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Getting Old Is Hard, Even (And Especially) For Models

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You'll probably recognize many of the women featured in the new HBO documentary, About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now. They are some of the most famous and photographed models from the 1950s through the 1980s. Carol Alt and Beverly Johnson are two of the supermodels featured in the film. They are joined by director Timothy Greenfield Sanders to talk with Fresh Air's Terry Gross about growing up — and growing older — in an industry obsessed with youth.

For Johnson, starving herself seemed like part of the job. She was the first African-American model to appear on the cover of Vogue, and says "no one ever said I was too thin. And everyone kept giving me compliments on how great I looked and I was just emaciated. That's the scary part, when I look back on it. And I do think it did a lot of damage to my body."

Carol Alt admitted to losing up to 50 pounds for a Sports Illustrated cover. "I just really stopped eating and could live on basically body fat for a while, and it was really the stupidest thing I ever did. Starving yourself is no way to get any kind of self image, but when you're 17, you don't know any better."

Both models were made aware of aging when they were still teenagers. Carol Alt recalls, her first shoot as a model. "The first thing the make-up artist asked me was, 'So what are you gonna do after modeling? ... It goes fast. You have to think of something you want to do after modeling.' So that first day I was already planning what I want to do when this is over. I did posters, and calendars, and exercise videos, and books simply to keep me in the business because I didn't want it to end. I just loved what I was doing."

Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders conceived About Face in response to an idea: That the careers of models like Johnson and Alt are a "metaphor of how we grow old and deal with the changes in our lives and here was this perfect group of people who were so beautiful. It was a hyper-look at aging."

Greenfield-Sanders is a filmmaker and photographer known for his portraits of porn stars, world leaders and cultural figures. He's a contributing photographer for Vanity Fair and his work can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum and National Portrait Gallery.


Interview Highlights

Johnson on being a black supermodel in the 1970s

"There were no black makeup artists and there were no black hair stylists and I was working for Vogue and Glamour and it was really interesting to see a hairdresser just fumbling around with my hair. I think that's why I wore my hair pulled back for a lot of my career, just really slicked back, although it was really gorgeous, because they didn't know how to work with my hair ... because they never worked on anyone black before. "

Alt on being a Playboy cover model at 49

"I really insisted that I not be retouched in Playboy. I literally went into the studio and caught them making my body like Barbie. I said, 'That is not my body and anybody who's ever seen a photo of me in Sports Illustrated will know that's not my body and we have a deal in my contract that says no retouching.' I'm 49 years old, and that was the point ... For me this was a statement. I let every bump and flaw show."

Greenfield-Sanders on shooting portraits of supermodels

"Photographing the models was unusual for me because I'm not a fashion photographer, so these were people who got into the studio and looked at my lighting and understood what I was doing and were very conscious of my lights. Ninety-nine percent of my subjects are not, so it was a little bit challenging in a sense because they know that if the light is in a certain place, it's gonna look good on them and most people don't know that. I'm an art photographer ... so my portrait is really about the person in front of me, and not so much about their beauty. In this case, their beauty is forced on you. You can't avoid it. You can't shoot an ugly picture of these women."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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