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The Soapbox: Why “Ugly” Models Are Bad For Girls

In a scene from “Scouted,” the E! reality TV series premiering this evening — in which model scouts troll the malls, parking lots, and fast food chains of suburbia looking for the next Gisele Bundchen — a middle-aged woman excitedly approaches a willowy girl in a grocery store.

“Have you ever thought about modeling?” she inquires, eyeing up her young prey with leering enthusiasm.

I sat there thinking, Is she talking to her friend? Because standing next to the skinny young blonde with the Byronesque (read: large) profile and receding chin was a much more attractive girl. But, no, the scout was talking to the odd-looking one.

The girl herself was astonished to the point of catatonia at the suggestion she should be a model—and this made her much more sensible than the adult sprinkling fairy dust dreams of Vogue editorials and Milan summers in her mind.

But maybe she’d have all that for a bit. After all, the “it” mannequins of the moment—ones like Karlie Kloss, Lara Stone, or Lindsey Wixson—with their crooked or gap-toothed smiles, harsh features, and consumptive complexions, tend to look kind of like that bewildered girl in the grocery store.

Gone are the days when being a model meant you had to be able to look into a camera and plausibly coo, as Kelly LeBrock did, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

On “America’s Next Top Model,” Tyra Banks routinely tosses out the “prettiest” girls from the contest. Banks also just crowned Lisa D’Amato, who is amusingly mouthy but more suited for a Camaro showroom than a CoverGirl contract, as winner of the All-Stars cycle. The runner-up, Allison Harvard, has bunny teeth and a permanently frightened expression that would make her perfect for the wife role in a remake of “The Shining.”

Not that these ladies are “ugly.” But they are, for lack of a better word, average. Young women of today perhaps can’t remember a time when staggeringly gorgeous models such as Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, and Cindy Crawford ruled the runways and fembot-perfect-looking specimens such as Christie Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs and Brooke Shields got all the big contracts.

Perhaps the world has just run out of women who are really, really, really ridiculously good looking? Not at all. Behold the goddesses Doutzen Kroes, Adriana Lima or Irina Shayk in Victoria’s Secret catalogues or the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. But when it comes to the runway, high-end designer campaigns, or model reality shows, “ugly” is the new beautiful.

Many would say this is a good thing for young women: That it boosts their self-esteem to look at a Dior ad or episode of “Scouted” and think, She looks like me! That means I’m pretty after all!

But why is it so important that young women are given the idea that they too could be models? Instead of giving girls the idea that any bad-skinned teen with a crooked smile can become a sex symbol, they should be getting the message that they’re smart, talented, and good at math.

For the truth is that most young women cannot, even if she’s got the right look, make a living as a model. First of all, models have to be at least five-foot-eight and have a body mass index approaching that of an anorexic. This describes less than one percent of the country’s population (thank goodness). Secondly, models have to have a certain personality.

As a reporter for Forbes, where I often covered the modeling industry, I once followed around a young model as she made the casting rounds for Fashion Week. She too looked less like Gisele Bundchen and more like the girl next door—well, if you lived next door to the Fashion Institute of Technology—but I also observed as she worked a frenzied 14-hour day, never once complaining as she was batted from casting call to casting call, fielding often-conflicting messages from her agent (“Stay at Marc Jacobs! Go to Calvin, now! Stay at Marc! Leave!”). She calmly navigated her way through the labyrinth of downtown Manhattan, and politely smiled through the pain as yet another hair stylist yanked her long hair into a frizzy halo.

I don’t know many teen girls who wouldn’t have burst into tears that day. Hell, I almost burst into tears.

This isn’t to say that models shouldn’t be diverse. Of course there should be women of all races and skin colors in the pages of magazines. But diversity shouldn’t mean that models look like you and me and every teen prowling the aisles of Costco.

Models who look like ordinary girls give ordinary girls hope for a career that will, at best, last them a couple of years—or until the next season, when blondes are no longer in, or Ukranian girls are all the rage, or no one wants any girls except ones with Afros.

This is a fickle business, and it distracts young women just when their impressionable minds should be focused on sustainable long-term prospects—like careers in astrophysics or neuroscience. Young women should be applying to college, not uploading portfolios to Models.com.

Let’s go back to the days of blindingly beautiful models like Christy, Christie, Cindy, and Naomi, back to the days when models were gazed upon as if they were worldly wonders on par with the Egyptian pyramids or Machu Picchu. Back to the days when, if you told people you wanted to be a model, you were laughed out of the classroom—and went to the library to study.

Kiri Blakeley is the author of “Can’t Think Straight: A Memoir of Mixed-Up Love,” and has written about models for Forbes.

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