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Film rose from obsession with beauty

How do you measure the passage of moviemaking time?

Would you say Darryl Roberts needed five years to finish his dream project, a documentary about the way women torture themselves to meet artificial standards of allure?

Or would you count the decade he spent “preparing” for the project by dating two women – each for five years – and then dumping them, because they didn't meet some elevated standard of exterior beauty?

Either way, the 46-year-old filmmaker is a little sadder, much wiser and traveling the country to promote “America the Beautiful,” which has settled into Charlotte this week. It's a kind of return for him – he attended Johnson C. Smith University for two years in the '80s – and even that had something to do with a woman.

“I followed my girlfriend to JCSU,” says Roberts, who grew up on Chicago's South Side. “I'd never been down South – I don't think I'd even been out of Illinois – but she left Charlotte after a year. I stayed one more year and worked on the radio station at JCSU, then got homesick and came back to Illinois.”

He knew he wanted to stay behind a camera. He directed a 1980s film that nobody saw, “Sweet Perfection” (aka “The Perfect Model”), about “how to find a good human being, not somebody physically perfect.”

He wrote and directed one in the 1990s, the independent romantic comedy “How U Like Me Now,” that did well enough on home video that the executive producer at Chicago's WMAQ-TV made him an entertainment reporter. He studied design and ended up designing furniture for a couple of years, then went to California to direct commercials and music videos. But most crucially for his future, he dated.

“I was with one girl for five years, then another one for five years. They were beautiful on the inside, yet I didn't marry them. I had been obsessed with having a beautiful woman, way more obsessed than an average guy. So now, at 46, I haven't found anyone as good as the ones I had before. And it may not ever happen for me now.

“I had to ask myself why I was so obsessed. That's when I thought of a movie about the way our culture treats beauty. I thought it'd take six months, and it ended up going from January 2003 to July 2008. Had I known that upfront, there's no way I would ever have done it!”

The basic story follows long-legged model Gerren Thomas, a sensation at 12 who was exploited and discarded within a couple of years. Roberts moves on to explore body types, eating disorders, unhealthy cosmetics and plastic surgery.

“The dilemma was, how do I get this thing over with?' he recalls. “I wanted to start editing after 400 hours of footage, and I didn't have a clue where to start. I began to panic, but I'd seen ‘Bowling for Columbine,' which was a bunch of pieces that don't go together (linked) by Michael Moore's voice.

“I paid a service $29.95 to get the name and number of Moore's editor, Kurt Engfehr. He said, ‘I'm incredibly busy. Send me the footage, and when I don't like it – not if, but when – can I tell you to go away?' I said sure. He called back and said, ‘You complicated my life, because I like it. I have to help.'”

The final product, which began to circulate this summer, has made Roberts an activist. He's touring with the film, lecturing at universities and high schools – and middle schools soon, he says – and hoping for small victories along the way, such as recent legislation that classified eating disorders as mental illnesses, so they can be covered by health insurance.

But is he pessimistic or optimistic about the future?

“I'm pretty pessimistic about the industry, because everything they do is driven by making billions of dollars. I'm optimistic about the effects people can have. I asked thousands of people to call, write and e-mail MTV about the reality show ‘Model Makers,' and the network decided not to show it. I know parents who raise their kids by telling them, ‘You're kind and smart and warm and compassionate' and have banned the word ‘pretty.'

“You know, these images don't even satisfy the people who are selling them. I interviewed supermodels in New York during fashion week who would say, ‘I'm not really pretty, because I don't look like the Vogue cover I did that was airbrushed and altered. So when people meet me in person, I'm disappointing.' We've gotten to the point where we don't just want to look like models, we want to look like pictures of models. And those aren't real.”

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