Courtney rouses me from my stupor. "I hate it when they all say they want to be on the board because they want to be a fashion model," she says, elbowing me and telling me to quote her. "That's not at all what it's about. It's about being around other kids, meeting people, and doing good work in the community." She actually means it. But I wonder how many of these kids even know about the board's community-service requirement.
I ask a sullen, 14-year-old black boy with cornrows to name his best quality. "My ambition," he replies, smiling a little. "Because I never give up on my dreams." I give him "10"s across the board.
By Contestant 287, a brown-haired Noah Wyle type, I'm feeling comfortable enough to deviate from the scripted questions. "Does Ricky Martin still have it?" I ask. "Ricky Martin is really trendy and always will be," he responds. "He's a special person, he's just himself. He's flamboyant and fun." I'm not sure what he means--but then again, I'm not sure what I meant, either. Number 287 is good-looking and confident, and his final runway turn draws whoops of approval from a cluster of girls off to the right of the stage. I give him high marks.
At the halfway point, with more than an hour still to go, we take a break. Sara Rogers, a Mall of America spokeswoman, has been sitting at my right, judging intently, and we finally chat. She's African American, and she's impressed with the number of minorities who've turned out. "Whether they make it or not, it's good that they're here," she says. "It's important to me that we get kids like that out into the community, doing something for other folks. I wish there were more boys, though."
It occurs to me that maybe I'm not getting it. Maybe the program is about more than just peddling brands to teens. Maybe these kids feel a shared sense of purpose. Maybe they do want to be active in volunteer work. Have I been scoring most of them too low, judging them on appearance alone? Am I the shallow one here?
Thirteen-year-old Amy intrudes upon my reverie. Her favorite store in the mall, she says, is Nordstrom, "because my mom has their credit card." Contestant Number 27, a 15-year-old Woodbury resident, claims she should be on the board "because I wear really tight clothes and I like to shake it!" She proceeds to do a little bump-and-grind that Courtney pronounces "really gross."
At three o'clock Courtney bails to attend her brother's graduation party. Suddenly, hearing the latest Jimmy Eat World single for the fifth time, I feel exhausted. I can barely bring myself to look at any more contestants, and I've entirely given up the pretense of filling in the scorecards. Sara Rogers, however, is still going strong. She gives me a nudge when a tall Asian girl comes striding down the runway. "She looks great," Rogers whispers. "She has total poise and confidence."
The line has dwindled to fewer than ten. One contestant is asked to name her favorite store. "Really, I'd have to say Barnes & Noble," she answers sheepishly. "I really like to read." I involuntarily burst into applause and give her a "10." In the space reserved for additional comments, I write, "She likes to read!"
Soon enough, Renslow is thanking everyone for coming, and letting them know that those chosen for the Teen Fashion Board will be notified sometime after July 1.
As I stagger out of the rotunda, I recognize Contestant Number Three. She has ditched her high heels in favor of white tennis shoes, and she's alone, scanning the area for anyone she might know. She looks a little bit lost, and about ten years younger than she appeared on the runway. She may model just like a woman, but, clearly, she breaks just like a little girl.