Monday, September 24

Parents, public leery of ‘model’ book


By Judith Newman

The New York Times

NEW YORK — Worried that the Menendez brothers’ trial, violent
movies and talk-show depravity have numbed the nation’s sense of
moral outrage? Worry no more. It’s there.

If you have any doubts, just walk into a bookstore and request a
book about modeling geared toward prepubescent girls.

"You want what?" said a clerk at Books of Wonder, the children’s
bookstore in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. "I’m sorry, we
wouldn’t carry anything like that, thank God." At Tower Books a
clerk glared and asked pointedly: "You want this book for your
friend’s kid? Do you like this friend?"

Move over Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames; make room for Paige,
Cassandra, Pia, Katerina, Naira and Kerri. These are the youthful
heroines of a new series of young-adult novels, "Ford Supermodels
of the World."

They may not know how to dig for clues or dress a wound, but
they sure know their way around a can of mousse.

The premise of the series: Thanks to the Ford Models agency – in
real life, one of the world’s leading agencies – six girls have
been brought together from various points on the globe to live in a
Manhattan apartment (scrupulously supervised by a "den mother")
while trying to make it in the glamorous world of modeling.

Readers of the two books that have been issued so far, at $3.99
each, can follow the 15- and 16-year-old models on their rounds as
they learn about stylists, photographers and test shoots.

They hang out at a coffee bar, have above-the-neck romances with
age-appropriate guys and debate the finer points of makeup, hair
and clothing with an intellectual rigor that bespeaks thousands of
hours well spent in the company of Ken and Barbie.

Curiously absent from the early modeling experiences: drugs,
smoking, anxiety about weight, bookers who expect large cash
bonuses at Christmas and over-the-hill rock stars with scary
haircuts.

"Because young girls emulate models, we wanted to use the venue
of the modeling business as the basis for a new lifestyle
property," said Richard Goldsmith, a former Disney executive whose
new company, Hollywood Ventures, brought Ford and Random House
together for the series.

The books – by Christina Lowenstein, who writes for young adults
under the pen name B.B. Calhoun – "are not about the modeling
business per se," Goldsmith said.

"They’re about young girls out in the working world who are
dealing with the problems all girls their age have," he said.

Each book, he said, has a message. For example, the first, "The
New Me" (first printing, 50,000), tells girls to "Just Be
Yourself," a lesson certain to take them far, but maybe not in the
fashion industry.

"I see the books as a way of building the reader’s self-esteem:
You can go out and be a working person in whatever you choose to
do," Goldsmith said. "We’re trying to use these girls as role
models."

Not surprisingly, David Elkind, a professor of child studies at
Tufts University and the author of "The Hurried Child: Growing Up
Too Fast, Too Soon" (Addison-Wesley, 1988), sees modeling as too
passive a profession for 10-year-olds to aspire to.

"I see this as just another example of the need for adults to
market things to kids that takes precedence over what’s in the best
interest of the children," he said.

"These books will probably do no more harm than kids’ reading
about ballerinas, another profession that very few kids will
actually go into. But at least with ballet there are skills you can
master."

And then there are the reactions of models themselves.

"Oh good, just what we need: more reasons for little kids to pay
attention to their looks," said Susan Beeson de Havenon, a fashion
and interiors stylist who briefly modeled with Ford in her teens
and 20s.

"I came to New York from Johnson City, Tenn., and I was like
Ellie May Clampett," she recalled. "I lived on diet pills,
cigarettes and Tab."

As a teenager in Germany, Angela Spilker walked the runways for
the likes of Claude Montana. She left the business after a few
years, but recently returned, in her late 20s.

"I love Eileen Ford," she said. "I think she’s a great woman.
But books like this, they’re bull. Do you know how many people drop
out of high school, come to Ford and don’t make it?"

For her part, Eileen Ford, the doyenne of modeling agents,
doesn’t understand what the fuss is about.

"Reading about models isn’t going to make every girl in America
feel she must become a model," she said. "When I was a kid I read
every Nancy Drew novel I could save up the money for, and I didn’t
become a detective, did I?"

In fact, the real heroine of these books is the Ford modeling
agency itself. The series consistently gives the impression that
Ford is a kind of finishing school for pretty girls, not a business
that profits from them.

For example, the books don’t address the costs of beginning a
modeling career: just about every expense, from the film at test
photography sessions to the messenger who drops off the photographs
at a client’s office, is deducted from the model’s earnings.

"The modeling industry presents itself to the public in the same
way that fashion magazines present models to the public," said
Michael Gross, a senior writer at Esquire whose book on the history
of modeling, "Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women," will be
published in the spring by William Morrow.

"It makes itself up, it does its hair, it puts on makeup and it
dons very attractive and alluring clothing. Who it’s trying to
attract is 15-year-old girls, because they’re the raw meat the
business processes into an endless string of sausage."

All right, so grown-ups see more than a shred of opportunism
behind the "Ford Supermodels of the World" series. But the real
question is, How do girls – the 10- and 11-year-olds who are on a
first-name basis with Claudia, Christy, Amber, Naomi and Bridget -
feel about the series?

Only two books in the series have been released – "The New Me"
and "Party Girl" – so it’s too early to judge by sales.

But from the reactions of several girls who read the book, well,
let’s just say those "Baby-Sitters Club" girls might think about
modeling as a new career opportunity.

After reading "The New Me" in one sitting, Claire Walsh, 10, of
Rye, N.Y., vowed to read the rest of the series. While all aspects
of modeling are attractive to Claire – "especially having people do
your hair and makeup and stuff" – she has one reservation: "You
have to get up early to go to work. And I’m just not a morning
person."

Claire’s friend Glenna Gross, 10, also loved "The New Me," and
plans to become a model, over the strong objections of her mother,
Kim Johnson Gross, a former model who is now a book editor.

"We’ve always told her that looks are secondary to education and
developing other talents," she said. "If she wants to read these
books, she’ll have to use her allowance money."

"I’ll take them out of the library," Glenna retorted.

When Gross pointed out that if she had remained in modeling, "I
wouldn’t have met your daddy," Glenna was unfazed. "But if you had
stayed in modeling, you could’ve stolen Cindy Crawford’s husband,"
she said.

If her mother lets her – and things are not looking too hopeful
- Glenna plans to enter her picture in the "Cover Model" contest
Ford is sponsoring: Readers are encouraged to send in their photos,
and the winner will become a cover model for a future book in the
series. The winner many also win a contract to the Ford agency.

If Richard Goldsmith has anything to say about it, the
"Supermodels" property will not end with this line of books.

He is working on a comic book deal, a line of hair dryers and
makeup sets for children, a line of high-fashion apparel and an
interactive CD-ROM "that will educate girls about fashion, hair and
makeup."

"You’ll dress a model, and the computer will tell you how well
you did," Goldsmith said. "Listen, these girls are doing this stuff
anyway. We’re just trying to support their interests."

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.