Friday, January 19, 2007

Den Mothers of Fashion

Patrick Blanchard of Cosa Nostra

If I write and talk about modeling like I did everything by myself, that is absolutely not true….. I always had my mothers beside me. Watched over, guided and nurtured, I took my baby steps until I was able to fly. And even when I was soaring the heights of fashion, all around me where people (male and female) who watched my back for 15 years– my den mothers.

As a model, I was very lucky because great designers took me under their wings. I also had the best modeling agents who ‘hyped” me and orchestrated the rise of my modeling career. But what of that mother figure who sits by stage right and who talks to you every day- nags you about your health, takes care of your schedules, talks to everyone about you constantly and how great you are, and is directly responsible for your financial gains?

I am talking about all the bookers out there who have taken it upon themselves to mother models that they are assigned to – the silent partners of this business enterprise called modeling. Unrecognized and underpaid, they are the sub-architects of your career. While you strut your stuff on the runway and earn thousands of dollars, their modest gain is a job well done of spotting and developing the talent, maybe a bonus at the end of the year and the satisfaction of adroitly brokering fashion deals.

As the middlemen who match clients with models, theirs is not an easy job as they deal with colossal fashion egos on both sides of the coin, every single minute of a working day. On one side, they have to appease screaming clients and on the other, they have spoiled, narcissistic men and women compensated for their beauty and physicality. They have the unpleasant task of comforting and cajoling insecure models because they cannot lose the talent to another agency. Sometimes they take abuse from some representatives of design houses who demand and threaten if the fashion house does not get the list of models that they want.

My first real booker was Patrick Blanchard of Cosa Nostra. When I arrived in Paris and was staying in a hotel that I could not pay for, Patrick arranged that I room with a model, Lisa, who had her own apartment. He was a great booker because he was very much ‘in the know’; he went to as much shows as possible to familiarize himself with what is happening in the fashion scene.
At the start, whenever designers requested to see me, he always had suggestions that would enable me to get the job. Most of the time it worked but sometimes it didn’t, like the couture show of Ungaro. Patrick could not figure out why for several seasons, I would be called in to try out for the Ungaro couture show and I am always ‘almost in’ (they would not ask you to fit the clothes, if they were not considering you for the show)…but not quite, because I was never booked. Though very confident that I had the job after my fitting appointments at Ungaro, I was equally perplexed and disappointed. Until one day, when Patrick said the strangest thing to me. We had funny way of communicating with each other; he is familiar with my warped sense of humor and I am familiar with his. I am sure he comported himself differently with his other models.
Patrick called me for the appointment. “I want you to go your appointment and when it is time for you to walk, walk like you have been having sex for 2 days, non stop, and you just got up to get a glass of water and are going back to the bed you stood up from.” It was an outrageous suggestion, bordering on perverse. However, in my mind, there was really nothing to lose, as this was my third call to see Monsieur Ungaro. So I did wake up the on the day of my trial fitting, keeping in mind the scenario I was suppose to play and presented myself to Monsieur Ungaro’s atelier, in a state of “relaxed sensuality”. To my utmost surprise, I was booked that season and the many years to come.

Another story to illustrate my booker’s uncanny genius was when I complained to Patrick about a particular design assistant of one of the biggest Italian design houses. I confided to Patrick that the design assistant was awfully rude, dismissive and unnecessarily mean. Fashion people in charge of casting see hundreds of models, so their tolerance and patience is really thin, but I honestly felt there was more to it than that. I couldn’t place the source of the assistant’s distaste. Was it discrimination? Chemistry? What did I do to deserve this treatment?
Patrick pulled me aside and this is what he told me, “Sometimes with these people, you have to give it back to them.” “Go to your go-see and be obnoxiously arrogant.” “Be rude.” “Be cutting, be vicious.” I surmised that with the feedback from Patrick’s conversations with casting people of the fashion house, he is able to pinpoint the problem of why I am not booked; he psychoanalyzes and strategizes a way for me to get booked.
So next time I go to this big Italian fashion house, I internalize the attitude of ‘nasty’, almost sado-masochistic ‘nasty’. I pranced around the atelier like it was my domain. I treated the design assistant like a menial who was there for my whims and pleasures. Wouldn’t you know it? I was booked and every time I show up for the show, this particular design assistant is awfully nice to me. Go figure.

Patrick was on top of my bookings and he took an important role in orchestrating my career. I remember that after the shows there was this affair, sort of the French Fashion equivalent of the Oscars, where they would award Oscars to the best collection of the season. The designers were allowed 3 models each. I was a favorite and was chosen by almost all design houses and the heavy hitters were bidding actively for my presence. However, it was non-negotiable subject to me. I didn’t do these kind of jobs where I will have to choose between designers that have booked me for years.

I really was not apt to choose as it would offend the artists that I respected and worked for. You will find that some designers could be very possessive with their models. I consistently took a ‘no jeopardy’stance. In fact, after the press shows in Paris, there was always a big party at the Privilege and when I would arrive home from my last show of each season, there were always deliveries of gowns to my apartment. Design houses send their clothes with the idea that you would attend the affair and that you would dress in their garments for the evening. I always abstained and would send all the dresses back, as it was more hassle than necessary to choose one. It was an easy decision to make because even though I wanted to celebrate the end of the season with everyone, the plain truth was that I was exhausted. It is the time that you give way to your body and you let your adrenalin levels normalize. For 1 week or 2 of keeping it together during collection time, you have to strike a pact with your body and give it the necessary balance of rest and quiet that it needs to recuperate. You take your make-up off and go to bed. All the gowns were beautiful and I loved all the designers…. but I’d rather not choose if I don’t have to.

So one of these Oscar seasons, Patrick related this funny story. He told me that the Italian designers are aggressively bidding to get me to do the job; they kept calling and asking, “How much does she want?” Of course, Patrick probably said something to the effect, “Anna Bayle is not available”. He told me that these conversations went on for days before the Oscars, until finally, one Italian design house, true to the mafia-like way of doing business, asked Patrick, “You…How much do YOU want?”

The bookers are there beside you while you are out there making a name for yourself. They do not do the actual work but they are the ones that get you there. They also help you make the right choices, protect you from situations that will hurt your career and keep you on a steady path, molding you into a star.

Marzia Bava of Why Not always had a welcoming smile on her face as I would arrive in Rome Fiumicino or Milan’s Linate airport. She brought us straight to our hotels and if we had to work immediately, she delivered us to the next fitting. Marzia was always present backstage, making sure we were alright - have we eaten, did we go to this and that fitting, and make arrangements for dinner with the agency that same night. She would alert us that the van was outside to take us to the next show and after the show, Marzia is running alongside us through the huge corridors of the Fiera.
Everyday, she looks for you at the Fiera, personally delivers the changes to your schedule, making sure that you are aware of the additional shows and fittings. Being in the van with her makes you relax as she will deliver us to the next show on time, giving us time to kick back and joke around with the other girls in the van. On the day after the last show in those cities, be assured that Marzia will be there to pick you up at your hotel and deliver you to the airport. I don’t know how many times she does this in a day, but she does it with a smile on her face. As a model, you are never alone if you are with the best professional agencies who take care of their own.

Despite the fact that the New York way is more ‘hands off ‘because the premise is that models are professionals, the efficient and pragmatic New York bookers are always available to guide you as to how to conduct yourself. My agent, Ellen Harth, took a ‘hands on approach’ with me but there also were my bookers from both my agencies (Elite Runway and Elite). You already know Chips Newsom, who told me that I had to get rid of the diva attitude that worked in Paris but not in New York. There was Jillian Gotlieb, Abel Rapp, Wilson Wendell, Ro Penulian. They negotiated big deals and got me great photo jobs. If ever I had a problem, I can go to them and tell them what was bothering me about a job. I spoke to them everyday and I am sure they knew my telephone number by heart. Here are people who cared about me in their small way, making sure I was always professional.

Psychology of Bookers
I always wondered about the psychology of bookers. They work very hard to make you a star and consequently, to make you rich. During my time, they were salaried and the job was not commission-based. Whether they push you with the clients or not, is not reflected in their income. They did their jobs because they loved the business. It takes tremendous fortitude to field all phone calls about a model, continue to sell a model that is already worth millions and not be resentful, especially if the model is an ungrateful whiner. There was a time when the bookers honestly cared for the models and were dedicated to them? Has that changed?

In this day and age, where the issue is a model’s health, my question is -where are the people who cared about the models? The standard ‘beef’ (excuse the pun) about agency bookers was that they talked about and treated models like ‘pieces of meat’, which is not my personal experience. Has the modeling business, come to a point where it is only money that counts?

Lately, there has been much talk about health guidelines and health certificates. Didier Grumbach of the French Chambre Syndicale purports that they have 2 unions that monitored the modeling agencies. Diane von Furstenburg, the president of the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers in America) sent some health guidelines to design houses and modeling agencies. I tend to agree that this issue is partly a modeling agency’s responsibility. Simply put, no model gets booked without the agencies because this is how models are paid.

Professional modeling agencies must have professional models. Has it become a veritable meat market where the sellers don’t care about the products they sell, which happen to be human beings? Shouldn’t the bookers handling the girls take special care, especially now, that models are really children, who are years away from emotional maturity? In my time, girls under 18 traveled with their parents and managers (Naomi Campbelle, Tyra Banks, Beverly Peele.)

The bookers of modeling agencies, as a group, is the fashion sector that would know if a model is sick or has health issues. They talk to the models everyday and they get feedback from the design houses about the models they send. I am not saying that the bookers are responsible for the demise of the ultra thin model. But they have the capability of addressing the health concerns of young fledging models.
Designers do not see the girls that often; they only see them during the fittings and the shows. We cannot expect them to happily make last minute changes in their model line-up (a line-up they have set for months), when they have so many other important things to worry about…like the success of their collection, for instance.

In these times, when there are anorexia-related model deaths and the health of models is a big issue, a slogan comes to mind when it comes to the one thing I want to say to the bookers - the den mothers and den fathers of fashion.
“ It’s 10:00 pm…..Do you know where your children are?”

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Don't Leave Home Without It

"At my thinnest...I was definitely not sick."

In the early 90’s, Elsa Klensch of Style CNN was interviewing all the models backstage with one question –

“What is the one thing you don’t leave home without?”

Each and every one of the models described a particular garment or fashion accessory: my Azzedine Alaia jacket, my Fiorucci jeans, my Hermes cashmere blanket, my Chanel bag, my Manolo Blahniks, my Ferragamo boots…etc.. When she got to me, with no hesitation, I replied, “My sanity.” Everyone in the crew plus people who were listening in, of course, laughed.

Well, it is entirely true that I had to keep my wits about me all the time with the kind of schedule that seasoned models had. First of all, when you are doing the fashion circuit (Milan, London, Paris, New York, Tokyo), you are displaced from your environment twice a year. And if you do the couture collections, that makes it 4 times a year. It is a constant round-robin of frenetic activity; in and out of planes, jet lagged, staying in numerous hotels and an unforgivable schedule. Traveling businessmen do it all the time but they don't have to be beautiful and flawless, at the same time.

Once a season starts, everyone – the designers, the assistants, the PR people - are in a state of heightened energy and excitability. They may appear calm and amicable when you arrive for your fitting, but if something goes wrong with any one girl’s fitting before you that day, the whole atelier is agitated. I have stayed a full 4 hours for a fitting…most of it waiting time.

This all comes to a crescendo when the day of the fashion show arrives. All seem orderly and systematic but it is only the calm before the storm. Everything is going like clockwork; you check your rack to familiarize yourself with your clothes, you make sure you have the right shoe sizes, the hair and make-up gets done, you put on your first garment and you line up for the start of the show. Minutes before the show starts, there is some building up of adrenalin on your part.
Then, the show starts and so does the frenzy. The person calling you to line up for your next passage, starts screaming your name …but…. you just walked off the runway. So you run to your rack, undress and dress with the speed of light. You run back to the line while hairdressers are putting doodads in your hair; the hairdresser running with you and your dresser in tow, handing you your bag and gloves. The organized houses will put models with the most passages close to the stage, but sometimes you are not so lucky.

There is no rest. It is like this for a full 30 to 40 minutes, the duration of the show. Then after the designer takes a bow, you exhale for a brief minute. You undress and then you grab all your belongings and run across the venue where the tents are and jump to the next tent or the next salle. Sometimes, you don’t fully dress but you just wrap your coat around you; as you will have to take your clothes off again really soon. You have that quiet preparation again….then pandemonium starts all over again. It’s a little bit more relaxed in New York because everything is done with exactness and also in some European shows where design houses are able to afford a bigger line-up (more models).

I am sure you get the picture. It is the kind of work where you will have to pace yourself and keep your cool. Adrenalin levels go up and down throughout the day for models, and it is in your best interest to be wide-eyed and alert. Any slacking on a model’s part will sometimes result in gross mistakes like tripping on the runway, getting rattled and losing one’s temper with the make-up and hair crew (big drama that you don’t need) or simply doing a mediocre job. If you do a show with low energy while all the models around you are 'on their toes'…you stand the chance of being singled out and cancelled for the next season. Sometimes the pace is insane..but you can’t be insane. Don’t leave home without your sanity.

IN THE PAST: Don’t leave home without your visa.
Before I started modeling in Italy in 1979, the Milan ready-to-wear collections was a new frontier for modeling. According to the models before me, it was like the ‘Wild Wild West’. There were no fittings and no go-sees. Models arrived for shows with designers they have never met, worked for an hour or less and got paid enormously. Some models told me they even took whatever they wanted of the garments they wore.* (Not in my time).

When the Italians got organized and decided to have their 10 days of fashion shows held in one place in Milan - the Fiera, this precipitated a whole lot of work for models. The French agencies were quick to bring in foreign models, mostly Americans. The local models did not appreciate the American girls taking their work. The Italian agencies probably complained to the authorities that the foreign models were coming into Italy with tourist visas and have no legal standing to work and get paid by Italian design houses.

That was really before my time but I did feel the back end of it. I was in a hotel bar with several American models on my first trip to Rome, waiting for some of the models from my agency who were doing a show at the hotel. While the show was going on, the models from the show came rushing to warn us. Apparently the police went backstage to check models’ passports and visas. The girls who warned us told us that they ran out but some other models were detained and taken in custody. We were told that some girls left by jumping the hotel windows. I think we all went through the kitchen, or something. Anyway, it was not through the lobby. Next season, we all had working visas. We couldn’t leave home without it.

IN THE PRESENT: Don’t leave home without your health certificate.
As of today, 25 years after ….in Madrid, Milan and Rome you cannot work as a model unless you have a doctor’s certificate stating that you are of sound health. In Spain, you have to have a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 18 - a 'height to weight ratio' that indicates whether or not you are overweight for your height. A 5-foot-9 (175-centimeter) model weighing 125 pounds (57 kilograms) would have a BMI of 18. According to the Times, Esther Cañadas, Spain’s best-known model, does not qualify under the new rules as she is said to have a BMI of only 14.

In Italy, there is a manifesto which is meant to be implemented for the Rome couture collections, this January. The manifesto states that models have to hold a license issued by city officials, a panel of doctors, psychologists and other experts and this time, their BMI ruler is at 18.5. Apparently, this paper is confusing everyone.

Paris, London and the New York fashion industry leaders will not set requirements as they believe the regulations are restrictive and hard to implement and monitor. But if you ever work in Italy, Spain or Brazil…don’t leave home with out it.
For more information about the model ban, go to Eric Wilson's New York Times article, Health Guidelines Suggested for Models, Jan 6 2007.

I stand by what I said in my article, Modeling is not a Sickness…Anorexia is. Modeling has been a profession for centuries and thousands of models have gone through this path without anyone telling them what their appropriate weight should be. One would think that all of us should know our own weight limitations and be responsible for our own individual health issues. But since the modeling scene is populated lately by very young and immature girls, then I suppose, someone has to guide or educate them. I do agree that there is a problem and that health consciousness should be raised.

Obviously this issue won’t go away, but let's not make it hard for the models either. What they go through, working, is hard enough. Why give them the extra pressure? Why subject all models to something that cannot really be measured? How healthy are you? Can you honestly qualify that? Even if you have a certificate that says you are healthy, a couple of diuretics can make you drop 5 lbs. overnight. If a segment of the fashion industry continues to set unreasonable requirements for the models to work,... good luck to them. I honestly don't believe fashion designers will cancel their 'favorites'.

Kristen McNemany
Does anyone remember the model Kristen McNemany? She was bone thin but had as much life and vigor in her as, let's say, a professional boxer. We are all genetically different; size and shape may vary. Numbers are deceptive. For instance, I had these vital statistics 35-24-35, but I was flat chested. My extra wide ribcage made up for the extra inches. By setting standards that are determined by numbers, they are setting a precedent that they have no way of implementing and judging fairly. Case in point: Can you honestly say a person, blessed with a very active metabolism, is sick if she is born that way? If the fashion industry wants to mandate the weight of models who are suppose to be professionals, what will be next?

Here are some ridiculous and imaginative prognostications that will hopefully make people relax on this controversy. If this model ban goes on, ...who knows? Other unreasonable requirements might follow. Of course, my exaggerated stipulations are a stretch, but to put it all in perspective, that is what some people from the fashion industry are doing, as well. (My levity in the following statements is not to make fun of the tragic deaths of 2 models due to anorexia complications but to drive my point across.)

Drug testing? (The famous model, Gia, died of drug use. Why did they not implement a ban then?)
Don’t leave home without your urine sample.

What about …..if you had any plastic surgery…you’re banned? (Let suppose 4 models died on the operating table due to complications).
Don’t leave home without a dermatological certificate.

What about…..if you get to earn this much…you will have to retire. (Let’s say, 3 models died because they were kidnapped for ransom due to their highly publicized income, and in the process, they were accidentally killed).
Don’t leave home without your accountant or your W2 forms (tax forms for the self-employed).

What if the next topic of controversy is a model’s education?
Don’t leave home without your high school diploma.

What if you want to be a model in the future and you have to bring to work everything listed below:
1) health certificate 2) urine sample 3) latest income tax return 4) certificate from your dermatologist 5) diploma

Then I suggest…Don’t leave home.