Founder of leading British model agency Premier Models, Carole White is renowned for launching and nurturing the careers of supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer. Among its current five divisions, Premier provides U.K. representation for rising stars like Kelly Mittendorf, Melodie Monrose, and Wang Xiao. We spoke with Carole just before the spring 2012 shows began to hear her thoughts on the current state of the modeling industry, the importance of supermarket sandwiches, and — oddly enough — how it took a reality TV show to get some peace and quiet in her agency's office.
So aside from going to shows, what else do you do at New York Fashion Week?
What we do each season is develop a few girls who are of the right age to be able to travel. It's a bit like marble swapsies. You go to agencies that you have a really good trust with, and trade girls we'll be bringing to New York for girls we can take back with us to London. It's all part of our development. Because they have to be international, these girls. They couldn’t just sit in London and die.
But even with all these newer markets open, the industry seems to be getting a lot more competitive.
Yeah. The whole market is so competitive now — a girl can go one season and you might never hear from her again. Or she can do two or three, but then behind her shoulder is another 16-year-old that’s going to take her place if she doesn’t really get it. That's the big thing, because British girls aren’t so brave. I think they're spoiled and their education maybe isn’t that good. Modeling's difficult, and British girls often give up if they have a boyfriend, or they didn’t do that well in a casting or a shoot; they often say the traveling's too hard, and they'd rather go to the festivals in the summer than actually go to New York for the shows. And they don’t have that self-discipline that Brazilian or Eastern European girls have — they really want it. And most of them are sending money back home for a reason. They come from poor backgrounds. English girls are particularly spoiled. They haven't got any guts. That's my biggest challenge, I have to make them all have guts. A bit of true grit is needed.
The CFDA has been trying to make a rule in New York to ensure all Fashion Week models are at least 16 years old. Do you think that's a good thing?
Well, we put that rule in place about two years ago in London, so at London Fashion Week, every girl has to be 16 and the agents have to prove it. Their passports have to be copied and everything, and everything has to be official. It's worked for a while, but I have to say that it's quite nice sort of once a year for a girl who's 15 in her half-term break from school to get a few shows in just for the experience. It would be great if New York would come in line with us, and Milan, and Paris, because if they all had that restriction, then we'd all be on a level playing field. Now, what happens is that they can start the girls before we can. I do think that when girls start too young they burn out really quickly. The industry is so greedy, they want the next thing all the time.
The rise of Asian models in the mainstream has been widely touted as one of the "next big thing(s)" — in your experience, is the industry opening up to diversity?
Well, way back in the eighties I started a Chinese–Canadian girl and it was a real risk. But I really liked her — and she worked every single day. Asian girls do really well. You can't have too many, but they do really well, and it's quite easy to book them. Black girls, it is more difficult. They have to be utterly amazing. There will be less work. It takes much longer to establish them, put it that way, because clients don’t take the risk on black girls so much. It’s getting better, but it's not so easy. It's really hard for the bookers to get the girl moving — and you're very, very picky. Maybe you're not as picky with the white girls, because there's more work for them. So you just want the best black girl.
At Premier, are you touting any black models in particular right now?
Well, we certainly have more black girls than anyone. We actually hire black girls. But it does take a lot longer. At the moment we have Leomie who's doing amazing this show season. She was the black girl who was featured heavily on The Model Agency. She is amazing, but she's had to sort of juggle modeling, and we had to turn down lots of really great jobs for her because she's been taking exams.
That show, The Model Agency, aired back in England last year — it seemed to be the first "fly-on-the-wall" look at an agency in a long time. How did it come about?
We were approached by the production company last year in January. We kept turning it down, so they went off and looked at other agencies. But they kept coming back, and in the end, we had a big staff meeting and we all said, "Well, we'd get really jealous if it were another agency," so we decided to go for it.
But you all ended up with enough drama for the cameras?
A lot of Americans keep saying, "Oh, who scripted it for you?" But it wasn't, it was just us. It worked. I wanted people to understand this business because they think it's so glamorous, and it's bloody hard work — both for the model and the booker. And I think that came across quite well. We really enjoyed it actually, and we're really quite proud of it. I love it. I think it's good, and funny.
What's the response been like?
We had such a massively good response from our clients. All the magazines, like the really cool ones, like Dazed & Confused. And they would go home on Wednesday, and watch it together. I went into Vogue's offices last week and they were like, "Oh my God, Carole White's in here." They're all obsessed with it. If they'd rejected it we'd have been quite embarrassed, but it was really well received in our industry. I think we got across that we do actually care about the models, and we take into account their lives. In fact, the first day after it aired, I came into work I had a call from this mom, and she said, "I just watched your program and you're so wonderful, I want my daughter to be with you and your agency. You're like a family." She sent me some pictures of her daughter, who's now over in New York for New York Fashion Week with New York Models. But at the same time, I think it made girls more realistic about who you have to be and what you have to do to be a model.
Even with good genes, it's a lot of work. How much responsibility to do you take on for keeping girls at your agency healthy?
Lots. We're very conscious of the fact that we're asking very tall girls to get really toned and to fit measurements. So we have a nutritionist, and we talk to them about diet all the time — not a diet, but basically what food is, and how what you think might be slimming often isn’t. Most of them haven't got a clue; most models eat rubbish. A lot of them are lucky and can get away with it. But the show seasons are like the Olympics for a model. So, what we do is say, "Look, think of this as a running race and you're going for the gold. You've just got to get fit." So we have a gym that we send them to. Sometimes we have to get them a personal trainer to show them what to do. But we're very conscious of not getting them into a situation where they make themselves ill. I have to say, you know, probably ten years ago we would’ve said, "go on a diet, don’t eat." We just don’t do that anymore. The world's sort of moved on. We're really into a healthy girl.
Back to you being in New York, what's on your shopping list?
Right, well, shopping-wise I always go to J.Crew. I love it in there — they do great cashmere; and Rag & Bone. And I always do go to Marc by Marc on Bleecker, to come back with little presents. I also go to the Hogs & Heifers sometimes. Have you ever been there? My PR guy told me not to say that, but it's so funny. You're spending all your money in the Hogs & Heifers, and then you won't get a receipt for expenses because it's cash only. Also, I'll tell you what I love is The Bowery for a good post-show-day Bloody Mary. And Pastis, of course.
And one obligatory last question. We're still enjoying all things Middleton; what's your take on the newly minted Duchess?
I think she's brilliant. She's so composed, she's beautiful, she's got the most incredible figure. I like the way she dresses. It's good, and she's wearing [British] designers' dresses. That's a great thing for the industry here.