November 2011

Kati Nolfi

nonfiction

Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model by Ashley Mears and Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women by Michael Gross

Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model is the result of Ashley Mears's ethnographic research on the modeling industry. Mears, now an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University, was a sociology graduate student at NYU when a model scout approached her at Starbucks. She had recently quit modeling, wanted to put it behind her, and yet she was interested in studying gender, beauty, and the body. She decided to model for the agencies Metro and Scene as part of her studies. 

Pricing Beauty is a fascinating thesis on aesthetic labor. It reaffirmed some of my knowledge and suspicions about modeling and disabused me of others. It recalls model Sara Ziff's 2009 documentary Picture Me, which did similar though less academic work at portraying the highs, the precariousness, and the illusions of modeling. At the outset of the film Ziff says, "Modeling isn't something I chose to do. It really just happened to me." This statement is similar to Mears's experience and reveals a troubling lack of agency. While both Ziff and Mears and many other models were chosen for this work by industry insiders, thereby confirming they are fit to be aesthetic laborers, their positions are unstable, insecure, and always at risk, because their looks might change, the market might change, and they might be usurped by a younger, thinner girl with the more right look for right now. Being "discovered" at a young age for low skilled labor with the potential of high pay and esteem can leave a woman vulnerable to exploitation and indecision, tempted by short term possibilities of large amounts of money, gifts, and praise. While fashion reality TV shows like America's Next Top Model endeavor to make go-sees into crazy-fun adventures, Mears's comparison of a day of castings to a day of fifteen job interviews puts the unpleasantness of modeling in perspective. 

Pricing Beauty should not come as a surprise to the pop culture lover or hater, but it is a timely and satisfying portrait of the industry. The racism and unhealthy body standards of the straight-size mainstream industry have gotten media attention in recent years. There have been conferences within the industry and a few one-off issues of magazines to ostensibly celebrate plus size models and models of color. But nothing has really changed.    

A promise of riches, fame, independence, and glamour is made to young vulnerable girls. To achieve it, they go into debt with agencies, they live in model apartments away from their families and sometimes their home countries, they develop eating disorders and substance abuse habits, they are subjected to body hatred, and they lie about their age, ethnicity, and measurements. Most models enter the industry by happenstance, through a scout. Immediately they are told they have the right look, that their natural body is perceived as fitting the market. They soon learn that the message is to be yourself, but only if that self is the right self. Which it inevitably is not. The model look is created by the model herself, her emotional and physical work, and the behind the scenes work of designers, magazine editors, stylists, agents, scouts, and photographers. Capital-C Culture is not the result of solitary genius. When one interrogates the idea of the right look, there's facial symmetry, good skin, a certain height and weight, yes, but an indefinable essence, a "certain something" that modeling insiders invariably mention. The essence is more important to the editorial look than the commercial market. The commercial look, as seen in a JC Penney catalog or a Wal-Mart advertisement, is more approachable: pretty, sexy, happy, healthy, perhaps darker and larger, more representative of the demographics of America. While JC Penney models receive less media attention than models who appear in magazines like Dazed and Confused and Pop, they appeal to more people, have more mainstream visibility (though their identities are interchangeable) and make more money, but have less industry respect. The fashion industry perceives Dazed and Confused as art and JC Penney as commerce.

Casual consumers of fashion see models as the lucky hapless winners of a genetic lottery. In Michael Gross' 1995 exposé Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, Suzy Parker maintains the mainstream observer position when she said, "It was a job, that's all. You know, my friend Coco Chanel said it. Fashion is a joke. It isn't an art, because if it were an art, it would be permanent, and it isn't. It's something that changes constantly. I was just lucky. Sheer luck. I was lucky to have been born with cheekbones." Parker is not exactly correct, though. It's not just about cheekbones. Good cheekbones do not always result in success. In her book, Mears asks modeling insiders for a fashion and beauty rubric and is met with mystery: you can't know who will succeed and you can't know what it is about her. Lara Stone is an interesting example of modeling success, though Mears does not mention her. She had failed to make an impact in modeling until she switched agencies and was positioned as a new model. Stone has been extremely successful to the point where her Dutch Bardot look was copied many times in the last popular in the last couple of years: gap teeth, blonde hair, blank stare, curvy body (though the measurements 32-24-35 belie that designation), and bleached eyebrows. The nineteen-year old model Georgia May Jagger is a younger and shorter version of Stone. At twenty-seven, Stone probably knows her time is limited, and thus she has saturated all the major magazines in ad campaigns and photo shoots. With her small feet and ungainly walk, she avoids the runway. In February 2010, she was estimated as the world's number one fashion model on the international modeling site models.com. Her influence is still felt. The December 2011 issue of Elle features Lara Stone ads from Tom Ford and DKNY fragrances and has a six-page spread of Lara Stone pretender Ashley Smith.

Fashion changes and tastes are manufactured in order to sell new anxieties and new products. This is the truth we have to rely on when there is no transparency to the process. Models do not always know the job that their casting is for, do not know the criteria, or who will make the decision to hire. As Mears says, "Models are instead measured against ambiguous floating norms." There is both a certainty that a model, for instance, must have 34" hips and be 5'9", yet outliers like Kate Moss are celebrated, and falsified composite cards (basically business cards advertising a model's measurements) are standard. Mears thinks composite cards enroll clients and models in the belief that standards exist and have been met: "It signals to the model that her body has deviated from the norm, she is in noncompliance.'' Compensation is also vague and ambiguous. The most prestigious jobs pay the least amount, because models are willing to work for low sums in exchange for prestige and because it is expensive to publish a magazine and produce a fashion show. Rather than money, payment can be status, contacts, reputation, and clothing.

When people complain about the oppression that the fashion industry creates, they point out the homogeneity of white skin and thinness. The editorial look -- edgy, dark, quirky, punk, bohemian, pierced, tattooed, naked, bony -- is more racist than the commercial look, even though the creators who are located in large culture-making cities, think of themselves as more progressive and more artistic, creating work that the majority just cannot understand. In the name of provocation, blackface shows up in the artistic fashion magazines more than it does in mainstream publications. They say the problem is with the supply of models when they say that "certain features" don't photograph well, when the problem is with the inherently racist beauty standard that they collectively follow and perpetuate. Models are sometimes instructed to hide their countries of origin or to emphasize them depending on the preferences of clients. Mears, who is part Korean, had her own experiences with this. Models are in the service of enacting conventions of gender, race, sex, and class.

Mears compares the commodified body of a model to sociologist Loïc Wacquant's idea of bodily capital as explored through the bodies and labor of boxers. Models are similar to both body conscious athletes (who need to "make weight") such as boxers, jockeys, gymnasts, wrestlers, and rowers, and "display workers" like strippers. In contrast to other physical laborers like construction workers, the work of athletes, strippers, and models can be denigrated because it does not produce anything aside from images, entertainment, and ecstasy. There are material byproducts, of course, but the sheer labor is for our enjoyment and envy, not for practical use, such as a bridge or road.

A very brief history of modeling: Charles Frederic Worth invented modeling in the 1850s Paris salon as a more theatrical way to display clothes instead of on mannequins. Models were not necessarily tall and thin. The legendary designer Cristobal Balenciaga, for instance, used models with short and stocky frames. There is a revisionist history occurring when the modeling industry says that clothes "just look better" on a thin body. Designers blame agents and magazine editors blame designers for their small sample sizes. The editors need to find thin models to fit the clothes, and thin models are the only models at the agencies! No group of industry insiders takes responsibility for the problematic beauty standards. Fashion decentralized in the 1960s when youth culture displaced haute couture with ready to wear. People could purchase clothes instead of making them. Magazines that were employing models at $50 an hour started paying $100 a day and individual careers were launched when Diana Vreeland identified models in Vogue. With the advent of disposable fast fashion at Topshop and H&M and celebrity culture, "looking good" is becoming important in low paying retail and service jobs. Globalization and the popularization of the fashion industry have also created a vast supply of models from around the world. There are more models now and fewer jobs, especially since actors have displaced the role of models. Mears pins down the problem with women's visibility in modeling. "Modeling is a safe place for women to excel because they are not a real threat to men's structural dominance. In fact, they confirm it, and they bolster it, by proving that women are better suited as bodies to look at."

Michael Gross's Model is a different kind of modeling exposé. The book really shines when he uses an oral history format and lets the models and other industry people speak for themselves. At times we can see glimpses of Mears's empathy and understanding (she used Gross's work as a resource), but Gross writes too often with a breathless tabloid style, as if the industry's excesses excite him. He writes as an outsider, a male journalist, in contrast to Mears who writes as both an insider and an outsider. He emphasizes the grotesque hedonism in a world of older men preying on young girls: "Only a few can reach the pyramid's point. It is crowded around the bottom. Wannabe models, lacking the looks, the will, and the sense to understand their precarious position, are junk food for modeling's predators and bottom feeders." While he seems to be critical of the exploitative behaviors of the modeling industry, he also writes with misplaced glee and blame. He is correct that models are not the passive winners of a genetic lottery, but he places too much responsibility on the model for her success, when we learned from Mears that so much of the industry terms and standards are vague and ambiguous. He writes: "And even then good looks, a certain height, and a photogenic arrangement of features aren't all it takes to succeed in this sometimes viciously competitive sphere. Indeed, it's not so much her looks as her outlook and her drive to succeed that made Crawford the first supermodel and then an international celebrity." Cindy Crawford is praised and she contributed a lot of her experience to this book, yet she says troubling things like, "instead of trying to create equity for other people, I'm trying to create it for myself." There is no talk of unionizing in either Michael Gross's or Ashley Mears's books.

Gross writes that John Roberts Powers, who started the first model agency, was a good guy, that John Casablancas, the founder of the agency Elite, was "generally immoral," that Eileen Ford was the "godmother of modeling." Milan is the big bad city, where models in the 1980s were greeted with a dozen roses and cocaine. Drugs and neglect and abuse abound everywhere. Gross writes with nostalgia about the pre-1970s era of modeling. The models Dorian Leigh, Suzy Parker, and Carmen Dell'Orefice remember their careers in various ways, but all are delightful. Dorian Leigh, for instance, holds a degree in mechanical engineering from NYU and worked as a tool designer in a defense plant before she modeled. Leigh says that she was Truman Capote's inspiration for Breakfast at Tiffany's; he visited her Siamese cat, Posy. While Leigh was living the Holly Golightly life, Parker and Dell'Orefice remember their careers as a mostly innocent time. Dell'Orefice says that the Fords "opened a doorway and defined a profession," while Leigh recalls modeling with bitterness.

Sometimes Gross is very astute.  He writes: "Though they exist in an apparently superficial milieu, models are metaphors for matters of cultural consequence like commerce, sexuality, and aesthetics. Through the work of the image merchants who manipulate them in photographs and advertisements (and sometimes in their real lives), today's models hawk not only clothes and cosmetics but a complex, ever-evolving psychology and social ambience, a potent commercial fiction that goes by the name lifestyle."

Model is an entertaining and disturbing book that may be too insular for those readers uninterested in fashion and modeling. At times I was concerned about the quality of the facts and the spelling errors, but for those of us who were fascinated by the Trinity (Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington) at ten and eleven, and filled shoeboxes with magazine cutouts, Gross has certainly written and researched a flawed, yet compelling history.

Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model by Ashley Mears
University of California Press
ISBN: 978-0520270763
328 pages

Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women by Michael Gross
It Books
ISBN: 978-0062067906
576 pages