MIX Model Management recently opened its boutique doors after Neal Hamil, former head of Elite Model Management for all of North America, convinced one Wayne Sterling—cofounder of models.com—that this would be a good idea. Thus, a reputable agency became the birth-child of two figureheads in the industry, and this time, they were going to do it right. Wayne Sterling took the time out of his day to give me an exclusive interview about this new endeavour, and revealed some insight behind doors that are too often closed and yelled behind. Images courtesy MIX.
Trey Taylor: So you’ll be pretty busy come the end of August?
Wayne Sterling: Yeah, exactly. The world is on vacation but it’s like 14-16 hour days here already.
TT: Well, I guess that’s what you take on with a new agency.
WS: Exactly. It’s fine. It’s a challenge, but I like that.
TT: I know you had a bit of apprehension when Neal [Hamil] kept asking you to start this agency with him. I was wondering if you could tell the story of how he approached you with the idea for MIX.
WS: The idea was around for almost the entire time I’ve known Neal, which is 10 years, because he was running Ford. That’s when he first made the offer, which I very quickly declined because in my mind, I thought, “I don’t think I would make a very good agent.” Then when he went over to Elite as the director of North America he repeated the offer, and I processed it and I was just—you know, that’s not my gift. But the turn around for me was last summer when we were having lunch and specifically he said, “I’m looking to buy a small agency. A small pre-existing agency in New York, and then just reimage it and revamp it and turn it into a really amazing boutique.” For some reason I found myself saying hey! Okay, now that I would partner with you on. I think the resistance, in my mind, was the idea of being in this big machine of this big pre-existing brand and I think subliminally, what Neil [Hamill] was saying the third time around was that it would be a new brand; or it would be a rebranding of something small and that was a lot more exciting to me.
TT: Where did he get the idea from? Do you know what his motives were with this?
WS: I couldn’t speak entirely for Neal but insofar as I know him, this is in his blood stream. I joke and we always say, “You’re a modelling industry blue body.” He’s been doing it for 30 years in some form or the other. So he’s just like one of those people who lives it: eats, sleeps, breathes… He stepped off the plate for about three years and we would talk weekly and I would update him about what was going on in the industry and the market and what clients were doing. It’s his lifelong passion, definitely.
TT: Can you explain a bit what you were doing before taking on the idea of Mix?
WS: I was editorial director of models.com which is a company I cofounded with Stephan Moskovic. That was eleven and a half years ago. You have to realize at the time when models.com went up, ‘dot-com’ was almost like a dirty word, meaning relative to print publishing—which was the prestige arena—working at a dot-com you were this unfashionable tech geek. So it’s sort of ironic. Basically, the Internet revolutionized the way we perceive and consume and process fashion and it wasn’t planned; it was just being in the right place at the right time. I left the print world somewhere around 2000-2001 and I remember everyone telling me I was an idiot for switching over to the Internet. I just had a sense that—you know what? It’s a new medium and a new medium that has endless possibilities. I’m very lucky. I’m very proud of everything models.com achieved, almost beyond my expectations.
Over the course of that ten or eleven years I also did a lot of consultancies. I still work a lot in Japan. I have a column in a Japanese magazine. I’ve done casting consultancies for cosmetics companies there. I have The Imagist, of course. That’s pretty much been the framework for the past ten years.
TT: In regards to becoming an agent, what were you nervous about? I know you had a bit of apprehension at the start.
WS: I think specifically what I was worried about—that I saw happen to great friends of mine who were some of the best agents in the business—was, with such a demanding industry, there was a high burnout rate.
TT: People would quit because it was too much to handle?
WS: They didn’t necessarily quit, but the intensity of the pressure would really make people short-tempered. There are high levels of anxiety in this business. It’s high pressure, high stress. People are very emotional; people yell on the phone. You get yelled at; you yell at people. That’s not my style. You know? That’s not my thing.
Then, something clicked in my mind because I remember very frequently being unhappy as a client as to how I was being treated by a modelling agency. You can say anything you need to say to me in a calm way because I’m a rational human being. There’s a way of doing this that’s disciplined, calm, focused. It just occurred to me that a management company or modelling agency—whether you’re talking about a prestige agency in New York or a massive talent agency like CAA or William Morris Endeavour—ultimately, you’re in the service business. If you’re going to render a service, why not try to do that as well as possible? I mean, everything else should be subsidiary, like your ego.
Or your need to feel important or to impress other people. At the end of the day, it’s the service industry. One of the things that I said to Neil was, “Why can’t a modelling agency give me the experience that I get when I go into a great store like Hermès? Or Tiffany’s where everyone is trained to accommodate the customer, to understand the customer, and to service the customer? Why do I have to have arguments with agents wherein 75% of the argument is just them trying to make a point about how fabulous they are? So really the big turnaround for me was like, would it be possible to create the kind of agency that I would love to call? Why don’t you create your ideal agency and put it on the market and see what happens?
TT: We definitely take for granted being treated well.
WS: Exactly. It’s not that I’m saying that being a model manager is not important. If you do it well, it’s quintessential; but you have to put it in perspective. At the end of the day, the model has to be the star of the show. I feel like we’re coming off this era of these superstar bookers and that was one of the things that started to turn me off about my job at models.com. I felt like I was servicing the egos of these megalomaniac managers. I wasn’t really processing the possibilities of the models anymore. Somehow, the models got lost in the story.
TT: When you say a model should be the star, and that’s more of your focus now with MIX, can you talk about what kind of guys and girls you’re on the lookout for? Is there a clear idea yet?
WS: It’s a clear idea. We’re kind of attracting that and people are sending suggestions which—we get these pictures and we’re like, “Well, that’s kind of spooky.” The key word is individualism. We’re totally driven to find models who have a life force as opposed to just being blank and anonymous and disposable. You look for someone not only with a super unique face, because you’re supposed to look for classic beauty but you look for someone who has a really striking face and they’re the only person who has that face. Beyond that, you search for someone with layers. We have one girl, Savannah, who is almost championship level in her high school sport, but is absolutely beautiful. So the combination of that athletic background and the discipline and the fact that she looks like a gorgeous ’70s model makes her compelling for us.
TT: I know you were trying to get back towards a more ‘classic’ face. Is that something that’s important?
WS: Of course. The thing that makes a classic face so compelling is that person also has a life. I can tell you this, Trey: in a month of scouting I’ve discovered there’s no shortage of beautiful girls floating around. I think because of technology and digital media a tall, skinny, beautiful girl cannot walk four blocks on her way from her volleyball practice to her house without somebody pulling a digital camera out to shoot her. There’s this clout of tall, beautiful, skinny guys and girls and you sort of have to put up a filter of, “What will this person bring to a fashion shoot? What will they bring to a runway?”
TT: How closely do you personally work with the models to build them up to be big names?
WS: We’re small and we have the luxury of completely focusing on the different stages you need to get the girls and the guys to the point where they can have some kind of mass appeal. Right now we have four girls in town and the team—we’re 24/7. Anything that’s needed from a haircut to “Can you fix my Blackberry?” to “Can you help me to get from Varick St to 23rd?” We’re at the point where everyone can kind of close their arms around each girl and guy and give them that push because everybody’s reputation is riding on MIX sending out girls that make an impact on the market.
TT: So the risk is quite large already…
WS: Yeah, but you know what? That doesn’t scare me because it goes back to when I was casting.
I would go home at night and I’d be like, “Well, how do I know who’s a star and who’s not a star and who’s going to be a star?” There’s no handbook. All you have is your gut instinct. Even if no one else likes your choices at least the one thing you can say to yourself is, “This is my honest and passionate choice.”
That’s the principle that we’re using in terms of the casting. It sounds like a pretentious expression when you say you ‘curate’ as opposed to just scout, but it’s being really mindful about who you’re presenting to the market. We all have to super-believe in the guy or super-believe in the girl because I remember when I was a client, I could tell when the agent cared and when the agent did not care. There are no guarantees but at the end of the work day you look at the board and you say, “At least I believe in each and every one of these kids that we’re sourcing.”
TT: Do you ever have second thoughts about somebody after you’ve signed them and work with them a bit more?
WS: Not really because what happens is you will secretly run into challenges and psychologically you really have to address this issue or maybe we need to send her for a new haircut. I never really have a huge regret. It’s the same thing when I was at models.com and you’d do a piece—‘Of the Minute’ or “Top 10 Newcomer’—and you’d say, “Hey! I think this person is a phenomenal model” and then nothing happens. I wouldn’t regret it. I would just say that was my honest instinct. That was my taste at the moment. At least I got one thing right: I was honest. I wasn’t waiting for someone else to tell me what my taste should be. At least I have courage in my conviction.
TT: I know there’s been a lot of talk recently in the industry about the whitewashed runways and the token Asian or token Black model. Do you have a point of view on diversity in the industry? Are you trying to integrate that into your philosophy at MIX?
WS: We’d like to have a board that is diverse and interesting and ethnically a bit more sophisticated than trying to figure out “Who is the one black girl that we should represent?” Of course, it’s super important. Again it goes back to when you start you have the luxury of not having to be trapped in the formulas that have defined this industry for such a long time. The world has changed so much. I remember counting earlier this year the Top 50 on models.com and in terms of nationality the three countries that had the most models on the Top 50 were Holland, America, and China. So the market was sustaining seven or eight Chinese girls because of contracts and Valentino campaigns and Vuitton campaigns so if in the course of scouting we see five incredible Chinese girls then that would be a dream. I’m certainly not going to shy away from it. The world is shifting and as our world becomes more globalized—I’m sure you keep reading about the power of India as an emerging market, and Brazil, and Russia. The BRIC countries. That’s a market that needs to be addressed and that’s going to only drive us to be more rigorous in looking in unusual places for beautiful men and women.
TT: How do you scout outside of New York? Do you have a team of scouts or do you depend on the mother agencies?
WS: It’s a mix, if you’ll mind the pun. There’s a traditional model agency structure where—we’re in an interesting position because everything is so much about networks. There are a lot of big brand agencies and they’re all networks. There’s a big need for an independent boutique agency in New York that doesn’t have pre-existing alliances. What I’ve learned very quickly—in like 6 weeks—is a lot of the model agencies have been burnt in the past. They’re a little bit shy of placing a girl in New York because they might lose that girl. So as the new kid on the block, one of the things I’m really grateful for is a lot of the mother agencies are giving us a chance to be that kind of ‘clean’ destination that’s not a conflict for them.
TT: Because you can focus more on them?
WS: One: we can focus more on them. But when it comes to, “Where is this model going to be placed in Paris?” it’s not automatic. So for instance, if you were placed with IMG or Ford or Next, you tend to get grated into their London, Milan, and Paris offices. Meanwhile this allows us to assess the teams in different cities like, “Okay, what’s the best agency to place this girl with in London? What’s the best agency to place her in Milan?” It’s not a prepackaged thing. That’s really in our favour. I find that the ten years at models.com—I think my name got a lot more exposed than I realized. I’ve been receiving a lot of emails, a lot of very supportive people just sending polaroids of these great kids. All I can say is thank you! It’s a digital revolution.
TT: And as an early adopter that probably helped out…
WS: Exactly. Look at the context of this conversation. We only know each other through social media, more or less. I appreciate the fact that you’ve reached out and given me the support. When models.com started who would’ve known you could build relationships off a computer?
TT: I have one last question I’d like to ask. We’re heading in a new direction here to focus on men’s new faces. I was wondering if you had any standouts on your men’s board that you’d like us to know about.
WS: Yes, but this is hard! What’s on the website in terms of the men we represent, is more the personalities/celebrities. I’ve got nine guys who will be on by the middle of the month and I can talk a little bit about one boy we found, in of all places, Ohio. His name is Bolt Brown. Bolt is really fantastic. Then from the Danish market, there are these two great guys. One is Alex. The other is Rene. I would say those are the three who walk into the office and they go, “Who’s that?” It goes back to the first thing I had said which was, “Let’s find people who are super individual, unique.” And when they walk into a casting, or they’re standing there they’re actually giving the designer something other than just this random, anonymous beauty that you can just dispose of next season. It’s all about the long-distance runner.
TT: We’re done with the blips now, aren’t we?
WS: [laughs] You have no control over whom the market will embrace or whom the market will snub. Again, building the idea of MIX and Neal with his experience really helps me with this. It’s like—I’m really so disoriented and I’m thinking from a client’s point of view. It’s less about my ego, or Neal’s ego, and it’s about—I remember when I was a client what I needed was a model who could engage me and could talk to me and when I was fitting the clothes on him—could talk to me about what those clothes felt like and represented the world of now, the youth market. You know? Someone who brought something into the room.