And Our Next Pretty Lady Is...

— 'There are so many beautiful people in San Diego. People just do not realize it. It's totally untapped."

-- Staci Bynum,

model agency director

Fashion magazines portray a fullness of being, a perfection that exceeds even the highly controlled world of the movies. Nothing is lacking; nothing is out of place or amiss. Apparent imperfections -- of light, color, expression, pose, look -- have a studied quality about them, an intentional off-putting that is just as it should be. The photographer, designer, and model have conspired to create a world that is more real than reality. The images are like Platonic forms -- our sensible world is but a flickering shadow.

Shadows, not flickering but blackly substantial, abound under the undiffused June sun shining on the black-draped runway and surrounding white chairs outside the Robinson's-May at Mission Valley Center. The glare off the mostly white sign advertising the Elite Model Look Event -- open to women 14 to 24, offering $925,000 in modeling contracts to 15 winners from around the world -- makes it hard to read. Just sitting and watching is warm work. We are far from the fashion magazines.

Nearly 200 girls attended the Elite Event in Topanga last March; here in San Diego, only 30 or so show up. The first few arrive at noon, an hour before start time, sidling up to the entry table, then either disappearing back into the mall crowd or sitting and waiting. Some girls arrive with their parents, some with boyfriends, some alone. Black bodysuits contrast with flowered dresses, jean shorts, baggy T-shirts, and attempted dressy ensembles. A late entry wears oversize jeans and a plaid flannel button-down.

At 1:30, a biggish woman in a white jogging suit picks up a microphone and preps the girls. After reminding them that Cindy Crawford and Stephanie Seymour are past winners and explaining that today's winner will compete in a regional final, she says, "We have several judges; here's what they're looking for: photogenic, great confidence, nice smile -- even in those eyes, smile with those eyes -- personality, good style, carry yourselves well. Each and every one of you should carry yourself well. You should be very proud of the fact that you can get up and do that. Not everyone can, so you go for it, and let's have some fun."

"Fun" doesn't seem to permeate the atmosphere, nervous goofiness does. Passersby stand and take in the spectacle -- "What's going on here?" The runway, ripped from TV and magazines and plunked down in the middle of a mall, seems out of place. "Let's Talk About Sex" thumps from the tall black speakers as moms sit and watch with little kids -- it feels incongruous.

Before each girl climbs the stairs to the runway, the woman in white introduces her, saying either, "Our next pretty lady is..." or "Our next fabulous-looking lady is...." The lines, ostensibly intended to bolster self-esteem, instead give the event the tone of a juvenile noncontest: everybody's fabulous looking, everybody's a winner. Of course, that's not the case.

There is in some of the girls an undisguisable immature quality -- a heaviness in a limb not yet lengthened by puberty, an awkward step that isn't coltish, just clumsy. And many of those more possessed of themselves appear unused to showing themselves off in this way, unused to being examined for perfection of face and figure. Once they're up and walking down the runway toward the judge, their smiles are often halfhearted and embarrassed. The bounce in their step is forced. Turns and poses are rushed through in let's-get-this-over-with fashion. Hands placed on pushed-out hips are hesitant.

Without the photographer to capture the perfect moment, without a battery of television cameras to provide quick cuts from one shot to another, we are left with teenage girls walking what looks to me like a very long gauntlet of eyes.

The principal judge, Elite vice president Peter McClafferty, turns to the sound man. "Up the music," he says, perhaps hoping that the beat will help the girls loosen up. "Shake that body for me" sounds louder from the speakers, and it seems to help, which makes you feel even worse for Misty when the music cuts out on her halfway down the runway. She soldiers gamely on, smiling into the silence.

As the second group prepares to perform, the woman in white gets up and shows them how to turn and pose. One of the first group turns to her friends in indignation: "They didn't show us how! They're showing them how to walk! They didn't show us how!" She is not selected as a finalist.

For the most part, the eight finalists are easy to pick. They have some measure of poise and bearing. They appear to be aware of their bodies without being self-conscious. Most of them are physically mature. They take their time. An Asian girl wearing a gray tank top, an off-white denim skirt, and canvas sneakers stands out because she enjoys herself, bouncing down the runway with a jaunty strut. An African-American in a tan dress glides through her turns with grace. A pale girl wrapped in a black bodysuit clomps along in funky shoes with big ol' soles. The surprises are a girl with voluminous curly hair, who seems young to be hooking her thumbs in her blue denim skirt and jutting her hips, and the baggy-clad late entry.

The finalists walk a second time, accentuating whatever they did on their first try, and at 3:00, Peter announces the winner: Jackie Wells. My notes on Jackie's first walk read: "gray pinstripe dress slinks." (She was my second choice to win; my first didn't even make the finals.) But Peter, close-cropped and shaded, tells me her slinking isn't what made the difference. "It was based really on how photogenic she was. She just had a really interesting look about her that came across on camera. There was something really cool about her eyes that I liked."

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