Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

‘About Face’: Yesterday’s supermodels take a long look in the mirror

Empathy for supermodels isn’t easy to muster, especially when their idea of suffering and personal travail seems so exquisite and remote.

Photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s film “About Face: Supermodels Then and Now” (airing Monday night on HBO) attempts to bridge some of the chasm between these famous beauties and the rest of us. The filmmaker hunts down several of the biggest names in modeling from decades ago to collect their thoughts on the profession and discover how they’ve dealt with the inevitabilities of age. There are some tender moments and honest reflections.

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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(Portrait (c) Timothy Greenfield-Sanders) - Carmen Dell'Orefice

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As with many documentaries about fashion folk (“Unzipped” and “The September Issue” both come to mind), though, a certain antiseptic quality is always present, making it difficult for the narrative to arrive at a solid theme: Is the fashion world a wonderful thing or a cultural travesty? Is this a movie about the rigors of modeling? A lost era? The emptiness of a life lived in front of the camera? The false promises (and rejuvenating hopes) of plastic surgery?

Or, in the end, do we just want to know what Cheryl Tiegs looks like these days? (In which case, we saw that on “Oprah’s” supermodel reunion episodes a while back.)

The film’s subjects — from Carmen Dell’Orefice, who has modeled since 1947; to ’70s glam queens such as Jerry Hall and Lisa Taylor; to more recent phenoms such as Christy Turlington — unload everything that’s on their minds about the profession, which often makes it seems as though they’re not really talking about anything,and instead partaking in a fashion-centric session of free association among friends.

This meandering approach does manage to excavate some fascinating tales and memories. “It was never really me,” says Paulina Porizkova, 47. “Working off your looks makes you pretty much the opposite of self-confident. So maybe I became beautiful when I stopped modeling.”

That statement seems ludicrous when set in type, but Greenfield-Sanders clearly has the trust of his subjects. Some of the things they say may seem loopy and even grandiloquent, but their collective wisdom and wit do have something to tell us about the profession— something deeper than we get from those reality TV shows in which today’s young women will claw one another’s eyes out for the chance at a magazine spread. (It was ever thus; we just didn’t watch it as a form of entertainment back then.)

Discovery remains a powerful and impossibly magical common narrative in the supermodels’ personal stories — how each came to the business, how she was spotted on the street, how she simply rose above all the other pretty faces. Once more, Jerry Hall drawls out her delightful story of how she went from working at the Mesquite, Tex., Dairy Queen to lolling on the beaches of the French Riviera, and, miraculously, landing a modeling career. “They [each] had something inside that came through,” Calvin Klein (unhelpfully) surmises.

They had something on the outside, too, Cal.

“About Face” skirts (no pun intended) the industry’s perennial bugaboos. Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison each give a different perspective on the racial barriers that vexed them and other black models until the ’70s. Various triumphs (the cover of Vogue, for example) were hard-won; diversity is still an obstacle.

And everyone has something to say about the deep inferiority complexes that came with the territory and could lead to unhealthy behavior. Abuse was a given (“What people called sexual harassment we called compliments,” Porizkova says with regret), drugs were plentiful, and it was easy for a supermodel to become a super monster. In the cokey Studio 54 days, “the look of the girls changed,” observes Jade Hobson, a former fashion director at Vogue. “They stopped smiling.”

On the subject of age, the women in “About Face” are somewhat circumspect. Karen Bjornson, 60, who had been among Halston’s favorite models in the ’70s, returned to the runway after a long hiatus, at the invitation of designer Ralph Rucci. When she saw photos from the fashion show, she decided to get her eyes done, which pleased her. Isabella Rossellini, also 60, says she has considered surgical intervention, but something about it makes her wonder if it’s another way to push beauty into the realm of suffering, like foot binding and other ancient techniques. Dell’Orefice, working at 81, laughs when the subject of the knife comes up. “If you had the ceiling falling down in your living room, would you not go and have a repair?”

Hall, looking fabulous at 56, is brash about mortality. “We all know [death] is coming, and it’s a borrrre,” she tells the filmmaker. “Why shouldn’t we be allowed to age? When I turned 50, I felt a sense of achievement.” Survival, in any form, really does seem to be the take-away here.

About Face: Supermodels Then and Now

(75 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m.
on HBO.

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