Just before Christmas, while most of you were buying bath sets for your Gran, I was in Shanghai. I’ve never been to China before and given the brevity of my trip - 72 hours or so - will probably need a refresher at some stage, but no matter. The real reason I was in China was to observer the Elite Model Look Competition 2012.
Backstage with (from L-R) Canada, Australia, Indonesia, USA, Mozambique and Lithuania
The EML is an annual model competition to find Elite's face of 2012. It's a bit like America's Next Top Model except IRL, with an emphasis on finding international faces. Elite have a real knack for this and tend to predict model 'trends' for the forthcoming seasons. Next season, I was told, is all about central Europe. This also explains why, in 1994, they saw sufficient potential in a then 14-year-old Brazilian girl called Gisele who they found eating a Filet-O-Fish in a branch of McDonalds. I’ve idea what happened to her, though.
Lined up backstage before a practice catwalk. Romania is at the centre.
The competition works like this: having picked 62 winners from around the world, the judges whittle these finalists down to 15 and then a top three. Elite refer to this as a 'two-week bootcamp' in which they teach the girls, from 14-22, how to walk, talk, stand, smile and eat well. This is quite a feat when you think it's taken me 29 years to do all of the above and I still can't do four of those. At this stage, I should probably point out that I was also a judge. I’m glad I didn’t know this until a few hours before because truth be told, the whole process got a bit Sophie’s Choice. Still it turns out I had real foresight as I picked three of the final four. Go me.
My judging pass.
The days were pretty long and hard, a conscious decision by Elite as it had the dual effect of separating the wheat from the chaff. As I blissed out in the hotel's spa, just looking at the girls coming back from a day of training knackered me out. But there were no complaints. I'd like to say this was all down to their high-energy diet - in between rehearsals, there was a lot of chatter about liquorice tea and fish oil from well-meaning experts - but lunch tended to involve Nutella, paninis and pasta, so who knows.
Cheese pasta and a ham panini - lunch backstage before the dress rehearsal
I garnered a lot from being backstage. Mainly, that learning to walk poses the biggest challenge as many of the girls had never even worn heels before. I saw a lot of plasters exchange hands. Modelling, guys, is hard. Still, looking below, you could have fooled me.
Learning to walk. L-R: Canada, India, UK, Zimbabwe and Switzerland
The real highlight, of course, was meeting the models themselves. Judging from my experience as a teenager, I was expecting a lot of catfights and bitching. There were none, although I did witness a pretty savage food fight backstage involving some macaroni cheese and some empty water bottles moments after this picture was taken.
Pre food-fight, backstage. L-R: Italy, Moldova, Canada, Indonesia and Denmark
Like a bad parent, I also had favourites. Fadzai from Zimbabwe was all about the banter and Lauren from Australia laughed at my jokes. But Carson from the U.S. was my number one because a. she took the longest to walk in heels and managed to not fall over on the final show, and b. like me, she is a Belieber..
USA and Canada at the hotel before bedtime
Seriously, zero bitching.
Belgium and Holland after their second walk
Sadly, neither Carson nor Lauren made the top three which was a shame, until you saw the top three at which point it made sense that there was, in fact, a top four. Marilhea from France, second left, won. And rightly so. The only thing wrong with her was the way she pronounced 'you' (as 'yer').
The winners. L-R Romania, France, Switzerland and Chile.
The other news is that I did squeeze in a bit of sightseeing. While waiting for the organisers to de-polish the catwalk (oh the drama, seriously. Read more about this in the current issue of Grazia), I went for a walk. My excursion didn’t go very well. In two hours I covered four blocks and got lost (there’s no English signage). I then lost my umbrella and left my address in a taxi (you have to write your destination down because few locals speak or read English). I also ended up buying four sweet tofu Char Siu Baos from a 7/11 because I was that hungry. It wasn’t until I’d eaten three that I realised they were pork. On that day, my overriding impression of Shanghai was that it's massive, damp and due to the pollution, dirty. But at night it’s just about the prettiest city I’ve ever seen, especially when you’re looking at it from a Ferrari.
Plus, they love Grazia. Props, China.