NEW YORK - Like any expectant mother, Kai Walter, six months pregnant, has lots to get done before the big day. One of her most important errands: an upcoming trip to the West Coast, where she has an appointment to take off her clothes and be photographed.
Not for some magazine cover, a la Demi Moore, but for her own personal collection of pregnancy memories. The idea is to artistically capture her blossoming belly in all its glory, something more and more women are doing these days. Or they might be making a plaster "belly cast" of their changing form. Or even consulting a "pregnancy stylist" to map out a cool, midriff-baring maternity wardrobe.
Pregnancy, in short, has become hipper, more glamorous - sexy even. It sure feels odd to think that way about something as basic as, well, the propagation of the human race. And yet, fueled by an ever-spiraling interest in the lives of our celebrities (one word: Brangelina) and a consumer culture always coming up with new luxuries, the very act of reproduction appears to have reinvented itself.
"It's hip now to be pregnant," says Jill Siefert, a fashion stylist in San Francisco who recently added pregnancy styling to her business. "Everybody's doing it."
Of course, everybody's always done it. It's just that we're hearing about it so much more now - especially RIGHT now. Take the latest cover of People (perhaps they should rename it Parents). Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, new parents of Suri, are flanked by Gwyneth Paltrow and newborn Moses, and Donald and Melania Trump with newborn Barron. Inside, Liv Tyler and Jon Stewart cavort with their respective offspring, Matt Damon awaits his, Brooke Shields talks about hers.
And this is only April. The coming months promise the birth of the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie baby, still in utero but already presumed unprecedentedly gorgeous. "Not since Jesus has a baby been so eagerly anticipated," New York magazine wrote.
The fascination seems to stem from our generation's desire to see celebrities as people just like us - almost part of the family, says University of Mississippi magazine analyst Samir Husni: "All of a sudden the whole country has become an aunt and uncle to these babies."
Sandra Leong, pregnant with her second child, has been affected by the closeup view of celebrity pregnancies. "They are showing that it's OK to be big and beautiful," says Leong. Now 34, she remembers the then-controversial 1991 Vanity Fair cover on which Demi Moore posed nude - at seven months pregnant. "She was the icon," says Leong. "People thought, if she can bare her breasts and belly to show her body changing, why can't I?"
So a year and a half ago, Leong hired photographer Jennifer Loomis to document her first pregnancy. Loomis recalls that a decade ago, when she told colleagues she wanted to make a business of such photo shoots, they laughed and said, "Nobody's going to pay you to do that!"
Loomis has now photographed over 1,000 pregnant women from her bases in Seattle, San Francisco and New York, using swaths of fabric and artful lighting to celebrate each woman's curves, beginning at $750 per session. Since 2002, she says, her business has quadrupled - and bookings in San Francisco have doubled in only the last four months.
"There has been a huge psychological shift in the last few years," Loomis says. "People are saying, this is such a special time - we want to capture this moment." A key factor, she says, is that women are having babies at an older age, meaning they often have more money to spend on their pregnancy - and are more reflective about it.
A second-time client is Walter, the New Yorker who's planning a trek to Seattle in a few weeks. She loved the results of the photo shoot from her first pregnancy.
"Before I was pregnant I thought, you just get large and you're not as attractive," says Walter, 32. "But actually it was one of the best times of my life. I loved my pregnant body more than I could ever have imagined."
Walter says she's grateful to celebrity moms for one thing - there are much better maternity clothes out there, clothes that "make me feel like myself," like fitted tops and fashionable jeans, as opposed to the tent-like shifts or unflattering pants with big panels that made you want to hide for nine months.
Many credit designer Liz Lange for starting that trend. When she launched Liz Lange Maternity a decade ago, she says, it took detective work to uncover which celebrities were pregnant. She would then court them aggressively to promote her designs. Now it's a different story. "Their stylists are calling even before the results of the pregnancy tests are in!" she laughs.
Time was, Lange had little competition. Now, women have wider choices in chic maternity wear, including from mainstream designers like Diane von Furstenberg, who has a maternity version of her signature wrap dress. Or the Gap, for that matter.
Of course, as with most things, there's a downside to all this fascination with Angelina's, Gwyneth's or Katie's pregnancies, cautions Janet Chan, editor in chief of Parenting magazine.
Readers have told the magazine they're not particularly thrilled to see how pampered celebrities manage to still look so fit and fabulous even when pregnant.
"They've made moms-to be feel guilty that their bodies don't look like theirs do - especially because they don't have two nannies and a personal trainer," she said.
It's better when they can see a more challenged celebrity mom - perhaps like Britney Spears, she suggests. "Then we can say to ourselves, 'Hey - I know how to do this better!'"