Looking at the DVD cover of “About Face”, with the staring faces of seven leading er, older top female models, one thing is striking. The faces have similar features; high cheekbones, pouting lips and penetrating eyes. These faces have sold mega product and made fortunes both for their owners and their hirers. But, it’s come at a cost that is perhaps borne in some ways by all of us.

Modelling, we are told by one of the world’s first super models, 81 year old Carmen Dell’Orefice, emerged with the advent of the consumer society and mass market advertising. Prior to then it was a word spoken sheepishly, essentially a euphemism for prostitution.

From the 1950’s, leading female models have by now become pillars of society, not only very rich, but admired, cosseted and indulged. In the 1970’s and 1980’s when many of the models interviewed here were in their career primes, it was a rarefied world of big money, beautiful people, sex-charged parties, snorting coke through green-backs and exotic location shoots. Who wouldn’t want to be part of it and cut loose?

But, those that were, the top models that stare out at us in front of a black drop-cloth, have a few cautionary tales to tell. The drugs took their toll. The free sex helped spread a hitherto unknown ailment that became known as HIV/AIDS and the white knuckle grip on the good times became, for many, an obsession with plastic surgery.

Left there, “About Face” might just have been a wowserising damp squib, the sort of thing that might be – suitably censored of course – required viewing in Bible schools for impressionable young ladies.

But, the film takes us a little further, or at least its interviewees do. It is remarkable how many of these striking, successful, wealthy women suffer bouts of low self esteem and fear. As one puts it “What people today call sexual harassment, we called compliments.”

So much of the outlandish behaviour is set against a context of strict upbringings and moralising society. As much a warning for for loose ways, “About Face” is a critique of a society which expects young women to be pure and untouchable, yet encourages their exploitation and co-modification.

Of course, the subtext seems to suggest, there will be trouble. These women have been given no access to the wider world and no tools with which to face it. That’s society’s fault as much as it is theirs.

The impact of modelling is of course seen in various obvious ways. The value of one’s looks, if only to oneself, has risen to the extent that inner beauty is the equivalent of a penny stock languishing at the very bottom of the flesh market of life. Beauty can be bought and self worth can be manufactured. But at what price?

Many of these faces, with the tell tale creases like they are held together with hinges, offer an answer.

Deftly piecing the various issues together, director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders lets the women speak for themselves. But it’s the striking Isabella Rossellini who, with her short hair and suit and tie, seems to get the best edit. The more rigorous examples of beauty-work – the plastic surgery, the botox injections – are, she says, dropping a killer line, “the new foot binding.”

Can modelling ever not be about the exploitation of not only the women (and men) who are its leading talent, but of the darker impulses lurking within all of us?

THE SKINNY (NO PUN INTENDED)

Title – About Face: Supermodels Then and Now

Makers – Perfect Day Films

How to catch it – DVD

Couch Time – 78 Mins

High Point – Rossellini

Low Point – Meanders a little at times

Extras – Yes

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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