Wednesday Books: Lives fashioned in exile

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The Independent Culture
A PAIR of really long legs can be a great advantage in life. It is strange to think how different these two models' memoirs would have been if Irina Pantaeva and Waris Dirie had been born of average height.

Both little less than 6ft, they sprang up tall and skinny in Siberia and Somalia respectively, where food and water were always short and where, they each discovered, it was a tremendous asset to be able to run fast - Irina from Soviet Communism and Wasir from marriage to a 60-year- old (in exchange for five camels).

As nomads, both girls spend a lot of their books on the move. Pantaeva may have had a happy home life in the small city of Ulan Ude, but in Siberian Dream she is never far from a bus stop, train station, airport or boat. Dirie spends the best part of her first six chapters running away from home across the desert, which involves having a close encounter with a lion and then the assault of a truck driver. Fittingly, the same legs which enable their escapes also qualify them for entry into the fashion world, where they will tread the smoother surfaces of international catwalks. For both, going a long way is literally measured by how far they get from their home towns. That they will defy the odds and "make it" is never doubted.

"I was always looking for a way to make things better, push myself forward and find whatever that mysterious opportunity was that I knew was waiting for me," writes Dirie. While she believes that "survival is determined only by the strength of one's will", for Pantaeva "reality would be crafted by the tenacious and the creative". It is an interesting difference, for if Pantaeva's determination makes her lyrical, Dirie's makes her tough- talking.

What both share, however, is a strange, shifting language that melds their new environments with those of their origins, and which confuses moments of biographical revelation with the more impersonal lexicon of their industry. Neither Siberian Dream nor Desert Flower, for instance, would be out of place as a headline on a fashion shoot in a glossy magazine.

Strangely, the commercial language of fashion is not seen by either model as an intrusion on her personal voice, but as a validation of how far she has come, and a means of genuine identification. "I did make-up ads for Revlon, then later represented their new perfume, Agee," remembers Dirie. "The commercial announced, 'From the heart of Africa comes a fragrance to capture the heart of every woman'." Dirie approves this use of "my exotic African look", though it is surely not exotic to her.

At her first Chanel casting, Pantaeva happily recalls hearing: "This is an incredible girl. Look at her face! Where has she been? Where did she come from?" It is a key moment for Irina. "I wished I could hold [it] in time and live it again and again," she says.

But what she perceives as an interest in her life is really the stylist's means of summing up the collection's "story" or message, for which Irina will become a vehicle. She mistakes the kind of admiration she receives. Fashion's constant search for the new intersects with an individual story, which then finds in fashion a meaning no less valid for being expressed through the formulae of an industry not best known for its sincerity.

Fashion represents an opportunity for role play; for being the centre of attention in a way neither woman's cultures had ever permitted. But whereas Pantaeva's childhood of dressing up and sewing through the night to make clothes for the next day finds its just fulfilment in her life as a model, Dirie's biography does not. Nor does it when she resolves her passport problem; nor does it when she marries Nigel in order to stay in England; nor does it when she finally marries a man she loves.

Dirie's real interest lies elsewhere. She is most coherent when speaking against female circumcision, which she herself suffered aged five and which she now campaigns against with the UN. As she runs through these various strands without weaving them together, her memoir lacks the direction of Pantaeva's. At times, reading Desert Flower feels like looking at a photo album of somebody else's holiday snaps.

At the close of their memoirs, Irina and Waris are both married, both living in America; but where do they go from here? Both have collected and recollected their experiences in memoirs like various pieces of baggage, but neither seems sure where to take them next, if anywhere. One thing only is sure: you have to admire them.