July 30, 2012
Guests: Carol Alt, Beverly Johnson, & Timothy Greenfield-Sanders â Lupe Ontiveros
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Tonight, HBO will show the new documentary, "Supermodels Then and Now," featuring supermodels talking about their careers spanning from the 1940s through the 1980s. The film focuses on how the idea of beauty has changed and what these models have done to achieve those standards. The models also talk about aging and how they've decided whether to have plastic surgery. Some of the models featured in the documentary are Marisa Berenson, Paulina Porizkova, Isabella Rossellini, Christie Brinkley, Jerry Hall, and my guests, Carol Alt and Beverly Johnson.
In 1974, Johnson became the first African-American model to be featured on the cover of American Vogue. As a model in the '70s through the '90s, she appeared on more than 500 magazine covers including Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Essence, and Ebony.
Carol Alt has also been on hundreds of covers, including two Sports Illustrated Swimsuit editions. At the age of 48 she was on the cover of Playboy. She's in the new Woody Allen movie, "To Rome With Love," playing Alec Baldwin's wife.
Also with us is the director of "About Face," Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Fashion is not his world. He's best known as a photographer whose subjects have included Michelle and Barack Obama, George H.W. and Barbara Bush, George W. and Laura Bush, Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Toni Morrison, Lou Reed, Mohammed Ali and porn stars.
Beverly Johnson, Carol Alt, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, welcome to FRESH AIR. Timothy, let me start with you. Why did you make "About Face?" As a photographer, what interests you in that world?
TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I was interested in aging, really. I saw this as a kind of metaphor for how we grow old and deal with the changes in our lives, and here was this perfect group of people who were so beautiful. You know, it's a hyper-look at aging and I thought that could be interesting.
GROSS: Carol and Beverly, can I ask you each how old you are? Would that be OK?
BEVERLY JOHNSON: Sure.
CAROL ALT: I don't mind. It's on Facebook and everywhere else. You just have to Google us.
GROSS: Yeah, what isn't, right?
ALT: Exactly. I was born in 1960. I'm going to let you do the math.
JOHNSON: I'm 59 years old.
GROSS: I'm doing the math. Wait, hang, hang on.
GROSS: Thank you.
GROSS: OK. Good. So let's start about when you, let's start talking about when you started modeling. When you started modeling did you have to change anything physically about yourself to be considered beautiful enough?
JOHNSON: Besides 40 pounds?
GROSS: Forty pounds?
GROSS: Seriously? Forty?
JOHNSON: About 40 pounds. Yes.
GROSS: Well, how much did you weigh when you started?
JOHNSON: One hundred and forty.
GROSS: And you're how tall?
GROSS: How average is that?
JOHNSON: Oh, that was - well, you know, for a model it was...
GROSS: I don't mean for a model. I mean for a normal human being, a normal human woman.
JOHNSON: I don't know. I'm a supermodel. I'm not - well, I mean I don't know.
JOHNSON: I think it's kind of tall. I mean I always felt tall. I mean...
ALT: But it's average weight. I think it's about average weight for that height.
GROSS: I mean weight, not height. Yeah. OK.
JOHNSON: Oh, weight.
GROSS: Weight. Weight.
JOHNSON: Oh, weight. Oh, yes.
GROSS: Were you considered chubby or is it just the fashion world that thought of you as overweight?
JOHNSON: Oh, just, just the fashion world.
GROSS: OK, so you had to lose 40 pounds. And Carol, what about you?
ALT: I weighed 165 and I was 5 foot eight and a half. So yes, they wanted me to lose weight. I lost at one point probably around 50 pounds. For the cover of Sports Illustrated I was 115 pounds but I was also at that point 5'10". I grew until I was 25. They also had an issue with my hair because, of course, I took a scissor to it like any normal teen would do when she doesn't like her hair and so that was the comments, and I mention it in the film. I said the first thing they said to me is your hair looks like (bleep). Who plucks your eyebrows? And you're too big for our clothes. And that about summed me up at 17.
GROSS: So you both had to, what, starve yourselves in order to lose that much weight?
ALT: Well, I think it's much easier to do that when you're 17. I mean I think you bounce back from those kinds of things at 17 a lot more easily than you do at a later age. It was easy for me. I just really stopped eating, you know, could live on basically body fat for a while and it was really the stupidest thing I ever did. Really, starving yourself is no way to get any kind of self image but when you're 17 you don't know any better. And certainly, coming from Long Island, where I grew up on pizza and Chinese food and tacos and Jack in the Box, that was a treat, and bagels for breakfast with butter, I had absolutely no clue about nutrition and never really thought I was fat because I actually was an athlete. I played all the sports at our high school. I just thought I was sportive. Bev?
JOHNSON: I was 103 to 117 pounds during my entire career. And as a young woman, it was OK. I was in the business and modeled for at least three decades and the interesting thing was that no one ever said I was too thin. Everyone kept giving me compliments on, you know, how great I looked and I was just emaciated. That's the scary part when I look back on it. And I do think for me it did a lot of damage to my body. I mean I'd never get hungry. I have to remind myself to eat because, you know, whatever happens in the brain when you starve yourself like that, the brain doesn't, you know, tell you when you're hungry anymore. And I can imagine what, you know, other - so far so good with the other health issues that one can have from, you know, doing that to your body for so many years.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you all. If you're just joining us, my guests are Carol Alt and Beverly Johnson, two supermodels who were mostly on magazine covers in the '80s. And also with us is Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who is the director of the new documentary "About Face," which is about models from the '40s through the '80s and about how they've aged. And this documentary "About Face," will be shown on HBO tonight.
Beverly, you were the first African-American model to be on the cover of Vogue, and this was in 1974?
JOHNSON: Yes. August, 1974.
GROSS: So when you got started in modeling, what was the look that was popular at the time? Or what were the looks that were popular at the time? And what was it like for you as an African-American woman, to try to fulfill that look when the look was white?
JOHNSON: Well, I was just a young lady and had been given an opportunity to model and realized the money that could be made modeling, $75 an hour was like, you know, more money than I've ever seen in my life - my father made $100 a week. So I basically, the look was the girl next door. I started in the '70s and I wasn't a part of that amazing era in the '60s with Veruschka and Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy. Ooh, that era was, for me, my favorite. So I was, you know, was ushered into an era of, you know, the girl next door. I didn't really distinguish myself as the black girl next door, I was just the girl next door because that's kind of how I think of myself. I don't really think of myself in color, I guess. But, so I was just doing what any model does.
GROSS: At that time was it hard or easy to find makeup artists and hair stylists who understood your skin or your hair?
JOHNSON: Yeah. That was scary because there were no black makeup artists and there were no black hair stylists and I was working for Vogue and Glamour and they were - I mean it was just really interesting to see a hairdresser just fumbling around with my hair. I think that's why I wore my hair pulled back for a lot of my career, you know, just really slicked back, although it was really gorgeous, because they didn't know how to work with my hair. Not only did they not - and makeup artists and hairdressers at that time didn't know, because they never worked on anyone black before, is that, you know, even the photographers didn't really know how to photograph me. And also Kodak, they didn't even have that range of color - and Timothy will have to comment to that - in order to really capture who I was. Or they didn't know how to do the lights to capture who I was or how I looked. So I ended up as black ink spots, and just really looking really weird a lot.
JOHNSON: Yeah. So it was a big transition. You know, I forgot all about that. What a great question.
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Yeah. The - yeah...
GROSS: Timothy, is it true that, like, Kodak didn't have the right palette for African-American skin?
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: It's absolutely true. It's absolutely true that film was based on Caucasian skin. So unless you opened up a third of a stop for an African-American face, your exposure was wrong, and very few people understood that. And when I did "The Black List" film, I was very conscious of how...
GROSS: This was portraits and interviews with African-Americans.
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Exactly. And 50 African-Americans, Beverly was one of the subjects. One of the highest compliments I got was, you know, how beautiful my portraits looked, because people didn't know. Even today they still have difficulty shooting people of color.
GROSS: So, Beverly, when you were on the cover of an African-American-oriented magazine like Essence or Ebony - I don't know if you were on the cover of "Ebony" - but was it different in terms of, you know, hair and makeup and getting a photographer who knew how to shoot you?
JOHNSON: Yes. Yes and no, because you had - there were black photographers, Tony Barboza, Mel Dixon, a lot of great black photographers that were basically learning their craft, also, and in a vacuum. You know, they didn't get a chance to study under Avedon or Francesco Scavullo. So, yes.
I do believe that - see, basically most of my career was done with Vogue and Glamour internationally, and basically in the white world. So I really lived in a white world. I lived and I got payment for jobs that were much less than my peers, and I would only find out because, you know, the models were my friends, the white models were my friends, and they would tell me what they were making and what I was making. And they literally stood up for me and said: Why is Beverly making this, and I'm making that? There was a lot of that.
I remember, you know, working with Avedon, and you get, you know, photographers that really don't get your beauty, because they - I guess they're really not used to, you know, looking at a woman of color and thinking of her as beautiful. But you have photographers like Francesco Scavullo and Patrick Demarchelier who get it.
So I worked very hard to establish myself as, you know, really, one of the premier models so that I could have a voice, so that I could speak about the many inequalities in the business and, for myself, not doing anymore cigarette ads or liquor ads that were just, you know, displayed only in black neighborhoods. And I, you know, I did a lot - a lot of that stuff when I think about...
GROSS: Tell me more about liquor ads and cigarette ads that would only be displayed in black neighborhoods.
JOHNSON: Well, those were the only advertising - when I finally wanted to start making some money - because I only did editorial, and there wasn't a lot of money in editorial - those were the only advertisements that I was offered, were the cigarette ads and the liquor ads. And they would be huge billboards up in Harlem and throughout the United States promoting cigarettes and alcohol. And it just came to a point - and it's very lucrative. And it just came to a point where, you know, my conscience could not do anymore. Of course, the agents, you know, weren't very happy about that, and I just said I won't do it anymore.
GROSS: Beverly just brought up the difference between editorial and advertising. What is the difference between editorial modeling and advertising modeling?
ALT: Advertising, of course, are the big money jobs. It's the billboards you see. It's in the magazines when you open up its says Valentino, and he takes a whole page and it's one girl promoting an outfit from that designer. Or it could be for cars. Or, like Beverly said, there was a time it was cigarettes or alcohol or any kind of product like that.
Editorial was the actual magazine pages where they showed the fashions that the magazine chose and put on the girls. So you could have a girl in a story, for example, wearing several different designers. And that was shot by the magazine as their editorial pages.
And then there was catalog, which was, you know, JCPenney's and Macy's. And, you know, when you get the catalogs in your mailbox, that's catalog work, and that was kind of midrange stuff. So advertising, you could make the big dollars, thousands of dollars a day. And catalog, you could make midrange. And editorial was the lower end, but the most prestigious. So everybody did it, because a cover of Vogue could get you a huge advertising campaign for Revlon, for makeup or perfumes. Yeah.
GROSS: Gee. I never thought about that, that the cover of Vogue is just a jumping off point for you for a big ad campaign.
ALT: Everybody strived to get covers.
GROSS: My guests are Carol Alt and Beverly Johnson, two of the supermodels featured in the new documentary "About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now," which debuts tonight. Also with us is the film's director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Carol Alt and Beverly Johnson, two supermodels who worked in the '70s and '80s primarily as models. And they're both featured in the new documentary "About Face," which is about models who worked from the '40s through the '80s. With us also with us is Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who's the director of the film. We'll be hearing more from him a little bit later.
Beverly and Carol, I'm wondering: When did you first start to be concerned about getting older? Like, the first time you saw, you know, wrinkles or crows feet, where you thought, it's over for me?
ALT: Beverly, you want to go first?
JOHNSON: Well, for me, I would say I was 21. And the whole thing is that everyone always - I can remember so distinctly. And it was with Susie Blakely and, you know, we were in the - I think I was doing Sears. And we were in the dressing room, and she says this way to the new young model comes along and how scared you're going to be. And I was just, you know, looking at her because she was so gorgeous. And what is she talking about? And sure enough, a few years later, you say, oh, how old are you? I'm 15. I'd be, like, holy crap. And I'm 21.
JOHNSON: Every day, that's how you lived your life in the - for me, in the world of modeling, was that you were just waiting for the phone not to ring. Impending doom, I call it.
GROSS: Twenty-one is so young to be worried about getting old.
JOHNSON: Isn't it?
GROSS: Yeah. Carol, what about you?
ALT: I remember the first day, my first shoot with John Stember for Italian Bizarre. And I sat down, and Rex, who was a makeup artist, I sat down in his chair. And the first thing they said - that he asked me was: So what are you going to do after modeling? And all I could think of was I just start - I mean, I'm 17 years old. This is my first time. Like, this is my first day. He's like, it goes fast. You to think of something you want to do after modeling.
So already, you know, I sat down in that chair the first day, and I was already planning: What do I want to do when this is over? How am I going to prolong this? I mean, I did posters and calendars and exercise videos and books and all this stuff simply to keep me in the business, because I didn't want it to end. I just loved what I was doing. This is an incredible business. Drugs aside, eating issues aside, all these things aside, it's an amazing business. You meet incredibly creative people. But that first day, immediately, it was uh-oh. I better start thinking about what I want to do when this is over.
GROSS: In the movie "About Face," one of the issues that's discussed is plastic surgery and whether it's, you know, a wonderful thing to have the opportunity to make your face look younger or whether, as Isabella Rossellini says, it's the modern equivalent of foot binding and it's kind of, you know, misogynistic. I wonder what each of your positions is on that. How you feel about plastic surgery?
JOHNSON: I think it's great. I think - you know, everything that we - I mean, we just live in a world where, you know, we're living longer and we know so much about health and looks. And, I mean, you can even buy a skin cream now that really does diminish wrinkles. I think it's fantastic.
People don't understand, with plastic surgery there's always a trade-off. You just don't, you know, get plastic surgery and you look 20 years old. First of all, you look scary. But you - I mean, there's scars. There's no such thing as giving plastic surgery and it really makes you young. It's just, you know, that does not exist. There's always a trade-off in that operation. But...
ALT: It changes your look. It really does.
JOHNSON: And it changes your look and all of that. So in moderations, I think it's fantastic. It's absolutely great, you know, if you, you know, want to, you know, do, you know, a little nip and tuck here and there and it makes you feel better and it keeps that illusion going for you. Why not?
ALT: I agree with that for Beverly.
GROSS: Let me just - hang on one second.
GROSS: Is it inappropriate of me to ask if you've done that? Is that inappropriate?
JOHNSON: No. It's not. And I haven't done it, because they've got to really work on getting so that, you know, people of color, you know, tend to keloid. So, you know, once again, another strike against the black folks. But, you know, so it's not as accessible to us yet. Hopefully they're going to invent something where you don't keloid. But, no. And also, I come from the lucky gene pool. You know, I've been very blessed in the sense of, you know, how I look right now. So - but I have no problem with doing something if something falls down, believe me. I'll be the first one in line. As a matter of fact, I'm making sure I have enough money so that I can have that done. So, you know, I'm all for it. I really am.
GROSS: OK. I hate to do this, but Beverly, we have to say goodbye to you because you're in the studio in Miami and we have to cut our connection now. So with great regret, I have to say goodbye to you, but thank you so much for being part of this discussion.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
GROSS: It's been a pleasure to talk with you.
ALT: Bye, Bev.
GROSS: Beverly Johnson is one of the models featured in the new documentary "About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now," which premieres tonight on HBO. Model Carol Alt, who is also in the film, and the film's director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, will be back with us in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The new HBO documentary "About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now" premieres tonight on HBO. My guest Carol Alt is one of the supermodels featured in the film. Also with us is the film's director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Joining us earlier in the conversation was supermodel Beverly Johnson.
When we left off, I was asking Beverly about her attitude toward plastic surgery. Timothy, as a photographer, can you tell by looking at somebody if they've had work done, and does their face move differently if they have? Is it harder for them to be as expressive if they've had any work?
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I can absolutely tell. Immediately, you can - the nose is sort of a giveaway, because if they've had something done with their nose, you can see that their eyes are kind of looking over what used to be there. And the skin doesn't look right. You can see things in the ear. I - and also, more importantly, you say to someone, let me see a little smile or something. They can't really smile. It's not an authentic smile. It's too tight. And, you know, personally, I'm very against it.
I remember, I was with Fran Lebowitz years ago at my house at a party, and we were talking about this very subject. And my wife Karen and I were saying, oh, we would never do this. We'd never do this. It's terrible to face lift. And Fran whips around and says, well, you're not on the market.
And it was an interesting observation. It made me think, you know, OK. I wouldn't do it. But I can understand why people would want to do that. I mean, my values are that if I look old, you know, that's who I am.
GROSS: So, Carol, you did a Playboy cover when you were 48, which was...
GROSS: Forty-nine. OK.
ALT: Yes, I did.
GROSS: Why did they ask you, and why did you say yes?
ALT: Well, they had been asking me since I was 20 to do Playboy. But I thought at 20, like, what's unique about that? You know, just another girl in a magazine showing her breasts. I mean, it just wasn't unique to me. But at 49, I had been through a lot in my life. I had health issues, and I had, you know, made it, basically, to 49 years old. I was still alive and still kicking. And I thought it was much more difficult to be, you know, beautiful and attractive at 49, and that the only way that I knew how to do that was through lifestyle and diet.
And I really insisted that I not be retouched in the Playboy. I mean, I literally went into the studio and caught them making my body like Barbie. I said, that is not my body, and anybody who's ever seen a photo of me in Sports Illustrated will know that's not my body. And we have a deal in my contract that says no retouching. Do I even want a body that looks that? I'm 49 years old. And that was the point. And for me, it wasn't about being sexy.
GROSS: What kind of retouching were they doing?
ALT: They were trying to make my body look like Barbie.
GROSS: What does that mean?
ALT: You know, really, really long, slender, you know, torso, to these low - I mean, I don't have hips. I don't look like that. They took out every ripple and bump, or whatever, in the photo, and it looked like a Barbie doll. If you stood a Barbie doll next to the picture, that's what it looked like: completely smooth, like plastic. I said that's not my body. That's not in my contract. You cannot do that.
And - because I thought that, you know, for me, this was a statement. I was trying to get conversation out about what we're doing to our diet and what we're doing to ourselves to be something that we're not. I let every bump and flaw show, because at 49, I was proud to be there.
GROSS: So, if you're just joining us, my guests are supermodel Carol Alt and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who directed the new documentary "About Face." That's about supermodels, including Carol Alt. And that documentary will be shown tonight on HBO.
Timothy, some questions for you about photography. Your documentary is about fashion models, but the people you've photographed over the years, they're a wide range of people, from Supreme Court justices, to Barbara Bush, both President Bushes, President Obama, Michelle Obama. You have rock stars, Lou Reed - just a really wide range of celebrities and not-so-famous people. So what surprised you most, talking to models about what they have to say about getting photographed? You know from hearing from their end of it?
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: You know, photographing the models was unusual for me, because I'm not a fashion photographer. So these were people who got into the studio and looked at my lighting and understood what I was doing, and were very conscious of my lights. Ninety-nine percent of my subjects are not. So it was kind of a little bit challenging, in a sense, because of that. But I had a big, beautiful...
GROSS: Why is that challenging? Because they wanted to do what they wanted to do, and you wanted something different?
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Well, because, you know, they know that if the light's in a certain place, it's going to look good on them. And most people don't know that.
GROSS: So they're telling you to move your lights?
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: They weren't, because I put my light in the right place.
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: And I used a very big soft box, which I...
ALT: But we asked about what he was doing, and why he wanted it there.
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: They certainly were conscious of it, and it was funny to me. But, you know, I'm an art photographer. I'm not a fashion photographer. So my portrait is really about the person in front of me, and not so much about their beauty. In this case, their beauty just is forced on you. You can't avoid it. There's - you can't shoot an ugly picture of these women.
GROSS: So - one of the people you photographed is Barbara Bush. Now, she is a very strong-looking, older woman who has a wrinkled face. She's not pretty - I don't think she was probably ever about being pretty. But there is great strength in what she communicates. So how do you go about photographing somebody like Barbara Bush, compared to how you go about photographing somebody like Carol Alt, who is sitting next to you?
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: You know, I shot Barbara Bush with her husband, the president, in Texas, on a large format, 20-24 Polaroid camera. So we saw the pictures right away, was special in those days. Today, digital cameras, everyone sees them in a second. But in those days, it was unusual. And she was kind of a - I found her bawdy. It was - sort of the right word. She was - she had a kind of a wicked sense of humor, and everyone was waiting for her to make some kind of snarky comment. She was kind of funny. And he was utterly charming.
And I photographed his son, it was a very different experience. When I photographed George Bush, Sr., we talked about Andover, where he had gone, and my daughter had gone there to school. And he immediately said, oh, Andover. How's she doing? What's it like?
And when I went shoot the son, George Bush, Jr., I said, you know, my daughter went to Andover. And he goes, uh, Andover. That was a tough school for me. So the father sort of took it as a way to kind of be close to me and have something - have a connection. The son internalized it. It was kind of a funny contrast.
But Barbara Bush was very good. You know, these - politicians like that are professionals in front of the camera. They know to some extent what works. They are much more aware of a camera than, say, an athlete who just will give you a few moments, and doesn't understand the importance of a portrait. So politicians are, in a way, slightly like actors.
GROSS: Timothy, one of the series that you did - and this was used for a book and movie - was about porn stars. And you photographed them with clothes and without clothes, which is a really interesting idea. How did you come up with the with and without idea, and what did you see that finally, in the results of that, that struck you as being interesting or revealing about the human body?
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I was an art history major at Columbia, so I always have referenced paintings. And Goya had done these famous paintings, "La Maja Desnuda." So when I started to do the porn star portraits, I wasn't really going to do nudes. I thought it would be interesting to do them clothed, as real people. And the first shot I did, the guy says to me, well, let's do the nude now.
And I said - and I immediately thought, OK, well, let's do the same pose, because Goya had done that. And it was an easy kind of gimmick, I thought. And when I looked at it, side-by-side, it was like one plus one equals 10. It was so interesting to look at someone clothed and someone nude in the same pose. And very, very often, they nude picture, they had more self-confidence. They were more at ease. They liked being naked. Yeah.
GROSS: You know, what I find kind of interesting about the concept is that so many people undress people mentally when they look at them.
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Right. Right.
GROSS: You did it literally.
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: It worked on many levels. And I'm very proud of that project, because I wanted to show porn stars as people. I had seen the - one of my favorite films, "Boogie Nights," I had seen in 1997.
GROSS: I love that film. Yeah.
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: It's a masterpiece. And I thought, oh, my God. Porn stars have families and parents? Oh, how interesting. And it started making me think about that subject. And it took about five years before I got to the point where I was ready to shoot it. Linda Lovelace died, and I thought, darn, I, you know, I just missed her. I should start this tomorrow. And I did.
GROSS: I'd like to hear this from both of you. I know from being photographed occasionally myself, I always feel like I'm just not really good at smiling for a camera, and that I just go kind of blank and vacant. And it's just really hard for the poor photographers working with me to get, you know, a relaxed smile. So, Timothy, as the photographer, what do you suggest to people who aren't pros at being photographed about how to look relaxed? And Carol, as a pro, what do you think about when you're getting photographed, so that your face and your body are as, you know, alive as possible?
ALT: Timothy, you go first.
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Ninety percent of the people out there look better on their left side. So turn so that your left side is facing the camera. That's the biggest secret out there. Keep your chin out a little bit. And I think, you know, you have to feel comfortable with yourself. Photographers need to make you feel comfortable, and that's what I do. There's - everyone has some moment, some angle that is their best angle. And a great photographer can see that instantly.
ALT: That's so funny, because Timothy asks Isabella Rossellini: What side? She goes: Well, I like them both.
ALT: It was very cute. I - you know, my sister always had a very hard time in front of the camera. I just tell you, think about anything else, anything else. If you think about your face, what you look like - especially as a woman who's aging, because my face is changing. If I think about what I looked like before and what I look like now, it's completely different. I tell them to just relax and just think of anything else. Think of a boyfriend. Look across the room at a gorgeous guys - anything else.
GROSS: All right. Well, we are out of time. I thank you so much for joining us. Thank you.
GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
ALT: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Carol Alt is one of the supermodels featured in the new documentary "About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now," which debuts tonight on HBO. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders directed the film. You can see stills from the film on our website: freshair.npr.org. Coming up: Ken Tucker reviews R. Kelly's new album of love songs. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: R. Kelly has a new album of love songs called "Write Me Back." In recent years, Kelly has alternated between elaborate ballads and the earthier, more erotic material he's composed as a series of songs and videos using the collective title "Trapped in the Closet."
Rock critic Ken Tucker says Kelly's new album "Write Me Back" may be relatively chaste in its sentiments, but it's by no means without passion.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
R. KELLY: (Singing) Whoa, oh, yeah. Just give me the green light, oh, girl. Give me the green light, and I'll go. I'm at your door...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's R. Kelly, importuning a woman he loves who's with another man. He's not right for you, is Kelly's basic message. You need me to make you happy. In a broader sense, R. Kelly might be talking to his audience. As many of his fans have either moved on or included the music of younger singers like Usher and Chris Brown into their musical lives, Kelly has receded into the background. This album, "Write Me Back," is Kelly's attempt to make his case once again to win back fans and gain some new ones.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADY SUNDAY")
KELLY: (Singing) Where there's the sun, there is that girl. She is the one that spins my world. When I am down, she makes it better. When there are clouds, she change the weather. I'm wishing well, oh, my peace and my glory. There's a fairy tale, and she is my story. When I feel drained, her love is like a fountain. And when I'm weak, she can move mountains. I never fell in love, no, this way. I never felt a kiss, no, this way. I never felt joy this way till my Lady Sunday came. Oh, I am...
TUCKER: Anyone familiar with R&B from the '80s and '90s can hear in a song such as that one, "Lady Sunday" that Kelly believes a contemporary audience can and will appreciate his stylistic callbacks to an earlier, in some ways more innocent, era. There are a lot of lushly orchestrated ballads on "Write Me Back," reminiscent of the music of Barry White, Isaac Hayes and the Philly soul sound of acts like Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.
He even reclaims Chuck Berry, Little Richard-style '50s rock & roll on the song "All Rounds on Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL ROUNDS ON ME")
KELLY: (singing) Hey, me and my baby got into a fight. Man, it must've lasted all through the night. About the time the rooster crowed at the crack of the light we made love. Now everything's all right. Yeah.
(singing) All the rounds on me, 'cause I feel real good tonight. Shoop, shoop. All the rounds on me 'cause I feel real good tonight. Shoop, shoop. Well, I'm back with my baby. Everything going to be all right. Shoop. Hey...
TUCKER: At its best, this is a shrewd tactic. When Kelly croons about wanting to treat a woman the way she deserves to be treated, his voice fills with emotions that cannot be faked - or could only be faked by a first-rate artist. Sometimes he overdoes it with florid desperation. But most of the time, he's a beguiling, convincing romancer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVE IN ME")
KELLY: (singing) I'll be gone for a minute. I know you can't take it. The Lord's walking with me so I'm going to make it. Girl, dry your eyes. Baby, be strong. Look at me. I'm going to really need you to be strong, girl, for the both of us and for our family. I can make it if you just stay beside me. Hold it together up until my returning. Light a candle, read a scripture for my journey.
(singing) I know that heaven's going to make a way for me, so write a kiss on a letter, send it to me. And I'm going to think about you every day, but until the sun shines my way, girl, I'm going to need you to believe in me. Yeah. Girl, I'm going to need you to believe in me. Yeah. Girl, I'm going. Just know I'll be back.
TUCKER: That's "Believe In Me," something Kelly's fans have had a hard time doing in recent years. That time has been spent with the often fascinatingly, eccentric sexual fantasies that he's recorded on various songs in his so-called hip-hopper project "Trapped In The Closet." These are like musical equivalent of the "50 Shades of Grey" books - love as a power struggle with each side reveling in the pleasure that pain can inflict.
By contrast, his previous album "Love Letter" and now "Write Me Back" are more idealistic and occasionally even sunny in their hopefulness. He sings in a strong, warm voice; his phrasing is as carefully smooth as it was intentionally ragged on "Trapped In The Closet." For this new collection, Kelly even reaches deep inside for his inner Smokey Robinson on a pop-soul song such as "Fool For You."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOOL FOR YOU")
KELLY: (singing) I used to say I'll never let a woman break my heart. No, not I. And I used to say I'll never let no girl leave me scarred. I was so, so blind 'cause in the midst of us breaking up, ooh, baby, I talked like I was so, so tough. Now I can run all day, call out your name, girl, but at the end of the day I'm just a fool for you, baby.
TUCKER: In theory, Kelly's updating of classic soul arrives at the right moment, since it's in line with sounds from younger singers such as Anthony Hamilton and Raphael Saadiq. But while early reviews of "Write Me Back" have called this album tepid or even timid, I hear the sound of a man seeking strength and inspiration in musical forms to which he has a passionate attachment, and then passing that renewed strength on to his listeners.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed R. Kelly's new album "Write Me Back." Coming up, we listen back to an interview with actress Lupe Ontiveros. She died Thursday at the age of 69. You may know her from her roles in "Desperate Housewives," "Real Woman Have Curves," and "Selena." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Actress Lupe Ontiveros died last Thursday from liver cancer. She was 69. You may know her from her role on "Desperate Housewives" as Eva Longoria's mother-in-law, or in the Indie film "Real Women Have Curves" as the strict, traditional-minded mother. She co-starred in the Jack Nicholson film, "As Good As It Gets," and she played the murderer in the biopic about the pop star "Selena."
Ontiveros was Mexican-American born in El Paso, Texas. Before becoming an actress she was a social worker. On a personal dare, she responded to a newspaper ad looking for movie extras. She went on to work in Hollywood for more than 35 years and in many of her films she played a maid.
Now, you estimate that you've played maids in about 150 movies and TV shows. I want you to run through just a list of some of the maids you've played.
LUPE ONTIVEROS: Maids, oh my goodness. Maids for everything. Look at what's his name - Nicholson, Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets."
ONTIVEROS: That kind of a maid, where she's a religious kind of very warm human being. And then there's the maid in what do you call it - what did I do recently with Todd Solondz? "Storytelling."
ONTIVEROS: Now, that was a creature to be reckoned with, one of these wretched human beings, you know.
GROSS: You set the house on fire at the end, you're so resentful.
ONTIVEROS: Oh, that was the best part.
ONTIVEROS: I didn't know that I was going to do that until we were on the set. He says, you know you're going to blow up the house and I said oh, boy. Boy, have I wanted to do this for a long time. And let's see, maids. Beverly Hills maids, office maids. What can I tell you? It's always somebody else's maid, you know. I'm always doing a service for someone else.
But I'll tell you this much; that I've done it very proudly because as I said before to folks, I said, those folks, those hands, those people that come to bring you the service to your table, to bring - that pick your grapes and bring you the grapes to your table through a glass of wine, the people that wash your latrine, that watch your kids, you know, that bring them peace, bring children peace at night when their parents aren't there, I think that I owe them to give their characters life and love and soul and humor.
So it's really been a pleasure to do them.
GROSS: You were telling us you grew up in El Paso. Your parents owned a tortilla factory and they owned restaurants as well. Do I have that right?
ONTIVEROS: Yes. They had two restaurants. And properties and such. And they were non-educated people. I was born and raised in Texas in El Paso, Texas. It's a border town and my parents had businesses. They had factories and restaurants and the folks that would cross the border from Mexico, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to El Paso, Texas, were the people that worked at my mother's factories.
And that was my greatest resource. That's where my hard drive went into action, storing all of those adventures and all those conversations I used to hear, all the dirty jokes I used to hear that I learned, and, you know, behaviors and what have you.
GROSS: You were a social worker for years. I mean, even when you started acting you had a day job...
ONTIVEROS: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: ...as a social worker. What kind of social work did you do?
ONTIVEROS: Well, I worked in various facets of it. I was working with the developmentally disabled. I worked for Immigration. I worked for Head Start. I worked with the seniors program evaluating their services, what have you.
GROSS: How did you start acting?
ONTIVEROS: It was really a joke. It was on a dare to myself. I was, you know, in transition from one job to the other and I came across an article in the paper that was looking for extras. And I kind of was talking out loud and I said to my husband, what do you think? You think I should - I was trying to decide should I go back and get a nursing degree? Should I do this? Should I do that?
And there was that job opening there and he said do whatever the heck you want. I mean, now he says he's sorry he said that. 'Cause I took - I do have a tendency to run with the ball, take the bull by the horns, and go with it.
GROSS: So when you're walking through the streets and people recognize you, who do they often most recognize you as? What are the roles you're best known for?
ONTIVEROS: Oh, I'm the killer of Selena.
GROSS: The killer of Selena.
ONTIVEROS: I'm the killer of Selena. And so far, so good. I haven't had anybody chase me down the street.
ONTIVEROS: Oh, there was a very interesting - what happened one day, I was going into the ladies restroom and I was going into the stall and this lady just stood in front of me and grabbed me and pulled me out again. And she said you are her, aren't you? I have a bet with my friend that you are she. And I said excuse me? I knew where she was going. She said you killed Selena, didn't you?
And I said let me go do my business. I'll come up, and then I'll tell you. So she let go of me.
GROSS: Yeah. So "Selena" is the movie...
ONTIVEROS: And it's the working class that recognizes me and I'm very happy. You know what the greatest, graceful thing that happens to me, you know, by my people? Is that they give me their blessing. Nobody has to give anybody else a blessing. You know what I'm saying?
ONTIVEROS: And they come up and they say you make me so proud. Your work makes me feel so proud to be a Latina.
GROSS: Lupe Ontiveros recorded in 2002. She died Thursday of liver cancer at the age of 69. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.
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