The Fabric Discount Outlet in Pilsen.

Mary-Margaret McSweene

About Mary-Margaret McSweene

Mary-Margaret McSweene makes her home in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago with the love of her life, a pit bull/black lab mix, named Jake. Buying old things that no longer function but offer extreme aesthetic pleasure is her vice; typewriters and rotary phones are favorites. Mary-Margaret also believes that anything in life can be articulated by a Tom Petty song.

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