July 30, 2012 -- Start with beautiful women. Supermodels, in fact. Ask them to tell the camera about their youth -- sex, drugs, a little rock and roll, all-night parties with Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, photo shoots with Richard Avedon, dancing and snorting cocaine until the wee hours at New York City's Studio 54. Be prepared for some razor-sharp answers -- pro and con -- on the subject of plastic surgery and aging.
Along the way, the models of mixed race may recall what it was like having angry mobs try to turn over your bus while you traveled through the Deep South. And a fashion editor may admit that, yes, we knew some of the models were shooting heroin because we noticed the tracks on their arms -- but we did nothing.
Mix it all together and you have photographer-filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' "About Face: Supermodels Then and Now," an elegant romp, laden with tidbits of social history, through the fashion world of the last 60 years. The story is told by Christie Brinkley, Jerry Hall, Beverly Johnson, Carmen Dell-Orefice, Isabella Rossellini, Paulina Porizkova and other equally stunning women who don't hesitate to speak their minds.
"About Face," which airs on HBO tonight, started at a party that Greenfield-Sanders attended three years ago. A party he hadn't planned to attend, in fact, but a friend convinced him he should put in an appearance. Harry King, the '70s hair stylist, and Nancy Donahue, a supermodel who'd graced the covers of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, were hosting it for Facebook friends.
"I was dragged to the party," Greenfield-Sanders, whose portraits hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery, told ABC News. "I double parked my car. [But] I walked in, and the room was filled with beautiful women. This was definitely a photograph, I thought, maybe more. I started talking to these women, and I was so impressed with them it made me think there was something more to it."
Greenfield-Sanders, whose previous films include "The Black List," "The Latino List" and "Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart," is not a fashion photographer, nor is it particularly one of his interests.
"I'm interested in race, achievement, confidence," he said, and he naturally gravitates to strong women. "My wife is a feminist and I have two daughters who are very strong and independent." The film, though was a way of looking at aging -- a sensitive issue for women whose success may depend on their aura of youth. "I deal with it, I think about it, and [these women] are a group who had a heightened experience. Their lives are about being beautiful."
Carmen Dell 'Orefice, 81 and still striking, opens and closes the film. She alludes to the self-image problem many supermodels, surprisingly, faced until the camera validated their often unusual beauty. When Dell 'Orefice was young, her mother, she tells us, told her she had "feet like coffins" and "ears like sedan doors." She's been modeling for 65 years, and when she started out, if you told someone you were a model, well, they would naturally assume you were a hooker.
Isabella Rossellini says that when she started modeling it wasn't a career, it was more about having a little spending money. She questions the idea of women having plastic surgery: Is it the new feet binding? Misogyny? Dell 'Orefice is matter-of-fact on the topic: If you had the ceiling falling down in your living room, would you not have it repaired?
Jerry Hall, still fabulous after 50 with her long blonde hair and leopard print dress, her down-home, gutsy, throaty Texas twang still there after the years she has spent living in England, says she thinks it's bad that we have as role models people who look scary to small children.
Many of the women in the film touch on the peril of aging for those who make their living by being beautiful. "You do live in a bubble. Everyone tells you how beautiful you are," says Beverly Johnson , who became the first African American woman to grace the cover of Vogue in August 1974.
When she was modeling, a career lasted three to four years. She had a good friend who was graduating from college, getting married, making a down payment on a house. "And I'm living in fear of getting older," she says, as we see her strutting down runways looking gorgeous.
There are tales of racism, of drug overdoses, of AIDS. There is the story of a fashion director calling for one black woman in a cast of more than 30. Hall recalls the era when you'd wonder if a friend was so thin because he was smoking too much, drinking too much …. or because he had AIDS. Jade Hobson, fashion director for Vogue, says she used to stand by the photographer with binoculars just to make sure everything was in place. One day she saw track marks on supermodel Gia Carangi's arms. Carangi died at age 26 of AIDS.
"We exploited these girls," admits Hobson. The drugs, adds Hobson, "brought a certain look." So the industry turned the other cheek.
But the women who lived to tell the story tell it well in "About Face," and while they remember the pain of their youth, they revel in where their lives have taken them today. Great fun are the stories of being discovered: Jerry Hall went to Paris, then to the French Riviera, expecting to be discovered. And within an hour after she walked outside one morning, she was.
Carol Alt has a different tale of being discovered. "I was waitressing at a beer and steak place on Long Island," she told ABC News. Her father -- "the first feminist I knew," she says -- was a fireman with four children in college, and Carol was in ROTC so that she could attend Hofstra University in the fall. A photographer who was on his way to the more tony enclave of the Hamptons told the tall 17-year-old waitress she should be a model. She rolled her eyes. But he kept at her. "It was Friday night, I was busy," says Alt. "I finally said, 'OK, give me your number.'"
Two weeks later, after breaking up with her boyfriend, she called the photographer, who directed her to an agency. It wasn't long before she was at a magazine where an editor squawked, "Who cut your hair? Your eyebrows look like s---, and you're too big for our clothes." But it wasn't long before she found herself, 15 pounds lighter, on her way to Europe for an Italian Harper's Bazaar fashion shoot.
"We were up at four o'clock in the morning, living on three hours of sleep for two solid weeks," she said. "They'd bring a sandwich of bread and ham with the crusts cut off. It was very very hard work and very little food." Returning to New York, she said, she had changed so much that her mother didn't recognize her at the airport. "She walked by me six times. I burst into tears. I was pale, I was green, I was emaciated."
Nevertheless, Alt speaks of her modeling career with great fondness. (It's hardly over: She posed partially nude in Playboy at age 48, and she's acted in more than 50 films, most recently Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love.") Ask her what her favorite thing about modeling was, and she doesn't hesitate to answer in one word: "Freedom. Freedom to be who I wanted to be. I wasn't that gawky kid in high school that everyone wanted to make fun of."
"We lived the greatest adventure," Hall says of the glamour and the days and nights with Warhol and Dali and transvestites in Paris who were great fun. "It was about making a whole world."