America the Beautiful, is the story of a modelling dream gone sour. The documentary seeks to capture the trials and tribulations of a teen sensation whose world came down crashing in just two years.
Tragically she is still not giving up. She is persisting with her dreams, and her mother keeps egging her on.
The mother is always close by, making sure the daughter isn't wearing anything too revealing on the runway or risking a future paycheck by saying on camera that she doesn't like soy milk.
Gerren Taylor was still playing with Barbie dolls when she walked the runway for the first time at Los Angeles Fashion Week in 2003. Just 12 at the time, she was the youngest person ever to be represented by the runway division of L.A. Models. Although most agencies require girls to be 14, it's not unheard of for 12-year-olds to get work.
So she was hoping to follow in the footsteps of actress Milla Jovovich made the cover of Vogue at 12, and Brooke Shields, Gisele Bündchen and Kate Moss, all of whom became stars before they turned 16.
But she tripped, literally and figuratively. At the Richard Tyler's show in April 2003, she stepped onto the runway in a wedding gown and stumbled hard. She tripped once, then again on the train that was in front of her, because the dress was accidentally put on backward.
She still kept trying though. But when in 2005 she returned from Europe defeated and humiliated, it was all over, almost.
Agonizing over the flaws she perceives in her pancake flat stomach, her flawless face looks straight into the camera and she says, "I'm ugly."
But that of course is only a cry of despair she or her mother doesn't believe in one bit. She could still make it is the refrain in conversations with them.
Why won't she keep dreaming? She lives in a looks-obsessed world. "At school, at lunchtime I'm in the bathroom holding girls' hair while they throw up. My friend's dad took her for a consultation with a plastic surgeon to get rid of her love handles," she says, without any trace of disapproval.
Robert's film that opened Friday follows the arc of her brief career. We see Taylor and her mom, Michele Gerren, struggling to navigate the sexualized world of fashion, while arguing about whether it's too soon for the young model to start wearing a bra. We hear from Taylor's school principal, who says, "How can you comprehend at 12 or 13 that you're going to be discarded?"
Taylor is still stunningly beautiful, with perfect skin and legs so long, they stick out from the other side of the table, writes Booth Moore in Los Angeles Times.
It's difficult to know why Taylor's career ended so soon -- if she got lost in the politics of moving from one agency to another, or whether at 6 feet and a size 4 after she grew into her teenage body, she was too big for industry standards.
"That started in New York, calling her obese at a size 4," says her mother, an amateur model herself at age 19, passing a slice of Margherita pizza to her daughter.
"...that rumor was hard," the teenager says. "I thought I needed to diet . . . I was doing all this to make my mom proud, to make money, and all of a sudden it stopped. I would just eat salad. I didn't want to go to the beach because of my stretch marks."
There is that heart-wrenching moment in Paris, captured in the film - a modeling agent asks her if she has gained weight since her pictures were taken. "Tell me if you want me or not!" Taylor retorts. Her voice gets louder. "Don't ask questions, criticize me, say things that are hypocritical and look at me as if you are totally satisfied with the way you look. I'm human, you're human!"
She had written herself off at 15. Today, Taylor is about to start her senior year of high school in Santa Monica, where she's a volleyball star. She never did make enough money for college, but she's applying anyway, to study psychology. Some kids would have gone to therapy to cope, but Taylor went to church and found support from peers who had the same issues with their bodies, even as they had envied hers in teen magazines.
But now she is whether she is curvy enough for boys to notice her. "Nobody is satisfied," she says. "I had a model friend who was too small. Pants were always way too big for her."
All the same she says she has no regrets. And the film has become its own kind of opportunity. Taylor and her mom have traveled with Roberts to promote it. At the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa, Taylor participated in a seminar for teen girls about self-esteem. She also modeled in a runway show.
"I don't think there is anything wrong with modeling," she insists. (Taylor is still represented by Elite L.A.) "There is Seventeen and Teen Vogue, those are fun. They have teachers on set."
But she also claims that she might one day set up a denim line for women of all shapes and sizes, and a self-esteem camp for girls!
"I still haven't given it up for good," she says. "It's still fun for me. But if I ever do another runway show, I'm going to be walking for the empowerment of women, not just walking on a stage."