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Ellen Gray: BET examines bias on the fashion runways

BET NEWS: FASHION BLACKOUT. 8:30 p.m. tomorrow, BET. THERE ARE bigger problems facing African-Americans and other people of color than a lack of representation on the world's fashion runways.

BET NEWS: FASHION BLACKOUT. 8:30 p.m. tomorrow, BET.

THERE ARE bigger problems facing African-Americans and other people of color than a lack of representation on the world's fashion runways.

But given the growing disconnect between those runways (and the magazines that cover them) and the diversity we see on television - where Tyra Banks helps to choose "America's Next Top Model" every few months and Tyson Beckford hosts "Make Me a Supermodel" - tomorrow's BET News special, "Fashion Blackout," could serve as a reality check.

Because the best walk in the world isn't going to get you very far if the people doing the hiring have already disqualified you on the basis of skin shade.

"You'll get the breakdown of the casting [from fashion editors] and it'll be printed out, 'No blacks, no Asians,' " says Roman Young, of Elite Model Management. "So they're pretty blunt sometimes."

"If we had never had it before, then, you know, I wouldn't sweat it," says Bethann Hardison, a pioneering black model in the '60s who went on to found her own agency.

"But we've had it before," she says, and indeed, for a few decades there, the fashion industry's standard of beauty managed to embrace Iman and Naomi Campbell and Banks along with their paler sisters.

Fashion's fickle, though, and in the past decade, we're told, it's the Eastern European look, blond and lean to the point of emaciation, that's been in favor among those for whom models are merely walking clothes hangers.

"These people haven't eaten for three, four generations," says Hardison, only half-joking. "It's very hard to compete with that kind of alignment. That's why the western African girl works more - because she has narrow, narrow hips."

"Alignment" being a word I've tended to associate more with cars than people, it struck me at this point that "Fashion Blackout" might be missing the forest, thanks to the distraction of all those tall, skinny trees.

Yes, it's odd that an industry that owes a chunk of its prosperity to the $20 billion African-American women spend each year on apparel no longer seems interested in giving them an idea of what the clothes might look like on them.

Yes, it's worth having affluent people of color consider boycotting fashion labels that don't employ models of color.

Yes, there are women for whom modeling's been a stepping stone to greater things.

But as one of the millions of women of all colors (and heights) for whom no amount of starvation would result in the slightest chance of a modeling contract, I have to wonder why our culture continues to celebrate an occupation that rewards girls - because they're mostly very young girls - for their ability to wear a sample size without drawing too much attention to themselves.

For all the talk about "supermodels," those lucky few who marry rock stars or start their own empires, most models never make it to the pages of Vogue - and even those who do are at the mercy of an industry that judges them for things over which they have little or no control.

And TV's no better.

On "Project Runway," models are paraded out in matching slips so that designers doing the choosing can look them over without being distracted by the individual's own fashion choices. Even in "Fashion Blackout" the runway models, though not yet ultra-famous, are identified by one name apiece, the way a toy company might name different models of the same doll.

Sure, women of color have a right to whatever rewards might come from what seems like a fairly dehumanizing job.

But sometimes what looks like a step forward might really be two steps back.

Speaking of

new models . . .

When the CW unveiled its 2008-09 schedule a few weeks ago, it left out the details of Sunday night, which it's farming out to a company called Media Rights Capital.

MRC yesterday announced its Sunday night lineup, which consists of a "reality" show, a generic-sounding sitcom and two dramas. All the series were ordered without pilots, and producers will be getting input from advertisers as they're developed, according to MRC.

The new show are:

_ "In Harm's Way" (6:30-7:30 p.m.), a show about people doing dangerous jobs from one of the producers of the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs."

_ "Surviving Suburbia" (7:30-8 p.m.), a sitcom "about a family and their new neighbors." (How'd they think of that?)

_ "Valentine, Inc." (8-9 p.m.), a drama "about an agency that finds lost loves, true loves and mends broken hearts."

_ "Easy Money" (9-10 p.m.), a drama from producers Andrew Schneider and Diane Frolov ("Northern Exposure," "The Sopranos") about a family that's in the "high-interest loan business."*

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