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It Was Never Really Me: 'About Face: Supermodels Then and Now'

The film offers insights from Isabella Rossellini, as sane a person as you might imagine could emerge from the modeling industry.

About Face: Then and Now

Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Cast: Carol Alt, Paulina Porizkova, Christie Brinkley, Isabella Rossellini, Cheryl Tiegs, Marisa Berenson, Bethann Hardison, Beverly Johnson, China Machado, Jerry Hall, Pat Cleveland
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-07-30 (HBO)

"It was never really me," says Pat Cleveland. "The feeling is like you're not even really there. It's not about yourself or how you look or anything like that. It's what the person perceives from you." As a model, she was part of a creative process, along with designers, photographers, and makeup artists. Being part African American, Cherokee, Swedish, and Irish, her look was unusual in 1967, when she was discovered on a New York City subway at age 14. "The way it was then," she remembers, "Either you were blond or you were very black. And I didn’t fit anywhere."

Cleveland's memories are different from most others recounted in About Face: Supermodels Then and Now. Premiering on HBO on 30 July, the documentary features stories of beginnings (a teenaged Jerry Hall traveled to the Riviera where, she says, "I was expecting to be discovered and I was: a guy came up to me in an hour and said, 'Would to like to be a model?' and I said yes") and stories of excess ("I was the typical 15-year-old as far as being completely insecure," recalls Paulina Porizkova, "And tried to seem more grown up than she actually was by smoking and playing really hard and drinking too much"). Cleveland's stories are more specific: when she traveled with the "Ebony Fashion Fair," she says, "It was hard work, especially in the South." Here, the models weren't allowed to eat in some restaurants or stay in some hotels, and worse. "They started banging on our bus, they were trying to turn our bus over," she remembers, her voice catching even today, "I kept peeking out to see these ugly faces. And that didn’t happen only once."

Following this harrowing recollection, Cleveland says she left the country to continue working. The interview cuts here to another section, when she describes how much she loved that work, the thrill of walking the runway: "It's almost orgasmic," she gushes. Her interview is striking in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' film, for its raw expressiveness as well as for the connection it draws between the rarefied realm of modeling and the rest of the planet.

That's not to say that Cleveland is less dramatic than her fellow interviewees, only that her performance touches on a real life experience. Performing is what models do, of course ("It was never really me"), and they do it, as Beverly Johnson puts it, "in a bubble, where everyone tells you how beautiful you are all the time and they run and get you coffee or whatever you want." They traveled, they partied, and they made a lot of money. And during the 1980s, when most of the models in this film were huge, they also indulged -- in drugs and sex and other kinds of trouble. "We lived the greatest adventure of all in those days," says Marisa Berenson.

True, she adds, "some people got lost" in that adventure. The documentary doesn't dwell on that; instead, it introduces a couple of non-models to note problems. Jade Hobson, fashion director at Vogue from 1971-1988, says, "A lot of these girls were kids, we made them into something they weren’t. I think unfortunately, you know, we created a monster." In particular, she says, when "Drugs came on the scene, the look had changed."

Figures were skinnier, faces gaunter, eyes darker. "I feel somewhat responsible," Hobson adds. "Photographers, the whole industry, we were using these girls when we were aware of the heavy, heavy use of drugs. We maybe exploited these girls because it also brought a certain look to the photograph." Here the film includes shots of Gia Carangi, the so-called "first super model" whose addiction to heroin, infection with HIV, and death at 26 seemed a cautionary tale that went ignored by too many in the industry.

Eileen Ford appears to set a contrast between her generation ("The only thing I ever heard of were reefers, and that’s what the musicians were supposed to smoke") and the girls she contracted and mentored. When they stayed at her home, she says, they were expected to adhere to rules (Ford smiles, "Jerry Hall has been quoted about me that it was the most boring year of her entire life"). Though Cleveland mentions here that people she knew "started disappearing, and I knew it was the end of a time," neither she nor the film offers details.

The film does offer Isabella Rossellini, as sane a person as you might imagine could emerge from such chaos. She feels lucky that she started late in the business, in her 20s, and also that she had a remarkably astute mother. "Modeling taught me that it was essential for women not to depend on fathers and husbands," Rossellini begins, and "provided me that financial independence."

She goes on to articulate the tensions in the culture that modeling exacerbates and imitates, the misogyny reflected by standards of youth and beauty (she muses that plastic surgery may be "the new foot-binding"). Rossellini notes that advertising pitches to gullible consumers, of her daughter's age. Even apart from selling fantasy for profits, she adds, "It has also the bad consequences of creating an industry that perpetuates this idea that women, to be beautiful, should be young and thin." Rossellini was young once, too, as were the other supermodels in About Face. And now she knows better.


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