Dan Renzi, whose life as an aspiring gay model flashed across TV screens in 1996 on the Miami edition of MTV's The Real World, managed to parlay his 15 minutes of fame into a successful modeling career after the series wrapped. But his bookers kept going back to him with the same request. "They would pause for a moment," Renzi says. "Then they would say, `You're so...' and start waving their hands around in the air to signify that I was too effeminate. They were constantly telling me to tone it down."
Renzi says he lost at least four major jobs because the designers and photographers decided he was "too queeny" after meeting him. Renzi's case reflects the complicated boom-or-bust dynamics at work for gay and lesbian models in the fashion industry: Gay networks sometimes can launch careers, but openness about being gay can freeze models out of the most lucrative campaigns, usually run by conservative, mainstream advertisers.
The fashion industry is rife with rumors that some of its marquee models are gay or lesbian. New York City's gossip bible, the New York Post's "Page Six," frequently runs blind items recounting the same-sex escapades of the model elite. Top-drawer designers like Isaac Mizraw, Todd Oldham, and John Bartlett have come out and continue to do gangbusters business. By all accounts, openly gay people dominate the ranks of the photographers, stylists, and booking agents who control the fashion industry. Homosexuality is so common-place that a February 3 "Page Six" item that began "Even though he's gay and has a boyfriend, women are ga-ga for Gucci designer Tom Ford" scarcely raised an eyebrow.
Yet there is no openly gay supermodel, and that's no accident. While openly gay and lesbian models like Jenny Shimizu, Ryan Findlay, Rachel Williams, and Tim Boyce are well-respected, they are hardly household names. Despite the breathless hyping of supermodels like Cindy Crawford, Tyra Banks, Marcus Schenkenberg, and Joel West by the press and overwrought specials on the E! Entertainment Television network, the public may know the names of only a handful of the thousands of aesthetically endowed faces that adorn advertisements and strut down runways. Such anonymity makes it easier for lesser-known lesbian and gay models to be open with their coworkers. But for most, who view modeling as a springboard to Hollywood and fantasize about Crawford-like seven-figure endorsement deals, being publicly gay is not perceived as an option. "The rumors are one thing, but the actual concrete admittance in the mainstream press is something quite different," says Keith Lewis, president of the Los Angeles-based Morgan Agency, which represents some 425 models. "I don't think that we've got anyone in the top 10% of the earning field acknowledging their homosexuality."
In edgier campaigns, for companies like Diesel and Gaultier, the sexual orientation of models hardly seems to be a concern. Calvin Klein created the archetypal androgynous campaign for its fragrance CK One. A Klein scout found many of the models used in the campaign on the streets of New York's East Village -- including Stine (pronounced steen, short for Christine), who was freshly arrived from Copenhagen. The year was 1994. With short-cropped hair, not to mention nose and tongue rings, Stine didn't exactly fit the prevailing image of supermodel glamour at the time, but her gritty look and flawless porcelain face won her a featured role in the CK Khakis campaign. When Stine went to uber-photographer Steven Miesel's studio for the first day of the CK shoot, she was more preoccupied with the model antics than with disguising that she was a lesbian. "There were all these kids that they grabbed off the street," she says. "There was this huge buffet, and we were eating everything that we could get our hands on. Kate Moss was just sitting there sucking on a piece of cantaloupe for a half hour. I didn't feel the need to come out or not to come out. …