Constantine Valhouli is the director of Curve, a pioneering documentary film about plus-size models and the industry that they represent. We spoke with Mr. Valhouli about his fascinating project, and questioned him about some of the most hotly-debated issues facing the industry today. Mr. Valhouli’s answers were very candid and illuminating, and will undoubtedly surprise many readers.
HSG: What gave you the idea of shooting a film about plus-size models?
CV: I have to credit an eight-year-old girl for this one. An eight-year-old friend of the family was actually complaining that she was really heavy. The girl was about…she looked like a spoon, I mean, just a big head, a little body. It was scary—this girl was eight years old, and already had body image issues. She’s very articulate—a very smart girl—so we asked why, why do you feel that way? And she said, “I don’t think I live up to the images I see in the magazines.”
HSG: She actually said that?
CV: Yes. And I even told her, “Well, of course you don’t! You’re four-and-a-half feet tall!” Well, that was Thanksgiving, and her comment became the topic of discussion for the rest of the evening. And then, of course, being a Greek family, we couldn’t help but throw in a Greek perspective, which is that there is no single ideal of feminine beauty. You don’t see a size-two statue of a Greek goddess. Even Artemis, the 13- or 15-year old goddess of the hunt, the virginal goddess of the hunt, even she wasn’t portrayed that way.
HSG: It’s disturbing that a girl that young can already feel that way. But it really testifies to the power that the mainstream media and its androgynous standard of beauty has over women of all ages. How long did it take to shoot the footage that you have collected for this film?
CV: We actually shot from last April to this afternoon.
HSG: So when you say that it’s a “work in progress,” you’re not kidding.
CV: We’ve released a few copies, and held a press screening, but we want to refine it to make it the strongest story and presentation it can be. We’ve had a great reaction from audiences and the press, but there has been a surprising backlash against the film from some media outlets.
HSG: Really? I am totally unaware of this.
CV: Some studio executives and exhibitors have told us that there’s no story in plus-size modelling, that no one wants to watch this, and that it will never get on television. And that was before they saw the film itself. Someone else who did see the film told us that it was unwatchable.
HSG: Unwatchable? And here I couldn’t take my eyes off it. But really, what other reaction could there be? Just as there is such entrenched resistance to full-figured beauty itself, it is inevitable that there should be a comparable amount of resistance to a film that celebrates it.
CV: I couldn’t agree with you more. When I heard that woman’s reaction—the one who told us that the film was unwatchable—I was a little bummed out, but I actually kept thinking, the more I talked to her, I realized that she had a problem with the content. She, personally, had issues with the content.
HSG: That doesn’t surprise me at all. I expect that most people’s reactions to Curve will be predicated on their attitudes towards classical femininity itself. How much footage did you shoot and then compress into the film?
CV: We shot a hundred hours of footage. We actually have enough for a TV series. There was so much that was painful to cut out—some of the most articulate interviews…but we are constrained by the 52-minute TV hour. We hope Curve will act as a primer, to touch on the key issues of the industry and give audiencs a better sense of the models. How can you compress the whole concept of how body types go in and out of fashion into a one-hour segment?
HSG: And still produce an entertaining film—which Curve certainly is. The first thing that I expect most plus-size model aficionados will ask is, “Why are models like Barbara Brickner and Shannon Marie and Kate Dillon missing?” In particular, where are the Wilhelmina girls?
CV: We regret that the Wilhelmina agency chose not to participate in this project at the time the model interviews were being filmed.
HSG: Why did you opt to focus on more in-depth profiles of a few girls rather that shorter profiles with many?
CV: It was partially the vagaries of the filmmaking process. I would have loved to be able to use more models, but the in-depth interviews made for a better story. Our first cut of the film actually had a myriad of models. It was great to look at, but it was visually confusing. You didn’t really get a chance to really empathize with one or two. They almost became interchangeable. I think the human story—their distinct experiences—is what’s so interesting. And we just ended up choosing the models who came across as the most articulate on film, those who represented some of the different views on the industry.
HSG: Katy Hansz certainly comes across as a good spokesmodel. She is such a dynamic personality. If you could plug into her energy, you could power Lower Manhattan.
CV: We’re going to see her perform her music tonight at an open mike event. She’s a very talented performer. Everyone we met is really inspiring, and I would love to be able to revisit the topic through sequels, and spend time with different girls. There’s such a range of stories. I hope that we captured some of that.
HSG: What surprised me most, though, was a contradiction that I discovered in the models’ views of themselves. Even Katy mentioned how there is a perception that plus-size models are more “humble” than straight-size models. Is this true? And if so, did you ever meet any girls who actually do think of themselves as goddesses, as unequivocally gorgeous?
CV: Actually, I would say that every single one of the girls does. But, the fact is that their body type, the plus-size body type, is still not generally accepted, not to the same degree that a straight-size model is. As a result, the women aren’t as revered.
There’s a saying in Greek, “The awkwardest foals makes the handsomest stallions.” I think it’s partially the fact that these women have come into their own by overcoming prejudice, by overcoming the popular opinion, which has made them not just these gorgeous women, but built a strength of character that’s there.
HSG: That’s true. And yet, they still live with some conflicts. Tami Fitzhugh, for example, says that women should free themselves of their body issues, and specifically exhorts women not to worry about things like the size of their arms. But then, just a little later in the film, when you ask her a really interesting question (“Would you prefer to be a size two?”), she says no, but admits that she would like to have thinner arms. Which attitude is closer to their true feelings—the confidence, or the self-consciousness?
CV: Well, I think there is definitely a certain ambivalence, and that’s one of the themes that comes across. We did not want to do a puff piece. We wanted to raise questions. We wanted to be provocative. We wanted to show the audience, the people watching it, that even the women who are considered the most beautiful, even they’ve got bad days, even they’ve got self-doubt. And hopefully, people will be able to infer from that, “Hey, wait a second, everyone has these questions, everyone has those days.”
HSG: That ambivalence.
CV: I think Deepak Chopra said it best. He writes these books on perfect health, perfect fitness, and he once showed up at an interview sniffling, obviously with a cold. And someone called him on it. “But you write these books!” And he said, “Well, this isn’t what I have, it’s what I strive towards.” Either that’s the most honest response, or he’s gearing up for a career in politics with that sort of equivocation.
HSG: Indeed. A comment that one of the models makes might give some viewers pause—when Tomi talks about the “counterculture of Jabba the Hutts running around America” with which she once associated herself, before she began modelling. Do some of the models feel that their size should be accepted, but larger sizes (what they deem a “Jabba the Hut”) are unacceptable? In other words, have they realigned the prejudice to accept themselves, but still carry the same prejudice towards yet-larger women that, say, a size-two woman might feel towards them?
CV: The way I read that comment, the way I interpreted it, was just…Emme at one point in the film talks about how straight-size models try to gain weight to get into plus size, and how it doesn’t work, because of body frame and proportion. When we pitched the film, everyone kept saying, “Oh my god, you’re doing a movie on fat girls? Fat girls don’t sell.” I think everyone just lumped it into one category, like, above a size eight, you’re just fat. You’re not sexy. And I read Tomi’s comment as a reaction against that attitude.
HSG: That ties in with Emme’s statement about the difficulties that she has getting parts in Hollywood because she is too attractive to fit into roles written for larger actresses.
CV: And to be perfectly blunt, there is a stereotype of “the fat girl.” It’s out there, it’s written into film, written into TV shows. And I read her comment as a rebellion against that.
HSG: Do you think there is an unwillingness in the media to show full-figured women in sexy, seductive ways?
CV: I would say it is changing. Glamour magazine this month has a phenomenal spread of Mia Tyler in a bikini. It’s a daring shot. It’s not something you see ordinarily—a size-16 [sic] girl in a bikini on a beach. It’s a phenomenally sexy picture.
HSG: That image won tremendous praise on the forum.
CV: We just interviewed the editor of Glamour on that. That’ll be in the next cut of the film. However, some of the photographers have refused to work with plus-size girls. They think it might dilute their portfolio. You can quote me on that directly. We’ve come across some actually who love it, and they’re very adventurous, they’re more on the cutting edge. They’ve never worked with a plus-size girl, they think, “Wait a second. This could be really interesting. It could definitely broaden my horizons.” Other people simply say, “I’m going to be stereotyped.” I’ve talked to a very talented designer friend of mine who is in school, and she had a chance to be in the CurveStyle show. Her professor has told her not to. I quote this exactly: “She’s going to be stigmatized as a plus designer and she would never get out of it.” I think it exists on many levels, from editors to even the professors. It’s playing of that Jabba-the-Hutt mentality.
HSG: One question that many of the personalities in Curve address is, why do so few designers carry their styles in larger sizes? Of the many different answers that were offered to this question, which do you think comes closest to the truth?
CV: I think Simon Doonan said it best. The industry—“It should be spanked.” To me, it seems like very basic business. There’s an audience—serve it.
HSG: But Mr. Doonan also says that fashion is “not a very commercially-minded enterprise.” Which begs the question, what do you think the prime motivation is, if it’s not commercialism?
CV: I would actually say it’s more for people’s personal vanity. I look at some people who acquire—I’m just drawing a parallel for a second—people who acquire, say, a makeup company, or they acquire a modelling agency, or a film company, often times it’s not out of their love of the product, or a desire to help make people think (as in the case of the movie company), or feel better or look better (as in the case of the makeup company). They want to hang out with a certain crowd of people, project a certain image. And they use that company as a vehicle for that. It’s purely vanity and status. If these companies were being run with the bottom line in mind (no pun intended), you would expect them to realize, “We have an underserved market with huge growth potential, why not do it?” But I think, actually, one of the reasons why it’s not being done, a lot of the manufacturers don’t know how to do it, or they’ve done it half-assed. They’ve put a foot in the water, and had a bad reaction. Some of the designers we work with now in the movie, they go to factories, and say, “Oh, we’re not going to cut a whole new pattern, we’ll just expand the other ones.” And the girls are saying, “No, that’s the problem.” That’s why all the t-shirts look like tents, instead of being form fitting. You want a baby tee to be a baby tee, but in a larger size. And they just don’t get this. And that, to me, underlies the whole problem of why the market has not caught on more.
HSG: Frances Grill offers another answer, which is quite hilarious. She euphemistically says that it’s because most fashion designers are thin and gay, and that they fantasize themselves in the clothes that they design. But Richard Metzger is one of the greatest size-celebration advocates, and he defines himself (as the title card in your film states) as a “big snooty queer.”
CV: In the outtakes coming up, he actually says that outright: “Put it this way, ‘Big Snooty Queer.’ I want that on there.”
HSG: But that brings up an important point. There is definitely a perception among many people, rightly or wrongly, that the reason why there is this dominant, anti-feminine aesthetic in the fashion industry is because most designers are gay men, and they like to see their clothes on models who have boyish figures. So why is Metzger an exception to this?
CV: There actually is an amazing contradiction there. Richard was telling me, the gay men and the big girls have always been friends. And he said, something about not being accepted in their traditional roles, it draws the two groups together. I can see the logic in that. I don’t think we can all draw it into a single group, and say, all gay men think one way, any more than all straight men prefer straight-size models or plus-size models. I think there exists even among gay men perhaps a variety of archetypes. To put it into the shortest possible sound bite, rather than trying to find a woman who looks like a fifteen-year-old boy, just go for the fifteen year old boy.
HSG: [Laughter] Which would result in a parade of fifteen-year-old drag queens on the world’s catwalks. I thought the perspective offered by the Maxim editor whom you interview in the film is rather interesting. He says that men, heterosexual men, wish to see the opposite of themselves in their objects of desire. They want to see women who have a body type unlike their own. And for a moment, one thinks, “At last, this is the entry of the heterosexual male into the fashion world,” until you realize that he is editing Maxim, which is more interested in undressing the girls than dressing them up.
CV: You have to use that phrase in your review. I think it’s beautiful.
HSG: I keep toying with the idea of writing a piece for the Judgment of Paris forum called, “Redeeming the Heterosexual Aesthetic.” In the new issue of Grace, everyone has praised the Natalie Laughlin picture, especially the male contributors to the forum. And she’s definitely not faux-plus at all.
CV: I can’t remember if it’s still in the film or on the cutting-room floor and coming in the next version, but one of the models said, “Women don’t compete for men’s attention, they compete with women.”
HSG: I think she’s on to something.
CV: It sounds like one of the more enlightening points. And you know what? Even if men all say that they like a woman with more curve to her, women will still compete with women, and that’s one of the arenas in which they compete.
HSG: To change the topic a little, one of the models talks about the camaraderie that there is among plus-size models. Do you think that this really exists, or is it just good P.R.?
CV: I’ve been living among the models for a year now, and yes, it’s true. Every time we get together for a casting call for CurveStyle, or an open call, or shoot, or go-see, it really is like a big, “Oh my god, I haven’t seen you in months, how have you been doing, congratulations, I saw you in this magazine, great job on that.” I think they realize that any time one of the girls breaks into a new market, it opens it for everyone. The girls really have a sense of themselves as pioneers.
HSG: The central question that I have always posed on the Timeless Beauty page is, “Why does the media resist plus-size beauty?” And Jennifer, the Click model, she offered an answer to your “Would you like to be a size two?” question that I thought suggested one reason. She said no, she wouldn’t like to be a size two, because she is not in favour of the “fragile look,” and she likes thinking of herself as “sturdy.” In other words, she accepts her size not because she loves her femininity, her feminine curves, but rather for a reason that would be acceptable to feminism. Do you think that the media resistance is due to the influence of feminism on popular culture? Because certainly, traditional views of feminine beauty, favouring fuller-figured women, were dominant in eras when a traditional interpretation of femininity held sway—something that is now very much out of favour.
CV: This is just my opinion, based on a very amateur observation. As women have entered the workforce, there has been a bit of a masculinization. If you look at the clothes, that is, the work-based clothes as opposed to the social clothes, it is based on the man’s suit. And I must say, the man’s suit is designed to flatter a certain body type. You almost see a woman force herself into a certain body type to look best in that suit, that style.
Curves read differently to different people. Some might see it as a sign of, say, sensuality and classical beauty, someone else might see it as more of a case of submission. If you go to the Middle East, weight is a sign of affluence, whereas here, in the popular perception, it’s poverty. The cultural read on it is so different. Each one is valid, maybe, in its own culture.
HSG: Do you think fashion reflects the culture in which we live, or is it more intent on shaping that culture? Is it keen on social engineering?
CV: I would love to say yes on that, but having observed the difficulties in launching a line and hoping that it really reaches an audience, I would say that most people are just concerned with the very, very basic. I think the industry is still so fledgling. Most designers and photographers and editors are just concerned about getting the product out into the hands of consumers. I don’t think the larger is being addressed yet. I can see down the road where clothing influences culture more. But for now I would probably say it’s more the opposite.
Emme was saying that you need the clothes to have the life you want. How can you feel ready for a job if you have the education and the enthusiasm for it, but if you’re not dressed at the level your peers are? Or if you want to go out, and feel sexy inside, your clothing must reflect how you feel. You can’t expect a sixteen year old to dress like a forty year old.
HSG: Very true. What’s next for Curve?
CV: We are off to the Newport Film Festival the first week of June, the 4th to 9th. We’re also going to be screening it at the Anthology Film Archives, which is where The Blair Witch Project premiered, one of the premier art-house theatres in New York, in October. And in the meantime, anyone can buy a copy at the Web site if they can’t wait for the screening in the theatre.
HSG: And they certainly should. Thanks for your time. It’s been a great interview, and best of luck with the film.
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