When it comes to standout courses in modeling, Catherine McNeil’s enigmatic visage prevails amongst the fashion crowd. From humble beginnings being discovered at a modeling competition, McNeil worked her way to the top gaining notoriety with her cat-slanted eyes and effortless tomboy demeanor. The iconic model had an outstanding career of luxury campaigns, influential covers, and stellar shows long before she turned 18. Yet, at the height of her career in 2009 she walked away from it all to regain some normalcy from her rigorous schedule.
Her resurgence of sorts has been one of legend rising back into the ranks almost as suddenly as she disappeared – a testament to just how missed she was in the industry. It was a rainy Tuesday afternoon when the beauty from Brisbane sauntered into the Models.com office looking every bit of her mysterious self and dressed in her favorite sartorial shade – all black. That fetish-friendly, dark shade was the starting point for the provocative imagery for your viewing pleasure with risqué latex and garters galore. Exclusively for Models.com, photographer Tim Richardson captures her magical presence like it’s never been shot before – gloriously sexy and completely badass.
Photography Tim Richardson for Models.com
Lighting Technician – Dean Dodos
1st Assistant – Teppei Maruoka
2nd Assistant – Andrew Frasz
Stylist Assistant – Lucy Gaston
1st Prop Assistant – Theo Volpati
2nd Prop Assistant – Ryan Stenger
Production – Art + Commerce
Executive Producer – Ziggy Levin
Producer – Matthew Liederman
Retouching – Dtouch
Digital Capture & Studio – Pier 59
Special thanks to Zana Bayne
Text and interview by Irene Ojo-Felix
Online Art Direction Stephan Moskovic
I wanted to start from the beginning of your story and talk about when you first started modeling and what got you interested in the business.
I wanted to be a model when I was about 13. My grandma took me into this agency in Brisbane and I literally tried to blend into the wall. Then they entered me in a Girlfriend Magazine modeling competition and that I ended up winning. It was part of the package to get a cover and a trip to New York so I came with my grandma and I met agencies. They were like, “It’s great! You’ll have to come back, you’ll do really well.” And I had just turned 14. Then I got back to Sydney for a few more years and one day they said, “Okay, come to New York. This photographer wants to see you.” I was like, “Okay whatever…” I had no idea who this was (turns out it was noted photographer, Mario Testino). I did all of the castings for fashion week and then flew to Paris and he said, “Okay, you’re going to stay and do this.” I said, “No you have to ask my agency.” I just stayed and shot a bunch of jobs. I really had no idea what was going on.
Did you just jump into the industry because of that opportunity? Or did you just go from 0 to 60?
I had packed my bags about 90 kilos of luggage and I just never went back.
I look at your career trajectory as having a first renaissance and second renaissance moment. You took a break in there…
Yeah, I took a couple of years off. I cut all of my hair off.
I shaved it. Then I moved to London, because I had been working for such a long time and couldn’t remember what shoots I was doing. I just wanted some time for myself.
Wow! Were you able to find your zen and find your peace?
Yeah, I mean it’s still better now than it’s ever been. I got bored, I never thought I would miss all of this craziness but I did. So I moved back.
So you were interested in the industry and you wanted to come back…
Yeah, I mean I do love it and it has given me so many great opportunities and I’ve gotten to meet so many amazing people. I never thought at the age of 13 that I would be living in New York, so I’m very thankful for that, but at the same time you have to realize who you are because you’re taken into this industry at such a young age.
Very moldable years.
Yeah, I think it was needed. I was lucky enough that the industry gave me a second chance because that doesn’t happen all the time.
Definitely. And how do you find your balance now between work and play so that you don’t get too burnt out?
My agency is so good that when I say I need a break they give me some time off. I’ve also got an amazing group of friends that if I’m not feeling very nice that day they’ll come over and vice versa. I do love the industry and I do get bored when I don’t work.
I think so! I don’t know if anyone else does, but I think it’s like with any job it comes with experience and developing yourself. You look at some of these girls–like Anja (Rubik), for instance, is such an incredible model and she’s been around for quite a long time. The confidence comes with practice, I guess.
Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s hard. There’s a certain vulnerability that you have to put on fully when you step in front of the camera. Because of your amazing career you’re one of the industry’s new generation icons. Your work speaks for itself, but what does iconic mean to you?
I think I’ve looked at it as models or people that are doing something in their profession that they’re very good at and they keep being good at it. Like, actors and things. I think, for me, it’s that. Being good at it and people wanting to work with you again. I still don’t consider myself an icon though! For me, it’s a job.
But there’s also a certain level of being charming. It comes across in your photos that you’re alluring and interesting and super charming.
You have to sell that dress!
Come on, you have to! So at least when you get into that mood, it comes across in the visuals. Who is iconic to you?
Um… The staples like Kate Moss and Helena Christensen, all of them. I look at the girls from when I started to come in like Natasha Poly, Sasha Pivovarova, Anja and I think they’re incredible. For me that’s iconic.
I remember the first person I spoke to was actually Lara Stone and being in a fitting just dying. She said, “It’s okay, just autopilot and you’ll be all right.” So they’ve all been good at giving great advice, and that really helped me.
Those are people who are iconic in the industry. Do you find anyone iconic outside of fashion?
For me it’s my grandmother. I look up to her and she’s just incredible. Without her I don’t know what I would do.
You said that she had come with you the first time you were in New York… so now that she’s seen your trajectory and how you’ve grown up has she been super supportive?
I mean, we lived in a models’ apartment together for 3 weeks. She’s come on so many of my shoots. I include her a lot and she’s very interested and proud.
You travel a lot obviously because it’s the name of the game/job–What have been some of your favorite places to travel to?
I’ve been to India a couple of times and I love it there. It was kind of a little life changing experience watching the people interact and everything there is just beautiful. And Japan, I had the best time ever. I like Europe and I’ve been to a few places in Italy. But as a culture and country, I think those two places inspired me the most.
Because you’ve traveled you’ve also worked with so many amazing talents. Is there anyone that you haven’t worked with that you’d like to still work with?
I really want to work with Bruce Weber and Glen Luchford. For me, I love all of their pictures and I said to my agent, can you tell Glen I really want to shoot with him? [laughs]
I don’t know. It was just kind of a thing. I had always liked tattoos and I think with this industry being told you have to be a certain way I kind of just started at one and it’s gotten more intense… I’ve lost a few jobs over it, but I think for the most part people have embraced it.
Do they ever have to cover it up in shoots or runway or anything like that?
In runway they’ll put me in jackets or whatever and then Pat (McGrath) will bring the airbrush because she knows. But yeah, we shot a TV commercial that is coming out soon and they put me in a backless dress so three hours of makeup every day, even down to my hands, so I was just walking around naked.
When was your first tattoo?
I got one the day before I was 18 and then the next day I got another one. They were just little ones. But the back piece started when my ex was very into tattoos and we went to a shop in Brooklyn and I just fell in love with the art. All of the little ones I’ve gotten here in different places, but the back is from the same guy in BK.
What would you tell your 16 year old self now? For anything, love, work, life balance…
Oh gosh! I guess sometimes to not be so naïve and realize that not everyone, especially in this city, wants something out of you. Also, to not be so hard on yourself because I am and that’s why I want to do the best that I can when I’m working. At the end of the day, it’s not really up to you. People in the industry pick you and I used to get sad and really down on myself if I got cancelled or didn’t get a job I was vying for. Now I’m just like, okay that means I get to sleep in a few more hours.
I noticed recently you’ve dialed back on the amount of runway stuff that you’ve been doing, was that a conscience choice to focus more editorially?
Yeah, I mean basically I’m at the point now where I’ve been around long enough that people know all of that. I don’t want to, like, slug myself around cities. Obviously if someone would like me for a show I’ll do it.
I do a lot of stuff for the Beagle Freedom Project. Help them with promotion about animal cruelty and how a majority of animal testing is done using beagles. Everyone is always asking, what are you going to do next? I say hopefully still this!
How was your experience on set? I only saw a sliver of it on set but it looked like so much fun. Those crazily amazing Zana Bayne pieces.
She was amazing. She made all of these one-off pieces for the shoot and I have loved her stuff for a long time so I was really happy. William (Graper) was amazing, great stuff and hair and makeup were also my friends from back home so it was a great day. Truly a family affair! But the whole concept of the shoot was really cool, they did the vacuum sealed latex shot. They had me in an outfit and basically they said, “Okay, we’re going to cut a small hole in here and we’re going to suck all of the air out.” The first time I freaked out a little and said, “Let me out!” But once I got used to the sucking feeling and breathing I was fine. That was the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
How was it working with the team/the photographer? How was his direction?
He helped a lot and it was good because a lot of it we planned for in a meeting right before and the references were stuff I really liked. So, it was easy and something I was really excited about. We got along really well and everyone was up for everything. It worked!
I mean, because you’re in the industry do you consider yourself super into fashion? Do you just take it just as job or would you want to go into another industry – maybe as a designer?
I really do enjoy it. I feel like I’ve gained a lot of knowledge over the years and I love clothes and how we incorporate them into our lives. Hopefully it would be something in this industry but I don’t live and breathe for fashion. It will drive you crazy.
And, I guess my final question would be where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
I want to start making decisions that will be steps to get to what I want to do. But no, I still hope I’m doing this–modeling. There are still a lot of things in the industry for me personally that I’d like to tick off and accomplish.