He is merely a photographer, but to thousands of Israeli teenagers Adi Barkan is an idol, the gatekeeper to fame and money. They’ll do anything to get his attention, to have his camera capture their image. They’ll certainly lose a few pounds to do so — sometimes too many pounds.
Now Barkan, 45, Israel’s No. 1 fashion photographer, has reversed course. The man who discovered some of Israel’s top models, such as Sandy Bar and Natalie Raz, has initiated a campaign against being too thin.
Barkan has joined ranks with Likud Party legislator Inbal Gavrieli, who has tabled a bill demanding that models not be employed without a doctor’s certification that they’re not underweight.
It’s a battle against one of the most common mental disorders in the western world — anorexia nervosa, the intense fear of gaining weight followed by crush diets and distaste for any food.
“The number of girls who suffer from anorexia in our small country is unbelievable,” Barkan told JTA. “Some 98 percent of the girls who came to my auditions reported they were dieting,” and nearly 14 percent were anorexic.
So Barkan publicized a small ad last summer in a local Haifa newspaper inviting girls to show up for a modeling competition called “Healthy Look.” Only girls approved by the Health Ministry dietician on hand were allowed to compete in the final stage.
Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia — which is characterized by fits of gluttony and then vomiting — are most commonly found in the middle and upper classes of industrialized countries, where being slim is considered preferable for women.
Surveys have suggested that the diseases affect 1 percent to 2 percent of adolescent girls and young women — and Israel is no exception.
Barkan has met all sorts of aspiring models, including some who couldn’t climb the steps to his office because they were too skinny and weak.
“We can change the present catastrophe. It’s in our hands,” Barkan said.
His Haifa studio has become a pilgrimage destination for girls — and their parents — confident that they’re the next Naomi Campbell, begging Barkan to discover them.
But Barkan has made it a rule that when an applicant looks too skinny, he sends her home to gain weight.
Yasmin Nissim, 16, a high-school student from Rehovot, is still on the waiting list after approaching Barkan a year ago.
“I wanted to become a fashion model. I so much wanted to be a fashion model. I still want to,” she said.
But when she looked in the mirror she didn’t see the skeleton she was.
“The lunacy began when I was 14. My aunt had lost a lot of weight, and I wanted to be like her,” Nissim said. “I easily lost about four pounds, but I wanted to lose more and more.”
She wouldn’t listen to her parents or friends who told her she was becoming dangerously skinny.
Eventually Nissim needed to be hospitalized. When she showed up at Barkan’s studio, he took one look at her and told her, “Come back when you’re 13 pounds heavier.”
Barkan succeeded where others had failed: Nissim so wants to please Barkan, so wants the gates of the fashion world to open, that she went back to eating.
“It’s thanks to Adi that I came out of it,” she said.
The winner in Barkan’s “Healthy Look” competition was Moran Sankovsky, 16, a 5-foot-6-inch, blue-eyed beauty who weighed 139 pounds.
She since has lost nine pounds, and wants to lose nine more. Is she about to lose her contract with Barkan along with the extra pounds?
“No way,” Sankovsky said. “I’m totally at peace with myself, and I feel that I need to lose a little more, but it will not happen to me, I know myself well enough not to make any mistakes.”
The paradox is that Barkan himself used to be one of those who sent fashion models away to diet. He now acknowledges that he indirectly contributed to the anorexia frenzy.
“Obviously I’m part of it,” he said, “but those were the days when Calvin Klein extended the contract of super-skinny model Kate Moss and everyone was following the so-called heroin-chic style.”
To compensate for the past, Barkan has contacted dozens of fashion houses in Israel asking them to join him in the anti-anorexia campaign and sign affidavits pledging that they won’t use models below a certain weight.
“Our customers are mainly teenagers,” said Gidi Goldfinger, manager of Lee Cooper Israel, “but when I see those skinny ones, I prefer an average model.”
Barkan also has received commitments from Strauss-Elite, one of Israel’s largest food industries; Castro fashion house; Bank Hapoalim; Partner cell phones and others.
The Health Ministry also has given its blessing to the campaign, as have school principals who have asked Barkan to speak to their students to pass on the message that the days of “thin is beautiful” are over.
Nissim is still fighting to gain back the pounds she lost so she can get back to Barkan and try again to fulfill her life’s dream.
Once she gets to his office, she’ll face huge posters of Sankovsky and her 139 pounds. Barkan wants Moran to become the counterbalance to models like Kate Moss.
With a dubious health record himself — one bypass operation, seven heart catheterizations and at least two packs of cigarettes a day — Barkan feels this is his debt to the new generation of models.
“I will not rest until I convince top fashion designers like Calvin Klein to join the campaign,” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.