Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Don't hate them because they're beautiful: The politics of glamour

I was looking into the issue of modeling yesterday - as you do when you write about this subject but particularly of course with Australian Fashion Week now five days away.

I wound up having a quick check of www.models.com. Operated by New Yorkers Stephan Moskovic and Wayne Sterling, models.com has become something of an authority on the subject. As per two quotes on its home page, some have in fact dubbed it "the NASDAQ of the modeling industry" (Ivan Bart, Senior VP IMG Models) and "the industry's favorite reference site" (Guy Trebay, The New York Times).

One of models.com's handiest reference components is its rankings of world models into various categories - from "icons" to "sexiest" to the hottest new girls to emerge, to the "Top 50" working models, the latter using as a gauge a model's exposure on major international runways, fashion editorial and covers and advertising campaigns. I do check the site regularly but apparently not regularly enough. Because since the last time I checked the Top 50, and yesterday, Perth's Gemma Ward had graduated to the world number 1 spot. Even more interesting: another Australian has just emerged out of nowhere to sweep aside a swag of high profilers to make her models.com Top 50 debut at number 26. With a bullet. Yes, Catherine McNeil.

Modeling for four years, but only seriously for one, 17 year-old McNeil was completely under the international radar until she met leading international fashion photographer Mario Testino earlier this year and was swiftly picked up by Testino for a six-month exclusive. The Testino "buzz" factor then helped open up an instant spot on the international runway show circuit - and she walked in 35 shows during the recent AW0708 season in Milan and Paris (and one show in London). "Fall belonged to the Australian beauty Catherine McNeil" noted style.com recently - one of the world's highest-traffic fashion websites.

That's right, Catherine McNeil - the very model who became the subject of yesterday's little fash slagfest on this blog, after we happened by chance to include a shot of her in an 'arty', contrived pose from Azzollini's 2007 swimwear catalogue. McNeil wasn't even the subject of the post. The subject was Azzollini's music video clip alternative to a Fashion Week show next week. But after a first, catty swipe at me for being too thin, posters swiftly sank their teeth into the skinny model brouhaha, to the point of declaring McNeil to be "anorexic".

Although obviously the skinny model issue has dominated news headlines over the past eight months sparked by the eating disorder-related deaths of three aspiring South American models, there is nothing new about the debate. It last reared its head in the mid 90s, in the midst of the "heroin chic" controversy and the emergence of the so-called "waifs". They included Kate Moss, Australia's own Emma Balfour but notably Jodie Kidd, runway images of which British teenager's skeletal arms and legs were shocking at the time (with Kidd later blaming her scrawny frame on a bout of glandular fever).

Australian Fashion Week was in fact born into this controversy in May 1996. Some may recall the minor ruckus that erupted at the time over images of Australian model Christy Quilliam, whose ribs visibly stuck out through the holes of her olive green Morrissey Edmiston cutout maillot.

Australian Fashion Week organisers have weighed, pardon the pun, into the current debate by asking model agents and designers to use only healthy-looking women on next week's runways (and this voluntary low BMI 'ban' really worked a treat in Milan in February). They have also asked editors not to go out of their way to use unflattering pictures of models for the sake of sensationalism. Yeah, right.

But while some may go out of their way to capture models in awkward poses so as to exaggerate the image - for example, one recent backstage shot of a topless teenager bending over, which accentuated her ribs or indeed, the first of two Azzollini images of McNeil which appeared in this blog, which accentuated McNeil's shoulders (and who really knows to what degree that image may have also been Photoshopped?) - some model images do not need any assistance at all.

The Jodie Kidd of the mid noughties, 20 year-old Snejana Onopka, alarmed many at the SS07 shows in September last year after dropping what appeared to be at least one dress size. Many of the raw (ie unretouched) runway images of Onopka from that season are just plain ugly and it is in noone's interest not to police this issue. Onopka was nonetheless back at the Milan and Paris shows earlier this year. Whether she had put on weight in the interim or whether the heavier winter clothes, stockings and the season's popular ultra-long gloves perhaps merely disguised her previously stick-thin arms and legs, Onopka appears to have escaped further scrutiny for the time being.

Anorexia nervosa is clearly a major health concern. According to The Eating Disorder Service, a 12-year research program at the Westmead Children's Hospital, one in 200 girls between 15-19 will be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in Australia - or 0.005% of the population.

According to the program's medical director, Dr Michael Kohn, there is no evidence that anorexia nervosa rates are increasing in Australia, however those diagnosed with the disease are getting younger.

Interestingly, Kohn does not blame the fashion industry for all of Australia's self-starvation woes.

"China has a very longstanding history of anorexia nervosa - from the 1600s - anorexia nervosa has been described for hundreds of years, around the world, but the fashion industry as we would recognise it as such has not been" says Kohn, whose research points to genetic and family factors and pressures as major contributing factors.

He added, "It's easiest to scapegoat the fashion industry, but this is a pattern of behavior that occurs from a range of societal pressures and it oversimplies the issue to pick out one and put the blame for eating disorders in that one realm".

Obesity is demonstrably a far bigger issue than anorexia nervosa. A 1999-2000 study cited on the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website indicated that over seven million adult Australians aged 25 years and over (60%) were overweight, of which over two million (21%) were obese.

But here is where we get into slippery territory.

There are those who seek to blame not just the problem of women starving themselves on 'unrealistic' fashion images - they appear to want to pin every last pigout on fashion as well. This of course lets the fast food industry, socio-economic factors and the increasing accessibility of home entertainment technology, from computers to widescreen tv, completely off the hook.

I recall once being interviewed about the fashion/body image subject by an Australian radio talk show host. Even though I had been armed with obesity and eating disorder statistics, she had made up her mind on the subject long before I had even been put through to talk to her. Her theory was that the population's frustration with the unattainable ideals depicted in contemporary fashion imagery is the inexorable cause of yo-yo dieting and, so it apparently followed, asses so big that they require supersized ambulance beds and toilet seats.

Anyone with any hard evidence as to the direct link between images of skinny women and the obesity epidemic please feel free to chime in here. Kohn reckons there isn't a heap of it.

She's no scientist of course, but British-born model Gail Elliott has an interesting take on the subject. Elliott now calls Sydney home for eight months of the year, with not just an Australian husband but a burgeoning Sydney-based fashion business (Little Joe by Gail Elliott). While she may eschew the "supermodel" tag, Elliott was most definitely part of the high profile 1980s model crew that included Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell. Now mostly in their 40s, all of these women are still modeling - even if they have other business projects.

Elliott says she has noticed a marked difference in the industry's entry level age compared to when she first joined the business.

"I think they're definitely skinnier now, but they're teens - the little young Russian girls and Brazilian girls, are 13 and 14 years old" Elliott told Fashion Season.

She added, "Naomi was only the young one, she was probably 18 or 19 but we were all 24-ish, 25-ish. So we were grown up already. I think that's a got a lot to do with it. These girls are really young and young girls are skinny. And yes a couple of girls have died, that's terrible. But the other thing is there's so much more competition now. Everyone's a model. And you'll see girls at the shows and you probably won't even know their names and the next season they won't be around. Whereas we did the shows for ten years straight. We did all those shows, every year, every season.

"I think it's changed a lot, it's become very fickle. Editors want more, more, more, new, new, new. There are so many more designers. I remember doing 27 shows in Milan and I probably did all the shows in Milan at the time".

Elliott makes a good point about increased competition. To give you an idea of the pace of this industry, models.com doesn't calls its hottest newcomers category "Of the moment" but, Of The Minute. Does the industry put pressure on models to be thin? Of course - because that's what sells. Australian models tend to be larger than those in the northern hemisphere - that is, until they travel overseas for work.

"Sure girls have to be small to fit those small sample sizes, like a doctor needs to have a degree and seven years of university behind them, it's as simple as that" says Joseph Tenni, a booker with Chadwicks Models in Sydney, who for several years has penned a modelling industry column called Model Mania on New York fashion website hintmag.com. "Knowing that the maximum measurement that they [in New York] would really accept is a 90cm hip, I let girls be aware of that and then it's up to them to make the decision whether they're prepared to do that".

As for the common complaint that models don't look like real women, Tenni notes, "They're models. They look good and clothes look good on them. It's not about 40 year-old businesswomen who can afford the clothes. They want to see models as well. There's still an element of aspiration to it".

But just who are these taste arbiters who determine which of the thousands of newcomers to the industry are "so hot right now"? Who defines the current canons of modeling beauty?

The editors, photographers, stylists and casting directors of influence.

"What propels a girl's career is one influential person and then everybody copies" says Tenni. "If [Paris Vogue editor] Carine Roitfeld says someone's fabulous, everyone wants that girl".

Industry sources estimate that Catherine McNeil probably earned over A$100,000 last year in Australia - and that she stands to make US$1million over the course of the next. Yes she walked at Australian Fashion Week this time last year - under the radar. But McNeil was also shot for a substantial volume of Australian fashion magazine editorial, as well as campaigns for Azzollini, Watersun and Cue. She went to New York armed with a very good book.

The world number one, Gemma Ward, made her runway debut at Australian Fashion Week in May 2003, debuted at the SS04 Milan shows in September that year in a Prada exclusive and six months later was the hottest new girl of AW0405, walking in numerous shows.

Prada casting director Russell Marsh may have given Ward her big international break, but Australian editor/stylist Mark Vassallo also played a significant role, choosing Ward for the cover of his now defunct niche fashion magazine Mark earlier that year.

Similarly "blessed" by Vassallo, in May 2005 the then 13 year-old Tallulah Morton was scouted and flown to Sydney from the Gold Coast to open Josh Goot's Australian Fashion Week debut. Since this time Morton - and not McNeil - has been widely tipped as the next most likely Australian to follow in Ward's footsteps.

But after having been signed to the "Development" board of the world's biggest model agent early last year, IMG, shortly afterwards shooting some editorial with photographer David Sims and a Benetton campaign, Morton did a few New York shows in September but in the end was not booked for any European shows.

Morton's age (by that stage 14) might not have been the only determining factor. Yes it is harder for an under-16 model to work in Europe, due to recent industry crackdowns, however it is not impossible and there are several girls much younger than Morton who are on the circuit.

According to casting sources however, the real reason Morton failed to takeoff at the SS07 shows was because she was "too chunky". Yes it's a brutal industry.

An Australian is more likely to take the latter news with a pinch of salt and head to the beach - Morton, who remains one of Australia's most popular and high-profile models, recently dropped out of school to study multimedia and graphic design at TAFE. However a girl from a developing country in say South America or Eastern Europe - with a family to feed, and with her beauty as her only ticket out - might not be quite so nonchalant. Perhaps it's more than a coincidence that the three models who died as the result of eating disorders last year were South American. Snejana Onopka hails from the Ukraine.

"I'm not going to lie, it is a cutthroat industry and the girls who make it are the determined ones" says Tenni. "And there are plenty of girls who would love a door to open and the door doesn't open. It's not like they're doing anything wrong. They could look fabulous, they could be completely professional. But it's just not their time.

"When a girl doesn't book a job, you just take her off the option, you don't overanalyse it. But as well as having the right look, you do need to have the right mind for this business to be able to handle it all - to handle the rejection and to have the ambition. It is an industry where you will be scrutinised, no matter what. And it's a choice to be in this industry as well".

Like most other Sydney agencies, Chadwicks has several "hot" new girls on its books for next week. They include Emily C (16) who has done one previous Fashion Week, but who is, says Tenni, generating a great deal of buzz this year.

As for total Fashion Week neophytes, girls who have never walked a runway but who could be looking at multimillion dollar modelling careers should the stars align and their moment be "right", Chadwicks' tips are Pip Bingham from Perth (16) and Adelaide's Vanessa Milde (15), who is already placed with IMG's Development board in New York.

Noone has ever heard of either of course.

"But", predicts Tenni, "they will after next week".

Original post and comments.


Blog Archive