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Ready for takeoff

Would-be models gather at an unusual class in Los Angeles to learn how to sashay down a fashion show runway. Next stop: Milan?

October 24, 2003|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

The girls gather in a sleek white lobby on Sunset Boulevard for their catwalk tutorial. They perch in chairs like life-size plastic dolls, with their big eyes, wild hair and legs that go on forever.

Over the next hour, runway instructor Michael Maddox will transform these long-limbed nymphets -- who range in age from 13 to 22 -- from gangly teenyboppers into freshly minted femme fatales. On this day, Wednesday, he will take these "new face girls," as they are called, into the vault of L.A. Models and teach them to walk (No. Not walk. Strut! Sidle! Seduce!) for final castings with designers before Sunday, which marks the beginning of L.A. Fashion Week.

"There's a whole misconception that everyone knows how to walk," said Crista Sides Clayman, director of the Runway Division of L.A. Models. "Well, some girls just can't."

Some guys talk the talk. Some models walk the walk. Maddox talks the walk. A former hip-hop dancer who has worked in hospitals and in retail, Maddox, 39, fell into the fashion world when a friend dragged him to a modeling show. The producer didn't show, and Maddox stepped in to choreograph, he says. He began producing shows. He brought a model to Clayman, who was so dazzled by the young man's walk she asked who taught him. It was Maddox; she hired him on the spot.

More than a decade later, Maddox, a short teddy bear of a man with a trademark bandana, has produced dozens of shows and tutored thousands of models for top agencies. He charges his pupils between $60 and $150 an hour for his services, although with L.A. Fashion Week looming, today's session is free.

The week will include more than 50 runway shows at several locations around town for media, store buyers and hipster hangers-on, a finale to the presentations that took the fashion flock to New York, Milan and Paris. These young women hope to be cast by designers such as Richard Tyler, Michelle Mason, David Rodriguez, Frankie B., and 18-year-old design sensation Esteban Cortazar of Miami.

Clayman gives Maddox a quick rundown before the session begins: See the girl with the wild hair? She's been to 10 castings and no one has booked her. Something is wrong. The dark-haired girl by the door? She has never done this before.

The girls file in, tall and thin, with pointy heels, tiny tops, tight jeans cut low and skirts so short you wonder if someone should coin a new name for such a minuscule piece of cloth. Clayman says every girl here dreams of working in Paris and Milan, and of living in New York.

"Hi, Beautiful! Hi, Gorgeous!" Maddox calls out.

These girls are stepping over the threshold into a ruthless fashion world where they may grow up too fast and be washed up at 23. The unexpected thing about Maddox is that he is nice. The father of three teen boys, Maddox is a cross between a cool uncle, a great teacher and a supportive friend. He is not lecherous, sleazy or mean. He calls the girls "Pumpkin" and "Sweetheart."

First they work on posture. They stand against the wall, arms outstretched. They squeeze between the potted plants and corporate art, pinned like giant butterflies.

"Burns really bad, doesn't it?" Maddox says. "When you are done, you will feel about 10 inches taller."

Today he will work with them to refine their turns, their half turns, their "spread" (the classic end-of-runway pose) and, of course, the arrogant glare of a super diva, that vacant-eyed, humorless pout that any woman who devours too many fashion magazines knows.

They work on balance. The models stand in line, jut their hips out slightly, finding their center of gravity. Like a band of Amazon warriors, these towering beauties in heels flank Maddox and follow his every move. He shows them how to step, heel, toe, heel, toe. Some teeter, some wobble. They stride, then spread. Eyes stare off into the middle distance (Not up, like you are praying! Not down, like you are looking at the media!)

He shows the models how to carry their arms. They hold them limp at their sides, pencils in hand, then drop them. "That is how your hands should be," he exhorts. Not with thumbs pointed. Not robotic with hands stuck out to the sides like Charlie Chaplin.

Finally, they walk the length of the room: turn a certain way, look a certain way, hold their heads a certain way and focus their eyes a certain way, but they are allowed, indeed encouraged, to embrace their own idiosyncratic style. His eyes search for imperfections in carriage. He loves them, these "infants," as he calls them, and wants to make them good.

"You are a one-arm carrier," he tells a movie-star blond. She is swinging one arm, not the other.

"Ooooohhhh girl, you got some legs on you," he tells a statuesque redhead with a mod haircut.

One girl shows a shadow of a smile as she walks. "Character," he says. "You cannot remain the same old Jane. If your name is Jane, make it Susannah on the runway!"

One girl chews.

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