Backgrounder:  The Great Model Showcase

by Gary Keith,

Producer of The Great Model Search and Great Model Showcase



    Over the the ten years I have photographed subjects for my photo project, The Great Model Search a few things had become apparent. First, I was surprised that once they accepted the notion of actually doing the photo shoot, how enthusiastic and invested the subjects became in the process and certainly the photo shoot itself. That’s not to say they weren’t nervous, even apprehensive about the photo shoot but the descriptor that comes to mind in just about every case is, determined.

    The photo shoot was usually planned for a week to ten days out from the phone interview, long enough for the subjects to prepare, but hopefully not so long that they might have second thoughts and back out, which did happen, but rarely. In most instances, once the decision was made, the subjects would throw themselves into the process. They invariably spent hours searching their closets for wardrobe. Many went shopping and bought an outfit or two, perhaps a bit sexier or more revealing than they might normally wear and some even invested in some new lingerie just for their photo shoot.

    Usually, the model would leave the photo shoot with a DVD containing all of the photos, exactly as they came out of the camera. But these were in a state far too large to post online and in their raw state were generally not ready to be seen by the public. I tried to have at least five to ten produced photos, (photos that had been color corrected, cropped, sized and enhanced) in their hands within a day after the shoot, often the same night. As soon as they got their photos, the models went to work, positing their shots on their social media and reveling in the comments they received.

    These photos were so different in quality and certainly in content than those posted by others, especially by women in their same age range, that they stood out and the reaction was usually tremendous and immediate. Of course not every review was entirely positive but they seemed to shrug off the few negative comments, focussing instead on the overwhelmingly positive feedback they read. What became apparent to me was that in nearly every case, the impact resulting from shooting for my project was empowering and liberating for these women. For many, their GMS photo shoot was nothing less than a life altering event.

    For some of the subjects, that one day in front of the camera was a revelation. They were excited and ebullient about the experience and a fire had been lit. Clearly, one day in front of the camera wasn’t going to be enough. They were impressed by the photos they saw but wanted to learn and do more. Certain they had even better photos in them, they wanted another shoot to find out. These were the women who really launched the Great Model Showcase.

    The problem was, at that time, in the early 2000‘s though I personally believed in them, there was little opportunity or enthusiasm for a woman in her 40’s, 50’s or 60’s to enter modeling.


The dark days of modeling

    I didn’t begin the Great Model Search looking to form a troupe of mature models, it was simply a photo project that might one day become a coffee table book, or an exhibit, nothing more. In the beginning it didn’t have a name. When I began the project modeling was a pretty cruel industry, a harsh and exploitive culture, a place where more often dreams went to die than to be fulfilled.

    For decades, literally as long as there had been commercial models, the industry had been tightly controlled by a small cadre of top modeling agencies and fashion houses located principally in New York, Paris and London. A handful of mostly men decided what looks were “in”, what standards and dimensions of models were acceptable and quite literally who would be a star and who would never be allowed to chase their dreams. And their decisions had very nearly the force of law. Agencies and advertisers at all levels beneath the elites fell into line. The system was undemocratic and unyielding.

    At the top of the modeling pyramid, the “fighter pilots” of the industry have always been the high dollar runway and magazine models. A limited group of a few dozen at most who could command $20,000 a day or more, they became celebrities in their own right, the “supermodels”, those who had “The look”.

    But that look, as defined and dictated by the czars of modeling and fashion were world unrealistic to say the least and nearly unobtainable or at least unsustainable for all but a handful of freakishly tall and nearly shapeless pre-teen and teenaged girls. These girls were often scouted as adolescents and all but a fortunate few were generally discarded by the time they reached their early 20’s. They lived in groups, in “model apartments” nestled in fashion and advertising hubs like New York, Paris or Milan, waiting to hear they had been booked for an assignment by the agency that paid their expenses.

    Their food was regulated, they were weighed, sometimes daily and gaining even a pound, or simply not getting an assignment for a set number of days or weeks might result being banished from the apartment, literally turned out on the street, their contract revoked. The pressures were extreme and stories surfaced in the media of young girls developing horrendous eating disorders, and turning to smoking, drinking and drugs in an attempt to suppress their weight, sometimes resulting in serious health consequences and even death.

    A few of the subjects who came to the GMS as adults had modeled in their youth and had seen or at least heard the stories and left the business, sometimes because they had been discouraged by an agency or photographer who told them there was no future in mainstream modeling for someone of their particular body type, ethnicity, or look.

    There were some opportunities in commercial modeling but many of those went to young women who had “washed out” of the fashion industry in their late teens and early twenties and while they may have been deemed not fit for fashion, they were none the less experienced models who could still do commercial work.

    The one remaining pathway always available to attractive young women was the world of adult modeling. Playboy, Penthouse and a handful of other mainstream men’s magazines were always looking for young talent and those publications actually represented a “back door” into modeling, even films and television, but the those opportunities were rare. Beyond the mainstream men’s magazines was an endless number of “skin” magazines which paid little and offered no possibility for advancement, the same being true for the ever present porn industry here in southern California.


The Internet brings change to modeling on a tectonic scale

    But with the arrival of the Internet at about the turn of the century, the ground began shifting beneath the entire industry. Online model directories such as onemodelplace.com, modelmayhem.com and others websites where anyone could post a profile, resume and portfolio began showing up. Suddenly there was a means by which models of all ages, shapes, and sizes could connect directly with photographers, local ad agencies, and businesses, without an agent or a modeling agency acting as a filter. It was becoming possible for a model to direct her own career, negotiate and book her own assignments, and make her own way in the business. This was a power shift in the industry on a tectonic scale.

   Modeling was definitely undergoing a sea change. Women, not just young girls perceived that while they might never become an elite runway or supermodel, they could pursue modeling as an avocation, and for many women, that would be enough.

    Via the Internet, photographers found new and profitable ways to exhibit and sell their work which resulted in a growing opportunities for models of all types.

    Our society was changing too, embracing diversity in every sense. Marketers were discovering the Internet as a means of approaching niche markets with new products at a fraction of the costs of conventional print or broadcast advertising which lead to more specialized products and campaigns featuring models that more closely resembled the consumers these marketers were approaching.

    By 2006, women in their 40’s and 50’s were regularly showing up in local, regional and even national ad campaigns. The fashion industry was still the land of the giants but there were even cracks beginning to appear there.


The age of the “cougar”

    Then a cultural bomb detonated on the heels of the successful network sitcom, “Sex and the City”, featuring the sexual exploits of four beautiful and liberated mature women in Manhattan. The four actresses became icons of mature beauty and sexuality and ushered in the next big thing, the age of the “cougar”, which celebrated mature women for being gorgeous, sexy, and for their pursuit, which bordered on predatory, of much younger men purely for sexual gratification.

    The age of the “cougar” was thankfully relatively short lived. While millions of women were embracing their beauty and sexuality and appreciating that they were no longer being trivialized by the mainstream media and society as a whole, they weren’t comfortable with the image of being viewed as sexual predators. Still “cougardome” left a lasting impression on us all, and since then mature women are widely appreciated as being beautiful, sexy, and sexual. Those impressions changed the culture and the perceptions of millions of mature women of themselves, forever.

    Magazines such as More, Self, and Vanity Fair were replacing or retiring stoic titles, like Redbook and Good Housekeeping as favorites among women. This new breed of magazine often featured content that celebrated the beauty and sensuality of dynamic, mature women and promoted anti-aging, and fitness. They became major advertising and marketing platforms, creating more opportunities for mature models as women in their 50’s recoiled at being sold “wrinkle creams” by ads utilizing models in their 20’s and 30‘s as examples.

    Women who were 40+ in years were becoming a prime advertising demographic, reversing the belief of ad agencies for decades that once a person exceeded the age of 39, they were a marginal market at best, essentially limited to insurance and investment products and services, huge cars and health related products.

    The central premiss of my photo project, that I had stated years earlier, “A woman’s beauty, sexuality and sensuality are not diminished by simply adding years” had been validated by the media and pop culture in general. The world was catching up to where I had been for years. But one more giant change in favor of mature models was still to come, though it would be a painful one for nearly everyone else.


The final piece of the puzzle was a painful one

    One of the reasons people of age in general, and especially women were so marginalized by advertisers over the years was that during he “go-go” years of the tech boom, the real estate boom and various other booms, the wealth in the country was generally in the hands of the relatively young. It seemed as though every “20 something” had a thriving tech company pr website and the country was awash with youngsters landing high dollar jobs, fresh out of college, or with entrepreneurs, sitting on million dollar stock options or receiving annual six and seven figure annual bonuses on Wall Street.

    Corporate executives who in the past might have hung onto large-salaried jobs into their 60’s were bailing out on golden parachutes in their 50‘s, cranking up the last of the fixed benefit retirement plans, backstopped by huge capital gains amassed in their homes from years of an ever inflating real estate market.

    Then, in the fall of 2008, everything changed. The million dollar stock options, the six figure bonuses and the huge salaries in the tech, investment and banking sectors all evaporated virtually overnight. In a matter of weeks the country was thrust into the deepest recession in thirty years and the consumer economy was whipped on its axis.

    For decades, “seniors”, those living on fixed incomes were viewed by advertisers as irrelevant as a consumer class. Their days of spending and acquiring were over, their resources now dedicated to maintaining, not enhancing their lifestyle. Suddenly those incomes, while fixed, were fixed at pretty high levels and were far more stable than payroll or investment income as the stock market plunged and unemployment ballooned to nearly 10%. Young people were wracked by debt amassed during years of easy credit and low interest rates. Many were saddled with crushing student loans reaching into six figures and those notes were coming due. The party was over.

    But “seniors” who retired ahead of the crash were, as an economic class were suddenly financially far better off than most of the rest of the population. And if they were still working it was likely they were further up the executive or worker food chain and therefore more likely insulated by their seniority from layoffs or cutbacks.    

    When the real estate sector collapsed in 2009, this same demographic had a great deal more equity in their homes and were better equipped to weather the massive decline in home values that lead to the foreclosure crisis.

    The same recession that wiped out billions of dollars of wealth, upended corporate giants, crippled the federal government, and altered the employment and financial trajectory of an entire generation had also brought about the single biggest realignment of the consumer marketplace in the United States since the end of World War II.

    The money was suddenly in the hands of the class of people advertisers had been marginalizing for decades. The new demographic giant was anyone 40+ and especially women as it was generally recognized that women most often made the buying decisions in American households and women were buying more and more for themselves.

    The call went out for new products and services aimed specifically at this powerful new demographic. Even existing products were being more specifically marketed toward mature women. Advertising concepts and strategies needed to pivot to look more like their objective, a generally older and decidedly more feminine consumer. The last piece of the puzzle was in place and the picture that appeared was that of more women appearing in advertising at every level.


The Great Model Showcase is born

    The worm had turned and maturity was in. By 2010 I had turned up the wick on my photo project and that’s when it got its name, The Great Model Search. By then it really was a search, for women I thought could pursue modeling as a career, or at least as an avocation, no matter what their age. In 2003-2009, I conducted an average of three to five GMS photo shoots per year. In 2010, I shot twelve, in 2011, 18, and in 2012, I conducted 29 GMS photo shoots.

    I never promised prospective GMS subjects a modeling career, but after 2009, I began at least discussing the possibilities with those I approached. If my GMS subjects asked me if there were really opportunities for mature models, I answered enthusiastically and part of my answer was the creation of the Great Model Showcase, the entity I designed as a platform for the elite models of the Great Model Search. By elite I mean those who had made solid commitments to do what it would take to pursue modeling. The Great Model Showcase has evolved, models have come to, and departed the GMS for various reasons. Some have abandoned and left modeling for other pursuits, others didn’t share my particular vision and philosophies and decided to pursue their ambitions on their own. 

     Though there is more opportunity than ever for these mature women, still they face an uphill battle, a difficult road to an improbable destination. They face undue, unfair, even illegal discrimination at times. Long held prejudices are still out there. Acceptance of mature women in mainstream advertising and especially in fashion is far from universal. There are some in the business who are dismissive, even derisive of women of age attempting to make their way into modeling.

    As I found new models and assimilated them into the GMS it became apparent to me that they are more than women who may be uncommonly attractive for their ages, they brought with them fascinating histories, great personal stories and diverse backgrounds. I needed a strategy to combat the discriminatory views they will encounter, to make the models of the GMS stand out as much for their depth as for their veneer.

    I have encouraged each of them to tell their stories, to let the world see that beauty truly is more than skin deep. For some its painful to talk about their stories. But to be successful the GMS has to gain fans, find a following and a voice, collectively and individually. The GMS must become a tour de force to battle the biasses and ageism they will face, and to help millions of women do the same, no matter what their field of endeavor.

    The women of the GMS are undeterred by the challenges they face. The GMS is more than a modeling troupe, it’s become as one of the models termed it, a “sisterhood”. Though they are all striving for the same prize, they each approach it differently and the sisterhood of the GMS has promoted their collective strength. They consult with and advise each other on wide range of subjects, from their experiences working with specific photographers, to various projects, events and activities they’ve been offered. They work together on shoots, and often accompany each other just to lend assistance and support. They network, promote and lean on each other emotionally and support each other in any way they can and that is unique in the modeling world, famous for its rampant and sometimes unsavory competitiveness.

    Will they make it, and what might “making it” look like? Time will tell but these women and the experiment that is the GMS are worth watching because if they can sell themselves in this difficult environment, they can sell anything, and in the end that’s all modeling is, sales.




END

What is the GMS