When Beauty Fades

Beauty is the strangest gift ever given, because you have to give it back.

 

Try telling that to a teenage girl.  Or any woman under 30.  Or, maybe, any woman of any age.

 

A new documentary “About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now,” scheduled to be broadcast on HBO starting Monday July 29, explores how being blessed with beauty, and confronting the loss of it, has affected legendary supermodels and actresses Christie Brinkley, Beverly Johnson, Paulina Porizkova,  Carol Alt, Isabella Rossellini, Jerry Hall, Carmen Dell’Orefice, Cheryl Tiegs and others. 

 

The film, created by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, was a highlight of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The models speak candidly about their careers, plastic surgery, insecurities, men, motherhood and sex.  It offers a unique and priceless look inside the world so many of us envy - the life of the truly beautiful - but perhaps shouldn’t.

 

The film asks the question:  is it worse to be beautiful for a time, to hold that power over men, women, and cameras, than to be ordinary your whole life, which forces one to develop a more rounded sense of self-esteem and a range of life skills?  Physical beauty seems timeless; that is part of its allure. But of course, it is perhaps the most fragile of all life’s gifts.

 

I had my own inside glimpse into the world of commercial beauty during my first job after college, when I worked at Seventeen Magazine at age 22.  While I was there, Seventeen “discovered” Nikki Taylor, Angie Harmon, and Milla Jovovich.  I personally chaperoned the 1988 Seventeen modeling contest, taking eight knockout contestants around New York City, leaving speechless bystanders in our wake.

 

I observed firsthand the mixed blessing of beauty.  Yes, it was a gift, powerful and priceless at times.  But the scrutiny models face made them, ironically, incredibly insecure.  I listened to Seventeen’s models editor routinely reject 12-year-olds as too tall, too “catalog,” too boring - to their faces. I never met a model who felt beautiful.  And most of them - at least the more thoughtful ones - were painfully aware that they had done nothing to earn their looks, which made each one feel as if she didn’t fully own beauty.  Which, of course, none of them did.

 

Yet I never met a model who wished she weren’t beautiful, or an ordinary woman who didn’t want to be more attractive.  Myself included.

 

I can barely come to peace with beauty’s fleeting power, much less offer advice to my own daughters.   The best response I’ve ever heard came from a mom I know who runs a local modeling agency.  She tells her daughter, daily, that she is so beautiful she doesn’t need makeup or certain clothes to look her best.   Having worked her whole life around models, she’s got street cred. Her daughter, who is in many ways is more beautiful than the models her mother hires, believes her mom.