by Susan Chenelle
Originally published in the Fall 2003 issue of Bitch.
Among the small handful of New York Times articles covering Africa on any given day, on April 22, 2003, international editors found this gem to be newsworthy: “In Remotest Kenya, a Supermodel Is Hard to Find.” As Marc Lacey reported, Elite Model Management scout Lyndsey McIntyre “had visions of the supermodels Iman and Alek Wek in her head when she arrived in this remote village near the Somalia border, where she had heard the girls were tall, slim and striking.” The object of her safari was “a new African supermodel with a breathtaking new look[,] a slinky figure [and] straight white teeth.”
This was no easy task. McIntyre, whom the article describes as a 37-year-old British blond, had the highest of standards to meet: ”If I’m going to pull someone out of the bush, she has to be the type who when she walks into a room people’s jaws hit the floor.” However, she faced not only aesthetic challenges (lazy eyes, girls “tall but far too plump for the runway”), but the locals’ wariness. In the predominantly Muslim area McIntyre was visiting, parents worried that their daughters’ images would be used to sell alcohol and tobacco. Others “believe that photographs steal their souls or take years off their lives.” If they only knew.
While Lacey doesn’t completely condone the worldview that motivates McIntyre, he never hints that this “opportunity of a lifetime” might be anything but glamorous or liberating. Rather, he assumes a supposedly objective perspective from which he can pit the absurdity of the supermodel search against the backwardness of the local culture in an amusing “The Gods Must Be Crazy” culture-clash anecdote that makes all of its subjects look fairly ridiculous. He thereby misses what might actually be a worthwhile story and an illuminating discussion of race, sex, and international cultural politics. Instead he invites the reader to join him in his “above-it-all” position from which they both can shake their heads condescendingly at the article’s subjects, without implicating themselves in any part of the political and cultural dynamic portrayed, nor admitting the sexism and racism that informs their own assumption of superiority.