Monday, September 26, 2016

Fashion's New Role Models: Never Too Thin? No, Never Too Old!

Runway models have never been role models for me. I am not particularly tall and, except in elementary school, I have never been thin. I have never worn make up and have never been over-concerned with how I look.

But runways models -- and models in fashion magazines -- have affected, no doubt, the way some men have looked at me. And they certainly have affect how millions of young girls look at themselves.

So it's good news that the industry finally has begun to rethink its part in perpetuating the idea that the paragon of female beauty is a tall, anorexic 25-year-old. Movements against fat-shaming have been working. More and more fashion magazines have been featuring models who have some meat on their bones. We've been telling men for years that size doesn't matter. It's great to get some reciprocity.

Still, it wasn't until my niece, Christine Kavalauskas, sent me a video about an older runway model that I realized I had my own set of stereotypes when it came to thinking about who deserved to walk the catwalk. It never occurred to me that never too thin could be replaced by never too old.

Meet Deshun Wang: male, Chinese and ripped -- and, at 80, the world's oldest runway model. The actor turned model became an internet sensation in 2015 when -- at the age of 79 -- he walked the catwalk for the first time during China Fashion Week.  In his inspiring video, which Wang created and posted on Weibo and which he made available on YouTube this month, the 80-year-old known as "The Hottest Grandpa" tells his story: "When you think it's too late, be careful you don't let that be your excuse for giving up."

I challenge you to watch this without a smile on your face:

Wang's story got me wondering: Were there other "role models" in the fashion world challenging our expectations of who gets to end up on the runway? (Feel free, by the way, to take "runway" as a metaphor for other successes in life).

Plenty, as it turns out.

Last year The Huffington Post offered up five uplifting moments from the previous 356 days as proof that "The Fashion Industry Is Getting More Accepting" -- fashion projects that honored women of all ages, races and backgrounds:  a Dove ad celebrating girls with curly hair; a photo shoot showing black women of all shades; 80-year-old author Joan Didion as the face of the French label Céline; the first Down Syndrome model participating in New York Fashion week, and the first plus-size model in the Pirelli calendar.

The inclusion of older models, like Joan Didion, has been a trend of sorts. Last year 93-year-old Iris Apfel modeled for both Alexis Bittar, the fashion jewelry company, and upscale Kate Spade. Earlier this year Nicola Griffin, at 56, became the oldest model ever to appear in the infamous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, the magazine's annual display of, um, beachwear. "More of this, please," said The HuffPost, referring to Griffin, not the scanty bathing suits.  In April, Griffin appeared in a steamy lingerie shoot for the U.K.-based Slink magazine, with the heading "Size 16 & 50 plus still has it!" More of this, indeed.

Iris Apfel, 93, models Alexis Bittar
Nicola Griffin, 56, in Slink Magazine

"Older," however, I discovered is a relative term.

In a slide show offered by the Los Angeles Times with the heading "Demand for Older Models Grows,"  a blurb read: "Models 35 and older are in demand as boomers want ‘to see someone they relate to." Yet only two in the slide show came close to the age of baby boomers -- people born in the baby boom just after World War II: 58-year-old Pia Gronning and Carmen Dell-Orifice, described as "in her 70s." All the other models were under 40, young enough to be children of boomers.

Tracey Norman's story, however, shatters all the runway stereotypes -- of age, race and gender.  Norman is a black transgender model who, at 63, is enjoying a sensational comeback after being ostracized from the fashion world for decades.

In the 1970s, Norman was the Clairol's first black transgender model, but the hair dye company didn't know about the transgender part. Given the intolerance of the times, "I had to hide my truth," Norman explains in a video posted on YouTube. Then during a photo shoot for Essence magazine, a hairdresser betrayed her secret. The photos from that shoot were never used. The agency she worked with told her there were no jobs for her. No one admitted why the jobs had dried up, but Norman understood.

She moved to Paris and, still guarding her secret, found modeling work again, but when she returned to the U.S. she found the doors of the fashion world were still slammed shut: "Oh, oh, you're the Tracey." She ended up getting involved in the drag-ball world, winning a beauty pageant sponsored by Sally Jesse Raphael. She worked in a shoe store.

Then at the end of last year,  The Cut did a profile of Norman that brought her story to a wider public: "The First Black Trans Model Had Her Face on a Box of Clairol. No one knew her secret. Until they did."

Clairol saw the profile and called her. The company wanted the trans model to be part of its new ad campaign encouraging women to celebrate what makes them unique.

"I just had so many emotions going through me. I was being accepted for who I was, and they wanted me to come back as that person, and not be something other than what I truly am—a woman of color, of course."

Norman's face was on a box of Clairol again -- at age 63.

The irst Black Trans Model Had Her Face on a Box of Cl