B ackstage at the Carlos Miele show, all the accents are Russian. The models are rubbing off makeup, having transformed from Miele’s glamorous jet-setters back into harried teenagers. They look skinny but not cadaverous. Yet after a week in the Bryant Park tents, I realize I can’t trust my own judgment: It’s already become impossible to see the difference between thin and thin.
I walk up to Nataliya Gotsii, who grimaces when I ask her about new industry guidelines on eating disorders. Everyone at Fashion Week makes this face when I raise the subject: After a year of media coverage criticizing the size-zero model, fashion has gotten tired of explaining itself. But Gotsii has particular reason to worry. She was one of the models whose photos have been used to illustrate the controversy—a shot of her ribs was flashed on CNN in order to elicit shocked reactions from celebrities.
“It’s all about the Ukrainian models,” she tells me with frustration. “After last Fashion Week, I hear a lot about myself, in the news! I didn’t come back here for two months because clients refused to work with me. Me and Snejana and the other Ukrainian models.” All of the runway models are thin, she points out, and she wonders why she was singled out. “Maybe, some of the girls, they skinny, but they look natural? Some of the girls, they don’t look healthy?”
Her mother cried when she saw those pictures, says Gotsii. But her body was Photoshopped, she claims. Those circles under her eyes (and I can see them: pale-brown half-moons) are genetic—her brother has them, too. “Nobody cares, they just take a name and put a lot of shit. We’re going out, we’re having dinners, everybody’s eating, there’s no anorexia in this business!”
It’s not true, of course. A week after our conversation, a perilously thin teenage model, Eliana Ramos, would die in Uruguay, apparently of a heart attack, making it three model deaths in the past seven months. In August, Ramos’s older sister Luisel died after restricting herself to a diet of lettuce leaves and Diet Coke. In November, Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died weighing just 88 pounds.
But Gotsii resents being dragged into the debate. In those notorious pictures from last season, she had worn a white halter top dangling from chains; you could count her vertebrae. In a taupe bikini she stood, hands on hips, staring into the camera, a tanned skeleton.
If she looked so terrible, if she looked run-down, it had nothing to do with food, she argues. Already today Gotsii has walked in two shows, and she has another one scheduled for tonight. Her first fitting had begun at 6:30 a.m. Next week, she’s off to Paris, then Milan. “You live for almost one month just about fashion. Fashion, fashion, fashion—it makes you tired in the head. In two weeks, maybe I will look tired again.”
I look at her and try to remember the pictures I’ve seen. Does she look too thin? She’s not wearing a bikini right now, so I can’t tell. She looks fine, if a little tired.
And then she looks me in the eye and asks, “I’m not so scary, am I?”
R aise the issue of eating disorders during Fashion Week, and someone will inevitably bring up that lost, glorious era of the supermodel: Christy, Naomi, Cindy, Linda, the four-headed stompy-legged beast with big shiny hair, the one that wouldn’t get up for less than $10,000. Those were the days when models took up space. They were stars. They made demands. And their faces were everywhere. To paraphrase from Sunset Boulevard, sometimes it feels like it’s not the clothes that have gotten small, it’s the models. (Although, of course, the clothes have shrunk, too, sample sizes dwindling from a 6 to a 4 to a 2 and below.)
These days, fashion people do not talk about models with awe. Instead, they speak of them with condescending affection, as if they were lovable circus folk. Again and again, I hear that they are “beautiful freaks,” “genetic anomalies”—girls born to be bone-thin, with giraffelike necks and the wide, pretty doll faces that are the latest visual sensation. But there is also pity for the models, who are, many people pointed out to me, basically high-school dropouts, teenagers from poor countries, whose careers last a very short time. They are infinitely replaceable. Although top girls can make up to $100,000 in a week of shows, the vast majority get nowhere near that; some of the more prominent designers pay the girls only in clothes.