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TV Interview

Jonathan Phang ('Britain's Missing Top Model')

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Jonathan Phang ('Britain's Missing Top Model')
Top models have to be vibrant, hardworking and incredibly thick-skinned - but most of all they need to look the part. If a girl's face or body doesn't fit, she doesn't get booked. This is why Britain's Missing Top Model poses such a bold, thought-provoking question: can a disabled girl make it as a model? We called fashion guru Jonathan Phang, who appears as a mentor on the show, to find out more.

What's the aim of Britain's Missing Top Model?
"It's about broadening our notions of what beauty is. That's what appealed to me about the show: having worked at model agencies for over 20 years, I think I had tunnel vision of what is and isn't beautiful, and I don't know if that always had a good effect on me. This show gives a bigger choice to girls who feel that their lives are quite limited and it helps them to feel good about themselves."

What sort of disabilities do the girls have?
"There's a whole range of disabilities. We have a couple of deaf girls and a couple of amputees; we have Sophie, who's paralysed from the chest down; and Jenny, who's had a really bad car accident and has quite severe neurological issues. But even with the disabilities we had to make sure the girls were believable as models. They're all very pretty girls."

Is it harder for some of the girls to take part in shoots than others?
"I think everybody had their share of tough shoots. In the nicest possible way, we had to make sure that some things were harder for certain girls at certain points, and easier for them at others, so everyone had an even playing field."

Is the aim of the show to find a disabled model who will change our perceptions of disability, or to find a talented model who just happens to be disabled?
"This is a big issue that keeps coming up throughout the series - it's really difficult. I think first and foremost we have to produce a model with a great set of skills who can do the job convincingly. That's the only way things will change. If we want disabled girls to be represented within fashion, they have to be good models first and foremost."

Is the fashion industry ready for a disabled model, do you think?
"I think no one's ever ready for any change until someone instigates it, because there's normally no one maverick or brave enough to do it. But I don't think the girls should be used as gimmicks. I think the danger is that someone will go very extreme and have someone be very visibly disabled [in a photo shoot] to create an impact and column inches. I don't know if that does the issue any favours at all. These girls want to feel part of society; they don't want to feel singled out."

Presumably there's no reason why they shouldn't take part in the vast majority of photo shoots.
"Absolutely. It's about accommodating the situation. There are ways around it - if a girl's a good enough model and the advertiser wants to use her, you don't always have to show her body from head to toe. Nobody should be prevented from being a model just because she can't do something that an able-bodied girl can do. You know, every model has her limitations."

You appeared on the last three series of Britain's Next Top Model, but you're not on the show this time around. Was it your decision to leave?
"Yes. I work full time and I run a business, so the reality is I can only do a project like this once a year. I'd done three series of Top Model and it was time for the show to move on. I didn't want to regurgitate what I'd done before. Britain's Missing Top Model was in the pipeline and it just offered a different challenge for me."

Have you watched the new series?
"I haven't watched much of it because it would be too weird. I've watched bits and bobs but I just started missing it and thinking, 'Well, if I'd been there...' It's lovely to have it as a nice memory in the past, but I'm looking to the future now."

Britain's Missing Top Model begins Tuesday at 9pm on BBC Three.

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