BuzzFeed Fashion's "How I Made It in Fashion" series takes an in-depth look at the careers of the industry's most successful players. Ahead, model and The Face star Coco Rocha explains how she went from an Irish dance competition to international fashion stardom.
I was discovered at an Irish dance competition when I was 14. I was sitting with my friends and this older man came up to me and said, "Have you ever thought of modeling?" I actually thought he was one of the security guards or someone who worked at this dance competition, and he was going to tell me to remove my feet from the fancy tables. All of us thought it was some kind of joke — or that this man needed glasses.
If you think of a model, you probably think of a gorgeous, beautiful bombshell of a woman — not so much a lanky 14-year-old girl at an Irish dance competition. I was laughing hysterically, but secretly I was also kind of excited that someone thought I, of all people, could be a model. I told him to talk to my mom, who was also there at the competition. She was like, "No, no way are you having my daughter model."
But this guy didn't give up, and I kept seeing him at different dance competitions because his daughter danced as well. Finally my mom gave in. I don't know why — maybe she was intrigued by the idea too.
So he took me to get photos taken. I wore my [own] clothes — I had no style, and I had gotten my makeup done at the MAC counter. The photographer didn't want any wrinkles in the front of my shirt, so instead of Photoshopping them out, which he didn't want to do either, he would make me pull my top taut in front of me for every shot. It was just a big mess. If you saw the photos, you would have never said, "Yep, that's a model!"
Despite all of that, I then went along to a modeling convention that agents from around the world were attending. Usually you'll get called back by one or two, but I got callbacks from all of them, which was kind of crazy.
I went to work with the agency Supreme in New York. At first they had about 75 girls. Then, all of a sudden, Supreme changed their agents and said they were removing [almost] all the girls. Only a few were invited to stay — in the end only two of us stayed. It was all part of a larger shift to a more androgynous look, where the agency wanted really skinny girls with edgy haircuts. Paul Rowland — the founder of Supreme and Women, who's no longer there — was trying to change the whole industry, which I think he did by signing all these really boyish girls. All the while, I was thinking, How exactly do I fit in this group?
When I was 15 I was sent to Asia, to [work in] Taipei and Singapore. I was sent there because I'm Canadian, and you need to have a certain amount of tear sheets and a few different covers to prove you're a model worthy of a visa in the U.S. I didn't have a lot of work under my belt at the time, so it made sense. In Taipei, I truly learned my "modeling 101."
Today I'm known for posing — I would definitely say that came from Taipei. At castings there, agents send you with a few girls in a car to go see a client. The client sits there at a table with about 10 people and says things like, "Our catalogue today is Hello Kitty" or "sexy" or "cutesy." And you depict what you think that means. You have a minute to give them all your poses, almost like a dance-off — but a pose-off. If you book the job you may get to do a catalogue of 75 photos. The new girls would always say, "What on earth am I doing?" And you're like, "It's normal. You'll get into it." I thought that's how modeling was, and I came back to New York and I'm doing all my poses and people were like, "What on earth are you doing?" They just couldn't understand the whole "dance" I was doing when I got in front of the camera.
A selection of Coco's work from Asia.
I booked two jobs a day in Asia, so 75 looks, and then at night another 75. Two catalogues a day for two months. I thought it was awesome — I was getting paid and I thought they were great photos. [Then] I actually looked back at them a few months ago and, oh my goodness — they are actually the worst photos I have ever seen.
After Taipei, I went to Singapore and worked on my portfolio further. Singapore is a great place to make your book. Visually, they have interesting concepts, and their photographers are very good.
More early modeling work from Asia.
When I returned to the U.S., all of my agents had left Supreme. I decided I wanted to leave also, to join [them] at Elite. Paul Rowland readily signed for my release. I guess he thought I was a waste of time. Once I got back with my old agents, they sent me on a Steven Meisel casting that immediately turned into my first shoot with him in L.A. In fact, it turned into a six-month exclusive with Steven, meaning I would work only with him on my jobs — my shows, everything.
When Paul found out about Steven and saw that I had exclusivity, he tried to come back and say, "You can't leave Supreme, you never were allowed to leave." But he had signed me away, so that was that. Any time a new girl gets to shoot with Steven, it usually means the industry is going to start to take her seriously because he takes her seriously. I think there are two major players in this industry who can actually do that: Steven and Anna Wintour.
On my first shoot with Steven, I remember thinking, Pose, pose, pose — and Steven was just smiling and looking at me in an odd way. I thought, "Maybe I'm not supposed to be doing all this, but hey, I'll just try it." And funnily enough, after that first shoot I got a phone call saying I had six months' exclusivity.
Steven loves models. That's what the whole industry is to him — it's all about shooting the models he loves. As a kid he would wait outside of agencies or phone up casting directors — he was always in love with models, so it makes sense that he would become the ultimate model maker. He made Naomi [Campbell], he made Linda [Evangelista], and how crazy that I can say he made me too!
He has a classic way of doing things. When we get on set, the girls are always taken care of — he makes sure they have water, that they're comfortable. He has a huge mirror so that when we pose with 10, 15 girls, we can all see how we look. Everything is calm and perfect. And since he makes you so comfortable, you don't mind taking the time to just sit there while he makes sure the lighting is just right or gives you lots of direction that will make you look your best in the end. Some models don't like to be told what to do and want to be left alone to do what they think — but with Steven, they all want to take his direction. You never doubt him, he's just so good.
During the first season of shows I did under Steven's tutelage, my agents started booking me for a wide range of clients. However, Steven wanted me to be completely exclusive to only a very, very small group of clients and sent over his "list." As I went from New York to London to Milan, the industry started to hear about this list, so when I finally got to Paris, big designers were trying to get their name on the list. It was, now looking back, one of the craziest times in my career. Who does that for a model?
I remember my first season of shows in Milan under Steven, Prada said they wanted exclusivity. So I did all the looks for them — the makeup, the hair tests. Then in the end they said I would not be their exclusive girl. I was so upset because I'd missed all my castings and chances for the other shows [on Steven's list], but lo and behold, my agents sent me anyway — immediately! So I went to see everyone and I got all of the other jobs anyway. I got to do every other show on the list.
I learned to do runway in a very specific way. The guy who taught me, Mac, is a big, big guy with shoulders like a football player. But he walks in heels and it's this incredible stomp. We were in Times Square on a rooftop in the summer, and we had to walk on tar that sunk in when you walked on it. I remember so clearly that I was trying to make sure my feet weren't getting stuck in tar over and over and over in practice. When I did the actual shows, I thought, OK, you give a stomp — you really give a walk.
Brana Wolf was styling Versace at the time, and she had already seen me walk in a few shows. I could see Donatella [Versace] was leery about me because I am the most pasty-white girl in the world, and at the time a lot of girls were getting spray tans for her show. And Brana said, "But just wait — watch her walk." So I gave my best stomp down the runway and I just remember Donatella nodding and saying, "OK, you can do the show."
I met a lot of important people my first year modeling. I didn't know very much about most of them at the time. I remember Anna Wintour being really nice when I met her. A lot of people had said, "She might be a little scary." Or, "She might be a little overwhelming." And I was like, "What? This is awesome. She's great."
My first American Vogue shoot was actually with [photographer] Arthur Elgort and [Vogue creative director] Grace Coddington in Maine; we shot there for three days. Usually when a model is doing a test shoot for American Vogue, you don't get a full editorial — the girls that were already doing a lot of shoots for American Vogue told me I would probably be a foot model at first to see how I work. Well, amazingly, I got my own editorial. We were in this little fisherman's village where they had asked this young fisherman my age if he would be in a photo with me on a boat. The whole town came out and they were really excited for him. At the end of they day, all the kids in this town go bowling. And Grace is like, "Yeah! Go Coco! We can put you in Balenciaga and you can go bowling!" I'm like, "I really don't want to go bowling," and she's like, "No, no, no, just go bowling!" So I said, "OK, but I'm not wearing Balenciaga." So I went bowling with them in my own clothes. She just thought it would be an epic moment to say that I wore Balenciaga going bowling, but I didn't. I wish I did, looking back.
That whole first American Vogue trip I felt like Grace and Arthur were my sweet aunt and uncle. I'd go to them and say, "Can I eat with you guys?" And they'd say, "No! We'll give you some money and you go have some fun with the local kids and eat dinner with them." It was really cute.
My husband James and I work every day together. Some people would kill each other, but we wouldn't have it any other way. James is my manager — he works with the books, he makes sure that contracts and agencies are in line, but he also works as my own personal creative director. All the projects I've taken on outside of modeling, from designing a jewelry line to making a short film, have happened because of him. He also helps with my social media. It's a true partnership. Actually sometimes we joke that he's more important to the Coco Rocha brand than I am!
My first foray into TV was interviewing people backstage at shows for E! Canada a few years ago. The microphone just said "E!" so everyone was running over thinking it was U.S. E! — and we didn't set them straight. I was then asked to do some big TV shows but nothing ever fell into place — either the idea wasn't interesting to me or I didn't like the production values, so it didn't happen. But The Face [was different]. I immediately loved the concept; I was already mentoring models on the side, which I love to do. So when I heard that Shine Production and Oxygen were thinking about doing a show and I could mentor girls as part of it, it was perfect! I could teach my girls on my own terms. As for that experience as whole, there will be a second season — and you'll have to see who's coming back. That's all I can say.
Sometimes I miss the runway. Doing the actual show is like a performance to me. But I don't miss the whole backstage part. Backstage at one show, a girl from England, who was very hyper, bumped into this Russian girl who said, "That is enough! You will not do that anymore!" And all of a sudden all the Russian girls started to encircle this English girl, which made all of the English-speaking models circle, West Side Story style. This little English girl in the middle was just about to bawl because she didn't mean anything, she was just jumping around. But everyone's emotions are so heightened from being around each other all the time in such a frenetic, high-pressure environment. On the runway they passed, and the Russian girl just smashed into the English girl to prove a point. So that's always fun — I love drama. As long as I'm not in it.
— As told to Amy Odell