Barely a semester into Yale, Robin Hazelwood, a chisel-jawed 5′ 9 1/2″ fashion model, got sick of the two responses she’d hear when a stylist or photographer discovered her Ivy League status. “You must be a genius!” was the most common, Hazelwood says. “The second was, ‘Well, there must be a lot of rich guys on campus.’ ”
“I think highly of myself, but I don’t think I’m exactly genius material,” says Hazelwood, now the author of Model Student: A Tale of Co-eds and Cover Girls (Crown), a chick-lit “cautionary tale” about the modeling industry. “But they would say it in all sincerity.”
Fat English-lit anthologies and fluorescent highlighters are foreign to the fashion world, but Hazelwood often had them in tow during her Yale years, from 1988 to 1992. She recalls cramming for a final during a shoot in the Caribbean—precisely where Emily Woods in Hazelwood’s roman à clef is found reading Milton on the beach by her feisty, gum-snapping hairdresser. (The coiffeuse’s reaction after flipping through Paradise Lost: “Good lord, you’re a genius!”)
As for the supposed rich guys, Hazelwood never needed them— she estimates she earned between $80,000 and $90,000 in the summer before her freshman year alone. Besides, Hazelwood explains over a Stoli soda in her Upper West Side neighborhood, “the broad strokes” of Emily’s character in Model Student mirror her own experiences, and throughout the book, Emily’s love affair is with runways and glossy magazine pages, not a fellow student.
In her lucrative liaison —long weekends in exotic locales, designer gifts, all the lettuce, champagne, and coke she could consume—young Emily, who attends Columbia, feels like an Ivy League philanderer, Barbie’s evil twin in a sea of Dukakis T-shirts and frayed jeans. She vows to keep her modeling gigs secret from her studious roommates and friends, tucking her designer frocks into storage bags and ceasing-and-desisting all shoulder pad and eyeliner use. (This is a sacrifice: It’s New York in the late ’80s.)
The secret holds for a couple hours, until half the Columbia football team arrives on Emily’s dorm doorstep, checking out her lanky frame and asking to see her fashion portfolio.
Hazelwood says she psyched up for freshman year at Yale by telling herself, “OK, Robin, this is a very intellectual bastion. People are going to be in the dining hall talking about Nietzsche and Proust—very serious things. No one can know you’re a model.” Hazelwood admits she was wrong about Proust buzz, but was right that mentioning modeling brought to the surface assumptions that her latest intellectual pursuit was more nail polish than Naipaul. In her inability to hermetically seal her work life from her world on campus, Hazelwood’s Emily confronts stereotyping on both fronts.
Our culture is fascinated by the mind-body problem presented by people—especially women–who are both physically and intellectually stunning. Pop culture lets beauty and smarts duke it out in game shows, like the WB’s recent Beauty and the Geek 2. The Miss America pageant, which began as a competition of looks, later adopted talent and interview segments; now it’s billed as a scholarship contest. The assumed beauty-brains paradox provided a plotline for America’s Next Top Model, during which cycle three runner-up Yaya Da Costa, a recent Brown graduate, had a heart-to-heart with host Tyra Banks about her decidedly non-intellectual career move. (Tyra: “Do you think you are going to choose one or the other?” Yaya: “I think of it like this: I’m 21 years old.”)
Most models, like most ballet dancers, don’t graduate college. To really succeed takes a full-steam approach at a wrinkle-free age. And as Emily discovers, taking off days to cram for finals or attend college formals doesn’t make casting-minded agents happy. Top Model‘s Da Costa says she feels lucky to have waited to graduate before making a career out of modeling. But to her, modeling is still a “surreal world” in which it is difficult to practice any of the four foreign languages she speaks while getting her hair done.
“In modeling you put on a mask and accept that they don’t want to hear you, that they don’t really care what you think,” Da Costa tells the Voice. “You learn to just play the game, and it’s very light and fluffy and convenient.”
Stanford student and part-time model Logan McClure, 20, encountered academia’s backlash against beauty early and often. During her senior year in an all-girls Palo Alto high school shortly after she began modeling, her class considered hosting an end-of-the-year fashion show. The idea was quickly squashed by fellow students protesting the objectification of women. McClure kept quiet, thankful that no one seemed to have seen her latest catalog appearances.
Once in college, McClure didn’t attempt to keep modeling secret—mostly due to the implausibility of doing so: Within weeks of starting classes at Stanford, a rumor spread that she’d modeled for Abercrombie & Fitch (she hadn’t). Denial was useless, because she’d appeared in plenty of other catalogs and was going to castings three days per week. Her friends were fascinated, and only one professor has found out.
“There is a shallowness in the industry, and there are the eating disorders,” McClure says. “When I was in Greece I lived with a girl who only ate fruit— ever. But another girl there from Norway is probably the most beautiful person I’ve ever met and she’s the only girl in her engineering class.”
Hazelwood’s novel deals in the industry’s underbelly of sex, drugs, and collagen, but she hopes Model Student doesn’t come across as a bitter tell-all. At least
she ‘s not bitter—she says her 13 years of catwalks and covers were worthwhile, because she didn’t miss too many lectures and got a lock on writing about an industry that is “darker and funnier” than even Zoolander portrayed. As for long-term side effects, Hazelwood says, “I’m reluctant to say it made me dumber, but my brain definitely thought more superficially. You kiss each other like 50 times when you say hello, but you don’t really know anything about them, you know?”