It's taking time for male supermodels - though they're gaining every year - to achieve the earning power of their female counterparts. In Hollywood, it's the reverse. Male film stars earn much more than women. Bruce Willis still makes millions more per picture than Meryl Streep. Society, it seems, values 'action' when it judges masculinity. The passive pose is still suspect. None the less, these five are gathered together in Watson's New York studio at the behest of the British magazine Arena to float a theory - that the era of the male supermodel really has arrived: that men, too, can be rocketed into super-celebrity by the fashion-movie-music media combine. 'Everyone's on first-name terms with Cindy, Naomi and Christy,' explained Kathryn Flett, the editor of Arena. 'Men don't have the same look-in, and we think it's high time this is changed. We're highlighting the fact that there's a super-league of male models, and that it's fairly recent, and that we'll be in the process of contributing to it.'
These five - Marcus Schenkenberg, Tim Boyce, Tyson, Greg Spaulding and Larry Scott - appear later this month on the cover of Hommes Plus, Arena's bi-annual fashion supplement, one of many recent English-language publications that address issues of style and appearance for men, concerns long closeted by the hearty heterosexual
'Off the record,' says a New York tabloid gossip columnist, the kind who is obliged to document every move of Christy, Naomi, Kate and now Nadja and Amber, 'there's something about male models that the media takes a little less seriously. The function of the supermodels is hinged on dating movie stars: on Naomi (Campbell) going out with Bob (De Niro), on Linda (Evangelista) going out with Kyle (MacLachan), Claudia (Schiffer) and David (Copperfield). You don't hear of male models dating famous people. You assume they're dating each other.'
That glitch in the Hollywood hierarchy aside, male models (most of whom are heterosexual) have found new status, on the back of an urgent preoccupation with the male body. Something more than homoerotica is involved. 'Pecs and abs' have replaced 'tits and ass' as a mantra of titillation. In advertising, fashion and cosmetics at least, men have become sex objects. They tower like gods in the pantheon of billboards above New York's Times Square in a state of chronic sexual readiness, muscles ripped and buffed, torsos marble smooth. They rise from unknown waters with only jockey briefs clinging to them. Feminists have long predicted this might happen - that men could be as objectified as women. They're only human. Who is doing the objectification and why is it trickier to pinpoint? Is this a crisis?
'I do think it's a convergence of big cultural forces,' says Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Decades of feminist inquiry into gender roles, the demise of economic security in the western world, and the rise of the multi-culture, he feels, have revolutionised what it means to be masculine. Men can wear dreadlocks, pierce and tattoo their bodies with impunity. They can primp and preen and reoccupy the realm of beauty all because they have been forced to give up some economic and domestic authority. They can indulge in expensive, decorative scarves now sold to men at Barney's, the leading men's store in New York, without having an identity crisis. An older, more secure, more confining role has crumbled. 'Once we're deprived of the security of the male hunter role,' Martin says, 'we have the ability to go out and say, 'What does it mean to be a male?' It finally proves to us in a certain sense that women and men aren't that different.'
Indeed, the sexes are looking more and more alike, overlapping in a photographic pastiche of body parts, cropped and close-up: pecs look like breasts with pert nipples; women's rumps look like men's and noone has body hair. It's very confusing. This summer several leading male stars (including Terence Stamp) turned up in drag in six mainstream movies that played across America, with more - Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and Johnny Depp - in the wings. This is unusual. 'Men in film used to cross-dress out of sheer expediency. Now it's often out of sheer pleasure: the characters like high heels,' observes New York Times critic Anita Gates. 'When Johnny Depp gets dressed up in Ed Wood (released in the US next month), he's no Mrs Doubtfire.' The Nineties may be the 'we' decade in which the walls of gender as well as race, semantically anyway, come toppling down. In this kind of forecast, it is always wise to watch Calvin Klein, who helped push the men's fragrance business to a dollars 1 billion a year phenomenon, and who unleashed the big-boy body of Marky Mark on an unsuspecting public in his jeans campaigns. This season Klein introduces a unisex fragrance - called 'cK One' (due in Europe next year) - aimed at young multi-cultural trendies, who, if they can't exchange body fluids, can at least swap this 'fresh and clean' scent. Cameron, a British male model, is launching a men's make-up line with transparent lip gloss and even colourless mascara to 'separate the lashes'.
But this blurring of gender distinctions runs deeper than a dash of shared scent or a little 'unisex tattooing'. Men are behaving in ways that worry as well as delight: they are behaving like women. They may have more direct access to emotions: they might read Details, Conde Nast's star 'Generation X' publication in the US, for confessional, hipster accounts of botched relationships, and take Prozac for depression. But they are also becoming as body-obsessed and self-conscious as women. Is the 'Beauty Myth', as the feminist writer Naomi Wolf described the mind-altering spell cast by the cosmetics and fashion industry, targeting their anxiety?
A new subterranean narcissism more insidious than that of the playing field, has struck. Men shop at cosmetic counters for multiple 'grooming' and 'fitness' creams, so-named to sneak past any latent homophobia. They exercise compulsively to attain the sleek but 'buffed' Nineties ideal that is more Donatello than Michelangelo - 'Like you got your forearm holding a guitar,' according to David Barton, personal trainer to the New York fashion kingdom; his gym's slogan: 'No pecs, no sex.' 'In a world where things seem so out of control,' he says, It's nice to have control of one's body.' He knows not how true he speaks. When bodies become symbolic of life's battle, the trouble - formerly female trouble - starts. Anorexic and bulimic eating disorders seem to be on the rise among men, though the data is more complete for women; record numbers of men in their forties and fifties are submitting to plastic surgery. Men now account for about 28 percent of facial plastic surgery, according to the American Academy of Facial, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, up from 15 per cent ten years ago. Eyelid surgery, endoscopic facials, and less invasive liposuction, so deft as to define the musculature of the prized washboard stomach, are favourite procedures. Even Carlos the Jackal was arrested on the operating table awaiting liposuction, which more and more men seek for removal of stubborn love handles and double chins. 'The turkey gobble is particularly troublesome to men who wear tight shirt collars,' says a New York surgeon, astonished that certain members of the British royal family haven't bothered to have their ears pinned back. 'It's very easy and permanent,' he says. 'I do it for brides just before the wedding all the time.' In this 'can-do' cosmetic climate all things seem possible - penis extensions included. 'Men get them to feel more comfortable in a locker room situation. It's non-sexual. It's not about intercourse,' says Dr Brian Novack of Los Angeles who also provides men with pectoral implants (a typically West Coast procedure)
In academia, art and pop culture, gender and its representative body parts - especially that one - call for attention. Art Forum magazine recently examined 'masculinity' as portrayed by avant-garde artists such as Matthew Barney, who uses his body and exercise in his work. Bruce Willis's full frontal nude scene was cut from his new film, Color of Night, for an R-rating. John Wayne Bobbitt's member, newly repaired after his wife sliced it off while he was sleeping, will star in a porno film. 'I think we'll be seeing more penises in the future,' ventures Richard Martin.
But despite the prevalent notion, launched in the hit film Sleepless in Seattle, that women now want men with 'pecs and a cute butt,' female desires are not likely to be provoking all this exposure. 'Women don't like big musclemen. They like nice skin, blue eyes - something a little wild. They like the lost type. Lost and wild, but thin,' the French designer Thierry Mugler told a New York Times round-table on femininity. 'I like them depressed,' countered Linda Nochlin, art historian and author of Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. (She writes: 'The imagery of sexual delight or provocation has always been created about women for men's enjoyment, by men.')
Commercially speaking, 'there's a reality check going on,' says Jason Kanner, director of Boss Models, which does a prestige trade in men. Ratings have gone up for guys whose looks are 'very, very accessible,' as both a romantic or a competitive ideal. 'Sexy, but sad. A little bit worn with a certain reality to them, ' Kanner says, 'with youth and a certain grunge'. Amber Valetta, the even-featured, doe-eyed blonde of recent Calvin Klein 'Escape' perfume ads, is the female equivalent of 'accessible', he says. 'She's really selling. It's the 'I don't have big tits but I'm not a flat-chested loser look'. '
More likely, in the glamourising of men, intra-male competition is at work, exacerbated by the new stresses of two-income households and a global recession. 'With men, the physique relates to power in a very real way. Every man is seen as every other man's potential enemy, a competitor for jobs and women,' says Michael Lafavore, the editor of Men's Health, a hugely successful magazine that promotes physical prowess and well-being. In five years, circulation has jumped from 800,000 to 1.2 million. 'Do it Better] 101 Ways to Get Smarter, Stronger, Richer, Calmer and Cooler; The One Vitamin Every Man Needs; Best Exercises to Lose Weight' exhort its cover lines in the peppy voice of a women's service magazine. He suspects that underneath it all, men are most driven by the 'age thing' - the collective mid-life crisis that's corralled baby boomers. Those most used to control, the wealth and the educated, do the most exercise.
But no matter how tightly the fashion camera focuses on men, women are still the lead consumers, the ones who put money down on most things, including the lion's share of men's clothing and men's fragrance, and it's doubtful that the tables have really turned. 'There's been an overdose of the cult of the female model,' suggests Kimberly Bartel, an advertising professor at Boston University. 'Your choice is either Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss, two ends of a continuum that most normal women can't fit themselves in on. But the paradigm for women having to be beautiful to appeal to the opposite sex was around long before advertising. When there are five floors of men's clothing in Bloomingdales, we'll talk.'
In women passing the exploitation baton to men, there is a sense of divine come-uppance at play, at least that's what was suggested to Dan Shaw, a New York Times journalist who recently wrote about men's physical obsession, and the risk of anorexia and bulimia: 'Every woman I told about the story said, 'good.' '
Plato called beauty a universal form so pure it could only be considered in the abstract. Television mogul Aaron Spelling, producer of a new series, Models, Inc. has another definition: 'It's like pornography. I can't describe it but I know what it looks like when it walks into a room.' The men on the front line of the cult of male beauty - the five male models of Arena's Hommes Plus shoot - seem relieved that they aren't, after all, quite in the same 'game' as the girls. Granted they earn a mere dollars 3000-dollars 10,000 a day to the women's dollars 25,000, but their status as second-string 'posers' allows a certain liberty. 'For the women, it's a 24-hour gig, it's their life, their identity, I just do it to make a living,' says Tim Boyce, the bad boy of Armani and Ferre ads, who has musical ambitions and a voice 'like Boy George,' according to his booker. 'I thank the Lord and my mother,' says Tyson, the first 'dark star' of a Ralph Lauren Polo ad. They want to pass through this hall of mirrors on their way to cutting records, and auditioning for films. Greg Spaulding pities the women their obligatory breast implants and starvation diets. 'Their bookers tell them they look great. I think they look sick. Thank God the weight thing hasn't hit men like that. The men in the business don't have to have such great bodies.'
When the cover pose is shot to Watson's approval, Larry Scott relaxes his Pre-Raphaelite profile and turns to reveal a huge gaffer's clamp pinning his designer jacket more tightly to his body. 'We're low maintenance,' he explains, treating me to a grin. In that, there is some joy.
Arena 'Homme Plus' is out next week
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