When will a smart and beautiful protagonist, a la Carrie Bradshaw or Ally McBeal, be able to handle life's clashing elements without melting into vulnerability?
Model StudentPublisher: Crown
Subtitle: A Tale of Co-Eds and Cover Girls
Author: Robin Hazelwood
US publication date: 2006-07
UK publication date: 2006-07
The one thing that allows other women to be smug about models is that they are stupid. Their vacant loveliness reminds us that yes, they stop traffic and have rich and powerful men wrapped around their little fingers, but their beauty will fade and their careers will end at age 30. Once we realize this, after a depressing few minutes in front of the mirror, we can breathe a sigh of relief and get on with our lives.
Except model Emily Woods, the protagonist of Model Student, is a sharp, witty, sarcastic -- if a bit blinky-eyed -- Ivy Leaguer. Robin Hazelwood's Model Student is an autobiographical novel, a "cautionary tale" about Emily's double life as a student at Columbia and a rising fashion model in the late 1980s and early '90s. Emily is "not a real Super (like Naomi or Linda or Christy)" Hazelwood warns in the prologue, "or even a faux Super (like any of The Donald's girlfriends." No, Emily is simply a "plain Jane, run-of-the-mill six-figure earner," a late-teens Brooke Shields look-alike who gets whisked from Wisconsin obscurity into the clutches of an up-and-coming modeling agency in New York.
Along with being high-end chick lit, Model Student is a delicious portrayal of the era of the supermodel, when models were known by their first names and actually graced the covers of magazines (do you remember the last time you saw Elle, Glamour, or Vogue without an actor or singer on the cover?). The memories of big hair and shoulder pads, red matte lips, and azure blue blazers, will come flooding back to any reader over 20, anyone who remembers the time right before our fascinations shifted from enigmatic celebrity to celebreality.
Emily Woods -- or rather, Hazelwood with another name (one look at the author's website and you know Model Student is a couple facts shy of a memoir) unravels the mystique of the fashion industry. She describes her photo shoots, exposing hidden agendas, catty models, and all-night-and-day shoots fueled with uppers. She fends off ceaseless pressure to get naked or fill her breasts with silicone. She assures the reader that no model just gets "discovered" on the street engaged in an innocent activity like selling ice cream, but that it takes work and nauseating rejection to get your face on magazine covers. The glitz and glamour of it all is cut with a knife when photographers strip Emily of all dignity -- like cutting underwear-free Emily's visible tampon string for her, so that it wouldn't ruin her perfect coif and precariously pinned dress by bending down.
But the elements we would expect are all there -- the pettiness, the backstabbing, the threesomes, the coke, the bleak and twisted model diets, the affair-with-photographer, the brush-with-celebrity. Hazelwood makes sure to pair any one of Emily's cloud-nine adrenaline rushes with a blow harsh enough to make any egomaniac recoil. As Emily says about her booker, "Talking to her is like the joke, 'you're pretty ... ugly': feeling good then bad within a short space of time."
Emily receives nonstop contradictory advice from everyone around her, from haughty senior models and capricious modeling agents to her quirky Columbia friends and her hippie parents. "Become a bitch [if you want to succeed]", a supermodel snidely advises her on one of her first shoots with a famous photographer. "Emily, don't be so negative," her booker sighs when Emily test-drives her Inner Bitch. "Be rude, uncommunicative, and stupid," her photographer boyfriend insists, because "in order for an editor to book you, she needs to feel superior to you." Then: "You're being an idiot," Emily's bookworm friend Mohini tells her. "I feel like I have front-row seats to a downward spiral," her other friend Jordan adds.
Do we expect anything else but these bewildering oxymorons from a model/student's life? Although inhabiting the same city, the two worlds could not be further from each other. We wince as Emily bolts from an appointment with an agency to a freshman mixer, only to realize her hair is huge and "Studio 54-ready" and she is wearing a designer mini-dress up to her ass and blue high-heeled boots. In other words, a sore-thumb suit in the midst of casual, sweatpants'd college students. Once the secret is out that Emily is a model, she gets interviewed for someone's essay on the striking similarity between exploitative 19th century industrial England and the current fashion industry. "Actually, I'm an adult, and I get paid a lot of money for what I do," Emily tells her. The student gets annoyed, informs her she's part of the "cycle of abuse," and hangs up. This dated version of the PC college student is as much a tribute to the late '80s as the descriptions of Emily's blue eye shadow and her bit part in a music video.
Not once in the book does Emily excel at both school and modeling. Emily jet-sets to the Caribbean to shoot a swimsuit spread, sacrificing good grades on her final exams and respect from her college friends in order to (what else?) drink, do drugs, and skinny-dip with supermodels and photographers. Emily ignores her agent's calls for three months and boosts her grade point average, later realizing that Vogue had tried to seek her out for an editorial spread. Emily, while cascading through amazing highs and lows, never sits on top of the world. "Modeling's paying for my education," Emily declares in a fight with her mother. "It's also destroying it!" her mother counters. The direction Emily ultimately veers is surprising, since Hazelwood waits until the very last second to unveil it for us, and, like our heroine, manages to make us both love and hate modeling.
Model Student is beach reading for sure -- juicy, easy to read, full of sex and drugs and scandal -- but at the novel's articulate and subtle moments, it is refreshingly obvious that this book is written by a Yale student (Hazelwood's real-life alma mater). The novel wouldn't be nearly as good without Hazelwood's headshot and bio on the book's sleeve recounting her model past. Unlike her fictional alter ego, Hazelwood continued to model well after she graduated, all throughout the '90s. She went on to business school, became a senior director at an online marketing company, then promptly quit to write this novel. Yet Emily couldn't do it -- far from having Hazelwood's 14-year modeling career and MBA from Stern business school, she dumps one world for the other after a few years, revealing the only way Emily could be happy.
So the "cautionary" element to this tale is puzzling. Robin Hazelwood did it -- why not Emily Woods? Is it just because conundrums and emotional rollercoasters make better novels? Is the world of modeling not as cutthroat as Hazelwood lets on? Or is it because a model juggling it all -- sexiness, intellect, money, and love -- does not reassure us like a vacuous one does?
It's simple. Headstrong women who are mush inside have been total crowd-pleasers since the days of Murphy Brown. Packaging a successful Ivy Leaguer in the body of an equally successful model is almost unbearable for a female reader. The sigh of relief we wait for eventually comes. "Good," we think. "This model can't do it all." But when will a smart and beautiful protagonist, a la Carrie Bradshaw or Ally McBeal, be able to handle life's clashing elements without melting into vulnerability? Although Hazelwood deftly vamps up her own life story by forcing Emily to choose, one can't help but wonder what would happen if Emily became the superwoman who is still too much for pop culture to handle.