Eric Wilson drops in on the would-be Naomi Campbells auditioning for America's Next Top Model.
THE line of beauty, contrary to the 18th-century aesthetic theory of William Hogarth, does not undulate in nature along a serpentine curve, not when it is held up to the strict measurements of America's Next Top Model.
Early one recent Saturday morning in New York, the line was long and raggedy, erratic and agitated, littered with empty coffee cups and the sleepless faces, which creased in the sunlight, of beautiful women on a casting call for the show's ninth season.
That very few of the 1500 women standing there looked like models, in the very narrowly defined sense of high fashion, did not appear to be of importance. A contrapposto stance and the impatient tapping of high heels suggested that in each posing applicant there existed the confidence of an inner Naomi Campbell. "I love Naomi because she is a diva," says Bianca Golden, 18, who towered over the competition standing at 180 centimetres, plus stilettos. Golden, with her hair up, wore a black cotton coat with tiny ruffled pleats at the waist. "After a while of being called fierce and everything, being a diva comes with the territory," Golden says.
The depiction of models in popular culture increasingly emphasises the stereotypical image of lucky, glamorous brats; their employers have tenuous moral codes. Their poor behaviour has been nowhere more graphically and hypnotically displayed on television recently than in The Agency, another US reality show about models, in which the hung-over agents have no compunction about telling a prospective client that she looks too fat. America's Next Top Model, which began in 2003 and continues to rank well for its network with teenagers and young women, at least attempts to display some humanity in its casting and nurturing of contestants.
The supermodel Tyra Banks, an executive producer of the show, serves as the voice of experience, often cushioning the all-too-harsh realities of the business in a motherly embrace, though she is also wont to scold a model brusquely for the cardinal sin of a cockeyed walk. As the contest progresses each season, what usually begins with a message of friendship and sisterly support among young women of diverse backgrounds ultimately ends as a superficial blood sport. As one of the judges pointed out in favour of Yoanna House, the champion of season two, her features were "amazingly symmetrical". Meanwhile, the runner-up promises to the camera that she will rip House's hair out.
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