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Model Rights Watch: Will TV producers continue torturing genetic mutants? "Make Me a Supermodel" and "Running in Heels" caught experimenting on good-looking humans!

Published March 1, 2009 3:46PM (EST)

Moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles is sort of like leaving work at a local public radio affiliate to take a job at Disney. As bored as you might be with black horn-rimmed glasses, crappy wages, precious conversations about current tensions in Ghana, fake hipster country bands and bitter beer, it's hard to leave the welcoming folds of pseudo-intellectual alterna-conformity. San Francisco is a damp and sticky balm for the nation's overthinking, underachieving outcasts.

Los Angeles has its own outcasts, of course, but at first they're difficult to find. You're surrounded by people who wear bright, shiny clothes and unabashedly scan you from head to toe in order to make a crucial preliminary visual assessment of your net worth. Unlike in San Francisco or New York, you don't open conversations by complaining, and you never, ever insult models.

A few months after I moved to L.A., I went to a party in Hollywood and mentioned to my friend that everywhere I went, there seemed to be models taking pictures of each other with tiny cameras. It was true: I'd just had the misfortune, the night before, of being the only woman at a house in the Hollywood Hills who was a) still fully clothed and, not coincidentally, b) not a model. As the models frolicked nakedly in the pool and then did naked yoga on the lawn, all the while snapping naked pictures of each other on their minuscule silver cameras, I felt like a lumpy, sullen prude. Under normal circumstances, I might be naked, too. But naked among models? That had post-traumatic stress repercussions.

Having narrowly escaped model-induced self-loathing the night before, I felt less genetically privileged and more badly dressed than usual at the party, so I quietly griped about bony, picture-snapping mutants in my midst. Some gel-headed guy passing by heard me and leaned in to ask, "What's wrong with models?" in the same tone you might say, "What's your problem with raw tomatoes, anyway?" or "What's so bad about oxygen, exactly?"

I was shocked. Back in San Francisco, we all agreed that models were annoying. The word "model" was practically a synonym for "annoying." This was easy to get away with, because there weren't any models around, and the people who did resemble models were careful to disguise their natural good looks with greasy, bedheaded hair and soiled jeans and unflattering plaid ruffled thrift-store tops. But in Los Angeles, the populace rallied around the genetically superior, silently agreeing that ugly people were the world's natural outcasts.

Mutants rule

This goes part of the way toward explaining why shows about models make it to the air here in the city of airbrushed angels: Any excuse for collecting a bunch of tall, skinny, attractive people in one place is seen as deeply worthwhile. That said, the best shows about modeling embrace the same punishingly aloof attitude as they might in the worldwide capitals of fashion, New York and Milan and Paris, where unproven good-looking humans aren't greeted with unconditional love and respect the way they would be here in LA. Instead, they're heaped with the same dismissive indifference deserving of any wobbly-legged neophyte, new to the impossibly glamorous and special universe of high fashion.

No wonder Bravo's New York-based "Make Me a Supermodel" (premieres 10 p.m. Wednesday, March 4) has supplanted CW's irrevocably Los Angelized "America's Next Top Model" (premieres 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 4) as the on-air modeling fiesta of choice. Intent on exalting the sophisticated world of high-end fashion while simultaneously demeaning those who have the gall to imagine they could become a part of it, "Make Me a Supermodel" improves on all of the best elements of the first few seasons of "America's Next Top Model" while tossing out some of its more cloying and obnoxious elements (aka squealing girls, extended discussions about/vehement denial of eating disorders, and increasingly outsize interruptions from former supermodel and self-proclaimed media mogul Tyra Banks).

First of all, "Make Me a Supermodel" features both male and female models, which puts a merciful damper on the amount of screeching, suspicions regarding bulimia, and bulimia-inducing comments about ballooning ass sizes. Secondly, the producers of "Make Me a Supermodel" are careful to force the pretty boy and girl contestants into their underwear or swimwear at every turn, embarrassing and demeaning them as much as is required to create quality television. Unlike ANTM's "Come to Jesus" encounters, in which Tyra's fragile young girlfriends are urged to bare their souls, spilling out stories of teenage pregnancies and childhoods in the ghetto and uncles who touched them in inappropriate ways as Tyra purses her glossy lips and bats her fake 2-inch eyelashes sympathetically, "Make Me a Supermodel" features measuring sessions in which the models are asked to strip to their underwear; then they're surveyed with a tape measure by some casually world-weary modeling guru who might as well be installing carpet, for all of his diplomacy and tact. Pecs are scrutinized and found wanting. Asses are declared unacceptable and unwieldy. Modeling agent Cory Bautista, who admits, mid-measure, that he himself has the body of a Teletubby, blithely commands the models to transform their genetically predetermined shapes through whatever pathologically obsessive means necessary to remain in the competition.

And we know he's right because, as we witnessed in the first season, the judges of "Make Me a Supermodel" aren't exactly warm, engaging, welcoming human beings. They're highly acclaimed professionals who've touched the gilded hem of the ultra-glamorous international fashion industry, and they don't take kindly to misshapen mortals who refuse to compulsively monitor and limit their caloric intake. Failing to do so, in fact, amounts to utter incompetence and neglect in their eyes.

The best part, though, is when the judges use a clumsy runway walk or a disappointing photo shoot as an excuse to question the very soul of the model in front of them. "I feel that you are missing spontaneity and charm and emotion," fashion designer Catherine Malandrino tells one model in this season's premiere episode, "and this is what we want to see on the runway." The model winces while the other competitors nervously shift their feet in their 9-inch stilettos or tug at their ill-fitting tapered Prada pants. You can almost see them making mental notes to themselves to remember to express their spontaneity and charm and emotion every time they walk down the runway --  whatever that entails, exactly. Kicking up a heel? Laughing out loud, with gusto? Malandrino has just offered the sort of abstract deconstructive criticism that can keep a young, underfed filly awake at night, tossing and turning in her standard, twin-size, Ikea-issued "Make Me a Supermodel" bunk bed.

And even though the first episode features a steady fix of ruthless measuring sessions, scornful judge encounters and uncomfortable photo shoots ("Create an intimate moment with this wildly attractive opposite- or same-sex model, in your underwear, while dangling 50 feet in the air in this Plexiglas cube"), the teaser promises a whole season worth of nonstop torture and nastiness sure to shred to pieces even the strongest, most resilient model egos. "There's no crying in modeling!" one judge spits unsympathetically, while another scornfully admonishes, "You're a tasteless version of Kate Moss!" and a fellow contestant offers, "You look like a porn star."

Which is awesome, because we lumpmeisters and Teletubbies and misshapen curly-fry enthusiasts at home love nothing more than seeing beautiful, slender young people mistreated, humiliated and dismissed with a careless wave of a delicate-boned, former-model-or-fashion-designer hand. We know that many of these long, tall Sallys have spent the better half of their short lives sucking in their ass cheeks and making their Zoolander faces in the mirror and snickering at the genetically inferior outcasts in their midst.

OK, fine. They've probably been doubting themselves and scrawling lonely passages in their diaries and mooning over worthless crushes just like the rest of us have. But still, they looked really good doing it, and for that, they must pay! Because we looked good once, too, before we decided that being hot was exhausting and unnecessary, particularly when compared to the joys of eating Ho-Hos in bed while watching hot people suffering on TV.

Low spark of high-heeled boy toys

Not surprisingly, Hot People Suffering is also the theme of the Style network's "Running in Heels" (premieres 8 p.m. Sunday, March 1), a reality series about three female interns at Marie Claire magazine. Although the network seems to be promoting the show as a "documentary-style" series, the premise and the casting are pure reality-show Velveeta: Ashley, a blonde with a propensity for eye rolling and smirking at the slightest provocation, has clearly been chosen for her troublemaking ways, while Talita, a tall, slender, handbag-dog-toting brunette from Los Angeles with an unfortunate habit of screaming "Shut up right now!," obviously fulfills the pesky-but-provocative Paris Hilton archetype. Meanwhile, Samantha, a model-pretty Midwesterner, proclaims her unconditional love for her two fellow interns early and often -- up until the moment when one of them disappoints her, at which point she effortlessly shifts to pouty disapproving mode, replete with frosty stares and sullen silences.

Thankfully, Marie Claire editor Joanna Coles and the rest of the staff seem determined to be just as unforgiving and professionally impatient as they would be if the cameras weren't following them everywhere. Coles in particular seems to relish the spotlight, enthusiastically spewing a steady flow of witty remarks and self-deprecating asides throughout her very busy and important day. At one point she tells her staff to keep the new interns out of trouble: "Don't let them do drugs in the foyer, that kind of thing." Either she forgets the cameras are there or she's a very entertaining actress. But do we really care either way?

Meanwhile, brand-new Marie Claire fashion director Nina Garcia seems intent on saying as little as possible -- understandable for a hardened reality-TV show veteran, but frustrating nonetheless. Even so, we do get a glimpse of the stoical snob we've come to know and love from "Project Runway" in one editorial meeting: When the magazine's senior fashion editor, Zanna Roberts, suggests a nautical-themed photo shoot, Garcia responds, rather flatly, "I don't think anybody here is going to dress head to toe in anchors and stripes."

Even with so little emoting, it's hard not to gather that Garcia is weathering her transition from Elle (sophisticated, international fashion mag) to Marie Claire (pedestrian, mainstream women's mag) a little badly. How easy can it be for Garcia, our favorite disdainful elitist, to go from a Vogue-level fashion publication to a magazine that sports features like "Diary of a Hookup From Hell" and "11 Ingredients to Cook Up Good Sex"? Stilted, staged intern-bot interactions aside, "Running in Heels" may be worth watching for Garcia's uncomfortable, sugarcoated demi-demotion alone, a fitting spectacle for a time when most of us are sweating over our job security in one way or another. In fact, in this age of layoffs and cutbacks and salary freezes, maybe seeing genetically blessed reality contestants being "eliminated" one by one is just what we need to feel better about our own fading beauty and narrowing chances at long-term prosperity.

So don't hate them because they're beautiful! In this economy, suffering is an equal opportunity employer, and everyone from sulky outcasts to self-important models to demoted editors to flustered interns must pander to its fickle whims just to stay on the payroll!

Next week: The darkness of AMC's suburban drug trade drama "Breaking Bad" makes ABC's homicide drama "Castle" look positively lighthearted by comparison.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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