Everything you wanted to know about: getting supermodels out of bed, diversity and eating zebra with Mandela – Carole White on her legendary career
Everything you wanted to know about:... is a new series featuring life and career advice on aspects of the fashion world from some of the industry’s most influential insiders. Check back for more installments.
“Premier girls have really good personalities and can be a bit naughty,” laughs agency founder Carole White from a sofa in their London HQ. “Yep, they’ve gotta be naughty!” For a business that began in White’s brother’s living room (she came up with the name Premier “pissed as a rat” while playing poker) the agency has dominated the past decades of modelling, and had some of the world’s most infamous girls on their books – including Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Christy Turlington. But despite being in the business for decades, it was choosing to shoot a fly-on-the-wall documentary series in 2011 that propelled both White and Premier into the public eye (and earned her her first Twitter parody, Carole Shite, who she invited for lunch). The show offered a candid look at the mechanics of a hidden world, becoming a firm favourite, and with an audience of more than just fashion fans.
“I love my job, but I wanted to show how busy it is – almost like a vocation, it’s all consuming,” White explains. “The response did take us by surprise – when the first program came out, the bin men were going by and were like ‘Hi Carole!’’’ Now White has poured her years of experience into a book, Have I Said Too Much?, which traces the start of her career through to the age of the supermodels, the scandals and controversies that rocked the industry around the turn of the millennium and the girls defining it today. To celebrate its release, White kicks off our new series of industry insider guides with everything you wanted to know about being a model agent, and shares her top tips for life in the business.
“In general, most people think the modelling industry is so glamorous, but it’s very hard work. You’re dealing with young minds and trying to make them focused on a career that’s short lived – telling them that they should take it while they can and enjoy it. We have to mentor girls, make them understand why they have to get up on time and be away from home a lot; you’re going from city to city, on planes all the time. You have to grow up quite quickly.
And if a girl becomes successful, you have to deal with the adoration so they don’t get too big headed. We have to bring them down to earth and say, look, someone might be telling you are wonderful and marvellous but they might not your best friend next year. It’s about rejection, which is quite a difficult thing at a young age. If you are a young model you’re going out to maybe five or six castings a day and you probably won’t get any of them, so it’s about making them understand that they have to manage their expectations and their disappointments. The most important quality in a model is an amazing work ethic and a beautiful personality – it gets them work because they are fun to be with.
I don’t think diversity has got much better over the years. You can get a white girl going in maybe a month, two months, a black girl it can take six to twelve. It’s much more difficult to get a test photographer to shoot them, probably because they don’t know how to light their skin, maybe the make-up artist has never been taught how to get the make-up right. Until the girl has a cult following it’s hard work, very, very hard work for her and for us. When Malaika [Firth] got the Prada campaign [making her the first black model after Naomi Campbell in 1994] that was an amazing moment. We got her thanks to the program. Her mum and her were watching it, and they rang me the morning after the first one aired and I said yeah, bring her in! She’s the cutest little thing, we are really proud.
As for the bookers, they have to have a really good personality, a very good memory and be very quick. It’s so pressurised and everything is done last minute – you have to be very thorough and can never take anything for granted. You almost become a travel agent. You’ve got to think about time zones, hotels, has a girl got the right visa? The fun part is the negotiation. When you know a client really likes a girl and you are trying to get the rate up. It’s all about how good your rapport is with them – you have to know when you’re losing and when to back track.
The late 80s and 90s when supermodels were evolving was such an incredible time. It had so much hope in it and was so successful, almost decedent, but fun and young. I think the models at the time really did reflect that era. Then you went into the more waify look which confused the supermodels because they were so well groomed, and then suddenly you weren’t supposed to be well groomed anymore and it was quite hard to change their looks. The best thing about that time was going to the places I wouldn’t have gone to, or meeting people I would never have met. I met Nelson Mandela about three or four times and went on a train with him and ate zebra steak!
When you are looking after models of that calibre they are mixing with the highest end of people, some nice, some horrible. You get a glimpse of another world of luxury and money and power. I had to learn how to book a private jet and a helicopter and get a girl onto a yacht. The worst part was the stress – being a supermodel you are used to everything happening instantly. It was problem solving, which is what I love doing, but you’d have to solve something immediately – you could be in Timbuktu and have no signal, so the stress was tremendous, but my challenge was always to fix it. And to get them out of bed. That was probably the worst thing actually, getting them out of bed!
Now we’re in a social media era. The whole business has changed so much in the last five years. It’s changing how advertising is done; it’s changing how we evaluate how much a job is worth. Before it used to be how many posters and billboards are there, but that’s not the crucial element anymore. Followers have become a currency and agents around the world have been slow to click onto that. Everything has to be looked at in a different way now. I like being creative, I like reinventing myself and the agency, and you have to because you are a modern entity. You have to keep doing that all the time in this business or you’re dead. It’s easy to just put your feet up and think that’s it – when you do that, somebody will come along and swallow you up.”
Carole White’s Have I Said Too Much?: My Life In and Out of The Model Agency is out now