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'About Face: Supermodels Then and Now' showcases pretty pioneers on HBO

Models China Machado, left, Kim Alexis and Beverly

Models China Machado, left, Kim Alexis and Beverly Johnson from "About Face" in New York. (July 18, 2012) Credit: AP

Carol Alt subsisted on "an apple here, a carrot there." Paulina Porizkova remembers teenage girls routinely propositioned, in vile ways, by powerful, adult men.

"What people called sexual harassment," she says, "we called compliments." Ah, the life of a supermodel. It wasn't all champagne, clubbing and cocaine, though there was plenty of that, as detailed in HBO's warm, chatty documentary "About Face: Supermodels Then and Now" (Monday night at 9). Candid interviews with a Who's Who of American beauties from the 1950s through the '80s offer a peek behind the runways and glossy photo spreads that idealized (not to say manufactured) physical perfection.

And you won't hate these charmers because they're beautiful.

Glancing at her much younger self in a classic (and stunning) Richard Avedon photo, the silver-haired Carmen Dell'Orefice repeats her mother's words: "You have feet like coffins and ears like Sedan doors."

Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, "About Face" uses terrific archival fashion footage and stills, but the focus is on the models' recollections of their days in the spotlight. They reflect, with grace and humor, on the costs and privileges of glory.

Jerry Hall revels in the headiest pre-dawns of Studio 54, then boasts: "When I turned 50 I felt a sense of achievement. I made it." Baby-voiced Pat Cleveland, a pioneer among mixed-race models, chokes up twice, first recalling racist attacks in the South and then remembering encouragement from famed expatriate Josephine Baker.

Others interviewed include Christie Brinkley, Isabella Rossellini, Cheryl Tiegs, Marisa Berenson, Karen Bjornson, Bethann Hardison, Beverly Johnson, Lisa Taylor and China Machado.

Impressionistic and just 72 minutes long, "About Face" doesn't aim to be anything close to a definitive history of the modeling industry, its social impact or its financial reverberations. Though a denouement of sorts arrives with the supermodels gathering for group photo shoots, the documentary could use a sharper point of view, especially on the big subjects it raises, from drugs and plastic surgery to industry racism and the impact of AIDS on fashion.

But the models, some still working and all looking great (naturally and otherwise) don't hold back.

"If you had a ceiling falling down in your living room, would you not go and have a repair?" says Dell'Orefice, still modeling after 65 years in the business.

"I think it's bad," says Hall, "that we have as role models people who look scary to small children." The sisters in this very exclusive sorority are all clever and thoughtful, occasionally rueful but with hard-won self-esteem.

Says Dell'Orefice, looking fabulous in her eighties, 'When I go, I want to go with my high heels on."

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