A Parody Parodied

4 minute read
LAUREN GOLDSTEIN / London

The funniest part, by far, of the 1996 VH-1 Fashion Awards was the video skit parodying the life of a male model. The model, played by Ben Stiller, got huge laughs from a jaded fashion audience for lines like, “I live with other male models because only they can understand what it is like to be this good-looking.” The skit was back the following year, and equally funny.

But could the life and times of male model Derek Zoolander support a full-length feature film? It seemed doubtful. How much runway practice, how many signature looks, how much gelling of hair could an audience take?

Plenty, as it turns out. Zoolander, which opens this week in Europe, is very funny, very entertaining. Stiller, who co-wrote it, directed it and stars in it, manages to appeal to fashion insiders and civilians alike. The reason is not the plot. A mere description of it is enough to put anyone off: a cabal of fashion designers including Karl Lagerfeld, Jean-Paul Gaultier and, strangely, American Vogue editor Anna Wintour look-alikes, has been brainwashing male models to commit all the major assassinations in the last 100 years and they want Derek Zoolander to take down their next target.

Where Zoolander excels is in parodying the fashion industry, which is harder than it might seem. For films that try — Robert Altmans Prêt-a-Porter, for example — the problems are twofold. First, fashion is inherently silly — its already a parody of itself. How does one top the Christian Dior newspaper collection designer John Galliano said was inspired by the homeless? Second, the world of fashion is a tight clique — its hard to get close enough to the key players to make the parody ring true.

The best parts of Zoolander, though absurd, ring very true indeed. All too often, for example, fashion shows are held in dilapidated buildings or abandoned warehouses. In Zoolander, a show is held underground and the audience must enter by descending stairs under a subway grate. Also, Zoolander lives with three other male models, and in reality models do usually live together. Thats not because theyre gay — male models are no more likely to be gay than non-models — but because agencies set them up in shared flats.

Theres also a ring of truth in the dialogue. During his video for the VH-1 Awards, Zoolanders foe Hansel says, “Do I know what product Im selling? No. Do I know what Im doing here today? No.” Its not that models are dumb, its that they seem dumb, like any average American teenager plucked from a rural high school and dumped into the cynical big city.

The three writers spent enough time in the fashion world to pick up such nuances. Stiller himself is said to be a closet fashion devotee, insisting on wearing Prada when he played a rabbi in the film Keeping the Faith. The clarity of observation is mixed with metaphors of sport to help the film appeal to a non-fashion crowd. “Do you want to see the real world of male modeling, the one they dont show you in glossy magazines or on the E! channel?” Zoolander asks a reporter from Time. He then takes her to watch him and Hansel compete in runway tricks. “Cut me! Cut me!” Hansel says to his “trainer” as things get tough. The trainer trims his hair to get it out of his eyes. Stiller was criticized for taking the twin towers out of shots of New York. He responded by saying “Whats right? Whats wrong? Nobody knows. I thought, Well, if were going to release this movie so soon after this disaster, the only reason is for me to provide some sort of escapist entertainment for people. And that was my motivation for taking out that shot.”

Escapist or not, Zoolander succeeds.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com