Fashion Reverie Model Exclusive: Michelle de Swarte

                Images courtesy of thejc.com, pinterest.com, and the uprise.org.uk

Is there a life after a successful modeling career? Just ask Cindy Crawford, Christie Brinkley, Heidi Klum, Jerry Hall, and Christy Turlington. Cindy Crawford has her skincare line; Heidi Klum has made a mint creating and producing “Project Runway,” licensing that reality fashion show around the world; Christie Brinkley has appeared on Broadway and had a reoccurring role on Parks and Recreation; Jerry Hall has married one of the richest men in the world, and Christy Turlington has a PhD.It is a given that a modeling career can be very short—lasting just a few years for most models. And while supermodels can have a career that may extend over a couple of decades, the smart ones are always looking to transition into other lines of work. Michelle de Swarte is one such top model.

Fashion Reverie first met Michelle de Swarte when she served on a recent panel discussion about mental illness and the fashion industry. Very outspoken and candid, Michelle impressed the Fashion Reverie staff with her honesty and sense of humor. We later learned that Michelle de Swarte has made that difficult transition from a career that centers primarily being seen and not heard to a career where she speaks her mind and finds humor in human behavior.

From having fashion campaigns from H&M, Burberry, Betsey Johnson, Cartier, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors, MAC, Sephora, and many others to making folks laugh at everyday foibles, Michelle de Swarte is one of the few top models that have transitioned to successful careers outside of the fashion industry. And she is still building momentum.

Michelle de Swarte candidly spoke with Fashion Reverie about her life, modeling, and of course, being funny.

Fashion Reverie: How did you get into modeling?

Michelle de Swarte: I got into modeling when I was scouted. When I was about 17, a friend of mine wanted to model but it didn’t work out for her. She took me along to a casting and I got signed to a British modeling agency. I didn’t understand how the fashion industry worked at the time, so the first time around modeling didn’t really work out that well for me. I shaved my hair off and that particular agency dropped me. I thought modeling was over for me at that point.

Some years later, I bumped into a booker from Select Models at a shopping mall and she wanted to sign me. (Now, remember Select, as well as many model management companies were not interested in me when I was 17.) At any rate, I was signed to Select Models and moved on from there to Storm Model Management. I was sent very quickly to the US and in my first month in the US I booked Harper’s Bazaar and a few more things. I originally was only supposed to be in New York City for two weeks, but I loved it and stayed.

                   Images courtesy of vogue.it, pinterest.com, and runwaymayhem.com

FR: Why did you like New York City?Michelle de Swarte: I didn’t necessarily like New York, but it looked like this was going to be the first time I was going to have some sort of career as a fashion model. At that time in Great Britain—we are talking the early 2000s—there wasn’t really a career to be had for models of color, to actually live in the UK and make a living as a model. Models in the UK at that time got the odd job, but you couldn’t make a good living as a model.

FR: That is very interesting because in the US we all think of British models like Naomi Campbell and Jourdan Dunn doing very well in the United Kingdom.

Michelle de Swarte: They have, but Naomi’s fashion career is mostly in the US and other European countries. Even to this day, when has a British fashion brand hired Naomi Campbell to front their campaign? Additionally, Jourdan Dunn has made most of money in the US. UK clients came on board after Jourdan Dunn became a big success in NYC.

FR: What was your initial impression of the fashion industry when you started having a serious career as a fashion model?

Michelle de Swarte: My first impression was one of chaos. I also found it really had to get my head around things that had great relevance in the fashion industry but had very little importance to folks outside of the industry. The urgency around those fashion particulars really blew my mind and I also found very funny. But, I learned early on that to be successful I had to take the industry seriously, even if it seemed ridiculous.

FW: Could you name some of the famous fashion brands you worked with early on in your career?

Michelle de Swarte: Early on I worked for Tommy Hilfiger, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Missoni, Gap, H&M, and Versus, just to name a few.

FR: Wow, that is a very prestigious list early on in a modeling career.

Michelle de Swarte: Yes, it is. But, but at the time I wasn’t thinking about the prestige of the fashion brands. I was more excited about the paychecks.

    Images courtesy of pinterest.com, fwmagazine.com, and fashionmodeldirectory.com

FW: Who were some of your favorite designers you loved working for, and why?Michelle de Swarte: I loved working for Issey Miyake; he is one of the nicest men you will ever meet. Tom Ford was great to work with. When I first walked in his show—Tom Ford was designing for Gucci at the time—I fell three times. Tom Ford was so nice about it; he was so lovely about me falling down. This was my first runway season. I have also worked with some really nice photographers, like Steven Meisel.

FR: I know that this is a taboo subject in the fashion industry, but could you talk about the kind of money you and other models were making at the start of your career?

Michelle de Swarte: I remember a booking agent telling me once after I booked one of my first jobs that I had to go out and purchase an expensive handbag. I couldn’t understand why this was necessary for my career. This bag was going to cost about $2000 and I had just gotten a check for $5000, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a designer bag. The agent explained to me that it takes money to make money. In other words, I had to look like I was making a lot of money to book the jobs that paid well.

That is one of the reasons that a lot of models don’t want to talk about what they’re really making. They want to appear as though they are making more than they actually are to keep their day rate up.

Magazine editorial rates at magazines are quite low; you are fortunate if you get paid $250. If you are walking in a show and getting $10,000 to walk in that show, if you are from another country, you are lucky if your take home pay is $4000 after they take out taxes, other deductions, and agency fees. A new model coming to NYC from another country is lucky if she is making $30,000 her first year.

When I first came to NYC, I helped out a lot of model friends financially because I was booking a lot of commercial jobs that paid very well, while some of my model friends were booking editorial jobs that don’t pay well. A good example of this is a friend of mine that was seen everywhere. She had tons of editorial work and really had her moment. However, she wasn’t paid well because most of her work was editorial work. She only had one big commercial campaign that was a Jean-Paul Gaulthier fragrance campaign.

How a lot of new models, particularly from other countries, survive in NYC the first few years is getting money advances from the model management companies. The advances keep you in debt to the management companies, plus they charge you interest on your debt—5% to 15%. The model management companies now charge models for everything, from test shots to comp cards, travel expenses to everything. When I first got in the industry at least test shots were free of charge.

FR: In your experience, what fashion brands did you not have a good experience with?

Michelle de Swarte: There were not many. I have had an all-around good experience for the most part. I had a great experience with photographer Terry Richardson, but a lot of models can chime in on that. My experience with Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) was not great because they can be very rude.

I walked in a show for D&G and later shot a lookbook for the brand. For D&G, the hair and makeup team picked the models that they wanted to work with. Being a model of color, I was the last one picked. It felt like being in a gym class and picking sides. The makeup artist who got stuck with me was angry because none of his makeup matched by complexion. He didn’t know how to style my hair. My hair ended up looking like tumbleweed or a bowl of oatmeal with no water. Because my hair and makeup looked horrible, D&G didn’t want to pay the agency fee for my services.

FR: You have always been outspoken, where does that come from?

Michelle de Swarte: Maybe my being outspoken came from my being from South London; maybe it came from starting modeling at the age of 20, which is considered a late start. I never put all my eggs in one basket, realizing that a modeling career can be very short. Now, I can say what I want and it doesn’t affect my career.

FR: You have transitioned from modeling to hosting television programs and doing stand-up comedy. Why that transition?

Michelle de Swarte: In my late 20s I became really aware that I didn’t have a formal education and I wanted to do some other things. I had always been told that I was funny. Now, being told that you are funny in the fashion industry doesn’t necessarily translate to being funny in the regular world. Still, I thought I would give comedy a go.

I started doing stand-up comedy in NYC. I found an agent and I now do standup in the UK and the US. Stand-up comedy doesn’t rely on the way you look. In fact, being easy on the eye doesn’t help you at all in stand-up.

                            Images courtesy of youtube.com and kmestudio.com

FR: Could you talk about some of your stand-up gigs?Michelle de Swarte: I have done stand-up on the BBC and I have appeared on Comedy Central.

FR: But you still model.

Michelle de Swarte: Yes, I do. Modeling is like a bad boyfriend you have a good time with. You talk about leaving, but when a great job comes along, you dust off your heels and dive right in. I am still on Wilhelmina Models board, so the work still comes in.

FR: What’s next for you?

Michelle de Swarte: I have been a part of Gloria Steinem’s initiative “Woman with Gloria Steinem,” I am still a part of that. And I am continuing to write and do stand-up.

—William S. Gooch

 

 

 

 

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