Like many people, I am unhealthily fascinated by the advertising of American Apparel, the hip clothing chain best known for its desiccated-looking models and the frenzied, constantly, vaguely simian masturbation of founder/charismatic Dov Charney.
It’s hard not to be moved by the print ad’s haunting images of desperation and sadness. Who were these emaciated young people with their gaunt flesh squeezed into gold lamé leggings, their dead eyes pleading for mercy and compassion? Why did a major chain choose advertising redolent of child pornography from the '70s? Were these runaways all right? Had Charney forced them into lives of prostitution, drug dealing, and pornography? Should I purchase American Apparel clothing, or report its owners and advertisers to the proper authorities?
So when I saw a flier for an open casting call for American Apparel models yesterday on the way home, I seized upon an opportunity to learn firsthand about these sordid, hopeless creatures. My plan was simple: I would ingratiate myself into the American Apparel universe; learn where these poor, malnourished, and, it should be noted, very sexy children were being held against their will; and free them myself. I would become a one-man Underground Railroad, only for the underage and tragically hot.
Actually, my thinking was actually a lot closer to “Why the hell not?” That is the governing principle behind many of my professional decisions. Wanna do a poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic-cable movie-review show in Canada with Erik Estrada and Jimmie Walker? Why the hell not? Wanna talk to Pauly Shore? Why the hell not? Want to audition to be the world’s unlikeliest American Apparel model? Why the hell not?
At the risk of engendering shock-induced monocle-shattering throughout our great land, I am not the world’s most fashionable gentleman. My sartorial choices are usually ruled by apathy, but today I was unusually poorly dressed. To throw my competitors off their game and encourage a false sense of confidence, I decided to make myself look as disheveled as possible with an oversized Eat Pray Love promotional T-shirt, cargo shorts with three or four holes in random places, scuffed-up tennis shoes, and a thrift-store belt. Scruffy salt-and-pepper facial hair finished off a look that said “homeless but hopeful,” and also “Won’t you please spare a dollar or two?” The only way I could have looked more out of place standing in line alongside the beautiful people would have been if I’d shown up with my face painted like Violent J of Insane Clown Posse.
We would-be Tyson Beckfords and Cindy Crawfords were ordered to add our John Hancocks to a sign-in sheet, then asked to stand in line and wait patiently while three or four preppy-looking model scouts sat us down for 30-second conversations, then took our photographs, then forgot about us forever unless we were unusually beautiful or nailed the “a lunatic has imprisoned me in his basement for the last four months. Please send help” look.
The aspiring human mannequins already looked like American Apparel models. The women were what one of my college friends called “giraffes”—tall, elegant women with endless legs and shiny, radiant hair who looked like they were headed to a shindig at Studio 54. Otherwise, androgyny ruled the day, as beautiful, muscular black men with delicate female features and anorexic emo boys with grad-school glasses huddled alongside wispy waifs in the Twiggy mold.
I awkwardly struck up a conversation with the people ahead of me, a continental-looking giraffe in her third year at University of Illinois at Chicago and an ebullient blonde girl I will call Martha, who clutched her “book”—her portfolio of modeling pictures emblazoned with the logo of the modeling agency that used to represent her—like a security blanket.
Giddy with the hubris of youth, this woman-child Martha announced “I don’t follow trends, I set them.” She’d been modeling for four years and boasted an intriguing combination of precocious world-weariness (this was far from her first time at the rodeo) and irrepressible youth.
“So, are you able to make a living from modeling, or is this something you do on the side?” I inquired.
“Oh no, I’m not able to make a living at this.”
“What’s your main gig, then?”
“Oh, I’m a high-school student in Arlington Park. I start my senior year on Wednesday.”
Her mother had been unemployed for the last two years, and she’d turned to modeling both because it was clearly something she was naturally suited for, and to help pay the rent.
She said the kids at school all wore the clothes of American Apparel, American Eagle, and many other chains with the word “American” in their name, but that her friends called her “Euro” because they thought she dressed European and shopped at Forever 21.
If she were a rich woman, she announced sadly, she would buy so much fucking stuff from American Apparel.
“But I thought they were cheap,” I said obliviously.
“Not for me,” she shot back. “I don’t have $40 to spend on a T-shirt.”
She then rifled through her portfolio. It was remarkable how different she looked in each photo. Her fresh-faced, well-scrubbed look of pure Americana was eminently mutable. It was as if her face and body were unformed and unfinished and could only be completed by a stylist and photographer fitting her into their predetermined vision. She could be whoever they wanted her to be.
Depending on the angle and the light, Martha could be a wild-eyed nymph or a continental urbanite or the girl next door. She noted sadly that Abercrombie & Fitch wanted to buy one of her photographs, but she didn’t have the rights to the photos they wanted to buy; those were held, I suppose, by the photographers who took them or the modeling agency or the clients that bought them.
“Shit, man. I could have been an Abercrombie & Fitch model,” she muttered.
I tried to console her. “Eh, I’ve done a lot of campaigns with them. They’re not so great.” But she did not pick up on my sarcasm.
I told Martha I was a writer and planned to be upfront with the modeling scouts if they asked me why I was there. She didn’t seem overly hopeful. “Here’s how I see it going down: I think you’re going to tell them you’re a writer and then they’ll tell you to leave.”
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Martha swanned her way through a microscopic interview with the scouts, then smiled big for a pair of photographs.
Then it was my turn. Hunchbacked, bald, gap-toothed, unshaven 34-year-old me. An elegant-looking young woman who could have stepped out of a Nagel painting introduced herself, shook my hand, and to her credit, refrained from laughing in my face or jabbing her partner and stage-whispering, “Get a load of this freak.”
There were no two ways about it: I was either a writer researching a piece or a lunatic, though there’s an awful lot of overlap between the two.
I sat down next to the woman and a gentleman who looked like a preppier Spike Jonze and was asked words I never imagined I would hear: “Why do you want to be an American Apparel model?”
There’s honest, and then there’s too honest. The too-honest answer would have been “I don’t really want to be an American Apparel model. I just find American Apparel’s advertising morbidly fascinating, and I wanted to experience the weirdness of an open call for American Apparel models firsthand.”
Instead, I answered, “Well, I guess I’ve always been fascinated by American Apparel’s advertising, and they’re so weirdly iconic, and I worked nearby, so I figured I’d stop by and see what it was all about.”
The gentleman strained mightily to force a smile and nervously asked, “Do you have any questions for us?”
Yes! Now was my chance to uncover the location of the underage models being kept in cages and forced to be sexy 20 to 23 hours a day! I was in a position to demand answers! I was going to take this whole house of cards down with me and expose the shocking, scintillating, titillating truth.
But “Uh, no, I guess not” was all that came stumbling out of my mouth.
“Is it all right if we take two pictures?” he asked.
“Oh, of course.” I then smiled my signature closed-mouth smile (no need to afflict the populace with traumatic images of my teeth) and was photographed for posterity in my Eat Pray Love promotional T-shirt and hole-ridden shorts.
That, friends, marked the premature end of my modeling misadventures. Or did it? Don’t be surprised if a balding, pasty, stoop-shouldered, graying middle-aged man in filthy clothes becomes the next face and body of American Apparel. ’Cause I don’t follow trends, motherfucker. I make them, and pasty, bald, graying, and middle-aged is the new skinny, sexy, toned, and 18.