Growing up in rural North Carolina, one of the few small pleasures I looked forward to each month as a teen was waiting for my issues of Teen, YM, and Allure to arrive in the mail.
Being born in the late 1970s meant that I came of age at the height of the 90’s “supermodel era.” Like many girls my age, I followed the lives of these beautiful, glamourous women and wished I could lead the lives that they did.
While I was under no delusions that I looked even remotely like them, I eagerly drank up their tips on how they supposedly maintained their fabulous looks—hoping that if I did what they did, maybe I could improve my own looks. Most of them claimed it was due to them eating well, drinking lots of water and keeping tons of sleep.
Like most naive teens, I took the words that came out of their mouths like The Gospel.
Later on, as an older teenager, it occurred to me that at least some of them may have been lying, especially about the sleeping part, given the numerous pictures that appeared of them in the media partying well-past dawn, often with lit cigarettes and drinks in their hands. As I grew older and learned more about the modeling and celebrity world, I came to realize that there was a good chance that nearly all of them were lying or at least greatly stretching the truth.
As it turns out, at least one former supermodel, Carre Otis, admits that she was lying and still harbors guilt about misleading her young fans at the height of her glory.
Otis, whose 2011 memoir Beauty, Disrupted revealed the very ugly truth about the fashion world, says that while she would publicly claim her supermodel body was the result of Jazzercise three days a week and a healthy diet of “chicken, oatmeal, and vegetables,” she was actually working out like a fiend for two hours a day seven days a week on a diet of black coffee and cigarettes.
At one point, her nails and teeth turned yellow (presumably as a result of her poor diet), and she even started to lose her hair. Even more disturbing is the claim that she developed three holes in her heart from nearly starving herself which resulted in her having to have emergency, life-saving surgery.
However, thanks to the skills of top hair stylists, make-up artists and photographers, as well as the magic of airbrushing, Otis was not only able to pull off the illusion that she was healthy and effortlessly beautiful, but even had teenagers writing her and asking her for tips.
While some cynics may read the above and wonder why on earth I am even talking about this and how this is even relevant today, the truth is, this is still going on. While Otis may no longer be a top model, there have been plenty of models and celebrities before and since her who lied or greatly downplayed the amount of effort that goes into their “perfect, effortless beauty.”
When Otis’s fellow 90s supermodel Linda Evangelista launched a child support case against her son’s father last year, she claimed she needed a full-time nanny saying that” on days when I do not work, I am working on my image. I have to hit the gym. I have beauty appointments. I have to work toward my next job and maintaining my image, just like an athlete.”
While some scoffed it this, I had no problems believing her having known people who worked behind the scenes in the fashion business.
As I mentioned in a previous piece, I knew a man who was a top make-up artist who worked on all the big models of the 90s and 2000s. Per him, nearly all of them smoked and even the most stunning never appeared before the camera without having spent hours getting their hair and make-up done by pros who earn more in a day than some people earn in an entire year.
While most women will never make a living based on their looks the way models do, the fact that these women, who arguably already look far-better than most the world’s population of women and who have “won” the genetic lottery, have to go to such efforts to look “perfect” is a sobering and depressing wake-up call to the rest of us.
If these women cannot look naturally and effortlessly perfect, then no one can.
However, even though we know more about Photoshopping and the other tricks of magic that go into creating these perfect images, many are still convinced that the perfection presented in these images are somewhat attainable.
While I confess that thumbing through fashion magazines is a guilty pleasure of mine, I am able to realize, thanks to the knowledge shared to me by insiders, that what I am seeing is no more true to life than the CGI characters and worlds that I saw in The Lord of Rings trilogy.
Unlike some, I don’t think the solution is to ban fashion magazines. I would like to see far less manipulation of images, but I doubt that is going to happen given that the illusion of perfection sells and sells well.
Instead, I wish there were labels that said something like: Note: what you are viewing is fiction and is not based on real life. Enjoy, but know this is not reality.
I also wish that more celebrities like Otis would come forward to share their stories. While not everyone’s may be as extreme as hers, I doubt she is far from alone. What would be even better is if some spoke up now, while they are still at the height of their fame. Some will say that will never happen, but here’s hoping it may.
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Ed: Sara Crolick