How a handful of local modelling agencies has turned the industry on its head
As recently as ten years ago, becoming a model was no easy feat. The list of minimum requirements you’d have to meet to be considered ‘beautiful’ by industry standards was unrealistic. Only about 3% of the population fit the brief. And those who cut it would spend years in a permanent state of self-doubt or insecurity, fully furnished with endless diets, and rigorous fitness and skincare regimes, all to maintain the look that got them noticed. Modelling may seem glamorous on the outside, but in reality, it’s brutal.
Over the years, the industry has made concerted efforts to challenge many of the unrealistic beauty ideals that brands have propagated; not only to thwart the culture of body dysmorphia that it’s promoted among models (many of whom starve themselves for Fashion Week), but also because of the message it sends to consumers who, for years, have been taught that beauty is a certain colour of skin, height, body type and hair texture. International campaigns have slowly begun to change, welcoming more people of colour, introducing more curves and atypical complexions, such as Vitiligo or albinism. Slowly, the conversation has changed. It’s far from over, but it’s noticeably different.
The more traditional variety of model will always have his or her place in the industry, and as such, most of the more established agencies in South Africa primarily still represent this type of talent due to popular demand from foreign clientele. However, this is where other agencies, such as My Friend Ned and The Fantastic Agency, have been particularly disruptive. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon, they’ve opened their books up to the most diverse, atypical cast of characters, and decided to represent the other side of the beauty conversation: one that includes, rather than excludes, the full spectrum of identities. From a business point of view, some might consider this a massive gamble, but ultimately, it’s one that’s paid off and has seen both agencies in high demand over a number of seasons. They cater to top international brands who come to South Africa and want to shoot beautiful people with real character – people who possess beauty that isn’t defined by industry standards – rather than your typical modelling variety who needs to fit into that box at all times. obviously, social media presence and influence factors into these conversations.
These are people who’ve carved out their walk of life as artists, thespians, and even full time doctors and surgeons. They can add a different kind of value to the conversation the brand is trying to have. A few seasons in, and every established agency in South Africa now has an additional book for unconventional faces, which is mildly problematic (as we should all be moving past the habit of othering people, even through subtle distinctions like ‘fashion model’ vs ‘street model’), but the bottom line is that we’re in a new era of democratic beauty. Modelling is now something that we can all access, on some level, and can be a means of income for many. It’s open to all ages, too. You can do character-based modelling for advertisers, who might say, ‘We need a guy who looks like a middle-aged dad who can surf.’ Here, you need to have personality, more than anything, and an ability to take direction or act, as and when required. If you want to serve face, there’s a space for it. It might not be your idea of modelling, but you can still make money doing it.