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July 11, 1993|NANCY MILLS | Nancy Mills is a frequent contributor to TV Times

"When you see photographs of models, they look so sophisticated, mature and sexy," supermodel-actress Kathy Ireland says. "But a lot of them are still children, and they're under a great deal of stress. How can you handle yourself properly when you're young and rebellious and people are kissing your ass, telling you how gorgeous you are and spoiling you?"

Ireland got into the modeling business at the advanced age of 17 and, with a lot of common sense, a supportive family and good luck, has survived into her late 20s relatively unscathed. She agreed to host Fox's one-hour special about modeling, "Look of the Year," airing Tuesday, because it doesn't overly glamorize the business and because her own view of herself is so resolutely unglamorous. In her telling, her career sounds almost like a 12-step program for recovering geeks.

"Look of the Year" goes behind the scenes of the Elite Modeling Contest, an international competition now in its ninth year. Sixty-three young women from 39 countries come to New York for a week for a series of makeovers, photo shoots and interviews, culminating in a final presentation. According to Elite, 43 of this year's contestants already have signed modeling contracts and are now working steadily. Some of them are barely into their teens.

Sitting at a conference table in her manager's Los Angeles office, Ireland talks frankly about pursuing a career that can be hazardous to some women's health. That morning, news outlets were reporting on Gia Carangi, a top model in 1979 who turned into a heroin addict and died of AIDS in 1986. She was 26.

"Back then, when Gia was modeling, drugs were more prevalent," Ireland says in her soft, girlish voice. "It was a faster life. There's still some of that going on, but people are wiser. Longevity in modeling requires more than having the look of the moment. You have to take care of yourself and be healthy."

Ireland, who is wearing a close-fitting brown lace dress that reveals the total absence of flab, looks beyond healthy. A large plate of doughnuts sits in front of her, and she ignores them. "I do a lot of sports," she says. "That's what keeps me in shape."

Spotted by an Elite scout when she was a Santa Barbara high school student and brought to New York for the summer, Ireland became famous as the cover girl on two Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions. When she found herself in demand at the top fashion magazines, her biggest "problem" was adjusting to big paychecks.

"I didn't grow up with a lot of money," Ireland says, "and I had so much fun without it. I did free things--going to the beach, hanging out with friends, sneaking into places. Making a lot of money scared me. I saw people with money who didn't seem happy and were jaded." A frown flits across her face.

"I did have times when I found myself getting greedy. It was ugly: 'Well, I just want enough money to buy a condo. Now I need a bigger condo.' I finally realized it's OK to have money if it doesn't control you. But the love of money is dangerous. Because modeling is lucrative, I'm able to save up and be more particular about the acting roles I take."

Ireland moved into performing several years ago with guest spots on series such as "Charles in Charge" and, more recently, "The Edge." She later starred in NBC's "Danger Island" and an episode of HBO's "Tales From the Crypt."

She played football in "Necessary Roughness," and she spoofed Sharon Stone's "Basic Instinct" performance in "National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon."

"With modeling, you're in control. You draw the line. You have to decide what you feel comfortable doing. I've walked off jobs. I'm self-employed."

Ireland believes that "Look of the Year" is "an accurate portrayal of what young girls go through, all the stresses and difficulties of modeling. They kept the cameras rolling and captured a lot of honest moments--the tears and some of the girls' unrealistic expectations. One 15-year-old is overheard saying, 'I'm too young. I want to go home.' "

Ireland, who has been married to an emergency room doctor for nearly five years and lives in Santa Barbara, keeps her awkward moments in the forefront of her mind. Sometimes that high school geek looks back at her in the mirror.

"I was a really geeky 14-year-old. I'd had long pigtails all my life, and when I finally got them cut off I had A-frame hair." She holds her hands a foot away from her ears.

"I had one eyebrow and buck teeth. Eventually I discovered tweezers and hair conditioner and clothes that fit me better. I was a late bloomer, and I think it's really helped me. I remember being so insecure and so desperate to fit in that I would have taken drugs or slept with boys, if any would have had me. I was lucky I had a strong grounding in my faith.

"So, to all late bloomers out there," she says with a giggle, "let me tell you it can be a blessing. You might not be ready for these things. I've seen a lot of young girls make bad choices for themselves."

"Look of the Year" airs Tuesday at X p.m. on Fox.

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