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Book News

Supermodel's story is no fluff job

'Desert Flower'
by Waris Dirie

William Morrow & Co., $25

Review by Wendy Brandes

Web posted on: Friday, November 27, 1998 11:45:23 AM EST

(CNN) -- Pity the pretty model? Never! We may desire her, resent her, accuse her of sowing the seeds of anorexia in a society that is actually packing on the pounds. But shed a tear upon learning that Ms. September Vogue's high school classmates called her "Beanpole"? We who spend more time with Ben & Jerry than with Calvin and Donna care nothing for such torments.

In the literary world, the model is the ideal female character for '80s has-beens such as Jay McInerney. Hey, everybody! Socially acceptable misogyny! She walks, she talks, she's beautiful and stupid. And no one will complain because the ranks of model defenders are even thinner than models themselves, if not quite as thin as the plot of McInerney's latest novel, "Model Behavior."

But not every gorgeous girl is to the House of Style born. In fact, model Waris Dirie, who tells her story with the help of Cathleen Miller in "Desert Flower," was one of 12 children born to nomads in Somalia's desert. There, precious water was reserved for cattle, goats and sheep and people lived on camel milk. Corn and rice were treats to be savored, and when a pesky younger brother, Ali, swiped a last bite from Dirie's bowl, she stabbed him in the leg. (He yanked out the knife and stuck her in the same place. Neither was seriously injured.)

At an age when children in the United States would be attending first grade, Dirie was tending the family's goats and sheep, herding them in search of sustenance at sunrise and coming back as dark fell. Symbolically, she was already a woman, having undergone ritual circumcision when she was five years old. Known to its opponents as female genital mutilation, the procedure is a religious tradition for some Muslims, but, as Dirie notes, there is a more pragmatic motivation: "Virgins are a hot commodity in the African marriage market."

So, held down by her mother and clenching a root between her teeth, Dirie suffered the amputation of most of her genitalia by a gypsy woman wielding a broken razor blade. She survived, unlike an older sister who bled to death, and was sewn up tightly with thorn needles and thread. Her virginity was thus supposedly guaranteed till her wedding night "when my husband would either cut me open with a knife or force his way in." That night loomed when Dirie was about 13, and her father arranged her marriage to a much older man in exchange for five camels.

Instead, Dirie fled across the desert barefoot, dodging lions and fending off rapists. She wound up cleaning house for relatives in Mogadishu until an uncle by marriage -- who happened to be Somalia's ambassador to England -- took her out of Africa.

Dirie stayed in London after the ambassador and his family went home, betting that life as an illiterate, illegal alien working at McDonald's held more promise than the arranged marriage or servitude that awaited her in Somalia. And sure enough, a photographer noticed her imposing profile and a modeling career gradually blossomed. It wasn't easy for a black model to get work, particularly one whose legs were bowed by childhood malnutrition. But Dirie was accustomed to persevering. In the desert, she says, "No one accepted the excuse 'I can't.' My mother told me to find water, so I had to find water."

Dirie maintained her good-humored determination through two wretched marriages of convenience. A crooked immigration lawyer arranged the first with drunk old Mr. O'Sullivan, who upon receiving Dirie's last 20 pounds started bellowing at her in the street. As people stared, Dirie suspected they were wondering why, "if I was the whore, I was paying him." Unable to convince the authorities that this was a match made in heaven, she faced imminent deportation, and a friend's brother urged her to divorce Mr. O'Sullivan and marry him. A divorce turned out to be unnecessary: "Shortly after we discovered Mr. O'Sullivan rotting in his kitchen, Nigel and I were married." Nigel himself became insanely possessive and escaping him became another ordeal.

But escape she did -- to New York, to a successful modeling career and an increasingly visible role as a spokeswoman against female genital mutilation. While her good looks never made her life easy, they gave her a Darwinian advantage when she needed it. And her book leaves no doubt that she has earned every bit of her success.

One of Dirie's peers, Irina Pantaeva, hits on a similar theme in her own book, "Siberian Dream," for which Jay McInerney supplied an unconsciously ironic cover blurb: "If I didn't know Irina, I'd have a hard time believing in her existence." Pantaeva, too, was never one of the pampered pretty. She grew up as part of an ethnic minority in the coldest reaches of the Soviet Union and used the runway to escape the hardships of her disintegrating homeland.

Who knows, maybe mindlessness and modeling don't go together automatically after all. It's enough to make me think that Texan supermodel Bridget Hall's next go-see should be at a publishing house.

Wendy Brandes supervises financial markets coverage for CNNfn. She lives in New York City.

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