Invasion of the fashion victims

Fear and loathing in the catwalk industry. By Paul Golding; Model: by Michael Gross Bantam, pounds 17.99
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The Independent Culture
Michael Gross's book, Model: the Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, is hardly an exemplary tome. Both its subject matter, the world of fashion mannequins and their makers, and its execution, a chronologically awkward mix of history, journalism and conjecture, make for a dull story. But Gross - who is known to have suffered threats during his research - should be commended, if not for his perspicacity, at least for his attempted objectivity and his persistence.

Those expecting to find inspiration, or glamour, or even a laugh in this sluggish study should be disabused: they will discover little about fantasy or fabled careers; much less will they get answers to such vital questions as which photographer makes a habit of exhibiting his penis while shooting, or which supermodel has lost her natural eyelashes. What they will discover, however, amid all the claims, counter-claims and seething rancour, is that it has taken this breed of (supposedly) beautiful woman 70 years to learn that the key to "success" lies in behaving like ugly men. But it is a lesson that has contaminated.

Little wonder that the term "monster" crops up with such frequency. Almost every subject whose soiled biographical lingerie is held up for scrutiny emerges as a casualty of an industry where fear has eclipsed artistry, and where greed and coercion are the tacitly acknow-ledged norms. But the plight of the fashion model is really no different, and never has been, from that of any other pretty woman. Choices are offered, and choices are made.

The contribution of models to society must ultimately remain visual. If we remember them at all, we do so on account of their appearances, their physical projection - not their cash, nor their consorts, much less their confessions (with the exception, that is, of Susan Moncur, whose They Still Shoot Models My Age is the only book of substance on this subject). So that when Gross elects to regurgitate endless transcripts of interviews with generally vapid, generally retired women whose histories are all but interchangeable and whose command of English is not impressive, he does himself no favours. Take gorgeous Apollonia Ravenstein: "I love America. I never really looked at the culture too much." Precisely.

The book focuses on three distinct yet often (sexually) overlapping types: the model herself, the photographer in front of her, and the agent behind. The early period of the business, from the Thirties to the Sixties, is the clearest, possibly because, despite the rife debauchery, the cast is more contained; and, of this cast, by far the most engaging figure is Suzy Parker's older sister, Dorian Leigh, who broke into modelling in 1944 with a degree in mechanical engineering already neatly tucked into her waspie, and who went on to provide Truman Capote with the inspiration for his Holly Golightly. A supreme beauty, a supreme boozer and one hell of an horizontale, Leigh played muse to a whole clutch of photographers - Avedon, Beaton, Blumenfeld, Horst and Penn among them. The latter, whose first steps in the art of lighting she claims to have directed, she also seduced, though less auspiciously, for he is described as "a neurotic lay. Afterwards he'd drink bottled water. Sex dehydrated him."

Doubtless to the chagrin of Eileen Ford, hitherto unchallenged queen of model agents and, by all accounts, a rapacious, bible-bashing crone, the Sixties galvanised the whole industry, particularly in Europe: by the close of that decade, over five dozen agencies had sprouted in London alone. But beyond strutting new agents, among whom Johnny Casablancas is portrayed as slimeball-in-chief, a virus of fresh photographers had surfaced, notably Brian Duffy, Terence Donovan and David "a model doesn't have to sleep with a photographer but it helps" Bailey. Plus, of course, an explosion of sexy, autocontracepted girls.

With the fresh pollination across the worlds of fashion, art, and pop music, along with unprecedented levels of skulduggery within the modelling business, Gross begins to lose his authorial grasp. For the sake of accuracy, one supposes, he permits reams of conflicting legalistic and statistical jargon to intrude, until the models themselves become all but incidental. Just as we expect the tempo to hot up (more champagne, heavier drugs, Swiss bank accounts, Interpol, faster planes, fatter fees) the saga is ground to a trudge by the fact that "even the participants can't agree what happened."

But perhaps modelling isn't about memory: Gross proposes that Avedon's shot of the iconic Dovima, flanked by a pair of elephants, is fashion's most enduring image. Possibly. Yet who, at the end of the day, do we recall more clearly: the beauty, or the beasts?