Beauty Worship: A controversial church preaches to models
New York Magazine, 13 April 1998.
By Paula S Bernstein
Marc Thompson stands in the basement of St. Veronica’s Church on Christopher Street, a bare fluorescent-lit space that could pass for a high-schoolauditorium, and preaches to a crowd of about 200. He discusses the burdens of faith, cites a passage of Scripture, and passes the hat.
At a glance, it seems a typical service — unless, that is, you look closely at the congregation. The high cheekbones, the clean jaw lines, the gym-toned physiques: These are no ordinary parishioners. These are models.
Actually, a few of them are singers or dancers, but they’re still a whole lot prettier than your average flock. They’re here as members of the Arts and Media Professionals (AMP) Ministry, a branch of the International Church of Christ that was founded to address the particular spiritual needs of show people. “If youIre in a ministry with people who work at nine-to-five jobs,” says Carla Gehl, the leader of AMP’s women’s group, “they see God differently than performers. Performers tend to be more emotionally based, not as logic-minded.” So the ministry’s services include dancing, singing, and occasional dramatic performances and are held during weekdays, to accommodate the shooting (or waitressing) schedules of its members.
Though many outsiders look on such fields as modeling and singing as one big den of iniquity, these members see their professional and religious lives as profoundly linked. “Jesus was a model. We have never seen his picture, but it’s not necessary to know what he looks like,” explains Taras Mashtalir, a 22-year-old who joined AMP after emigrating from Russia last spring — and who has since appeared in Details. “In modeling and in my music,” he says, “I am trying to be like him.”
Critics have taken a much dimmer view of the Church of Christ, and the role that the performers’ ministry plays in it. One of the fastest-growing religious groups in North America, ICC has been banned from numerous college campuses for its aggressive recruiting methods. And Ron Enroth, author of Churches That Abuse, warns that “the ICC uses talented people — whether they’re celebrities or artists or gifted people — as window dressing. It’s one form of attaining legitimacy.” A few critics have gone further. Dave Anderson, who coordinates a help line for people who have left ICC, accuses it of “using mind-control or thought-reform techniques.” (Kip McKean, the church’s founder, has repeatedly said that it’s not a cult.) Anderson worries that people “might join AMP feeling that it will help further their career.”
If they did join for that reason, however, they might not be disappointed: Though the group does not explicitly endorse networking, its leaders are proud to mention its most famous adherents, such as Geoff Owens, of The Cosby Show fame — you know, the guy who marries the daughter who isn’t the cool one or the cute one or the sassy one? Managers and agents, after all, might be powerful, but the Lord, the Bible says, is almighty. “If you put God first,” says Gehl, “he’ll put you where he wants you — whether it’s on the big screen or in little Off Broadway productions.” Trained as an opera singer, Gehl now devotes most of her time to the church.
“Right now, the fashion world is very keen on accepting everyone for everything,” says Michael Malizia, president of Aqua Modeling Agency. “So whether you’re into a religion or a certain belief system — whether its about fur or meat or milk products — it’s still possible to achieve a superstar status.”
Nevertheless, piety and fashion aren’t always an easy fit. Jeni, a corn-fed blonde from Wisconsin, refused to appear in ads for cigarettes, lingerie, or bathing suits, which eventually forced her out of modeling altogether. (She has since sung at the Bitter End, and recently married a fellow AMP member.) Taras has struggled, too: Despite his continued interest in Jesus, his relationship with the AMP Ministry has waned since he first joined. Just last month — by coincidence, no doubt — the Aqua agency terminated his contract. Still, he maintains a spiritual perspective on his profession. “Modeling is a God-given gift,” he says. At his first shoot, he recalls, “I tried to pray. I looked at the camera and I was talking to God.”