The Temp

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The Independent Culture
All day a parade of skinny teens passes my desk at the model agency, hands too big on wrists that look as though they would snap if you twisted them even slightly. Little voices issuing from schoolgirls who have had too much of one sort of experience (undressing in front of strangers, staying in hotels, being offered champagne by middle-aged boys with permanent snuffles), and not enough of the others (clubbing together to buy chips, schoolday curfews, being told to go upstairs and wash that muck off your face).

All this experience doesn't seem to have done a whole lot of rounding out, personalitywise, for these girls: you learn a lot more about life from mistakes made caravanning in Newquay than being driven from airport to hotel to studio. I meet 18-year-olds who are bored - bored - with Milan, Paris, New York, talk about them in the way that their contemporaries talk about Salford. And yet, despite this globetrotting, this exposure to the freedom of the airways, most of them are perpetually skint. They may get their expenses paid on trips, but the real, concrete money is less easily come by. Half of them are up to their ears in debt, what with advances, haircuts, the ever-escalating cost of Paris lips.

Everything here is about image; everyone here spends almost all their disposable income on the outer trappings of success: clothes, make-up, light but glowing suntans, hoovering out their body fat. And the monsters, the women who spend their lives on the phone smarming designers, editors, catalogue-putters-together, are as obsessed as the ones who have to go in front of the camera.

I read the other day that, while one in five people believe they have a food intolerance, less than a tenth of those people actually do. Well, they all work here. Everyone here has a line of pill bottles next to her computer screen: vitamins, minerals, ginseng, green stuff, wheat grass, blue stuff, evening primrose, fish oils, purple stuff, B complex. The sound of speakerphones dialling 14-figure numbers is regularly punctuated by the rattle of supplements and the glug of the water cooler.

Despite the fact that everyone here has a mobile phone, they all seem afraid to leave their desks in search of lunch in case they miss that vital Versace call that never comes. So one of my duties is to forsake the reception at 12am every day to go to the supermarket. I have a list as long as my arm, prepared by Monique, listing the do's and don'ts of feeding a roomful of bookers. And it's one heck of a task because, while everyone has a fad, no one shares their fad with any of the others. Linzi lives on wholemeal bread, cream cheese and lettuce; the cheese I buy by the tub every three days, and she gets through one lettuce every two. Kim has three pieces of fruit at each meal, which must be different every time; my filofax is full of little notes: "grapes/tangerines/melon". I bought her strawberries once, and she practically threw them at me because they give her a rash. Bibi is yeast intolerant; Richard doesn't chow on gluten (I tried one of his puffed rice cakes and it tasted exactly like the expanded polystyrene it resembles); Jane is fat free; Mandy is eating for her blood type, which means meat (finding organic cooked meats is a bit like finding an MSG-free pot noodle) but no grains or pulses; Dee doesn't do dairy. The daily shop takes an hour, and I visit every aisle in the superstore to cull a single carrier bag of food. It puts a whole new complexion on the phrase hunter-gatherer.

And when they're not cooing at clients ("Hello, Giovanni, my favourite man, how are you?"), they sit around swapping symptoms. Phrases drift round the screen to amuse me and edify the waiting teens: "One bite and I swelled up like a balloon..." "...covered in scales..." "...martyr to irritable bowel syndrome...". And I can see the teens drinking it all in, developing neuroses of their own. I think it's just God's punishment for pushy parents: indulge in hubris over Lolita's looks, and what you get is a droopy stick who spurns the family dinner with the phrase "I can't eat any of that. I'll just have a spoonful of peas and a pear". God knows, I always wanted to be pretty: I'm grateful now that everyone laughed at the thought of me as Face of '91.