Thylane Blondeau’s name first rose to prominence, or rather, notoriety, back in 2011 when photographs of her in the December 2010 issue of Vogue Paris fuelled debate about the sexualisation of children in the fashion industry. Jenna Sauers, former child model and contributor to the popular feminist blog Jezebel, wrote an article in which she expressed appreciation for the satire: “I personally found the Vogue Paris editorial refreshing. Sure, it was disturbing, but it seemed purposefully, knowingly disturbing—disturbing in the sense that it aimed to perturb and provoke a reader to question the fashion industry’s treatment of young girls as a kind of natural resource to be transformed into product, which is, you know, itself disturbing.” Others, however, were less understanding and condemned Carine Roitfeld, the “queen of porno-chic,” for publishing the photographs.
The fever eventually passed, and Blondeau was able to return to life as a happy, healthy, normal (albeit ridiculously photogenic) kid away from the glare of the fashion industry. But everything in fashion is cyclical, even controversy.
Blondeau, who celebrates her 13th birthday this year, is now on the cover of the latest issue of French magazine Jalouse. This photograph is much more age-appropriate: she is wearing natural make-up and a studded leather jacket, with an electrified ponytail running down her neck. Written across the cover is a huge hashtag (“#Bornin2001”) and the words, “La Nouvelle Kate Moss,” adding Blondeau to a seemingly endless list of young models who are “the new Kate Moss.” How many names are now on that list?
Though this picture is much more palatable than the ones in Vogue Paris, hiring such a young model is still a very controversial decision. In May 2012, Condé Nast International announced that no Vogue titles would “knowingly work with models who are under 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder,” choosing instead to work with mature models who are “healthy and help to promote a healthy body image.” Adherence to these guidelines has been somewhat lax, but to have these rules codified is better than to ignore a swelling problem, as Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, has stated: “The use of underaged models is linked to financial exploitation, eating disorders, interrupted schooling, and contributes to models’ overall lack of empowerment in the workplace…we’re glad that Condé Nast International is making this commitment.”
No, Jalouse is not a Condé Nast publication, but it is complicit in the fashion industry’s warped idea that youth and beauty are one and the same. What’s more, Jalouse states on the official website that the target audience is “women aged between 25 and 40 years old,” which means that the advanced end of their readership is an entire generation older than Thylane Blondeau. Clearly, she has a lot of growing up to do, and I worry that grasping any sense of identity will become a daunting task for a child whose image has already been projected across fashion magazines and blogs; who is, essentially, being thrown to the wolves. And by “wolves,” I am of course referring to the stylists, make-up artists, and editors who poke and prod and retouch as they please.
When London was set to host its first children’s fashion week last year, Vanessa Friedman criticised the picture-perfect message that the runway delivers to children. “The medium is wrong for the message,” she stated. “The catwalk, in other words, delivers the total look to the viewer; like film, you receive it fully formed. Kids’ fashion, on the other hand, should be—even more than adult fashion—a place of freedom for children to start playing with identity and perception. It should be flexible in the extreme.”
Just how much flexibility will be afforded to Thylane Blondeau to develop her own identity? Only time will tell, but to call her “the new Kate Moss” is already placing extraordinary pressure on this kid. Kate Moss is regularly featured on the cover of Vogue Paris, a publication which I can only assume Blondeau is familiar with, being French and a model. It wasn’t that long ago that I was 13, and at that age children are already so perceptive of what others expect of them. To have those expectations written in huge, bold letters across the front cover of a national magazine is projecting those fantasies out into the world, possibly forcing Blondeau to feel perpetually inadequate until she does, in fact, become the new Kate Moss (which, realistically speaking, is unlikely to happen). The same distorted logic is in the idea of being “naturally talented,” which conditions children to believe that their abilities are inextricably tied into who they are as people, and to fail one is to fail the other. In life, however, children have time to make mistakes and learn; in modelling, the window of opportunity is much, much smaller.
Also, to continue pretending that Kate Moss has had a smooth career from the beginning presents a lot of problems to young aspiring models. Reaching such a level of success that the world is essentially on a first-name basis with you is not an easy feat, least of all in an industry where the winds of change are wild and unpredictable. “I had a nervous breakdown when I was 17 or 18, when I had to go and work with Marky Mark and Herb Ritts,” Moss admitted in a 2012 interview with Vanity Fair, referring to an early print job for Calvin Klein. “It didn’t feel like me at all. I felt really bad about straddling this buff guy. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I thought I was going to die.” Somehow, over time, the modelling industry has become more precarious, with models pressured into saying yes to anything and everything to book a job (and God forbid they’re booked on a job with Terry Richardson).
Before I conclude, I’d like to share a short story that has suddenly floated to memory amidst all this discussion about child models. It involves a girl, a dream, and some very painful surgery:
A few years ago I met a 14-year-old girl—a friend of a friend—who wanted to become a professional model. Not just any model, but a model for mega lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret. She told me that she had already done a few print jobs for small Australian apparel brands, and was excitedly counting down the days until she turned 16, thus becoming old enough to audition for Australia’s Next Top Model. Her passionate, enthusiastic words belied her young years, and I started to feel as though I was speaking to an 18-year-old that had just landed her first international campaign. This dream of becoming a successful model was fully realised in her head, and she spoke with such promise and conviction that, with every word, she pulled me deeper into the dream. By the end of the conversation I could picture her on the cover of magazines. She already looked like a model at that age: long, wavy blonde hair, gorgeous smile, and radiating with confidence.
But there was one problem: she was too short, and it didn’t seem to me that she’d be able to reach the Top Model minimum height of 172 cm (approximately 5’8’’) by her 16th birthday. What’s more, the Top Model height minimum is shorter than the Victoria’s Secret minimum, which is 5’10’’, as those models must be tall enough to accommodate the enormous wings and heavy props. But this young girl had a plan: she would get leg extension surgery.
“Is that a real thing?” I asked, trying to mask my concern. My mind suddenly flashed back to Ethan Hawke’s character in Gattaca trying to cheat genetics in a dystopian future.
“Yeah, they do it in some parts of Europe,” she replied in such a leisurely tone that limb-lengthening surgery seemed as banal as getting one’s ears pierced.
There are no limits to what a young model might do to become “the new Kate Moss,” or the next Miranda Kerr, it seems. All controversy aside, Thylane Blondeau is lucky she was born with all pieces already in place.
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