Fast Life: Katharina Otto discusses her "Beautopia"
by Mike Jones
Petra Svabenska in “Beautopia.”
The word “Beautopia” evokes the exact opposite of what Katharina Otto’s Sundance
competition doc depicts — the sink-or-swim procedures modeling agencies use to
funnel talent into the image-hungry fashion industry. The film follows four
teenage girls who have dedicated their young lives to reaching the heights of
their single-name idols: Cindy, Claudia, Naomi, and Kate. They each have come a
long way by obtaining an image and impressive portfolio, but they aren’t at a
level yet where they can sustain themselves financially, and to a certain respect
— emotionally. From this vantage point, Katharina Otto has crafted a film that
takes deliberate stabs at the industry, yet retains a fascination with it.
indieWIRE: Obtaining the trust of these four girls seemed integral to the film.
Katharina Otto: For the girls it was a tremendous chance to be filmed. I didn’t
have a choice of who to pick. I couldn’t interview people before. I had to take
what the agencies offered me.
iW: Like a fashion photographer.
Otto: Yeah. What interested me specifically was that we all know how to become a
model. But we see models two ways: either they’re a star, or they’re a
supermodel. We never see the ones with potential who were just thrown out of
the business. And that’s what interested me, of course. How do you get there?
Is it worth it? Why do you want to get there?
The tragic character for me was Sara, because she has invested a lot of time in
it. She was at a point in her career where she knew “this is the only chance”.
This is the one moment in your life where you’re going to get this kind of
exposure. She had stopped school. She didn’t have a high school diploma. She
didn’t have a chance to go to college. So she had to stick with her guns. She is
still working, but is that what you want to do as a regular job making regular
kind of money and take that kind of abuse and travel day in and day out, where
you’re still not at the point where you can afford an apartment. You’re the
eternal hitchhiker. Very frustrating. Many of those girls come from very humble
backgrounds. They support their families. And I think in all this fashion
hype and pseudo-glamour we forget that many girls have siblings they are putting
iW: As time went by did you find these girls opening up more to you and the
Otto: When things were going well, they were open. When things started to
fizzle, it was more difficult to the point of where you couldn’t even get a
shot of them saying “Stop the camera.” The ones who were very street smart
used the camera right away. Some thought if they came with the camera then
of course they’d get the modeling job. When that didn’t happen then some of
the faith in us was gone.
iW: What happened then? Were they reluctant to return your phone calls?
Otto: No, we were around then all the time. But they would want to be alone,
or go to bed early, or wouldn’t talk anymore. It’s humiliating to get caught
not getting a job.
iW: Did it become difficult to follow them to certain jobs?
Otto: Yeah. Not so difficult to follow them necessarily but to get an assessment
from them afterwards. I think the film shows you have to grow up incredibly fast.
You can’t really ask your parents what to do or what not to do because they don’t
know the business. They’re left to there own devices to take care of themselves.
The German girl is only 16 years old. The industry treats you like a commodity
because they know they’re going to see 50 just like you just afterwards. They
don’t see a girl with dreams in front of them, it’s just “Nah, her hair’s too
In the Q&A they were asking “Did you ever think you would portray this industry
so negatively?” I don’t think it’s negative. I think it’s pretty realistic. I
mean, look at me. I humiliate myself day in and day out. (laughs) I begged for
those interviews. I begged for the financing. I’m making a complete ass of
myself half the time. I get rejected all the time. Everybody has to be a
Sundance at a very young age. Thank god I’m not forty. American society drives
us to be successful at a very young age, which is really not very good because
how can you have something to say if you haven’t learned anything?