Anybody who thinks modelling is easy should try it. The lifestyle may be uncomplicated – plenty of international travel, flattery and free clothes, at least until you're 30, after which you become horsemeat – but the work is tricky. It requires self-possession and acting skills, and the handful of regulation-slim, tall and youthful girls that pose well deserve their “super” status. But what of those who are too curvy or eccentric for the catwalk and yet, given a professional hair and make-up team, can exude star wattage in front of the camera? Some of them are the subject of Alice Hawkins's jubilant, funny, touching and unashamedly glitzy fashion portraits.
Hawkins’s models are Blackpool showgirls and beauty queens; Page Three girls and receptionists; fashion-mad schoolgirls and Russian socialites. Relishing the moment, they gaze into the lens, elaborate hairstyles primped and make-up frosted. If they look confident, it’s at least in part inspired by the young woman behind the camera who, at 29, is emerging as an original talent in the fearsomely competitive world of fashion photography.
Hawkins’s work appears in style magazines (Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Condé Nast’s new title LOVE) but doesn’t quite play by their rules, and later this month her first full-scale London exhibition places her in a territory between fashion and art photography. Hawkins doesn’t use fancy lighting or elaborate sets. Instead, she takes long road trips to kitsch destinations in the California desert or Moscow suburbs, where the people she meets frequently end up in her photographs, wearing both designer clothes and their own costumes. Occasionally, a professional fashion model pops up, but Hawkins’s most beguiling images feature unknowns. And magazines have been happy to publish the results as lengthy portfolios. These might star Heff’s “girlfriends” (and pet flamingos) at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills; or teenage hopefuls in a Miss East Anglia contest; or Hawkins’s favourite topless models, dressed in tulle and crystals.
If the head-count of soft-porn models is high in her work – “The glamour model agencies really know me now, and they know I’ll put a girl in a fashion magazine who usually only appears in Nuts or Zoo,” says Hawkins – that reflects her own definition of what she finds “aspirational”, by which she means glamorous. It’s not simply sex appeal that she looks for in a sitter, she says, “though I do like nice hair”, but rather somebody who thoroughly enjoys being photographed.
Hawkins zones in on a certain calendar-girl aesthetic rarely seen in fashion magazines. “I think she looks really powerful,” she says of a portrait of Page Three girl Danni Wells in a scrap of black lingerie, her orb-like breasts and Farrah Fawcett hair a riposte to the flat glamour of conventional fashion imagery. Although she might not intend it, some of Hawkins’s pictures can be read as straightforward cheesecake – the kind of bleach-blonded, glossy-lipped, schoolboy-fantasy aesthetic used to sell everything from beer to local lap-dancing venues. One guesses that the commercial clients who have queued up to commission her (Smirnoff, Orange and Agent Provocateur are among them) probably aren’t paying for the sisterly relationships she forms with unconventional older models.
I’ll make an admission: I’ve known Alice for several years and as a writer have accompanied her on shoots (she graduated from Camberwell School of Art in 2002 but one of her earliest breaks was winning The Independent’s prize for young fashion photographers in 2003). Though their brittle glamour might suggest otherwise, her photographs are partly autobiographical. Hawkins chooses subjects who share her taste in camp glamour; she’s deadly serious in her admiration of the showgirls, Dolly Parton and the Playboy Bunnies. When Bekki Porter, a 16-year-old from Essex and finalist in the Miss East Anglia pageant, poses in her bedroom surrounded by her favourite fashion logos, Hawkins doesn’t intend irony but endorses her ambitions. Her work asks the viewer, too, to accept the shiny, cosmetically-enhanced “aspirations” of her sitters without a sneer. “It’s not as if I shoot homeless people asleep on the street with their dogs or anything like that,” she says, “I think the people in my pictures look amazing.” And they do.
Alice Hawkins: The Good, The Bad, The Belle, at Spring Projects, London NW5, 27 February – 5 April. See more of Alice Hawkins’ photography at independent.co.uk/artReuse content