Hero to Zero: The full skinny on a week that shook fashion

Stick-thin models were revered from day one. Now they are causing revulsion. By Lauren Veevers

Jessica Lee is too fat for the catwalk. That is what she thinks, anyway, and it is the reason she has given it up at the age of 23. Jessica is a size 8. She is 5ft 8in tall and weighs eight and a half stone, being only a healthy lunch away from the "stick-thin" label that has caused so much fuss in the last week.

The designer Paul Smith started it when he called for a move away from "very thin" models who fit the American Size Zero, such as Lily Cole and Erin O'Connor.

"I would like the girls to be bigger," he said. They have been banned from the catwalks in Madrid, after the death of a 22-year-old model who had eaten little more than leaves for months. A week ago, a ban here would have been unthinkable. Now it seems likely.

The Spanish will not allow any women with a body mass index lower than 18. The World Health Organization says it is unhealthy to measure below this figure, which is calculated by dividing your weight in kilos by your height in metres squared. On that calculation, as our research below shows, leading models have been seriously unhealthy since at least the Sixties.

At London Fashion Week over the last seven days the tide appears to have turned in favour of a ban here. MPs called for it, backed by industry insiders including Paul Smith's fellow designer Allegra Hicks and the fashion house Biba. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, said: "When models are unhealthily underweight it pressurises girls to starve themselves to look the same."

But while the fashion industry may finally be admitting that its bony waifs cause revulsion in the outside world, changing fashion culture will take a great deal of time and effort. The Independent on Sunday has peeked behind the backstage curtain over the past week to reveal the enormous pressures on young women to stay thin and work until they drop.

Any change will come too late for Jessica. As models and designers air-kissed and rushed around before the first show of the week at the Natural History Museum, she sipped mineral water backstage. The politics graduate had a body most women would die for, but in the unforgiving eyes of the fashion industry she is considered to be somewhat on the chubby side.

"I used to do catwalk and haven't really got any bigger, but I just got sick of being scrutinised all the time," said Jessica, who first started modelling at the age of 18 and recently appeared in a Roberto Cavalli perfume campaign. "I'm glad I'm out of it now but for a while I was caught up with staying thin. But now I'm older I realise it's a bad environment for anyone."

That environment is now under unprecedented scrutiny. Models, photographers and designers whizzed between venues under exhausting deadlines last week, before being escorted to the top after-show parties - where they tried to look achingly glamorous while nursing empty stomachs.

As Jessica spoke at the South Kensingon venue, the scale of the sacrifices being made by the models was painfully apparent. The IoS watched as models in a cramped room threw themselves in and out of clothes. It was littered with empty mini-bottles of champagne, the contents swiftly consumed with the help of straws, and in one corner was a stand promoting a new brand of fruit smoothies. The smiling PR girls told the models queueing up to taste them that the contents "will fill you up, and it's pure fruit".

The only solid food available was salad, in boxes piled up in one corner among the clothes that models had discarded between shows. They remained untouched. Toilet facilities were basic: a row of Portaloos, the type that are usually found at rock concerts.

One softly spoken young model from Liverpool said that the lure of modelling was so great that she had dropped out of school after taking her GCSEs to sign up. But at 23, she is now jaded and regrets ditching her education. "At first all the parties and restaurants were exciting and we were told by the agencies that we had to go to mingle and make some good contacts," she recalled. "But I soon realised that you couldn't talk to anyone because they were so wasted. So I don't buy into that scene any more."

Models who are determined to both work hard and play hard face a 12-hour day. In return, last week they received around £350 per show. The most they could do was three shows a day. There were also fittings, which often took place during the day and which paid another £50 a time.

The designer Zandra Rhodes was presenting her first show in 20 years at London Fashion Week and compared the experience to the film Death Wish II.

"It's such hard work - say one show starts at 9am and ends at 10am, then you have one and a quarter hours to get out before the next show comes in," said Ms Rhodes, who is known for her bright fabrics and flamboyant designs. "The designer has to oversee everything and make sure it is all being carried out because the model only has a few seconds [to make an impression] so you have to make sure she is at her best."

At the Emporio Armani party on Thursday night, at Brompton Hall in Earl's Court, there was plenty for the fashionistas to eat. If they wanted it. Hardly anyone did. Instead they picked at figs, or risked a slice of steamed chicken. Leonardo DiCaprio and Beyoncé bounced around as the models stood about, well, modelling.

Later in the evening, DiCaprio and Beyoncé headed off separately to their five-star hotels. But for the models who were lucky enough to go along to the party there was no room service and luxurious starched linen. Instead, it was back to their "model accommodation" - a dorm bed or cheap room - for a few hours' sleep.

According to Dylan Jones, editor of GQ magazine , the Armani party was the hot ticket of the week - apart, of course, from the one thrown by his own publication for David Bailey.

The whole weight issue was a "very small problem", he insisted, adding that tales of drugs and debauchery were also completely exaggerated. "Anyone who has been around the fashion industry for any period of time will see that the models have as much fun as anyone else their age. And I never see drugs."

However, others take a slightly more cynical view of an industry which image is everything and fat thighs are a strict no-no. Chemicals can enhance this. As can a daily diet of Marlboro Lights - the most conspicuous drug of choice visible backstage.

Chris Moore, who has captured catwalk images for more than 30 years, is the official photographer for London Fashion Week, covering shows including Armani andJulien Macdonald. A veteran of the fashion circuit, he dismisses the acres of newsprint that have been dedicated to the subject to the scandals about skinny models, but he is concerned about schoolgirls who may try and emulate the ultra thin look of the catwalk clotheshorses.

"Stories about models looking too thin is nonsense - they are just naturally thin people. I do think it is bad if they [the models] are making 11-year-olds go on diets. But their parents should be responsible - why are they watching catwalk shows at that age anyway?"

However, the director of fashion show production company Aston and Hayes, Glyn Hayes, said: "The skinny models that we see at the moment are taking it to far. They are beyond skinny. They have reached the point where there is a serious problem. When we photograph models we often use the digityal reconstruction programme, to make the legs look longer. If they look particularly thin we have to fill in the collarbones.

"Some of the girls look anorexic. They probably aren't, but they are employed to show off clothes, and being too skinny is not beautiful."

THE BMI FILE: How do models of decades past measure up to the under-18 body mass limit?

1960s

TWIGGY (BMI: 14.7)

At the age of 16, Twiggy wasthe world's first supermodel. At 5ft 8in she weighed only 97lb. Her boyish haircut and slight frame made her an iconic figure.

1970s

CHERYL TIEGS (BMI: 17.2)

At 17 a covergirl forElle, Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, her cover shot for the 1978 swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated became one of US's most popular posters.

1980s

ELLE MACPHERSON (BMI: 17.4)

Talent-spotted at university, this favourite of Elle and Sports Illustrated, pictured above right, enjoyed screen success in Sirens, had a cameo part in Friends and set up a lingerie business.

1990s

CLAUDIA SCHIFFER

(BMI: 17.7) Spotted in a nightclub, she was in the glossies within weeks and the face of Chanel. Her career includes 900 covers and films such as Love Actually.

2000

GISELE BUNDCHEN

(BMI: 17.4) Nicknamed Olive Oyl as a girl, she went on to model for Ralph Lauren, Versace and Val- entino. Has a multimillion-dollar deal with Victoria's Secret.

2006

LILY COLE (BMI: 15.6) With pre-Raphaelite red hair and porcelain skin, she was spotted at 14, out with chums. At 18, she has already done four Vogue covers.

ON THE WEB: Starvation sites inspired by stars

Websites depicting anorexia as a lifestyle choice rather than a life-threatening illness have adopted the stick-thin celebrities Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham as role models.

Despite efforts to close them down, "Pro-ana" sites thrive, supporting anorexia suffers who do not want to be cured. On "fasting forums", girls as young as 12 encourage each other not to eat. One 14-year-old cites Victoria Beckham as her idol, saying: "She is so gorgeous and skinny."

In "thinspiration" sections, photographs of models and actresses sit alongside webcam self-portraits of skeletal anorexics. Some sites carry the slogan: "Fuck food, I do it the Kate Moss way." Another girl says: "I'm so fat it drives me mad ... Kate Moss is my inspiration for all this."

On "fasting forums," visitors exchange advice on how to stave off hunger pangs and tips on how to fool doctors and parents.

Others have a sterner tone. One says: "Don't eat, fatty. You are still no supermodel like Kate Moss."

Martin Hodgson

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