“Look at her legs!” whispers Bianca Balti, pointing across the room at Alessandra Ambrosio, who has just arrived in a miniskirt. “See, she works out.”
Balti, on the other hand, does not. “I have not done one exercise in my whole life,” she says, giggling. To prepare for tomorrow’s Pirelli photo shoot, one of the modeling industry’s most renowned jobs, she will simply shave and get a pedicure from “someplace down the street, I guess.” The first time she was cast for a Pirelli calendar, in 2010, “Karl Lagerfeld wanted me because he thought the other girls were too fit,” she explains. “He told me I had a butt like a goddess, and that I shouldn’t ruin it!”
Indeed, he annual Pirelli shoot is the Mount Olympus of modeling, and for this year’s 50th-anniversary edition, the Italian brand outdid itself with a splashy photo shoot of their most popular subjects. However, the result won't be part of their usual product — an ultra-luxe pinup-calendar-slash-coffee-table-book of the world’s most beautiful women, who are (with a few notable exceptions) photographed nude — which was shot separately and will be distributed to a small list of Pirelli’s top VIPs in a few months.
To compound the buzz that typically surrounds their sexy calendars, Pirelli hosted a three-day press junket in late June, flying journalists from around the world to New York City to “experience" a Pirelli shoot (or rather, drink free wine and take day trips to the beach). To simulate the process more fully, they also hired two big-name Pirelli alumni, Peter Lindbergh and Patrick Demarchelier; this year's actual Pirelli photographer remains unnamed.
When I arrive at the Gramercy Park Hotel on a hot afternoon to interview the cast, I am ushered into a suite full of international press nibbling on fruit and macarons. One by one, we are guided into another suite, where Alek Wek, Karolina Kurkova, Helena Christensen, and Isabeli Fontana sit perched on different couches, all bright-eyed and long-legged. The room quickly fills with broken English and proffered voice recorders.
In the spirit of the anniversary, all of this year’s models are seasoned Pirelli veterans; most have appeared in multiple past calendars. For Wek, her 1999 Pirelli debut marked her first nude shoot ever. “It was with Herb Ritts,” she recalls. “My agent gave me a whole lecture about how it wasn’t going to be lewd. She said, ‘Look, the photographer isn’t going to fancy you. It’s not like that.’” But Wek wasn’t worried: “Nothing would compare to what my mum would do to my agent if anything bad happened!” She posed for the calendar again in 2000 (shot by Annie Leibovitz) and 2004 (Nick Knight). “I’ve done nude countless times since,” she says. “My mum is okay with it now.”
However, other models always remained subtly covered up. “I never really did a nude shoot,” says Ambrosio, who was previously photographed in a swimsuit by Bruce Weber for the calendar’s 2003 edition. “I’m not comfortable doing them, so I always had a G-string, or I cover my boobs” — she turns sideways and posed so that her arm covered her breast — “so it looks like I’m nude.” She prepared for the shoot by getting a little bit of a tan. “I lay out in the sun yesterday, just for a few minutes.” When another reporter asks about her favorite indulgences, she dutifully professes a taste for strawberry shortcake. “It’s nice to have in the afternoon, with tea,” she says, sipping from a glass of water.
The calendar’s most experienced subject, Isabeli Fontana, is also surprisingly modest. “I have done Pirelli, what is it, six, seven times?” she asks a nearby publicist. (It’s six, he confirms.) “I’m not comfortable with my body totally naked,” she says, thrusting out her chest in mock exhibitionism. “I was only topless two of the times I did the calendar. And I always felt so uptight showing my, my intimate parts, you know, and they always respected that, believe it or not. They were always like, 'Oh, you don’t feel like showing? It’s fine, don't worry!'” Her favorite Pirelli set? “When we were in Botswana with Peter Beard, in the middle of the jungle, with elephants, and it was dark,” she said, waving her arms with excitement. “I’m like wearing this corset, like a dominatrix, and this elephant started licking my arm! Wow!”
The following day, a fleet of cars takes journalists to the Catalina Beach Club, near Long Beach, to watch Peter Lindbergh shoot the models on the beach. It’s a hot, windy day, and the models’ hair blows everywhere as they pose in smudgy black eye makeup. Sandwiches are served, and onlookers are impressed. "Do they serve cheese plates at all fashion shoots?" wonders one reporter.
Patrick Demarchelier shoots the next day, but he works so quickly that he’s already finished up by the time we arrive at the studio. “Patrick’s resting,” says a publicist when we file in, assuring everyone that he’ll take another picture for our gawking purposes after lunch.
When he’s ready, the models materialize, all wearing unbuttoned white collared shirts and black high heels. They squeeze together in front of a blank backdrop, bathed in natural light that pours in from the floor-to-ceiling windows. “Yes! Beautiful! Perfect! Gorgeous!” cheers the gray-haired Demarchelier as the women smile and swivel and laugh, leaning against each other and cocking their knees out. At one point they lean too hard and lose their balance, exaggeratedly falling forward in the most photogenic group stumble in history. “Gorgeous!” Demarchelier repeats, his camera whizzing. It's like a scene from a movie about what fashion shoots are supposed to look like.
And then, in less than five minutes, it’s over. Demarchelier hands his camera to a nearby assistant, kisses each model on the cheek, and disappears. “That’s it!” says a publicist. We are encouraged to take leftover cookies on our way out, like souvenirs. It was, after all, a show.
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