Ruben Rua @ Elite Lisbon
The fashion weeks are usually the busiest times of the year for agencies. Between organizing castings, booking flights for models and all the other daily activities of an agency, Ruben Rua managed to find a few moments to sit down and talk with us.
With a very successful career of more than 10 years as a model in Portugal as well as abroad, and having spent the last 5 as a booker and a model, Ruben Rua was clearly someone we had to have in this series of interviews. And he clearly exceeded our expectations. Being such a young booker and having won so many awards, Ruben keeps a humble attitude and a very pragmatic approach to this industry. This and much more, explain why so many people look at him as a reference and inspiration.
You have a widely known and awarded path as a model and you have worked with a long list of national and international brands. I think it is fair to say you’re a case of success. Can you list some habits or routines you think have contributed to your success?
In terms of routines and habits I think a model that lives from his image will obviously have to work out, sleep well and eat well. These are three main conditions towards a healthy life, that will reflect in what you are as a model. Maybe, at 18 or 19, it will have a lower impact, but by the time you are 30 it will reflect. Therefore, in order to have a long career, it is important to have this in mind.
This question also embraces another important aspect: to which extend are these routines the thing that makes a successful career? I think a successful career goes far beyond eating, sleeping, and training well. Honestly, I believe not only the best or the most beautiful models are the ones who will go further in a career. I believe the key to success, is to work hard. It is the only key for success, especially in a long career. I think it is very difficult to be successful but even harder to keep that success for many years. During these 11 years in which I’ve been modelling, I’ve see many models come and go. I’ve seen many promising stars that never got anywhere. I believe one of the most important things is to want to be a model. To be a really good model. This wanting to be a model implies having the capability to sacrifice yourself, to be available, to embrace every work as it was the last, to accept each challenge, to be nice, polite and punctual and someone who its pleasurable to work with. It implies being able to shoot under 40 degrees and be happy, to shoot in the snow and be just as happy, to go to a an online shop shooting as it is the best campaign in the world, to walk in ModaLisboa as if it was Milan or the next door mall with just the same effort. That is what leads you to success. Life takes many turns and, sometimes, this new generation of models is not able to understand that the person that today is in a mall fashion show, tomorrow will be in any another place and will remember you. I think this mental effort is the one that can lead you to success. And then you have to be patient, which is something that is lacking nowadays. People don’t understand that it takes time for things to happen. In my career, things took a long while to happen. I waited one and a half year for my first editorial. It is true that I started big, doing GQ Spain, but it took a while. Things don’t just fall from the sky. This ability to sacrifice and fight and wait and take every opportunity is really what takes you to the next level.
Your path as a model has taken you to the biggest fashion capitals and lead you to work with some of the best professionals in the industry. When it comes to the models you’ve had the opportunity to meet, which common traces have you found amongst the most successful ones?
I think that in order to be successful as a model, there are obviously biological constraints that are part of the job and can’t be avoided. A model has to be tall, have a good body – with more or less muscle, that depends. When I say a model has to be tall, I’m talking about 1.85, 86, 87, 88… many heights, but not 1.70m. These are the biological constraints needed in order to work in this industry: your body, your height and your face. The body can be, as I explained, more or less muscular; in the height you have around 10cm margin between 1.80 and 1.90 for men – for women we can talk about 1.70m to 1.80-something; when we talk about the face we can have a wide range of models, from the typically pretty model, or the commercial one, to an androgynous model or an alternative one. There are many trends and the classic beauty, which is the one that keeps the same for a while.
Generally speaking, a model with a longer career will be a model with a more classical type of beauty, that is trending now, in 5 years and in 10 years. When you have a model that has many tattoos and piercings, maybe he lives in a certain period. There is the “boom” and then the market gets tired of that look and lets go of him. But all these biological things are not enough. The message I’m trying to convey is that, although you have the perfect height and the perfect body and face, that is not enough. You may do some things, but then the second part of what I’m talking about takes stage: the way I see it, and I talk with 11 years’ experience as a model and 5 as a booker here at Elite, the most important part has to do with personality, attitude and charisma. A client that sees 100, 200, 1000 models has seen a lot of tall models, a lot of beautiful models and a lot of models with a fantastic body. He is looking for someone special. He wants personality and attitude. He wants someone that enters the room and emanates energy. A model that has something special. He is just as beautiful, tall and interesting as all the other models, but then a personal part enters the equation. When I have two models which I think are great, but I know that one of them will be on time, will be nice to everyone and the whole team will like him, that is the model I want to work with. And when you please a team, in the next day they’re going to call you. People don’t understand and always say “they always call him”, “it is always the same”. It is always him because he gives them guarantees.
I think models don’t understand the ephemerality of this industry. When you work in an area where some models have an expiration date of 6 months, others of 1 year, others of 2 and then, a minority has an expiration date of over 10 years… when you work in an area where the expiration date is this short, you can’t throw away anything.
For those who think being a model is something shallow and short-timed, you are a good example that proves otherwise. How or when have you realised it was time to go a step further, meaning, when did you decide that besides being a model, you should start developing other activities (even if related to the fashion industry)?
Fundamentally, in any area, you need to understand what life is giving you and the timings. The keyword in the fashion industry is timing. There is a timing for you to sign with an agency, there is a timing to travel as a model, there is a timing to walk in a fashion week, there is a timing for you to stop travelling. Some timings make sense and others don’t. For exemple: travelling. I’m not saying a 30 year old man can’t travel as a model, but the international career, the conquering of new markets, the runways, the editorials and campaigns don’t happen at this age. You can’t decide yourself how you want to organize your time. It doesn’t work like this. Some opportunities come up and people either grab it or don’t. What I’ve been doing in my life and in my career is to understand what the market was giving me and what I wanted to do with my life. And there is a balance here between what I want and what I’m being offered. And here things meet and, although I never dreamt about being a model, from the moment I embraced this industry, I decided I wanted to be the best model I could. If I had an opportunity to travel, I would go. There are models that are given this opportunity and they don’t want to go. In many cases they don’t want to go because they want to study and go to college, or they don’t want to leave home, they have their girlfriends here… there are many reasons. And then, other models want to go but are not offered the possibility.
See what I mean about timing and opportunity? In my case, when the opportunity arose, I decided to grab it with all my strengths. I travelled for four consecutive years non-stop while trying to do my graduation in Management in Oporto. I couldn’t do it and had to freeze my tuitions in order to focus on modelling. And then the time came, when I was around 24 years old, when I fell in love and came to Lisbon. I then decided to stop travelling and go to university. I always knew I wanted to have a graduation degree. Even if I were to be a model until I was eighty, I knew I wanted to have superior education. I thought knowledge didn’t take space, so I wanted to do it. Initially, I started studying Management, but then I did my bachelor in Communication. By the time I stopped travelling, Elite took the opportunity and asked me to join the agency [as a booker]. And it’s been five years. When everyone thought my career was coming to an end because I was sitting at a desk, the truth is it kept growing and evolving and, recently, as you know, I’ve been embracing new challenges in different areas: television, this year, has been a strong component of my life and, who knows, maybe presenting could be in my future.
I think it is important for people to understand two very important things: to understand the timing of opportunities and to understand that nothing lasts forever. It is imperative to have a plan B and to know what we want to do with our life besides fashion. Twenty years ago you would choose what you wanted to do with your life – a teacher, doctor, lawyer - then you would go to school to learn it and would do it until the end of your life. Nowadays you go to university to become a lawyer and end up being a photographer, a journalist, or working in an agency or even at a magazine. Times have changed, so people can’t hold on to fashion and think they’ll be a model forever. This doesn’t mean they can’t be models forever, but it is important to have the tools so that, one day, when fashion turns its back on them or when they say they don’t want this anymore – which are two very different things – life can go on and they don’t have to deal with the frustration and deception of being on top today and, in ten years, being nobody and still feeling like they’re on top and living a live stuck to those past successful years, when they were 20 or 30. It is very hard to deal with fashion’s expectations and the frustrations of being or not being successful. What is important is to understand opportunities. This is the message: the timing of opportunities and to constantly have a plan B.
Considering your role as a model, how was it to transition to being a booker? How is it like to manage/advise/guide those who were once your colleagues?
There are three different aspects about this question and they all happen simultaneously.
When Hélio Bernardino, Elite’s director, invited me to work the men’s division – back then, Erica Oliveira had both divisions and was overwhelmed with work – two things worried me: I was going to university that same year – I started on Elite and university at the same time, so I was never, even until now, a full time booker. This was something that worried me and I talked to Hélio about this, explaining I would never be a full time booker like my colleagues or my competitors. And Elite has always understood and supported me and my side projects. They’ve always given me a work flexibility that allowed me to do my graduation as I was working in the agency. My second big concern was that I was a model and had been working a lot as a model, so I was worried about how we could manage this double function as a booker and a model. Elite, once again, put me at ease and explained nothing would change. My booker would still be Erica and they would allow me to do all works that I would be booked for. This is what I talked about with Elite. I think that my competitors (in the good way) first felt like, from the moment I sat on Elite’s chair, my career was done. And this five years proved otherwise. My career progressed, I still kept my goals, worked more and more and being a booker never stoped me from anything. Gossip may say this is because I’m a booker and I can book my own works… but luckily, I have a past when I wasn’t a booker and was still successful, which proves them wrong.
And how is to work with younger boys and new faces?
It is a daily challenge. Every day is a different day. I’ve had many models passing through. Some that left Elite, others that opted for working in a different industry… It is a daily challenge and I see myself in these models. When I sign a 16 or 17 year-old boy, I go back in time and see myself having the same worries, dreams and questions.
The ability you have to transform someone’s life is magical. And a model agency can do it. I can take a boy living an ordinary life, going to school, hanging with is friends and… out of a sudden he is working in New York as a model. When you have this ability to help him work – knowing that the effort and hard work has to be his – and to change someone like Elite changed me… it’s absolutely fantastic.
As the person responsible by Elite Lisbon’s men’s division, which are your main concerns?
The balance. There are two kinds of balance: how to balance life and academic life is the first kind. We are talking about young men who are 17, 18, 19 years old who are either finishing high-school or entering university and there is always the question of deciding to go to university or to stop and travel. The question is always “how will my academic life work out?”. The second kind of balance has to do with managing expectations. This is a very delicate subject. It is not always easy to deal with rejection and it happens a lot. People have to understand that even the most successful models have heard more “no’s” that “yes’s”. It is normal for a model to have dreams and goals when he starts working – to walk in ModaLisboa, PortugalFashion, to do an editorial, travel, go to Milan… I had those goals too! But at a point, most have to understand that not all were born to be top models. I have 40 models and most of them will not have an international career. And it’s hard because they then see their colleagues achieving those goals… Dealing with expectations is hard! What I try to do as a booker is to balance their lives. It is important to finish high-school. Then it is important to go to university or to wait a year, depending on what’s on the table for them. What I always tell them is that fashion is a matter of life, not of death. In their lives, fashion can add some things, like money, work, status… whatever they are looking for; but fashion will never take anything away. From here they can only retrieve positive things.
Those who work in this industry recognise Elite as an international brand that represents quality, rigor and success. I imagine younger models you sign are not so aware of Elite’s history… how is this passed on to new models?
My experience tells me that people are aware of how big Elite brand is. Elite is the biggest agency in the world. Then, if it is the best, it is arguable and depends on one’s opinion, but it is the biggest – the one that is present in more countries worldwide. It’s the strongest network in this business. At the same time, Elite Model Look, is the biggest modelling contest in the world, as it is the one present in more countries all across the world – besides having and incredible history of discovering models like Gisele Bündchen, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista… all of them were discovered through Elite Model Look. This brings strength to the brand. If I go to the street and talk to three or four people that have nothing to do with this industry and tell them the name Elite, people associate the name with fashion. They may not know if it’s a contest or an agency, but they associate the name with fashion. Some other agencies may eventually do a better work than us, but don’t have our strength as a brand. This is an added value for us because young people, when thinking about signing with an agency, some times come to us directly. Elite receives much more applications than any other agency because when people search in Google, Elite is the name that comes up. I was lucky enough to have worked in the last two finals of Elite Model Look, in China and then last year in Milan and I got to understand this is a very strong and powerful network. When models enter this agency they already feel they are among the best. It doesn’t mean they are better than all others, but they have a brand behind them that others don’t. Then, models will have to behave in a way that represents Elite, and in this Elite is very demanding. There are some kinds of behaviour that I simply don’t accept and nobody is above this criteria, not even models that make 10,000 or 20,000€. Some things are just not acceptable. I have no problems in letting go of a model that displays a behaviour that is not aligned with the image Elite wants to portray in the market.
We have had many Portuguese models, specially men, going for the international market with really good results. What do you think contributes to this success?
I think that Portugal has always been stronger in the men’s division than in the women. This doesn’t mean we haven’t had success stories on the feminine division, but in terms of quantity, there are more internationally successful male models than women. Even so, the biggest Portuguese model we have is a woman: Sara Sampaio. But there is this quantity thing in terms of men. It was like this when I was working, and it is still happening the same way. However, I can tell you I think it is happening less in this generation, when comparing to past ones. Nowadays we have very good new faces, but haven't yet been able to confirm their quality. It is very good to do an international fashion week but, 10 years ago, we wouldn’t do one, we would to 5 or 6.
What do you think is missing or has changed?
I think it has to do with the market worldwide and its trends. The market is more and more inclusive. But I think we still have more successful international male models than women because of physical characteristics. In Portugal it is easy to find men with the characteristics needed to work: to be tall, with a good body and a nice face. It is not so easy to find women that have all this. Many times we find girls with an amazing face, but not enough height. And this, internationally, is a handicap. Or you can have a tall girl with a perfect face, but the Portuguese woman, tendentiously, has a larger hip so, when comparing to other markets, like the nordic or the eastern markets, the competition is almost unfair. We are talking about competing against hundreds of girls that have everything to work as an international model. It is very hard for Portuguese girls. When a worldwide-known scouter comes to Portugal and discovers one or two faces and then goes to Sweden, Denmark or Brazil and finds so many great models… it is almost unfair. And then, even when you find the right person, there is a different pre-disposition when deciding on embracing an international career. It has to do with the social and familiar environment. For a 15 year old girl is not easy to convince her parents to stop school and go travelling. In a country like Brazil, for instance, a 15 year old girl and her family, see Europe as a lifetime opportunity that they don’t even consider throwing away just because of school. This always makes it more difficult for Portuguese girls to consider an international career, when comparing to an eastern European or a Brazilian one.
The international exposure is a common goal to many models. Which is Elite Lisbon ’s approach to this matter?
A great career implies international success. No question here. You can work a lot in Portugal but, in order to have a big career you need international experience. For a model to travel, he needs to have an agency willing to represent you in the destination country (Germany is the exception, because you can have more than one agency). This representation can happen in two ways: the booker can propose the model for the agency, or an international scouter can come to the agency, see the models live and then decide if he wants to represent a model. After representing them in the destination country, they need to want them there. They must say they want them to come over to their country for a period of time. Then the model has to both want to go and be available to go. And we’re just talking about the travel. After being there, the model is called on stay. He will stay for a period of time (usually one month) and he will meet clients and try to work. After this, he can start having direct bookings. All the expenses for on stay models are given in advance by the agencies and then, when there is a direct booking, the client is the one that covers expenses like travelling and accommodation. This is how an international career starts. You go to a city, then another… and then you sum up successes and doors will begin to open. If things don’t go well, however, the doors will also start closing…
To finish... which advice can you leave for someone who wants to have a career as a model?
I’ll go back to what I said in the beginning: work is the only key to success. Never sell yourself to a lobby and always be true to yourself. Never forget where you come from and where you want to go to. And also, know how to accept that we were not all meant to be top models. Somethings are just out of our hands.
photography Gonçalo M. Catarino
thanks to Elite Lisbon for having us