Academic Models in Hollywood

Posted by on Nov 3, 2020 in Blog, Critic's Area | 0 comments

Do models need a PhD? Some certainly do — especially when it comes to walking the talk, so to speak, in critical studies of fame and fashion. Gaining a practical understanding of the Hollywood industry rather than simply studying the runways can provide deep insights into academic models at large.

As a certified actor from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (Los Angeles) and first South Asian celebrity studies scholar, I critically explore socio-cultural issues in fame while I offer media interviews and modelling to represent visible minority and sexism in the entertainment industry.  My theoretical and practical experience in media led me to launch the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies (CMCS) — a non-profit media organization focused on media commentaries in celebrity culture that I studied during my PhD at Curtin University in Australia. During my post-doctoral research and practice on fame and fashion in US and Canada, I observed a rising interest in critical studies of fame and fashion in Hollywood. In fact, a rare number of academics have also publicly become fashion models, such as Chris Campanioni and Yeila Yavari of Vogue magazine. A prolific number of female academics have particularly started using #phdstyle, #academicfashion or #whatprofessorswear on Instagram. Models are not required to have a PhD, but academics — rather than simply researching models in fame and fashion — are interested in being inclusive of modelling as a representational practice and fight off harassment and repression in racism and sexism as parts of classism  that they aim to solve in Hollywood. However, most academic models — including @cloegoesslwoly @theconstantcloset and @clothing.cooking — do not reveal their full real names while modelling on Instagram.  So, is it possible these academics fear harassment and repressions involved in celebrity culture, and feel challenged to bring actual change beyond their studies?

Celebrity Culture

The need for this change lies in the recent rise of celebrity culture on social media, which has led to an exponential increase in academic work that is not reflected in the wider society. Clearly, there is a voyeuristic desire to critically study or aspire to become a model in Hollywood – there is a much-needed diverse representation required in modelling – but there is still evidence of repression within the practice. And, of course, both models and actors have particularly faced significant harassment in cases that academics study critically, like the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal.

In practice, however, the visibility of Weinstein-like cases and #MeToo at large seems to be lacking in the public sphere. But why? Is the media and public unequipped to address these critical studies, or are institutionalized sexism and racism at fault?  Does this lead to continued repression of models and actors including role models?

Visibility and the Unknown

During my graduate studies and post-doctoral research, I observed that visibility plays a key role in addressing the invisibility of social differences and class-based issues in the media. I’ve experienced these issues first-hand. Despite official registration of CMCS with the government in Canada and well known track record in print, broadcast and online media, a Toronto-based academic CCed me in a sarcastic group email stating unfounded claims of my work being “unknown.”

Yet hundreds of academics continue to voice their thoughts on ethical issues of “knownness,” which are well-researched in the celebrity studies space. In fact, since the founding of CMCS, a number of professors and affiliated PhD students have been inspired to create and run similar networks on fame.

Given my own experience of falsely being accused of being unknown and rendered unrecognised, I had to wonder: Was it the minority of female scholarship, of brown skin, or lack of social class in a corporation that made some people deem certain groups unworthy of visibility and, hence, demands visibility using widely studied representational practices such as modelling?

The Fight for Academic Visibility

 Ryerson University professor, once publicly shamed a number of students in a prejudiced tirade. His rant was ageist, sexist and racist – and I was one of the targeted students.

To this day, I remember when he called me to his office. He proceeded to interrogate me about the Indian languages my parents spoke, and he urged me to switch my academic focus from Hollywood to Bollywood. When I refused, he told me I didn’t deserve the $15,000 provincial grant awarded by the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS) for my master’s degree at York and Ryerson universities.

‘The government made a mistake’, he raged during a second incident of harassment.

Nonetheless, intimidation did little to hinder my practice-based research on fame and fashion.  I proceeded to receive grants valued at $120,000 for my PhD on Hollywood fame and media coverage. Shortly after my PhD, SUN Media’s 24 Hrs news coverage featured my work with Jeremiah Hill Photography, as well as Madonna and Kim Kardarshian, in an interview on Hollywood. This was thanks to journalist Brad Hunter from Postmedia Network, who brought visibility to my research as the first celebrity studies scholar in the Hollywood tabloids.

Still, in my fight for visibility, I found myself continually explaining the need for my representation nearly 80 hours a week behind the computer. Despite all contributions, I had colleagues that intimidated me and broke my trust. The intellectual labour in examining fame and fashion did not allow time and confidence in presenting my modelling photographs and videos. I kept writing about glamour while not illustrating it as a self-reflective practictioner in celebrity culture.

In fear of harassment that I had in the past, I found it was much easier for me to hide behind the computer, as many famous writers do. As I mentioned earlier many academics, particularly female scholars, also hide their names while posing as a model on Instagram.

But why was this the irony? There has been an obvious self-policing and learned behaviour in our inner critics, derived from a larger social condition that sexualizes and consumes models in print, broadcast and online reports. The higher the productivity in publishing these reports in media, the greater is the perpetuation of classism challenging equal access.

What’s missing today is the actual representation of minorities for which the critical studies of fame and fashion are fighting. I realised that if I were to continue studying behind closed doors, I would be responsible for hiding marginalized bodies – including my own – in favour of hidden truths in Hollywood that male and female scholars like me are working on

Becoming an Academic Model in Hollywood

Consider the opinion of 2019 CMCS delegate and adjunct professor Chris Campanioni, who uses his real name and models for men’s magazines in New York City, for instance: Campanioni states he’s always found it crucial to converge both theory and practice – the intellectual and the personal, if you will. “My experience as a model has helped me trouble the binary between the public and private in ways that call attention to the performative body and its hyper mediation — a nexus that has greatly informed my study of migratory texts and post Internet culture,” he says in an e-mail conversation with me on November 9, 2019.

“I don’t actually consider my work in the culture industry as a fundamentally different task than my work on the culture industry,” the City University of New York and Pace University professor explains.

One must also consider who is profiting from such mass print. I agree with the words of academic-turned-Vogue model Dr Leila Yavari, who told Elle magazine, ‘I have a sharply-honed critical eye – one that is hyperaware of the divide between surface and intellect, appearance and truth. And it’s an age-old opposition that always pops up in the most unexpected places’.

Dr Will Visconti, art historian and performance studies scholar affiliated with the University of Sydney and CMCS, further situates modelling in precarious economies of both the fashion and academic industries. “As concerns Leila Yavari’s piece, one of the things that leaps out at me is the economic imperative behind her decision. Fashion is a thriving industry where education, particularly tertiary education, and especially the Humanities, is under constant threat (course and funding cuts, increased casualisation of the workforce, and issues like those around the UCU strikes in Britain are but a few recent and ongoing problems to navigate). There is something to be said for the translation of skills across what may seem like disparate fields – as Yavari points out, a critical eye is a valuable one. In an age of sensationalised news and misinformation, being able to critically engage with what’s going on is all the more pertinent. Fashion and academia also share a sense of precarity, and even the notion of “trends” to an extent in scholarship and theoretical frameworks: whether one is “in” or “out”, and whether one is employed/funded or not are not dissimilar in my opinion,” Dr Visconti asserts in an email to me on November 14, 2019.

Dr Visconti further points out the significance of feminist modelling in studies and practices of fashion and celebrity culture. “The listicle of models seems part of a broader issue, that is, downplaying women’s achievements, particularly in Hollywood or when looking at celebrities. Consider the treatment of Mayim Bialik during Q&A sessions about the “Big Bang Theory” and the realisation that she holds a PhD in neuroscience. Another thing worth noting is where the models have studied degrees in fields that are not known for high enrolments of women (engineering, tech etc). The initiatives undertaken by women like Karlie Kloss are echoed in projects underway around the world such as programs to teach coding to secondary students, and address the gender imbalance in various subjects.

Some of the women mentioned have, however, been able to meld their celebrity status with work that is a more obvious fit with their academic backgrounds – Lily Cole’s documentary shows about art history, for instance,” asserts Dr Visconti.

As Dr Yavari further states in her academic stardom, ‘There are issues of women’s bodies, class discrepancies, alienation of labor, the ideology of the luxury system – but that is precisely the point. Rather than engaging this rich terrain and its many implications, we dismiss it all as shallow appearance. It is worth noting, a liberal arts department will break new ground with a porn studies department…but still scoffs at the possibility of devoting a single class to the study of something as frivolous as fashion’.

Similarly, in my interview with Hollywood and Bollywood film actor Dr Kabir Bedi, I found that the star’s advocacy for fashion activism – as seen in the Fashion Revolution – is what journalism schools need when training tabloid reporters. This, of course, only became clear after engaging in candid public discussion.

I must confess: I am not a tall, fair, skinny, blonde model like most of the women victimized by Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men in Hollywood. However, I am the most comfortable in eco-friendly, cruelty-free makeup and fashion on IMDB, Instagram, and other media. And so, I finally shared my short feminist fashion film on Twitter – a platform that can be quite patriarchal, as Feminism in India magazine pointed out on the sexism in my family.

Put simply, I committed to voicing my beliefs and findings publicly. And now, I will pose one final question: Is a steep investment needed to be an academic model in Hollywood discourses? As an independent scholar and model represented by Los Angeles-based LoveLight Model Agency (http://www.lovelightmodels.com/models/samita_n.html), I have dedicated half of the assets in my will to grassroots animal activist Dr Anita Krajnc, an academic star, whose role in the Save Movement was recently featured alongside Joaquin Phoenix in a number of Hollywood news outlets.

To this end, money is not so much the issue as having the confidence needed to represent oneself without fearing loss of job, family or friends, who – as noted in Brown Girl magazine – may leisurely consume the work of film stars supporting #MeToo while bearing some responsibility for the abuse leading up to the movement.

In fighting patriarchy and giving a unique voice, what sustainable styles can academic models use in performing diverse representations, especially when capitalist industries increase demand of labour in the practice and understandings of unachievable ideals of standardised glamour? Dr Visconti offers a unique example of how La Goulue performance rewrote life narratives in a way that challenged patriarchal barriers and made her narrative identity stand out in the media. “As concerns performance and biographical elements, one of the things to point out with specific reference to La Goulue is how she has been explicitly identified and reclaimed as a feminist. Sometimes this takes the form of being called a feminist “avant l’heure”, positioning her as part of a kind of avant-garde. Some performances have constructed narratives where she is known to feminist figures of the period like Louise Michel. This is not without precedent during her lifetime, with a reference in the feminist newspaper La Fronde linking La Goulue to their cause, contrasted with derisory newspaper articles elsewhere aligning her transgressive behaviour with a “victory” for feminism. In this instance, both La Goulue and feminism were treated as unseemly or as jokes, whereas contemporary representations draw humour from other aspects of her story.”

In contemporary performance, however, her mythicised decline is still the central focus, so even where she is portrayed as empowered during her life or the peak of her celebrity, La Goulue nevertheless ends up disenfranchised and impoverished (with most representations emphasising her death in penury). Her story has, however, been taken on for retelling as one about a woman who lived life on her own terms in several productions about her that have appeared since the turn of the 21st century.”

The significance of rare and bold models, representing hidden voices, continues to rise with specific living examples of changes. Both female and male academics may well help restore the presence of role models in the current political and environmental climates that do not represent modern ideals of beauty and political role models. In exclusionary practices, these tend to include access to luxury, exotic pleasures and feminism. Either way, practice-based research needs to empower female models, particularly female academics, to voice the silencing that continues to occur in the post-Weinstein era in Hollywood.

Being an academic model in Hollywood can particularly reinforce a well-informed and confident ‘voice’, which I will bring to life in feminist shorts using generic styles of fashion films under the banner of Samita Nandy Productions. The process and essence of giving a voice to critical issues can be found in Becoming Media Critics and Ethical Glamour and Fashion: Styling & Branding the Persona released by WaterHill Publishing in 2020.  For more information, visit samitanandy.com or my IG @samitanandyofficial

References

https://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/a14500/i-chose-a-career-in-fashion-over-getting-my-phd/

https://www.vogue.com.au/fashion/news/model-student-models-who-also-have-degrees/image-gallery/2d71341a96c75b3bbd8c5757020776ee

Bio

Dr Samita Nandy is an author and trained actor from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She holds a Doctorate in celebrity culture from the Department of Media & Information at Curtin University, Australia and is a certified broadcast journalist from Canada. With awards valued at $140,000, her research particularly specializes in fame, history of stardom, and celebrity activism. As the Director of Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies (CMCS) and author of Fame in Hollywood North, Becoming Media Critics, and Ethical Glamour and Fashion: Styling Persona Brands. (TBA). Dr Nandy is the first celebrity studies scholar to be in tabloid and has been publicized for making celebrity studies available to the public in media, including The Telegraph (UK), Globe and Mail, CBC, VICE, Flare, Chatelaine, SUN Media, 24 Hrs news Yahoo! Entertainment and more. A pioneer in the field of celebrity studies, Dr Nandy directed her documentary Frame by Frame and has been mentioned in Persona Studies and published in Celebrity Studies as well as many book chapters. For more info,
contact info@cmc-centre.com URL: www.samitanandy.com @famecritic IMDB: imdb.me/samitanandy Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samita_Nandy


More coming up in Stage 32 featured in Hollywood Reporter, Variety and more. Latest Interview with international actor and Oscar-voting member Kabir Bedi:
https://medium.com/@cmcs/from-journalism-to-fashion-activism-refashioning-stories-for-social-change-dfc41aa6239c

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