Supermodels Talk Sex, Drugs, and Racism

A bunch of supermodels talking about beauty might sound like pretty thin material for a documentary — and the women featured in photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' About Face, which aired last night on HBO, are indeed probably too exceptional to give viewers an idea of how the modeling industry really works. That doesn't matter, though, because it's still strangely entertaining to listen to women as diverse as Christie Brinkley, Bethann Hardison, China Machado, Cheryl Tiegs, Dayle Haddon, Marisa Berenson, Isabella Rossellini, Carol Alt, Kim Alexis, Beverly Johnson, Paulina Porizkova, Christy Turlington, Carmen Dell'Orefice, Jerry Hall, and Pat Cleveland reminisce about their respective years in the biz. "I was a liberated woman!" says Cleveland. "I had the pill, I had the clothes, I had the place to go."


A common theme is aging — approaches to which vary from Machado's anything-goes mentality (she doesn't even use anti-aging cream) and Hardison's tomboyish no-fuss attitude, to Dell'Orefice's unapologetic endorsement of judicious plastic surgery. Rossellini recalls being dropped from her long-held Lancôme contract in her 40s for being "old," before reminding viewers that in a society where men and women are not yet equal, no choice we make about our appearance is entirely value-neutral. "I am debating in my head," she says. "One day I wake up and I say, Hey, there's this new technology, why not use it? Let's go do the operation. But most of the time I wake up saying, Is this the new feet-binding? Is this a new way to be misogynist? Is this a new way to tell women you're ugly? Deep down, you should be this and this? And giving [them] a lot of other standards that are impossible to be reached — because the main problem is misogyny." And supermodels of very different generations tell surprisingly similar stories of sexual harassment. Paulina Porizkova talks about being taught to think of a photographer exposing himself on set as a "compliment," and China Machado recalls learning to walk quickly during runway shows to avoid giving the buyers in the audience the chance to touch the dress "because they would try to feel underneath to see what was inside."

But what's most interesting, perhaps, are some of the stories of harassment and racism related by the models of color. Hardison, who went on to work as a modeling agent, talks about trying to change the minds of clients who wanted 35 white models for their runway show — and one black model. Today on Fresh Air, Johnson recalled finding out from talking to her white model friends that she was regularly being paid less by clients for the same work. Machado says that in 1958, in order for Harper's Bazaar to publish the iconic Richard Avedon portrait of her, Avedon had to threaten to end his contract with the magazine. It was the first time a non-white woman had been featured in the pages of an American fashion magazine. Cleveland talks about finding her place in the industry as a mixed-race woman — "I'm an eighth black, Irish, Cherokee, English, Scottish, German," she says. "Avedon used to say to me all the time, Oh, Pat, I want to use you more, but they just don't know what you are." The Ebony Fashion Fair, the traveling fashion shows organized by the magazine, were her first big job. Cleveland tells a harrowing story of an incident where the Ebony bus was attacked by a group of armed white men in the South in the 1960s after they had stopped to try and use the bathroom. "We see these guys coming to the bus. And they're really angry, and they're carrying sticks and stuff," Cleveland says. "And the bus driver says, We've gotta get out of here. But the bus doesn't start. They started banging on our bus. They were trying to turn our bus over, and the bus driver was trying to get the bus to go. It was so frightening, and I kept peeking out and to see these ugly faces. And that didn't happen only once."

About Face [HBO]


Slay Belle

Beverly Johnson, Carol Alt and the director were on NPR yesterday to discuss the documentary. Johnson had a lot of fascinating things to say including the story about finding out she was paid less than her white co-models — she said it was the white models who both told her about it, and stuck behind her when she demanded to get paid the same — and that when she first came on scene, photographers didn't know how to light for her skin tone, so she'd come out as a dark blob in pictures. Really fascinating interview.