"Model Behavior "
January, 1999
by Jon Stewart


Wherein actor, author, anchor, and resident Esquire anthropologist Jon Stewart goes into the wilds of Manhattan's far west side to study a colony of female fashion types

WEST SIDE HIGHWAY, NEW YORK CITY: a riverside repository of impounded cars, abandoned piers, and, for now, the world's largest remaining reserve of models. I am being shepherded to this tantalizing oasis by two veterans of many  a fall-fashion preview. Their cool detachment, born of years on fashion's frontlines, does little to calm the pounding in my chest as we approach our destination. We have set our course for the DKNY show to learn about man's  beautiful cousin, the model, and its rarest of subspecies, the supermodel. My excitement at knowing I will soon be  interacting with the world's largest living bipeds is tempered by the knowledge that their numbers are dwindling.

The first documented sightings of the supermodel occurred in the twentieth century, dating back to the late sixties and early seventies. British scientists are credited with the discovery, having unveiled a tall, thin subject that didn't fit into the traditional categories of models. This phenomenal breakthrough was called Twiggy and was corroborated quickly by an American subject dubbed Cheryl Tiegs. At first, scientists were baffled, thinking they might have stumbled onto the missing link-- the last piece of our evolutionary puzzle. Further study, however, showed this to be  a red herring, and the conventional wisdom became that these new and magnificent supermodels were perhaps an  odd mutation of the previously discovered group "really hot ladies."

While supermodels flourished during their Golden Age, the late eighties and early nineties, the herd is now  unquestionably thinning. No one is quite sure why they have begun to disappear, as they have no known enemies, but many now chalk this disturbing trend up to a combination of factors, including the aging process, carbohydrates, and man. Notably French man. Notably old, creepy French man with money and a lot of coke. Poachers are also a  problem, as a model's hand is considered a good-luck talisman in many Third World countries. This week of runway presentations could very well be my last opportunity to observe them in their natural environment.

We arrive at the show right on time: twenty minutes after it was scheduled to kick off. One of my guides assures me that no one but discount-department-store buyers actually get there at the official start. The grounds are heavily patrolled by Jewish and Asian women in stylish black uniforms, their ever-present headphones connecting them to an intricate satellite-network-communications security system. A small patrol stops us by the elevators, and I fear for my mission, until one of the enlistees recognizes my guide from a Hamptons fundraiser. We are in.

The backstage area is a swirl of activity. Elsa Klensch, the Dian Fossey of model study, is interviewing a new subject from Sweden. Donna Karan herself is putting the finishing touches on the fabric they use to best display and highlight this wonderful collection of models. And a trainer is instructing the models in the logistics of today's show. The pattern the models are to walk in, judging from the diagram being frantically gestured to, is a rectangle. I'm not sure his message is getting through, but I imagine once the show starts they'll just follow the rectangular path of the fabric that has been laid on the floor in preparation. (The catwalk planning seems excessive until you remember the parallelogram tragedy of 1992 during the Milan shows, when many models were crushed while bunching up in a nonright angle.)

The backstage chaos is controlled by a headphoned man in a black outfit, who identifies himself as the producer. He breathlessly apologizes for the disorder and explains that this show is unprecedented because it normally takes place in November, after Milan, not in September, before Milan. I ask if the early migration of these models is yet another effect of this year's powerful El Nino. Unsmiling, he blames it on Helmut Lang. The models seem agitated as well and  are soothed backstage by caffeinated soda, nicotine, and a Janet Jackson CD.

I settle into my work as unobtrusively as possible. At each show I attend, I wear the clothes of the designer being highlighted. It is a clever trick that allows me to walk among the models and observe without arousing suspicion or fear. Their sense of smell is not as acute as their vision, and they can spot an outsider in OshKosh B'Gosh overalls from five hundred yards. In my new designer clothes, I have been able to approach them and take notes almost at will. My only disappointment is the lack of supermodels. I ask a man dressed in a black outfit where the supermodels are. He takes off his headphones and explains to me that, at this event, the one remaining "big girl" ("big girl" being hip insider jargon for "supermodel") is Esther. As I move to inspect her more closely, two Jewish women in matching black outfits and headphones gleefully explain that Esther is going to marry Mark, a male supermodel. The male supermodel is an even rarer creature, and I interpret the women's joy at this pairing as perhaps the last chance at breeding supermodels in captivity. Earlier breeding experiments had paired supermodels with rock stars, and the results were mixed, sometimes resulting in very tall women with Keith Richards' complexion, sometimes in waifish, delicate men with good rhythm. It is said that the rock group Hanson is the result of one such ill-fated pairing.

The show itself is uneventful. I learn throughout the week that each event is rather uneventful. (Subsequent observations at the Mark Eisen and Calvin Klein shows and an Armani party offer little more than I learn during the first encounter.) Sitting on bleachers, you watch the models walk past to music you've never heard before. Each one walks past between four and seven times, depending on which show you attend. At first, I believe this is a game called Do You Still Know It's Me If I'm Wearing a Different Top? which displays the models' well-publicized playful side. I find out this is not the case when I attempt to play along. I call out to a  model who seems to be falling backward as she walks forward, "Hey, didn't I just see you a second ago wearing something orange?" The question goes unanswered, and a bald German man wearing headphones and a black outfit shushes me.

The week wears on. I find that my observations end at the superficial, and I'm frustrated at my lack of meaningful contact with my subjects. I was unable, during my time in the field, to engender sufficient trust to be accepted by the community I was sent to study. I fear failure and a cutoff of my funding. As I leave the final show, my mood is dark. I've not made a significant breakthrough, and I probably won't even get to keep the clothes. I turn toward the exit and reach into my pocket for a breath mint. Just then, something extraordinary happens. As I open the tin, two of the younger models, whom I had come to know as Freckles and Ladybug, reach out tentative hands and grab an Altoid. All under the watchful gaze of the dominant females. In that moment of transcendence, as my eyes lock with theirs, I realize that not only have I been studying them, but they have been studying me. This is an intelligent  species, and perhaps one day our worlds will find ways to communicate... for the betterment and understanding of both worlds. With the flush of success, I turn to go. An Asian woman wearing a bald German man, headphones, and a black outfit smiles as I walk out into the hopeful roar of the West Side Highway.

- - -

Jon Stewart is the author of Naked Pictures of Famous People (William Morrow), is the new anchor for The Daily Show, and can currently be seen in two movies, The Faculty and Playing by Heart.


Picture Captions:

At left, a rare photograph and the grail of my field research: one of the world's last remaining supermodels. On this page, I can be seen wearing the fashion culture's traditional ceremonial garb -- what we would call a "suit."

Clockwise from top left: I conceal myself in a group of fashion photographers to get a better view of my quarry. . . . Wearing an appropriate designer disguise and acting inconspicuous, I approach a pod of models, hoping not to scare them off. . . .Later, I slip into a blind. (The need for stealthy observation of these creatures cannot be overstated). . . .In a rare moment of contact, I attempt to converse with a pair of older females who dress the younger females and who are known, curiously, as "dressers.". . . .Examining one specimen's feet for signs of chiggers.

Clockwise from left: An inquisitive member of the group discovers me in my makeshift hiding place. (Such constructions, racks of clothes, really, line the backstage area of a fashon show.) . . . . Sitting atop a midden of discarded materials at the end of my week in the field, I contemplate my failure, but then . . . Triumph! I finally succeed in getting Freckles and Ladybug, along with a third, unnamed member of the pod, to take food from my hand.


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