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The Untold Truth Of Zoolander

Ben Stiller has appeared in a smorgasbord of famous comedies. There's a great (or less often, terrible) Stiller comedy for practically any type of yuk-fest you enjoy watching, from the wildly successful comedy "Meet the Parents" to the trio of "Madagascar" movies to the provocative "Tropic Thunder." But perhaps one of his most memorable comedies is the 2001 feature "Zoolander." This project notably features Stiller stretching himself to play a role far removed from his nervous everyman archetype.

To portray Derek Zoolander, Stiller had to tackle the personality of an oblivious yet comically confident male model, which is just not the kind of role that pops up frequently in his filmography. It isn't only Stiller's deft and unique performance that makes "Zoolander" stand out, though. The film itself is also a riot and home to a bountiful supporting cast of comedic all-stars, including Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell.

Even if you know every line in "Zoolander" backward and forward, though, the lore of the film is still bound to be full of surprises, particularly when it comes to Derek Zoolander's origins and an animated "Zoolander" TV special that's flown right under the radar. Go grab your diploma from the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too and prepare to study up on the untold truth of "Zoolander."

Zoolander's origins as a VH1 character

For many audience members, Ben Stiller's comically oblivious male model Derek Zoolander premiered on the big screen with the eponymous 2001 movie. But this feature film wasn't the character's first appearance in pop culture. Years earlier, Stiller had debuted the Zoolander character as a sketch comedy figure on VH1 in a filmed segment at VH1's 1996 Fashion Awards.

Though the supporting cast that would surround the character in his big-screen exploits weren't included just yet, Stiller established Zoolander's absent-mindedness and self-absorption quite firmly in his first sketch. This iteration of Derek Zoolander was seen talking to the camera about his daily routine to keep himself at the top of his craft as a male model by practicing eyebrow tilts. There are also gags, like Zoolander engaging in a playful skirmish with his fellow male models, that serve as precursors to jokes that would eventually emerge in the feature-length "Zoolander" movie.

As pointed out by sites like The Dissolve, there isn't a substantial amount difference between this early VH1 iteration of the character and the one seen in the two "Zoolander" movies. While some sketch comedy characters get tweaked when it's time to translate them into motion picture stars, Zoolander was consistent: Even the character's voice would remain the same over the years. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, they say, and that was certainly true of the original VH1 incarnation of Derek Zoolander.

Ben Stiller's unforgettable bit of improvisation

One of the most memorable scenes in "Zoolander" sees hand model J.P. Prewitt (David Duchovny) letting Derek in on an evil scheme to use male models for malicious purposes — and why exactly people from that line of work would be so perfect for this dastardly plan. After this deluge of exposition, Zoolander poses Prewitt an important question (and one that he'd just asked moments ago): "But why male models?" Incredulous at this seemingly air-headed query, Prewitt responds, "Seriously? I just told you!"

It's an amusing little exchange that gets a lot of mileage out of Stiller's total commitment to playing the ditziness of Zoolander without a hint of self-aware snark. To make this moment even better, it was actually improvised, with Stiller repeating the question about male models because he couldn't remember his actual line on the set and Duchovny staying in character to deliver that indignant follow-up. The great improvisation on both parties cemented this as one of the funniest parts of "Zoolander."

Zoolander's reckoning with 9/11

"Zoolander" is an extremely silly comedy full of gags about "centers for ants!" and sudden David Bowie cameos. But when the film was theatrically released at the end of September 2001, it had to contend with something exceedingly more serious. Just before "Zoolander" hit movie theaters, the World Trade Center attacks occurred and left a massive impact on the United States public. In the wake of such a devastating and senseless tragedy, everyone in the comedy world was figuring out when, if ever, it would be appropriate to laugh again.

Just 17 days after that event, "Zoolander" strolled into theaters not only with an abundance of ridiculous gags but also a subplot involving assassinating a foreign leader. The only alteration made to "Zoolander" to make it fit into a post-9/11 world was digitally removing the Twin Towers from any shots in the film featuring the buildings. In the end, "Zoolander" didn't become a worldwide smash. However, its solid $60.7 million worldwide box office gross indicated people were ready for some goofy laughs after so much horror.

Roger Ebert apologized to Ben Stiller for his Zoolander review

When "Zoolander" was first released, renowned critic Roger Ebert was no fan of this Ben Stiller comedy. Giving it just a single star, Ebert began his review by throwing down the gauntlet and offering up "Zoolander" as evidence of "why the United States is so hated in some parts of the world." While Ebert offered praise for Stiller's ludicrously simple-minded performance as well as the film's social commentary on the role of child labor in the American fashion industry, Ebert was overall negative on "Zoolander" and in particular its commentary on geopolitical relations.

It's impossible to read Ebert's review and not feel the unique tension of reviewing movies directly in the wake of the September 11 attacks, especially since Ebert references the tragedy in his review. From his perspective, the tastelessness of the film using the potential assassination of the leader of Malaysia as a key plot point must've seemed insulting rather than humorous in this context. Interestingly, though, this review was not the end of Ebert's relationship with "Zoolander." Years later, Stiller claimed to The Huffington Post that he had had an encounter with Ebert in which the film critic apologized to the director for his "Zoolander" review and admitted he had come around on the comedy.

Sum 41 almost made a Zoolander song

It's always appealing, especially for promotional purposes, when movies score original songs made by hot artists. After all, what's better for publicity than having your new feature film attached to the star power of a major musician? Thus, it's no surprise to learn that, per an interview with the band Sum 41 for Men's Health, the producers behind "Zoolander" asked the group to create an original tune for the movie. It wasn't meant simply to play over the end credits, though. This original song was meant to accompany a mid-movie gasoline fight between Derek Zoolander and a gaggle of other male models.

After a screening of "Zoolander," though, the band members absolutely refused to create a song for this particular scene in the comedy. This wasn't due to their objections over the content or actors in "Zoolander," though. On the contrary, their reason for refusing was solely due to the temporary song that was playing over the scene, "Wake Me Before You Go-Go" by Wham! Originally meant to be a placeholder needle drop until an original song was added instead, Sum 41 told the people behind "Zoolander" that the scene was already hysterical with this boppy retro tune. It can be awesome to get a popular band to create an original song for your movie, but sometimes, you just have to go with the classics.

Stiller has refused to cut Trump from Zoolander

Some parts of the "Zoolander" movies haven't aged perfectly, and one particularly distracting out-of-touch element in the first "Zoolander" comes in the form of an appearance by former U.S. President Donald Trump. Though plagued by controversy surrounding racism and other pieces of inappropriate behavior since the 1970s, Trump, circa. 2001, was seen in pop culture as just another larger-than-life celebrity.

Thus, when he was interviewed at the VH1 Fashion Awards, the production had his responses spliced into a star-studded montage at the start of "Zoolander." Though not explicitly stated in the text of "Zoolander," Trump's presence prompts the viewer to consider how the fictional celebrity blowhards in "Zoolander" aren't enormously different from similar figures in real life.

In the years since the film's release, Trump's image has only grown more and more clouded with controversies, and that's led to people expressing wishes for Trump's scenes in "Zoolander" to be cut. However, writer-director Ben Stiller has made it clear Trump won't be getting removed. "At the end of the day, that was a time when that exists and that happened," Stiller explained to MovieWeb. "There were so many movies (back then) that had a silly cameo from Donald Trump. He represented a certain thing." Considering these comments, those expecting a Trump-free cut of "Zoolander" to be released will have to adjust their expectations. 

What it was like filming that David Bowie scene

In the middle of "Zoolander," arguably one of the film's most enjoyable moments emerges when Derek Zoolander and Hansel engage in a competition to see who can strut it best on a runway. Who could possibly judge such a contest properly? Well, that's where a surprise appearance from David Bowie as himself comes in. He pops up from the crowd to offer his expertise on who can serve the best looks. It's a memorable moment not just for the sight of Bowie in such a ludicrously comical context, but for how fitting it is that he would be perceived as the ultimate decider of what is and isn't good in men's fashion.

In retrospect, writer-director Ben Stiller is as shocked as any of us that this moment happened. While live-tweeting about the movie, Stiller remarked that everyone on the "Zoolander" set was "in shock" that Bowie was there to do this cameo. It may have been a stupefying experience, but Bowie fit like a glove into the sequence and managed to stand out as one of the most impactful appearances in a movie chock-full of celebrity cameos. Bowie's work in "Zoolander" was so memorable that Stiller ended up dedicating some words to this pop culture icon at the premiere of "Zoolander 2" in February 2016, just one month after Bowie passed away.

How Stiller thought male models would receive Zoolander

While watching "Zoolander," if you can take a break from giggling, it may cross your mind to wonder how real-life male models might take this comedy. It's not like Derek Zoolander is depicted as a total aberration in the world of male modeling: All individuals of this craft in "Zoolander" are depicted as dolts. One can't help but contemplate exactly how people in the actual modeling profession would receive this movie, and that thought process would have to run through the minds of people tasked with bringing "Zoolander" into the world as well.

It turns out, though, that writer-director Ben Stiller had already given this some thought and was pretty optimistic about how real-life male models would receive "Zoolander." "I have to say I think the male models will [understand the movie]," Stiller told Hollywood.com. "The male models are incredibly good-looking, incredibly nice young men who have had a really good sense of humor about this. Mark Vanderloo and Jason Lewis — they all know about it and I've met them and did some research and hung out with some of them." Given the time he invested with actual male models, Stiller grew confident that these individuals would actually enjoy, rather than be insulted by, the antics of Derek Zoolander and company.

How important Owen Wilson was to the Zoolander cast

Across their individual careers in Hollywood, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson have worked together numerous times. That's no coincidence, as the two clearly have a fondness for each other, and audiences enjoy watching their unique personalities bounce off one another. When it came time for "Zoolander," it was inevitable that Wilson would show up in the "Zoolander" cast. However, Stiller didn't just find Wilson to be an important part of the project, he openly viewed him as the most important part of this goofy puzzle of a movie.

"Owen was the most important casting to me in the movie because I think he is one of the funniest people around — and the part was written for him. I don't think [the movie] could have [been] made if he couldn't do it," Stiller explained to Hollywood.com. He went on to describe their friendship and their affinity for working together, as well as the unique personality that enabled Wilson to take what was once a VH1 sketch to the next level. "[When] making a movie like this where it's based on a short film — a sketch originally — you figure out ways to make it work in a longer format. ... The relationship with Derek and Hansel is really important and a real thing. He is just a uniquely funny guy. There's no other person like Owen."

The forgotten Zoolander cartoon

"Zoolander" is such a wacky movie that it does sometimes feel like one is just watching a cartoon that somehow got airlifted into the real world. Given the innately zany, overly animated nature of these characters and their world, it shouldn't be a surprise that "Zoolander" was eventually turned into an animated property. Rather than a high-profile revamp or continuation of the original, though, this foray into animation came in the form of a one-off TV special launched with minimal fanfare.

Entitled "Zoolander: Super Model," this 84-minute long miniseries brought back Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Christine Taylor in voiceover versions of their roles from the original "Zoolander." Released in 2016, it would appear that this production's whole purpose was to promote "Zoolander 2," which debuted the same year, but that ambition was thwarted by how the film was released solely through Netflix — and only in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

It would take another four years for this oddball spin-off of the "Zoolander" franchise to makes its way to the U.S., where it would get an unglamorous debut on CBS All-Access in May 2020. The prospect of "Zoolander" entering the world of animation would seem to be one jam-packed with potential, but the treatment of "Zoolander: Super Model" during its release suggests that somebody behind the scenes of this franchise didn't feel the same way.

Ben Stiller's response to filming alongside his wife

There are many famous faces in the "Zoolander" cast that Ben Stiller has some level of personal attachment to. The actor-director's former wife, Christine Taylor, was the female lead of "Zoolander" and, per Stiller himself, working with his significant other on a major theatrical comedy turned out to be quite the enjoyable experience for both of them.

"[Working with my wife] was great. I love my wife," said Stiller to Daily Bruin. "It was really helpful for me because I trust her sense of humor and she's really smart. When you're acting and directing, you miss having a director, so I would go to her a lot of times for feedback." For her part, Taylor also said it was delightful getting to spend so much time with Stiller on the set of "Zoolander" since, at the time of this 2001 interview, they were still in what she described as the "honeymoon phase" of their relationship. The on-set experiences proved so enjoyable that Taylor and Stiller would act together again in subsequent movies such as "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," "Tropic Thunder," and "Zoolander 2."

Owen Wilson is surprised how popular Zoolander has become

Owen Wilson has no shortage of famous movies in his filmography. This guy's been in everything from "Armageddon" to "Wedding Crashers," not to mention providing the voice of the protagonist for three separate "Cars" movies. If the average person were to come up to Wilson to praise his work, they could start with any number of titles. However, according to Wilson, it's "Zoolander" that's turned out to be among his most popular projects.

Despite the original "Zoolander" not registering as either his or Ben Stiller's biggest movie at the box office, Wilson has found himself bombarded with people who just can't get enough of those clueless male models. "I noticed that when I was travelling, there were a lot of people who came up to me quoting Zoolander," Wilson revealed to The Independent. "Ben said he had the same experience and a kind of following developed." Wilson said this fanbase had become so sizeable that the reaction when he and Stiller announced a sequel was akin to the kind of response when a new "Star Wars" project is revealed. Even in Wilson's dense body of work (and honestly, in entertainment at large), "Zoolander" still stands out as an especially beloved piece of cinema.