Behind ‘The Agency’: warts and all
"The Agency," a new VH1 reality television show this week about the inner-workings of the international modeling industry powerhouse, Wilhilmina Models, leaves little room for the desultory and the faint of heart.
It’s a business, after all, and some of these models could earn up to $20,000 a day, and after watching the initial episode this Tuesday, part of what it takes to be a high-powered, high-fashion New York agent, it seems, is to take no prisoners.
"If you can’t smile, you can’t make money," Wilhelmina agent Greg Francis tells one Wilhelmina hopeful.
On the show, Francis goes by "Pink," but the soft color someone gave him as a nickname has very little to do with his powers of unrestrained criticism he exercises in order to weed out the very best of the models for his elite crop.
"Your face is asymmetrical," he tells a girl attempting to get a job at the agency.
"Your eyes are too close together," he tells another.
Pink’s frankness and vitriol are matched, if not surpassed, by his understudy, agent Becky Southwick, who gets visibly flustered by teenaged model Chloe who she feels has gained a few too many pounds recently. After measuring Chloe about the waist, Southwick calls her a Pillsbury Dough Boy.
As "The Agency’s" executive producer Corey Preston watches the first episode from the comfort of her home in Glenwild with her loyal pug Mao in her lap, she laughs, albeit at times a bit uneasily, at the tensions and antics that play out on screen.
"In the first month, all of the agents were wearing makeup and high heels," she says. "Then they forgot the cameras were there."
A one-time international model for the agency, Preston’s been with Wilhelmina for 20 years, and now serves as Wilhelmina’s director of business development.
Consequently, Preston knows the modeling industry well and from both sides. She can remember when she was in the thick of it herself, but from her perch in Park City, it seems, she has some perspective at least enough to appreciate the humorous side of the colorful personalities in the industry.
"So many modeling shows, show the dream they don’t show how hard models have to work," Preston reflects. "We decided we’d let the world see our agency warts and all."
For the last four years, the New York City transplant has gladly kept one foot in the mountains with her partner and co-owner of Wilhelmina Models Dieter Esch. The other owner, Brad Krassner, also lives in Park City, and the trio continues to manage the 17 divisions of Wilhelmina, which also manages athletes, actors and musicians like Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas and singer/actress Jessica Simpson.
Preston and Esch appear quite pleased at the media’s response to "The Agency" and the public’s reaction thus far. Nearly all the tabloids, including People magazine and Star have given their show coverage.
"I think the difference is we’re not following the model’s social lives as much as we are the agents," she explained. "It’s also not a contest-show Our show is edgy and real. We don’t put powder on everyone and make it pretty. It’s hard work being glamorous."
Esch adds that a lot of other shows can lead people on.
"Girls shouldn’t go to the business with such illusions they think they just have to go to New York and get treated like royalty," he said.
Wilhelmina had offers from other companies to do a reality show before setting out to do one of their own, Preston explains, but she and the company had concerns about what kind of slant would be put on the company by editors. Despite the show’s candor and "edginess," after watching all seven completed episodes, however, she says she continues to be very proud of her team.
Esch is particularly happy about the Neilsen Ratings "The Agency" received for the premiere last Tuesday night, especially as they compared with other shows of the same theme.
"We beat out Janis Dickinson [a model with a reality show about an agency] we doubled her ratings so it must be good," he boasts.
In the last month, the company has also had to triple the number of receptionists on staff to cover aspiring models’ phone calls, which was, in part, the reason behind the creation of the show, according to Preston to scout new talent, which she says is the lifeblood of any agency.
Now, in addition to scouting talent, she says, talent is seeking out the agency, and these days it’s not just the 5-foot-11 blond bombshell. Since Wilhelmina Cooper (a model who holds the record for the most Vogue covers) started the company 40 years ago, various arms now not only focuses on the high-fashion models, they also manage plus size models like Mia Tyler, a number of catalogue models and international male models like Gabriel Aubry.
"The agency has changed since I was a model now people can upload photographs on the Internet and be discovered; now models can be more types they can be older, they can have a different look," she says. "It’s changed, I think, and for the better More than just a high-fashion model works today."
The Agency airs every Tuesday night on VH1 at 8 p.m. Mountain Standard Time. Episodes can also be downloaded on iTunes.
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