From Heroin-Chic To Happy, Wholesome

In a world fueled by bad news, here's something to cheer about: Calvin Klein's models are out of rehab! You remember them - black circles rimming their eyes as they marched, zombie-like, down the runway, the light reflecting off their waxen skin. For them, the shooting gallery was about needles, not cameras, a place where they traded their signature black-and-white look for black-and-blue. A place that beckoned "welcome to heroin chic."

Now it appears that Papa Cal has sent his wards to the Betty Ford clinic, where they exorcised their demon drugs while exercising their ravaged bods till they emerged Happy, Healthy, and Wholesome. This latest ad campaign features Kleinettes Christy Turlington and Kate Moss frolicking in group athletic events rather than posing as angst-ridden poster children for loneliness and depression.

What's going on?

"People were upset by heroin chic," Klein told The New York Times. "We thought it was creative, but it was perceived as drug addicts and messy. People don't want that now."

As if. As if people clamored to attain that look by themselves. You know, two teenage sisters waking up one morning and fighting over their makeup. "It's my turn to look like a battered woman," the younger one whines, grabbing the Toxic Waste eye shadow. "Here - you can be Courtney Love," flipping her sister the Nuclear Fallout lipstick.

While it's true nobody ever got poor underestimating the bad taste of the American public, somebody had to set the trend. Somebody like Calvin Klein and the lemmings of Madison Avenue.

Yet, now it appears we're supposed to be grateful that the kids in the CK and other designer ads look more like they came out of a Montgomery Ward catalog than "America's Most Wanted" - a look referred to as "sunny side up."

But take a second glance. Check out the ad that has our drug-free friends playing a fun game of tug-of-war, with manic grins plastered across their shiny faces. The girls' arms are proverbial matchsticks, barely twice as thick as the rope they are pulling, while the boy has bulging biceps that Popeye would kill for. Yes, folks, those girls are clean all right - clean, scrubbed, and as anorexic as ever.

Why is it our country goes ballistic when it catches the tobacco companies targeting teens in their ad campaigns, yet the same standards are not applied to the all-powerful fashion industry? The answer is easy: "Khakis don't kill people, people kill people," their defenders would say.

Yet the messages these ads convey - with models sporting collarbones that look like they've swallowed wooden coat hangers - are just as insidious. Messages that prompted my niece to come home in tears one day after a classmate told her she had fat thighs. Fat thighs in second grade. Our culture does not even have a positive word for someone who is not svelte: We have to borrow the German zaftig, because sometimes "chunky" just won't do.

A recent visit to Urban Outfitters in Washington's chic Georgetown neighborhood confirmed that not everyone is on the rehab bandwagon yet: Sales of "Addiction" nail polish are brisk among the pre-teen and teen set. But even if that is replaced by "Pollyanna Pink," the models who sell them will still look more like Auschwitz survivors than Rosie O'Donnell.

Until consumers protest and the same regulations are brought to bear on the fashion industry as on the tobacco and alcohol giants, nothing will change. And in the meantime, Calvin Klein and Co. have won this round. Why? Because he's done exactly what advertisers are supposed to do - make us talk about him.

My niece, now 15, came home the other day with her nails on one hand painted a disturbing metallic blue. "Why didn't you paint the other hand?" I asked. Her answer was simple, showing the signs of a discerning consumer. "Because it's ugly."

Let's hope that when she decides to wear perfume her choices will be broader than Estee Lauder's "Happy" or Calvin Klein's "Contradiction." Heaven forbid she should walk in a room and knock everyone out with the sweet smell of "Zaftig."

* Kitty Thuermer is a freelance writer in Washington.

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