“A Classic Look with a Little Bit of Edge”

An Interview with Mia Stringfield

Agents—or “bookers,” as they are often called—are perhaps the most enigmatic individuals in the modelling industry. How much power do they actually wield? What motivates their choices in selecting which girls to represent? And how does an agent become an agent?

I recently had the privilege of putting these questions to Mia Stringfield, who is the head booker of the plus division of Miami’s Irene Marie agency. Irene Marie recently welcomed long-time agency supermodel Tracie Stern back to the fold, and has distinguished itself with stellar Canadian campaigns featuring two of the agency’s fresh faces. I found Ms. Stringfield to be friendly, polite, and very generous with her time and opinions. Her statements should be of interest both to industry professionals, and to the general public.

* * *

HSG: Let’s start at the top. Tracie Stern. All of her fans were pleased to hear that she has returned to Irene Marie, since those two names—Tracie Stern and Irene Marie—have been so closely associated for years. Now that she’s back, what plans might you have for her in the near future?

MS: What we’re doing first of all is letting all of the clients know that she is back home with us. And I’m putting a new card together—one that’s not like the one at Elite, because I want to differentiate from their approach. So what I’m planning on doing right now is making a new card, doing a little promo. I think you probably saw that tear sheet which she had in Australian Cosmopolitan magazine, showing her on the runway…

Tracie Stern in Australian Cosmopolitan, July 2002

HSG: That was posted on my forum a little while back.

MS: Yes, Tracie was telling me that you have it on your Web site. So what we’re planning on doing is hopefully getting a good enough image to maybe make a little postcard and adding a statement like, “Tracie’s back home; she was doing a show in Australia”—that sort of thing. Besides that, she’s going to be moving to Ohio, which would put her only five or six hours from Toronto. I don’t think that she’s really hit the Canadian market. I mean, she’s worked for a few clients out there, but I told her, when she gets a chance, we need to set aside a week or two where she can do appointments in Toronto, appointments in Montréal. Very, very important, because I have definitely broken into that market. I’m very happy about that.

HSG: That provides me with a great segué into my next topic—what I call your “Canadian brunettes.” I know that they are not actually Canadian, but they have certainly made a splash in this country—Yanderis for her Addition-Elle work, and Anna for Laura Plus. So tell me, what made Irene Marie decide to sign them? Because I am right in assuming that they are relatively new girls, yes?

MS: They are relatively new. They’re not as experienced as Tracie—definitely haven’t been in the business that long at all. Less than two years.

HSG: So, what qualities made them appealing to Irene Marie, and then to these notable clients?

MS: Well, Anna, I think she has an amazing personality. She’s Russian, of Russian descent. She’s stunning. She is a beautiful woman. We’ve gone out to lunch, and hung out a couple of times, and I think the reason the clients keep booking her, especially Laura Plus, is because she knows what she’s doing, she has a great personality, and she’s not afraid at all to come up and talk to you, and get down and dirty about anything. And some people don’t “get” that quality. She’s a little…not aggressive, but just outspoken. So if someone’s a little bit timid and shy they probably wouldn’t get her at first. She’ll say to me, “What are you talking about?” and I’ll say, “Well, I’m talking about this!” And we have that relationship where we’re comfortable with each other, which is also very important as far as bookers and models are concerned, because if you don’t have a comfortable relationship, then it’s hard to work well together.

HSG: And Yanderis?

MS: She was special because we don’t have many Latin girls, per se. I think she’s probably our only one. She’s beautiful because she has this dark complexion, beautiful brown chestnut hair, maybe a little darker even, and she has these really green eyes that just pop out.

HSG: Many contributors have commented on the dramatic quality of her images, their intensity; that they almost have an editorial quality about them.

Yanderis, test image

MS: Definitely. We just did a new test on Yanderis and oh, the pictures came out amazing. When I get the prints, maybe I’ll e-mail you some. You don’t even know—it was just beautiful, the test shots that we did on her. And she’s moving to New York soon.

HSG: Is that right? I hope she stays in the business.

MS: Yeah, at first she was asking me,“Do you think it’s worth it for me? Maybe I should just go to school?” And I said, “What are you talking about? You’re going to the centre of the fashion world, and you’re going to stop modelling? That’s ridiculous!” And she said, “Okay, if you think it’s worth it.” She’s very young and naive, so I try to teach her as much about the business as I can.

HSG: I certainly hope she continues modelling. She has made quite a impact with my site’s visitors.

MS: She was so ecstatic about your site. She couldn’t believe someone actually wrote about her. I showed it to her, and she said, “Oh my goodness, I want to show this to my mom! Someone wrote something really nice about me.” She’s so cute.

HSG: Do you think that there’s a difference between what Canadian clients seek in plus-size models as opposed to what American clients tend to look for? Because when I compare these Laura Plus or Addition-Elle images to, say, Lane Bryant’s ads…

MS: Well, you know, Lane Bryant doesn’t exclusively use plus-size models. A significant amount of their models are straight-sized. Which is ridiculous to me. Absolutely ridiculous.

HSG: And to the general public as well. Are Canadian clients more progressive in their outlook?

MS: First of all, they definitely want a full-figured woman. They don’t want a ten, sometimes they don’t even want a twelve. They really want a 14/16. And one client in particular only uses 18/20s—Tabi, which is affiliated with Cotton Ginny.

HSG: Yes, they market to an older demographic. But I believe that the effect can be even more subversive, and certainly goes more against the grain, when a client opts for a younger model who is, nevertheless, genuinely full figured.

MS: You know what? The American clients that we have coming down, usually in season, always want to book the girls that are late 20s, early 30s, 14/16, and its always the same, and it gets a little repetitive. I feel like saying, “Wouldn’t you like to try a different look?”

Anna, test image

HSG: Were Addition-Elle and Laura Plus looking for fresh faces, or did you manage to entice them into booking newer talent?

MS: Well, originally they asked for a comp pull, they didn’t specify an age. They just said, send us such-and-such, 20–35, and we’ll go from there. And then it was narrowed down to four girls. And of course, the client always asks for your opinion. And you try to be objective, and you try not to lean to one side or the other, because you want to be fair and honest, but at the same time, you know who will work best with certain clients. A client might say, “Okay, listen, I need someone who knows what they’re doing, is absolutely sure of themselves, and I won’t have a problem with, as far as being a little bit ‘green’ or ‘new,’ because I’m flying them to Canada, and I need to be sure that they’re worth their day-rate, and they’re worth me having to fly them up.”

HSG: So is that the way it happens? The client flies the model up, as opposed to arranging a shoot with, say, a Miami photographer?

MS: It depends, it depends. This past one for Laura Plus, with Anna, that was their fall collection, so they did it in studio, they didn’t do it outside. She told me that the next shoot, they have hopes of maybe going somewhere on location, but she’s not sure yet. It’s just a matter of what kind of budget they get for each season. Because, you know, these clients would love to go on location and shoot somewhere—the glamour of it all, going somewhere exotic and shooting.

HSG: Of course, and how fitting that would be—taking a model like, say, Yanderis, and shooting her in a more exotic setting, perhaps Middle Eastern or Oriental…

MS: That’s a great idea

HSG: You’ve mentioned the girls’ personalities, but what about beauty? How important a factor is that, ultimately, in a model’s success?

MS: Okay, well, this is what I have to say about beauty. Models are beautiful for the most part, right? They have beautiful faces, they have the height, they have the size, but if they don’t have the personality, it will never work.

HSG: It’s that important?

MS: Absolutely. I used to work in New York, and I would send certain models on go-sees, and appointments, and if they didn’t have a personality, the clients would say, “You know what? This guy is beautiful, but he has no personality. We can’t book him,” or “We can’t book her.”

HSG: Really?

MS: And people don’t know this. They think, “Oh that person has a pretty face, they’ll work, they don’t have to do anything.” That’s absolutely not true.

Charismatic Tracie Stern modelling for Vanity Fair Woman

HSG: Yes. I had a similar discussion with Tracie, who made me aware of the rigors of a photo shoot, and how no one wants to be stuck on an eight-hour session with someone who makes their life difficult.

MS: And the personality comes out in the pictures. I’m in the conference room where all the comp cards are, and I’m looking at a comp card, and I know this one particular model. He’s very, very shy, very stiff, and he looks like it in his pictures. And opposed to, I go to someone else who has great charisma, and a great personality, and you can totally see it all over the card. So your personality shows in the pictures. It definitely does. And I would say it’s 50% personality.

HSG: I’m astonished.

MS: Yes. For example, I have a Filipino client—actually they’ve very big, they’re going to be shooting a couple of our models, not to do with plus—but the first thing they said when they came to town and did the casting is, “We need guys, or we need girls, with energy. We have to have energy. If we don’t meet them in person and can’t see what kind of personality they have, we can’t book them.” That’s how important it is.

HSG: That could explain a great deal. Many aficionados such as myself are often puzzled by the successes of some models who are not especially prepossessing, beauty-wise, and yet keep getting booked, time and again. You’re saying that a richer personality may be part of the reason?

MS: Oh yes. Actually, when I was in New York, I got a chance to meet…well, I don’t know if you even care about the straight sizes?

HSG: [Chuckling] Quite honestly, no.

MS: Well, I got a chance to meet Giselle [Bundchen]. And her personality was so energetic. She had a great personality, and I thought, “No wonder she does so well.”

HSG: Now, let’s talk about the “Irene Marie look”—because I do think you have one. Is there a “house style” for Irene Marie Plus?

MS: I would say that our house style is, “A classic look, with a little bit of edge.”

HSG: That’s a nice way to put it. I have always thought that the IM board had a higher quotient of beauty, percentage-wise, than many of your better-known rival agencies.

Anna modelling for Laura Plus, Fall 2002

MS: Definitely. I tend to be probably a little bit pickier than some bookers, so I’m very choosy about who we decide to take on here. Just because you have a book full of tears doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re right for our agency.

HSG: So you might choose to sign someone newer, but with more innate talent, rather than a less distinguished talent but with more experience?

MS: It has to balance out—your look, your personality. Not even necessarily the experience. I mean, great if we’re taking a working girl on, who has tearsheets, who is beautiful; but then, if her personality absolutely clashes with mine, it would never work. Not on my side, and I wouldn’t want to be selfish. What if she gets along with another booker at an equally reputable agency much better than with myself? It would be better for her to be there. But the girls that we have here are really good girls. Really great personalities, very easy to work with. I don’t have a problem with any of them. They’re great girls. They’re not high maintenance. They’ll call in, check in, they’ll ask questions, but they’ll never question my ability to represent them as an agent.

HSG: Is there more size diversity at IM than at the New York agencies?

MS: Yes. You know why? Because we carry, all the way down from 8, all the way up to 18.

HSG: So that would be your upper cutoff?

MS: Yes. 18/20. And that’s for very specialized clients. And so you have a variety of choices. And you have a variety of looks and ages, which is what you definitely need to promote your girls to your clients.

HSG: I’m inclined to accept that. Ford and Wilhelmina have many of their girls’ stats on-line, and from what I can tell, they have but one size-16 girl apiece. Yet you have several. Is that because you have different clients, or is it an agency decision to diversify your board?

Yanderis, test image

MS: A lot of the clients that come here in the season want to book 14/16s. So that’s why we tend to carry a few more 14/16s. I mean, I’ll have one eight, one ten, several 12s, 14/16. And the girls look great. Some of them were 12s, they gained a little bit of weight, and now they’re 14. Like Yanderis. She was a 12 before, and now she’s a 14. And she looks great.

HSG: How true. From a public perspective, you will never read, on any forum, complaints from the public that the models in a magazine or catalogue are “too big,” or that a girl looks worse because she’s gone up a dress size. It never happens. Quite the opposite, in fact, for many readers react negatively when models get smaller. What about the clients, though? Do they complain when models gain weight?

MS: Oh my goodness, the clients complain when they lose weight! They say, “We can’t book her until she gains a little bit more weight.” That happened last season to me. I told the girl, “Listen I know you’ve been working a lot, you’ve been busy, but you have to gain some weight.”

HSG: You don’t know how encouraging that is to hear. Now, to shift the focus a little, let’s talk about bookers, and being an agent. What kind of background do bookers tend to have?

MS: You know, it’s funny, because I’ve had many people ask me, “How do you become a booker? How does that happen?” It’s usually one of two ways. You either intern at an agency, or you start off as a receptionist.

HSG: [Laughing] You’re kidding!

MS: Those are the two ways. And I actually started off as an intern in New York. And it was something that my boyfriend at the time—he was a model—told me there was an internship open, and I thought, “Okay, that sounds kind of cool.” And I was in college at the time, and I just got really into it.

HSG: Did you have a fashion background?

MS: I did. I went to F.I.T. So I always knew I wanted to do something in fashion, but I never knew what it was, until I started working at an agency, and I thought, “This is exactly what I love.” I had a few different jobs while I was in school, and after I graduated. I was even an assistant to a marketing director for a while. But they sat me in a cubicle, in a little desk, and I couldn’t take it. [Laughs] I couldn’t. At the end of the day, I said, “This isn’t going to work out; I’m not going to waste anyone else’s time so I said ‘This is going to be my first and my last day.’” And afterwards, I applied to several agencies, and I went back to doing that. I’m the type of person who likes to be in an open environment, where you’re interacting with people, and able to express your creative abilities, and your negotiating abilities.

Tracie Stern, test image

HSG: How much influence do bookers have over clients’ choice of models?

MS: It depends on the client. Some clients will ask, “What do you think? Who do you think I should book? Just tell me who.” Some others, like a big campaign, where they’re going through this whole process of elimination, they may ask you, “Well, who has a better shape for this shoot?” or “Who do you think would be appropriate?” and your input is definitely valuable, but in the end, it’s still the client’s decision. So it depends on the client. But I would definitely say that we have a big influence.

HSG: Are there differences between being a booker for straight sizes and for plus sizes?

MS: Absolutely. Big differences. Well, the first thing is, when you have a model shoot, you’re usually looking for them to look as…not big as possible, but, you know, full-figured. So you have to kind of direct the photographer to make sure that they make the models look…beautiful…and big. Whereas in straight sizes, you want them to look as skinny as possible.

HSG: That runs contrary to a commonly-held belief among the public, myself included, that plus-size models are shot in ways to minimize their curves. It’s something that we’ve perceived in MODE and in Grace.

MS: I think it’s changing. For the magazines, they may be trying to seem plus, but have a plus-size girl look a little bit smaller than she is, whereas the catalogue lines want them to look big, because they’re selling to the plus market.

HSG: There are at least two ways to look at the plus-size industry—as a business, and as a social mission. Images of anorexic-looking models contribute to the spread of eating disorders, according to some studies, and it is our hope that images of plus-size models help to overcome those damaging effects by giving women a healthier body image. As a booker, do you focus exclusively on the business aspect of the industry, or do you take into account that cultural effect of what you do, as well?

MS: I think it’s very important. Yes, I wish that there were more plus-size magazines out there, because young girls, that’s what they read, they read magazines. And not even necessarily plus-size magazines, but I wish that the magazines would use more plus girls in them. Which, little by little, they are. For example, last season, one of our girls, Margaret, she did a spread in YM. In a bathing suit!

HSG: Really? That’s amazing. Dare I ask—is she your size eight?

MS: No! She’s a fourteen!

HSG: Then you do think that the industry is changing? Or is there still a “glass ceiling” for full-figured models, and how far they can penetrate into the mainstream?

Tracie modelling for Junonia, Summer 2002

MS: No, I think that it’s changing day by day. I think more and more clients are realizing how important it is to have plus-size models in their advertising. Some are more open to it than others, obviously, but we constantly make sales calls here. That’s just part of our job as a booker. Some clients say, “We’re trying to incorporate it, we do have a few shots here and there; hopefully next year we’ll have more.” But whomever I speak to, it’s a positive effect, it’s a positive attitude towards it. They’ll say, “I’m still trying to talk them into doing it; it may take a little while.” In the past year that I’ve been doing this, clients that I never knew shot plus have been starting to shoot plus. For example, two of our girls have been on option for Tommy Hilfiger. It’s pretty stiff competition. Even to have the client call and request their book and put options is amazing.

HSG: I’ve heard about “options.” Those can be very frustrating for the models, can’t they?

MS: Tommy even put Yanderis on option. But I usually tell the girls after everything is done. That way, if they don’t get it, they haven’t gotten their hopes up and been let down, but at least they know that they were considered for it.

HSG: You do care about your girls.

MS: Yeah, because you know what? It affects you too. You feel bad. If I have to cancel a job, I feel horrible. You know it’s not your fault, but at the same time, you know what the model’s feeling.

HSG: Do the girls exhibit professional rivalry, or are they more supportive of each other?

MS: I think that they’re more supportive. I haven’t really met any that are…well, at least as far as plus-size models go. I’ve seen quite a bit of rivalry with straight sizes.

HSG: So there’s more camaraderie in the plus division?

MS: I think so. Yes. I haven’t really seen much rivalry at all.

HSG: Tracie is well known to the public from traciestern.com, which gives her an opportunity to showcase a wider array of her images than she could on a composite card. Do you think that having a Web site is useful to a professional model if she is already signed with a significant agency?

MS: A personal Web site can possibly help a model’s career indirectly. It is not necessary, but the more exposure and resources you have to promote yourself can be an advantage.

HSG: Is there more of a sense of direction in the industry? Will clients take chances and strike out into new territory, or do they seek to emulate what others have done?

MS: I think that, for the most part, they’re very creative on their own. I would say that they definitely look to editorial to find a direction, and then they take a little bit of their own creativity. Like Anna doing Laura Plus. I thought that was a very cool shoot.

HSG: Yes, it was alluring, and quite bold. I don’t think you would have seen it four years ago.

MS: I don’t think so.

HSG: Now to the question that’s been the focus of my site for four years now. Why do you think the media resists plus-size beauty?

Kati Kochanski, test image

MS: I think that, first of all, for so many years now, the standard of beauty has been the thin model, and people tend to go with what’s “in,” what’s popular. And it takes a really strong group of people to break away from that, and I think, little by little, that will happen. I do. Gradually, very gradually. And honestly, when you see people on the street, they totally agree. But it’s just the people that have control over everything, you know—the magazine editors, the creative directors, the photographers…

HSG: This is part of the reason why what IM is doing in having some size diversity among its girls is so important. It all begins with you. Even if a client wants to use fuller-figured models, if none are on offer from an agency, they’re stuck. So what’s next from Irene Marie?

MS: Well, first I would say, look out for the next campaign from Laura Plus, because Anna will be in it.

HSG: Will Addition-Elle be using Yanderis?

MS: They’re not going to use her next time. We have two girls up for it. One is Anna, and the other girl, when you look on our Web site, called Aija. You have to see her. She’s amazing.

HSG: Another plus-size model with an incredibly exotic name. What’s her nationality?

MS: She’s from Latvia.

HSG: Latvia! You have a whole Baltic theme running through your board. Anna is Russian, Kati Kochanski is Polish, and even Tracie, I believe, has some Polish blood. Last question—can we expect to see any Irene Marie girls in Grace any time soon?

MS: We’re working on it. We’re definitely working on it.

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