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Following a young beauty down a short runway

by Roger Ebert

A man from Chicago named Darryl Roberts made "America the Beautiful," a documentary that nobody wanted. It was about our obsession with being thin and beautiful and... perfect. Every distributor in the country turned him down. They told him he was black, and the 12-year-old fashion model at the center of the film was black, and blacks don't go to documentaries. He finally talked it into the American Film Institute's festival in Dallas, where it sold out four shows, "and 99 percent of the audience was white. Not that it means anything."

He had more luck on the festival circuit, and then landed a booking at the Landmark Century in Chicago. It ran for four weeks, three of those the top-grossing film in the 'plex, and on that basis was picked up by First Independent Pictures in partnership with Larry Gleason, former president of Paramount exhibition, and now it re-opens in Chicago at ICE Theaters, 87th and the Dan Ryan, on Friday June 20th, and will open in New York on Aug. 1, Los Angeles on Aug. 22, and then 50 more cities.

That makes me happy. This is a film that deserves to be seen. I said in my review: "It's about a culture 'saturated with the perfect,' in which women are taught to seek an impossible physical ideal, and men to worship it. It opens with shots of a pretty girl named Gerren Taylor, who looks terrific in the skimpiest of bikinis and draws admiration at a topless pool party, although she keeps her top on. Gerren is 12."

Yes, 12. Roberts was already well into filming his doc when he attended the first Fashion Week held in Los Angeles. "This girl comes out on the runway," he remembers, "and I didn’t think anything of it; I just saw some 20-something year-old girl and the guy next to me goes, 'I wanna take her home tonight.' But a lady said, 'Well, you better be really careful, because she’s only 12 years old.' And everybody that heard her say that was like, oh my God!

"I went into disbelief. I met her mother; at this time I'd been shooting for about four months. Her mother felt differently, but I felt the industry was sexualizing a 12-year-old child. I said I wanted to follow them around to see where this ended up going. Her mother agreed to let me go."

So Gerren, a quiet girl with a "model's walk," became Roberts' subject as she became a superstar for a year. Magazine covers, the works. "There’s a law in New York," he said, "that you can’t work there unless you’re 14; no model should be on that runway unless they’re 14 years old. All of them bent the rules. Gerren brought publicity to their shows. She didn’t realize she was a gimmick."

By 13, after failing in Europe (she was "too wide" for Milan), her career was over. The movie explains why, and contains startling facts about the physical requirements for models; designers like them the skinnier the better, because the fabric for their costumes is so expensive.

"When she was 10 or 11," Roberts told me, "she was called 'giraffe' and 'stick' and 'beanpole' and she felt very unattractive. Somebody told her she could model; she got on the runway and everybody was telling her she was beautiful. But once that was taken away from her, she went right back to how she felt. The gimmick was being 12. And when she was 13 and 14 and the press wasn’t paying attention to her anymore, the designers had no need for her and they threw her away."

Gerren survived. She and her mother now live in Los Angeles, where she's 18, a senior in high school, and appearing on a BET reality show. "So she has aspirations of becoming a movie star," Roberts said, "which could end up just like the modeling thing. It all depends."

Roberts is in his mid-40s, stands an imposing 6-4, is soft-spoken, is a former party promoter, an entertainment reporter for WMAQ, the Chicago NBC station, directed an earlier film ("How You Like Me Now?"), has shot commercials. Now he finds himself and his film famous among those who are concerned about bulimia, anorexia, and the obsession with perfection. His film contains as astonishing statement: "Three minutes of looking at a fashion magazine makes 90 percent of women of all ages feel depressed, guilty and shameful."

"America the Beautiful" is about a lot more than Gerren Taylor. He interviews fashion magazine editors, deconstructs the retouching that went into the famous Dove soap ads about "average" women, explains how most fashion models make hardly any money and are "housed" six to a one-bedroom apartment, and argues: "The advertising and beauty industries are on a full-tilt assault against our self-esteem; they want to make us feel bad about ourselves so that we’ll buy their products."

I said he was soft-spoken. Yes, but his voice became a little more urgent as he said: "We have to learn to love ourselves just the way we are, just the way we look. We have to do it as a means of survival. Because if we don’t, eating disorders are going to get worse. The more they win, the more we suffer. I know I’m on the right track. My principle is that every human being alive has something unique about them. They’re beautiful."

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