Looking for a new, French face

A woman poses during a casting by the Elite model agency in Thiais, France.

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Kai Ryssdal: Fashion week kicks off tomorrow in New York City. The latest looks for next Spring will be on display as will hundreds of women showing off those looks. Many of the models will be from the Elite modeling agency -- the firm associated with the likes of Claudia Schiffer and Gisele Bundchen.

Elite opened its doors in Paris 34 years ago, catering to the tastes of the time. But Paris today is a different place. The city and its suburbs especially have become more diverse with residents of North African descent making up one of the largest minorities. And recently, Elite has been dipping into those neighborhoods to recruit talent. John Laurenson reports.


John Laurenson: Nawal, a very beautiful 19-year-old of Algerian-origin, stands in the queue, her number pinned to her chest, waiting for her chance to walk as modelishly as she can down an improvised catwalk in front of the judges from Elite modelling agency.

Rosny-sous-bois, in the heart of the riot-hit Paris suburbs, is an unlikely place to come in search of beauty -- and an equally unlikely place to come in search of opportunity. But for Nawal, and around 200 other young women who've come here today, this is her big chance.

Nawal (interpreter): I've always been fascinated by the fashion world, so I decided to try my luck today. It's not so easy for girls with a Muslim background. Some of my family said I shouldn't even think about modelling. But it's my life, and I intend to live it the way I want.

Three others ahead of Nawal have just made it through to the next round.

Elodie is 15. Her parents moved here from Ivory Coast. She dreams of a success that would change the face of French fashion.

Elodie (interpreter): It would be great to see myself or one of my African sisters in the fashion magazines. Girls can be pretty wherever they come from. Right now, you don't see any girls like me.

To find out why there are so few African-origin models in the fashion magazines, I go where the hopefuls in Rosny-sous-bois dream of ending up: eight miles and a whole world away to one of the fashion shows in the catacombs beneath the Louvre museum.

After the show, I get backstage. I ask Carotte, Marie-Claire magazine's casting director, when she uses black models.

Carotte (interpreter): There's always got to be a reason to put a black girl in a shoot. And generally, the poor things, it's something like a safari theme. We'll take the model off for a shoot in Africa so she can be "in her element," as it were. But there really isn't much demand.

But does it matter what happens in the small and superficial world of fashion? Isn't the success of one black entrepreneur or one Algerian-origin politician worth scores of Naomi Campbells?

The sociologist and Sorbonne professor Eric Mace organized a seminar on the media representation of ethnic minorities earlier this year. He believes upping visibility counts, because it shows the way forward.

Eric Mace: They are in France, they are French, they belong to France. And if they are more visible in TV program or advertisement, maybe the fact that there is no non-white people among the parliament will appear more scandalous.

But getting minorities into commercials is difficult. For Mr. Mace, the advertising industry sees one thing when it sees a non-European-origin face: commercial risk. So back out in the burbs, isn't Elite getting young women's hopes up for nothing?

Elite's president, Gerald Marie, tells a North African girl to come back and see them when she's lost a few pounds. But if she does, and she gets on to Elite's books, would a French luxury brand ever choose her for one of their ads?

Gerald Marie: We have to really be ready to propose to the companies the possibility to choose beautiful kids in the new generations coming from a different ethnic [background].

Three more aspiring models pre-selected, relieved and elated. But this evening, there's another elimination, and there are three more in the coming months. And if Elite wants them, will the market? They still have a long way to go.

In Paris, I'm John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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