So we want to model: what's wrong with that?

The use of young models provoked fierce criticism from the Child Exploitation and the Media Forum last week. But how come no one ever asks the girls what they think? Exclusively for Real Life, Hettie Judah talks to five teenagers who'll be the next New Faces
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The fashion industry's appetite for new faces is insatiable. Every year, Select model agency alone talent spots 50 teenagers to add to its books. Whereas in the past these ingenues would be groomed as the supermodels of the future, now it's their very awkwardness and inexperience that makes them desirable. Photographers are hungry for the freshness and innocence that no jaded supermodel can fake. And so, every year, the temptation increases to find younger, or at least younger-looking, girls to satisfy the industry's craving for unsullied adolescent beauty.

Meanwhile, outside fashion, concern correspondingly increases about the use of children to model or act. This week, the Child Exploitation and the Media Forum, spurred on by Vivienne Westwood's use of 13-year olds on the catwalk, urged the implementation of strict guidelines and questioned whether "children should be involved in modelling at a young age". Members of the Forum's panel endorsed the views of Gwen Thomas of the Association of Photographers: "Often photographers are asked to photograph children in clothes that make them look like mini-adults. We are encouraging them to grow up fast, and then we are surprised when paedophiles react to them."

The only people the panel didn't consult, apparently, were the teenagers themselves. Do they feel exploited, pressurised and prematurely sexualised by their experience? Or is it, as far as they're concerned, all a fuss about nothing?

This year, Select is pushing its "New Faces" harder than ever. Nothing less would do than a glossy, magazine- quality brochure, featuring the top ten girls, photographed by former fashion editor of Italian Vogue and one of Europe's top photographers Manuela Pavesi. Real Life was given exclusive access to the first leg of the shoot, located, with fashion's typical fondness for the surreal juxtaposition, on a Kentish farm. We accompanied Anya, Lucy, Cordelia, Tenzin, Jesse and their parents, plus assorted stylists, photographers, hair and make-up artists and wardrobe mistresses on a mission to find out what Britain's teenagers really think of a career in modelling.

All are basically nice, middle-class girls from the south-east and west of England; it's hard to imagine them scratching each other's eyes out in two years time. Neither, on first sight after an early start, are they startlingly good-looking. The group, as a whole, were accompanied by smiley chaperones who buoyed up their spirits with games of rounders and a regular supply of crisps, sandwiches and sticky buns. While the over-thirties plumped their livers with Bulgarian wine, the models stuck to Lilt, fiddled with their hair, nibbled their fingers and talked about horses, GCSEs, Kula Shaker and Brad Pitt.

They are still very innocent, but possibly not unacquainted with the pleasures of a Diamond White; I heard of another girl who was scouted at a camping shop while buying fake ID. Of the three sitting GCSEs this year, none is taking fewer than nine and all five want to go on to higher education; Lucy and Anya have their hearts set on Cambridge. While Jesse admitted that "I haven't really got any great ambitions to be a brain surgeon or anything," most have aspirations far beyond modelling: art, biology, even journalism.

Tenzin, 17, left early in the day to attend a meeting of young people from Tibet. She is minutely thin and seemed rather shy, although this could just have been exhaustion; most of the girls had to wake up at six in the morning to get here. Jesse, 17, explained, "Travelling is part of my life." She and her parents have spent years on the move or living in alternative communities. Modelling will enable her to keep travelling. Her ultimate goal is to make her living as an artist, a lifestyle that seems as impossible to her as modelling does to most of the population.

Lucy, 16, travelled from Essex with her mum and dad, both of whom stayed with her for the day. She is a high-achiever who seems surprisingly uncompetitive for a girl involved in so many competitions; she recently won a local music prize, and had to leave the shoot early to go off to a quiz night. Anya, 16, is more academically laid back and worldly wise and does not thrill to the prattle about GCSEs. Cordelia was accompanied by her mother, Pip, and her younger brother. Poised and serene with a classic beauty that makes her smile, displaying a full catalogue of orthodontic metalwork, even more of a shock, she is the only one for whom modelling is an end in itself.

They are probably not the most beautiful girls at their schools, but they just happen to conform to the correct physiognomy - a fact that they acknowledge. "People feel that its okay to comment about the way you look when you're a model," says Jesse, whose friends can't understand that she, too, might feel insecure. "I have always been really self-conscious about the way I look; I am not conventionally beautiful. Initially, it's flattering to be asked to model, but in the long run I've still got flabby thighs and all the rest of it." One of her earliest jobs was for The Clothes Show. When she walked into the school library the day after the programme was shown, the room went silent, and it was only as the muttering and whispers grew that she discovered that her dress, worn bra-less, had gone transparent under the television lights.

Lucy has also been tormented by her peers and decided not to tell anyone at

her school that she was modelling when she realised that their reaction would be invariably hostile. A girl in her class started modelling before her and Lucy has watched her endure constant verbal abuse. Magazine photographs are laughed at, and with a classic teenage twist of bitchy logic, the model is continually told that she looks ugly.

Feminist instincts are not totally absent. Jesse was initially scouted at the age of 14, but refused to betray her principles. "I hated the stereotype," she says. "You look through magazines and see photos of beautiful women and I hated that kind of shiny, beautiful look. I hated them portraying that as normality. When young girls see pictures like that it makes them feel isolated." She was eventually persuaded by the money, but still feels odd about the image. "It makes me feel quite guilty. Sometimes, I feel that I should have a little bubble over my head saying 'Save the Whale' or something."

As I ambled around the farm during the hot afternoon, the girls' parents became increasingly protective. It was hard to believe that they were of the same breed as their offspring, let alone gene pool; the girls wandered among them like giraffes caught in a herd of protective water buffalo. Pip's knowledge of the fashion world is impressive; Cordelia and her older sister forced her to read a vast back catalogue of fashion magazines so that she would always understand what Cordelia was doing. Cordelia's little brother muttered that he would rather be a shelf-stacker. It is necessarily a family affair. Select will not allow its New Faces on a shoot without a parent or a chaperone.

"It's a pretty bizarre way to make money" admits Pip, who has a refreshingly mercenary attitude towards the agency and the business as a whole. Her only real worry for Cordelia is exhaustion. "On the way home from a recent shoot," she says, "she burst into tears from sheer tiredness." It is this side of the business, with 12-hour days and freezing location shoots, that would persuade them to stop, not the horror of too much too young. Pip does not mind the recent press afforded to young models but friends have expressed concern about Cordelia's age and her school definitely does not approve of her new career.

The experience is more complex for Lucy's parents. It seems absolutely logical to them that people would want to photograph their darling daughter. Besides, admits her mother, "She'd never forgive me if I didn't let her." What kind of photograph is another matter. Lucy appeared recently in The Face modelling a hat. It is likely that Lucy did not know that a picture was being taken of her at the time, and even if she had, would never have imagined that this was the one they would use. Far from showing a poised young lady, the picture is an unposed portrait of a freckled teenage girl with braces and twinkly eyes, sharing a joke with a photographer. Lucy's parents were furious that the picture did not make her look pretty.

Together we looked through the rest of the magazine. Further on there was a more sophisticated story using other models of Lucy's age. They are wearing make-up and high heels; in one photo a girl has her leg drawn up to show a Balthusian flash of teenage underpant. "No, we wouldn't want her doing something like that," her father confirmed. He feels that modelling is "helping her to mature", but for a picture to be acceptable to her family, Lucy must neither look like a girl nor a woman. They cannot yet separate Lucy the schoolgirl from Lucy as part of a magazine photograph. This is a problem that other girls seem to share; Jesse explains that she does look at pictures of herself: "But I never like them because they are me."

In crude terms a model is selling the right to her image by allowing herself to become part of someone else's vision. These girls have not yet learned to let go; they see their modelling photographs as pictures of them, not pictures of a pair of shoes or a nice lipstick. They are all new to the business and there is plenty of time for them to learn how to distance themselves, but the process cannot be made any easier by the usual image crises of adolescence.

It seems more logical to celebrate youth for its slim beauty than for its ability to write novels or do mathematical equations. While infant prodigies are celebrated for the freakishness of their seemingly adult talent, young models are picked precisely because of their typically adolescent figures, a shape impossible for anyone older to maintain without constant dieting. At this age, they don't even have to try. "I don't do any exercise, I don't get enough sleep, I don't drink enough water," admits Jesse. Modelling may be an exhausting business, but these girls will never encounter anything as destructive as the hot-housing inflicted on a young violinist.

If these girls had started two years older and moved to London alone, as many aspiring models do, without the grounding of school and family, they would be in much greater danger. As it is, they will have two years part-time experience to call on, and understand that modelling has more to do with standing in a field of hostile geese than with snogging Johnny Depp.

But their biggest privilege is their overview. For a fashion consumer, the model is still the authoritative bench mark of beauty. No matter that their proportions are dictated by economy (clothes are provided for shoots in one size, so it helps if all the girls can fit into all the clothes). No matter either that the greatest sex symbols of the 20th century, from Marilyn Monroe to Pamela Anderson, would not have made it onto Select's books. The world seems to have forgotten that models are just people who are used to sell clothes and cosmetics, and, to their classmates, these five girls have received an invisible stamp of approval which provokes whispers as they enter the school library.

Perhaps we've been worrying about the wrong children. The ones who will starve themselves and spend a fortune on beauty products aren't the models but their contemporaries. Cordelia, Lucy, Jesse, Tenzin and Anya, the focus of their aspirations, don't feel any more attractive than their friends and would probably describe themselves as normal teenagers with a very lucrative Saturday job. They alone will understand how frivolous the obsession with modelling is, not because they are beautiful but because they have been behind fashion's chiffon curtain and can see that they are still no different from their friends.