Since I can't think of anything new and interesting to write about, I'm posting things I wrote a while back. The Best Model contest happened in November.
On The Catwalk, Azerbaijan-Style
Dappled thighs reverberate down the runway, their young owners blissfully unaware of the stigma attached to fashion models with cellulite in other parts of the world. These young women clearly had spent more time watching Baku’s basic cable staple “Fashion TV” than hitting the gym.
With an economy fueled by oil riches from the Caspian Sea, a dictator who keeps a tight rein on things and thuggish neighbors to the North, South and West, Azerbaijan is becoming known as the oasis between Iran and Chechnya. Baku, its booming capital city, perches on the southern lip of the Absheron peninsula like a gray canker.
Modeling, and the fashion industry that depends on it, are nascent in Azerbaijan. But as the riches pour in, demand for extravagant designer fashion among those with more money than taste is surging. Baku recently hosted The Best Model of Azerbaijan 2005 competition, which pitted 30 model wannabes between the ages of 15 and 25 against each other for the chance to move on the clumsily-named The Best Model of the World competition in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Istanbul final attracts the Best Model winners from around the world. The roster of past title holders reflects an appreciation for the world’s diverse standards of beauty. Turks, Ukrainians, Senegalese, Kazakhs, Togolese and Brits have all come away with top awards in the contest. Azeribaijani model Sevda Aliyeva (no relation to Azerbaijan’s current President) won the contest in 2000. Azerbaijani and Armenian models even put aside their nations’ differences to compete peacefully against each other for the title.
The Best Model of Azerbaijan 2005 is part fashion show, part beauty contest, though its promoters are loathe to put it in the declasse latter category. There was no talent competition, but there was a gawky group dance number and a bathing suit competition.
The 2000-seat Heydar Aliyev Palace, known more prosaically as Republic Palace in the days before the dead dictator was elevated to icon status, served as the venue. The boxy communist-era hall sits in the middle of the capital city. Its front doors open onto the Heydar Aliyev park, an unwelcoming block of shiny marble fountains and park benches refurbished last year, at significant expense, in honor of Aliyev’s birthday. Like many public spaces in Azerbaijan, the park is dominated by an enormous bronze statue of Aliyev.
Aliyev’s bronze back is toward the culture palace, while he reaches out grandly toward the glistening orange National Bank at the other end of the square. This, local wags point out, accurately encapsulates the current state of affairs in Azerbaijan under Aliyev’s son and handpicked successor, Ilham.
Back to culture, grabbing for money.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that most audience members at The Top Model of Azerbaijan fall into the “horny young man” demographic, but surprisingly, women and children seemed to fill most of the seats. Wives and mistresses of Baku’s oil kleptocracy donned their best designer rip-offs for the evening. Clearly, plastic surgery is a priority for these arrivistes, but the demand seems to have outstripped the supply of qualified surgeons. Pyramid-shaped breasts popped out of too-tight blouses and lopsided lips were accentuated by garish glosses.
All former Soviet states seem to have gone through an awkward phase, fashion-wise, after shedding their communist skin. Some of them outgrow it faster than others. Fourteen years after independence, Azerbaijani women still have a hard time distinguishing between day and evening wear and men prefer their suits shiny and dress shoes pointy-toed like scimitars. Modeling was discouraged during Soviet times and not just because there wasn’t much worth modeling.
The Azerbaijanis are still trying to work the kinks out.
The winner of “Best Grace,” teetered along on her stiletto heels, nearly falling with every step. A male contestant sported a grisly, ravine-like scar on the back of his thigh, the story behind which would surely provide compelling subject matter for a gauzy “obstacles overcome” video bumper. Frumpy underwear belonging to a spunky 15-year old contestant peeked over the top of her evening gown.
In perhaps a nod to the Islamic nation’s Shi’ite population, the opening swimsuit competition was demure by western standards. Men and women alike wore the same unflattering Speedos that Olympic swimmers wear. The women’s maillots did little to enhance their gifts.
Not only were Azeri ideals of beauty on display, the contest also showcased local haute couture. Local designers ornamented their evening and club wear creations with pleather, synthetic fur, mirrors, fake feathers, metallic scales, handcuffs and even the ubiquitous blue and yellow Turkish evil eye. I’m no expert on fashion history, but The Best Model of Azerbaijan 2005 might be the first time in which a collection inspired by Attila the Hun appeared on a runway. One model with cro-magnum features and bow legs creaked down the runaway to a soundtrack of howling wolves, wearing a horned fur hat and a fake leather tunic.
The overall effect was not pleasing – in fact, sometimes even deeply troubling -- to westerners like myself. The local audience, however, greeted the collections with enthusiasm.
The runway shows were interspersed by interminable performances by some of Azerbaijan’s biggest pop stars, many of whom are little more than karaoke singers. Samir, a flamboyantly dressed popular singer widely believed to be gay, served as a reminder that the world fashion industry the world has thrived under the creative stewardship of gay men. Perhaps Azerbaijani designers could benefit by getting touch with their inner fag.
This being Azerbaijan, which has never held a free election and been rated one of world’s most corrupt countries for years, the contest couldn’t have come off without a whiff of scandal. At the end, an unintroduced model, wearing a gold trimmed Cleopatra-style gown, wig and heavy makeup, swept confidently onto the stage. The deeply disguised competition organizer launched into a high-pitched, intoxicant-fueled tirade in which she answered unasked questions about her own, and the organizing committee’s, professionalism. Just as the audience started to egg her on, organizers cut the power to her microphone. This spontaneous display of unscripted verbal terrorism was the highlight of the evening, even if it was in Russian.
The Best Model of Azerbaijan contest showed that western images of beauty, fashion and floor shows have yet to penetrate a culture shaped by its communist past and oil-soaked future. The Azerbaijanis, however, are embracing their homegrown fashion industry and models with enthusiasm.
Cellulite and all.