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Video: Too fat to model?

TODAY contributor
updated 5/14/2008 11:16:46 AM ET 2008-05-14T15:16:46

It’s one thing to have a figure to die for, but quite another to risk your life for your figure — a truth that teenage model Alexandra Michael is glad she learned before it was too late.

“My kind of wake-up call was I was on a plane from Paris to Texas, which is where I’m from,” Michael told TODAY’s Ann Curry Wednesday in New York. “I ran my fingers through my hair and when I took my hand away, there was a dry, brittle clump of hair in my hand.”

Michael had started her modeling career in Texas as a 5-foot-9, 130-pound 15-year-old, and at every rung she climbed on her career ladder, she heard the same thing: She needed to take off a few pounds.

It was a couple of pounds for Dallas, a few more for New York, and even more for Paris and the big international shows. Finally, she starved herself down to 102 pounds. The designers loved her.

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But when she found her hair coming out in clumps as she flew home from a show last fall, she knew something was terribly wrong. “That’s kind of when I realized this wasn’t worth it anymore. This had completely taken over.”

Serious consequences
Michael, who turns 18 on Thursday, attracted the attention of The Wall Street Journal, which ran a story on the fashion industry’s continuing obsession with emaciated models and the eating disorders, illnesses and even deaths that are the price of their success. That led to an invitation from Teen Vogue for a cover shoot and the opportunity to tell her story to that magazine’s readers in the June/July issue, now on newsstands.

After her hair started falling out, Michael said she went to a nutritionist and her doctor. “I had serious consequences from not eating, like loss of my period for over a year and very, very low energy level,” she said.

Such complaints are common among models, for whom anorexia and bulimia are often just part of the job, Michael told Curry. She discovered that in Paris last year.

“I was sitting in a group of four girls,” Michael said. “I mentioned I hadn’t had a period in over a year and one by one, each one of them said, ‘Me, too.’ These were girls in their late teens, early 20s. There was no reason for that.”

No reason except the whims of the fashion designers, Leslie Goldman, author of “Locker Room Diaries,” told NBC. “In general, what designers are looking for is a model who in a sense will resemble a hanger when the clothing is on her,” she said. “The pressure to look thin is prevalent and rampant throughout our society. Modeling is like the microcosm of society, and there’s even more pressure.”

Thinner and thinner
“There’s been a shift in the fashion industry the last few years to extremely thin girls, almost emaciated,” Amy Astley, the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, told Curry. “It’s coming from the designers and it’s too much.”

Image: Alexandra Michael
Today Show
After Alexandra Michael gained some weight at the urging of medical advisors, she was told by designers that her legs were "too fat" for modeling.

It was Astley’s decision to feature Michael in her magazine’s new issue, and she hopes the teen’s story can help change the perception of beauty.

“The taste changes in models,” Astley said. The first skinny supermodel was the appropriately named Twiggy, a big-eyed waif who was all angles and who took the fashion world by storm in the 1960s. The industry then swung to curvy and athletic supermodels like Christie Brinkley and Naomi Campbell before turning to the cadaverous “heroin chic” look of the 1990s.

Today, super-thin continues to rule. Michael learned that after deciding she didn’t want to die for her job. She followed the advice of her medical advisers and put on 7 pounds. In January, now weighing 109, she went back to Paris for another big show. Only one designer would give her any work. The others sneered at her if they looked at her at all. Her legs, they told her, were too fat.

“I think it’s time to shift to something healthier,” Astley said. “We’ve been in this cycle of hyper-thin too long. I think that someone like Ali speaking out and Teen Vogue giving her a forum to speak out is part of the step toward changing.”

Michael agreed. “From my personal experience, it has to change,” she said. “We’re sending a message, and the fashion industry affects everybody — anybody who opens a magazine, anybody who watches TV.”

The average American woman is 5-foot-4 and weighs 163 pounds. The average supermodel is between 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-11 and weighs no more than 125 pounds. And as the United States spends $33 billion a year on diets and health professionals warn that the general population is getting fatter and fatter, the models get skinnier and skinnier — and so, too, do the girls and young women who try to emulate them.

“I don’t think that people realize that there are lifelong consequences,” Michael said. “Anorexia and bulimia can cause heart failure and osteoporosis and infertility. It’s a serious problem, and I think that it really needs to change.”

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