Contestant Number Three isn't wearing any underwear.
I'm privy to this fact because I have a front-row seat at the very tip of the runway, where Number Three has just done a half-pirouette and retreated in her very high heels. Contestant Number Three is a natural beauty with long strawberry-blond hair, and her derriere is showing all-too-clearly through her white slacks. She is, she has just announced to the crowd, 16 years old.
On this Saturday afternoon in June, the rotunda at the Mall of America is overrun with teenagers--far more, even, than usual. The Mall to End All Malls is holding its seventh-annual casting call for the Teen Fashion Board, an organization that consists of about 75 area kids who participate in about 20 of the mall's many runway shows, and lend a hand with various community-service projects. Owing to some strange twist of fate (they asked and I said yes), I'm one of the judges. By the end of the day, I will have watched more than 300 students--girls and boys (mostly girls) of all races, classes, and locales--stroll down the runway, state their names, ages, and high schools, and answer questions from our nine-judge panel, whose duty it is to rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 in four categories.
Most of my fellow judges are buyers and marketing directors for mall stores--Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, Old Navy, the Buckle. Our table is well-stocked with bottles of Aquafina and little tins of cinnamon and wintergreen Hoof Mints, supplied by Caribou Coffee. The mints prove to be very popular. There are also stacks of scorecards we are to fill out for each contestant, rating them for Runway Presence (Style, Poise, Confidence), Style (Sense, Trend), Personality (Energy Level, Speaking Skills), and Overall Impression (Enthusiasm, Creativity, Body Language). At the bottom there's a line for additional comments, and we have been encouraged by Tammy Davidson, a mall executive coordinating the event, to write freely. "If they're energetic," Davidson says more than once, "then write, like, 'Energy.'"
When emcee Jill Renslow, one of the mall's "retail marketing managers," introduces me as a staff writer from City Pages, I receive a smattering of applause that pales in comparison to that which Caryn Rosenberg, matriarch of the St. Louis Park modeling agency Caryn International, is treated. Seated to my left is 16-year-old Courtney Lewandowski, who will be a junior this fall at White Bear Lake High. She's the Teen Board Member of the Year, having logged the most community-service hours this past year--visiting the Shriners Hospital, cooking meals at the Ronald McDonald House, and the like. In the three years that she's been on the board, she tells me, her "runway skills have improved." And sure enough, when Renslow asks her to do a runway demonstration for everyone, Courtney positively beams. As the afternoon wears on, I discover that she's smart, talkative, good-hearted, and funny.
Teens wander by, sign up, and get in line. Two large video screens above the T-shaped runway show clips of skateboarders wiping out, while a generic techno track plays over a PA. The judges are expected to take turns asking questions of the contestants. We have each been supplied with a cheat-sheet questionnaire that includes suggestions such as, "What is your favorite store in the mall and why?" and "How do you keep up with the latest trends?" and "Why do you want to be on the Teen Fashion Board?"
That last question is the one posed to the first contestant, Stephanie, a slight 13-year-old with braces who looks more like 10. "I want a career in fashion," she says nervously. The second contestant, a stout brunette, gets the same question. She replies coolly: "Because I go shopping a lot."
Ten minutes into the casting call, I'm struggling to fill out the scorecards and take notes at the same time. I am, however, alert enough to notice when Contestant Number 269, a girl from Prior Lake, is asked, "Who is a positive role model in your life and why?" and answers, without explanation, "Elvira."
"Elvira?" I ask, confused.
"Yeah, you know, that old witchlike woman," Courtney says.
"You mean the Mistress of the Dark?"
"Yeah, I guess so," Courtney says, laughing.
I give the girl a "10" for Personality.
Many of the kids say they "like fashion a lot" and "love to shop," but they don't seem to understand why. The overwhelming choice for "favorite store in the mall" is a place called 5-7-9, which specializes in tacky, petite-size clothing. Clothes from Bebe and Abercrombie & Fitch rate high as well. Reese Witherspoon and Ja Rule are favorite actor and musical artist, respectively (because they are "fun" or "really independent"). Most of the contestants think they belong on the fashion board because they have "an outgoing personality" or are "really easy to talk to." Their mothers are their biggest influence. They read Teen People and YM. The girls favor very short denim miniskirts and tank tops, while the boys (who are outnumbered nearly ten to one) like bead necklaces and madras shirts. Any pair of blue jeans rides just above where one presumes that pubic hair might be sprouting. I take note of how many of the girls seem to look like Lisa Kudrow and how many of the boys resemble Noah Wyle. I grow depressed over our culture's infatuation with sexualizing youth, and jot "Kiddieporn Nation" in my notebook.
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.