Why Are Models Washed Up? They’re Cheap, Ubiquitous, Rife

Remember when being an airline stewardess was chicly and utterly the only thing that mattered, and then one day it wasn’t? Well, guess what? The exact same thing has happened with fashion models. Ten years ago, models were it , and Linda, Christy and Naomi were more iconically potent than Golda Meir, Judy Garland and Mother Teresa. Now, with the spring 2002 Fashion Week looming, the nation must confront a horrible truth: Models have lost their social currency.

Why and how did this happen? Even up to the late 90’s, models had a key socio-stylistic role to play, forming the bedrock of the Moomba-ish wave of fin-de-siècle nightlife. No New York event was complete without a gaggle of gangly, food-phobic funsters from Ford, or any agency. Now they are about as au courant as a Gaultier cone bra: A model arriving at a party is now the P.R. equivalent of two A-listers leaving prematurely. The quixotic New York public-relations community has given them the thumbs-down. “Models at our events? I prefer them as staff. I mean, darling, can you hold a tray?” said Scott Currie, senior vice president at Susan Magrino Public Relations. “Being pretty is fine, but you better be useful.” Quelle horreur !

I, for one, am distraught about this situation. Having always entertained a delusional identification with whoever was the model of the moment, I feel lost. Warning: For those of you who, like myself, think models are fascinating and consider the return of Linda Evangelista in this month’s Vogue to be an event of Biblical proportions (see: Lazarus, John 11:1-44), my findings may be upsetting. You may wish to pour yourself a pink gin before continuing. Here–glug!–are the most common reasons why models may have run out of runway.

Models are tightwads. Obscenely pro-model though I am, I have to admit this is true. Though they make more money than ever (average rates are $3,000 per day for a photo shoot with limited usage) and are frequently the highest-paid person on a shoot or runway, the little darlings are always cadging merchandise, ciggies, tampons and cab fare home. Despite having shoveled–albeit indirectly–endless amounts of cash to various models, I have never been the recipient of so much as a Clark bar from a fashion model–never mind a dinner or a cocktail or a mink chubbie. A hairdresser of my acquaintance expressed it eloquently: “Mary, those girls have used up their tab with me!”

Models are boring because they don’t do drugs anymore. The girls have gone all 12-steppy and demure. Even Kate (“I don’t do class-A”) Moss has cooled her jets. She is engaged to Dazed and Confused magazine editorial director Jefferson Hack and is planning to settle down and have kids. The fashion insiders I spoke to all reminisced fondly about Gia-ish girls goosing uptight clients on shoots, “borrowing” clothes, falling off runways and doing bumps in the john. For decades, it was the wacky, cracky models who provided entertainment on otherwise boring shoots–and now Shields and Yarnell have left the building.

Models are ubiquitous: i.e., there are too many of them. They used to come along in ones and twos–Cheryl, Brooke, Paulina–but now they are imported by the boatload. The insane proliferation of fashion labels and media has vastly increased the demand for girls: At any given time, the bloated fashion industry now needs hundreds of chicks upon which to feed. Suddenly there are millions of first-, second- and third-stringers lugging portfolios through the streets of Manhattan, and–familiarity having bred contempt–the spectacle is about as frisson -inducing as watching a gaggle of exhausted Aer Lingus stewardesses hauling their wheelies through passport control in their green Dacron uniforms. No offense!!

Models are stupid–but it’s not their fault. “The bookers used to invest more time in their charges,” said public-relations guru Paul Wilmot. “A new girl with promise might even stay at Eileen Ford’s house. Now the bookers don’t do anything except compete and try and steal each others’ girls.” Models also used to pick up a layer of fluffy social sophistication from hanging out with a core group of savoir-faire -dispensing fashion editors and designers: e.g., Andre Leon Talley, Carlyne Cerf, Candy Pratts Price or Karl Lagerfeld. Now there are so many models that this Pygmalion-ish process is beyond the scope of even the unstoppable Mr. Talley. Additionally, this pool of fashion divas and sages has suffered the same process of proliferation and dilution. After a shoot or runway show, models go home, crack open a diet coke and watch Friends , but so do the editors (and so do I).

Unfortunately for models, dumb isn’t hip any more. Serena Bass–who, Fire Department permitting, will reopen her newly spiffed-up bar (Serena, at 222 West 23rd Street) in mid-September–has noticed the shift. “Models, schmodels–today everyone likes literary people!” said Ms. Bass. “Our biggest night is poetry-reading on Sunday. Being gorgeous is not enough; there are so many fab-looking people in New York. People want someone who tells jokes and reads the papers. Wit is a hit.”

Models are common. Jean Shrimpton–arguably the face of the 20th century–graduated from the Lucie Clayton School of Modeling, as did the just-as-gorgeous Celia Hammond. A stint at modeling school sounds really naff, but it gave unformed chicks an air of dignity and superiority which made them fascinating and marvelous. (Linda also went to modeling school … in Ontario!) Before she was unleashed on the public, Jean Shrimpton had already learned life’s most important lessons, like how to walk with a book on her head and how to get out of a car without Sharon Stone-ing passersby. With her mod hauteur , the Shrimp–as she was affectionately known–not only changed the way a generation of women looked, she also snagged the grooviest blokes in London, including Terence Stamp and David Bailey. Why? Because she was an original beauty with snotty poise ! (P.S.: Planning a vacation in Cornwall, U.K.? Why not stay at the Shrimp’s guest house, called the Abbey? Call 017-36-366906.)

Models can’t model. These days, if you want to hire a model who can really pose, you have three choices: 1) If you can afford $30,000 per day, hire Erin O’Connor (Ford), one of today’s few innately languid chicks. 2) Bring oodles of vintage fashion photography to the shoot, hold the pictures up one by one and say, “Do this!” (For this purpose, I highly recommend The Rudi Gernreich Book by William Claxton, Peggy Moffitt and Marylou Luther. Alibris.com has copies for an average price of $140.) 3) Hire the archly fascinating Linda Evangelista, the Wayne Gretzky of modeling. The Great One, judging by the pics in the September Vogue , has lost none of her je ne sais quoi : She controls every finger-crook and lip-quiver as if her life depended on it–which it sort of does.

There are, however, apart from the whopping daily rate (probably more than Erin’s), a couple of itsy-bitsy stumbling blocks to hiring Lindy-poo: At the moment, she is embroiled in a legal drama that has left her temporarily agent-less. It’s a long story, but it is relevant, so here goes. It all started a couple of years back, when celebs, because of their deeper marketing penetration, bumped models off of magazine covers. In a last-ditch effort to reclaim this valuable real estate for their girls (covers = lucrative cosmetics contracts), modeling agencies started looking around to see which of the old-guard supermodels still had heat and, of course, teeth. In May 2000, Wilhelmina hired Didier Fernandez, the guy who nurtured, among others, Claudia, Amber, Shalom and Naomi, to lure Linda, Amber and Nadja (also fab in the new Vogue ) to Wilhelmina. It all went nasty when Mr. Fernandez apparently tried to score jobs for Linda on the sly, including a whopping Estée Lauder contract.

A lawsuit filed on Aug. 2 charges that Linda and Didier used code names, untraceable cell phones and “shredded” documents in order to cut Wilhelmina out of compensation. How glam ! I hate to say it, but this scandale will only add to Linda’s mystique.

Models aren’t sexy. As fashion became groovier and more esoteric, sexiness became less of a priority. Big mistake! Early 90’s photos of Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell filling out curvaceous Alaia knits and brimming over Versace bustiers show an industry where sex was part of the equation. Women could relate. Then models got bonier (Kristen McMenamy) and longer (Stella Tennant, Carolina Ribeiro, Shalom Harlow) and weirder (Kirsten Owen and Kristen McMenamy again). They look fantastic in the clothes, but their appeal is hardly universal.

Sexy girls like Heidi Klum are relegated to the Sports Illustrated -Victoria’s Secret arena. Lanky, big-boobed Gisele is the only model currently straddling both high-cheese and high-fashion. Last year, jolly, Mick-bonking Sophie Dahl exploded onto the scene, and the return to the high-fashion landscape of the busty coquette seemed assured. Then she lost weight. Waa! Waa!

Models are spiritual. Annoyingly so. Shoots were always a great time to learn dirty jokes: Boozy, hedonistic photographers of the Bailey-ish genre took great delight in belching and embarrassing the girls with off-color humor. Now the photographers are more circumspect, and the girls–egged on by New Age hair-and-makeup people–share their thoughts about the Dalai Lama, ingesting colloidal silver and the benefits of rune-casting.

Models are ordinaire . Where did all the exotic girls go? Gisele’s passport might be Brazilian, but she could easily be from Pittsburgh. What happened to international fabulousness? Avedon’s insect-like Dovima; Keane-painting-faced, cockney Twiggy; pantherish, snarly Iman; Sanskritty Y.S.L. muse Mounia; impossibly slitty-eyed Sayoko; loony Donyale Luna; rangy, regal Verushka–compare these otherworldly creatures to Maggie Rizer, and the Tommy Hilfiger fave looks like a dental hygienist. No offense! Alek Wek, from the Sudan, is single-handedly filling the token exotique niche. Give that girl a break!

Models can’t speak English. Conversation with 16-year-old models can be pretty inane at the best of times, but now that every single model is from Eastern Europe or Brazil, the between-shots chitty-chat is agony.

Models are not interested in fashion. Fashion people love Linda because Linda loves fashion. In the September Vogue , she tells reporter Jonathan Van Meter how she tarted up her school uniform with fringed cowboy boots and that, at age 12, she tearily exhorted her mother to “buy me more outfits. It’s very important to me.”

For so many of today’s lovelies, modeling is not about seeing the inside of Coco Chanel’s historic cabine , it’s about making money–and then more money. Explains Paul Wilmot, “Models are not looking to make a career in fashion. Most aspire to be in film or music.”

Models hang out with Bubba. Models used to pair up with groovy rock stars or, at the very least, poverty-stricken-but-hip photo assistants. Now they–like stewardesses–are chasing rich and powerful geezers. Melania and Donald … bonjour ! And now Bill Clinton. The July 31 National Enquirer carried a story about Bill’s alleged dalliance with an ID model. The as-yet-unidentified blonde apparently reciprocated Bill’s advances at a charity event in the early summer, repairing to the Peninsular Hotel for a possible post-show shag. Expect more of this high-profile geezer-chasing as the social currency of models continues to plummet.

Conclusion: The mystique is gone. Now modeling is just another insanely overpaid job.

But who cares if celebs are on all the covers? Certainly not the models, since covers pay crummy rates. The mystique may be gone, but from the models’ point of view, it’s all good . No more pressure to be as perfect as Christy, as fabulously insane as Janice Dickinson or Naomi, or as dodgy as Amy Wesson. Now all they have to do is show up and, like Liberace, laugh all the way to the bank.

Let’s ready ourselves for Fashion Week with a cleansing and clarifying thought from Diana Vreeland: “Where there is a neck, there is fashion. Where there is no neck, there is no fashion.”