But the most striking thing is this: beautiful people en masse have roughly the same effect as a bottle of aspirin - totally anodyne

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Stylist has long since dropped out: a pair of doe-like eyes is not a strong hand to hold. Designer, photographer and I hunch aggressively over the formica, fighting to the bitter end. "See you one and raise you one." We study our cards. They're large: not so easy to manipulate, but the detail is fantastic. "What've you got?" "A three of little pointy chins." "You?" "Yeah. See that two, raise three." "I'll see you". Photographer pouts, shrugs. Lays his cards on the table. "A flush." "What of?" "Button noses." Triumphantly I lay mine down. "Five-card straight. Cups AA through D." "Damn."

Model-card stud is a tough game: you have to be ruthless and you have to have total self-belief to get to the top. The rules aren't clear-cut like they are in other games: sure, you've got your basic traditions of ascendancy - and luck, of course, plays a major part, but so, unlike modelling, does originality. You've got to be able to see those special features and use them: in model-card poker, it's differences that count: a pair of roman noses, for instance, will beat a flush of rosebud lips hands down.

Designer, stylist and photographer have been working; I've just been along for the ride. We've spent the day cabbing from agency to agency, developing coffee-imbalances and extra-large yawns as a stream of kids is herded past us hoping to be picked for the slaughter. Sometimes they're in books, sometimes they're on walls. And in the wood-floored, white-walled atmosphere of the Elite agency, they've been trotted out in the flesh (what there is of it) to tell us their names in their little voices and look hopeful beneath the layers of panstick masking their beautiful complexions.

There's nothing like a model agency to give you an appetite for a sausage sandwich. It's not so much the girls themselves as the bookers, with their salad-and-grape pitta-bread lunches and their adjectival armaments. Bookers have sharp haircuts, sharp faces and totally angular personalities. The words "amazing", "extraordinary", "wonderful", "so professional" and "such a character" trip from their tongues as they wave photographs of indistinguishable pubescents under your nose.

"She's fantastic," warble the bookers as we huddle over a glossy of another child who should by rights have been playing hopscotch and bothering old blokes with the way she eats ice lollies, "Incredible personality. We can't bring her up to see you 'cause she's still at school, but she's got great potential". Their computer terminals are plastered with Post- It notes saying things like "I love you loads and loads and everybody thinks your (sic) great." And then you overhear them swearing on the phone to their boyfriends and saying things to their colleagues like: "He's such an idle sod. If he doesn't get off his arse soon there's going to have to be a split," and you understand that beneath these darling exteriors beat the hearts of secondhand car salesmen.

The secondhand cars are lined up, waiting to trip over to us, ignoring each other and all dressed exactly alike - skinny-rib top, cotton A-line mini, knee-boots. Everyone wants to be Jean Shrimpton these days, though prawn cocktail is often closer to the truth. "Do you like it in London?" photographer asks an exhausted-looking Swede. "Oh, yes," she replies. "I hope to live here one day. Find a good Englishman and settle down."

You learn a lot about beauty when you're confronted with a whole slew of it. Those cheekbones that bulge out above an inverted isosceles trench, for instance. You know how you get that look? By having teeth like a horse, that's how. Wrinkle-less skin is usually accompanied by a total lack of movement in the facial muscles. But the most striking thing is this: beautiful people, en masse, have roughly the same effect as a bottle of aspirin - totally anodyne. Ikea may claim we've come a long way, but your average rag-trade impresario doesn't want a woman to look interesting enough to distract the eye from their clothes, and the ideal female body is still one that doesn't traumatise the male of the species with the fact that it menstruates.

We gather handsful of cardboard and dive into the first bap-joint we come across. Order white-bread sandwiches with loads of ketchup, Coke (diet) and an ashtray. Designer and stylist bitch about the day, laying cards out one by one. "That one," says stylist. "I mean, the teeth. Dentistry's free on the NHS for kids, isn't it?" "Have you seen the arms on this one? She'd never pass quality control at Asda."

"You're really good at talking to them," stylist says to photographer, who has been food-poisoned by the three bottles of wine he shared with me the night before and has been grizzling all morning. "Yerr, well," he replies round a mouthful of food, "I like to see if their expressions can change." I fondly finger the spot that's coming up on my chin. "Anybody fancy a game of stud?" "Okay," says stylist. "Brunettes are trumps, yeah?".

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