Runway to Nowhere: Ford Supermodel of the World Competition and Make Me a Supermodel

A global model competition that wobbles. Plus, the latest example of displaying shell-shocked beauties.

"They look like hookers in the red-light district of every city in the world,” the sourpuss next to me says, gazing at the parade of shell-shocked beauties loping down the runway to tepid applause at the Ford Supermodel of the World Competition, in which young women from 50 nations—including one from a place called MySpace—compete for modeling contracts. Why are they all so sad? Is it because most of them can't understand a word anybody is saying? Or because after they lose they'll have to return to the mean streets of Vilnius and Sofia, Tallinn and Minsk without a cosmetics deal or the promise of one?

Maybe they're unhappy because of the hideous outfits they're wearing. At first, I assume that these black-and-gold ensembles, this plethora of garish prints, chains, and fringe are the result of a shopping spree in the best department store in Zagreb or Podgorica, but it turns out that, according to the contest's PR: "The clothes were all provided by the stylist Tiffany Dubin, it was a completion [sic] of vintage and modern pieces from all different designers selected by Tiffany.” I am sorry to hear this, because Dubin, a fellow traveler in the vintage world, is someone I've always had a soft spot for.

After two desultory turns on the runway, the presumptive supermodels return to their space on the podium and stand stock-still—No giggling! No fidgeting!—and the evening's host, who turns out to be the redoubtable André J., saunters out.

Disfarmer women circa 1940 (left); André J. and Chanel Iman, circa 2008
photo: Steven Kasher Gallery/Jen Graylock/Graylock.com
Disfarmer women circa 1940 (left); André J. and Chanel Iman, circa 2008

Do you know André? Until recently, he worked at the Patricia Field shop on the Bowery, the tall black guy with the stylish coif and the facial hair who wears women's clothes and looks like the bearded lady in the circus—but in a good way. Then, in a Cinderella story to rival anything experienced by the teenagers on the Ford runway, he was spotted eating a sandwich in the street by stylist Joe McKenna, who hooked him up with Bruce Weber, and the next thing you know he's on the cover of French Vogue and hosting events like this one.

Tonight, André is wearing an unusual garment that features a single pant leg in a soft chiffon, an ensemble that is at least as attractive as the getups the teens behind him are stuck with. After a few moments of banter, André leans over and plucks from the front row the septuagenarian mannequin Carmen dell'Orifice, and though he lauds her with fulsome praise, he does not appear to know her actual name. The spry dell'Orifice scrambles onto the stage to say a few words to the aspirants, which is great except that even if they understood English, would they want advice from someone old enough to be their great-granny?

Dell'Orifice tells them that she's been in the business for 62 years and that she knows that probably none of their shoes fit and that they must hate the clothes they're wearing, but it's not just about the glamour! It's a stepping-stone! (A stepping-stone to what exactly? To acting like Paulina Porizkova in Her Alibi? To writing novels like Naomi Campbell's Swan?) Finally, there's a drumroll, and the big winner is announced. It's not 14-year-old Valeria Cogut from Romania or 15-year-old Olivia Major from Sri Lanka. (Fourteen! Fifteen! Can I be the only one who thinks this isn't all right?) It's the comparatively ancient 20-year-old Seung-hyun Kang, the very pretty (but hey, they're all very pretty!) entrant from South Korea.

The size of the prize, a $100,000 contract, inflames André J., who unveils an aspect of his personality absent from his usual everybody-say-love sensibility. "I'm going to jack you after the show, girl,” he cackles. "I need new hair, too—and some shoes! I'm going to get her cash!” He turns to the baffled Kang. "Do you know what it means when someone is going to rob you at the end of show?” he asks. "No. Happy,” she replies.

And I'm happy for her too, I guess, though I wonder if, as with many of the people who win these things, we will ever hear from Seung-hyun Kang again. With models on my mind, I decide to take a look at Bravo's new Make Me a Supermodel, which I'm hoping I'll like better than America's Next Top Model, now in its 10th season. I was initially mordantly fascinated by America's Next Top Model, but the Machiavellian tricks played on the pathetic contestants rapidly grew tiresome. How many times can you watch the arrival of Tyra Mail, with its sadistic challenges: Ford the Ganges, climb Mount Everest, learn calculus in one day, smear mud on your private parts, eat something that looks like it was left over from Pink Flamingos—feats that have nothing whatsoever to do with modeling but are supplied to give the show some dubious dramatic traction and kill a whole hour.

But guess what? Make Me a Supermodel makes America's Next Top Model look like Troilus and Cressida. Because, as it turns out, the only thing worse than forcing would-be models to wallow in filth and learn Urdu is to let them just . . . model. Though the show has a few new spins—bumbling men join the inarticulate women, and viewers at home get to vote on who gets booted (the veracity of which I greet with deep suspicion, but maybe that's just me)—it makes for a long hour of viewing indeed.

Oh well. Next week, a cadre of young sylphs, who have never had to eat a moray or study at Berlitz, will defy child-labor laws and glide down the runways of New York's Fashion Week as the Dow plummets and consumer confidence approaches zero.

This sense of impending financial doom is likewise present at the Steven Kasher Gallery, at a show entitled Disfarmer: Women (521 West 23rd Street, through February 2), featuring photographs taken by a guy called Disfarmer in his photo studio on Main Street in Heber Springs, Arkansas, from the 1920s to the 1950s.

As it turns out, this Disfarmer was as much a creature of self-invention as André J. He was born Mike Meyer in 1884 but had his name legally changed in 1939 after telling his neighbors, apparently with a straight face, that he was blown into town at the age of three by a tornado. Remembered as a semi-recluse and genuine oddball, he was also a brilliant portraitist. Two days after the Ford contest, I am staring with delight at these pictures— a circa-1945 voluptuary in a swimsuit as big as a dress, sisters in ruffles and polka dots, one lone lady in a shabby fur (who'd wear a fur in Arkansas? OK, maybe I would)—when Kasher himself emerges from the back room.

Proving once again that authentic inspiration comes from everywhere, Kasher tells me that Karl Lagerfeld is a huge Disfarmer fan. When I seem skeptical, he assures me that Gerhard Steidl, who published an exquisite Disfarmer catalog in 2005, shared a copy of the book with Karl as soon as it came out.

Lagerfeld was reportedly enchanted by the homemade garments worn by these Southerners more than a half-century ago. And in fact they may be frayed and faded, they may bear the hallmark of uncertain needlework, they may be paired with the humblest work shoes, but their gentle appeal is far more fetching than the spangles sported by those pouty Ford girls.

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