The Model Mayhem interview: Christie Gabriel
Christie Gabriel is an international fashion model and the author of The Self-made Model – Success Without Agencies. She has over 12 years of experience in runway, commercial, editorial, music video, fine art and spokesmodeling.
Christie has been represented by agencies such as Elite and Irene Marie, and worked in all the major American markets, as well as Europe. Her book gives readers a crash course on what to expect when freelancing and how to take advantage of this newly leveled playing field.
– MM Edu
Model: Christie Gabriel; Photographer: Duke Morse
MM Edu: Tell us about your career as model. How did you get started?
Christie Gabriel: My introduction to the glamorous world of modeling took place in a hotel conference room crammed solid with folding chairs, all facing a makeshift raised catwalk at its center. On every one of those chairs was a girl—sometimes two girls—filling out a questionnaire handed out by a self-important individual at the door who looked like he was trying out for Bitch Number 2 on some reality show. It smelled like a boiling pot of every perfume ever made, combined with too many people breathing, and there was a lot of nervous chatter and laughter.
My mother and I made room for ourselves on a chair and a half, at the end of one of the aisles, and as I filled out my questionnaire the sinking feeling that I had bitten on a scam began to come over me. Not to be catty, but as I looked around at my fellow contestants it occurred to me that you could search through this group a long time without finding an Elizabeth Taylor or a Christie Brinkley.
But I had little time for such judgmental reflections, as the floor was then taken by an old lady who had apparently just rewarded herself to an awful red perm after a long day spent baking Hansel and Gretel. Not a flattering image, but she had a voice like a drill sergeant, which quickly got everyone’s attention.
We all traded our questionnaires for number cards to pin to our chests. It seemed an inauspicious beginning that the most expensive part of my outfit—a completely over-budget silver, satin top—was half hidden by a plain ol’ piece of paper marked with a couple of hastily scribbled digits.
Then we come to the stuff that dreams are made of. The old lady and a colleague who must have had the same hairdresser packed themselves shoulder-to-shoulder behind a small table and, scowling over their granny glasses, jotted down their thoughts on one contestant after the next as they took their turn on the catwalk and at the mic.
When the winners were announced and everyone else was asked— not very politely—to leave, it seemed these people were going to absolutely no lengths to reassure us that their operation was legitimate. I saw some truly attractive women walk out the doors, and then an unpleasant girl who had loudly proclaimed “I WILL be the next face of Fashion!” was, somehow, announced as one of the winners. My mother responded to the announcement by saying, way too loudly, “Bam! If she’s in, you’re in!” And I was. I was…a winner…along with the “Next face of fashion”.
Wondering what I had done wrong, I was given some more forms to fill out, and was directed to meet with the group every other Saturday.
So I met with the group every other Saturday, an unworthy suspicion growing in my mind. Could it be, I wondered, that our group of “winners” had not been picked solely because of our maddening beauty and magnetic charisma? I recalled the inquiries on the questionnaire about whether you had ever participated in a model search. Were those there to weed out veterans who might have an inkling that they shouldn’t be paying for two months of lessons on how to put on lipstick, and how to walk in heels, all to prepare for the glittering prospect of a ridiculously overpriced trip to the Big Convention in New York?
Once I actually started working in the industry, of course, I learned that “modeling schools” are invariably bogus, and models who say they went to one are looked upon as feeble-minded rubes; that “modeling competitions,” unless held by a top agency or brand (such as Elite, Ford Models, Victoria’s Secret, and the like), are generally scams. I learned that anyone who wants to charge you astronomical amounts for a trip to a cattle call convention, a talent search, or a casting is ripping you a new orifice, where money can trickle out.
MM Edu: Did you build your reputation/portfolio as a freelance model before being signed by an agency, or were you spotted by a scout?
Christie: At the New York convention, that I had just mentioned, a scout for another convention in Miami offered to pay my way down there to meet with some agencies. At that point I had already learned how practically worthless these types of events were, but I accepted her offer anyway—after all it was all expenses paid.
A few agencies at the Miami event showed interest in signing me, so I decided that as soon as I graduated high school I’d save up until I had enough to move myself from Chicago to Miami. Once I got settled in Miami, I worked non-exclusively with three agencies for a bit, before signing with Irene-Marie.
MM Edu: When did you first sign with an agency and what was that like? Can you explain how non-exclusive and exclusive contracts work?
Christie: I believe I was 19 years old when I got my first exclusive contract. Back then agencies seemed to have a better grip on the industry, and I worked enough that I didn’t have to do any freelance modeling if I didn’t want to, so I saw no harm in signing exclusively. Today, however, I see no real benefit in signing exclusively with any one agency, as that means that you cannot work with any other agencies in the same genres in the same city.
For example you can sign exclusively as a fashion model with one agency in Chicago and another in LA, but not two separate agencies in Chicago. Depending on the contract, some places also demand that they get a say and a cut of any work you book on your own as well. A better option, I find, is only taking on non-exclusive contracts with agencies, if you must work with them at all.
Model: Christie Gabriel; Photographer: Vincent Michael
MM Edu: Tell us about the type of modeling you were doing—domestic, international, runway, commercial, editorial, etc., and what type of modeling do you enjoy most?
Christie: When I was younger they kept me hop-scotching around between Chicago, New York and Miami, doing a lot of runway. Thankfully I don’t do much of that anymore. The travel never bothered me, but runway work was never my favorite. Instead I’ve always preferred being in front of the camera, either in studio or on location. During my time as an agency model I kept hoping to get some international bookings. I had to start freelancing to make that happen.
MM Edu: You’ve shot for Vogue, walked NY Fashion Week, and appeared in music videos, commercials, and many magazines. What do you consider to be your career highlights, and what are you most proud of?
Christie: Some highlights of my career have obviously been anything dealing with Vogue, as that name is synonymous with fashion industry success. Of course, all of the music videos were a lot of fun too though!
I’m very proud of the fact that, in recent years, I have been able to book more work for myself than my bookers have, and I’ve been able to travel the world strictly freelancing. On top of that I’ve mentored several aspiring models and to see them using the information I shared with them to book work all over the world is about as rewarding as it gets.
“I’m very proud of the fact that, in recent years, I have been able to book more work for myself than my bookers have, and I’ve been able to travel the world strictly freelancing.”
MM Edu: What do you love most about being a model? And, what do you least enjoy?
Christie: I love helping to bring someone’s vision/idea to life. It’s a great feeling—getting lost in a project that an entire team of people are so passionate about. That’s the thing about this industry; everybody seems to have such passion and love for what they do. You can’t easily find that in too many other fields of work.
It’s also fantastic to have trips to Paris and other amazing foreign cities at your beck and call.
My least favorite thing about my career is being away from my family so much. I used to bring my son along a lot when it was financially feasible, but now he’s in school most of the year so he can only come along on trips in the summer.
MM Edu: You’re now officially a free agent, working as freelance model, and you’ve recently published a book titled “The Self-Made Model – Success without Agencies”. Tell us about the book, why you wrote and what you hope models will learn from it.
Christie: After what I’ve seen from various agencies over the years I felt it was high time we debunk the myth that they are still essential to a model’s success.
Of course, they used to be 100% vital to models. But so much has changed, mostly due to the internet. I believe that, with Model Mayhem and other industry and social networking sites, a model can achieve at least as much career success by bypassing agencies—with their outdated model requirements and their inefficient business practices. It is my personal mission to show models how this can be done.
I wrote the book as a kind of crash course that details what to expect from freelancing, and how to take advantage of this newly leveled playing field. There’s a lot of in-depth information—from the lifestyle of being a freelance model to teaching tools to help the reader learn how to pose fluidly and confidently— but at the same time I share some lighter behind-the-scenes anecdotes, so I like to think it’s not only very helpful, but fun to read. Nobody enjoys reading a manual!
“I believe that, with Model Mayhem and other industry and social networking sites, a model can achieve at least as much career success by bypassing agencies.”
MM Edu: What has the reaction to your book been like (from models, agencies, etc)?
Christie: The reaction to my book has been quite overwhelming! I’m getting all kinds of emails from models and photographers thanking me for getting so much information out there at an affordable price.
Even highly experienced professional models are contacting me to tell me that my book gave them the extra boost of courage they needed to finally let go of their practically worthless agencies. One model told me that her agency has actually served her reasonably well over the last couple of years so she never thought of doing freelance work, but that after reading the book it seemed so easy to put together a portfolio on Model Mayhem and start picking up side gigs on her own. She has since recommended the book to a few other girls at her agency.
As far as what agencies are saying, only one of my previous bookers has messaged me. She admits that I make a couple of good points, and is thinking of incorporating some changes into her business approach to increase bookings and efficiency.
Model: Christie Gabriel; Photographer: Kaizen-foto
MM Edu: You end the book by discussing “The Future of Modeling”. Let’s talk a little about where you see it going.
Christie: Some industry changes seem long overdue, which makes me think they will finally occur in the next few years.
First is the formation of a national Models’ Guild. To be honest, I can’t figure out why a Model’s Guild wasn’t formed long ago. With the modeling market becoming so muddied by scammers and over-saturated with posers, now would be a perfect time. In fact, I believe I read something about model’s union on a recent MM news roundup, which is very encouraging.
The second overdue change involves the modeling agencies. They’re part of the fashion industry which, by definition, is in the business of informing the public of changing trends. One of these trends is an evolving social attitude toward nude art. I’m not talking here about anything trashy or pornographic, but about high fashion nudes and artistic figure nudes. The senseless ban most American modeling agencies still have against their models posing nude seems to be yet another means of business suicide.
I myself almost lost an agency contract once because they got their hands on a topless fashion shot of me. They backed off only when I informed them that the photo was being considered for Vogue España.
It would also serve the agencies to find some way to tap into the enormous market of aspiring and hobbyist photographers. While these people have less money to spend per model-hour than commercial and fashion clients, there are many times more of them.
It seems to me that it can’t be long until our mainstream agencies either wise up or starve to death. I’m hoping that the current unfortunate state of most agency representation is only temporary, and that reformation will soon restore it to its former glory.
Despite many problems, I believe the modeling industry will be heading in a positive direction in the next decade. The changes in public attitudes toward beauty should continue to open the modeling market to a wider variety of people. Agencies are likely to finally catch up with the industry changes, and become as attractive a career avenue as freelancing. Best of all, a Models’ Guild may finally be formed.
However the industry evolves, the skilled, informed, dedicated and hardworking model will always be in demand. I hope my book will help inform some models who have the potential and drive to be successful in the industry.
“The senseless ban most American modeling agencies still have against their models posing nude seems to be yet another means of business suicide.”
MM Edu: Model Mayhem really exists to facilitate exactly the type of work and success you describe. What does MM mean to you?
Christie: When I first joined MM I thought it would just be a place where I could shoot the breeze with other creative people, and maybe meet some folks who I could work with to update my book. I quickly realized that it was so much more than that. MM has proven to be a helpful community for anyone in the industry, professionals and hobbyists alike. It’s a place of encouragement and education, as well as a place to find ample amounts of work. In fact it was due to the mass quantities of legit paid offers I was getting on MM that I finally felt comfortable enough to turn my back on the less-efficient agency route altogether.
Christie Gabriel’s book, The Self-Made Model – Success Without Agencies, is available on Amazon.
For more information visit her website: selfmademodel.com