Plato defined beauty as a universal Form so pure it could exist only in theory. Saint Thomas Aquinas described it as the harmonious convergence of perfection, proportion, and clarity. Immanuel Kant distinguished between beauty (that which merely excites the senses) and the sublime (that which inspires awe). Aaron Spelling, TV philosopher-king, has his own meditations on the subject. ”It’s like pornography,” he says. ”I can’t define it, but I know it when it walks into the room.”
Walking into the room at this particular moment are the stars of Fox’s Models Inc. — the third leg in Spelling’s thus-far hugely successful 90210 trinity — and each is so awe-inspiringly perfect in form and proportion they might have Plato biting his knuckles and Kant breaking into a cold sweat. Selected from a cattle call of nearly a thousand, these eight unknowns (along with Dallas‘ Linda Gray) make up the most chromosomally gifted cast to slink onto the airwaves since — well, since Spelling’s Melrose Place.
Pardon the heavy breathing, but physical attractiveness is pretty much what Models Inc. is all about. Part Peyton Place, part House of Style, it has been the most heavily hyped show of the summer. So far, though, its ratings have been less than stunning (by its second episode viewership dropped to 10.3 million viewers — 28 percent below what an average Melrose episode drew last season), signaling, perhaps, that Spelling’s magic formula — jaw-droppingly awful acting mixed with so-bad-it’s-good writing — won’t always add up to a prime-time hit.
The plot, such as it is: Gray, 53, plays Hillary Michaels, the barracuda owner of a Hollywood modeling agency (she was introduced on Melrose last season as the estranged mom who pushed Heather Locklear into a life of bitchdom) who runs (and sometimes ruins) the lives of her model tribe. Zipping in and out of designer duds — and frolicking for the cameras at an EW photo shoot in the Hollywood Hills this sunny afternoon in late May — are the show’s less experienced but lither talents, including:
Cassidy Rae as wide-eyed farm girl Sarah; Kylie Travis as Julie, the tough Aussie runway vet with a chip on her shoulder pad; Stephanie Romanov as agency star Teri, who got nudged off a high-rise balcony in the first episode (but returns in flashbacks); Carrie-Anne Moss (no relation to real-life supermodel Kate) as Teri’s big sis, Carrie, the pushing-30 has-been; and Teresa Hill, playing the wimpy Linda, who can’t say no to her mind-controlling boyfriend.
Supplying the testosterone are David Goldsmith as Linda’s bully-boyfriend Eric, a rock & roll wannabe with a permanent 5 o’clock shadow; Cameron Daddo as Brian, the ambitious photographer; and Brian Gaskill as David, Hillary’s nice-guy son. Episode No. 5 will introduce Garcelle Beavais as Cynthia, a black, Princeton-educated model, added to the cast at the last minute to provide racial diversity (and perhaps to atone for Melrose’s first-season dumping of Vanessa Williams, its sole black actor).
”Modeling is very marketable right now,” observes Spelling. ”Twenty years ago about the only model anyone had heard of was Twiggy. But today it’s models, models, models. Calendars of models. Billboards of models. Magazines of models. Look what’s happened to Richard’s wife — what’s her name? — Cindy. She’s all over the damn place. It’s the latest craze.”
To help cash in on that craze, Spelling turned to two of his top Melrose scribes, Charles Pratt Jr. (who wrote Jane’s miscarriage episode) and Frank South (who wrote the episode about Kimberly’s car wreck), to whip up a Models script. ”At first we were nervous about what kinds of stories you could tell with a bunch of incredibly beautiful women,” says Pratt. ”I mean, who gives a damn about the kinds of problems they could have?”
”But then we realized how interesting these people were,” adds South. ”You gotta wonder what their lives are like. Are they a dream? A nightmare? What does that sort of beauty do to you?”
It could make the young lovelies of Models Inc. exceedingly rich, not to mention well-dressed. As the summer’s most oversold new cast, they’ve already cut lucrative side deals. Most have been signed to a $30 million Coca Cola ad campaign spun from the show. Limited Express is attempting a tie-in as well, furnishing jeans and other garb that the younger cast members model in store ads. Other contracts are said to be in the works.
With so much at stake — Fox has ordered 13 episodes, twice its usual number for a new show — Models‘ creators are determined to avoid the plot problems that plagued Melrose in its early, pre-hit episodes. ”At first we tried to make Melrose a slice-of-life drama,” says Pratt. ”We had all these beautiful people in the same apartment building, but nobody was sleeping with each other. It was only after we started making it more episodic, with cliff-hangers and stuff, that the show took off.” Models‘ first two episodes, on the other hand, hit the air packed with plenty of sex and enough soap — blackmail schemes, secret adoptions, crazy ex-boyfriends, pornographic pasts, not to mention murder — to give Proctor & Gamble a run for its money.
So far the reviews have been mixed. ”Superb Garbage,” said the Los Angeles Times in a backhanded gush. ”The fake vomit of junk-food TV,” panned USA Today. Fan response has been varied as well. When Fox’s cyber-savvy vice president of research and marketing, Charles Kennedy, logged onto the Internet to canvass for opinions, he got megabytes. ”IT SUUUUUCKS!!” typed one viewer. ”This show has no meat.” Offered another: ”The models all make Billy the Cheese (Melrose‘s theatrically challenged Andrew Shue) look like a classically trained, award-caliber actor.” A more upbeat assessment: ”I started with the lowest of expectations, but I’m convinced Spelling’s got himself another winner. The program makes me want to somehow become involved in this fantasy industry. Good job, Spelling.”
One thing’s for sure: Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi won’t be tuning in — and a beauty-myth backlash could become one of the series’ biggest hurdles. Models is aimed at the same audience that made Melrose a smash — women, 18 to 34 — not all of whom may share the producers’ fascination with gorgeous amazons in skimpy outfits sashaying down runways. ”It’s difficult for women these days,” acknowledges Gray. ”We find ourselves with this one image of beauty smacking us in the face all the time. It makes us think, ‘My thighs are too big’ or ‘Why don’t I have the sort of body they show in magazines?’ But this show isn’t like that — it’s more about the girls’ jobs.”
The writers seem to understand the beauty-myth problem, too — sort of. ”We don’t want people tuning in just to leer,” insists Pratt. ”We want them to watch for the love stories and the backstabbing and the jealousies and the human fury. If our characters take their clothes off and hop into bed, it’s because they’re in the heat of passion. It’s not just for gratuitous nudity.”
”We aren’t doing any slo-mo scenes of a model in cutoffs and a wet T-shirt running off to solve a crime with her breasts slowly floating up and down in the wind,” agrees South, sounding surprisingly sincere. ”What we’re trying to say is that it doesn’t matter how you look, your problems are the same as everybody else’s.”
For the actresses of Models Inc., the problems haven’t exactly been earth-shattering. ”It’s been intense with all the photo shoots and stuff,” says Hill, a Natalie Wood clone whose biggest previous acting gig was a bit part in Puppet Master 4. ”I find myself looking in the mirror at every little pore and freaking out.”
”It’s sooo tedious,” agrees Romanov, a former Ford model who never acted before. ”If you have a pimple, people are like, What’s this! They get mad at you, like it’s your fault.”
The male cast members have troubles of their own. ”It’s a confusing place to be,” says Goldsmith. ”Everyone is so beautiful. You’re always wondering, ‘Does she wanna go out with me? But then why was her boyfriend on the set three days ago?’ I go home and have to meditate for five hours.”
Back on Mount Spelling, the Uberproducer is still contemplating his doctrine of aesthetics. ”I guess if I looked like Tom Cruise, I wouldn’t be so fascinated with beauty,” he says. ”But I love beautiful people, and I think audiences want to see beautiful people. Television is moving more toward reality-based shows, with people killing their parents and all that jazz. With Models Inc., we can do a show with some glamour.”
As Plato might have put it to his students at the Academy in Athens: Hubba, hubba, hubba.