Any episode of a show called Where Are They Now? is bound to be an affable mix of nostalgia and thinly veiled schadenfreude. So what more appropriate subject than supermodels? After all, supermodels make particularly bad all-purpose celebrities. They tend to be a bit blank, the better to serve as universal projection screens for male desire; and as a result, their post-modeling careers in showbiz end in early, if gentle, ignominy. Unlike their rock star boyfriends, supermodels don't flame out, so much as—like the facial scrub Carol Alt now hawks on QVC—"melt into a lacy foam, then rinse away." VH1, whose Where Are They Now? on supermodels airs this month and next, tries to glam this up as a career arc: freakish teen to model to supermodel to icon. (Icon is what you ascend to if—like, say, Elle MacPherson—you are an über-supermodel with modest staying power; in the world of music, it is what you descend to when you can't sing well enough to be a Diva: viz. Janet Jackson.) But reality peeps through, and the basic career pattern reveals itself: cover girl, cosmetic deal, home-shopping shill. (Some, the lucky few, divorce the rock star, cop an oligarch husband, and retire to the beach.)
But Where Are They Now? "Ford Supermodels" is less about the fate of the inhumanly good-looking than the fate of VH1. VH1 started out as the casually surfed-over whatsit clumped on the dial next to MTV. In the mid-'90s, former music executive and MTV co-creator John Sykes was brought in to give the station a stronger brand identity. The business press credits Sykes with a dazzling turnaround job; and even though VH1 foundered in his final year, Sykes was rewarded with a big promotion within Viacom. And for a while, Sykes did brand VH1 brilliantly. If MTV was about endlessly blending advertising into content, and vice versa, VH1 was about treading a fine line between the lofty and the base instincts of the average TV-consuming baby boomer, for whom music had once been sacred. To lure in a slightly more mature audience, VH1 adopted the motto "Music First."
But under Sykes, VH1 was ambitious and clearly wanted to expand its programming format beyond the 4-minute video. To this end, they lured music-cherishing boomers in the direction of generic '90s celebrity adulation, often by yoking rock 'n' roll to fashion. Their quintessential have-it-both-ways show from the mid-'90s was the VH1 Fashion and Music Awards. (It's hazy, but I seem to remember willowy, deep sea nymphs drifting across the stage, while Slash played guitar; and later, Madonna accepting an award in that bizarre comp lit accent.) So, what is it with VH1 and supermodels? They can't seem to kick the habit. In addition to the Where Are They Now? currently in rotation, on Oct. 19 VH1 will premiere a show called When Supermodels Rule the World; and looking further out, their Web site has an open casting call for something called POPIllustrated, which reads: "If you want to be a supermodel, ever wanted to be a supermodel, admired supermodels or just hung out with supermodels, we want to talk to you!" Nothing captures the network's identity crisis, in a post-Sykes era, more than this: the continuing treatment of the supermodels as go-to ratings magnets, instead of the creaky '90s nostalgia pieces they are, a la Dennis Rodman, Kenny Kramer, or the Nasdaq bubble.
So: What does happen when the runway ends? Christie Brinkley oil paints in the Hamptons gloaming, while helping to close nuclear reactors; Elle MacPherson communes with endangered gorillas; and (phew!) Carol Alt finally gets to eat … raw vegetable shakes. As if anyone still remembers that VH1 was once a music outlet, the producers labor valiantly to tie all this into the world of rock, reminding us that Stephanie Seymour ("November Rain"), Rachel Hunter ("Broken Arrow"), and Brinkley ("Uptown Girl") all appeared in their beaus' videos.
As the credits for Where Are They Now? "Ford Supermodels" start to roll, we get a hint of that other direction that VH1 and its aging boomer audience might have gone in the '90s: The screen splits, and an interstitial promo for VH1 starts to play alongside the credits; and the voice of Wayne Coyne comes out of nowhere. Coyne is the lead singer of the glorious indie rock band the Flaming Lips, and the song he is singing—"Do You Realize," from the Lips' most recent album—is lush and trippy and infallibly alluring. (Anyone with ears would find them perking up when it comes over the airwaves.) Suddenly the graphics are mesmerizing, as they were in the early days of MTV. And you think: "Damn, music television. What a great idea!"
But VH1 decided to trail after waifs instead. Having devoted themselves to bringing music lovers to supermodels, they failed to bring a new musical vanguard to the mainstream, the way MTV once introduced mass audiences to Devo, R.E.M., and Nirvana. No wonder the music business is stagnating; and no wonder the Flaming Lips, great as they were (and are), never broke as big as R.E.M. Look, I love supermodels as much as the next guy. But their everlasting presence as VH1 seraphim is only another sign: We live in world in which late adopters reign unchallenged as our tastemakers.