How “Blue Steel” Predicted Selfie Culture

Fashion
As Zoolander turns 20, we’re looking back at its unusually prescient take on image and self-presentation.

Ben Stiller in Zoolander 2001.

Ben Stiller in Zoolander, 2001.CBS / Getty Images

When Ben Stiller debuted his professionally good-looking character Derek Zoolander at the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards, it was easy to laugh at him. Over the course of a three-minute video sketch, the spiky-haired supermodel mugged for the camera and waxed in modelese about his vainglorious craft. He relayed the challenges of practicing his runway turns and maintaining his personal hygiene, and, at one point, even admitted to spending “four to eight hours in front of a mirror trying a tilt of the head or a furrow.” All that work, he explained, was in service of his two signature (and completely identical) looks, “Ferrari” and “Blue Steel,” which both feature a raised brow, pursed lips and the misguided confidence that everyone knows the difference between them.

As intended, Zoolander came off as a narcissistic moron with a complete lack of self-awareness. But the dumb-guy satire made an unusually strong impression on those tuning in. “I remember meeting up with [Ben] a few weeks after the show in L.A. and him saying he’d been approached by more people because of that short film than pretty much any of his movies he’d done to that point,” says Joel Gallen, the show’s executive producer and skit’s co-creator. “People [were] coming up to him and saying, ‘Do the Blue Steel.’ We knew we had something special at that point.”

At Gallen’s urging, Stiller eventually expanded the sketch, teaming up with writers Drake Sather and John Hamburg in 2001 for a feature-length comedy. They called it, naturally, Zoolander. Released 20 years ago this week, the movie, about a supermodel who gets brainwashed to assassinate the Malaysian prime minister, doubled down on Derek’s superficial qualities, airheaded humor, and naive self-obsession. Despite struggling at the box office in the wake of 9/11, the comedy eventually found its intended audience. Most importantly, though, it introduced “Blue Steel” to a mass audience, turning Derek’s most popular look—complete with blown-out hair, pale makeup and a black-and-white headscarf—into the movie’s most iconic gag.

Before the internet’s explosion, Derek’s conceited qualities felt like simple caricature. But two decades later, his goofy self-branding doesn’t feel funny so much as prescient. After all, what is “Blue Steel”—a comical contortion of pouty lips, contoured cheeks, and a faraway look—but a face built for selfie culture? In a digital landscape obsessed with self-image, Derek feels like just another influencer in the vein of the Kardashians and viral TikTok stars, constantly cultivating his cache of celebrity. “These are people who have created themselves, they’ve made a brand out of themselves,” says Zoolander’s costume designer David C. Robinson. “It was as if [Derek] was created by social media.” Twenty years on, Zoolander remains an impactful inflection point, a pop cultural marker that predicted the growth and embrace of our desire to perfect—and then share—images of ourselves.

Ben Stiller in Zoolander, 2001.Everett Collection / Courtesy of Paramount

The original idea for “Blue Steel” started, appropriately, in the mirror. As explained in a 2016 Esquire interview, Stiller was “brushing my hair or whatever,” when his wife stopped him to ask why he was making such weird faces. “It’s just that thing you do that you think makes you look good,” he said, “which really has no correlation to reality.” Soon, he and Sather began brainstorming a variety of silly names for his various poses, but “there was no difference between the looks,” Gallen laughs. “That was the funny part of it.”

To make “Blue Steel” pop onscreen, Stiller knew he needed to elevate his original sketch-comedy aesthetic. That started with his goopy hair, which designer Alan D’Angerio replaced with a puffed-black wig. “I just wanted to intensify the look for film,” says D’Angerio, who spent about four months crafting three wigs for the duration of the shoot. “The knotting was done in different places where I could give it more fullness and less fullness, to just balance it and make it more perfect-looking—because Derek was perfect.”

He and makeup designer Naomi Donne collaborated on the rest of Derek’s appearance, researching glossy fashion magazines from the ‘90s and noticing a general androgynous quality shared by the era’s models. Inspired by Derek’s obsession with his features, Donne “did a lot of makeup on him to give him a slight mannequin look,” she says. “Usually I go for a very natural look, but on this he was covered [with] quite a heavy foundation. It didn’t particularly show that much, but he had this sort of flawless skin, chiseled cheek, [and] I did some definition to make his eyes pop.”

Robinson, the costume designer, was tasked with providing context for the famous look. For the film’s iconic “Blue Steel” shot, he went over the top with a Gucci-printed outfit. “I had the sweater and the scarf there, and I didn’t really think about it being wrapped around his head. That just happened while we were on set—he put it on his head, and Naomi and Alan just sort of got into it,” Robinson says. “It also varied his look…You want to have a variety so it stays interesting.”

Derek’s silky-smooth pout popped even more in the presence of Mugatu, Will Ferrell’s villainous fashion magnate whose ludicrous features were outdone only by his plotting to maintain the industry’s inhumane child labor practices. As a direct contrast to Derek’s flat-ironed hairstyle, D’Angerio transformed the actor’s curly locks into Leia-like buns and “bleached the shit out of Will Ferrell’s hair,” Donne laughs. “I took it to the highest color I could get his hair to go,” D’Angerio says. “And then I started giving the haircut and he had a really nice nape [and] hairline, and as I’m cutting it, I started seeing an ‘M,’ so I cut an ‘M’ in the back for Mugatu.”

Robinson finished the outlandish look by fastening Ferrell with a corset, once again accentuating the extremes these characters would go for their personal brand. “The Mugatu style is really out there,” Robinson says. “We just approached each scene in terms of what would be funny.”

In 2013, Jason Feifer went viral when he published a Tumblr called “Selfies at Funerals,” a blog dedicated to sharing photos posted by teenagers moments before mourning. On a recent vacation, Feifer had been intrigued by tourists breaking out their best duck faces in front of the Anne Frank House, and wanted his site to capture similar extremes without judgment. “I was really curious about this impulse to [take selfies] extending to the places where maybe we should think twice,” he says. Of course, those early posters could have easily been taking their cues from Zoolander. In a scene midway through the movie, Derek attends a funeral dressed in a wildly inappropriate all-white suit, and spends the majority of his eulogy announcing his retirement from modeling while striking a few “Blue Steels” to the crowd. Though mostly played for laughs, Derek’s behavior—a kind of permanent performance—feels tailor-made for our livestream era.

“I think we are by nature storytellers and communicators, and we have always done that with the tools available to us,” says Feifer, now the editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur Magazine. “Then we have this tension whether what we’ve just done is this narcissistic thing or whether it’s actually sharing and could be good.”

The movie was part of a broader social moment, one that’s only intensified since the film’s release. As Mark Marino, a professor of writing at the University of Southern California, notes, less than a year after “Blue Steel” became part of the lexicon, the FDA approved the cosmetic use of Botox, allowing non-famous types to build their own perfect faces. By 2006, Myspace and Facebook profile photos had sent the “Duck Face” into Urban Dictionary, and it didn’t take long for Instagram and Snapchat filters to inspire creating the same kinds of homogenized looks and faces. “I think Zoolander is underlining something right at the moment where the whole culture is shifting that way,” says Marino, who also teaches a “selfie class” for freshmen. “It almost more underscores the moment where heterosexual male culture takes a turn towards the vain as well.”

That’s easy to spot in Derek’s three male-model roommates, whose living arrangement suggests an early nod to “Hype House” and other creative enclaves, where influencers all happily endorse brands (think: “Orange Mocha Frappuccino!”) and make viral dance videos in unlikely urban areas. Derek perfecting a “furrow” in the mirror for eight hours feels exaggerated, though it’s not too far in spirit from spending a whole day memorizing a 10-second TikTok dance. “[Derek] identified, and then made completely ridiculous, this thing we were all kind of doing,” Feifer says. “Even as people participate in trends, they also look down upon the trend…[and] Blue Steel is the belief that looking in this ridiculous, unnatural way in a photo is somehow bad for everybody else, but fine for us.”

Near the end of Zoolander, before Derek unveils “Magnum,” his death-defying new look, Mugatu calls out his brainwashed supermodel’s facade. “Blue Steel, Ferrari, Le Tigre—they’re the same face,” he yells. “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.” Naturally, the crowd in attendance don’t listen, instead embracing their loony content creator, eager to witness “Magnum” in person and to support his desire to build his own branded center for “kids who can’t read good.”

It’s yet another way that Zoolander resonates in 2021, an acknowledgment that even the most generous, charitable acts—like promoting literacy and preventing child labor—can still come from a place of self-interest. Like the best and worst of today’s influencers, Derek “had one skill and maximized that skill and made a lot of money off it,” Feifer says. “Who’s to begrudge that?”

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