September 18, 2000 12:00 PM

Every year since 1980, PEOPLE has celebrated the way the rich and famous dress themselves. Lately, though, it seems that more and more stars are aiming to outfit other people. So, for our 21st annual Best & Worst Dressed issue, we decided to put 10 celebrity labels–including Regis Phil-bin’s, Carlos Santana’s and supermodel Niki Taylor’s–to the test.

“We searched for people of every size, age and occupation to wear these clothes,” says assistant managing editor Elizabeth Sporkin, who supervised this issue. “It was like casting our own reality show.”

Our first step was to assign correspondents to five cities in the heartland: Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Nashville, Tenn.; Springfield, Mo.; Topeka, Kans.; and Youngstown, Ohio. “I combed gyms, police stations, restaurants and hair salons,” says Chicago-based Kelly Williams. “The standard response was, ‘Are you kidding?’ How many times is the question ‘Do you want to be a model?’ not just a line?”

Then we dispatched husband-and-wife photographers Michael Larsen and Tracy Talbert to capture our subjects in their natural surroundings. Larsen and Talbert, who covered the 10-day Sundance Film Festival, were used to photographic marathons. But they’d never had an assignment quite as challenging as this one. For 14 days they crisscrossed the Midwest, lugging a dozen cases of clothing. In each city they had just a few hours to scout out locations. Workdays often ran from 9 to 9.

“I chose Michael and Tracy because they can photograph people creatively in any environment,” says special issues picture editor Maddy Miller. The logistics were daunting. In Nashville the team had to negotiate for sidewalk space with a pugnacious street musician. In sweltering Springfield nine local ladies in evening dresses had to be posed precisely at sunset on a dusty road, with nary a smudged hem, shiny nose or misplaced hair.

If our rookies arrived thinking that modeling was a cushy gig, they learned otherwise from L.A.-based stylist Susie Crippen. “Susie wouldn’t even let them sit down once they were dressed,” recalls Nashville stringer Beverly Keel. “She didn’t want any wrinkles in the pictures.” Still, says Crippen, “everyone had a wonderful attitude. They were troupers.”

Larsen agrees. Unlike many celebrities, he says, “these people were genuinely excited to be here. A lot of them started out very nervous, but they quickly became great at posing.” How great? Take a look at them alongside the stars in this issue–such paragons of style as Jennifer Aniston, Prince William and George Clooney. We think our freshly minted models hold their own.

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