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“Britain’s Next Top Model” is a cultural crash in slow-mo, says Laurie Penny

... which is precisely what makes it such shockingly good television.

The new series of Britain's Next Top Model, which airs tomorrow after months of breathless publicity, is set to be the most screechingly obnoxious cycle yet of this long-running, extraordinarily popular global pageant of beauty fascism.

The show, a high-fashion reality knockout that pits pretty young women against one another to compete for representation in a series of invasive and demeaning "challenges", is a repulsive montage of contemporary culture's hateful attitude towards young people in general, and young women in particular.

At the end of every episode, a weeping, underweight teenager is marched down the catwalk of shame and sent home to contemplate her deficiencies on the dole, after being informed that she does not "have what it takes". Public criticism of the series has focused on its supposed promotion of eating disorders, but Next Top Model is problematic for a whole host of reasons.

Last year, the UK version of the show faced press excoriation for allowing an anorexic contestant, Jade, through to the final round. Like every reiteration of the so-called "size-zero controversy" -- which has now been thoroughly incorporated into the mythology of the fashion industry -- this story simply cried out to be illustrated with ogle-worthy shots of stick-thin, half-naked teenagers. (Last week the new judge Julien Macdonald confided in Wales on Sunday that the notion of the industry giving space to models larger than a size eight is "a joke".)

Cultish obsession with the bodies of emaciated girls is only part of what makes Britain's Next Top Model so obnoxious and so fascinating.

This is not, at heart, a show about beauty, or even about fashion: it is a programme about social mobility. The reason America's Next Top Model and its 20 local variants have been so wildly successful is that they formalise the rules of late-capitalist femininity as experienced by young women in the west: life may be hard and jobs may be few, but if you are beautiful enough, if you are thin and pretty and perky and prepared to submit to any conceivable humiliation, you too might have a chance of "making it".

Cats in a sack

The show takes ordinary teenagers, for a version of "ordinary" whose baseline is remarkable slenderness and regularity of feature, plucks them out of regional obscurity and makes them fight like cats for a chance of a better future.

These girls will do almost anything for that chance. They will strip naked, they will cry and wail on camera, they will betray one another clumsily and, of course, they will scream. The orchestrated screaming is an essential part of the Next Top Model experience, though the British contestants have yet to muster the enthusiasm of the American hopefuls, who dutifully erupt into hysterical shrieks whenever anything happens on the show at all.

The fairy tale these girls are chasing was dreamt up in the neoliberal haze of the 1990s, when supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell overtook actresses as the iconic female role models of the age, courted by rock stars and showered with money and attention merely for showing up and looking a certain way.

This sustaining mythology no longer has any basis in reality. In today's world of faceless, interchangeable, airbrushed femininity, the modelling industry is glutted with identikit beauties who earn very little and exist to be chewed up and tossed aside for younger, less traumatised models. Yet the dream persists.

Indeed, the new host of Britain’s Next Top Model is the 1990s supermodel Elle Macpherson, known in her day as "The Body". Macpherson quite literally embodies this cruel fantasy, precisely resembling a woman who has been pickled in a tank of flattery for 20 years.

The show is soaked in the language of corporate self-fashioning, with endless motivational sermons from the judges and hosts about "working it", "believing in yourself" and "being on top".

The atmosphere of naked desperation differs from that of talent contests such as The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, which are all about showcasing the weird and wonderful. Britain's Next Top Model, by contrast, is about the art of ambitious self-effacement.

Car crash

For all the show’s platitudes about personality, individuality and the importance of "standing out", the girls who do best are always the most blankly identikit, the meek, spiritless women who excel at taking orders and "representing the brand". This quite possibly makes Next Top Model the ultimate capitalist psychodrama.

The servile posturing of Top Model hopefuls is as nothing, however, compared to the submission that's required of young women in modelling when the cameras stop rolling.

In 2007, Anand Jon Alexander, a top fashion photographer, was jailed for 59 years on several counts of rape and assault of young models in California. According to industry insiders, sexual and physical intimidation is standard practice in the world that the young contestants of Britain's Next Top Model compete to gain access to.

In 2009, the former model Sara Ziff's gonzo documentary Picture Me courageously exposed the epidemic of misogynist bullying and sexual assault in the fashion industry, with teenage girls routinely required to submit sexually to male agents, photographers and designers who hold every shred of power and who cover for each other's indiscretions if the girls wish to remain in work.

Britain’s Next Top Model is a rags-to-riches fairy tale updated for the 21st century. Like all fairy tales, it has a moral: if you're a girl, your success in life depends on your ability to brutalise your body into a stereotype of faceless corporate femininity, your capacity to compete coldly with other women for physical attention, and your willingness to submit tamely to industrial exploitation and sexual abuse.

This is what the dream of modelling means for young women today, and it is this contemporary parable about the rewards of self-discipline and submission that makes young women want to starve themselves.

The cruel, misogynist realism of Britain's Next Top Model is a cultural car crash in slow motion -- and this is precisely what makes it such shockingly good television.

The new series of "Britain's Next Top Model" begins on LIVING on Monday 5 July at 9pm.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

THE PIERRE AND MARIA-GAETANA MATISSE COLLECTION, 2002/© 2017 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK
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How Leonora Carrington fled privilege and the Nazis to live the surrealist dream

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington is at last receiving the attention she deserves.

“When France sneezes,” the 19th-century Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metter­nich once said, “Europe catches cold.” France was no less contagious in the first decades of the 20th century, when Paris became the cultural capital of the Western world. Cubism, fauvism, Dada and surrealism were incubated in its galleries and cafés, where artists of various nationalities dreamed up new ways to blast away the past, among them Gertrude Stein, Marie Laurencin, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. But when the Nazis arrived, the City of Light went dark, and expats in Paris – as well as those such as the German surrealist Max Ernst, holed up in the French countryside and branded “degenerate” in his homeland – needed to escape, and fast. This was a European war, many decided, and salvation lay in the United States.

Portugal, facing the Atlantic and officially neutral in the conflict, offered the surest way to the Americas. And so Lisbon became “the great embarkation point”, as the film Casablanca described it in 1942. The British journalist Hugh Muir observed that the churn of diplomats, spies and refugees passing through left the local population “much as they were”; they inhabited not the Portuguese capital but a Lisbon of their own making that happened to share its geography.
Those with the means filled the best hotels. Those without scraped by in boarding houses, doing what they could to survive.

The hitherto sleepy seaport was transformed. By October 1941, the Irish Times was declaring Lisbon “the hub of the Western universe”. On the city’s news-stands, vendors sold the British Daily Mail alongside the New York Times, the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and the Falangist Arriba, free from censorship and without segregation on the shelves by language. The newspapers were a welcome distraction for their readers, who had plenty of time to read. It could take months for the necessary travel documents to come through, and most people seeking safe passage to the US had little choice but to wait, and wait, and wait.

One of those waiting was a Mexican called Renato Leduc, who as a teenager had fought for Pancho Villa’s forces in his country’s calamitous civil war. Since then, Leduc had studied law and become a poet, before drifting into a job at the Mexican embassy in Paris, where he struck up friendships with the surrealists André Breton and Paul ­Éluard. At a dinner party in the spring of 1938, he met – and was charmed by – a young Englishwoman called Leonora Carrington, then Max Ernst’s lover. Three years had passed since that fleeting encounter in France and now Leduc was living with Carrington in the Alfama district of Lisbon, pressing administrators to confirm the date when they could be married at the British embassy.

Yet it wasn’t love that bound Carrington to Leduc. Born into new money on 6 April 1917, Carrington spent her childhood at Crookhey Hall, a mansion in Lancashire standing in 17 acres of gardens and woodland. Her father, Harold, was an ambitious textile manufacturer who, to the young Leonora, resembled “a mafioso” in his disciplinarian manner. When her mother, Maurie, gave her a copy of Herbert Read’s book Surrealism, published to coincide with the movement’s landmark London exhibition in summer 1936, Carrington was intrigued and visited the show. There she was exhilarated by the work of one artist in particular – Max Ernst – and, through connections at the art school where she was studying, she arranged an ­introduction to him at the Highgate home of the architect Ernö Goldfinger.

Carrington, an instinctive rebel who had been forced by her parents to “come out” as a debutante at Buckingham Palace not long before, instantly fell for the German artist, despite their age gap of 26 years. “From the second they set eyes on one another,” writes Carrington’s cousin Joanna Moorhead in her new biography, “the electricity is palpable between the beautiful, sparky young woman with her dark eyes, crimson lips and cascade of raven curls, and the white-haired, slim, middle-aged man with his lined forehead and kind-looking eyes.” That almost obscenely cliché-ridden description seems to have strayed on to the pages from a bad romance novel, but what is love but a big cliché we can believe in, and can’t help but do so?

Perhaps “cliché” isn’t quite the right word for anything to do with Carrington, however, because her life was an extended refutation of convention. The love between her and Ernst was more correctly of a mythic order, or, at least, it is presented as such in Moorhead’s account (“Max Ernst has met his bride of the wind, and Leonora Carrington has met her saviour . . .”). And mythic is the register that she explored as a painter and writer, first among the surrealists in France and then as one of a small group of like-minded artists in Mexico, where she moved towards the end of the Second World War. In striking works such as The Giantess (c.1947), with its towering woman tenderly guarding a small egg, she invented a kind of symbolic code that channelled the occult and the Renaissance masters to suggest a subliminal life larger than what tasteful language could reasonably convey.

Despite their obvious attraction, Ernst and Carrington seemed mismatched to her father. Ernst was twice married, German and, worse, an artist – one who delighted in flouting the social hierarchies that Harold had so studiously climbed. So, like the “old gentleman” in Carrington’s short story “The Oval Lady” who burns his daughter’s favourite wooden horse (“What I’m going to do is purely for your own good,” he says), Harold attempted to have Ernst deported to Hitler’s Germany on bogus pornography charges, hoping to end the relationship.

What followed was a family bust-up that left Carrington an exile for the rest of her life. The couple fled to Cornwall and then Paris to live among the surrealists, ignoring Harold’s warnings that they would “die without money”. He would stop her allowance, he said, but she didn’t care. She was leaving home – not just for Ernst, not just for the thrills and wonders of a new artistic milieu, but for “a whole new beginning” (another of Moorhead’s romance novel phrases but, again, perfectly true).

The Paris interlude was a blessed one. The couple took up residence in Saint Germain a few metres down the road from Picasso; he would drop by to dine and dance in their kitchen, a bottle of wine in his hand. Dalí was another friend, as were Man Ray, Elsa Schiaparelli and Marcel Duchamp. While in the city, the surrealists held an exhibition at the Galerie Beaux Arts featuring mannequins in a darkened room that visitors had to navigate using torches – one of the earliest examples of installation art.

Throughout this time, Carrington was developing her own work. She painted, she drew and she wrote, publishing a beguiling story called “The House of Fear” in 1938 in a limited edition with illustrations by Ernst – her first published writing and also, as Moorhead writes, “a kind of public acknowledgement of her relationship with Max”. His estranged second wife, Marie-Berthe, was understandably mortified by their romance;
to escape her scorn (and also that of the surrealists’ leader Breton, who had fallen out with Ernst over his friend Paul Éluard’s rejection of ­Trotskyism), the lovers moved south to the remote Ardèche region.

Their farmhouse was inhospitable and lacking in comfort, so they worked on the building, installing a terrace – but they also made an artwork of the building, adorning its surfaces with images of unicorns, winged creatures, lovers and horses. It was an idyllic and productive retreat but it came to an abrupt end. In 1939, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien after France declared war on Germany. He was sent to an internment camp and released three months later; but in May 1940, after the Germans crossed the Maginot Line, he was arrested again. Unable to secure his freedom, Carrington fell into a deep depression and, by the time she was persuaded by friends to depart for Lisbon to escape the Nazis, she was beginning to lose all sense of reality.

Carrington later documented the decline of her mental health in Down Below, an extraordinary account of her life in a sanatorium in Madrid, to which she was committed after suffering paranoid delusions on her way to Portugal. Insanity, for her, took the form of a powerful “identification with the external world”, which somehow involved the hypnotic control of Europe by a Dutchman called Van Ghent (who was also “my father, my enemy, and the enemy of mankind”). In her introduction, Marina Warner notes that Carrington “had realised one of the most desirable ambitions of surrealism, the voyage down into madness”; yet, stripped of the playful intellectualism of the art movement, the “absolute disorientation” that Breton idealised is difficult to experience as a reader with much pleasure.

Carrington regained her freedom after reacquainting herself with Renato Leduc, who offered to marry her to facilitate her escape to New York: travel was easy for him because he was an embassy employee. In Lisbon, her mind slowly recovered and she prepared for a new life in the US. But, in that hub of the Western universe, it was hard to leave the past behind. One day, she glanced across a market and saw Max Ernst, who had been released by the French at last.

Carrington once said that she had only joined the surrealist group because she was in love with Ernst. However, being with him was never the sum total of her life. They travelled to New York together, but when Leduc returned to Mexico, she went with him, cutting ties with Ernst. Then she found a new love, a Hungarian expat called Csizi (“Chiki”) Weisz; they had two children (for whom she wrote stories, soon to be published by New York Review Books as The Milk of Dreams); she painted; she made new friends, most notably the Spanish-Mexican artist Remedios Varo. She lived, and on her own terms.

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington, who died in 2011, is at last receiving the attention she deserves. Her shorter fiction, compiled in The Debutante and Other Stories, reveals an imagination that could transfigure horror into enchantment, and the human into the bestial. Yet her most significant achievement is her paintings. In Self-Portrait (1937-38), a wild-haired Carrington sits on a chair in front of a rocking horse, communing with a hyena. We see in the window behind her a real white horse, running free; our eyes are drawn to it by the room’s outlines. Surrealism prided itself in defying logic, but there is a logic here – one of emotional sense, if not literal meaning. Her life was made of multiple escapes. With that galloping horse, how vividly she evokes a longing for freedom. 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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