'Original' supermodel tells all


Already animated, '70s supermodel Janice Dickinson shifts into overdrive when the camera starts clicking.

She grins, she pouts, she climbs up onto a windowsill in spiky three-inch heels. She sprawls, Diane von Furstenberg dress and all, on the tile floor next to the swimming pool at her downtown Chicago luxury hotel.

"I'll do anything for a photo," says Dickinson, as she tosses aside her red sandals and descends, still swathed in von Furstenberg, into the water.

"I'm the real deal."

Three decades after she broke the blond barrier in high fashion, leading the way for a succession of dark-haired, lush-lipped, ethnic-looking supermodels such as Cindy Crawford, Dickinson is back with a new tell-all memoir and all the drama of an old-school diva.

The book, No Lifeguard on Duty: The Accidental Life of the World's First Supermodel, makes reference to Dickinson's alcoholism and illegal drug use, her stints in rehab, her breast implants and her three failed marriages.

The author appears topless -- albeit artfully concealed -- on the cover, and reports on the bedroom performances of such famous lovers as Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Sylvester Stallone.

But Dickinson, 47, says those who see only the salacious details miss the point.

"This is truly a cautionary tale," she says, referring to her childhood with a "perverted freak" father who, she says, beat her repeatedly and sexually abused her older sister.

"I wrote this book to help young people come out of the closet, literally, and to embrace them to tell any secrets that they're holding inside. What happened to me was, [the abuse] modified my behavior and led to an excessive lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, sexual acting out, because I didn't have a lifeguard on duty.

"There was never anybody there to protect me."

Impossibly tall, thin, tanned and toned, with a fire-engine red dress that reveals more than it hides, Dickinson, who is in town to promote her book, strides through the lobby of Chicago's Hotel Inter-Continental like the Ghost of Disco Past.

A woman with gray hair looks up from her seat in the hotel bar, frowns disapprovingly and shakes her head.

Dickinson, making her way to a table in the back of the bar, where she sips a chai latte and refers to herself as "Janice Dickinson from the Jurassic Era," demonstrating the brassy style that helped make her a hit with the Studio 54 crowd.

But the freewheeling Janice Dickinson -- Janice parties with Andy Warhol! Janice poses for Playboy atop a pile of live crocodiles! -- is only part of the story.

Today, Dickinson is trying to overcome a troubled past defined, she says, by a father who attempted to sexually abuse her when she was 9. She resisted successfully, she writes in the book, but he hit her, told her she was "trash" and threw her across the room.

Her father, now deceased, beat and berated her repeatedly in the years that followed, according to the book, while her mother retreated into prescription drug abuse. Dickinson was determined to get away from her father and her hometown of Hollywood, Fla., at the first possible opportunity, and modeling looked like her ticket out.

She arrived in New York in the mid-1970s, at a time when the fashion world was fixated on the blond, blue-eyed, American ideal. There were black models -- Iman, Beverly Johnson -- but white models were snow-white.

"I'm sorry, dear. You're much too ethnic. You'll never work," industry legend Eileen Ford told Dickinson, who is of Polish and British descent. But if Dickinson was an unlikely cover girl, she was a determined one, knocking on door after door despite repeated rejections.

Eventually, she walked into a photo shoot, pretended to be the model the photographer was waiting for, and tricked him into taking some professional-caliber pictures of her. One of the big agencies -- Wilhelmina -- liked the photos and gave her a chance, and her career took off, first in Europe, where a modeling strike helped open the door, and then the United States.

She worked with the greatest photographers in fashion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, appeared in issue after issue of Vogue and became a beacon of sorts for a wide range of women -- Italian, Hispanic, Greek, biracial -- who longed to see their own physical features in the big magazines.

Given America's shifting demographics, the inclusion of ethnic-looking models would have happened anyway, but it probably happened sooner because of Dickinson. Even today, we see her influence in the face of Cindy Crawford, who looked a lot like model Gia Carangi, who, in turn, resembled Dickinson.

And while Dickinson's claim that she was the first supermodel is debatable -- Cheryl Tiegs and Lauren Hutton are more obvious candidates -- she, perhaps more than anyone, pioneered the idea of the model as high-profile, high-fashion party girl. She claims she even coined the term "supermodel," in response to a remark by her then-agent, Monique Pillard: "Janice, you are working night and day. Who do you think you are, superman?"

"No, honey," Dickinson said. "I'm supermodel."

Her professional life was a dream come true, but, after two major relationships ended with men cheating on her, her personal life spun out of control.

"I thought, 'OK, let me begin the spiral downwards.' And that's when all bets were off, baby," she says. "I went out every night at Studio [54]. ... The betrayal! I just went" -- she makes a sound of screeching tires -- "Errrrrr! Into reverse! I went on a tear that lasted until July 17, 2000."

The tear included cocaine, alcohol, Warren Beatty, a drive across Italy in a "borrowed" Ferrari, a tryst conducted in a nun's habit and two failed marriages. It spanned several continents and lasted well beyond the peak of her modeling career.

About two years ago, a friend barged into her bedroom, found her in the midst of a cocaine and vodka binge and whisked her off to an AA meeting, setting her on a bumpy road to recovery. Dickinson stopped drinking and threw her energy into her photography and her two children, Nathan, now 15, and Savannah, 8. She mended fences with her children's fathers, an ex-husband and a former boyfriend.

And she began writing her book.

Today, Dickinson, who has worked as a celebrity photographer, says she has been sober for two years and is writing a second book. She practices yoga and attends a 12-step program every day.

Her life , she says, is a work in progress: "Before I even open my eyes at the crack of dawn, my head tells me, don't get up today. Don't make the bed. Don't feed the kids. Don't do anything. ... I have to train myself to get down on my knees, do [an AA exercise], and then I can get up."

She tears up when she talks about her past. She was sobbing, she says, earlier in the day. But she also grins her Cheshire cat grin and banters provocatively when a male fan arrives at her book-signing without a book -- "What da ya want me to sign? Your sleeve? I'm not wearing underwear."

And she goes into dramatic overdrive when it is suggested that, what with the advent of the actress as cover girl, the era of the supermodel has drawn to a close.

"It's unfair, and I'm here to turn it around once again. I'm blowing the dust off my Manolo Blahniks. I'm ready to hoof."

Nara Schoenberg is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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