Legendary Models Dish: Embarrassing Moments, Critiques of the Modeling Industry Today, and Why Kate Upton Is Important

Last night I got to attend what turned out to be one of my favorite fashion events ever: The NYC premiere of the HBO documentary About Face: Supermodels Then and Now. After seeing a few trailers (here and here), I couldn't wait to see the film. (You can catch the broadcast premiere Monday July 30 at 9pm on HBO.) Photographer and director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders told us he got the idea for the movie after he attended a cocktail party with a group of models from the 70s and 80s. After doing a shoot with them, he realized that there was a story there, so contacted others (going back to the 50s and 60s) to see if they would work with him--and no one had any hesitations. Models like Isabella Rossellini, Beverly Johnson, Jerry Hall, Carmen dell'Orefice and many more ended up in the final product. Some of these modeling legends, like China Machado, Carol Alt, and Beverly Johnson, hit the red carpet at the Paley Center for Media last night to share their memories as well as opine about the modeling industry now.
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Last night I got to attend what turned out to be one of my favorite fashion events ever: The NYC premiere of the HBO documentary About Face: Supermodels Then and Now. After seeing a few trailers (here and here), I couldn't wait to see the film. (You can catch the broadcast premiere Monday July 30 at 9pm on HBO.) Photographer and director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders told us he got the idea for the movie after he attended a cocktail party with a group of models from the 70s and 80s. After doing a shoot with them, he realized that there was a story there, so contacted others (going back to the 50s and 60s) to see if they would work with him--and no one had any hesitations. Models like Isabella Rossellini, Beverly Johnson, Jerry Hall, Carmen dell'Orefice and many more ended up in the final product. Some of these modeling legends, like China Machado, Carol Alt, and Beverly Johnson, hit the red carpet at the Paley Center for Media last night to share their memories as well as opine about the modeling industry now.
Kim Alexis, director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Beverly Johnson, and Carol Alt

Kim Alexis, director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Beverly Johnson, and Carol Alt

Last night I got to attend what turned out to be one of my favorite fashion events ever: The NYC premiere of the HBO documentary About Face: Supermodels Then and Now. After seeing a few trailers (here and here), I couldn't wait to see the film. (You can catch the broadcast premiere Monday July 30 at 9pm on HBO.)

Photographer and director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders told us he got the idea for the movie after he attended a cocktail party with a group of models from the 70s and 80s. After doing a shoot with them, he realized that there was a story there, so contacted others (going back to the 50s and 60s) to see if they would work with him--and no one had any hesitations. Models like Isabella Rossellini, Beverly Johnson, Jerry Hall, Carmen dell'Orefice and many more ended up in the final product.

Some of these modeling legends, like China Machado, Carol Alt, and Beverly Johnson, hit the red carpet at the Paley Center for Media last night to share their memories as well as opine about the modeling industry now.

Greenfield-Sanders, who doesn't work in the fashion industry, said he learned some surprising things while filming. "I never thought about sexual harassment in that world—it’s prevalent. I never thought about racism," he told me. "As someone who’s not in the fashion world you think of the beauty of the picture, not some of the behind the scenes issues." While these issues are explored pretty thoroughly in the film (more on that later), the ladies on the red carpet were definitely having a blast and were in the mood for reminiscing about their more light-hearted modeling memories. And some of their experiences were pretty extraordinary.

Beverly Johnson was the first black model to appear on a cover of Vogue (1974)

Beverly Johnson was the first black model to appear on a cover of Vogue (1974)

Model Memories Karen Bjornson, Halston's muse, mentioned off-handedly that the designer threw her a wedding reception at his house. Pat Cleveland, who was deliciously bubbly and wearing a daringly tight gold off-the-shoulder gown and 27-year-old Manolos, told us that the best experience in her career was at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. "I represented the city of Barcelona and all the athletes were at my feet and I said, 'God, how did I get here I don’t even exercise!'” How about her worst experience? "One time I was on the runway and I was twirling so hard that my skirt fell off!" she said. "Thank God I had underwear on. It was for Yves Saint Laurent." Cleveland, who I could have talked to all night, is working on an autobiography, so her amazing stories will be preserved for posterity.

China Machado, who was wearing "$20 pants and a 20-year-old top," told me about one of her first high fashion experiences. "[In 1954] I was at a party in Paris and I met a fashion director at Balenciaga and she said to me, 'I think Balenciaga would like you' and I said 'Who?' I didn't know who he was!”

Beverly Johnson's best memory was a pretty historic one: Her groundbreaking Vogue cover in August 1974, in which she was the first ever black model to cover the glossy. Her worst moment? "When the phone doesn't ring!"

The phone has never really stopped ringing for Carol Alt, who is most famous for her Sports Illustrated spreads in the 1980s.

Carol Alt in Sports Illustrated in 1987, shot by John G. Zimmerman

Carol Alt in Sports Illustrated in 1987, shot by John G. Zimmerman

On the State of Modeling Now Alt, wearing a peachy Yuna Yang gown and a black velvet scrunchy in her ponytail, has been working steadily since the 80s, but still thinks the industry shouldn't throw its experienced models by the wayside. "I don’t know what the resistance is. You see these women [waves down the red carpet]--they’re vital, they’re active, they’re doing things, they’re brand names," she said. "And it’s sad that we’re not represented even more."

The issue of changing model asesthetics was a recurring theme on the red carpet, too. Lisa Taylor, who has worked closely with Calvin Klein (who was there as her escort) said, "When I was modeling [the look] was healthy, all-American, wholesome," she told me. "[Models now] are still beautiful but skinnier and...it really is a depiction of the times." In this age of pro-ana websites and designers who make ever-shrinking sample sizes, will we ever go back to that more wholesome-looking ideal? Calvin Klein thinks it's possible. "It changes all the time. Fashion is about change. And at the same time things come back in somewhat of a different way," he told me. "It’s about finding women who represent the moment and who can wear the clothes."

One girl who seems to be representing a moment now, Kate Upton, got a shout out from a fellow SI alum. Carol Alt told me, "I think women want to be represented in all ages, all sizes—so Kate Upton you go girl! I think that it’s time."

Click through to see pictures from the event. Photos: Getty unless otherwise noted