By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 13, 2008
The news that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is dating former model Carla Bruni is one of those bits of pop culture trivia that reaffirms suspicions that the world has gone topsy-turvy.
Rock stars date models. Actors date models. Donald Trump marries them. But heads of state are supposed to dally with women who spent their 20s writing their dissertations, not sashaying down a runway to the thump of house music.
This is a rule. For sure, it is based on stereotypes and jealousy. Models are dumb. Models aren't interested in health policy or agriculture subsidies. None of it's fair, but it's hard to get all sniffly about it. Because models have won a genetic lottery, having been blessed with long legs, fast metabolisms and faces that can move millions of units of unnecessary goods, they get to date the likes of Mick Jagger. (The lovely Ms. Bruni did.) Looking fierce can be hard, demoralizing work, as everyone who watches "America's Next Top Model" has learned. But posing like a gargoyle or a sunflower is not quantum physics, either.
Models already get the star athletes. The bookish debate-team captain should get the prime minister. And all will be right with the world.
There are several aspects to the Sarkozy-Bruni relationship that are disturbing, not the least of which was their decision to go public with their coupledom in December at Disneyland Paris. Were all the tasteful cafes full? And Bruni was not merely a model. She was a really famous model at a time when models had the high profile of Hollywood starlets. Sarkozy did not tour Egypt with someone who twirled in a few department store trunk shows or who parlayed her good looks into college tuition or seed money to start a business. Bruni posed and pouted for fancy European houses and, in the late 1990s, she cashed out and embarked on what has been described as a singing career. Alicia Keys, she is not. But no matter. It is fair to say that she is an ex-model who has gone on to other adventures. But that's no excuse for snuggling up with a world leader. Paul McCartney is available. Why not date him?
There's no set number of years that must pass before a modeling career is safely in one's past. But suffice it to say that the more successful the model, the more time required before the aroma of superficiality dissipates. Less than 10 years into her retirement, Bruni is still a bit fragrant.
Consider Iman. No one would consider her shallow. But she retired from modeling almost 20 years ago. She built a cosmetics business and launched a charitable campaign for AIDS awareness: "I Am African." And still Iman had the decency to marry a rock star -- David Bowie.
Models and heads of state simply don't go together. There was a time when models were pretty socialites who could hold an elegant pose. They were like young women who had excelled at charm school. But then came the 1960s youthquake, waifs and heroin chic. Mothers, don't let your babies grow up to be models!
The news that Naomi Campbell had interviewed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for a story in British GQ was enough to prompt snorts of disdain. Some of that is because Campbell, in addition to her fame on the catwalk, is well known for flinging communication devices at those unlucky enough to be in her employ. Did Chavez's security detail confiscate Campbell's cellphone? But the vast majority of the shock and dismay over a model being sent to do Christiane Amanpour's job is due to the fact that this is a woman who recently posed naked alongside designer Marc Jacobs -- who was wearing a tutu. She gets to have a tete-a-tete with a world leader?
The stereotype is that there is little of substance behind a model's pretty face. (It's a prejudice that male models have to overcome as well.) It's a stereotype exacerbated by the fact that many models are so young they haven't had the time to get a formal education or develop thoughtful opinions. Instead they've been forced to ponder their body, hair and face. Modeling rots the brain.
There's a word in popular culture for men who are obsessed with models: model-izers. They aren't drawn to the individual person but to the fantasy. And they're perceived as being just as shallow as the women they date are assumed to be.
The dismay over the relationship between Bruni and Sarkozy, whose second wife, Cecilia, had once modeled, is a magnification of the reaction to the sight of a bookish man with a bombshell woman. The juxtaposition doesn't do either of them any favors. She's likely to be considered a trophy. And he's Mr. Shallow.
Oh, the terrible burdens of beauty!
It's easy to swallow hard and not make a fuss when musicians chase models or when famous actors do. It almost seems like a prerequisite in their industries. But a world leader? Et tu? It's only natural that Sarkozy would like a pretty face as much as anyone. But if a law degree was featured as prominently on Bruni's résumé as supermodel, all would be right with the world.