A little bit of heaven on earth

Forget about Prada purses and Chanel shoes, the only accessory some cover girls (and boys) need is the Good Book. Katherine Griffiths meets the Models for Christ
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It's Tuesday evening in the middle of Manhattan. Away from the hustle and bustle of the streets, in a quiet room a group of models are engrossed in conversation. Willowy, with flawless skin and glossy hair, you would expect their chat to focus on the latest shows, or which photographers they are working with. In fact they are discussing how to lead a Christian life.

It's Tuesday evening in the middle of Manhattan. Away from the hustle and bustle of the streets, in a quiet room a group of models are engrossed in conversation. Willowy, with flawless skin and glossy hair, you would expect their chat to focus on the latest shows, or which photographers they are working with. In fact they are discussing how to lead a Christian life.

This is Models for Christ, a Christian organisation set up by a former Ford agency model, Jeff Calenberg, to give spiritual guidance to people blessed with some of the best looks on the planet. Many dressed in baseball caps and Ugg boots, about 70 people attend, including some of the big names of the Milan, London and New York catwalks.

One of the biggest dilemmas for Christian models, it seems, is how to negotiate the tricky waters that accompany their professional lives. In an industry famed for drink, drugs and casual sex, many of the attendees are looking for support to keep them from temptation.

Calenberg, once one of Ford's most successful models, says: "There are plenty of people in our industry who have gone through tragedy because of the pressures on them. There is a high casualty rate." In response to his own experiences in the industry, Calenberg set up the informal Christian gatherings with his wife, Laura Krauss, in their New York apartment in 1984.

Despite the group only being publicised by word of mouth, Models for Christ has mushroomed. It now has a mailing list of 500, along with chapters in Los Angeles and Miami. And while the group is seen by some as slightly strange, it has gained a strong following. It has also become too big to be held at the Calenberg-Krauss home. The weekly meetings now take place in an office just a few blocks away from Gucci, Chanel and the other temples of fashion the young men and women work for.

While not a secret group, those who turn up that are not connected to fashion are politely asked to leave. The organisation is fiercely protective, not least because famous models who have run into serious addictions or other problems often turn up looking for salvation. At tonight's meeting, a designer for Calvin Klein talks about the problems she has with men. Like many of the congregation, she confesses that her behaviour had veered away from the strict Christian values she was brought up with.

Petite, with grungy blonde curly hair, she says: "It was so easy to get distracted. I would go to a club and it was easy to meet someone of the opposite sex to deal with my longing and loneliness. Then I would be quick to make a date and turn it into a huge relationship, to try to justify what I was doing."

She found God two years ago, when she was with a "verbally abusive" boyfriend. Now, she says, she only wants relationships that are "edifying". "I'm very careful who I spend my time with - I am completely different from the person I was," she says.

One of the aims of Models for Christ is to support those recovering from life crises or addictions. But the organisation also encourages its members to give back to their communities. Recently, a group worked on a church homeless project in New York's fashionable Bowery area, where many of the models also attend services. They also act as a mentoring service for young models - some not even out of high school - who operate in the often ruthless world of fashion. Yet, while even its less well-known members can earn about $80,000 to shoot a single advert, these models are not expected to make donations to their cause. Instead, Calenberg simply asks that they give their time.

Shea Pizzolatto, 17, of Irish, Italian and Colombian descent, attends regularly with her mother, Flora. Loose-limbed and with a girl-next-door look, Shea has been doing some catalogue work and wants to move on to bigger projects. Her dream is to be requested for the new collections. In Models for Christ, she's found a spiritual network with which she can identify. Back at her home in New Jersey, Shea, who is finishing high school via a home-studies course, says most of her friends are Christian.

Mrs Pizzolatto, Shea's mother, is pleased that her daughter has someone to look out for her. "Sometimes Shea goes for an interview against 400 people, and she is not always going to get it. It is nice to come here and be with people who are trying to do the right thing."

Seventeen-year-old Anna Lynne Mccord, a model with Miami-based agency Images, has been coming alone to the meetings for a few months. Mature for her age, she ended up in New York at 15 after leaving school in Florida and being told she had to support herself. Anna Lynne says she has only recently found meaning in Christianity . "For the first time in my life I am able to live life as I feel like, but under God's supervision."

It is not difficult to see the appeal of any group that extends a friendly hand to people who, as one female designer puts it, are regularly told "they are not pretty enough, thin enough or as successful as someone else". Katie Ford, the chief executive of the Ford modelling agency, also recognises its benefits. "They are still children," she says of the young people she puts on her books. "They need a mentor."

Ford requires that her models move to New York with a guardian until they are 18. If this is not possible, the young models must stay in a company apartment, where their food will be cooked, they will be accompanied to the doctor and there is a curfew. Ford says on the rare occasions someone looks like they are in trouble, "we tell their parents and suggest they could see a psychologist".

Models for Christ is there for those whose agencies are not so stringent. And while it encourages attendees to avoid drink and drugs, it does not insist that they go to church.

It also tries to show people they do not have to take jobs they are uncomfortable because of their religion. Calenberg, who does more photography than modelling now, says he used to tell bookers at Ford that he would not do ads for the tobacco industry, the biggest source of revenue for male models. Instead, he preferred to be the chisel-jawed father in the Christmas campaign of Bloomingdales, the New York department store. "They were wonderful images that inspired family values. I was blessed to be able to do that."

He says it is important to show younger models that rejecting jobs that are against their conscience, or refusing to join in with drug-taking or heavy drinking, will not harm their chances. "A lot of people think the industry is evil. But it is possible to enjoy the job and do well in it, and not to be dragged down into a cycle of destruction."

In fact, being Christian can help with career prospects. Models for Christ has a networking side that allows people, who just happen to share religious beliefs, to assess whether they can be useful to each other. Photographers, agents, bookers and talent scouts also attend the meetings. At its most recent gathering was a man called Aristeo, who used to be a designer for Christian Dior and who now runs his own model agency, Ikon.

Nathan, 28, who prepares the meal every month and whose day job is doing catalogue work, says that people have little choice but to be "out there networking" in his business. "This is what this is for - to surround yourself with good quality people."

In some ways, the views of the style gurus who find fellowship through Models for Christ might seem rather convenient. "God is the great creator and the great designer, and the way I have to look at it is that God has placed me here," says the Calvin Klein designer. As for people's temptation to buy her highly priced goods: "That is between them and their financial situation."

But Calenberg and others are also aware that they have been lucky and that they should give time to community projects such as helping the homeless. "We have been very successful," he says, "and we feel we've been given a lot. We like to share that with others, both the underprivileged and in terms of mentoring those in the industry now who we want to grow spiritually."