Brow Beat

A Former Model on How Zoolander Reflects the Real Fashion World—and Why the Sequel Fails 

“I’m sorry, did my pin get in the way of your …”

© 2001 Paramount Pictures

When the original Zoolander was released in 2001, it felt like a legitimately scathing parody of fashion industry mores. I’m a Zoolander fan; I also worked as a model in New York, Paris, Milan, as well as my native New Zealand, throughout my teens and early 20s. The original Zoolander is like a funhouse mirror look at the fashion world—nothing in it is real, but some of it is awfully familiar. So I was particularly excited to see the sequel. But that excitement didn’t last long: Zoolander 2, which was released this past Friday, has about as much satirical bite as a fashion magazine celebrity profile.

Zoolander 2 picks up more than a decade after the first film’s happy ending— which, as is explained in a rapid montage, proved fleeting. Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller, who also directs and co-writes) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) are now in exile following various personal tragedies. Worse, the fashion establishment has moved on from the legendary Zoolander “look.” Hansel is living out his retirement in a tent shared with his nine polyamorous partners, who include Kiefer Sutherland and the British model Jourdan Dunn. Derek, who has lost both his wife and custody of his son, Derek Jr., lives alone in a shack on a vast arctic wasteland. It is at this juncture that, thanks to the machinations of the imprisoned villain Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell), Zoolander and Hansel lured to Rome with the promise of walking in a show by the fictional designer Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig).

Also in Rome, conveniently enough, Interpol’s Global Fashion Division, in the person of agent Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz) needs Derek and Hansel’s help. Someone is killing pop stars (Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Madonna) and one of Derek’s old modeling looks may hold the key. Cruz seems to be having fun, but there isn’t much for her to do as Valencia. A back-story about her past as a swimsuit model (which Hansel and Derek find dismaying, in a bit of accurate industry snobbery) feels tacked-on just so we can see Cruz in an Agent Provocateur suit. The rest of the plot makes, if it’s possible to imagine, even less sense.

Zoolander also had a plot thinner than a couture model’s wrist, but the dumb-smart thing was kind of the point. Where the original movie rang most true was in the precision of its writing and characters, just how well it nailed the power dynamics that allow the people at the top of the fashion industry to exist insulated inside their own little worlds: “Oh, did my pin get in the way of your ass?” screams the delightfully evil Mugatu, at a fit model. “Lose five pounds immediately!” Zoolander really got how (some) fashion people talk—the intellectual pretensions that mostly fail to hide a lack of intellectual content, the non sequiturs, the fixation upon power and image, the particular kind of word-salad that can result whenever people who have a gift for thinking visually venture, with all the unwarranted confidence of their positions, into verbal expression.

More than a few times in the intervening years since Zoolander’s release, I’ve experienced moments of recognition, when that movie’s parody felt eerie, a little too real. In the original, when Derek Zoolander delivers a funeral “eugoogoly,” he sagely intones that the deceased “were like brothers to me. And when I say brother, I don’t mean, like, an actual brother, but I mean it like the way black people use it. Which is more meaningful I think.” When the fashion designer Alexander McQueen died, in 2010, the influential street-style photographer Scott Schuman, who never met McQueen, wrote on his blog, “There are people in fashion I always figured I’d meet sooner or later. I’d meet them in a very natural way (introduced by a mutual friend at a party or something) and the encounter would be so much more meaningful that way.”

And not only was Mugatu’s “Derelicte” collection of trash-bag dresses and models in cardboard boxes inspired by a real haute couture collection by then-Christian Dior designer John Galliano, its joke status in Zoolander hasn’t stopped designers—including Vivienne Westwood—from unironically mining homelessness for inspiration in the years since. Zoolander is funny, critically well-regarded—and I found the world it portrays to be recognizable even in its broad outlines (although obviously, as satire, exaggerated).

It’s not that the film feels compromised by its array of fashion product placements (Valentino is  heavily featured, and Cruz and her sister Monica just happen to design a collection for Agent Provocateur); it’s that their mere presence indicates that Zoolander 2 is a much tamer beast than its predecessor. To judge just how unthreatening the sequel is toward the industry it is notionally lampooning, look at the slew of celebrities and fashion industry notables who line up for cameos in the film—and at Stiller and Cruz’s presence on the cover of February’s Vogue. Unlike in Zoolander, which was also cameo-filled but kept the pace of said cameos snappy, whenever someone famous stops by Zoolander 2 it seems that all action stops. It especially doesn’t help that the fashion people get clunkily expository introductions. “That’s ANNA WINTOUR, the EDITOR OF VOGUE,” says Derek at one point. “She’s ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL PEOPLE IN FASHION.”

One figure from the fashion world who is notably absent from the proceedings is Donatella Versace. That is no doubt because Alexanya Atoz is close to a carbon copy of the Italian designer. Wiig’s Atoz may speak English in an almost indecipherable foreign accent—but the long, bleached blonde hair, deeply tanned skin, and artificially plumped lips are all unmistakably based on the look Versace has made her own for years.

As a comic actor, Wiig seems wasted in the role; the character doesn’t get to be either as memorably over-the-top or as menacing as Ferrell’s Mugatu. Instead, most of her jokes revolve around aging. “I haff no fillers, Botox, or surgeries,” she claims, her plasticky-tight cheeks straining as her face moves to form the words. The subtext seems to be, look at this old woman who is trying to fool us into believing she is young! But rather than laughing at the character of Atoz, her scenes made me feel surprising empathy for Versace herself, whose appearance is so cruelly mocked—and for any woman who made, in her younger and more optimistic days, the fateful decision to forge a career in such a youth-obsessed corner of our youth-obsessed society as fashion.

Of course, the fashion world perpetuates the idea that beauty—especially for women—is incompatible with aging. This groundbreaking revelation is, in fact, the driver of what might be charitably called Zoolander 2’s “plot.” The original Zoolander revolved around a murderous conspiracy hatched by major international apparel brands to allow their exploitation of child garment workers in Asia to continue unmolested. Child labor isn’t a totally original allegation to level against Big Fashion, perhaps, but at least it’s a charge with some sting. In the new movie, when Derek and Hansel (with help from, uh, Sting) uncover what Wintour and her nefarious coterie of designers are up to, it’s looking for the fountain of youth so they can better market cosmetics. That’s it? Zoolander 2’s humor is so gentle it feels like a handshake. No wonder Wintour et. al. were happy to participate.

Although Ferrell seems overall a little tired of the character, Mugatu still has the best lines: he lobs insults (“The new Tommy Hilfiger collection: brought to you by white privilege!”) and sneeringly calls Marc Jacobs “Marc by Marc Jacobs,” after the designer’s old, redundantly named lower-priced line. But it’s notable that the film’s best sequence is from an old commercial Zoolander filmed in the ’90s. He appears as a Centaurish half-man, half-cow; Naomi Campbell milks him. If it feels bizarrely familiar, that’s because it is: The image of a woman’s face being spurted with milk from an udder is taken from a real Sisley campaign.