"I just got a request to review an academic paper of lap dancers," said Elizabeth Wissinger, a CUNY sociology professor who has interviewed models for her own book on the industry, which she's currently writing.
The title of Mears' book, Pricing Beauty, refers to her scholarly efforts to understand who or what determines a given model's chances of success in a field glutted with gorgeous people. How does this winner-take-all market produce winners? Why does one tall, underweight, astonishingly beautiful young woman become the face of Chanel No. 5, while another languishes, doing minor magazine shoots that pay little and never catapult her to fame? Those in the industry like to imagine that there is something inevitable about the outcome. When Mears asked how they knew what made a winner, industry tastemakers explained that such models had an ineffable quality, a je ne sais quoi, that elevated them above the rest. "You know, you just know!" a stylist told Mears.
"It's like asking the meaning of life," a booker explained.
But as Mears discovers, the truth is that success in high-fashion modeling has a lot more to do with marketing and chance than it does with the ineffable. In a field saturated with models who have the right measurements and the right skin tone and the right "edgy" looks, bookers and casting agents and stylists and editors engage in a merry-go-round of imitation and blind guesswork, with everyone trying to anticipate what everyone else will like. Once a fresh new face is anointed, clients scramble to nab her for shoots and shows, proclaiming that they, too, see that special something. Mears likens the process to "The Emperor's New Clothes."
Becky Conekin, who teaches history at Yale and is studying what the modeling industry looked like in Great Britain during the middle of the 20th century, told me that her work is a "feminist project of recovery"—that taking models seriously is a way of taking women seriously, wherever we might find them. In a similar spirit, Mears' book, which is heavy on both economic analysis and tales of nobody strivers, gives voice to a group of women who are paid to be seen and not heard. Instead of focusing on the rise of the industry's few Coco Rocha-level superstars, she is interested in young women like Liz, whose story illuminates the very bad odds an aspiring model faces. * After dropping out of college to pursue her career, Liz spends years hustling for little pay in high fashion before finally succeeding in shampoo ads. But even then she is without health insurance. When she develops a stomach tumor, she must declare bankruptcy and move back in with her parents in New Jersey. There Mears finds her, at age 27, without a college degree, training to become a yoga teacher.
Mears' own foray into modeling has its own anticlimactic ending, a dismissal from her agency via a casual email (subject: "Hey Doll!!!"), offering little explanation. She gets one last check, for the grand sum of $150.
Correction, Sept. 7, 2011: This article originally stated that Mears had access to the books of the modeling firm she worked for. She did not. Instead, she compiled information on models' earnings through interviews. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Sept. 8, 2011: This article originally misspelled the first name of model Coco Rocha. (Return to the corrected sentence.)