In the Eyes of the Beholders

Five women who changed the way Israelis define beauty.

Shachar Atwan
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Shachar Atwan

The Miss Israel beauty pageant was first held in 1950. In her book “Fashion in Eretz Israel” ‏(Yedioth Ahronoth Publishers, 1996; in Hebrew‏), Ayala Raz writes that the contestants were asked to appear in what was called “national dress.” Following extensive discussions, the “Daughter of Zion” dress, designed by Pnina Riva in 1936, was chosen . Those were the early years of independence, and the idea of a representative national costume was vital for helping to shape a common, collective identity for a patchwork nation.

Raz also suggests that Israel of the 1950s yearned for a queen − any queen. Any occasion was suitable for crowning one − or at least a princess. Alongside the beauty queen designation, there were also a Water Queen, a Wine Queen and an Air Queen, while regional princesses were also chosen: for Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or the Red Sea. Another pageant was the “1956 Sabra” contest, created by the editors of now-defunct Haolam Hazeh magazine, with the aim of honoring the sabra woman “renowned for her modesty and charm,” who would represent “the spirit of the country and the character of the people.”

The Miss Israel pageant continues to this day in a similar format, but its winners no longer represent the “glory of Israel.” Beginning in the 1960s, alongside the developing fashion industry and growing fashion awareness in the country, beauty queen was chosen under other circumstances, based on other needs, and the values these queens represented changed accordingly. From that moment on, they were called “models” − and they were no longer in need of white dresses with golden trimmings designed by Pnina Riva.

Of course, appearance was of utmost importance when it came to models. Which look was the most popular at any given point in time? The one with which the general public could identify the most. Therefore, when conducting an examination here of the five women who best represented the decades since the 1960s, it is interesting to note that in terms of style, the desired look has remained essentially unchanged.

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Helit Yeshurun
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Michaela BercuCredit: Yaki Halperin
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Chelli Goldenberg.Credit: Mula Eshet

In general, the 1960s were the turning point when the local ideal of beauty merged conclusively with the American one, and Israel’s ethnic diversity was replaced by light-skinned and fair-haired women whose facial features were classically symmetrical. The late Tami Ben Ami was thus an anomaly as a model: Not only did she differ from this description; the sensual tension created by her facial features contained a dramatic, even threatening dimension. The 1980s − the high point of Ben Ami’s modeling career − were the only period in which a dark-skinned and dark-haired model had a place at center stage. In some sense, this was the moment at which the profession took another turn in this country.

Besides Ben Ami’s extraordinary natural endowments, she brought a new kind of glamour to the modeling profession. While up until then local models strode down the runway with a somewhat apologetic step ‏(Helit Yeshurun saw modeling as a side job, while Chelli Goldenberg went over to acting early on‏) − Ben Ami turned modeling into an exciting way of life. She used her talent for changing her external appearance outside work hours as well, obviously deriving great enjoyment from these transformations.

As for changing fashion trends in the country, rather than representing them through the clothes they wore while modeling, each of these women, in their personalities, also reflected the spirit of the times. Goldenberg was the unquestioned glamour girl of the Israeli hegemony , the well-behaved daughter of a good family. Ben Ami was her negative image: The public life she led was a mix of highly publicized love affairs, dramatic circumstances and enigma. It is hard to say whether she represented the formative forces of this extravagant decade, or was its victim.

A decade later, Michaela Bercu realized local teens’ dream of instant success in the developing profession of modeling, which came of age in the 1990s. Her distinct facial features − the high cheekbones, the sharp jaw and the full lips − coincided with an intense moment in the fashion trends of that decade, and with the preference for pure shapes and lines that was a reaction to the flamboyancy of the 1980s.

As for Bar Refaeli, who, for lack of any other candidate, continues to stand out even in the current decade as well it seems that her strength is in her ability to ride the digital age and the virtual possibilities afforded by the Internet to be in more than one place at a time. Her looks are hard to place geographically, and it even seems strange to define her as a model. Although she has participated in haute couture shows in Paris, her connection to fashion is limited, and in fact she is remembered as someone for whom clothes are not a high priority.

That could also explain why the most famous Israeli model today represents a popular clothing brand ‏(Fox‏), and why the woman who appeared in the most prestigious fashion venues doesn’t think twice before taking on a new advertising campaign in a pink track suit. Some may say this is the beauty of our present era, this is its queen.

The 1960s: Helit Yeshurun

The daughter of poet Avot Yeshurun, who later became a literary figure ‏(translator and editor‏) in her own right, came to modeling in the 1960s with an elite cultural pedigree. She was the pretty girl who happened upon the profession at a time when any role in the fashion world was reserved for a select few, and its ambassadors were chosen from among the social elite.

Yeshurun was well liked by photographer Peter Herzog since she was educated and could converse on art and culture; she was also a particular favorite of Pini Leitersdorf, the designer for the then-trendy Maskit fashion house. Four large black-and-white photos from the archives of the designer, featuring the young model, hung in Leitersdorf’s bedroom.

“I like both the miniskirt and trousers, not because they’re fashionable but because they suit me. I don’t know what the future will bring,” the model said in a Maariv interview in 1969. “I can’t stand the maxi-skirt, it looks terrible. A large, clumsy block of clothing walking on two feet, and all because the fabric producers want to sell more material.”

The 1970s: Chelli Goldenberg

Goldenberg had an impressive local career: She appeared in fashion events showcasing designs by Gottex and Doreen Frankfurt, was the face of Britain’s Mary Quant cosmetics, and was photographed for the covers of many magazines. At the same time, however, she branched off in other directions. The ambiguous attitude toward the modeling profession on the part of the wholesome blonde with the radiant gaze reflected its status at the time.

“Once someone asked me in some interview what it’s like to be beautiful, and I answered honestly, maybe it was a little naive since the answer might sound haughty, that I don’t know, since I’ve never been not beautiful,” Goldenberg told At magazine in 2010.

The 1980s: Tami Ben Ami

More than among any of her colleagues, the rise of Ben Ami was tied to the success story of a local brand. Her athletic body and dark skin tone made her the ultimate representative for the Gottex swimsuit and beachwear brand.

In 1972, just after she was chosen first runner-up at the Israeli Princess competition held by At magazine, Ben Ami burst onto the Israeli fashion scene. She was called “queen of the runway,” “noble savage” and “a one-woman fashion show,” as well as other descriptions that added to her enigmatic figure.

If the essence of fashion is to give shape to changes in the spirit of the times, and models give these changes a face, then Ben Ami excelled in this more than anyone.

“I love clothes that have many meters of fabric,” she said in a 1987 interview with Davar newspaper. “Above all, a girl has to take into account her body size. If her legs are pretty and she is thin, the miniskirt will look good.”

The 1990s: Michaela Bercu

The 1990s were a decade in which Israel exported an impressive assortment of successful models, including as Amit Machtinger, Kim Iglinksy, Maayan Keret, Yael Reich, Miki Maman and Shiraz Tal. But the most successful local model back then, and of all time, is Bercu, who first gained renown when photographed at the age of 13 by Menachem Oz. For two decades she appeared on the covers of leading magazines throughout the world, starred in international campaigns, and walked down runways in the world’s most important fashion centers.

Her most famous appearance was on the cover of Vogue in November 1988, the first issue edited by Anna Wintour. Nineteen-year-old Bercu was seen in a photo shot by Peter Lindberg, wearing Gap jeans and a bejeweled Christian Lacroix shirt. This aroused attention since it was the first time that the cover of Vogue featured a model dressed in jeans and photographed in such a natural pose.

“Height is a very sensitive issue for me,” the 1.8-meter tall Bercu told Yedioth Ahronoth’s weekend magazine last year. “When my husband met me, he said he would never go out with someone so tall. When people look at me in the street I’m always sure it’s not because they recognized me or because I’m pretty, but because of my height. I’m ashamed of my height.”

2000s: Bar Refaeli

As the daughter of a model, and someone whose modeling career began when she herself was eight months old, Refaeli grew up in front of the camera, behind which stood the entire Israeli public. That could explain the sense of public involvement in her international career − locals taking pride of the romance she has with a Hollywood star of the first rank, or being disappointed when she carelessly kisses a stranger at a public ceremony.

In 2010 she walked down the runway at a Louis Vuitton show in Paris, but Refaeli ‏(now the subject of some controversy because the army, in which she did not serve, is demanding that she not be featured in an Israeli propaganda campaign‏), is not considered a haute couture model per se. Around here she is considered the prettiest girl in town, someone who can appear on the covers of foreign magazines in tiny swimsuits or on huge billboards, and as the face of a local clothing chain.

“Modeling is temporary, and should be enjoyed as long as possible,” she told the Hebrew-language At magazine in 2011. “It can be over in two years, or it can go on for another 15 years. Let’s say that if I have another seven years, that’s fine. I always prefer looking at things with a clear and practical mind, without expectations for the future.”

Michaela Bercu, Tami Ben Ami, Bar Refaeli, Chelli Goldenberg.Credit: Yaki Halperin, Gottlieb‏, AP, Mula Eshet

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