You say Elite Model Look competition and frankly all I can hear in my head is Tyra Banks repeatedly emphasising the fact that every winner of America's Next Top Model would get a contract with Elite Modelling Agency. That just shows the high level of absorption I had of the TV franchise through the mind numbing number of hours spent with Living TV when I clung on to my parent's Sky subscription desperately. The view of the modelling industry through ANTM is of course a highly skewed one and the view of a modelling competition, despite some similarities between Elite Model Look and ANTM, is also flawed. As Jeremy Marmiesse, a model booker from Elite Paris, remarked "America's Next Top Model is a TV show and they are trying to create television around it. Elite Model Look is here to find top models. They're two completely different things." The resulting top girls prove their worth. Past contestants include Gisele Bunchden, Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymour and more recently Ming Xi, Constance Jablonski and Ming Xi.
In all honesty, given my complete lack of knowledge of the modelling industry (other than insights from brilliant documentaries such as The Model Agency and from seeing bookers/casting directors at work) and my unwillingness to be am modeliser, going to see the prep for the 28th Elite Model Look's World Final in Shanghai seems like a bit of a joke. I was fully prepared to go in there Louis Theroux style and interrogate the girls and people at Elite to see whether there could be a hilarious parody drawn between Elite Model Look with say a Miss World competition – in keeping with my #whitegirlproblem schooling background where girls campaigned to wear trousers as part of school uniform and staged feminist protests. Sadly the reality is that after probing, interviewing and observing the contestants and organisers in the final prep days of the competition, my fantasy of bemusing documentary that tears the modelling industry asunder in hysterical fashion, was not going to happen. Instead, Elite Model Look is indeed a serious competition where realistically speaking, fifteen girls are going to be contracted working Elite models, and they're all better prepped for the industry because they've been through intensive workshops during the course of this competition and are also lucky enought to get support from all the Elite teams of their 35 offices from all over the world, who convene especially for the competition.
Therefore my very brief stay in Shanghai that sadly finished without my watching the proper final because of a clash with the Prada event, was a somewhat fruitful education into seeing the alternative to ANTM – without the dramatic music, the wildly unrealistic challenges and a bucket load of bitchy one-liner jibes. I even got my own modelising moment as I hung out with some of the current hot faves and found myself wanting to mother and befriend them.
Sixty five girls are quite literally from all over the world, from countries as far flung as Angola, Trinidad & Tobago and Venezuela represented by girls, who were spotted in their hometowns and recommended to go through the local Elite competitions. They then come through to the World Final where they undergo a few weeks of boot camp, under supervision and observations of Elite staff. I loved the jibber jabber of communicating to such a vast group, with several translators on site to wade through all the languages.
With recent Elite Model Look alumni including the likes of Ming Xi and Fei Fei Sun and the general rise of Asian models in editorials and on the catwalk, it's hard not to notice the Chinese contestants. Li Xiao Xin here ended up finishing in the top seven in the competition and will go on to Elite's books in some capacity. I did actually want to ask her whether I could grate my vegetables on her razor sharp cheekbones….
Asia Bugajska, a Polish model who was working as a chaperone for some of the girls pointed out a few of the most common problems with the girls' walking techniques: "The most common problem is when they're walking, they're bent down with their shoulders. It's because they're so tall and most of the time, they're used to bending down, being the tallest in their class. Almost all of the girls have this problem. I explain to them that they have to be straight and lean back. Another thing is they do is that they don't give enough energy and I have to tell them that they're selling the clothes and have to give everything on the catwalk. Some girls cross their legs too much in an old-school way. Like they want to do a sexy walk."
I loved the Elite kit bags that all the girls had – the obligatory 'models off duty' Converse-type shoes and a pair of heels for practising their walk.
I sadly didn't get to see Kylie Minogue, who was one of the special guests of the final show, perform a banging medley of Slow and Come into my World but I could still feel her diminuitive awesomeness through the lyrics on the screen. Yes, I love Kylie.
Just to reiterate that I was watching a rehearsal and not the real shebang….
The destination of Shanghai as the final show's location is of course slightly strategic what with Elite having opened a new branch of agency in the city but of course, Elite Model Look also got to take advantage of terrifyingly new buildings like the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai's Pudong area, which looked to me a little like those mahussive alien discs in Independence Day.
My first night was spent watching a rather more informal part of the competition, one that is supposed to relax the girls as they take part in a talent show. This is where it gets a bit Miss World-y but of course none of these 'talents' are actually consequential in the competition. It just meant we all got to cheer on slightly embarrassing moments of singing, dancing and piano playing – some better than others. It was almost like Elite could take the piss out of the beauty pageantry elements by getting the girls to loosen up a little with a fun night that doesn't affect the competition in the least. Plus, some of them did actually have incredible voices with special mention to Nigeria's Chinwe and her rendition of Adele and Singapore's Fiona belting out Beyonce. XFactor awaits you guys if modelling doesn't work out…?
On a more serious note, the diversity of the contestants is something that was truly inspiring and fully on show here. The lament about diversity in modelling goes on and on and it's an issue tht continues to get brushed under the carpet by the industry. Seeing these girls that come from all parts of the world did make me picture each of them in editorial/catwalk situations – a scenario that seemed pretty amazing to me as a prospect. At the same time, it's interesting how ingrained the typecasting is of what makes a 'good' catwalk girl or what makes a 'good' girl to shoot. I found myself being horribly presumptuous about which girls would have a headstart because of their 'look', which is already a step in the wrong direction. These pre-conceived notions need to be shattered to allow for diversity and even though the final three winners didn't reflect that, it's important to remember that even the top fifteen will probably end up working with Elite and that group had a girl from India, China and Angola – small steps indeed….
Maddie here from near Middlesborough was UK's representative and she was put through to the competition when she sent her own pictures to Elite. She was terribly excited about having found a fake Mulberry bag in Shanghai….
The stylist had to fit all 65 girls into all stages of costuming for the show without knowing who the final 15, 7 and 3 would be…
I love Uruguay's Katharina 'bomber around the waist' technique… probably not something the Elite panel members are looking at but it does bode well for potential 'models off-duty' style stalking that inevitably comes with the territory…
Elite had gathered up a group of seven 'SUPER' models as past successful contestants of Elite Model Look. The interesting thing is that none of the supers including Eniko Mihalik, Fei Fei Sun, Natasa Vojnovic and Michaela Kocianova actually were the first winners of past Elite Model Look World Finals – some were runners up, some were finalists from their own country's local competitions. Winning isn't integral to the success of a contestant in EML but just having that experience under their belt could aid their careers…
Ming Xi came in 3rd place in the 2009 Elite Model Look final and remarked that it felt like a life time ago: ""The only thing I feel is that I'm too old! All the girls are 15/16 and I'm 22 already! I just feel like time flies!" I did want to reassure her that 22 was far from old and that she's pretty awesome on all levels right now but anyhow…
On a more random note, Ming does a really cute proper English accent…
Nyasha Matonhodze, who scooped the A/W 11-12 Louis Vuitton campaign and has been a real breakthrough face was the UK finalist of EML and she couldn't praise the competition enough. "I love Elite! They're very caring. The competition teaches the girls that it's not just about beauty but it's about personality too. I remember it being very scary but you're in the same boat with a group of other girls. I would never forget this experience. It gave me confidence."
I didn't get to see the full rehearsal as true to fashion timing, everything ran super super late but the first outfit for the night would be this very Louis Vuitton A/W 11-12 inspired patent trooper look…
The final winner was Julia Schneider from Sweden, which may have disappointed a few who were hankering after a more unusual winner from the norm. Like I said though, the winner doesn't necessarily take it all and EML, despite increasing prying eyes from the likes of the model un-savvy such as myself, definitely offers a somewhat enviable route into modelling. One that doesn't involve peddling sob stories or smiling with their eyes underwater.