“25% of young women 18-34 would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize…”
…”And 23% would rather lose their ability to read than their figures” opens Lisa Bloom’s THINK: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed Down World…
I’ll be interviewing author Lisa Bloom of THINK later this month asking her about ‘the other 75%’ of young women, but for this post about the new documentary that just premiered at Sundance, About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now my lizard brain skittered over to this thought: “Ka-Ching! This film is going to be a cash cow for HBO in an age-obsessed young and younger skewed zeitgeist, as Variety noted, “to hear some tell it, the world’s most successful model now would be a 7-year-old with breasts.” Shudder.
Why will the film generate such buzz as a clickable, sharable, conversable yak-fest among the general populace when it hits? Partly because we’re living in a comparative culture where self-worth is inextricably entwined with appearance, and partly due to morbid curiosity, like rubberneckers on a freeway.
Even those of us championing brains over bod in a vapid pop culture preoccupation with narrow definitions of beauty have clicked through “celebrities without makeup” viral videos (almost 3 million views?) either responding to a tug for authenticity to justify one’s own body image insecurities, or to grope for a sense of reality in assessing the human condition from an uber distorted lens. Directly or indirectly, there’s no doubt in my mind some facet of About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now will seep into your ambient media intake, so it’s important to THINK about this conversation as it pertains to youth, body image and teen tips for surviving today’s media morass.
Fresh back from Sundance, fellow industry writer Dana Moe Halley gives us her review of the film, while I lead-in with a then & now interview of former child model and actress Janet Lansbury to help us connect the dots from that era in terms of “what’s changed” in the industry today, and how it’s landing on kids.
Janet’s Lansbury’s firsthand lens as a teen model gives us a poignant then & now snapshot that makes ads of that era look almost ‘quaint’ alongside the highly charged poses and sexploitation of very young child models today.
Jordache Jeans, Dittos, Calvins and Beyond:
Amy Jussel of Shaping Youth Talks With Former Child Model/Actress Janet Lansbury (A Then & Now Peek At “What’s Changed” )
With recent studies showing youth laud FAME as THE aspirational achievement over multiple intellectual attributes, and age-compression treading ever-earlier pathways to pageantry in Toddlers and Tiaras style, it’s no wonder headlines from therapists ask, Have Media Created a Generation of Narcissists?
I’m often asked, “what’s changed?” and “how did we get here?” (not to mention umpteen pleas for insights on how we can use media to turn this tanker around, and how to combat eating disorders emerging more in our culture among very young children) Much like a Facebook relationship status that declares “it’s complicated,” the multi-faceted elements weaving into this tangled web are nuanced.
In today’s media fame game of ‘everyone’s a star’ scouting and discovery, and “viral potential” of gaining audience share through personal branding, we’re starting to compare eras of apples and armadillos, I realize…BUT it’s still important to connect the rise of appearance based “celebrity culture” THEN vs NOW to see how media and marketing are impacting youth, self-worth, and the overall physical and mental well-being of children.
After all, Janet Lansbury’s first foray into a TV series at age 12 cast as an innkeeper’s daughter in Alias Smith and Jones and her big break at 18 cast as Nancy Drew in the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries brings a unique lens to the media programming itself.
Can you imagine either of those shows running today alongside Snooki style “Reality TV?”
As for teen modeling, Janet Lansbury was of the Brooke Shields era, spending many years doing print ads “that usually featured my hair or rear end.”
She lived the life they speak of in “The Supermodels, Then and Now” even though today we all recognize her more for her amazing work in elevating childcare and teaching parent education over the last fifteen years in the Los Angeles area inspired by Magda Gerber’s RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) process.
Consistent with the film’s supermodel era, Janet Lansbury describes,
“I was catapulted into a fast-paced life, beginning when I lived in modeling agent Eileen Ford’s brownstone in New York as a teenager, and I lacked the maturity to handle all that came my way. I danced at Studio 54 with Francesco Scavullo, disco roller skated at a club in L.A. with Jack Nicholson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, partied with Chevy Chase, Michael Jackson, Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett. I often found myself in dreamlike situations, and some were more like nightmares. The 80’s were a wild time for many, and I did not miss out.”
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Janet, what has changed the most from your firsthand perspective of the entertainment industry having lived the modeling/acting life as a youth?
Janet Lansbury: Well, I wasn’t a ‘supermodel’ runway or cover girl as much as I was a “print ads and commercials” type for Teen/Seventeen; but I DEFINITELY lived that life for awhile, and yes, BOTH the advertising and the industry have changed in a huge way.
For starters, the ‘supermodel’ as a brand was definitely more of a moment in time, because today there really are no “Cover Girls” as models on magazines anymore, they’ve been replaced by actresses and celebrities. Models as ‘names’ (personal brands) kind of ended with the Kate Moss era…
Also, we’ve created this overly flawless look of perfection in what constitutes “beauty”—What used to be considered a “look” or “unique feature” is now fixed in PhotoShop…For instance, a ‘Lauren Hutton’ smile or a flat-chested teen like me modeling Ditto Jeans wouldn’t even be cast in the commercial…these days everyone looks like a very thin, very busty Victoria’s Secret model, with one main body image of ‘sameness’ marketed across all channels.
But I’d definitely say the single biggest change is the marketing of very young children…Toddlers and Tiaras style modeling and VERY early focus on appearances is a head turner. Brooke Shields in her Calvins as a young teenager was one of the first huge controversies of the time…These days, that’s just ‘the norm.’
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: The provocative poses, and ‘selling of fantasies’ involving teens and now even tweens via objectification (see SY’s Vogue Cadeaux: Children ARE Gifts, NOT Meant to be Wrapped & Sold) has outraged those of us familiar with the APA studies on the harm of sexualization…so your retro jeans ads look almost tame, even though it’s obvious you were being ‘sold as sexy’ too. The ads like your Herbal Essence one look more ‘aspirational’ about bouncy hair. (today something else would be bouncing big time, I’m sure)
Janet Lansbury: Yes, the ads of the late 70s/early 80s are almost innocent by comparison, and the commercials I was in (even the sexy gaze/Dittos Jeans ad) were still more about the product and benefits that used the model as a sales tool. (AJ-the film often refers to this as models being ‘clotheshangers’)
When Brooke Shields modeled jeans at 15 (“You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvin’s? Nothing.” Circa 1980) it sparked all kinds of public furor—now people are trying to get attention more and more by using really young, teeny children in ridiculous poses…
The ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ dynamic has put kids in an ‘anything goes’ environment and it’s hard to believe what’s being put out there for profit…not to mention parents allowing it. (AJ note-see article on T&T parent suing media for sexualizing 5 yr old)
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Isabella Rosselini says in the film, “When you grow old, you don’t count anymore.” Did you feel this way when you were IN the industry even as a youth…was there a rush to ‘make it’ in the industry while young?’
Also, with all the disordered eating in the industry, can you speak to what’s changed in terms of body image, self-worth, and pressures to be ‘perfect’? (or has it always been this way?)
Janet Lansbury: Well, when you’re younger they make you up to look older and when you’re older they want you to look younger…so it’s a pressurized appearance focus with no security at all…period.
You can’t control it, you’re always looking over your shoulder for who or where the next big trend is headed to see if you fit into it…It’s not like a profession where you can just work harder and ‘do better,’ because you’re going to get older, you can’t do anything about that, it’s inevitable. And now, if I wanted to go back into acting in any way, I can see there’s a whole different set of standards.
These days, injections, surgeries, and alterations are almost put forth as industry ‘givens’ —You start to see twenty-year olds erasing ‘lines’ and younger people having ‘work’ done to fit some norm of beauty perfection that’s ‘required’ to compete. I went to an audition about six years ago and was amazed by all the puffy lips and ‘sameness’ of faces…even stunt doubles and really young actresses all begin to look alike.
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: In the film, Carol Alt has a great line, “Modeling doesn’t have anything to do with self-confidence…in fact, working off of your looks is pretty much the exact opposite of self-confidence; maybe I became beautiful once I stopped modeling.”
Agree or disagree? It seems many models portrayed in the film have self-worth issues and talk about a need for acceptance; or is that a generality?
Janet Lansbury: Hmn…For me, the business fed on my weakest side of low self-confidence, in fact I can’t see any gain in terms of progress as a person—it was not healthy for me.
I know many teens go through the “I want to be a model/actor” phase and I guess they could emerge with self-worth intact if they value other things than their looks and can see it’s about what the industry is seeking, and that it has nothing to do with YOU…but ultimately, my happiness was about modeling something more meaningful…I was lucky to find the early childhood education niche IS my passion; it’s work that doesn’t feel like I’m working. Acting and modeling was never like that, I was never at ease and fully comfortable in that world…it always felt hard.
In some ways it all ties back in to my initial interests at UCLA in Psychology, when I was fascinated by the psyche and self-confidence and struggling to make sense of it all without a mentor or life path…I feel so fortunate to have found where I’m meant to be.
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Thanks, Janet. I love that documentaries and first person bio books are taking off…your story would be a great one to document!
I also still want to do a “where are they now” entertainment industry piece to celebrate the actors/media pros that have segued to entirely new professions and pursuits like Mary McDonough (at left).
Readers, if you have leads or contacts to share, please leave them in the comments below for a chance to win a copy of Packaging Girlhood co-authored by Shaping Youth advisory board member Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown. An example?
Mary McDonough (Erin, from the Waltons TV series) became an anti-implants activist testifying in Washington about her traumas with breast augmentation gone awry, and I’d like to unearth other stories about industry pros shifting toward educating youth about triumphs and life experiences to expand conversations toward a more meaningful media landscape…
Looking back at “then and now” through the youth modeling lens in sum, it’s easy to see that the upending of corporate moral compasses toward an ‘anything goes’ for cash culture needs a hard stop with the APA report touting buckets of plentiful research about the damage of early sexualization.
We need to uncork the larger conversations about long term impact on kids and address the obvious: What roles do the modeling agencies and PARENTS play in perpetuating and sanctioning the objectification and sexploitation of wee ones?
What kind of sanctioning besides outcry/petitions and ‘GirlCaught’ boycotts of goods can we leverage to stop “repeat offenders” from their “edgy,” predatory practices that use ‘outrage baiting’ as an advertising strategy? (see SY post “American Apparel should be whacked in the assets”) Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein’s long heritage of case studies and oh, SO many more)
Have you seen the National Eating Disorders Association pairing with the “Off Our Chests” organization to call attention to the unhealthy impact of these messages on kids? They’re proposing a “Media and Public Health Act” for legislation consideration. Do you think change can be regulated? Why or why not?
And what about sexualization of young kids? Should it fall under ‘child abuse?’ Where does free agency and parental oversight fit into the mix? I’d love to hear what The Supermodels Then/Now have to say about the industry’s skin trade in 21st century corporate pedophilia. Ladies? Sound off! Do tell!
Update: 2-3-12 Also note this new “Age 0-3 body image series” as a parenting guide to ensure our own words don’t harm/parlay into this ‘fat talk’ appearance-driven cultural phenom–sad that we need it, but good that we have it. Thanks for uncorking that convo, Melissa.
*Opening stats referenced in THINK are from TNS poll/Oxygen Media 3-24-09, More stats from that inner/outer beauty poll via J!Ent-Online
Now let’s see what Dana has to say with her review of About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now (Sundance trailer below)
Reviewed By Dana Moe Halley
About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now
Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, January 22, 2012
DIRECTOR Timothy Greenfield-Sanders EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS Sheila Nevins, Tommy Walker, Michael Slap Sloane PRODUCERS Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Chad Thompson EDITOR Benjamin Gray PHOTOGRAPHER Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
U.S.A., 2011, 72 minutes
There was lots of excitement at the Sundance Film Festival last week in anticipation of the premiere of About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now, the documentary directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders that explores former supermodels’ views on aging and beauty.
Mr. Greenfield-Sanders and a few models from the film attended the screening along with a high-level HBO executive, who watched the film from the center of the theater behind sunglasses and oddly covered in a blanket.
The lushly photographed film takes an inside look at a profession where you’re only as good as your last magazine spread. Greenfield-Sanders, a portrait photographer and documentary filmmaker, interviews former supermodels between 45 and 80 who talk about their experiences in the fashion business and the effects of aging on their career.
We learn how the profession erodes body image, confidence and sense of self worth, especially as age becomes an issue (which happens to most models at around their 25th birthday). Many of the models talk about the financial freedom modeling gave them in an era when such independence was difficult for women to attain.
“I was able to send my mother to college and buy my first husband.”
Models have it rough—the shelf life is short and every job can feel like the last. Apart from a handful of super, supermodels in their prime, when it comes to having every inch of their face and body scrutinized, models have to just suck it up, literally and figuratively. They are routinely told to maintain a shocking level of emaciation to keep their job.
Model Carol Alt’s editor said she was “too big” for the clothes and needed to lose 15 pounds, which she quickly did, giving herself a deathly green pallor. Much later, Ms. Alt, who has become an advocate of the raw foods movement, stirred up controversy by appearing nude in Playboy with the goal of showing, “how healthy women can be at 48.” One wonders if she couldn’t have driven her point home in a more female-friendly publication.
The film bandies about the plastic surgery issue a bit, though only witty Ms. Dell’Orefice (who at 80 is considered to be the oldest working model) takes the issue head on, fessing up to going under the knife,
“If the ceiling was falling down in your living room, wouldn’t you want it repaired?”
Racism has historically been an obstacle for minorities in the modeling profession. Vogue magazine didn’t put an African-American model on its cover until 1974. After the screening, that very model, Beverly Johnson, shared that the racist attitudes are still there, a fact that is pretty self evident seeing that the percentage of African Americans modeling fashion in magazines doesn’t come close to representing the percentage of African Americans buying fashion in stores.
That fashion models are perceived and often treated as sex symbols is a fairly unsettling fact given that many girls start modeling at the age of 13 or 14. What is most disturbing is not just the early sexualization the field inflicts on adolescent and teen models, but the ensuing sexual confusion. As Paulina Porizkova, who started modeling in the early eighties at the age of 16, puts it, “What people called sexual harassment, we called compliments.”
Unfortunately, only a few of the models profiled in About Face seem at peace with aging and even fewer seemed to recognize the good things that come with age, like wisdom or a sense of accomplishment. Though actress and ex-model Isabella Rossellini has a reasonably sane perspective on her advanced age, which she seems to be braving without visible “work” or even makeup, she still carries a chip on her shoulder for being canned by Lancome after 14 years at the age of 44.
About Face succeeds in deglamorizing the profession, but with a few exceptions, the models just don’t model healthy attitudes about self image with respect to age. Their perspectives on the process and how it affects their celebrity and self-esteem are only occasionally deep or insightful. Ultimately, About Face suffers from a lack of focus and a muddled message. Maybe that’s why the HBO bigwig stayed beneath her blanket for the entire screening.
—Reviewed by Dana Moe Halley
Dana Moe Halley received her degree in Film Studies (with a concentration on Italian neo-realist cinema) from U.C. Berkeley. She is a screenwriter, marketing copywriter/editor and unrelenting film fanatic. Know of a documentary or narrative fiction film you’d like to see reviewed? Contact Dana at [email protected]
Photo Credits from Sundance portrait sessions via SF Gate Quad photo/clockwise: China Machado, filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Beverly Johnson, Carol Alt. Solo photo: Octogenarian Carmen Dell’Orifice, Quad photo/clockwise: Jerry Hall Paulina Porizkova Carmen Dell’Orifice Isabella Rossellini
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