Oh, the Attenuated Humanity: Sitting In On a New York Fashion Week Model CastingS

Approaching today, the first anniversary of the death of Whitney Houston, I have been thinking about the way the pop star voiced her displeasure with her career during the last 10 years of her life. She became increasingly irritated by the attention she received, ranting about it in song and on reality TV. She was sick of sharing her amazing gift with the world, a gift that she neglected over time by smoking things like cigarettes, marijuana, and cocaine. She had been one of the most famous, most objectively talented people in the world and she got sick of it.

The human spirit is incredibly adaptable, but sometimes this is to a fault—even the blessed turn jaded. Even those who are deemed superhuman by our cultural standards get bored with it all. It's common. So it was that last week I spent six hours watching some 115 models go through a casting for a New York Fashion Week Event. I have a theory that the stock figure of the perpetually unimpressed, unpleasant fashion-industry type is based in a truth: Constantly surrounded by stunning beauty and opulence, they start to find it dull, and their attitudes sink with their interest level. They are spoiled on greatness and there's nowhere to go from there but down.

My designer hosts were not, themselves, shitty fashion people. But as I sat with them, watching extreme human beauty flow by with assembly-line efficiency, I felt my own spirit souring. It was an inoculation against fabulousness.

We were set up at a table in a big residence loft that had been mostly cleared to make way for the day's sashays. Each model would approach us, hand the designers her book of still modeling work, sign in, and walk across the room and back. It took them an average of eight clomps each way, but this varied depending on the length of stride. Clomp-clomp-clomp-clomp-clomp-clomp-clomp-clomp. Turn. On clomping back, the models would pose for some digital shots. Lulls were few.

Besides looking like stretched out caricatures of the human beings I generally find myself around, the group showed little uniformity. They spanned races certainly and ages, maybe—or possibly some just had just gotten less rest than others the night before. A few wore band shirts: One wore what was probably a novelty AC/DC tee made for children, paired with stonewashed jeans, and had long, greasy-looking hair tucked behind her ears. I wondered if she coordinated her outfit to go with the lack of makeup models are expected to have when they attend go-sees. In any case, she served metalhead realness and walked like she was en route to burn down a Swedish church.

We saw a lot of dumb walks. Walks that bounced, walks that stomped, walks that went pow-pow-pow, walks that changed tempo slightly but noticeably, like a warped disco record. There is a tendency amongst these types to walk with the shoulders tucked way back so that the body leaned; extreme cases of this bore resemblance to a reverse "Smooth Criminal." One girl walked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders and a universe of determination to overcome it in her crotch. Another's gait felt so determined, I wondered if she was thinking the whole time about sticking her spiked heel through someone's throat. No one fell, but some hobbled and one was so loose-jointed it was though her wild feet were wheels on bent axels. To my inexpert eyes, all of this effort was in vain: The girls who stood up straight and walked confidently, almost normally, stood out the most.

It is rarely appropriate in New York City to stare openly and extendedly at a person, and yet that was the entire purpose of my day. The models, they stared back. I haven't been eye-fucked so hard since I judged a child beauty pageant in 2011—and I've been to the Eagle several times since then. I didn't take their gazes personally. I think they hoped their eyes could seduce me into giving them work. They had no idea that I was a powerless observer, someone who could at most reward their effort by trying to type America's Next Top Model-level descriptions in my Word document.

If I had a female type, it would be voluptuous, thick even, which is to say that not even my hypothetical hetero taste was represented that day. This was not a feast of eye candy, but a tasting menu of rarefied oddities I'm unlikely to ever sample again. One German girl looked like Edith Zimmerman if Edith Zimmerman were Amish and had freakish cheekbones signaling possible emaciation. Another looked like a mincing Moe Tkacik. One looked like Kylie Minogue pinched into a Spitting Image puppet. The man she came with berated her in Russian as she removing her walking heels after her audition. One looked like Megan Fox made of bones and Silly Puddy. One had a haircut that made her look like Z-Man in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. One from the Caribbean had a pronounced sway that clashed with the sadness in her eyes. She was almost rundown and maybe 16. One girl from Holland looked like a mix of Chris Crocker and Kirsten Dunst. After her slow walk, she let out a subdued laugh—"Huh huh huh huh"—like Beavis or Butt-Head. The most conventionally pretty girl was long, blonde and thin, like a piling fit for a California beach.

I saw Rob Zombie hair, a gym-teacher face, a Tyra Banks flounce, a Naomi Campbell walk. Few of the girls exhibited any personality at all—it was almost disarming when one asked, "How are you?" to the panel judging her. Some refused to shake hands, even. One gave the excuse that she was sick.

Against these unreal interactions, what left an impression were the moments when raw humanity wafted in. One girl had such strong body odor, you could smell her a full eight clomps away. One spent so much time in the bathroom after her audition that she was clearly taking a shit—the overly air-freshened way she left it confirmed as much. Still another removed her tampon and left it unwrapped atop the discarded tissues in the small, open bathroom trashcan.

I could understand how an enterprising person accustomed to this process would think to convert it into a televised competition. But the values espoused by reality shows like America's Next Top Model didn't jibe with actual reality as it played out that day. Personality was barely a factor in casting (only if a girl was supremely unpleasant did it count against her). Also, a model's portfolio or "book" barely mattered—the people holding the casting looked through them all for proof of versatility, but they cast a girl who was "too new" to carry around a bunch of modeling shots of herself. If they liked you, they liked you.

And then, sometimes even if they liked you, it didn't matter—the truly odd specimens were passed over for fear that they wouldn't blend well with the rest of the group. Short hair, in this case, would have clashed too much with the look the designers were going for. If the models had bodies or even body parts (a prominent ass, a full chest) that would not do well with particular outfits, they couldn't be cast either.

There's no guarantee that the girls the designers want and option will be cast ultimately—these models are sent on several go-sees per day by their agencies, as Fashion Week has something like 400 events to fill. Almost everyone gets cast for something, and no one can be double-booked. Just because you want a girl that you see, doesn't mean you can have that girl—the second phase of casting is kind of an inverted audition process in which the designers negotiate with agents.

The first phase seemed exhausting enough. By the fifth hour, I was tired of gazing at beauty, or "beauty" as it is defined by the fashion industry. No matter how special or odd or amazing, every girl started to blend together, one more commodity to be bid on.

I thought about this and how sad it all is, how inhuman this process can seem. "You have to look past that. It's their choice. They're getting paid," one of my hosts explained.

"This is also the part that I hate," he said

Source image from Getty.