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Clawing to the top of the fashion world

Model Carol Alt's debut novel "This Year's Model" goes inside the cutthroat fashion industry. There are rumors and lies, lecherous model-collecting playboys, rock stars and drugs, and the most perilous pitfall of them all ... straight male models. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Tall, beautiful, practical Melody Ann Croft of Morristown, N.J., thinks she's found the easy way to a life of luxury when she is discovered by a photographer and signed to a modeling agency. In Carol Alt's debut novel, “This Year's Model,” Melody, who changes her name to Mac Croft, finds out that in the fashion world, nothing is easy. Mac faces demanding diva photographers with their body-torturing, day-long sessions, and jealous rivals whose flawless beauty hides sharp claws. There are rumors and lies, lecherous model-collecting playboys, rock stars and drugs, and the most perilous pitfall of them all ... straight male models! Temptation is everywhere, and even a level-headed Jersey girl may have trouble keeping her footing on the long, hard climb up. An excerpt.

JFK International Airport, February 14, 6:19 a.m.

I thought I was safe a minute ago when I literally sprinted past Cinnabon, but an empty stomach can really play tricks on the brain. Only now there’s a whole procession of chocolate, peanuts, licorice, and assorted Gummies leaping onto the counter to slink and sashay and sell it, sell it, sell it. Call it candy bar couture. Unfortunately, food is my nemesis, and the one thing you cannot escape — it’s everywhere! Tearing my eyes from the evil array of temptation at Hudson News, I stride toward the puzzle books — I don’t need sugar; I need some sudoku to occupy my mind — and nearly collide with this kid. Tall for her age, but still a baby. She stares at me and it’s as though my Puma tracksuit has been stripped away and I’m standing there in that gilded Oasis bikini, the one they let me keep.

“Oh ... my ... God!”

Reflexively, I look over my shoulder, sure she has spotted a terrorist in the act of setting off a shoe bomb, when I realize I’m the one who has caused her to shriek with what sounds like genuine excitement.

“Hi, Mac!”

She says my name with such familiarity that I look at her for a long moment. Then, embarrassed that I don’t recognize her, I ask, “Do I know you?”

“Know me? God, no — why in the world would you know me?”

I blink, then realize that I’m having that moment. The one in which you find yourself confronted with celebrity and are about to make an absolute fool of yourself in the name of getting an autograph. Except in this case, I’m the celebrity. I glance down at my sweat suit. I suppose I could be better dressed for it.

“I cannot believe you’re even talking to me,” the girl chatters on. “I can’t believe Mac Croft is even standing in front of me! You are absolutely my favorite model! I know everything about you. And you know what? You’re so much prettier in person.”

“Thank you. That’s sweet of you to say.” I’m not sure this is a compliment since my business is taking pictures. Shifting my crammed carry-on from my right to my left shoulder, I assess her like I’ve come to do with any female over age twelve. Occupational hazard. “You’re really pretty too.”

“Oh, thank you! You are so nice. My brother would die — he thinks you’re incredibly hot. Ha on him! I was bugging him, so he gave me money to buy magazines for the plane. I told him he should come with me!” She beams at me. “Hey, where are you going? If it’s okay to ask.”

Good question. Where am I going? “Sure, it’s okay,” I say, stalling. These last two months I’ve been on a plane twenty-nine times; I feel like I’m aiming to get into Guinness. It takes me a moment, but I finally remember. “Montana. I’m going to Montana.”

“Really? Montana? We’re going to California — we have a week off from school. Montana doesn’t sound very glamorous, if you don’t mind me saying.”

Glamorous? Maybe not — but it’s a big job, the kind you might go to Siberia for if that’s what the client requested; an exclusive for Mountain, the new Calvin Klein perfume. It’s the kind of job I’d never refuse, though I suppose there are better ways to spend Valentine’s Day. Six hours from now I’ll be bareback on a horse, in a man’s arms — Ivan Gladst, I think that’s who they booked — surrounded by snow and braving the kind of windchill factor that puts icicles on your eyelashes. I’ll be freezing — not that you’ll be able to tell in the final pictures — but I suppose I’ll thaw out when they cut that check for $100K.

“Hey, can I ask you a question?” My fan — I’m still getting used to the idea that I have a fan — is wearing a bad Burberry knockoff over pajama bottoms shoved into soiled Uggs, a look so very, sadly wrong and yet so darling I want to pat her on the head. “Do you think I could model? Tell me honestly.”

“Sure,” I say. “You’ve got great bones, great hair. How old are you?”

“Thirteen. I’m already five eight — and still growing.”

“I bet we’ll be working together soon.” The funny thing is I’m not lying. In fact she kind of looks like the girl who beat me out for that Juicy Couture ad. “What’s your name?”

Uck, Shyla.” She shakes her head and puts on an air of sophistication that doesn’t fit. “What were my parents thinking? I intend to change it eventually.”

“Why? Unique names are all the rage in the business,” I say.

She smiles, becoming a kid again. “Hey, can I get your autograph, Mac? Because I’ve got the Sports Illustrated right here.”

And there I am, in all my glory — artfully airbrushed tan, which has made even the scar on my right forearm disappear, my hair a mass of choreographed tangles, the Oasis bikini clinging wetly to every curve. “Wow, Shyla, you know what? I haven’t even seen it myself yet,” I admit. “I just flew in from Europe and — ”

“I can’t stand it. You’re on the cover and you’re so fabulous you haven’t even seen it.” Shyla absorbs the unbelievable truth.

“I’m so glad they put you on the cover instead of some cheesy celebrity, like Beyonce or whoever. You’re a supermodel. And you have the best body — ooh, sorry, I don’t mean that in a gay way. Wait, here’s a Sharpie. God, this is going to be such a collector’s item.”

I move a bit farther into the corner, trying not to take over the store with my first random celebrity moment. “So, Shyla — that’s S-H-Y-L-A?” I take the pen. “You want to hear something ironic? When I was your age I was seriously into tennis. I even dreamed I’d be in Sports Illustrated — but I never thought it would be this way.”

“Really? You mean you didn’t always want to model? That is so interesting. Oh, I wish you were on our plane to L.A. Then we could sit together and you could tell me all about Fashion Week and the European collections.” Shyla sighs. “But then you probably fly first class.”

Today I am in first, courtesy of Calvin Klein. But I worked my way up to flying first class. Wouldn’t she be shocked to learn it isn’t always like this for every model and that even now, after months of struggling and starving and pounding the pavement in search of the next job, I still find myself in coach when the client can’t afford to upgrade the ticket. If the job is prestigious enough, I would allow them to shove me into the overhead compartment if it meant the difference between getting the job and not. Handing her back the magazine and marker, I glance around, trying to get my bearings, trying to remember what gate I’m going through and wondering if I’ll even be able to grab a puzzle book before they announce preboarding for first class customers.

“Mac, thank you, thank you so much.” Shyla studies my signature, clasps the S.I. to her chest. “You are just so unbelievably nice. Can I ask you one more question?”

Yes, please, let it be the last one. I hate to be rude, but I’m already understanding why most celebrities travel incognito. If I hang around too much longer, I won’t even be flying coach as I may miss my flight altogether.

“What’s the best part of being a supermodel?”

Hmm ... wow ... it’s hard to say.” And I mean it; meteoric rise and all that, I’m still so new to the game. Of course, months can be like years in modeling. I glance at Shyla. The kid looks at me as though I’m about to impart the secret meaning of the universe. “The truth is it’s just like any other job,” I tell her. “It all comes down to the people ....”

Excerpted from “This Year's Model,” Copyright (c) 2008 by Carol Alt. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins. To read more, click .