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Originally published Monday, August 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Teen rises above fashion world's ugly side

Gerren Taylor was still playing with Barbie dolls when she walked the runway for the first time at Los Angeles Fashion Week in 2003. Just 12 at the...

Los Angeles Times

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Learn more about the film "America the Beautiful":

www.americathebeautifuldoc.com

Gerren Taylor was still playing with Barbie dolls when she walked the runway for the first time at Los Angeles Fashion Week in 2003. Just 12 at the time, she was the youngest person ever to be represented by the runway division of L.A. Models. Although most agencies require girls to be 14, it's not unheard of for 12-year-olds to get work. Actress Milla Jovovich made the cover of the Italian fashion magazine Lei at 12, and Brooke Shields, Gisele Bundchen and Kate Moss were stars before they turned 16.

With her long legs and confident walk, Taylor looked as though she would follow in their footsteps. Then, during Richard Tyler's show, the last one of the week that April, she stepped onto the runway in a wedding gown and stumbled hard. She tripped once, then again on the train that was in front of her, because the dress was accidentally put on backward. When her eyes welled up with tears, even the most hardened fashionistas wanted to give her a hug.

I wrote about that moment, the one that made Taylor a novelty — the 12-year-old, plucked from the crowd on an L.A. street corner, who tripped on the high-fashion runway. It made for a good story. Other people thought so too. Oprah Winfrey came calling, and designers lined up to book her.

That September, she went to New York to see if she could make it on the world stage, and walked in the Tommy Hilfiger, Betsey Johnson and Tracy Reese shows. Hilfiger even paid to have her teeth fixed, telling Taylor she was going to be a top model. Making enough money for college seemed a sure bet after she became the first African American in a Marc Jacobs ad campaign. "We're all expecting her to be a big star," Jacobs said.

Then she disappeared. A year later, Taylor didn't book a single runway job. The advertising work dried up too, and so did the magazine editorials. She went to Europe to try her luck at the fashion weeks there but was told by booking agents in Paris that 38-inch hips on a pole-thin 6-foot frame made her too big to model. (They wanted her to diet down to 35 inches.) In less than two years, her career had come to a halt.

That's where the story ends for most. Fashion designers and editors move on to the next girl and the next. It's just the way of an industry built on selling a fantasy that depends on novelty and impossible ideals. Women try to intellectualize the constant stream of airbrushed images, skinny models and too-expensive products, but the allure is too strong. So we go on searching for some notion of beauty that is always just out of reach. And we don't think much about what happened to last year's model.

Except with Taylor, documentary filmmaker Darryl Roberts was there to pick up where the industry left off.

His film "America the Beautiful," (in limited release and which screenened in Seattle in early August), follows the arc of her brief career, trying to understand why we are obsessed with physical beauty. We see Taylor and her mom, Michele Gerren, struggling to navigate the sexualized world of fashion, while arguing about whether it's too soon for the young model to start wearing a bra. We hear from Taylor's school principal, who says with prescience, "How can you comprehend at 12 or 13 that you're going to be discarded?"

Then, in 2005, when Taylor returns from Europe humiliated, we watch her hit rock bottom. Agonizing over the flaws she perceives in her pancake flat stomach, her flawless face looks straight into the camera and she says, "I'm ugly."

She had written herself off at 15.

Today, Taylor is about to start her senior year of high school in Santa Monica, Calif., where she's a volleyball star. She never did make enough money for college, but she's applying anyway, to study psychology. Some kids would have gone to therapy to cope, but Taylor went to church and found support from peers who had the same issues with their bodies, even as they had envied hers in teen magazines.

"It was going so well. Then when it stopped I didn't know what I had done wrong," she said over a recent lunch, her Yorkie, Arlington, sleeping at her feet. "I was always so nice to people; I never turned my back on people."

Of course, she knows now that success in fashion has nothing to do with being nice.

Taylor is still stunningly beautiful, with perfect skin and legs so long, they stick out from the other side of the table. She is wearing jeans that are a little short, even with the bottom seams ripped out, a tank top, sheer shirt and ballet flats. Her mom is close by, as she always was, making sure Taylor wasn't wearing anything too revealing on the runway or risking a future paycheck by saying on camera that she doesn't like soy milk.

"Sometimes I felt uncomfortable," Taylor remembers. "But I didn't think there was anything I could do. I was scared to say I didn't want to wear something, to be that girl who had an attitude or didn't cooperate. I liked having my mom there so she could say it."

It's difficult to know why Taylor's career ended so soon — if she got lost in the politics of moving from one agency to another, or whether at 6 feet and a size 4 after she grew into her teenage body, she was too big for industry standards.

"That started in New York, calling her obese at a size 4," says her mother, an amateur model herself at age 19.

"Having that be a rumor was hard," the teenager says. "I thought I needed to diet. ... I was doing all this to make my mom proud, to make money, and all of a sudden it stopped. I would just eat salad. I didn't want to go to the beach because of my stretch marks."

Three years later, it's as though one slight happened just last week — that moment in Paris, caught on film, when a modeling agent asks Taylor if she has gained weight since her pictures were taken. "Tell me if you want me or not!" Taylor says. Her voice gets louder. "Don't ask questions, criticize me, say things that are hypocritical and look at me as if you are totally satisfied with the way you look. I'm human; you're human!"

She hasn't fully regained her self-esteem. Then again, she is an 18-year-old woman in a looks-obsessed world. "At school, at lunchtime I'm in the bathroom holding girls' hair while they throw up. My friend's dad took her for a consultation with a plastic surgeon to get rid of her love handles."

At 140 pounds, Gerren is thinner than most. (The average American woman is 140 pounds and 5-foot-4; that weight looks a lot different when you're 8 inches taller.) Now, she worries about being curvy enough for boys to notice her. "Nobody is satisfied," she says. "I had a model friend who was too small. Pants were always way too big for her."

She says she has no regrets, because she has a story to tell. And the film has become its own kind of opportunity. Taylor and her mom have traveled with Roberts to promote it. At the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa, Taylor participated in a seminar for teen girls about self-esteem. She also modeled in a runway show.

Which brings us back to the fashion fantasy, and whether she could fall into it again.

"I don't think there is anything wrong with modeling," she says. (Taylor is still represented by Elite L.A.) "There is Seventeen and Teen Vogue; those are fun. They have teachers on-set."

At the same time, she dreams of starting a denim line for women of all shapes and sizes, and a self-esteem camp for girls, similar to the one run by Tyra Banks.

Taylor — like most women — wants to rise above the fantasy, even as she keeps it alive.

"I still haven't given it up for good," she says. "It's still fun for me. But if I ever do another runway show, I'm going to be walking for the empowerment of women, not just walking on a stage."

And somehow, I believe her.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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