Model behaviour

Antonia Quirke is told, by a tall skinny woman, that big can be beautiful, too

In Search of Beauty
Radio 4

The documentary In Search of Beauty (28 November, 10.30am) had the British supermodel Erin O'Connor asking tough questions about the fashion industry. She's the one with the short, dark hair and air of chilly competence - prim, distant, noncommittal - from last Christmas's M&S ads, her pale face almost always turned to a left profile, her nostrils long slits that ever seem to be inhaling.

For the programme, Presenter Erin initially went on a tour of London, meeting all sorts of clever and interesting people, chattering easily in the back of a taxi in an audio-diary manner (the microphone does not alarm Erin one bit - there are things to be said, and rights to be fought for!). Soon she met a woman who, before surgery, had had a nose so unignorable she never caught a child's eye on the street, for fear of them raising their fingers in horror. "That's unbelievable . . . amazing," murmured Erin, flicking through the photo albums of the eminent doctor who'd reconstructed the woman's face, permitting him to radiate tides of nervous energy, discombobulated no doubt by the proximity of Erin's chemistry.

Next Erin went to meet a group of fashionistas involved in getting fat women on the catwalk. "We've got this wonderful girl over here," said one of them. "She's got a whole look going on," another agreed. "And then you've got the lovely Sheila who looks like she come out of Africa . . . beautiful tribe . . . it's just amazing."

Satisfied, the gang trooped into a lift on their way to an event downstairs for London Fashion Week. Mobile phones went off in the background in little nipped squeals. "Sarah Brown is going to give a speech," said a model scout, gravely. "Gordon Brown's wife." Erin shrugged. She'd already met her ages ago, at Downing Street, that day she visited to absolutely insist on more fat women on the catwalk. Sarah was very moved by the notion, actually. "God, that was amazing," said Erin, thinking back over her busy and diverse life. "Supporting a bunch of women who were all so different and so beautiful and so amazing, it was the most unbelievable experience I've ever had." "It was great, darling." "Beautiful."

But then - disaster! They all got stuck in the lift and Erin couldn't record Sarah's speech for us, a stroke of bad journo luck that quite took the wind out of her sails. "Maybe change is afoot in the fashion industry," Erin started, but a kind of fatigue seemed to have fallen over her, and I, for one, had sympathy. The prospect of those endlessly recurring trips to Downing Street, the working with fat women and all their horrifying complications, the dizzy spells as one leans over the stove to warm fine fingers late into the night going over endless reports, the meetings with "Gorgeous, but real" activists in their front halls smelling of onion rings and radiator dust . . . (Oh fuck it, sweet-cheeks, let them eat cake.)

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George