Project Space: Leah DeVun

by Dan Boehl

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      Leah DeVun didn’t know what she was in for when she visited the Houston rodeo parking lot before a Hannah Montana concert. There, crowds of young girls were dressed in makeup and wigs waiting in line to see the star they had come to emulate. DeVun was struck by how young the girls were, as young as four, and how homogenous in appearance. Through Hannah Montana, Disney’s machine penetrates a young audience, marketing the TV show, concert tickets, clothing, accessories and makeup to girls. Just consider that four and five-year-olds are ripe consumers at that tender age.

      Those of you who don’t have school-aged daughters may not realize the potency of the Hannah Montana story. Hannah lives a double life as ordinary teenager by day and (wholesome) pop starlet by night. The series theme song (which doubled as the name of her first sold-out tour) “the Best of Both Worlds” voices the fantasy with the lines “In some ways you’re just like all your friends/but on stage you’re a star” and “You get to be a small town girl/But big time when you play your guitar.” The Montana myth is so infectious that one of my friends won’t let her four-year-old watch the show because her daughter mimics the coy pop star. As the mother put it, her daughter is too young to be batting her eyes and flipping her hair.

      DeVun assumed the concert girls had been dressed by their mothers in a kind of child beauty pageant relationship. But once she arranged portrait sessions with the families, it was clear the Montana fantasy belonged solely to the girls. The “photo shoot” prospect excited them so much that some called DeVun to set up appointments hours after meeting her in the concert parking lot. The photography sessions reinforced the secret pop star fantasy, giving shape to it like a bedroom poster. DeVun scheduled girls for individual sessions over a dozen weekends, and the girls brought their own Montana props, often leaving things behind in the studio like tokens to their adoring fans. In front of the lens, the girls stood in glamour poses and copped for the camera like models on a runway.

      The final portraits are as complex as they are startling. The youngest model is only four, yet she appears to be eleven. A blond seven-year-old looks fifteen. The girls exude a sense of confidence that, while canned, is unmistakable and compelling. The portraits may indict corporate marketing trying to turn a profit by socializing girls to their products but they are also litmus tests of early childhood identity, revealing how young girls perceive themselves and want to be perceived by others at such an early age.

      Leah DeVun may be found on the web at www.leahdevun.com. Selections from the artist's Hannah Montana series Beauty Knows No Pain will appear in the upcoming New American Talent at Arthouse, June 20 to August 23, 2009.

      Dan Boehl lives in Austin, where he is working on a post-petroleum children's novel.

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