The Modern Fashion Model, A “Fashion Reverie” Series: Part 1, Supermodel Heather Payne

The first installment of this series focuses on a supermodel turned successful fashion designer/entrepreneur.

In 1996, author-journalist, Michael Gross wrote a New York Times tell-all, best-seller, Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women. His book is a blow-by-blow accounting of the underbelly of the modeling industry. He named names, places, and dates. The book shook things up in the modeling world, but business continued as before.

Unfair play in the modeling business has been going on for decades. One of the most notable perpetrators is mega-agent, Jean-Luc Brunel, who had a decades-long association with the late Jeffrey Epstein. Brunel was the subject of a “60 Minutes” episode on the modeling industry called “American Girl in Paris” that aired in 1988. Even then, it was evident that models were easy targets for unscrupulous men such as Brunel. The latest allegations against designer Alexander Wang further inspired this series.

So, what does fairness boil-down to in this glamorous playpen? Fashion Reverie spoke with a wide swathe of industry professionals both in front of and behind the camera who generously shared their time and experiences. Our interview subjects provide a peek behind the industry’s curtain and spoke-out to help those who want to venture in and better navigate these treacherous waters.

Image courtesy of bellazon.com

Part 1: In Front of the Camera: Supermodel Heather Payne

Heather’s Story

A scared young model is sitting in the chilly stairwell in a drafty building in Milan. She’s been there for three hours and will wait another hour to be seen by the powers that be.  These all-powerful people are the casting agents for some of the upcoming Milan Fashion Week shows. After a few hours, the parade of beauties blur together and the girls are indistinguishable to the exhausted casting agents.

“Hello. Walk for me over there so we can get a picture of you. Okay. Thank you.” That’s it. The agent munches on another saltine mid-sentence, fantasizing about when she can have her next cigarette.

The young model from Canada has three girls in front of her before it’s finally her turn. Unlike many of the fledgling models, she’s not zoning-out on her music, wishing she were home or back in her warm hotel room. Instead, she takes it all in and knows she must make these people see her as a person, not just another pretty face.

She bears a resemblance to supermodel Kate Moss. That’s good, but it’s not enough. She approaches the agents, puts on her game face and a big smile and banishes thoughts of being tired, hungry and scared.

“Hi! I’m Heather. How are doing today?” The surprised agent looks up, no one has asked her how she is today. She looks into a pair of lively dark brown eyes, and is drawn in. “Marco, she calls-out to her assistant, who’s flicking through Polaroids taken earlier that day.  “Come over here and meet Heather. Let’s give her something to try-on.”

It’s well over fifteen years since that Milan cattle call when Fashion Reverie spoke to Heather. She’s in her New York City apartment and has two successful fashion collections under her belt: PAYNE NYC and Emerging Heroes. The shy young girl has made the transition from supermodel to successful businesswoman.  

Our conversation spanned from her early days breaking into modeling, walking the Victoria’s Secret show, collaborating with legendary Vogue photographer Steven Meisel to the present. She’s still modeling and is the face of her PAYNE NYC and Emerging Heroes brands. Below, are some of the highlights of her remarkable journey.

Calvin Klein ad featuring Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss courtesy of pinterest.com

Fashion Reverie: Why and how did you get into modeling?

Heather Payne:  Modeling was just something I thought about doing, the Elle covers were always pretty, but I wanted to work as a photographer for National Geographic. I was fortunate that Kate Moss had starred with “Marky Mark” (Mark Wahlberg) in the campaign for CK Calvin Klein.  That paved the way for a more androgynous look. Kate and I were shorter than the supers of the time, and slight. I was able to very quickly rise up in Canada. I came to New York and it was really fast. Kate’s agent, Sarah Doukas, scooped me up and said, “Don’t change anything.” In the 1990s.  they stood behind you and pitched you like a person.

FR: Coming to New York is one thing, but how did you get a leg-up with so many girls also wanting to be stars?

Heather Payne:  There are so many ways to rise up; I don’t know the exact science, but I can say that In the 90s, it was different because there was a little bit of everything. When they asked for you, they asked for you by name, by skill set. They were really aware of personality and as a model you had to think of a photoshoot to be more like acting, like doing movie stills. The trick is longevity. The girls who last had someone notice something special about them, and then everyone followed along and wanted to shoot them.

FR: In the 90s and 2000s when you were most active as a model, there was a cabal of stylists and photographers who were “supermodel makers.” The girls they selected went on to become “it models”: Kristen McMenamy, Amber Valetta, Guineviere Van Seenus, etc. Some of the most notable photographers, Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber, and Mario Testino were “star-makers” for male and female models.

Heather Payne:  Those photographers had the veto power for everything unless it was Anna Wintour. I worked with Steven for a Dolce & Gabbana perfume campaign. Steven was an artist, and the camera was his medium. Today, it’s very much about the client and social (media).

Heather Payne Victoria Secret images courtesy of supermodelpictures.com, pinterest.com, and victoriassecret.fandom.com, respectively

FR: Victoria’s Secret became one of the biggest model star-making machines of all time. What was it like doing the show? Why do you think Victoria’s Secret has lost popularity with the public?

Heather Payne: Oh, Victoria’s Secret! I was so scared. I was never a fan of doing a show. There’s so much time to sit around and get nervous, and so much yelling and chaos backstage. There were some of the tougher girls like Naomi Campbell and a changing of the guard around that time (1998).

One thing I learned very quickly; there aren’t any buyers at these shows. They’re selling to middle America. The show is a spectacle, a one-off. You were either a high fashion model or a VS model. The transition was that Rihanna had that show with models in the wheelchairs and that was the breaking point. They (VS) didn’t change with the times and I don’t think they could have pivoted and become inclusive in a believable way. They didn’t hire new young people to tell them what people wanted. Brands like Sports Illustrated, though are going with the times; they’re doing less retouching. Look at the recent issue with Paulina Porizkova.

FR: What happens to models after they’re “done”?

Heather Payne: Some go back home. Others go into health and wellness, some create perfume lines like Leilani Bishop. It’s nice to see people who picked up on the creativity and did something else with it.

FR: How did you make the transition from modeling to your next career?

Heather Payne: I came back to New York and got married. Someone gave me advice and told me to go to real estate school. I sold two buildings right away but then the market fell apart. Then, someone told me to take what I learned from fashion and fitness. They advised me, “Go home, sit in the middle of your apartment and think about things.” I’d noticed that no one looked good in the gym and initially thought about designing for men because lululemon was around and dominated that market for women. It was more convincing to do women though, so I went in that direction.  A category existed but it needed to be fixed, so I learned how to draw a human being, got a pattern maker and sewers. I had an edge because you learn to be a fierce editor from having modeled.

Images courtesy of PAYNE NYC

FR: Your PAYNE and Emerging Heroes companies have both been very successful and prove that you’re a good businesswoman. How do you feel your modeling work helped you transition to being a designer and businesswoman?

Heather Payne: I was one of the frontrunners to go to market with the concept of active wear for everyday other than Stella McCartney and Yohji Yamamoto for Y-3. I was picked up by fourteen doors and did everything for PAYNE on a regular ready-to- wear retail schedule. I noticed that the world is really changing and had a manufacturing distribution partner who was kind of old school in their approach. They were delivering late and that’s not me. Lululemon was interested but the people I originally was in talks with weren’t there anymore.

These days, putting out a collection is more than sticking it out on the rack, in a store; It also needs to be online. The company is me—I design everything.

Now I have Emerging Heroes, which I started in 2018. I decided to do something to give back and to tell real stories to make a positive impact. My leggings are different than the usual leggings in that they have that high-end finish, and they curve out the inner crotch, so they look like pants and make your body look great. Add comfort to this, we’re in a pandemic!  From a distance, they (my leggings) look like shiny leather pants.

The switch to the masks was a switch by necessity and to lift spirits while giving back. My factories were open, and I got going with the masks. I’m inspired by a lot more interesting patterns I’m seeing now in the streets. There are three sizes: kids, women and large—a half inch larger than the women’s.

FR: INCLUSIVITY may have been the word of 2020. Do you believe that models of color, plus-size models, trans models, etc. will become mainstream in ad campaigns and on the runway, or is this just a fad?

Heather Payne:  I see how quickly things are moving and changing. There are some positives that have come out during this forced pause. Now, it’s about somehow becoming a more natural version of yourself. There are ads that are inclusive but who can afford the fashion they’re modeling?  A kid wearing the $10,000 Fendi coat? Does the rich woman in Paris want a Chanel jacket worn by a guy?  Could be. Who knows?

 What’s interesting to know is how much work are these models getting? There aren’t a lot of shoots going-on, so they lower your rates and it’s not going to go back up unless you grow a tail. 

Images courtesy of pintrest.com

FR: We’ve all heard about the allegations of sexual harassment against designer Alexander Wang. What can models do to protect themselves against these sorts of behaviors?

Heather Payne: In my experience It’s been going on for so long. I didn’t experience it as much as other people. I would go to my agency and freak out and was told multiple times, “Why do you have a bad attitude? You’re a beautiful woman and he’s a man, what do you expect?”

There’s insecurity because there are 400 girls behind you, waiting. There are some letch-y old photographers but with the new brigade, maybe it will get better.

 It’s even harder for the boys. Fashion is run mostly run by powerful men, mostly not straight. It’s very flirty and the men don’t make as much money as the girls, at all. They live in a dorm with nine guys and are straight out of Nashville. Guy or girl, you say something and you’re “a troublemaker” or “difficult.”

 You’re supposed to be an object, and not take offense. I did get into quite a few fights with my agency.

There’s a lot of sensationalism in allegations, and people do get destroyed, but if there’s enough evidence … Still, I try to see some of the positive.

FR: What advice do you have for young models?

Heather Payne:  I survived because I listened and paid attention, even though I was shy and scared, and out there at such a young age. I would notice what would work or not work.

 I think making myself a human being and not a mannequin helped. People always talked and gossiped. I wouldn’t even go to the bathroom after lunch because they would talk about the models when they weren’t in the room.

I was also excited about the art of it. It’s so cool to be in an editorial when you’re part of the process. Look at the great work Linda Evangelista and Herb Ritts did together. I like when the question you have when you’re looking at a fashion photograph is “who is she, why is she there?” 

Image courtesy of Emeriging Heroes

FR: Last and most importantly, how did modeling help you make the transition to fashion designer and businesswoman?

Heather Payne: Modeling taught me to not be afraid to ask. If it’s something I’m selling, it’s easier to sell a product that makes people happier rather than selling yourself. It’s also helped me to learn how to communicate with people. People want a personality, not just to be sold something. Everything is so quick, people are struggling. All of us in business need to pay attention to what our customer wants and deliver it to them.

—Vivian Kelly

Comments

  1. Stacey Brown says

    Beautiful inside and out

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