An Elite Model Management search inspires some of the hottest babes in the area to try out for the big time. The problem is, these babes are babies.
BY CHRIS WRIGHT
I KNOW THINGS aren't going well when I start to think about interviewing the rubber chickens. It’s a Saturday night at Avalon, a club on Lansdowne Street. The chickens are hanging in bushels from the rafters. They seem decidedly more animated than the clusters of teenage girls milling around on the dance floor below.
There are about 50 of them — the girls, that is — and they are adopting various poses of adolescent ennui. Arms are folded, shoulders rounded, eyeballs heavily lidded. There is a hush in the room that even the tooth-rattling techno music can’t stifle. “C’mon!” says the evening’s host, a lovely, lively African-American model named Aisha. “Let’s have some ENERGY!” This last word is spoken with some urgency, the way one might say “LION!” or “BINGO!” I swear I see the rubber chickens twitch.
The girls here actually have every reason to be excited. Tonight, they will be provided the opportunity to strut their stuff before talent scouts from the New York–based Elite Model Management, the largest, most prestigious modeling agency in the world. As event organizer Fred Howard puts it, “This is huge.”
Huge is right. All the contestants will get to press their cherished headshots into well-connected hands. Some of them will be signed with the Elite agency. One will be officially “discovered,” with a subsequent trip to New York, meetings with bigwig fashionistas, and a high-profile catwalk show on the deck of the USS Intrepid. There are six-figure modeling contracts being bandied about, the prospect of untold riches and universal adulation. And, best of all, the whole thing’s free! There’s none of that “Give us $750 and we’ll make you a star” business. Tonight’s event is an honest-to-goodness opportunity. Cindy got discovered this way. So did Naomi and Claudia.
So what’s with the long faces?
The less-than-exuberant atmosphere can be summed up in a single word: yikes! A lot of these girls are extremely young. (Elite rules say contestants must be between 14 and 24 years old, but many of tonight’s wallflowers seem to be squeaking in on the lower end of the age scale.) Some girls are here with their parents. Almost all are first-timers. For years they’ve had people telling them how pretty they are, how they should be models, and now it’s the moment of truth. These Elite people are not amorous teenage boys or doting grannies — these are professionals. If they say you’re not up to scratch ...
“It takes a sense of self and fearlessness to go for something like this,” says Howard. “If these girls don’t get chosen, they’ll be thinking, ‘They didn’t like my face.’ For a 16-year-old, that can be devastating.” Quite.
At 5:30 p.m., a half-hour before the Elite Model Look event is due to start, the lobby of Avalon feels like a principal’s office. You half expect the girls to start whispering, “What did you do?” But there’s not much chatting going on. Least of all with me. I ask one girl a few questions — “Are you nervous?” “What kind of modeling do you want to do?” — and she can hardly bring herself to turn her head in my direction, let alone look me in the eye. Following our brief conversation, my notebook contains the following quotes: “I guess”; “Anything, really”; “I hope so”; “Not really”; and another “I guess.”
What did I expect, Jane Fonda? The girl I spoke with is slender, with fine blond hair and perfect features, but she’s 14. She’s at that age where dropping your tray in the school cafeteria is grounds for moving out of state, and she’s about to climb onto a stage and waggle her hips, toss her head, and say, “Look at me: am I not beautiful?!” Meanwhile, a guy with a pen is asking questions. Her dad is standing beside her. No wonder she’s a little reticent.
Then again, maybe social jitters are inevitable when places like Pepperell and Hingham come into contact with the New York glamour industry. Such chunky-framed eyeglasses you never saw, such effortless attitude. Confronted with these clipboard-toting New York trendsetters, the most self-possessed Bostonian could be forgiven for feeling pinched and provincial — not to mention sartorially challenged. One of these Elite reps could stroll into town wearing a hot-dog bun in her cleavage, and we’d be asking how come no one here thought of that.
Small wonder, then, that these suburban teens cling so steadfastly to their shields of nonchalance. I approach one dark-haired 14-year-old with the most well-shaped eyebrows I’ve ever seen. What does she think of the evening so far? “It’s all right,” she says, then stops for a moment, as if wondering whether there’s anything to add, before turning away. I check my fly. Closed. God, those rubber chickens are starting to look better and better.
But it’s not just me I’m worried about. If this girl displays that couldn’t-give-a-shit attitude on the catwalk tonight, she’ll be toast. Perfect eyebrows don’t mean diddly if you haven’t got the goods to back them up. “This is not just about looking pretty and tossing your hair — Aaah,” says Howard. “You need the personality to make you stand out from the other girls. The one who’s a little bit different or quirky or funny, those are the models who pull away from the pack.”
In the fashion game, sullen beauty is part of an elaborate fiction. You may be encouraged to scowl on the cover of Vogue, but scowl at the editor of Vogue and you’ll be out on your ear. “When a model goes into a meeting she has two minutes and that’s it,” says Howard. “She cannot have a bad attitude or a smart mouth. If she does, it doesn’t matter if she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. If she’s going to be a handful, no one’s going to want to deal with her.” Yes, but try telling that to a teenage girl. “Mmm,” says Howard, “when you’re 15 you think you can burn every bridge in the world and still cross the river.”
Tonight’s host, Aisha, has the cheerful-enthusiasm part of her job down pat. Even her hair — a sproing of an Afro — seems to be saying “Yay!” But then Aisha has plenty to be cheerful about. After two years as an Elite model, the 22-year-old has landed her smiling face in Evian ads, Target ads, and music videos for Third Eye Blind and Lenny Kravitz.
“You have to believe in the product, which is you,” Aisha says, beaming, as a procession of sullen stunners shuffles by. “You are the product.”
Not that tonight’s judges expect to find fully formed, sass-soaked supermodels. Elite’s job, after all, is to make an Aisha-quality product out of the gawky raw materials of teenagedom. “Part of being a scout is that you have to see the girl as a blank canvas,” says Howard. “When they show up, we don’t want them to be Giseles. This is about finding the diamond in the rough.”