From the Prologue
The newsmagazine anchorman thanks a correspondent for his report on "this fascinating subject of near-death experience," turns to face another camera, and reads the teaser for the upcoming segment of the January 6, 1983, edition of ABC's 20/20.
"Next," he says, "inside the world of the fashion model...a world that is not always as it appears. Right after this."
After the commercial, the anchorman introduces reporter Tom Hoving, who presents a report meant to detail "the dark and anxious side" of the modeling business but manages somehow to make the whole enterprise seem extremely glamorous anyway. There's top model Christie Brinkley being coaxed by a photographer. "Make me chase you," he's saying. "Tease, tease. Look at me like you're naked. That's it. Fabulous." After the shooting, Brinkleythe industry's quintessential blond-haired, blue-eyed California girlsays that she'll never have to worry about money again.
"Models can earn two million dollars a year," Hoving explains in his booming TV-overvoice. "Once you make it, you become a member of an exclusive international club, where the sun always shines, the parties are glowing. A land where there's no ugliness, no sickness, no poverty. A land where dreams come true and everyone is certified beautiful. The club has special fringe benefits. Top model Apollonia knows them all."
"Rolls-Royce, flowers, dresses, limousines, tickets," lists the Dutch-born Apollonia von Raveenstein, a long-reigning queen of the more specialized, dark-haired, European-exotic look. "I mean, anything you want, anything a woman would want, really, just ask."
Flamboyant hairdresser-turned-fashion-photographer Ara Gallant appears, wearing a leather Jeff cap, Mr. Spock sideburns and nearly as much makeup as any of the girls. (In modeling, women are always called "girls.") He is asked to reflect on why the fashion model has such appeal. "They've become a glorified version of what ladies imagine themselves to look like in their fantasy," Gallant explains. "And they set a kind of standard. Without models, women m general would have no guideline with which to identify. So they've become icons, the modern icons."
Hoving then takes the viewer through the cattle-call auditions and explains that there are 7,000 girls in New York who "call themselves models"; 1,500 actually work, and of these, 500 are the "so called 'glamour guns' " who get most of the good jobs. Because his report is focused on New York, he doesn't even mention the international farm system for modeling: the untold thousands of girls enrolled in regional schools, or signed up at local agencies in America and Europe.
Several models attest to how difficult and degrading the grind of traveling and groveling for work can become. Shaggy haired John Casablancasthe president of Elite, the upstart agency that has recently toppled the decades-old studio system in modeling and, almost overnight, tripled the price of professional prettinessexplains that when and if success finally comes, models "have a moment where they appreciate it very, very much, but it's very, very short ... they get too much too quickly."
Then the camera cuts to Francesco Scavullo's studio on East Sixty-third Street. In the reception area, decades of Cosmopolitan, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar covers shot by the precious, prolific photographer hang high on the white walls. The girl whose face and "bosom"as Scavullo would sayappear on some of his more recent covers is in the small dressing room being prepared for a demonstration photo session being staged for the TV cameras. Seated in front of a large makeup mirror, the girl doesn't squirm a bit as her face is painstakingly primed, painted and powdered for nearly two hours. She has learned to hold still while her naturally beautiful face and hair are made unnaturally beautiful so that the camerawhich sees things somewhat differently than the human eyewill capture her as preternaturally beautiful.
She is Gia. At seventeen, she was a pretty girl from the Northeast section of Philadelphia who worked the counter at her father's luncheonette, Hoagie City, and never missed a David Bowie concert. At eighteen, she was one of the most promising new faces and figures in modeling, discovered by the agency run by sixties cover girl Wilhelmina Cooper and launched in American Vogue by the most influential fashion photographer of the day, Arthur Elgort. Now, at twenty-two, Gia is a member of the elite group of so called top models. At any given moment, there are only a dozen or two such girls, who end up splitting most of the very best editorial advertising and catalog jobs.
Even among the professionally beautiful, Gia is considered special. She is more like the quintessential painter's modelan inspiration, a "thing of beauty"than a working girl, a professional mannequin. A disproportionate number of the beauty and fashion shots she appears in transcend the accepted level of artful commerce and approach the realm of actual photographic art.
But Gia is legendary in her industry for other reasons, only a few of which can even be mentioned on network television. Her celebrated androgyny is no provocative put on: the female makeup artist who is brushing Gia's lips shiny red is the recurring object of her affections. Her rebellious attitude toward the businessno model has ever come so far while appearing to care so littlehas alternately outraged and delighted the biggest names in fashion. And her drug problems have been so acute that if she didn't have that incredible look, she might never work at all: lesser girls have been blackballed for doing once what Gia has managed to get away with many times.
Behind the scenes, where the world of a fashion model is really not always as it appears, Gia has given new meaning to the industry catchphrase "girl of the moment." It usually just refers to a model's popularity among photographers, art directors and ad agencies reaching such a critical mass that her face is suddenly everywhere. But Gia is such a girl of her moment that she is about to become either the face of the eighties, or a poster child for the social ills of the seventies.
While Gia is being photographed by Scavullo in the background"Great, like that, turn your head over a bit...fabulous, fabulous, laugh, laugh; beautiful, marvelous...smile, if you can smile"reporter Hoving talks about the supermodel. "A virtual symbol of the bright side and the dark side of modeling," he calls her.
"I started working with very good people...I mean all the time, very fast," Gia says, in a metered tone created by professional voice instructors who are trying to neutralize her unsophisticated Philadelphia accent so she might get into acting. "I didn't build into a model. I just sort of became one."
"Then the troubles began for Gia," Hoving intones, his postrecorded commentary interspersed with edited interview snippets. "The real world became clouded by illusions."
"When you're young," Gia tries to explain, "you don't always...y'know...it's hard to make [out] the difference between what is real and what is not real."
"Particularly when adulated..."
"Innocent," she corrects, "and there's a lot of vultures around you."
"She became erratic," Hoving booms on, "failed to show up for jobs." Then he turns to Gia. "At one point, you got kind of into the drug scene, didn't you?"
"Ummm," she pauses for a long time, as the reporter and cameraman anxiously wait to see if the loaded question will yield a usable sound bite about a still-taboo subject. Gia has been in front of the camera enough times to know how to dodge the question or spoil the take but, finally, she decides to do neither. "Yes, you could say that I did. It kind of creeps up on you and catches you in a world that's, y'know, none that anyone will ever know except someone that has been there."
"You're free of it, aren't you, now?" he asks, even though many on the 20/20 crew believe her to be high on something as she speaks.
"Oh yes, I am, definitely," she says. "I wouldn't be here right now talking to you if I wasn't, I don't think."
"Are you happy with your success?"
Gia thinks for a second, running her tongue across her painted lips. "Ummm, yes," she says. "I am, I am."
"You ... hesitated."
"Well, I just wanted to think about it," she quips back, laughing, trying to defuse whatever poignancy her pause has taken on, now that it has been captured on film and can be offered for individual interpretation to each of the program's fourteen million viewers.
"No, I am happy with it," she says.
Copyright © 1993 by Stephen Marc Fried