Veteran casting director Jennifer Starr has been in the business for over eighteen years, working alongside legends like Richard Avedon and Herb Ritts, as well as contemporaries like Steven Meisel and Mario Testino. Ralph Lauren has depended on Starr's exacting eye for his runway shows for twenty seasons (and counting); Calvin Klein recently charged her with casting Lara Stone, alongside 40 other models, for their cK one fragrance campaign. We spoke with the born-and-bred New Yorker about learning to waltz with Avedon and working on the upcoming Pirelli calendar with Mario Sorrenti and Kate Moss.
Bruce Weber was one of your mentors when you started out. What do you remember about working with him?
I met Bruce through his sister Barbara Dewitt, who was a college friend of my parents. I was 17, going to school in Coconut Grove, when Barbara needed nice homes to shoot a series of Calvin Klein jobs. I contacted some of my schoolmates with nice homes and that became my first job. I vividly remember the day of the shoot, with 40-some models and a large production team. Bruce always liked getting to know the people he's photographing; it's part of his ability to capture who the person is. Through my years working with Bruce, I traveled to Argentina, England, Italy, Ireland, Norway, and a good deal of the U.S. to find new, interesting faces for Versace and Abercrombie.
You also worked closely with Richard Avedon. What was that like?
Mr. Avedon was not a tall man and was very thin. You wouldn't think such a small person would have such a grand persona, but he was larger than life. I thought he was so good-looking. He had this incredible head of gray hair, was extremely tan, and despite being 73 years old, he looked great in jeans. I'll never forget going out to dinner with Mr. Avedon and Norma Stevens [Avedon's agent] at the Rainbow Room. I buried my caviar in my potato, as I wasn't a caviar fan then. Later, Dick taught me how to waltz to a live big-band orchestra. After my work with Mr. Avedon, I decided that I would pursue my career as a casting director.
You were one of the first to cast same-sex couples for D&G prints and "real" people for Calvin Klein years before it became popular. Do you see a new trend in model castings that's about to emerge?
I feel clients are asking for more men and women these days versus young boys and girls. When a client asks for someone who has lived an interesting life; well, someone who is 16, typically, hasn't experienced that much. I think we [the fashion industry] have done some damage to young girls who were embraced at a young age, only to be rejected when they become adults. The movement towards an older model is healthy for all, but especially for the viewer. Women and men looking at magazines don't need to have an unrealistic aesthetic to strive for.
What would you say is the "look" for high fashion models working today?
That's tough. At times there's a distinct "look," but I don't feel there's one at this very moment.
What's the biggest thing models have to change when they get into the business?
Often, it's their attitude. If you're going to be in this business, you must have thick skin. You can't take things personally, which can be difficult when you're being judged by your looks on a daily basis. I could never do what they do. Sometimes weight is an issue, but lately, I feel like I have been seeing girls who might benefit from having a bit more weight on them. Sometimes models might feel like they can't win; one minute they are being told they don't fit the clothes and the next they are told they're too thin.
Recently, it was revealed that Kate Moss was shot topless by Mario Sorrenti for next year's Pirelli calendar. Can you tell us more about the shoot?
Actually, all the photos were nude. We were in Corsica in the most beautiful, rugged, wild terrain. There were no paved roads and no manicured gardens; wild boars and their babies were running free. From my perspective, the subjects became a part of the landscape. The cast this year was inspirational, ranging in age from 23 to 37, and probably half were mothers. The women we shot were confident, radiant, and fearless.
In terms of new faces, who do you see making it in the long run?
It's difficult for a young girl to possess the maturity needed to identify with all the photographers they will be working with. Someone who is going to make it to Gisele's level must be mature, interesting, professional, captivating, and excel at everything including runway, advertising, beauty, and editorial. In today's industry, this model would have to be media savvy, and know how to navigate the press well. I don't see this model being a 17-year-old girl. I think it takes time, grooming, and great management.
Model street style has blown up significantly in the past few years, what do you make of it?
There is no doubt in my mind that if you have authentic personal style, it will help you as a model. Look at models like Erin Wasson, Abbey Lee, Freja Beha, and Daria Webowy, all of whom have great style. Personal style indicates to me that you have a great sense of self. The key is having authentic style. You must feel comfortable with the image you're projecting; otherwise, it's obvious you're trying too hard.
How would you describe your personal style?
I don't like feeling constricted, so looser shapes appeal to me, but at the same time, I don't like drowning in my clothes. I feel best in a pair of jeans, a cream silk shirt, and a pair of teal colored Chloé heels.
What should a model wear to a casting?
It depends on what I am casting for. This week, as I'm casting for the spring 2012 shows; it would be best to have girls come in shorts, a tank top or T-shirt, and with heels in their bags. Seeing their legs and arms is important, along with getting a sense of waist size and general body proportions. For men, it's imperative for them to not wear clothes that are too baggy. Personally, I love booking shows where we can use just one girl per look, as I can then use a girl whose face I might love, but whose proportions may not be perfect. The designer could then, most likely, find at least one look for them. If you need a girl to wear three looks, it's vital for that model to have perfect body proportions.
Any trends you're ready to see retired?
Yes, it's a good thing summer is over: Put away those clunky wooden platform shoes.
Has fashion become more inclusive over the years?
Things have changed dramatically, but we still have a ways to go. Years ago, if you looked at an agency's roster, maybe 2 percent was black and 1 percent was Asian. I am not faulting the agencies, though; if there was demand, there would have been more. Today, if you open up the newest issue of Vogue, you'll see Joan Smalls, Liu Wen, and Arlenis Sosa representing the most prestigious beauty brands in the business. The challenge for fashion brands is to understand what is considered "cool" in Tokyo, as that’s different than London or Austin, Texas. We have to piece together an inclusive casting of people, but stay on point with the message of the brand. Now, as casting directors, we have to cast our nets further by traveling ourselves or using social media to find that tattooed skater boy who is just as likely to come from Singapore as he is from Bushwick.
Last season, you cast Chinese model Sui He to open Ralph Lauren's fall 2011 show, becoming the first Asian model to ever do so. What struck you initially about He?
She is drop-dead gorgeous. Ralph described his fall 2011 collection as "China through an art deco lens." We had around seven Chinese models in the show, but it felt natural to open the collection with Sui He. Ralph has always pushed for his runway and advertising to be ethnically diverse. It is never about having just one black girl and one Asian model in his show. Every season, I show him all the women I find to be really gorgeous, cinematic, and appropriate for the season's theme, and if he likes them, he uses them. There is no quota of how many ethnic models we book.
Does being around models all the time affect your self-esteem?
Being around models doesn't affect my self-esteem, but everyday culture and society's preoccupation with youth does affect me to some degree.
If you were to cast Kate Middleton in a hypothetical high-fashion campaign, what would you cast her for?
It would fantastic if she posed for a Pirelli calendar. As she's become such a modern-day icon, I could also see her re-branding and revitalizing a classic British label like Asprey.
Lastly, any advice for aspiring casting directors?
Keep your eyes wide open and never sleep! Read blogs, walk the streets, go to gallery openings, go to music venues, and watch old movies so you understand references.