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SANDY BANKS

Dreaming of Being the Next Cindy or Tyra

March 28, 2000|SANDY BANKS

Some had come straight to the mall from school--wearing sneakers, T-shirts and jeans--and hurried to join the throng of teenage girls congregating between red velvet ropes in front of the JCPenney.

Others had prepared for this competition for weeks--highlighted their hair, polished their toes, donned platform shoes and push-up bras and dresses so tight they could hardly move.

Now they all stood nervously in line, eyeing each other and second-guessing their wardrobe choices . . . wondering who among them would win the evening's modeling contest and walk off with a shot at a career that could catapult them out of their suburban ennui.

"I know I probably won't win," confided a buxom 14-year-old, as she lined her lips with a cocoa-colored pencil and pulled her dark curls back so her friend could swipe blush across her cheeks. "But I've wanted to be a model since I was 6 years old."

She peered into a tiny makeup mirror, her blue eyes shining from excitement . . . and more than a little glittery from gold eye shadow.

"Who knows?" she said, snapping her compact shut. "This could be my lucky day."

*

It is a generations-old staple of a young girl's fantasy life:

That's me on the cover of Vogue, or strutting my stuff on a Paris runway.

I remember as a child sashaying in front of the hallway mirror, flipping my hair, swishing my hips, swinging my arms . . . a little girl's version of a runway model.

I had heard those John Robert Powers commercials, touting the magic of a modeling career. Never mind that I was short and clumsy and the camera had always hated me. . . . I was convinced that with a mere few hundred dollars of modeling classes, I could be headed for gay Paree.

I sensed that same conviction among the teenage girls at the mall last week, as they bellied up to the interview table to get the once-over from Elite modeling agency's screening duo.

Some had obviously been this route before; they walked nonchalantly, smiled at the judges, handed out professional shots of various poses. Others--some nudged into the contest by doting mothers or proud boyfriends--arrived clutching prom pictures or family photos from Christmas at grandma's.

In a campaign that is part talent hunt, part publicity gimmick, Elite travels around the world, hosting competitions for teenagers in cities across the United States and in 56 other countries. About 100 hopefuls showed up at the Northridge Fashion Center last week, the first stop in Elite's U.S. tour.

The winners can compete in July in Geneva, where Elite judges will select one girl to receive a $150,000 modeling contract with the agency.

But the contest is probably best known not for the new faces it has unearthed, but for the one it overlooked. In Elite's inaugural competition in 1983, Cindy Crawford was one contestant who didn't win.

"No one even remembers who was picked that year," Elite spokeswoman DeEdyre Burks said. "It shows how subjective the process is. We just kind of eyeball the girls to see what they look like, maybe have them do some walks. We're not looking for them to be professionals; we're just trying to see potential."

In fact, Burks and the other judges winnowed last week's original group to 25 finalists after spending just a few moments with each girl.

"Sometimes you can just look at a girl and see if she's got what it takes," Burks said.

And sometimes you can't.

*

The market for models "is very eclectic these days," Burks said. "The Latin flavor, the African look . . . they're very strong. It's no longer just the traditional blond hair, blue eyes."

But while there was no shortage of exotica among last week's contestants, it was, in the end, the traditional that carried the day.

Both runner-up Nicole Merizan, 14, and winner Tara Tenborg, 15, were tall, long-legged, fresh-faced blonds.

While Tara stood on stage, clutching a bouquet of red roses and--in the tradition of beauty queens--crying, her mother stood off to the side with a bewildered smile.

Who would have thought?

Tara--visiting with her family from the small northern California town of Lincoln, near Sacramento--entered the contest on a whim, mom Peggy Tenborg said.

"We were shopping at the mall when she saw a flier" and signed up on the spot. "She was wearing flip-flops, capri pants and a T-shirt. Nothing fancy, no makeup. . . . I don't think it ever occurred to her she might win."

For now, Peggy isn't thinking about her daughter's prospects in the jet-setting world of high-fashion modeling. She's just grateful for the ego boost that winning is bound to give a once-gawky child, whose hobbies include singing at church and at community events and exhibiting livestock at county fairs with the local 4-H Club.

"She's never really thought of herself as pretty or cool," her mom said, dropping her voice to a whisper. "When she was in middle school, they always teased her about her looks . . . her height, her full lips."

Take heart, Tara. I'll bet they teased Cindy Crawford too.

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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