Emilia Romano @ Central Models
KAEOT’s spirit is not only about showing the most promising Models and Designers, but also about trying to demystify some wrong ideas about fashion as well as bringing to your attention some very important aspects of this industry.
Therefore, involving the agencies was a must. And so we started with the very first portuguese modeling agency - Central Models. Founded in 1989 by a couple of models, Tó Romano and Emília Romano, they were there to witness and take part of the beginning of the Portuguese fashion industry. It was in the 80’s that the first design schools appeared, but things only started happening for real in the 90’s, with the birth of Moda Lisboa (1991), international magazines like ELLE or Marie Claire having their portuguese issues and also the appearance of private televisions (SIC and TVI), which changed the whole advertising market.
Over the course of these 27 years, Central Models has gone through good and bad times, and they are still one of the most respected and prestigious agencies in the Portuguese market. We talked with one of the founders, Emília Romano, who welcomed us with her usual and warming smile in their office in Lisbon.
Starting from the beginning, and for those who didn’t know, Central Models was created over 25 years ago by two models with an international career – you and your husband Tó, to be precise! How has this background as models and as husband and wife, been influencing Central Model’s activity?
Me and Tó met when I was studying psychology and he was studying architecture. He finished his bachelor, we started dating and had the opportunity to start traveling, which was something we both loved. Back then, there were no agencies in Portugal, so we went to Spain to find a mother agency. We had to support all the costs and investment of traveling to Spain for jobs. It was complicated, but we went to Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan – Tó was in Tokyo for a year and I stayed for six months and then went to Brazil. In the meanwhile, we got to understand the market for international agencies and models. We were four portuguese models in Japan: me, Tó, Vitor Hugo (the photographer) and another boy who then ended up changing his career. With the four of us, there were also thirty Brazilian models. As we were traveling, we met many models and agencies and understood there was a need for a modeling agency in Portugal. We were close to our agencies – in Tokyo, for example, we spent a Christmas with the owner of the agency, together with all the models, as she invited us all to spend Christmas at her place. So we got to know how agencies worked, not only in a cold functional way, but also in what personal relations were regarded. Then Tó came up with the idea that he needed to open an agency .
Then I got pregnant (with Afonso), I stopped traveling and Tó said we had to open the agency, as there was a ModaLisboa [Lisbon Fashion Week] coming up and we wanted to have things running by that time, to present models and everything. We conducted castings, without even having a formal office and our colleagues became our first signed models. Our idea was always to internationalize Portuguese models. We felt that traveling was so good for so many aspects (professionally, personally…), that if there was a chance to help Portuguese models, we should do it. We thought there was potential in some models to become international, they just needed someone to work with them to be prepared.
In the beginning it was hard, because Portuguese clients weren’t used to fixed price tables, keeping an eight hour working day schedule, paying for extra hours and image licenses, dealing with composites, books… It was an adventure in the beginning!
For some people, the role of bookers and agencies is still not very clear. Could you explain, briefly, what Central Models does from the moment they sign with a model?
The booker is the one who makes the bridge between the model and the client. This is the definition, but I believe it is very limitative to just say this, because bookers may find the model, stand by his side while he is growing up, but also have to try to understand that our “products” are human beings, which makes the whole process very delicate. We need to empathize and build complicity with the model, to understand what may be good for the new face that is just starting. For example, for a new face to do a runway show may be a good idea and a good experience, and for another new face it can be terrifying! So we need to know how to follow their growth, so they can have an healthy and happy growing experience and can keep learning new things.
We need to help the model create good habits in terms of nutrition and exercising, that they will carry for their life. Many of them come here and are in shape because they are still young! But then comes a time, when they need to be ready. Then we need to have in consideration the environment in which the model lives, in order to know how we can help him. If he is from Lisbon, maybe he has a different resourcefulness when compared to a model that lives in the interior regions of the country. For us, it doesn’t matter where the person comes from (both socially and geographically). We just look at the person in front of us and see if they have potential to grow. I think the fact that we were international working models for over five years helped us develop a clinical eye in terms of how the model photographs and imagining how the model may be in five years. This kind of thing is not written anywhere. It’s the kind of sensibility you gain with experience and everyday life. I remember that in the beginning, I would look for a girl and think that she wasn’t pretty enough and would not do well in the Portuguese market, and then I would look at her book and become astonished and regretted even thinking that, because maybe she was even a thousand times better than me, for example. A good model is not always the person that strikes the eye at first sight. Sometimes, a great model may not stand out in the middle of a crowd. She can be dressed discreetly, without big cleavages or short skirts – that is not a model’s attitude. Modeling is not about selling the body.
In short, a booker has to not only establish the bridge with the client, but also to understand the kind of person that is standing in front of them, in order to choose the best path to develop with the model. For example, we always need to bare in mind that school needs to be respected, so sometimes there is less availability…
Then, regarding clients, the same happens. We need to meet the client, its tastes, possibilities… If the client is small or just starting, I’m not going to suggest them the best models, for obvious reasons. There needs to be a balance and a clear way of explaining models and clients that there are certain rules that need to be followed. And then we need to do a follow up work of contacting the client and the model to understand if everything worked as planned. There are a lot of things to be made, so I can’t just say bookers are the link between a model and a client. We don’t just get calls from clients and send models to work. There is much more that we do. A good booker has to pay attention if a model comes to the agency looking sad, insecure, stressed… If that happens, the booker has to go to the model and talk to them. The booker also has to have enough sensibility to know how to criticize the model in a constructive way, in order to motivate and help the model, because that’s part of our job.
Nowadays it is common to see agencies signing with increasingly younger boys and girls. What are the biggest obstacles that you, as an agency, face when dealing with such young people?
Maybe because of my background in psychology, I enjoy greatly to work with a shy young girl that enters the agency looking at the floor, so I can help her grow and, after some time, witnessing her coming to the agency and say good morning in a loud confident voice that makes people stop what they were doing to see who came in. I love these moments. Then, when people ask me when it is the right age to start, because they have a 12 year old or 13 year old daughter, of course it is early! For a young girl to be in a cover of a magazine by the time she turns 13, it’s too soon! When things happen this fast, it sometimes goes wrong for the model. But this is not how things happen in reality. What I usually tell parents is that they learn technical and empirical skills in school. When they come to an agency, they need to learn relational skills that are not taught in school and that are a great added value for any profession they choose in the future.
Being a model may be just a phase for a teenager, to make some money and grow their self esteem. Then they may stop and change paths, but the relational skills they learn in this industry will stay with them forever. They learn how to work with different teams everyday, with whom they need to establish some empathy and relationship in order to leave a good impression on the client and being called to work again. This team spirit they learn and build is an added value for working in any profession they may choose.
I used to work in Human Resources and one of the things I learnt to look for, was team spirit. The academical skills can be learned. In recruiting, people look for relational skills. If you don’t know how to work in a team, you can be an A student and still might not find a job. If you do know how to work with others, maybe you’re not technically the best, but things end up working out.
Besides being well know as the first modeling agency in Portugal, Central Models is also known for discovering faces like Sara Sampaio and Daniela Hanganu (just to name a few, because the list would be long…). What characteristics have you identified in these models that made you believe you had in your hands potential successful models?
We became aware of those characteristics over time, really. But in order to be successful, I think there are some factors that are very important. Models have to be intelligent. It’s not just about looking good in the photo. If they look good in the first work, but they don’t know how to work with the team, if they are not professional… they won’t work again. When I say they need to be intelligent, I’m saying they should be sensible and humble, to understand they need to learn from others. If a model is arrogant and thinks he is the best because he has a great body, he will slide.
It is mandatory to be humble, to want to learn, to listen and to be persistent. It is not easy. People think this industry is perfectly beautiful, but I’m always being called to talk to young girls, to give them the support they need, try to understand and help them. A model’s work has ups and downs. People are happy when they sign with an agency and think that they’ve overcame the most difficult part. No. The challenge begins after signing with the agency. The first challenge is rejection. They start going to castings and, after going to 10 or 15 castings, if the model can’t book any work, I always jump from my chair to help them deal with rejection, so that the next day they can keep going to castings feeling confident and happy. So, learning how to deal with rejection is important. As well as being persistent and resilient. If you keep hearing “no’s" you may put yourself down, so resilience is important so that they can get up after a failure. They need to have self-motivation. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, because ultimately, motivation has to come from within. It’s what I call emotional intelligence. It’s all about the capacity for self-motivation. If a work doesn’t go well, a model can’t just go home depressed. Of course it is not pleasant, but they need to understand what went wrong and keep believing that the next day will be better. They need to want to learn to be better and do better.
These names and many others you discovered and still represent are true references and an inspiration for those who aspire to have an international career in the fashion industry. When young models come to you with the idea of becoming the next Sara Sampaio or Gonçalo Teixeira, how do you help them keep their feet on the ground?
We don’t create expectations. We never tell them “you are going to work a lot for sure and you’ll reach this and that”. We don’t create expectations nor give anything for granted. We say “we know what we need to do, we have a well oiled machine and the know-how, and we want to try this with you”. This is half of the work done, but then the other half depends on the model’s work. It’s a cycle, because if the model does a job and does well, he makes the client want to work with him again, and makes the make up artist talk about him, the producer, the client… and maybe the next day another work will come up because the makeup artist talked about him with another photographer. That’s why I say that, if they are good, the jobs come like a snow ball. Then, with some models, they do half a dozen jobs and then stop. If this happens, something is wrong. We need to understand what the model is doing.
We explain it is not easy, we show them examples of success and struggle, and they all talk about Sara Sampaio but they have no idea the amount of “no’s" she has heard, the effort and the resilience of this girl that didn’t have the required height for the international market and wanted to go anyway. She is smart, went to college to study Mathematics and then she went abroad. Not everything is a piece of cake. Sara works for Victoria’s Secret and everything, but the path was very hard and long, and she never gave up and always stood up. It seems easy to say, but on the daily life it is difficult, and we explain this to people so that they understand it takes time and effort.
We know the fashion world evolves a lot around egos. Many of them – I would risk to say – quite fragile. This is also an industry that is in constant change and looking for new faces. Balancing more experienced models’ egos and the arrival of newcomers is a delicate challenge. How does Central Models manage these situations?
Each case is a case. I like to teach them that we can’t compare people. Something we always do is making sure they know each other. That they become colleagues, take polaroids together, go to castings together and establish connections and become friends. We even have a partnership with a restaurant they can go to. Because this team spirit is very important. It is important that they become friends and help each other, for example, when they are not being able to book works, having friends to talk to helps a lot. It avoids being alone thinking about it and jumping into conclusions – wrong ones sometimes!
I never got the feeling that they feel like they might be loosing work because of a new model that has just signed up for the agency. I make sure they know that we find them to be different people that belong to the same team. And to make sure they know their really competition is not inside the agency, but the international models. That’s the spirit I try to pass on. It makes me happy when I see girls coming to the agency together and laughing and taking pictures together. I don’t feel there is rivalry among them. I make them understand that we, at Central, don’t have international girls on stay, and other agencies do, so they need to show in works that, yes they are Portuguese, and they have the same image quality, the same capacities and can work as well as those girls who have a lot of experience and are very used to shooting maybe fifty outfits in a day with little effort. Portuguese models need to compete with this reality, which is not easy, because these international on stay models are not studying and are traveling and booking works every day. In six months they gain an experience that is with no doubt, higher than a Portuguese new face that is studying and needs to balance school with modeling, which is a much slower process.
Reaching the international market is one of the biggest objectives for most people who want to pursue a career as a model. How does Central Models manage this?
From the beginning, since the day we interview them, maybe because of my experience in HR and recruitment interviews, there are many questions that need to be made about expectations and motivations. We really need to dig deep in those questions. If we see the person doesn’t have the qualities necessary to be a great model and comes in with very high expectations… we have two options: if the agency is interested in working with the person and signing them up, we need to be frontal. If not, and in order to not hurt susceptibilities we may prefer not signing with that person and don’t go deep in explanations, because I think we don’t have the right to lower anyone’s self esteem. If the model is average and expectations are very high, I prefer not to sign them. If the expectations are low and the model is average, maybe I would like to work with them.
We need to be careful. I get a bit sad sometimes with some agencies… not all of them, thankfully. I think we have really good competitors. But some agencies talk to the kids in the street and put dreams inside their heads that are unreachable. It’s really nice to have dreams, but they need to be realistic. Yes, Sara Sampaio is 1.72m and she is a huge success. But that doesn’t mean that every girl that is 1.72m can have the same goal of becoming international model. Sara is short, but has amazing proportions and genetics, that we could work really well with. Not just the physicality, but the fact that she is sensitive and smart and hard working. A girl can even be 1.80m, but if she has short legs, becoming an international model is not realistic. Each case is different and people like to generalize. So we explain everything very well and let the person think about what we’ve talked for a while, knowing that we don’t promise anything, but that we like them and we are willing to try.
photography Gonçalo M. Catarino
thanks to Central Models for having us