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`A Model Life' is a cut above

TLC's new series with Petra Nemcova is a surprisingly absorbing look at a group of young models on and away from the N.Y. catwalks.

July 13, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

You'll just have to trust me when I say that I don't spend much time thinking about fashion models -- really! -- and that when I do think about such things, I wonder why I'm thinking about them at all. I understand the world needs skinny women to be photographed in clothes only a fashion model could credibly wear -- I don't understand why, exactly, but I know that without them economies might collapse, empires crumble. And young girls would only have celebutantes and starlets upon whom to model their Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

It is a funny place, Fashion, where transient tastes are regarded as immutable law. Still, I must confess to a real liking for "A Model Life With Petra Nemcova," a new, eight-week series from TLC about the high-stakes, high-pressure world of New York fashion. Premiering tonight at 10, it is not a documentary, exactly: Six young models are brought to Manhattan from around the world by supermodel Nemcova and the agency that represents her and run through something like the real paces of any "new face," alongside such unlikely contrivances as runway advice from designer Nicole Miller. Yet it isn't a contest in the way of "The Next Top Model," and is refreshingly free of that show's orchestrated squall of cat-fighting and backbiting. It splits the difference between being honest and being upbeat.

Petra's girls are both more professionally experienced and, on the whole, younger than Tyra's. (None is old enough to drink, a few aren't old enough to vote, a couple are barely old enough to drive -- so this will probably not be a story of hard partying in the big city.) Most come across as a mix of self-possession and innocence (proportions vary), though the fact that all look older than they are and are working hard at an age when many of their peers are lazing through the twilight of their adolescence, can make it hard to see them clearly. But they are all likable, even the girl who is slightly superior and the one who is clearly in trouble.

Much of the show's appeal is due to Nemcova herself, who famously survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami by clinging to a palm tree. It's a little jarring to hear her speak of the screams of dying children in the present context, and there is something in the way that the show is introduced that makes it sound as if the series itself were among the good works she has undertaken since that event. But the double meaning of "A Model Life" seems intended -- not just a life in modeling, but a life worth living.

"Sometimes in the fashion industry it's a little bit superficial and there's not so much depth and meaning," says Petra, who organizes a trip to Ellis Island to talk about roots and freedom and hosts a dinner at her town house to which each girl brings a dish from her homeland. (You almost expect merit badges.) When she tells her charges that this experience "will help you learn more about yourself," we feel that she means it in some fundamentally spiritual way, not just as a test of their capacity for hunger. "Starving yourself won't help your career, and it definitely won't help your life," Petra says, and puts the models together with a trainer who checks their body mass indexes and eating habits, and finds all but one underweight and underfed.

Lucia, the one girl the trainer deems "perfect" (at 5 foot, 10 inches and 137 pounds), is, not surprisingly, regarded by the agency as in need of pruning. But we are clearly meant to see the irony in this.


`A Model Life With Petra Nemcova'

Where: TLC

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14).

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