It’s been 25 years since Karen Dobres last worked as a model. Could she harness her ‘grey power’ to once again make it in an industry driven by youth?
Recently, I read online that Vogue Italia had dedicated itself to “timelessness” with 73-year-old Lauren Hutton gracing its cover. By a weird quirk of fate, on the same day, the call to join a “grey rebellion” landed in my inbox. Grey Models, an agency for older fashion models, was running a one-day intensive Grey Rebellion workshop – a “coaching session for new faces, returning models and pros”. It promised training on catwalk, poses, expressions, castings, fitness, contracts and even “a hi-res photo from a Master Photographer” to take home.
With my 50th birthday looming, was this a signal from the cosmos to resurrect my part-time modelling career from 30 years ago? Could I tear myself away from a comfortable life of box set bingeing on Game of Thrones, throw off my Greywalkerchains and reject a life of House of Fraser to re-join House Givenchy or House McCartney? Oh, what the heck, I thought, 50 is the new 25, right?
Panic creeps in. Should I smile? Or do the teapot with a hand on my hip?
Since my time in the industry, some model agencies now actually have a “classic” section. Online research led me to discover that there are some 60 legitimate agencies (according to the British Fashion Model Agents Association) employing more than 700 “classic” (aged 30+) working female models. Not too sure how many are as old as me though. Seven hundred isn’t exactly a huge rebellion, but it’s a start. I quickly came across the excellently named agency Mrs Robinson. So, despite a loud voice in my head shouting: “What the hell are you doing?” I gave them a call.
“Height?” they said. Literally like that, no pussyfooting around. “5ft 11in,” I answered. “OK, have you modelled before?” “Yes,” I said, “in the early 90s.” “Age?” “50,” I said proudly. “Oh don’t worry,” they chuckled, “we have ‘girls’ a lot older than you!” I hadn’t been worried about my age, but concede that referring to 50-year-olds as “girls” caused a twinge of anxiety. It was arranged that I’d pop in and introduce myself.
I won’t lie, I was jittery walking into the agency. I’m past the days of spending hours in the bathroom getting ready – preferring to leave that to my teenage daughter – and wasn’t sure that my greying hair and loosening skin were up to focussed visual scrutiny. But they’d allow for that, surely?
An agency booker shows me to a side room. Two big lights are shone towards me, from left and right, and an iPad pointed in my face. Any instructions are painfully withheld. When I realise I’m supposed to know what I’m doing, panic creeps in. Do I smile? Or at least – that old stalwart of the seasoned model – make like a tea-pot with a hand on a hip? So I try both these things.
“Well,” says the booker, “you’re a bit rusty, but you’ve got everything we need. You’ll have to get a new set of photos, and be looser in front of the camera, but the main thing to remember is that it’s not like it used to be. Don’t try to recreate your old poses – fashion’s changed. You’ve got to show personality,” she emphasises. Ah, I ponder on this. Personality? But isn’t that kind of, err, to be expected? I mean… can you avoid it?
They offer to arrange a “test shoot” for me. It’ll cost me £100, but I’ll make that back if I’m any good. I am to take four outfits, two of which should make “a story” and a couple of which should be “classic casual wear”. “White shirt?” I ask, “God no!” comes the answer.
The shoot with Mark, the photographer, is surprisingly relaxed and fun. Just a couple of years my junior, he talks incessantly, putting me at my ease. He doesn’t seem too bothered about my clothes choices or rustiness. But neither does he give me much direction.
A week after my test I call the agency. “Oh yes, we’ve got the pics somewhere, hang on.” I hear shuffling papers and busy office sounds in the background and feel rather small as I wait to hear my modelling fate.
The agency explains that they will choose 10 pictures, and that I should do the same. “Then we’ll send our final selection back to Mark for retouching. We’ll be in touch.”
Weeks pass. No call, so I contact the agency. “Oh yes,” mumbles the booker. “I thought we’d dealt with that.” This doesn’t bode well. She sends me the final images and I gingerly ask what they think of them. “Well, we’re not sure you’re right for us: we need models who can do different expressions.” Oh.
I’m smiling, well, some might say smirking, in every image. But that’s not because I can’t do different expressions: “It’s because I’m trying to look attractive.” The booker is somewhat sympathetic, and says: “Come in tomorrow and we’ll take some Polaroids to see what you can do.”
Back at home, inspired by Zoolander’s famous “Blue Steel” pose, I determine to create some looks. With my husband grinning supportively beside me, we sit down and capitalise on what I’ve already got. We call it Vanilla Brain – a sort of welcoming, if insipidly attractive, smile. Then we study the older models on the agency’s website and work out what I need in my tool kit. Blank Stare won’t cut it. It’s clearly classic model eats classic model out there.
We study the agency’s website and work out the expressions that I need
We come up with Silver Cow – a disdainful gaze that’s all about the eyes. Then we christen Wisteria Hysteria – a classic perfect housewife, involving a look that could easily be mistaken for mental illness were I to over-egg the pudding. I suggest Excited as a good expression, but my husband overrules it, saying that I don’t want to run before I can walk. He has a point.
Taking The Bliss is a mouth half open, dreamy, chilled look, and finally, Happier Than You is a full-on in-your-face laugh, designed to create Fomo in every viewer.
Next day, I take the train to London. Fully loaded with expressions, this time I’m ready for the booker’s iPad camera. Head up, eyes to iPad, head to side, eyes to iPad, fold arms, stare bloody iPad out, laugh like a maniac at nothing, ad infinitum… We flick through the results. The booker is clearly still unimpressed. Look, she says disbelievingly, you’ve got the same eyes, in all of them. At a bit of a loss, I scan Mrs Robinson’s photo-lined walls for inspiration, but with only one shot of each woman, see no examples of Changed Eyes.
She says she’ll call me later. I think she’s already made up her mind, but wants to transfer the awkwardness of face-to-face rejection to a text or an email. In the end, I never hear from Mrs Robinson again.
I decide to have one more go at joining the Grey Rebellion. Continuing my quest in Covent Garden, I visit the buzzy reception of Models 1, the largest model agency in Europe. I’ve pulled my greying locks into a tight bun and am sporting a large pair of black-rimmed glasses. I’ve gone for an Audrey In Her Unicef Days look since Pretty Old Girl Next Door clearly wasn’t working.
Beautiful young women built like young giraffes glide in and out in heeled black boots. Behind screens, bookers tap and chat away securing jobs with photographers, designers and big online sellers. I have an appointment with Uwe Herstein and Chantal Murray, both senior bookers who run the classics section, to ask about the reality of older modelling and whether I could do it.
“I could get anyone a one-off photo on a shampoo packet, but a career – that takes skill, care and professional handling, and we deal with careers,” explains Uwe.
Chantal tells me that previously advertisers have asked for Daphne Selfe to advertise a walking stick or a walk-in bath – “but that would have done nothing for her long-term career!” Daphne is 89. One of the most classic of the classics, she shoots regularly for fashion editorials. So at 50, I must still be in the first (or second) flush of youth. That’s nice to know.
“It’s refreshing,” Uwe smiles. “It’s not just mother-of-the-bride work any more. In the 80s Mr Versace created the supermodels. Those five girls dominated the market, and they are the older ones now.” I nod and think admiringly of Linda, Christy, Naomi, Claudia and Helena. They will never be crones with their golden chromosomes.
“Err, so what about me? I’ve done a lot of catwalk, and some photographic work,” I say.
“Well, we’d need you to be able to do everything otherwise there’d be no point,” Uwe explains. “We assess a classic model in terms of whether she’s had experience modelling. That’s our most important consideration. Then, if we think a woman has something incredible we’d try a test shoot with a full team and see how she moves in front of the camera. If we like that, then we’d send her picture to selected clients for feedback… Then possibly sign her depending on how the market is responding. But it’s very rare. Even then we may part ways after a year if it’s not working.”
I’m informed that they’ve just had to “let 22 classics go” this month. I picture a herd of 22 sharply coiffed but discarded old dears meandering aimlessly down the King’s Road.
Models 1’s classic division is contacted by 150-200 prospective older models every year and, from those, they take just one or two on. And I am not going to be one of them I realise, unless I can come across as incredible (and quickly).
In a reassuring voice, I mention that I walked for Chalayan, was a house model for Ally Capellino (“when she did clothes”), strutted bewigged for Zandra Rhodes, and was once Ms Scotland for Catwalk Model of the Year in Turkey. (Ms France won – I don’t talk about it much). I start to falter, mentioning Dorothy Perkins’s maternity brochure and, no doubt becoming instantly less incredible, while Uwe is now himself making an expression I can’t quite place. He manages to still look kind – and kind of unimpressed. No wonder he’s so renowned in the industry – I’m feeling prepared for rejection and to be loved at the same time.
Chantal kindly tells me that I “still have the height and bone structure”, but that unless I “had a back catalogue of Vogue Paris covers or Avedon shoots” they wouldn’t take me on. I don’t. “We can’t work on development with older models.”
Now I get it. The Grey Rebellion workshop is really for older women who want a great photo, a fun day, and the odd job. But it’s not for re-establishing careers like that of Selfe or stablemate 72-year-old Jan de Villeneuve (who have just starred together with other classics in a 28-page shoot for Harper’s Bazaar Netherlands).
And, thinking of these two iconic classics, another penny drops. I’m at an in-between age: my lines aren’t etched deeply yet, my hair isn’t remarkably silver or white or block grey, and my sun spots are still few and far between. To misquote Britney: “I’m no longer a maiden, but not yet a crone.” There’s nothing challenging or arresting about my appearance, no juxtaposition to be made between my age and what I wear. Were I to shoot for Vogue Italia, they could retouch enough to make me look a million dollars but put Selfe or De Villeneuve in a high-fashion advert and punters will double-take at the hair, or the time-wrinkled face, or even the beautifully aged and elegant arms as they drape the body. These amazing ladies stand out from the pages – they interrupt the youth; they are incredible.
I walk out on to Drury Lane, unroll my hair, and shake off any feeling of rejection. I adjust my oversized glasses and a thought enters my brain like a tonic for any middle-aged woman facing invisibility. It is this. There’s no point signing up for a Grey Rebellion just yet. I need at least another decade to mature and reach my modelling prime.