By Michael E. Miller
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Of course the magnetic draw for all these lithe young hopefuls isn't simply the prospect of a lucrative livelihood. As Michael Gross explains in his Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, models are more than just talking mannequins. Models matter.
“Though they exist in an apparently superficial milieu, models are metaphors for matters of cultural consequence like commerce, sexuality, and aesthetics,” writes Gross. “Today's models hawk not only clothes and cosmetics but a complex, ever-lasting psychology and social ambiance, a potent commercial fiction that goes by the name lifestyle.” Clearly an awful lot of folks want in.
Elite, the world's largest modeling agency with booking fees of more than $100 million last year, certainly appears determined to capitalize on this relentless surge of interest. Nearly 40,000 girls flocked to malls across the nation for the Elite Model Look 2000 talent search, all hoping to snag the grand prize of a million-dollar contract in Geneva next month. When that 40,000 was weeded down over the past year to 26 individuals, South Beach was chosen for the contest's final U.S. round, a change from its usual New York City preening ground. It's a fitting destination. After all, is there any other burg in America whose identity is more closely wedded to the model trade?
On a sunny afternoon last month, the Model Look kicked off affairs by herding its 26 finalists over to the South Beach salon Stella for their requisite makeovers. Sitting in a stylist's chair is Anna-Maria Kymalainen. At age sixteen the West Palm Beacher may only be entering her junior year of high school, but she's already had twelve months to mull over this career move.
Kymalainen was first spotted by an Elite talent scout last summer, when she was part of the crowd gathered for the Warped Tour stop in her hometown. With the punkish Warped Tour about to make its annual return to South Florida, Kymalainen has the date memorized. “July 29!” she gushes, waving a cowabunga hand sign as a smile lights up her face -- a sun-kissed visage whose flattering cheekbones, Scandinavian features, and long blond hair would seem closer to a character out of a vintage Beach Boys tune than any song from the tattooed punk-rock outfits that comprise the Warped Tour.
That says less about Kymalainen, however, and more about the changing world of punk. Now in its sixth year of gathering up two dozen or so different punk bands and crisscrossing the nation's amphitheaters to capacity crowds, the Warped Tour marks a sea change in that genre's cultural position since it first hit the suburbs two decades ago.
In 1980 if you were sixteen and a fan of Miami punk mainstays the Eat, Kill the Hostages, or Gay Cowboys in Bondage, it was a pretty good indication that you were (a) something of a social pariah, and (b) getting your ass kicked in high school on a regular basis. You certainly didn't hear your music of choice on the radio. Punks did make it on to TV, but always as stock villains: terrorizing a video arcade on CHiPs, enticing Silver Spoons' Ricky Schroder into a life of crime, or dealing angel dust on any number of ABC Afterschool Specials. To be sure punks didn't spend much time in venues frequented by modeling scouts.
Flash-forward to the present. As hordes of mothers dropped off their kids at this past Saturday's Warped shindig at West Palm Beach's MARS complex, you could almost read their relieved minds: Thank God my children aren't going to a rave!
“It's all about the music,” Kymalainen exhorts, somewhat nonplussed at Kulchur's suggestion of there being a fatal contradiction between her self-professed punk-rocker status and her aspirations to become a model. “If they ever let me choose the music when I'm on the runway, punk is what I'd choose: Less Than Jake, MxPx, Pennywise. The music is what I'm all about.” So is there any difference between Warped Tour headliners Green Day and, say, classic-rock standard-bearers Aerosmith? “Well, they've got a different kind of beat,” she offers, “but punks can sing about parties and girls too now.” She pauses and adds, “But punk has that extreme rush, that go feeling. If I'm driving on my way to go surfing and I listen to punk, I'm totally pumped up!” Kulchur gets flashed another cowabunga sign.
Two days later the girls are waiting to be assembled into teams for a scavenger hunt on Lincoln Road. Though it's only been 48 hours since Kulchur and Kymalainen first met, she explains that rigid cliques have already formed. One of her friends motions toward the Road's nearby intersection with Meridian Avenue, where a cluster of fellow contestants frantically hop up and down in front of a Pontiac Sunfire banner (Model Look 2000's main sponsor), practicing dueling screams of “I want the car!” for a Pontiac video crew.
“It's the same group of girls that always feels they've got to jump in front of the camera,” Kymalainen's friend sniffs while rolling her eyes. “Like that's what's going to help them win.” Kymalainen herself takes a more tactful line: “Some of us are just a little more laid-back. I mean, I'm a surfer. But a lot of these other girls are into beauty pageants, or they've already been modeling for a while. They like the glitz and all the glamour.”
A few minutes later the hunt begins and the squads of girls are tearing up and down Lincoln Road, dashing in and out of stores to receive clues, answer riddles, and perform appropriately goofy tasks. Despite the blazing 90-degree midday heat, Kulchur tries gamely to keep up with the sprinting Kymalainen, as does a huffing and puffing veteran New Times photographer. (“This is worse than Belfast,” he grimaces as sweat drenches his shirt.) Even the Elite staffers -- supposedly judging the girls on their “charisma under fire” -- are left behind. As one team rushes past the event's coordinator, she worriedly calls out after them: "Where's your chaperone?"
Kymalainen's cadre expertly runs through the assignments: putting makeup on a boy (an obliging Marilyn Manson fan who happily accedes to mascara and rouge but draws the line at toenail polish), dressing up a dog (a homeless couple cheerfully offers their puppy), assembling a skateboard (“I know this,” cries Kymalainen, “my whole crew skates!”), sleuthing out the photographer behind the cover shot of this month's Vogue ("Steven Meisel!" yelps one girl clutching the magazine, undoubtedly the most excitement anyone's attached to that shutterbug's name in ages), and convincing a visiting tourist to mimic a runway strut. His Italian machismo seems to prevent any convincing sashaying until the girls -- watching precious seconds slip away -- begin ferociously barking orders: "Move your hips; give attitude!"
Soon enough the hunt is over, and celebrating her team's victory, Kymalainen and Kulchur retreat to Starbucks for a triumphant latté and a look to the future. “My mom's a little worried about me going off to Europe to work,” she admits. “There's all the parties and older men.” Indeed. The last several years have seen the modeling industry beset by tales of strung-out fourteen-year-olds and the sleazy geriatrics who prey upon them, stories that have particularly dogged Elite (to which Kymalainen is contracted for the next two years regardless of the Model Look 2000's outcome) and two of Elite's co-owners, John Casablancas and Gérald Marie.
Responding to a BBC documentary from last November in which hidden cameras captured the fiftyish Marie making plans to bed a string of underage Elite models (as well as bookers procuring drugs for other clients and then pimping them out), the paunchy Lothario was unapologetic. Speaking to the London Times, he claimed his filmed comments were taken out of context, and besides, all his paramours were more than willing -- regardless of their age.
The 57-year-old Casablancas, who recently took a house in Miami with his 24-year-old wife and claims to be semiretired, also hedged at sounding a note of contrition, telling the Times that while he'd certainly been with scores of underage women, he'd never "knowingly" slept with anyone under sixteen. “I'm not seeking redemption. I'm proud of the story of my life,” Casablancas crowed. “I had a lot of fun, I made money, I had prestige.”
Confronted with the dubious honor of working for bosses like Casablancas and Marie, Kymalainen remains unfazed. "They're males!" she laughs, "What do you expect?" Not that she's much surprised either. “I've met a lot of models here who would be happy to sleep with those guys if they thought it would help their career,” she says offhandedly. And, ahem, what about her? “Ew!” she gasps, wrinkling her nose with a tinge of nausea. “That's not the way I was brought up. I have morals.” She is, after all, a punk rocker.