Tuesday, April 28, 2009











Sunday, April 26, 2009




TAKEN FROM DLISTED. Bea Arthur really did tango off to heaven yesterday. My soul is still weeping. Mostly because it hit me out of nowhere. And also, Bea was a true talent in every sense of the phrase. The simple fact is that Bea just wanted to entertain and didn't give ten shits about being famous. A born performer who didn't take herself too seriously. There really aren't many like her left.






Wednesday, April 15, 2009


What drama! What intrigue! What mystery! What emotion! Oh, sorry. I was just thinking about my trip home for Easter. Now where were we? Oh, right. The Hills. Yes. Spencer and Heidi are no more.

If we are to believe that they ever really were. Or if we're to believe television, which has been lying a lot to us lately. But Heidi and Spencer may be the grandest lie of them all. Was this muddled, factory-cut couple ever really a couple? Or were they simply drawn into each other's hungry orbits by the pull of MTV's dark gravity? Did they see in each other a collection of warm pockets in which they could entrust their hearts and other body parts, or was it merely a cold transaction, like buying deli meats at the supermarket? I suspect it was probably somewhere in between—their relationship was probably akin to that of organ grinder and monkey assistant. They love each other a bit, yes, but mostly it's about the work, about the money. Plus one of them is covered in fur.

The episode began as most horrible episodes do, with Spencer the Fleshbeard chatting glumly with his horrible sister, Spencerina. Because this show has been straining for plotlines ever since Audrina hopped aboard that stagecoach made of spiderwebs and flew off into the night sky, the producers have been forced to shove the malformed Spencerina front and center. There she dances hideously in her soiled tutu, scary sideways accordion music playing, an old woman loudly sobbing somewhere unseen. "Aren't... I... a pretty... girl?" Spencerina plaintively asks through hacking coughs and toothless whistles. Her glass eye falls out and plink plink plinks down the hall. "Love... me?" she asks, as dust comes wheezing out of her ear holes.

Actually she talks to Spencer about his disappearing girlfriend and about how she was in Colorado and a boy named Cheddarblock was eying her like my dog eyes the stockings on Christmas morning; not much to look at on the outside, but what mysterious treats might lie within... So Spencer was like "evs" and Spencerina didn't seem to find anything wrong with playing both sides of this muddy, shit-filled field so MTV nodded its head and said "OK."

Meanwhile there were goings down at Fashion. Lauren, our wistful wind-blown heroine, had a meeting with the very scary Kelly Cutrone. Now that Whitney has been gone for a long time and she's already had her whole show "happen" and the world has forgotten her entirely, Kelly decided that it was time to have a meeting about "How do we replace Whitney?" Lauren suggested teaching one of those moving-eye cat clocks to talk, and Kelly admitted that it was a very good idea and a very close approximation to the real thing, but she still needed something else. After affixing googly eyes and a wig on a large ham, and finding that not quite right either, they decided to hold interviews. "Do you know anyone?" Kelly asked, bored and looking off into the distance almost as if she knew what Lauren would say next. "Spencerina," Lauren whispered into the quiet room. "Bring her in," Kelly mumbled. Then everyone—Kelly, Lauren, the camera crew, the people outside on the street, me, probably my dog in Boston—began weeping profusely.

So Lauren met with the shitty thing and told her that they were looking for interns. "How would one... hypotechnically ... go about... getting... a .... jorb... at... Fashion?" Spencerina asked, an earwig crawling around in her hair, her wooden leg mildewy and graying. "Like any other job," Lauren said. Like any other job that you get while being on a TV show. So Lauren got Spencerina an interview and she rushed home to iron her best Grown Up Girl clothes and write her little resume. "Work Experience..." she typed with one little be-Lee'd fingernail. "One time I helped gramma move some boxes to the attic. Another time I moved my friend Belinda's car out of Ryan McKenzie's driveway because Liam needed to take Marcy home because she was tripping but Belinda was too drunk to back her car out herself. The neighbors weren't too mad about the mailbox. Or the cat."

Back at Mordor, Spencer came home from God knows where—following a divining rod around looking for Patron, reading a finance book by Donald Trump upside down while some day-shift hooker bounced up and down on his lap, ominously lurking near a schoolyard fence whispering someone's name—and Heidi bellowed from the sex-making room "Spennnceerrr? Is that youuuu?" It was Spencer. And he lunked into the bedroom and they got into a fight because of Cheddarbob and because of Stacie the Waitress and Heidi was mad at Spencer for making her feel feelings when he knows that hurts her face so and Spencer was mad at Heidi for being mad because it was really harshing his mellow or something so they just stormed off in opposite directions, Spencer out the door, Heidi into the wall, which she hit and fell over, her legs and arms still moving as she lay on the floor. All around them buildings collapsed and cars and hydrants and people were sucked into the ground. The La Brea mammoth got up and walked away East, out to the Inland Empire, where he could disappear into that vast, empty desert.

Spencerina woke up and Hoku's "Perfect Day" was playing on the radio and she knew that the interview would go well. She put on her Big Girl trousers and her Believe In Yourself blouse and got into her car. After about twenty minutes she realized that she wasn't getting anywhere. So she went back into the house, got the keys, and went back to the car. When she showed up to People's Revolution, she was very nervous. She clutched her little resume and Lauren beamed at her bemusedly and said "I like your Successful Sistah shoes." Spencerina said "Thanks. A homeless woman threw them at me." So they sat there awkwardly for a while, elevator muzak playing, Spencerina flipping absent-mindedly through a copy of Ranger Rick. "I love this magazine, but the articles are just too long," she said to no one in particular. Finally it was time to go see Kelly. Spencerina gulped and headed up the stairs, whispering to herself "the penitent man shall pass, the penitent man, the penitent man... the penitent man... KNEELS!" and she deftly avoided the spinning blades that would have lopped her head off.

After almost dying several other times on the way to Kelly's office (at one point Lauren cried out at her desk "But in the Latin, Jehovah is spelled with an I..."), she finally pushed open the large doors and there was Kelly, sitting there in chain mail. "I brought... resume..." Spencerina stuttered. And it was all downhill from here. She started chatting aimlessly and dumbly about how she wanted to be a handbag designer and about how awesome Kelly's PR was and things were awesome and, um, handbags? Kelly gave her the hairy eyeball and said "So you want to come here and exploit my clients and techniques to make handbags?" Spencerina said, "No, I meant like long term handbags, like in ten years!" Kelly laughed and pressed the button under her desk that typically sends the interviewee up into a pneumatic tube but she forgot that the repair guy wasn't coming until Thursday and oh fuck this.

The thing about the handbag thing... Didn't Spencerina just seem so dumb at that moment? Like, the thing always seems like a hopping idiot, but this was special. Dumb because, really, this girl has clearly not taken one fucking honest hour's worth of her time to just sit down and think about what she wants to do with her life. So here's dumb, fattened, aimless youth, everyone. This hideous thing yipping about handbags as if that's a job. It's not a job. Neither is "I'm going to have my own skin care line," idiot on Real Housewives of Orange County. None of that is real. But more importantly, don't act like anyone owes you these ridiculous non-jobs. You aren't owed shit. You owe us. You, Spencerina the Brave Mumbling Idiot, you owe us.

As she left the interview, a car drove by, Hoku's "Another Dumb Blonde" playing softly on the radio.

Anyway, sorry. So Kelly decided to bring the potato sack onto the team, with a caveat issued to Lauren that if (when) she fucks up, Lauren has to fire her. Because Kelly don't play that. She bopped Lauren over the head and trotted off and as I watched her head back upstairs to her office I shook my head and thought to myself "She chose... poorly."

Then it was time for the real blowdown. Heidi was having fish dinner with Handbags and they decided to find Spencer out at the clurb. Miraculously, Handbags knew just where to find him. It was this totally off the hizzy new club called H.Wood, which is short for H. Wood Jeblome, a prominent Los Angeles financier and restaurateur. So there indeed was Spencer. He was lounging on a couch with the wicked bitch Stacie the Waitress and her two idiot friends who will look back on this experience one day and think "Oh god, oh god oh god oh god," their trembling hands clutching long cigarettes, the last desperate light of the day clinging to the sad red rocks of Sedona. "Where did I go?" they will think, their vodka lemonades just a little too strong, but they'll drink it anyway and they'll just chug a lug here in this pocket of Arizona, hoping that some vortex will one day work its magic and soothe this strange, clawing pain.

But in the present, there they were on couches with Spencer and his friend, Barney Rubble. Stacie is a really creative girl so she said she wanted to request "Pour Some Sugar On Me" by that great band "The 80's", and Spencer grinned and said he hoped that meant sexy dancing on bars and stuff. Stacie said of course it did, but sadly she didn't get the opportunity to prove it, because Heidi and Handbags showed up, their milk pails sloshing and the cows behind them mooing, their braids blowing softly in the Alpine winds. "What are you doiiiiiiiiinggggg?" Heidi bellowed. Spencer removed his penis from Stacie's mouth and was all "Nothing, stop getting mad, what the fuck, fuck." Handbags then called Stacie and her friends sluts, and Stacie got involved and everyone just started bickering at each other until Heidi fired a gun into the air and everyone went silent. "This... Ends... Here!!!" she yelled. She was done. It was over. She dropped the gun on the floor and ran out, Handbags flapping away in tow.

The next day it was time to rehearse the play, Manhattan Beach Memoirs: Heidi & Spencer Break Up: This Time It's Personal. They met at some airy outdoor cafe, safe and open, lots of witnesses, you know the drill. Heidi, having had a really dumb conversation with Handbags the night before, said that maybe the couple should try therapy. Hint hint, went the elbows and you could just see MTV's reality version of In Treatment with fucking Dr. Drew or something forming in the mind of some horrible programming exec, a bulge forming in the crotch of this lame 41-year-old's skinny jeans. But it was not to be. Spencer didn't understand why someone who went to "one extra year" of school should tell him how to live his life. Spencer, therapists have to do more than one year of college. Which is what I assume you meant. Because one more year of school than you would be freshman year of college. So. There you go.

But Heidi made it an ultimatorium: either therapy or we are over, Spence. Spencer just sat there glowering. And then The Hills did something I've never actually seen them have the balls to do before. They hired an extra to play a waiter, who, with convenient timing, came over and asked the warring couple: "Can I get you anything else?" Heidi shook her head, overcome by, but secretly proud of, all of this swelling drama, and said "No. We're done." And they were! She got up and walked off, her dumb butt swaying down the filthy LA street.

But of course they're not really done. Nothing is ever really done on this show. They'll get back together and continue to bicker and Handbags will try desperately to keep them together because otherwise she has no reason to be on the show and then she might actually have to try to get a real job and be a real person and enter into the world and in thirty years she'll hop in the LeBaron and leave Bakersfield behind and she'll drive all night to Sedona and there will be those two slutty whores, sitting on a deck, overlooking a Red Robin parking lot, and they'll drink grapefruit juice and vodkas and they'll smoke Dunhills that some old boyfriend brought back from Europe, years and years ago, and that will be a few afternoons. And when she dies, there will be a small break in the clouds, out above some stony mesa, and you'll know that some glimmer, a logo, a designer nametag, some tiny bit of soul has escaped this earth.

In the meantime though, she'll sit and watch the ocean pound the surf, over and over again, and wonder where all the little bits of sand came from. If they were always there, or if it just took a long time for some large thing to break down, to bust, to burst, to scatter bravely into pieces.

Handbag wishes, to you and yours.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Over the years, Steven Meisel has developed an extraordinary body of work, an almost impenetrable mystique—and an uncanny knack for finding fashion's favorite faces.
By Jonathan Van Meter. Photographed by Steven Meisel.
Once, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away—early-nineties, supermodel-mad Manhattan—I went to a party at music producer Shep Pettibone's midtown apartment. It was a sultry July evening, and he lived in a penthouse with a huge terrace. The party had a decadent feeling: Everyone smoked; there were well-stocked bars inside and out; the crowd was by any definition a beautiful one. I got the sense that things would still be going on long after I had gone to bed.

At one point, I noticed that Steven Meisel and his tight little clique—which on that evening included a tall, cute blond guy and Naomi Campbell—were languidly slouching about, smoking. I had just run out of cigarettes, and so I turned and asked the group if I could bum one. Meisel, who had a bandanna covering his head and dark sunglasses on, did not even glance up.

The encounter—the first of many times in my life when I would not meet Steven Meisel—left an indelible impression, which was one of intimidating inscrutability. The fact that for so many years he has worn what amounts to a hip-gay-male version of a burka has only added to my perception of him as a creature of mystery. He is always covered up! Even when it's blazing hot out, he's got on some sort of headgear and layers of black clothing. It is a look that is designed to obfuscate and to keep people away. And it works.

Over the years, Meisel has become ever more reclusive, rarely going to fashion shows or parties, almost never giving interviews. There have been no retrospectives or gallery openings or lush coffee-table books published, nothing that would require him to face the public. His friends—to a one—say that he is shy and especially reserved around strangers, and they insist that his mysteriousness is not a cultivated affectation; it is just part of his nature.

"I think that he almost has to be that way to protect himself," says Amber Valletta. "He's so extremely sensitive."

Linda Evangelista, who is one of Meisel's closest friends, sees it a bit differently. "He's just private. He's not a media whore. I bet he had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do this story. But it's got nothing to do with being mysterious. Fame and glory are not going to bring him satisfaction in life."

Even Madonna agrees that there is, indeed, "a great sense of mystery" about Meisel—so much so that after all these years she feels she still doesn't really know him very well. "I know that I love him," she says. "You get sucked into his aura. He knows things."

She learned this from one of their first collaborations, which was for the cover of Like a Virgin. "Before I worked with Steven," says Madonna, "I just showed up in the clothes I was wearing, stood in front of the lights, and got my picture taken. With Steven, a team of people descended on me, started to undress me. Someone grabbed my hair, another grabbed my face, another started helping me try on various bits of clothes, and they all seemed to be speaking a language I didn't understand—the language of Steven Meisel."

To hear Madonna talk about working with Meisel is like being let in on a long-held secret. She goes on, "Steven had a vision. He had done his research. He had very specific references. I really respected the care that he took with his work, how seriously he approached it, but at the same time he has a great sense of irony. He made me feel like I was part of something important. He treated each photo shoot like it was a small film and insisted that we create a character each time we worked but then would make fun of the archetypes we created. He was the first person to introduce me to the idea of reinvention." Who knew that Madonna, the goddess of reinvention, learned it from Steven Meisel.

Meisel's nearly 30-year career as a fashion photographer has been distinguished by two things: his unusually collaborative relationships with women and an almost perverse dedication to constant change, which, come to think of it, is a good description of fashion itself. In his work for, among others, this magazine, Italian Vogue (for which he has shot every cover since 1988), and innumerable fashion-ad campaigns, he has mastered so many different styles—from stripped-down studio shots of models in action to high-concept social satires, from lush couture shoots to high-glam camp—that it can be difficult to pin down whether there is a distinctive Meisel style at all.

"One of the reasons the world has been slow to recognize his contribution is that he is an absolute chameleon," says Charlotte Cotton, the photography curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Cotton, who considers Meisel the commercial photographer of our time, says he belongs in the pantheon of image-makers with Avedon, Penn, and Newton. "It's a remarkably risky position to take. It's like starting from scratch every time you go on a shoot, because it's based on whatever influences you've cherry-picked from the culture at that moment."

In preparation for this month's exhibition, "The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion," Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, has been poring over Meisel images from the eighties and nineties. In doing so, he has realized that there are a couple of things about a Meisel photograph that come close to a signature. For one, Meisel is a true postmodernist. "He samples only those things from the past that can be electrified by a contemporary aesthetic," says Koda.

The other quality that characterizes Meisel's work is a strange kind of precision. "The thing that looks like Steven is an obsessiveness with an almost chilly perfection," says Koda. "Even if the models are meant to look tousled, they are perfectly tousled," he says. "There's never a moment where there isn't this intrusion of the photographer into a very controlled image."

He brings up Meisel's infamous Versace campaign, shot in over-the-top mansions in Beverly Hills with Amber Valletta and Georgina Grenville, who are made up and posed to look like the most glamorous sixties Stepford wives imaginable. "I think that's Steven at his best, when he has inserted his own imagination of reality into the photograph and it becomes this kind of hyperreality," says Koda. "I really see a directorial role in the way he takes photographs."

If Steven Meisel is like a film director, then his movie stars are, of course, the supermodels. The term was coined by an agent in the 1940s, but if we are to give one person credit for our idea of Supermodels, capital S, that credit would have to go to Meisel. Christy, Linda, and Naomi—no last names necessary. Of course, there were famous models before, but none who permeated every aspect of the culture—and embodied it—in quite the same way.

As Koda says, "He really is a kind of a Svengali in terms of being able to take a range of beautiful women and transform their particular look into the look of the moment. And he has the business savvy to be able to create careers."

I spent a goodly part of my winter tracking down many of the women Meisel "made." Naomi rang from a car as a fellow named Yuri drove her around Moscow (she yelled at him only once during our talk). I interviewed Linda while I was sick with the flu. (She offered to have chicken soup sent over.) Christy almost didn't call me at all, because she was busy studying for her master's degree in public health at Columbia University. I found Carolyn Murphy living nearly off the grid somewhere in Southern California; Liya Kebede in New York; Coco Rocha in Australia; Amber Valletta in Santa Monica. Stella Tennant called from Scotland, and Kristen McMenamy from a closet in her house in London, where she had to hide so her kids couldn't hear her.

The first thing you realize is how similarly articulate, funny, and intense these women are. The second thing you notice is that they all view Meisel as the opposite of inscrutable—as a nurturing father figure. "He makes you feel so safe," says Linda. Carolyn Murphy describes Meisel as a "proud papa. He pays attention, and you know that he's really interested in you." Valletta says, "He always inspired me to care about what I was doing."

McMenamy believes that Meisel empathizes with women, models in particular. "I think pretty much all models have got a hang-up about one thing or another. I have a huge hang-up about my looks. I was always the outcast growing up. When I first worked with him, he made me feel beautiful and comfortable. And there's this certain magic in that he makes you feel part of the team. He makes you feel as important as he is."

"He has this incredible gift for being able to find the diamond in the rough," says Liya Kebede. "He sees you when you first arrive on the set and you look unpolished, and then he finds the girl inside."

All of the women say that they "owe their careers" to Meisel. "It's a very strange thing," says Stella Tennant. "He's a bit like my fairy godfather, I suppose." She laughs. "But it was like that! You shall go to the ball! And you shall be on the cover of American Vogue! Because that's quite a power to have. There are other photographers who have it to some degree, but I don't think any other photographer can project a model so far and so high into the business." Meisel's most recent muse, Coco Rocha, agrees: "If he says it's so, it's so. And that makes your career. He's the Godfather of all models."

Full disclosure: I have never met Steven Meisel. I have been to a few of his photo shoots over the years, where he works literally behind a scrim. A couple of years ago, I think I might have clapped eyes on him as he scurried from the designated hair-and-makeup area (where I could hear gales of laughter coming from Pat McGrath and Garren) and then ducked back behind the curtain. At a Linda Evangelista shoot I went to, he was working inside what seemed like a black box. I could hear his voice, a barely audible murmur, as he gave Linda direction or expressed his pleasure over something she was doing with her upper lip or her hand.

When I first contacted his office, he agreed to a phone interview, which we decided should be an hour long. We picked a Tuesday at noon and then, weirdly enough, stuck with Tuesdays at noon for several weeks, like it was ironclad and I was his shrink whom he couldn't bear to see in person.

Meisel was surprisingly forthcoming on the phone—willing to entertain pretty much any question. But he was also brusque and impatient—sort of perpetually annoyed with the idea of doing an interview at all. Because he has such a thick outer-borough New York accent, I sometimes felt as if I were talking to a cranky but very funny old Jewish grandmother. I noticed that he seemed to want to take control of the interview; for example, he would answer one of my questions and then ask himself a follow-up question. And then answer it! At other times he completely relaxed into the process and just talked.

I began to enjoy this unusual process, partly for its novelty but mostly for its strange intimacy. There's something lovely and old-fashioned about talking on the phone once a week for a month. Who does that anymore?

Turns out Meisel does. "I used to spend hours on the phone with him," says Anna Sui, who has known him since they went to Parsons together in the seventies. "He loves that." Turlington also mentions their marathon sessions. "I would talk to him on the phone as I would to a girlfriend in high school, both watching the same TV show, talking through the whole thing."

It's clear that, as with everything he does, Meisel likes to be in charge. He insisted on taking me through things chronologically. If I jumped ahead in time, he would stop, put a mental marker on the subject, and then address it when we'd arrived at the appropriate place for it in his story.

Steven Meisel was born in Manhattan in 1954, but he was essentially raised on Long Island. His parents, Sarah and Leonard, moved him and his sister, Robin, to Port Washington when he was about three. (When I ask if his parents are still living, he says, "Still alive! Still married!") Leonard is 95 ("still cantankerous!"); he is of Russian-Jewish descent; Sarah, who is Irish-English, is 85 and still comes into the city once a week to have lunch with her son.

Though he didn't appreciate it at the time, he was introduced to a sort of glitzy nighttime world at an early age. His maternal grandfather was Nat Simon, the songwriter whose standard "Poinciana" was a hit for Bing Crosby. Meisel's mother was for a while a big-band singer; she went to Hollywood for a screen test, hoping to sign a contract with one of the film studios, but Leonard didn't like the idea, so she quit and became a housewife. ("My grandfather never forgave her," says Meisel. "He always hated my father.")

Leonard worked for London Records. "Artists would come from Europe, and my father would take them around the city to concerts and radio stations," says Meisel. Tom Jones once stayed at their house for four days. Leonard would sometimes take young Steven to Jilly's, where they would see Frank Sinatra at the bar, or to the Copacabana, where he remembers sitting so close to the stage the night the Supremes performed that he could practically touch them. When the Beatles came to Shea Stadium in 1965, the Meisels went backstage and met them before the show. "Now I see that it was very glamorous," he says.

Meisel's cousin was Diane Rothschild, the legendary advertising executive. When Meisel was about twelve, she took him to an advertising shoot the fashion photographer Melvin Sokolsky was doing for a fabric company. What he remembers most is that he watched the models—not the photographer—because he knew who they were from his constant reading of fashion magazines. "I was obsessed even then," he says.

His mother and sister were stunners in their own right. Sarah, who took Steven along when she had her hair colored at Kenneth, was an icy-blonde beauty—in old photographs, she looks like she could have stepped out of a Meisel shoot. His sister, who shared her brother's dark good looks, let him experiment with hair and makeup and photograph her. He went shopping with them every Saturday to Saks and Bergdorf and then later to boutiques like Paraphernalia and Abracadabra on the Upper East Side. "I had to go to the stores!" says Meisel. "It seemed like the world that I was looking at in the magazines come to life."

Meisel soon figured out that he wanted to attend the High School of Art & Design, on East Fifty-seventh Street. It was quite a scene. In the back of the lunchroom there was a table where, according to Meisel, "the groovy crowd" sat. Meisel eventually worked his way into the group, one that included the model Pat Cleveland, future Warhol superstar Donna Jordan, and none other than Harvey Fierstein. "We called him Little Stevie," says Fierstein. "I was sort of on the very edge of the cool crowd because I had no business being there…trust me!" What about Little Stevie? "Oh, I think he was snapping at their heels," he says in that basso profundo. "I remember him as a dark-haired, very sweet Jewish boy."

Even in a school well stocked with creative oddballs, Meisel managed to stand out, says Cleveland, whom Meisel would photograph years later, most recently for the black issue of Italian Vogue. "He had this long, silky black hair down to the bottom of his derriere. He wore really tight little jeans and beautiful shirts. He wasn't wild. But, you know, when you see someone who is that beautiful, they don't have to be outrageous and loud. He didn't have to push his way into anything."

It was the end of the sixties, and he made a place for himself just as easily in New York's nightlife. A photographer friend of his sister's took him to Max's Kansas City when he was fourteen—he became nearly delirious on the phone one day as he recalled the lighting in great detail, as only a photographer could. That early exposure to the theatrical aesthetic of the demimonde has had a profound influence on his work. When he conjures glamour, as Charlotte Cotton points out, "his frame of reference could be a transsexual's glamour rather than the real Marilyn Monroe's glamour."

One also gets the sense that it was a period in which this famously controlling man cut loose. "Yes. I went to every single club, every single hangout, every single after-hours drug place. There wasn't one thing that I didn't do; there wasn't one place that I didn't go to."

After high school, Meisel went to Parsons to study fashion illustration. Along the way, he worked at Halston for a summer, his very first job, where he met Stephen Sprouse, who became a lifelong friend (until his death in 2004); they bonded over their disdain for the older designer. "Everyone would be called into this room, and he would stand there like…like…Kay Thompson. 'Think Pink!' Oh, he drove me crazy." Worse yet, Halston designed a uniform for his young charge to wear: a black ribbed short-sleeved shirt and black slacks. "He would yell at me and say, 'Don't just sit around, Pocahontas! You have to do something!' "

In 1974, Meisel, drawings in hand, went literally across the street from Parsons to Fairchild Publications, where Women's Wear Daily's offices were, and met with the art director, who hired him. Ben Brantley, André Leon Talley, and Bonnie Fuller all worked there.

It was here that Meisel met the fashion illustrator Kenneth Paul Block, the closest he has ever come to a mentor. "He taught me so much about everything," says Meisel. "He would sit there with this long cigarette holder and a polka-dot bow tie, always a sports jacket, immaculate. He never lost his temper. He had so much style, so much class, so much chic." Block would sometimes draw Meisel, whose androgynous good looks allowed him to stand in for a woman. (In Block's fantastic book, Drawing Fashion, which came out in 2008, there is a spread devoted to Meisel that is titled simply "Steven.")

While at WWD, Meisel started traveling back across the street to Parsons to teach illustration. A young student named Marc Jacobs tried to take his class. "I had seen Steven out and about in New York with his little entourage—Teri Toye and Stephen Sprouse and Anna Sui—but I didn't know him," says Jacobs. "But I was such a fan of his drawings and just thought he had a really great eye. I was very disappointed because the first night when I showed up, it was announced that he wasn't going to be teaching it, because he was off on a photography assignment for W. He had just started taking pictures."

By the early eighties, Meisel intuited that fashion illustration was on its way out. "I needed to do more," he says. He started by snapping pictures of his girlfriends. One day, he met a girl shopping and asked if she would sit for him. She was Valerie Cates, the sister of Phoebe Cates, then a model represented by Elite. "So I would shoot Valerie and Phoebe on the weekends," says Meisel. The B-girls—the bookers—at Elite loved Meisel's photographs, so they asked him to do test shoots with other newly signed girls. Elite supplied him with film and processing, and Meisel began to hone his craft—while also learning how to make fourteen-year-old girls feel comfortable posing as women. From the very beginning, he did the hair, makeup, and styling all by himself. "I didn't know any different," he says.

An editor at Seventeen saw his pictures in a model's portfolio and called to offer him an assignment. His first magazine shoot was at a country house in Connecticut. "I took these sweet little pictures," he says. In quick succession he started shooting for W, Mademoiselle, Self, and then finally Vogue. "I was still at WWD, and teaching," he says. "And there was an editor at Vogue, Mary Russell, and she just loved my work. I went up to the offices and she introduced me to art director Alex Liberman, and he asked if I would go to Europe to do the collections." Meisel took some time off from WWD to go to Paris and Milan with a model he chose, Marisa Indri. "I didn't have any assistants; there was no hair and makeup. We would go to Saint Laurent, knock on the door, and they looked at us like, Who are these people? But we went into the different houses, they gave us the clothes; sometimes Marisa and I would go out on the streets. I would do her hair at their cabines, and she would get dressed." When he got back, Vogue asked him to do the New York collections. "We were in a natural-light studio, and all of a sudden we had hair and makeup. I said, 'Hmm. OK.' That was my first job at Vogue."

Before long, Meisel began working with Polly Mellen, and that is when things really began to click. "It was very, very exciting to work with her," he says. "The way that she treated models was unbelievable. To her, your model was gold. She was everything. Your girls felt that. They felt like stars." Meisel is a very good mimic. Here, suddenly, he does a dead-on imitation of Polly Mellen's singular whispery war cry: "You are work-ing with Tur-ling-ton to-daaaaaay." He goes on, "Sometimes, looking at the girl as I was working, she would actually cry. She was that moved. It was incredible! It was what I thought it would be. It was what I wanted."

With surprising swiftness, he established his very collaborative creative process, one that almost always involved inventing a narrative persona for his subjects. As Turlington says, "We started to work, honestly, three quarters of each month. I felt like a house model. We used to work at this place on lower Broadway. I'd come in every day and go into the makeup room and it was like, What are we going to do? What are we going to create today?"

Meisel remembers in glorious detail his first shoot with Linda Evangelista. "I had seen some European magazine that was absolutely nothing, and there was a little picture of her. I remember thinking, This girl has amazing line." He booked her for a Vogue shoot with several other girls. "I was working with François Nars and Oribe at the time, and they were like, 'Oh, this girl! We're crazy about her!' They were very inspired. François was painting her and painting her, and Oribe kept making the hair bigger and bigger. She came out and she glistened. It was like crystal, like champagne corks popping. That smile! Her gums! Her eyes just twinkled! I decided to shoot the story on just Linda, and we sent all the other girls home. We were just very, very inspired and in love."

The feeling was mutual. "It was the beginning of our story," Evangelista says. "I remember I heard something about how they loved my knees. As a model, you are never referred to as a whole person. You are dissected into little pieces. I thought maybe they were being sarcastic, because I got teased my whole life about my knees. There were also comments about my gums. I was like, 'My gums?' I didn't think that my gums would stand out." She laughs. "So, there you go. My knees and my gums."

The day of the photo shoot for this piece with all of the women Meisel "made" happened to fall on a Tuesday, which meant that we would miss our standing phone appointment for that week in February. And since I failed to persuade him to let me be a fly on the wall at the shoot—but, oh, how I tried!—I had to wait until the following Tuesday at noon to find out how it all went. "Chaotic but fine," he said when we get on the phone. "Fun," he added after a few seconds. "Nice to see everybody." Another long pause. "Lovely!" he finally shouted. "I mean, I love all of them so much, so it was great."

It must have been strange for this Svengali to have all of his women together in the same place. He says the day felt a bit like a reunion, replete with hugs and tears and the showing off of baby pictures. He was also struck by the fact that the younger girls had never met most of the older girls. "It was very sweet and very touching," he says. "Because for some of these women, modeling changed their whole life. It really, really did! For me to sit there and remember the sixteen-year-old girls that I met, some of whom came in with a tattered coat and $3, and then to think that now some of them are married to billionaires.…This job in particular has a tendency to change lives more than most."

It changed his life, too. He now splits his time (with a boyfriend he won't discuss) between a mansion in Beverly Hills—like one of those "sick" (by which he means cool) houses he used to stage those Versace ads several years ago—and "a big old prewar monster" on the Upper East Side. When I ask him what his Peter Marino-designed place in New York looks like, he says, "It's a major apartment. That's what I wanted. That's why I work so much: to give myself some of the things that make me feel comfortable. My drapes are heavy velvet. It's kind of a little…I don't know…Saint Laurent, a little Chanel. A lot of crystal, a lot of mirrors. One of the rooms has a mirrored ceiling. I know it sounds bad, but it's so working." He laughs. "To me, that's what growing up here…that's what my city is…or, was, all about." One almost gets the sense that if he himself could go to Kenneth, as his mother used to, he would.

Of course, the passage of time has meant other changes. The man who is obsessed with retouching to the point of plasticine immortal beauty has complicated feelings about aging. In some ways, his reclusiveness has the whiff of the Hollywood star who cannot bear to show her no-longer-gorgeous face. "Would I rather look 20 again?" he asks. "Uh…yeah? I think anyone who says no would be crazy. It's difficult. It's also difficult physically. I don't have the stamina I once did." He pauses. "But the other stuff? What are you going to do? I love plastic surgery. I haven't had any, because it's very hit or miss. Even with the best doctors…there's no guarantee." Here Meisel asks himself a follow-up question. "OK, am I getting plastic surgery?" And then answers it. "I don't think so."

A few people suggested to me that one reason Meisel did not want to see me in person might be that he has become self-conscious about his weight. At one point, when I ask him if he has any vices left, he answers with one word—"food"—which seems to confirm this theory. "This week I even tried hypnosis," he says, laughing. "Still, I see the cookie!"

More than anything, one senses that he misses the time when he was closer in age to his subjects. "What am I going to talk about with a teenage Russian girl who barely speaks English?" he complains one day. It occurs to me that perhaps Meisel doesn't like to be interviewed because it's hard for him to dredge up the past. "I definitely don't live in the past," he says. "I definitely live in the present. I know people probably think of me as just living in the past. I do like certain periods in fashion. But I don't live in the past at all. I'm very much now and tomorrow. But when I go through old pictures, yes, I cry. It's not a sad cry. It's a melancholy one, but mixed with happiness, too."

Sunday, April 12, 2009



Saturday, April 11, 2009




Friday, April 10, 2009






Tuesday, April 7, 2009




The Hills: Things To Do With Lauren Conrad When She's Dead
By Richard Lawson, 12:01 PM on Tue Apr 7 2009

Well, here it is. It's back. The Hills swooped overhead last night—two episodes worth!—like some dark angel of the sparkly rapture. It's good to know your enemy, so let's analyze after the jump.

Episode I: The Poseidi Adventure

Fittingly, as this is her last season and the producers have been shifting the focus away from her for some time now, the first scene of the first episode of the last season, didn't begin with our spackled heroine LC. No, it started with Heidi and her fiance's sister, Spencerina, sitting in some blue cafe and, like in so much great drama, discussing a birthday party. It was Lauren's big bday bash and a surprise party was afoot. Heidi's face, also a foot, balled up and looked very concerned. Spencerina, the little monkey holding a pennant that reads "Airtime!" parading around inside her parlor-like skull, batted her eyelashes and purred "What if I invited you?" Because, of course, this being LC's final dream ballet, she'll need to get some closure on that anecdote and figure shit out with Heidi. So Heidi nodded in her taffyish way and the cameras flew off to another location.

Audrina and Lo, who are apparently friends again, said they would buy the cake themselves and so there they were, in a cake shop, waiting. No one really knows what they were talking about. It mostly came out of their mouths as a tinkly series of music box sounds, little ballerinas twirling on their tongues, while the city rushes by them; people on their way to places, things happening, happened, and about to happen. I think, because I took a semester of TwinklyMuisicBoxese, that they were talking more about the birthday party. Would Heidi show up, they wondered as the producers tased them with cattle prods. And would Lauren like being stuck on a yacht for the whole night, what with her entirely rational fear of mermaids (after the incident...) and her propensity to collect barnacles when standing still for too long by the seaside. Ah well, it was too late now. So they picked up their penis cake and set off for the marina.

Heidi was all dressed up in her gold spangly dress and silly tall shoes and Spencerina glowered at her with that thousand yard stare of resentment and need—I hate you, but I need you, you make me eternally sad, but I think there's something inside of you that I can dig out, like a ruby or a buried key, that will solve the problem of my life—and then beautiful brother Spencer walked in. He'd shaved since last we saw him, which was good. He had been looking a bit like that scary tree-man from TLC (you know the one...) But he was still petulant and the worst actor of the bunch, trying to seem completely unaware of the fact that Heidi and Spencerina were, in fact, going to his sworn enemy's big birthday bonanza. But when he saw Heidi firmly affixing her WaterWings and Spencerina putting on the floatie thing that's an inner tube but also a monster head, he knew they'd be near water. "Don't let her get wet, Spency," he warned. You wouldn't like her when she's wet.

So the party. Lauren, looking ghastly and consumptiony in too-dark lipstick and washed out pancake makeup, sat in her limousine discussing the merits of various champagne-bottle-opening strategies. These are the conversations that define our lives, everyone. So get over it, America. And then the limo arrived at the marina and Lauren was blindfolded and they lead her to her Viking funeral pyre. She would be pushed to sea and then Lo would launch a flaming arrow and the whole of it would be set ablaze. "Goodbye Lauren!" they would yell from the docks, bravely waving as tears streamed down their faces. "Goodbye forever old friend!" Then the whole fiery pyre-boat would tilt precariously to one side and catch another yacht in the marina on fire and then another and then another until the whole damn place is burning like the Reckoning in Monte Carlo, and Lo would shrug her shoulders and Audrina wheeze quietly and Spencerina would whisper "I guess we didn't do that right..."

Or, you know, they all go on the boat and Brody the idiot yells "Surprise!!!!" before Lauren's even got her damn blindfold off so basically the party is ruined, but oh well. Later Brody just face-plants in her birthday cake so he can get a bite. Brodes, have you ever been to a birthday party before? This is not how it's done. Lauren hugs and chugs, the other girls teeter strangely, and then Spencerina and Heidi show up. Heidi is carrying an enormous Chanel bag and I thought it would be funny if that was the present. Nothing inside but packing peanuts and a little card and Heidi beams when she hands it over and the world gets a little prettier but also a little sadder.

Lauren was shocked! simply shocked! that Heidi would crash her big TV show party, but in the end she got drunk and weepy and Heidi got weepy too. Why? Because there was a whole text messaging debacle wherein Spencer had a "boys night out" with one other lame ass guy at some rando bar where an MTV plant named Stacie was pretending to be a bartender and pretending to not know who Captain Fleshbeard is. So she flirted with him and he flirted back and meanwhile Spencerina's ex, Cameron or something, watched from a booth in the corner and sent a furtive phone missive to his beloved of old telling her that chicanery was occurring at the bar. Spencer found out and decided to clobber Cameron, who got a few good hits right in the Jack Johnson and then both boys ran away squealing, their pail coming tumbling after.

So Heidi couldn't believe—shocked! she was shocked!—that Spencer had swung his sweaty ham fist into the bowl of oatmeal that is Cameron's face and so she wept, and Lauren wept, and their salty tears became the ocean and the boat sank around them and Lo floated by face down, dead as cranberries, and Heidi and Lauren saluted her and sang "For those in peril on the seaaa..." and somewhere, far off in the distance, there were fireworks and then Lauren and Heidi, having fought it for so very, very long shared a tender kiss, their faces illuminated by the distant explosions of color and light and noise, like their hearts opening to new arrivals. "We're airplane terminals, Heidi," Lauren whispered. "We're zeppelin ports."

Or, you know, they cried and hugged but nothing was resolved and the party ended and so did the episode.

Episode II: Bananas!

Episode two was all about Heidi and Spencer, because they are, I guess, going to be the new leads of the Lauren-less show, when it will be called The Buttes and it will just be a lot of angry staring.

Spencerina—OK, just this once, Stephanie—got in an awesome fight with Spencer, which you can watch to the left.

Heidi went to talk to the horrible Stacie, who pretended like she was innocent and that she didn't know Spencer had a girlfriend and that what a jerk Spencer was, you know? Heidi nodded gravely and went to go whine to Spencer, who whined back at her and before they knew it they were covered in bologna and applesauce and maraschino cherry juice, because they'd been having a food fight, so Heidi decided that she needed to go back to Crested Butte, where her be-makeup'd mom lives in sad, snowy obscurity. "Fine then, go!" bellowed Spencer as he lobbed one last carton of Dunkaroos at her. Splat! it went as it hit Heidi in the back of the head.

Up in the snowy recesses of Colorado, Heidi's mom did her best to read from her lines and say comforting things. But mostly she seemed as stiff as always, too aware of her angle to the camera, too clearly horrified but strangely delighted by this blocky, stretched-out thing her daughter had become. What wicked secrets does she hold?, Ma Heidi wondered. What nutrients can I extract for my own benefit? They talked about feelings and about weddings and about snow and about the nature of drama—was it mirror held up to life, or was it window to something faraway and strange, some dissonant imagining that will never quite match up to the real thing, and is therefore both horribly necessary and completely useless? Then they went to dinner!

At dinner Heidi's stepdad acted even more awkward than her realmom and then the evening teetered sideways and set a whole marina of embarrassment on fire because some exboyfriend of Heidi's named Colbyjackcheese galoompfed over and Heidi knew it was a setup, but she didn't know if it was her parents' doing or the producers', and then you saw a flash of cold recognition dart across her worried face and you knew that she'd suddenly realized she didn't even know the difference between the two anymore. Anyway, Colbyjack smiled dumbly and said he was dating a girl (I pictured a small pine tree, wearing a dress, riding a snowmobile at dawn) but wasn't engaged, so Ma Heidi's mouth curled around its lipliner and she said "Well then, there's still hope!"

Back in Sunburn Valley, Spencer decided that he needed to get some bro-questions out of the bro-way. So he called up Brody and they met at some vegan restaurant and talked about feelings and Brody sort of agreed with Spencer but also seemed to not really care one way or another. Spencer also went to talk to Stacie again, who gleamed and glistened terribly when she said mean things about Heidi, and lordy lou, what's gonna happen?

The episode ended somewhere, I don't really remember. I do remember that Lauren said it was funny that the only people Spencer and Heidi had to call were the two people they'd dicked over the most. That actually made sense. Good observation, LC.

So here we are, plummeting back down into this hole. The rabbit who dug it long gone, probably buried somewhere in his little waistcoat, lying in some unremarkable grave. And we're left to ponder what will be left of the show once our tanned anchor snaps the line and disappears. We'll have Lo, but all of her pointy cruelty will be rendered neutral when she doesn't have Lauren's relative niceness to play off. So too will Spencer and Heidi struggle for want of a backboard. Their dumb stupid tennis balls (and Dunkaroos and Gushers and huge, heaping handfuls of spaghetti) will just lob over the fence and sit there, unanswered. And we'll be asked to watch.

And, of course, there's Audrina. There she was in the background last night, like something strange and ugly and frail that's been stolen from the world—a fawn embryo, drifting in space. There've been some reports that she might be leaving too, so we won't have to face a season like the last one where it was mostly about her moonlit features screwing up into various facial poses, ranging between chimpunk-who's-just-lost-its-job to koala-bear-cub-who's-just-learned-the-concept-of-kidnapping. Neither are terribly interesting. Though I think, in some strange way, I'd miss them if they left.

Same to you Lauren! But, alas, you're already a ghost. Which means, in part at least, I don't believe in you.


Monday, April 6, 2009






Millions of dollars in tourism and tax revenue could flow into Iowa as a result of the Iowa Supreme Court's historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage, according to a range of scholars and business people.

The unanimous but controversial ruling announced Friday overturned a 10-year-old ban on same-sex marriage and made Iowa the third state where gay marriage is legal.

Iowa counties will begin to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples as early as this month.

Unlike Connecticut and Massachusetts - the other states that permit gay marriage - Iowa has no nearby competitors for same-sex couples who want to marry.

Businesses could see $160 million in new wedding and tourism spending over the next three years, according to a study from researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"Iowa pretty much has the Midwest all to itself," said Lee Badgett, a University of Massachusetts economist who co-authored the 2008 report. "It's in the middle of a lot of states that have a lot of same-sex couples. It's in a good position."

The study predicts that 2,917 same-sex Iowa couples will wed in the three years after the marriages are allowed to proceed. In addition, nearly 55,000 out-of-state couples could come to Iowa to get married, the study found.

The ruling also could attract newcomers to the state, although some cautioned that the long-term impact remains unclear.

Conservative critics argued that economics should not factor into an issue they view as an attack on traditional marriage and religious liberties.

Impact on Iowa's image - and on revenue

In Iowa, advocates celebrated the decision as a breakthrough for civil rights, while supporters of the Defense of Marriage law that was struck down said the court overstepped its authority.

With that debate lingering, the court's ruling probably will not turn Iowa into an instant haven for hipsters and intellectuals, said University of Iowa political scientist David Redlawsk. But over time, he said, the ruling could create an atmosphere that attracts younger residents and the so-called "creative class."

"It makes Iowa overall a more welcoming state," Redlawsk said. "That's a good thing from the standpoint of businesses who, frankly, are concerned about quality of life issues for their employees."

A University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll released Friday found that 58.7 percent of Iowans under age 30 support gay marriage, and three-fourths favor some formal recognition of gay relationships.

A Des Moines Register Iowa Poll in 2008 showed that although most Iowans believe marriage should be only between one man and one woman, a majority of Iowa adults also supported the creation of civil unions granting benefits to gay couples.

Same-sex marriage will yield an estimated net gain of $5.3 million per year for Iowa state government, according to the report from UCLA's Williams Institute, a nonprofit think tank that studies sexual orientation and public policy.

"It's not going to have a huge impact," Badgett said. "But the impact will be positive."

Fewer gays and lesbians in Iowa will qualify for public benefits such as Medicaid if they marry and combine incomes, the study found. Nearly 90 percent of same-sex married couples who file their taxes jointly also would pay more because of their higher earnings.

Sales tax revenue would rise because of increased spending on florists, hotels and other wedding expenses. The increases would offset the married gay couples who pay less or receive other marriage-related deductions, according to the study.

"What people care about right now are their pocketbooks," Redlawsk said. "The moral issues are just not as high on anybody's list right now, given the economic environment."

"Conservative" model of economic outcomes

Researchers at the Williams Institute projected similar increases for other states embroiled in the gay marriage debate. Most of the benefit comes from greater spending on wedding expenses.

Vermont stands to gain $30.6 million and 700 new jobs over three years if it were to legalize gay marriage, said UCLA law professor Brad Sears, the institute's executive director. Vermont lawmakers last week approved a bill to legalize gay marriage but fell just short of the margin needed to override Gov. Jim Douglas' promised veto.

Maine, where lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow gay marriage, would receive a $60 million boost and 1,000 new jobs in the same three-year period, he said. California's economy would grow by $683.3 million, which would create and sustain nearly 2,200 jobs. California had allowed gay marriage before a November voter initiative repealed it.

Researchers drew their estimates from a complex mix of U.S. census data, spending behavior in states that allow same-sex marriage, and the proportion of gay couples who actually married.

"Our model is pretty conservative," Sears said. "We're only estimating spending by the couples themselves. It doesn't anticipate gifts from guests or other spending."

Wedding planners said the ruling would likely boost their business during the tight economic times.

"It's definitely beneficial to our industry," said Dena Davey, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut-based Association of Bridal Consultants. "It's more business. Some consultants may not feel comfortable doing it, but I think the vast majority think it's wonderful."

Many consultants already help organize civil union and commitment ceremonies, Davey said. But "when it's an actual, legally binding wedding, it just makes it that much more exciting for couples."

Emily Andersen, a bridal specialist with Shaffer's Bridal in Des Moines, said same-sex couples account for a small fraction of their business. But with the court decision, she said, business could easily grow.

Pamela Chase, a Boston-area wedding planner, said gay and lesbian couples account for 20 percent of her client base. Business has dropped because of the economy, she said, but the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts has helped her plan an average of 15 weddings per year.

"There are four weddings I would not have had had the law not passed," said Chase.

Social conservatives: Ignore economics

Supporters of the 1998 Iowa law argue that the institution of traditional marriage outweighs any possible economic benefit.

"That was the same argument that was made for riverboat gambling and casinos," said Doug Napier, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian group based in Arizona. "I don't think these kinds of decisions need to be based solely on the basis of economic impact."

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa last year, issued a statement saying, "All Iowans should have a say in this matter. ... It is my hope that the Legislature will take the necessary steps to properly resolve this matter."

U.S. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, warned in a statement Friday that the decision could turn Iowa into a "gay marriage Mecca" and called for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, an opponent of gay marriage in the past, said Friday he was reviewing the court's ruling. But there are significant hurdles to overcome to amend the Iowa Constitution.

The Legislature must approve a constitutional amendment during two consecutive sessions before the issue goes to a statewide ballot, meaning the earliest that could happen would be in 2012. Massachusetts has a nearly identical process.

"Opponents in Massachusetts couldn't do anything immediately," Redlawsk said. "As time went by, people realized that the sky hasn't fallen, the world hasn't ended."

Same-sex couples live in every county in Iowa but are most prevalent in Polk, Johnson and Linn counties, the statistics show.

Fewer than 1 percent of households in Iowa were home to unmarried same-sex couples in 2007, U.S. census data show. Nine states had a lower proportion of same-sex households.

Register staff writer Melissa Walker contributed to this report.

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Where the Boys Are
By Al Weisel
US Magazine, June 1996, pp. 90-98, 117-118

Male supermodels don't throw tantrums, give attitude or make movies—yet. They're hot right now, but how long will they last?

Imagine you're walking down the street in New York City on a beautiful sunny day when suddenly you notice something strange: People are being nice to you. They're smiling at you. Strangers say hello as they pass. Women lower their sunglasses; men stare into your eyes. This is no dream. You're supermodel Joel West, and everybody wants you.

"I don't think I will ever quite accept the attention," says West, 20, who signed a one-year, seven-figure contract with Calvin Klein last August. "People whispering, talking about me. The acknowledgment of society knowing who I am wherever I go." Of course, West's predicament is not news. Supermodels had been treated like celebrities long before West was launched into the world by the band of his Calvin Klein underwear. What is news is that West, thanks in part to those Calvin's, is one of the first male models to become an international sex object.

Not long ago, the idea of male models as sex objects was almost laughable, if not suspect. Men's fashion represented just a fraction of the industry, and men who worried about their looks were considered, somehow, less masculine. Male models, in turn, were treated as mere props and background-anonymous walk-ons who made far less money than their female counterparts. But changing attitudes toward male beauty - reflected in and even propelled in part by Klein's advertising campaigns-have empowered men in the only profession (besides, perhaps, the world's oldest) in which they had been second-class citizens.

FASHION WEEK IN NEW YORK: AT CALVIN KLEIN—THE MOST prestigious of the New York menswear shows—models listen in rapt attention as Klein recites his pre-show instructions. "Don't look serious," he says. "But no big smiles. You already look like you could wear a $2,000 suit, so you don't have to try to look proud." Klein makes a quick exit, then returns just as quickly. "I just thought of something else," he says. "If there's one word to describe the feeling, think sex."

One of the sexiest models isn't here today. Tyson Beckford, who made history last year as the first African-American male to ink an exclusive deal with a major designer, is prohibited by his contract with Polo Ralph Lauren from doing other designers' shows. So it's up to models like Alex Lundqvist, 24, a sweet-faced Swede with long blond hair and a wispy mustache and goatee, has compelling eyes, clear and blue. Fellow Wilhelmina model Mark Vanderloo is a trim Dutchman with spiky blond hair. At 27, he's the world's highest-paid male model, with an annual income of more than $1 million.

Across the room, Jason Olive, a volleyball player who graduated last year from the University of Hawaii, displays his massive chest. But he's not just showing off—he says he'll be wearing a turtleneck in the show and doesn't want to mess up his makeup. "Why don't you parade around shirtless like Olive?" Lundqvist is asked, and he snaps back, "Because I think it's tacky." Then he reconsiders. "Well, maybe if I was as big as him..." Olive isn't the only model who makes Lundqvist envious. Looking over at Joel West, he whispers, "Did Joel tell you how much money he makes?"

It's natural that West would be the source of jealousy among other models. Last August the small-town boy from Indianola, Iowa, was plucked from obscurity and vaulted to the top tier of male supermodels when he signed on with Calvin Klein. Apparently, though, there is trouble in paradise. "I'm not doing many shows this year," says West, sighing. Last season he was Klein's star model. Now, he says, disappointed at his placement in the show, "I'm 57th."

IN THE LOBBY OF BOSS MODELS, A GIANT BLOWUP OF THE now infamous Calvin Klein underwear ad featuring Joel West looms: "It makes me proud," says West, who has stopped by the agency to pick up his fan mail—all of which turns out to be from men." I wish some girls would write me," he says plaintively, quickly adding he doesn't mind having so many male fans. Later, West confesses, "I'm a very trusting person." Which might explain why he wasn't fazed when a photographer approached him at the Mall of America Dairy Queen in Minneapolis while he was eating a Blizzard on an outing with his church group. The photographer asked West, 17 at the time, to model for him. West's mother, Jan Gipple, was more wary, having "heard things about the fashion industry," he says, and insisted on accompanying him. "We had a five-hour drive to get him to [the shoot]," says Gipple. "It's in this abandoned warehouse, and I'm thinking, This is great; we're just going to leave you at an abandoned warehouse with this stranger. I wonder if you're going to be there when we pick you up." The photographer turned out to be aboveboard, but Gipple, 42, a veterinary technician who herself grew up in Indianola, still wasn't convinced West would make it: "In Iowa, what are the chances of your getting anywhere in modeling?"

West, however, with his otherworldly beauty—lithe, defined body, pouty lips and exotic eyes—soon became familiar to anyone who picked up a magazine. But he had no idea just how familiar he would become. In October 1995, a couple of months after he signed on with Calvin Klein, West was propelled to instant notoriety with a controversial underwear campaign featuring him spread-eagled and clad only in his Calvins. The advertisements' sexual frankness made them ripe for attack (especially coming after Klein's much-assailed ad campaign featuring teen-age models a few months earlier), and West became nightly fodder for tabloid TV shows, which camped out in his family's yard in Iowa.

West's father, Rob West, 41, who operates a backhoe for a construction company and hasn't seen much of his son since divorcing Joel's mother when Joel was 14, says, "I. was happy he was making the money, but I didn't really like the ads. They were risqué." Gipple, on the other hand, had a more practical view: "I said, 'It's pretty hard to sell a product if you're not going to show it."' The strongest reaction, surprisingly, came from Linda J. Wachner, CEO of Warnaco, which owns Calvin Klein's underwear division; she publicly excoriated them. "This ad which appeared with this gentleman's legs spread apart was not approved by Warnaco," she said. "There are no plans to use that shot again."

West was shocked by the controversy. "I didn't understand where they were coming from," he says. "I took it very personally." Meanwhile, he had to deal with instant celebrity. "I've lost a lot of my privacy," he says. "There were a few months of adjustment where I was in limbo. I wasn't happy." He denies media reports that the pressure made him flee New York for Iowa. "I love New York," he says. "I purchased a home in Iowa to be close to my family." West shares his new house—with its circular driveway, pillars and fountain in front—with his maternal grandparents, who take care of it when he's away. "It's like something out of Gone With the Wind," marvels his mother.

West's mother and stepfather, Michael Gipple, a fleet mechanic for the Mid American Energy Company, live just down the road with Joel's 17-year-old brother, Jake. West has nicknamed Jake "Deviant" because of his penchant for mischief—like trying to break into West's laptop. Joel's father, who grew up in and still lives in Indianola, says, "Joel looks like me and takes after his mom. Jake looks like his mom and takes after me. Jake's more wild. Joel's more laid-back."

West's high-school teachers have nothing but nice things to say about him, which isn't surprising since he was voted biggest brown-noser by his class. "Joel always had a ready smile," gushes his chemistry teacher, Irene Bertsch. "He was a very hard worker." She wasn't shocked by the ads. "I saw Joel at several swim meets, and actually there was more covered in the ad than there was in the tiny little Speedos they wear," she says.

But things in Iowa are not quite the same. "I have a lot more friends and family members," West says cynically. "People coming out of the woodwork." He says that people who once thought he was "a geeky bookworm" now think he's "cool," including his girlfriend, Joy Ashbaugh. She ignored West when they attended high school together—"She was in the elite, the cool girls who hung out with the cool guys," he says—and started dating him only after he became a successful model. "I've stayed the same," he says. "The only thing that's changed is the people around me." His mother, however, has detected some changes in West. "He may be more leery of people than he used to be," she says. "Since I'm not familiar with the media, Joel kept telling me, 'Don't tell them everything, Mom, because things get twisted.'" But she also thinks "it made him very worldly. He acts a lot older than any 20-year-old I've met."

Otherwise he's the same kid she raised. "He's possessed to excel in everything he does," she says. "He drives everyone crazy being an overachiever." But there's also another side to him. "He's the biggest romantic," she says. "For his girlfriend at Thanksgiving he filled his room with balloons, had a candlelight dinner and cooked this gourmet meal. I'm thinking, Most guys would just pull up, honk, and you run out."

ONE MIGHT THINK THAT BEING AN OBJECT OF DESIRE WOULD make it easy to find a mate. But most models say maintaining a relationship is one of the difficulties of the job. Tyson Beckford, who has dated Chilli from TLC, says that in addition to the fact that "you're never home," jealousy can be a big problem. "I've dated girls, and they'll be like, 'Oh, she was looking at you,' and I'll be like, 'No, she wasn't. She was just being nice.'" One of the best things about the woman he recently started dating is that she's not jealous. "We went to a pre-Grammy party, and all these girls were coming up to me, but she was cool about it," he says.

Some models end up with the people who best know what their lives are like: other models. "Another model knows what you have to go through," says Vanderloo. "And they aren't the ugliest girls in the world, either." Ask Alex Lundqvist. He dated supermodel Nadja Auermann for more than a year (although the relationship ended in February).

For models who aren't ready to settle down, there are plenty of opportunities for fleeting pleasures. "One time I was dog tired and went out to a club for a drink," recalls 24-year-old Jason Lewis, who has been modeling for three years. "A woman recognized who I was and basically offered to go to bed with me. I said, 'That's great, but I'm really tired,' and walked out." And when he's not so tired? "I've certainly had relationships with women that lasted an evening," he says, "but I don't screw around that much. I don't want anyone greeting me with bulls---, and I don't think it's fair of me to do the same."

Of course, women aren't the only ones who have crushes on guys like Lewis. The top male models, however, don't seem either publicly or privately to identify as gay. Not that they're homophobic, either. "I've had men have crushes on me," says Atlanta native Mark Fisher, 20, who is currently appearing in the new Polo Sport campaign. "I treat them the same as anybody else."

"TEN YEARS AGO, THE STANDARD MALE MODEL WAS PERFECT face, perfect body. Boring, really," says casting agent Leslie Simitch. "I think now there's a much wider range of what we consider attractive in a man." In the '70s, the elegant, square-jawed GQ look was in. In the '80s, renowned fashion photographer Bruce Weber popularized more-athletic bodies with pumped-up pectorals and chiseled abdominals. "Many male models now are scrawny," says Simitch. "And a lot have long hair."

But the idea that men can be just as sexy as women—and that male models can be marketed as sex objects—whose men's division is the largest in the world—and his New York director, Jason Kanner, have been doing everything in their power to cultivate this phenomenon and make it last. One of Kanner's first assignments when he joined the agency in 1991 was to manage Marcus Schenkenberg, now 27, who was soon to appear in a 116-page advertising supplement for Calvin Klein photographed by Bruce Weber. In the most famous shot, Schenkenberg is naked in a shower, his ripped torso dripping wet, and holding jeans in front of what he modestly refers to in Swedish-filtered English as his "fireman." Kanner had a radical plan for promoting Schenkenberg: Market him like a female model. The agency raised his rates, from $3,000 to as much as $20,000 a day, and was more selective about the jobs he took." He'd do three or four campaigns instead of 12 but get more money," explains Kanner. "This was done with women, never with men." The strategy worked: Schenkenberg was in such demand after the campaign, his rates went up, which helped increase rates for other male models as well.

One February afternoon, Kanner is looking through a sea of photographs spread out before him. He's just returned from scouting in Milan, where he chose five of the 500 men he saw. Kanner points out the attributes of the men he selected: the "sunken cheekbones, ivory skin and jet-black hair" of one, "the perfect nose, full lips and great jaw line" of another. Then, sounding like a high-school misfit getting revenge on the popular guys, he sizes up the rejects. One model "looks like a schoolteacher," he says. Of another he complains, "There's way too many odd things happening on this guy's face." Kanner knows he has an advantage over them. "When I'm 60," he says, "I'm still going to have a job."

Looks aren't everything, though, even in modeling. Jennifer Starr, who was Bruce Weber's casting assistant for four years before going free-lance recently, says that she looks for qualities that are more than skin-deep. "At first it's the physical look," she says. "But after that it's all attitude. When I find someone on the street and take a Polaroid of them, I'm looking to see how they react to me and the camera- if they're stiff, how they hold themselves. You have to be comfortable with who you are." But not too comfortable. "Sometimes after you've been in this business awhile," she says, "you've got it down, and that's not interesting to work with anymore. That spontaneity is gone."

THE STANDARDS OF BEAUTY, LIKE THOSE OF FASHION, DO change. But some models, like Tyson (Beckford is his last name, but like some of the female supermodels, he eschews his surname), are so stunningly beautiful that it doesn't matter if their look is "in" at the moment. Although he's 6-foot-1, Tyson looks smaller in person than in photographs, but his face is even more breathtaking, with Asian eyes, full lips and silky, dark skin. When he smiles, he can look as gentle as a kitten; when he frowns, as mean as a rattlesnake. Before shooting a commercial for Polo, Tyson changes clothes, taking off the baggy B-boy jeans he prefers and dancing around as he struggles to pull tight jeans over his massive thighs. Then he takes off his shirt, revealing jaw-dropping muscles as well as something one never sees under the tailored suits he wears so elegantly—a rebellious streak. After he signed a Polo Ralph Lauren contract for a reported $550,000 last year, Tyson covered his arms with tattoos.

Dragons are etched on his biceps. Both forearms have Chinese inscriptions. He translates the sentence on his right forearm, a tribute to his older brother Patrick, who was murdered in a mugging four years ago. But Tyson declines to decipher the message on the other arm: "It's a secret," he says, "for me and my homies. We all got the same thing." The tattoo illustrates why he will probably survive no matter what happens to him in the treacherous waters of the fashion world. In English it reads, "Don't trust anybody."

While watching a comedian in New York's Washington Square Park in the summer of 1991, Tyson was approached by an editor for the hip-hop magazine The Source who offered him a modeling job. "This guy goes to me, 'You got pretty eyes,'" Tyson, 25, recalls. "I'm thinking, Must be some porno magazine:" But then the editor said something that piqued Tyson's interest. "The opportunities," he said, "are endless:" Two days later, Tyson had his first gig. But because he really wanted a job in the music industry, Tyson drifted out of modeling. Patrick encouraged him to pursue it. "In modeling," his brother told him coincidentally, "the opportunities are endless."

Tyson was born in the Bronx, N.Y., but the family moved to Jamaica when he was just a baby. His mother, Hilory Dixon, who once won third place in a Miss Jamaica contest, moved them back to New York when Tyson was 7 after separating from his father. She later married Lloyd Dixon, who worked for a collection agency and was always calling people up saying, "You owe us money," Tyson remembers. "I grew up not really having a father image," he says. "I used to think my stepfather was the meanest man in the world." Tyson resented being forced by Dixon, who now works for Citibank, to learn how to do taxes for the money he earned from his paper route when he was 13. "I said I'm never gonna need to know how to deal with that," he says. "But now I'm dealing with it. I didn't understand when I was a kid. He's still in there with me today. He means a lot to me."

When Tyson first moved to New York, the other kids made fun of the way he looked and talked. "I was this dark-skinned Chinese kid with an Afro who spoke with a heavy Jamaican accent," says Tyson, whose paternal grandmother is Chinese. "If you think about it, it's kind of funny. They called me Mr. Chin." Because he spoke Jamaican patois, he says, "I had to take classes to learn to speak so-called English. Since I couldn't speak too well, I had to stay back a year." After graduating at 19, he attended a community college but dropped out after one semester. Then, in August 1992, Tyson's brother Patrick was murdered. "I got in my own shell and didn't want to do nothing," he says.

A year later Tyson saw actor Kadeem Hardison on The Arsenio Hall Show talking about his mother Bethann's modeling agency. Recalling his brother's words about opportunities in modeling, Tyson went to see her.

Hardison was impressed with Tyson but cautious. "You never know who's going to take off, because you have such racism in the industry," she says." Most fashion people don't know the beauty of blacks, so you don't want to encourage someone too much. "Hardison herself was a model—and as one of the first successful black models in the '60s, a pioneer. With dreadlocks down to the small of her back and a radiant smile, she's stunning, and as tough as she is charming. When she was 19, Hardison dropped out of fashion briefly to become a corrections officer after being "inspired by The Snake Pit [the 1948 film about mental illness]," she recalls, laughing. Breaking barriers is a mission for Hardison, who with Iman co-founded the Black Girls Coalition, which lobbies the fashion industry to employ more people of color.

Hardison sent Tyson to Weber, telling him only that the photographer was important and warning Tyson that Weber would ask him to take off his shirt. "He looked like Santa Claus," Tyson recalls. "He was so sweet I was ready to jump on his lap and ask for some toys." Weber recommended Tyson to Ralph Lauren, whose offices initially intimidated him. "I was like a little B-boy sitting in this office with all these guys in suits," Tyson says. "I'm like, Aw, man, I shouldn't even be here. This was like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and here comes me, a little street kid:" Surprising everyone, Lauren made Tyson the centerpiece of his campaign. Giving a black model such a high profile was a courageous act in an industry where courage is usually something you knock off a competitor and sell at a discount. Of course, the publicity didn't do Lauren any harm.

Tyson, who was named male model of the year at the VH1 Fashion & Music Awards last December, has reached a level of celebrity unparalleled by other male models, becoming a hero to minorities who are not used to seeing their faces in fashion ads. Stopped at a traffic light on Wall Street, where he promised a friend of his mother's he would go to meet her love-struck co workers, he is momentarily startled when a macho black bike messenger reaches in the window of Tyson's Land Cruiser, taps him on the shoulder and asks for his autograph. But his celebrity has a price. "Sometimes I'm scared to walk down the street," Tyson says. "People try to set you up. They make jokes and say, 'I'm gonna jump under the wheel of your car so that I can sue you and get paid."' He prefers to stay home at his new house in suburban New Jersey working on his Kawasaki motorcycles.

Despite his success, however, Tyson still has to deal with racism. When he was looking to buy a new car a few years ago, several dealers refused to sell him one, no matter how much cash he had for a down payment. When he finally was able to purchase a Land Cruiser, he then had to contend with police who were suspicious of a young black man driving an expensive automobile with dealer's tags. "They pulled me over in Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn, accusing me of stealing the car," he says. Tyson isn't the only model up against racism. Jason Olive, whose father is African-American and whose mother is German-Jewish, Irish and Chippewa, was one of the few models of color at the men's collections during fashion week. "I think it's f---ed," he says angrily." I don't see why I should be the only black model in a show." Kevin Louie, one of the few Asian models in the business, says that a major-department-store representative told his agent that they didn't use Asian models. Louie, who refers to himself with mordant humor as "your ethnic quota for today," wonders why some designers don't realize who buys their clothes. "Every time you go to these designers' stores you see hordes of Japanese, Koreans and Chinese coming out with six bags apiece," he says. However, his success has inspired others. Backstage after a show, an Asian woman comes over to him, raises her fist and says, "Asian power."

MILAN (NICKNAMED "VIET MILAN" BY THE MODELS FOR ITS brutal pace during show week) is a mecca for young men who hope to make it in modeling. It's also where models get their first taste of the good and the bad the business has to offer. "Milan is crazy," says Olive. "You have guys flying in from all over the world. You feel that's all that city does: eats, drinks, sleeps fashion." It's a combination frat party and A Chorus Line audition. Fisher, who shared an unheated hotel room with two other models, arrived last January to a scene of total chaos: "They had a big party the night before," he says. "There were liquor bottles on the floor, cigarette burns everywhere, beds off the springs. I was pretty scared when I walked in to all this craziness."

During show season (in January and June), the streets are packed with male models rushing to appointments with designers, magazine editors and photographers. Casting calls can last until the wee morning hours; hundreds compete for a place in shows that have only three or four openings. At night, the models invariably end up at Club Hollywood. Fisher, who was discovered at the club by a Boss scout, says that like many cash-poor models, he ended up "dancing for dollars" there. "You get paid $150 to dance on a pedestal," he explains. "I'm not proud of it, but it paid the bills."

The fast lane in Milan has no speed limit. "A wild Italian party is like a party anywhere in the world, but there's more of it," says Olive. "There's pretty girls, but there's more of them, and they're prettier. There's drugs, but there's more drugs, used heavier. Parties last way into the morning in the most unbelievable settings. These houses are like palaces. Drugs, free sex, free everything. There's nothing you can't have."

ALEX LUNDQVIST LOOKED "LOST" IN MILAN, ACCORDING TO his pal Jason Lewis. "With all the good in this business, there's also the bad, and my first impression of Alex was that he couldn't discern between the two," Lewis explains. "That's not a comment on his intelligence. Alex just has the nicest heart. That made us want to look out for him."

Nothing like the dour Swedes in Ingmar Bergman movies, Lundqvist is walking on air. He just moved to New York, and he thinks it's the most wonderful city on Earth. He's "having a blast" with his new friends Jason Lewis and Mark Vanderloo and their Wilhelmina agent, Sean Patterson. And now that he makes thousands of dollars a day to stand around and look fabulous, he's got even more reason to smile.

Three years ago Lundqvist was making a lot less money and working much harder as a tank commander in the Swedish army. "We had this one week where we didn't have anything to eat except a banana a day," he says in his soft Swedish accent. "We had to break a hole in the ice and wash ourselves at 5:00 in the morning:" He uses his army name tag as a money clip "to remind me not to complain," he says. When he was discharged, he rebelled by growing his trademark long hair, mustache and goatee.

Lundqvist grew up on an island on the outskirts of Stockholm. In the winter he ice-skated to town like Hans Brinker. His father is a dentist, and his mother assists his father, which might sound like a good plot for a horror movie, but Lundqvist has never been on the other side of his father's drill, because he's luckily never had a cavity. He was unusually prone to accidents, though, and has scars to prove it on his forehead (he fell on the ice when he was 2, and hit his head building a treehouse), wrist (he put his hand through a glass door in high school) and back (he got stabbed in the army by one of the locals who frequently skirmished with the soldiers stationed in their town), plus assorted mementos from bust-ups on his Harley. Ten years ago his scars might have nixed a modeling career, but he had the good fortune to enter the business at a time when flawed beauty is actually an asset.

Lundqvist is seeing designers in New York to be fitted with the clothes he'll wear on the runway. He has just run into Jason Lewis at the high-tech sportswear designer Nautica. Embracing Lewis, he exclaims, "This is my new roommate," then puts him in a headlock and wrestles him to the floor like a rambunctious teen-ager.

As he walks down Fifth Avenue on his way to his next appointment, Lundqvist is so giddy you check to see if his feet touch the sidewalk. Suddenly, he spies a picture of Vanderloo on a telephone booth and stops dead in his tracks. He walks up to the poster, punches the picture at Vanderloo's shoulder and says, grinning, "Hey, buddy!"

LUNDQVIST HAS EVERY REASON TO BE ON TOP OF THE world—he started his career just as the male-supermodel phenomenon took off. The question now is, Will it last? Michael Gross, author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, isn't convinced it will: "I don't believe that if you go to a mall in Indiana and ask a beer-swilling teen-ager the name of the kid in the Calvin Klein commercial, he's going to know it. The male supermodel is a marketing phenomenon that will not take hold with the masses. I hope they make a lot of money, don't get spoiled and can live real lives after living in this false bubble."

But the models have a more pragmatic view. "At the end of the year, the women always come out ahead," says Vanderloo. "But I'm not upset about it. They deserve it. I can only look into my own pockets, and I'm not unhappy."

Of course, there are always post-modeling career options. Lundqvist is saving his money to study advertising. Tyson and Lewis are talking about film careers. Hardison says she's already refused some movie offers for Tyson because he's "not ready." Tyson, however, is getting restless. "Some models eat, drink and sleep modeling," he says. "I just want to get my money and get out."

Not a bad idea when you work in an industry where one day you're hot, the next you're not. Earlier this year, during fashion week, West's relationship with Calvin Klein was modified. While he would still model for the designer's fragrance and eyewear ads, he would no longer be Klein's underwear supermodel. Replacing him is Antonio Sabato Jr. (Melrose Place). "Calvin Klein is always searching for new talent," says a Klein spokesperson dispassionately. Leslie Simitch, who worked on the casting for Klein, says, "We were looking for a good body, and we were also looking for a personality."

Boss' director of communications, Paul West (no relation to Joel) isn't going to admit defeat, however. "[Joel] is the hottest f---ing supermodel in the world," he says. "Walk down the street in Chicago or Houston and say the name Joel West and the name Tyson, and see which one they know."

After fashion week in New York, Joel West immediately flew back to Iowa, where he stayed a few days before setting out to Hollywood with his best friend since the fifth grade, Cory Sinclair, an actor, to test the waters out there. Back at Boss' office, the blowup of the Calvin Klein ad that hung in the lobby, which just three weeks earlier had made West so proud, has been removed from the wall, like the painting of a crown prince toppled in a coup d'état.■

Al Weisel is the co-author, with Larry Frascella, of Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause, being published in October 2005.
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