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There's hard work--and hard feelings--behind the Performing Arts Center's annual fashion show.


When the curtain opens today on the Center of Fashion, the audience will be treated to a Broadway-style spectacle that stars 130 models wearing designer clothes from the toniest stores in Orange County.

What won't be visible from the red velour seats at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa is all of the hard work, creativity, social politics and occasional squabbles that occur behind the scenes. All is not smiles and sparkling evening gowns when it comes to producing a big-time fashion extravaganza.

Since 1990, when the guilds of the center presented the first Center of Fashion, the show has evolved into a monolithic undertaking.

"The guilds have elevated the idea of a fashion show to fashion theater," says Carlton Burnett, who has produced the show every year. "It's a piece of entertainment."

What began as one show has split into two--a matinee and evening performance--to accommodate the approximately 5,000 people who attend. It's the guilds' most lavish fund-raiser, netting anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000 for the center and costing $300,000 to produce. The production features 21 set changes--bigger than a Broadway show--and 25 changes of clothes from 21 stores.

"This show has gotten so big, I'm constantly running to keep up with it," says Cindy Boragno. As one of two chairwomen of the event for the second year in a row, Boragno has devoted the past 24 months to the Center of Fashion. It's a 40- to 50-hour-a-week job without pay.

Committee members now find themselves striving to present a professional, high-caliber production while maintaining the show's community spirit.

It hasn't been pretty.

Organizers must somehow balance the demands of the show's two major sponsors: rivaling malls South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa and Fashion Island Newport Beach. They must also appease the independent stores vying for the spotlight and placate Orange County's rich and powerful women who compete to model. Small wonder it's easy to tread on somebody's manicured toes.

Guild members "want a show that looks professional, but they want all of their friends in it," Boragno says. "Stores have paid major money; the audience pays (up to $75) for tickets, and sponsors have paid to underwrite the show. They don't want to see (the wrong woman) walking down the runway in Mineral," a store known for body-conscious attire.

Keeping all of the models and model-wanna-bes happy requires skilled diplomacy. Competition over who will model and what the models will get to wear can lead to fights worthy of a "Dynasty" rerun.

There have been scenes in which petulant models have demanded to wear clothes only from their favorite boutiques, according to Boragno. Guild members have threatened to boycott the show after not making the cut.

"Unfortunately, they are very powerful people. It's ugly--really ugly," Boragno says.

Show organizers stress that being a model is an honor, and indeed the job does have its perks. Models are feted at luncheons, dinners and cast parties. They get to wear gorgeous clothes, have their makeup done and hair styled, then walk out on the runway and soak up the applause. It's like being queen--or king--for a day.

"This gives us a moment in the limelight without a lot of preparation. It doesn't take years of playing the piano," jokes Candice Schnapp, who has modeled every year.

When Janice Johnson, then the guilds president, first dreamed up the Center of Fashion, she and the committee invited prominent community members to model with only height and dress-size restrictions and little thought to whether they looked the part. That approach made sense back then, Boragno says. Johnson needed to get the support of Orange County's heavy-hitters to ensure the show's success. Once people saw the lavish production, however, the competition to model heated up.

"Two years ago one husband, whose wife was not allowed to model because she was too short, sent one of the taller models a bag of doggie biscuits," Boragno says.

Another rejected guild member went to one of the participating stores where she is a high-paying customer and said, "They turned me down, so I don't want you to be in this show," she says. The retailer did not pull out.

Boragno knows that some people who were not selected this year were unhappy, especially those who have modeled in the past.

"It makes me ill; it breaks my heart," she says.

Auditions for models were open only to guild members and their daughters or granddaughters, and they were tougher than ever. A panel of three judges picked only guild members who "can wear the clothes," Boragno says. That means they have to be a Size 6 or 8 so they can fit into the designer samples, and they must have stage presence, an ability to walk the ramp with confidence and poise.

From the undisclosed number who tried out, 110 made the cut. Professional models were hired to add polish to the show.

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