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Rebel as fashion plate? // Mexican can't picture it

Mexico's romantic rebel, the masked Zapatista guerrilla leader Subcommander Marcos, has been hailed as a poet and a philosopher. He's even attained sex symbol status.

But he's drawing the line at becoming a male model _ much to the disappointment of the Italian clothing firm United Colors of Benetton.

The scruffy rebel with a cause may not be everyone's idea of a fashion model, but Benetton officials say that's just what attracted the company's controversial publicist, Oliviero Toscani.

He sent a letter to Marcos at his hideout deep in the Lacandon forest of southern Mexico, proposing to send a Benetton team to photograph him and his Indian peasant army.

The letter, which was published in this month's edition of Harper's magazine, cites the company's ad policy of addressing "the most dramatic problems of this century," using "true persons" _ not models _ "in the places where they actually live."

The mastermind of recent Benetton ads that have targeted issues such as AIDS and racism suggested that the photo shoot would "show the beauty of the faces of those who fight for an idea. We believe that an ideal brightens the eyes and lights up the faces of those who fight to realize it."

Appealing to Marcos' reputation as a media-savvy Marxist, Toscani asked for the opportunity "to find another way of making your lives and your history known."

Since bursting onto the world stage in 1994, the pipe-puffing Marcos has earned a reputation for seizing publicity opportunities to spread word of the Zapatista cause.

Last month Marcos posed for cameras on horseback with American film director Oliver Stone, who missed the Oscars to meet the guerrilla leader in Zapatista territory.

Despite his remote jungle existance, Marcos is a big fan of Stone's war films, and even managed to see Natural Born Killers recently. However, Stone says there are no plans for a film about Marcos.

Benetton officials aren't sure why Marcos turned down their idea.

One theory is that he may not have been too thrilled about seeing his fighters decked out in Benetton attire.

In recent campaigns Toscani has traveled to China, India and the Gaza Strip, where he took poor Palestinians off the street and dressed them in Benetton clothes.

Marcos' men might also argue that they have already made a pretty good fashion statement without the help of professional marketing. Their trademark ski-masks are all the rage in Mexico, and Marcos T-shirts and miniature Zapatista dolls are popular with street vendors.

Benetton does admit to an element of exploitation in its advertising strategy. "We're not denying that we get a lot of brand recognition," said John Poerink, American advertising manager for Benetton in New York.

"But what we are doing is much more interesting and provocative than putting pretty women in pretty clothes."