Lolita-Lipped Model Creates Uproar on Australian Runway

Parents demand age limits for "sexualized" fashion world.

February 11, 2009, 2:28 AM

Sept. 19, 2007 — -- The Lolita-inspired model Maddison Gabriel caused an uproar last week after the then 12-year-old was named the official face of Australia's annual Gold Coast Fashion Week.

Gabriel, with her classic full-lipped pout, celebrated her 13th birthday Sunday.

As parents called for an age limit on modeling, Gabriel's mother defended her daughter's choice, stirring a tempest in British teapots.

In the U.K., where models at fashion week must bring a health certificate to walk the runway, preteen bloggers gave Gabriel mixed reviews.

"It is way too young!" 10-year-old Alice of Harlow wrote on the BBC's blog. "What kind of message is it sending out to other 12-year-old girls? Be really skinny and let fashion get in the way of childhood?"

"I think that Maddison should jump for the chance as it will bring her a brilliant career in the future," countered Francesca, 12, of Manchester. "If this is what would make her happy and her parents think it is OK then why should anyone stop her?"

The blond, long-legged model will not appear on London's runway anytime soon because of a new ban on models under the age of 16. Organizers for several fashion shows have adopted similar bans.

Back in Australia, fashion week officials said Gabriel, who will not assume her title until next year's event, will only do photo shoots and will not be doing runway work. They also point out that she will be enrolled in modeling classes as part of her prize.

So why are some parents so shocked?

Model Brooke Shields survived two sex-charged roles as a child actress. At 13, she played a young girl living in a brothel in the 1978 film "Pretty Baby."

Two years later she and Christopher Atkins steamed up the screen as nude lovers marooned on an island in "Blue Lagoon."

As a teenager, Shields exposed her midriff in the classic Calvin Klein jeans ad, declaring seductively, "Want to know what gets between me and my Calvins? Nothing."

Despite the early exposure to sexuality, Shields went on to earn a degree from Princeton University and raise two children.

Though 10-year-old Shirley Temple's giddy "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" in 1938 was no match for 13-year-old Jodie Foster's precocious role in the 1976 film "Taxi Driver," children have graced stage and screen for decades.

Some ask why should it be any different on the runway.

The Ford Agency, one of the highest profile modeling agencies in the United States, said they take models as young as 3 months for advertising. But they would not comment on the runway variety.

Cathy Soon worked as a model as an 18-year-old, starting in Memphis, Tenn., and moving on to opportunities in Southeast Asia and Africa.

"The majority are just working girls," she said. "It's a vagabond lifestyle and great if you're level-headed."

Now 29 and happily married, she is studying political science at Hunter College in New York City. She coped with what she calls the "plasticity and phoniness" of the fashion world but has seen younger models who couldn't handle the ever-present temptations to go wild.

"You are basically [hired] for your looks," said Soon. "It's a weird dynamic. People are constantly judging your looks and what you weigh. There's a lot of pressure to be thin, and there are a lot of girls with eating disorders who smoke and party a lot. A lot of girls get caught up in that."

Still, Soon recognized that a talent like Maddison — even at 13 — is unstoppable.

"That much of a beautiful face will be well taken care of," she said. "For me, it was the best thing that could have happened. I got to travel and meet people, and it didn't take long to catch on. It helped me grow up."

Stephanie Harvilla of Yardville, N.J., worked as a model in elementary school, doing numerous magazine ads for Kodak, Fischer Price and commercials such as Cardiomega 3, Teddy Rupskin and Charmin bathroom tissue.

"I would let my child work," said Harvilla, now 26. "But because I am well aware of the scene, I would definitely keep a close watch on her."

She auditioned for Stephen King's 1989 movie "Pet Sematary" when she was 8 years old. Harvilla missed the part because they chose a set of twins who together could work more hours under stringent screen actor guild and child labor laws.

"As a child I think you need to be confident and have strong skin to understand that rejection is inevitable, and you are constantly under a critiquing eye," said Harvilla. "So not every child can walk the runway, or be the next child star. It takes a child who wants to be there to make it."

Harvilla said the work took a "large toll" on her family, who took the hour train ride to New York City for auditions and call-backs. "The family has to leave work and school at the drop of a hat and be able to afford the train rides that began to add up."

By high school, she had left the business to focus on friends and school, but credits her modeling with learning lifelong work skills.

"I have learned to become a strong, independent, outgoing, successful woman," she said. "I was so used to interviewing and auditioning that my interviews for college and my jobs were a breeze."

But Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist from Marin County, Calif., notes that Hollywood and the world of entertainment is littered with dysfunctional childhoods.

"ET" star Drew Barrymore started using marijuana at 10 and cocaine at 12. "Home Alone" actor McCauley Culkin was estranged from his family and was arrested for drugs after an early failed marriage.

Actor Robert Iler, who played Tony Soprano's son, was arrested on two counts of second-degree robbery and drug possession.

And then there's Britney and Lindsay, notes Levine.

Many children in the spotlight have a "rocky adolescence" and struggle with problems, said Levine, author of "The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids."

"Why would the world of modeling be any different?" she asked. "Some of the most basic tasks of a healthy sense of self get pushed away when a child is the center of attention."

Levine said pampered children lack empathy. "When the moon and stars revolve around children, they ultimately end up with a skewed view of their place in the universe."

The runway scene is also "so incredibly sexualized," according to Levine. "What is it like to put your 12-year-old in that environment?"

For Gabriel — at least today — the world is her oyster. Wearing a silver evening gown to the VIP cocktail party after Gold Coast Fashion Week, she received huge applause, according to press reports.

Then, after all the attention, she celebrated her birthday at a barbecue in her parents' backyard.

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