GERREN TAYLOR was still playing with Barbie dolls when she walked the runway for the first time at Los Angeles Fashion Week in 2003. Just 12 at the time, she was the youngest person ever to be represented by the runway division of L.A. Models. Although most agencies require girls to be 14, it's not unheard of for 12-year-olds to get work. Actress Milla Jovovich made the cover of Vogue at 12, and Brooke Shields, Gisele Bundchen and Kate Moss were all stars before they turned 16.
With her long legs and confident walk, Taylor looked as though she would follow in their footsteps. Then, during Richard Tyler's show, the last one of the week that April, she stepped onto the runway in a wedding gown and stumbled hard. She tripped once, then again on the train that was in front of her, because the dress was accidentally put on backward. When her eyes welled up with tears, even the most hardened fashionistas wanted to give her a hug.
I wrote about that moment, the one that made Taylor a novelty -- the 12-year-old, plucked from the crowd on an L.A. street corner, who tripped on the high-fashion runway. It made for a good story. Other people thought so too. Oprah came calling, and designers lined up to book her.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Young models: An article in Sunday's Image section about modeling prodigy Gerren Taylor said that Milla Jovovich was on the cover of Vogue at age 12. She was on the cover of the Italian fashion magazine Lei at age 12.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 24, 2008 Home Edition Image Part P Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Young models: An article about modeling prodigy Gerren Taylor in the Aug. 17 Image section said that Milla Jovovich was on the cover of Vogue at age 12. She was on the cover of the Italian fashion magazine Lei at age 12.
That September, she went to New York to see if she could make it on the world stage, and walked in the Tommy Hilfiger, Betsey Johnson and Tracy Reese shows. Hilfiger even paid to have her teeth fixed, telling Taylor she was going to be a top model. Making enough money for college seemed a sure bet after she became the first African American in a Marc Jacobs ad campaign. "We're all expecting her to be a big star," Jacobs said.
Then she disappeared. A year later, Taylor didn't book a single runway job. The advertising work dried up too, and so did the magazine editorials. She went to Europe to try her luck at the fashion weeks there, but was told by booking agents in Paris that 38-inch hips on a pole-thin 6-foot frame made her too big to model. (They wanted her to diet down to 35 inches.) In less than two years, her career had come to a halt.
That's where the story ends for most. Fashion designers and editors move on to the next girl and the next. It's just the way of an industry built on selling a fantasy that depends on novelty and impossible ideals. Women try to intellectualize the constant stream of airbrushed images, skinny models and too-expensive products, but the allure is too strong. So we go on searching for some notion of beauty that is always just out of reach. And we don't think much about what happened to last year's model.
Short career caught on film
Except with Taylor, documentary filmmaker Darryl Roberts was there to pick up where the industry left off.
His film "America the Beautiful," opening Friday at the Laemmle Sunset 5, follows the arc of her brief career, trying to understand why we are obsessed with physical beauty. We see Taylor and her mom, Michele Gerren, struggling to navigate the sexualized world of fashion, while arguing about whether it's too soon for the young model to start wearing a bra. We hear from Taylor's school principal, who says with prescience, "How can you comprehend at 12 or 13 that you're going to be discarded?"
Then, in 2005, when Taylor returns from Europe humiliated, we watch her hit rock bottom. Agonizing over the flaws she perceives in her pancake flat stomach, her flawless face looks straight into the camera and she says, "I'm ugly."
She had written herself off at 15.
Today, Taylor is about to start her senior year of high school in Santa Monica, where she's a volleyball star. She never did make enough money for college, but she's applying anyway, to study psychology. Some kids would have gone to therapy to cope, but Taylor went to church and found support from peers who had the same issues with their bodies, even as they had envied hers in teen magazines.
"It was going so well, then when it stopped I didn't know what I had done wrong," she says over a recent lunch, her Yorkie, Arlington, sleeping at her feet. "I was always so nice to people, I never turned my back on people."
Of course, she knows now that success in fashion has nothing to do with being nice.
Taylor is still stunningly beautiful, with perfect skin and legs so long, they stick out from the other side of the table. She is wearing jeans that are a little short, even with the bottom seams ripped out, a tank top, sheer shirt and ballet flats. Her mom is close by, as she always was, making sure Taylor wasn't wearing anything too revealing on the runway or risking a future paycheck by saying on camera that she doesn't like soy milk.
"Sometimes I felt uncomfortable," Taylor remembers. "But I didn't think there was anything I could do. I was scared to say I didn't want to wear something, to be that girl who had an attitude or didn't cooperate. I liked having my mom there so she could say it."