Young model agent changing the face of fashion
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Tuesday, March 13, 2007 1:50PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, May 18, 2012 5:51PM EDT
Ben Barry's believes that models should reflect the make-up of society - with a range of ages, sizes, ethnicities and "looks." He's built a successful modeling agency on this belief. Now he has written a book, Fashioning Reality: A New Generation of Entrepreneurship, describing how he is working to revolutionize the face of fashion and help sway the public's concept of beauty.
Excerpt of "Fashioning Reality", by Ben Barry.
THE RUNWAY STARTS HERE
The waiting room at Elite Models is a head trip. Ten sleek black leather and chrome chairs line one wall. Ten black-framed photographs of beautiful young women decorate the other. The first time I was there I analyzed those photos like a mad scientist, trying to figure out exactly what made these particular female human beings the bomb. One hundred per cent wrinkle free? Check. Swan necks? Check. Teeny waists? Check. Mini hips? Check. Skinny arms and legs? Check, you-better-believe-it check. Smiles to make orthodontists weep with pride? Oh yes. And not only were all the teeth bright white, nine out of the ten models were white. I was either on Planet Clone or inside a top modelling agency, soaking up all the nerve, attitude, and action I could: the shuffled photos, the wailing phones, the horrified whispers, the cries of "Oh my God, fabulous!" It was action I wanted to get a firm grip on.
A herd of gazelles interrupted my inspections. No, wait a minute. Those were real live models, rushing by on their stilt legs with their portfolios tucked under their twig arms. I was seeing the same cheekbones, the same blonde manes and the same limbs for yards as the photos up on the wall. Except the real live versions seemed somehow less alive. They were tired, faded, not what you'd call vibrant. . . makeup bag let down, you might say.
Next a slim, elegant gentleman appeared on the scene. He was as willowy and bone structured as the ladies. He wore a pink and silver tie and a crisp, white, button-down shirt neatly tucked into sleek black pinstriped pants. Small silver curls were nestled tight to his head thanks to an obviously supe�rior hair product. Everyone around here seemed to be worth a close look. The man stopped right in front of me.
"Mr. Ben, Mr. Ben, Mr. Ben. Welcome to Elite. Come to the boardroom immediately."
I jumped up and hurried. More framed pictures of more women so perfect it was hard to tell them apart: there was a glamazon factory somewhere (evi�dently Norway) and someone had placed a very big order. A long, oak table stretched the length of the boardroom.
"Take a chair, Mr. Ben."
The seat felt hot; I was having trouble keeping my cool. This was, after all, the big time. This was a room where deals were made with top magazine editors, advertising agents, photographers, and fashion designers. A single conversation in here could launch a top model--or sink a career. A top mod�elling agent has the power to control images that millions of people see on billboards, magazine covers, and televisions. Lately I had been dreaming of being a part of this world. And now, crazy miracle, I was.
I was sitting across a table from Elmer Olsen, vice-president of Elite Models, a.k.a. Industry Powerhouse. And I wasn't going to blush. No I wasn't. Yes I was.
"Well, Mr. Ben, how can I help you?" he asked.
It wasn't easy but I stared him down. "Sir, I want to steal your job." Elmer smiled. Fourteen-year-olds aren't particularly diplomatic.
AN EIGHTH-GRADE FASHION INSIDER
I got that first meeting with Elmer during spring break of my eighth grade. I'd started my modelling agency four months before, pretty well by accident. It began as a simple attempt to do a favour for a friend, then swiftly evolved into a mission. By the time I found myself in Elite's boardroom I had five models under contract and I was determined to do my best for them. My mom had been planning a big trip to Toronto for months with museums and art galleries in mind, but I'd done some serious itinerary revamping. Now all I wanted to do was visit modelling agencies, so I'd looked them up in the phone book and requested meetings. Mom agreed to tough it out on her own with the Rembrandts and Ming vases. My father passed away when I was five, so it's mostly been just her and me. We've gotten pretty good at letting each other do our own thing.
When I'd communicated that I was the owner of a modelling agency visit�ing from out of town, big-city agents were delighted to make time for me. I dressed for what I thought was the part--my Sunday-best blazer, my shiny new black pants, and a classic turtleneck that I figured had continental flare. It was just too bad portfolios didn't come in smaller sizes. People could see either my belt buckle or my face; I arrived everywhere in the middle of a wrestling match.
I thought I looked pretty good but the receptionists weren't having any of it. When I showed up for my appointments, they did a fast double take and bounced Junior asap. No one was nice. No one cared about my lovely models. The best I got was, "Come back when you've finished high school, and maybe we can give you an internship." That wasn't going to do it for Nadia, Jane, Keisha, Sareena, and Sun-Yee, and it definitely wasn't good enough for me. My very last meeting was the one at Elite: the top agency in town with the largest roster of models internationally. It was do-or-die time. I was too young to die.
Elmer didn't seem fazed by age and attitude. He pored over the photos in my portfolio and asked questions about one model in particular: Nadia. "How tall is she? How tall are her parents? How big are her feet?" I was stumped. I knew Nadia's dress size and that was about it. Her feet? What was with the feet? I could only answer that she was thirteen and had tall parents. Elmer, however, had a genius grasp of genetics: "Thirteen, looks like a size 7 shoe, tall parents, so she'll grow. She should be okay."
He took me back to examine the pictures of the thin, white models in the thin, black frames, explaining how each met his criteria. He made comments like, "I scouted her in Turtle Lake. She's five foot ten and look at that teeny lit�tle body!" There was another model who made Elmer himself glow. "Isn't she gorgeous?" he asked. All I saw was a girl whom I might confuse with a couple of sticks and a smiley face. But Elmer saw the gold standard and if I was going to make it as an agent, I had to see the same: a thin, white, young, tall woman. "When you find a beautiful girl just like this, send her to me. I will treat her well. I'll treat you well, too," he promised.
I left on a high. Elmer Olsen, the guiding force at Elite, had spent a whole hour with me and had taken my small agency seriously. I'd been taught some basic rules of the game and was on my way to becoming a player. I'd been thinking that to make it as a model, charisma, personality, and basic hygiene would do. Now I knew the criteria for real success. Look out world: I had become a fashion insider.
Excerpted from "Fashioning Reality", by Ben Barry. � 2007. All rights reserved. Published by Key Porter Books