John Pfeiffer

Posted by steven yatsko | December 8th, 2015

To get on the radar of the right casting director can make a model’s career, sometimes over the course of a few coveted bookings or sometimes overnight. In the case of landing a spot on the high-profile Victoria’s Secret runway, that radar would be that of John Pfeiffer’s. Twenty years in the business, sixteen at Victoria’s Secret and with longtime clients like Michael Kors, Bottega Veneta and Oscar de la Renta, make him an authority on all things casting. His specialized role has been shaped and transformed with the changing landscape of model culture and that seasoned perspective serves as an interesting lens to view its current and future state. John Pfeiffer sat down with to give us insight into his process and what it’s like casting Angels.

Text, portrait and interview by Steven Yatsko for
Photographs courtesy of John Pfeiffer

You’ve been in the business for a long time…

More than 20 years. I came to New York in 1992. I followed my brother here, who came for grad school, and I fell into a job actually before KCD. I worked for a designer named Richard Tyler, he was an LA based designer who opened a showroom in New York and right when I started working for him he started getting a lot of attention because he dressed celebrities. I guess he was kind of on the cusp of that. But he became mostly known for being the tailor for Julia Roberts and Janet Jackson. He was a menswear designer who made suits for women, and Diane Keaton and all these people. So I worked for him a year and a half. I fell into that job very randomly.

How so?

Well my very first job, two days after I came to New York, I went to work at the Oribe Salon, because Danilo Dixon, he’s a hair stylist who is still in this business today, he’s a friend of mine from San Francisco, he said come by the salon and I’ll introduce you to people, maybe they’ll give you a job. And they gave me a job! Two days later I was working at the front desk and was pretty excited. Oribe Salon was almost like a gathering place of late 80s, early 90s fashion fabulous-ness. Oribe Canalesz still works today, but he was really at his peak then. He opened this incurably glamorous rococo salon at the top of the Elizabeth Arden building on Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street. You know, literally Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Naomi, they were all coming out to get their hair done and this designer Richard Tyler and his wife also got their hair cuts there. So just a couple weeks after I had started working there they had come in and they thought I was really charming. They were like, “Are you happy here at the this job? We are opening a show room, would you like to come and work for us?”

So when did you start casting?

So my first was working for Richard Tyler and I worked for him for a couple years and did all kind of things. The first show I ever casted was a Richard Tyler resort show. I didn’t even know what it meant. So I had a friend who worked at Kevin Krier at the time and she said, “Here is a list of some agents, call them and tell them you need some models.” I was like what does that mean? They were very trusting of me. I did figure it out and Veronica Webb was in that show, even. So I called some agents and got some models. That was my first.

…that term casting director wasn’t used. You worked a production and you had someone who did the casting, but also other things.

At this point was the role of casting director prominent?

No, even when I went to KCD that term casting director wasn’t used. You worked a production and you had someone who did the casting, but also other things. So when I went to KCD, I didn’t go there as a casting director, I went as a production associate. Some people had better skills at casting, some were better at technical production and managing staging and lighting crews and some people location scouting. I figured out right away that I did well on the casting side, but I still had to do so many things.

From the beginning, why did you feel that?

I liked the interaction, I found it interesting. And there are so many elements to producing a show and it was the one that interested me the most, so I not only gravitated towards it, but also positioned myself to be able to take that role. Nian Fish, the legendary producer, was in charge of the production team and she was in charge of casting and she took me under her wing and she could see that I was interested in that. She educated me and nurtured me and placed me in a lot of really interesting situations very early on like working with Joe McKenna at Calvin Klein and working with the Versace team, very big productions. I was still very new, but they were very good learning experiences. I was working under her and Julie Mannion and Julie was a big boss at KCD, but Nian was kind of specifically in charge of the creative teams. She worked on models and hair and makeup teams and stylist. So in those days I also had to be responsible for booking models and hair and makeup teams and the stylist. Actually for some of my clients that I’ve been with for a long time I am still responsible for booking those creative teams. But after working at KCD I went to work at Bureau Betak and was on staff for six years. At that time I was hired by them specifically to be a casting specialist, but my responsibilities covered many other areas including location scouting. I eventually left because I wanted to do only casting. That’s what I wanted to do and enjoyed doing. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 90s that people were making a career of being a casting director.

It’s always interesting how different roles come up.

Everything has become compartmentalized, but also don’t you think the public has become more interested and intrigued by models? Even if they couldn’t place a name on the face in a Gucci ad, they are still very interested in models and modeling. The success of Tyra Bank’s show. That didn’t exist twenty years ago. I kind of think my career kind of went along with that.

Okay, a girl walks into the room for a go see – how does it go?

For me it’s pretty quick. I think you make decisions and you make judgements and you gather an opinion of someone immediately and that opinion can change, but for me really a go see is quick, that first go see. Unless it’s someone really special and they engage you and you might spend a little more time. But also in general I don’t need to spend more than a minute or two with the model. Because I will have developed an opinion, and while that opinion can change later, for the better or the worse, I decide when I look at a model. I just kind of take in who he or she is and it goes into a database and then later when I’m working I’m also thinking, I am looking through the lens of who my clients are. Because I see girls, mostly girls, but also some guys, all the time, you know. Maybe three or four a week or more than that, or three or four a day even. So it’s just very quick.

Does that craft of judgement translate into real life?

No, because I often check myself and others even, when you’re in a room and you’re with a client and I’m with my team, the way we talk about people, and I say this carefully, being very honest…the way we talk about people is not real life.

Of course.

I would like to think that I’m pretty clear about that. Again, it’s through a very specific lens and it can be very critical and that’s not real life either. That’s why when you ask that question, yes, I do hope I can separate that. When you are looking at models for work you are using a critical eye, that’s your job, not in a negative way.

I think, often, the modeling industry is judged for that fact. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding there. Do you have any thoughts on that?

I often have a really hard time explaining to people who are not in fashion what it is I do. You know, even to my own mom, who has followed my whole career. She would ask the question, “What do you do from day to day?” I talk to people all day long, that’s what I do. I talk on the phone and by e-mail all day with agents in all the cities and then I see people. So it’s kind of a really social job. Then negotiate contracts and stuff.

I always shy away from that word discovery, I like ah-ha moments, by the time a model has gotten to you there have been many people along the road. That word gets used loosely.

Let’s move into some of your favorite discoveries, more like ah-ha moments. When a girl walks into a room and she’s explosive…

I thought about that, I always shy away from that word discovery, I like ah-ha moments, by the time a model has gotten to you there have been many people along the road. That word gets used loosely. I thought immediately about Candice Swanepoel. I believe she was 16 and it was a holiday weekend in New York and so she came to my apartment with her mom, because it wasn’t a real office day and I was living in the East Village at that time. She wasn’t placed yet in New York, so it was her London agency who had sent her to me. She was in town for something with her mom. Her agent called and said, “I know it’s a holiday, but would you see this girl, we think she’s really special.” I actually still have those polaroids, sometimes people ask to borrow them. I thought, “Wow! that’s a really special little girl.” Then I didn’t see her again for a year or so and she was placed. Then I thought about just very special girls that the first time I saw and you knew wow these are really special girls… Natasha Poly, you know the first time she arrived, the first show season she ever did, you were really like she is special. Karmen Pedaru was the same way. Those are who I thought of.

..I think originally there was a very narrow definition physically of what a model should be. I think that has definitely broadened for sure because even though people outside of the industry would not agree with this comment, I would say that the difference in body type and height and all of that is much more inclusive now than it was fifteen years ago and twenty years ago.

As far as with the brands that you are working with specifically is there a trait of the moment that everyone is looking for? And is that trait broadening?

Of this moment, that’s a hard one to say. I think there are different defining traits of the moments. I think that gets into a whole bigger question, that is, shorter careers and faster turnover and more models. Yeah, I mean I think originally there was a very narrow definition physically of what a model should be. I think that has definitely broadened for sure because even though people outside of the industry would not agree with this comment, I would say that the difference in body type and height and all of that is much more inclusive now than it was fifteen years ago and twenty years ago.

Well about the pace, I’m sure you noticed designers voicing their frustrations with the pace, but how does that – or is it ever going to – trickle into the casting process? Girls getting younger, and hot girls lasting for fewer seasons….is it going to be cyclical? Will it go back?

I think for now we’re in a spiral, you know? I did think about that and I’ve been asked this question before, just the idea of how the girls get so much younger and how they come in so much faster and yeah it definitely has to do with the speed of fashion. As I understand the speed of fashion relates to basically needing to get new product into stores, so everybody has a shorter attention span, so you keep needing to refresh the stores. Which is why the pre-collections and smaller seasons, the transitional seasons, have become more important. It used to be there were two seasons, spring and fall, and that would linger for a couple months on a store’s racks. But now every six weeks there needs to be new deliveries and designers need to sell that stuff so they need to produce collateral material to go along with it. So it’s not just about designing a collection in however many weeks, but you need to shoot the collection, for the bigger brands you need to shoot ad campaigns, you need to shoot lookbooks that are being distributed to buyers and… but I think we are getting off track…

A bit, but do you think consumers are even paying attention to the models the way the insiders are obsessing over these new girls?


So is it all fabrication in a way?

Not fabricated, but I think it serves different purposes. For some people it’s a matter of inspiration, they need new faces to feel inspired, right? So that’s different than for the consumers. I don’t think necessarily a model is chosen–of course a model is chosen with the ultimate purpose of appealing to the consumer–but also the photographer, stylist and designer are looking for inspiration. With Victoria’s Secret it is very different. With much larger brands it’s very different also, even including celebrities. Like Dior and all their various celebrity ambassadors for all their fragrances and handbags. I think those people are chosen to directly connect with a consumer on a recognition level. But, all said, it’s much harder for the models to have the opportunity to develop the kind of career that would allow them to become recognizable to mass audiences.

Let’s go into this question, I’m curious, when you’re talking with your clients how many of them are basically asking to make sure to get girls with a large social media presence. Is that something you deal with most frequently?

Right now I would say none of them, however everybody is aware of it. I don’t think any broad decisions are being made, like bring me only girls with more than this many followers. But I think people are certainly conscious of it. Absolutely.

It will only help the model’s cause I’m sure.

Yeah. You can’t ignore it. The thing is it’s entertaining and everybody knows.

Back when you first started, what was the difference in that development stage?

When I first started there were definitely fewer choices given because everything was smaller. When people did shows they did shows with much smaller casts of models. It was the norm twenty years ago to have twenty girls in a show. Sometimes part of that was budgetary. Everybody wanted to book Cindy Crawford and Linda and Nadja Auermann and they were expensive. So you know we can do the show with fourteen models. We’d make it work. Now you have shows with many more girls. So I think this ties into it because that didn’t just happen over night. Casts started getting bigger and bigger and I think one reason was that you had models that you loved, but you also want to embrace the new. So, “Let’s just book a few more models, and lets just book a few more” It’s hard to say no to the ones you love. Michael Kors is a perfect example of that because now we do the show with close to fifty girls and we used to do that show with literally fourteen to seventeen girls. The other side of that is it’s kind of nice to have more girls because it makes your backstage less chaotic. That frenzy of the backstage kind of doesn’t exist anymore to a certain degree. When you were doing those shows with fourteen girls they were wearing like four or five looks and you would be screaming for girls and trying to do a line up. Now it’s very controlled.

Do you miss it at all?

I wouldn’t say I miss it, it was a different time. Like anything it’s going to change. Most of the time it doesn’t need to be judged good or bad – it’s just going to change. That was then and this is now. It’s a reflection of where we are today. I want to say something else, after I read your question something else came to my mind which is about, which ties into this–when you have more models then, in a way, less are going to have longevity, because there are not enough jobs to support that many models. Let’s say not that many visible jobs to support that many models. So on the one hand, I was thinking about how great it is, one of the most excellent things I think about the way things have sped up is how inclusive it’s made things. Because scouts have to scout more, and it made me think in a way the definition of beauty has broadened because twenty years ago there was a very small definition physically. Models had to be a minimum of 5’ 9” and ideally they were 5’ 10” and 5’ 11” and they were a certain body size. There’s a very practical reason for that which is that designers were making samples in one size so people needed to be a sample size. And now with the pace, one nice benefit of it, has been that the kind of idea of what is beautiful has also broadened and expanded. I think that’s a good thing. That’s just one part of it.

Inclusion has improved already in the last year and I think it’s because people are taking people to task for it. Just think like anything, education and talking about something makes it better and does improve things.

Do you think that plays into diversity in casting as well? I want to call it over saturation, which one side effect is careers tend to be shorter, but is a positive byproduct the creation of opportunity?

Diversity and racial diversity is a separate issue and a really important one. So yes that can be included in, but I think the racial diversity issue is also its own issue and I didn’t mean it inclusive of that– in some regard but it’s also its own thing.

If you had to predict five years down the line, where will you think racial diversity will be?

I would like to think that it will continue to improve. I do think it’s improved already. Inclusion has improved already in the last year and I think it’s because people are taking people to task for it. Just think like anything, education and talking about something makes it better and does improve things. People are conscious of it now. We did go through a time where people like us let it slide and nobody spoke about it and we ended up in a very, really, glaringly, white world. So it’s good that it has started to be talked about, like Bethann [Hardison] and others have come and pushed it along and keep the conversation going. Let’s keep it going, I do believe in five years it will be even better.

I picked five years because over just this past year, although it’s still a long way to go, just the amount of dialogue has been exponential in a way, so I think in five year there could be a lot of change.

I’m going to think positively about it.

My job and I think the job of a casting director is that of a first set of eyes, and of an editor, because the client can’t see all those girls.

Let’s talk about Victoria’s Secret a little bit. My question was when you began formulating the lineup for this year what was your goal on how to make it the most current?

You know I think the very basic definition and the idea of a Victoria’s Secret model has remained pretty consistent over the years. Models have come in and out of that and I think that definition just reflects the times. So we didn’t go into this casting saying we need to have this many new girls, I cast the net pretty widely. I really take the time after Paris ends and go back to New York and I start seeing girls for Victoria’s Secret. I’m happy to see everyone, you know, even though sometimes I’ll go, “Really? You want me to see them for this?” So…I see a lot of girls. My job and I think the job of a casting director is that of a first set of eyes, and of an editor, because the client can’t see all those girls. As a casting director your client entrusts you with the mission of bringing to them the best girls that they should be seeing. I will say though, I’m kind of given a rough guideline. We do two days of final call backs and that’s when the whole VS team is there. And it’s two four hour windows on each day and you can only see a certain number of girls. Those go sees as opposed to what I was saying earlier, we really appreciate the effort the girls make for that casting, so we actually spend some time with the girls. Not just the 30 second hi-thanks-for-coming. Also we want to engage them because the Victoria’s Secret team wants to know something about the girls. They want to know where they are from and who they are. That comes into play and we kind of want to get a sense of what else they can bring other than being beautiful. The guidelines are always kind of the same.

Candice Swanepoel at 16
Everyone knows, in essence, what the Victoria’s Secret girl is. So it’s like a director coming in to a television show that has already been on air for many years and doing an episode.

This year was very unique in that there are sixteen contract models now, fifteen for VS and one for Pink. There have never been that many under contract for the brand at one time. We know going into it how many looks there are going to be because people have been working on this literally, I will tell you that there’s a recap meeting this week for next year’s show. In January things will go into production. It’s a huge production, people work on it for a long time. So by the time October rolls around we have an idea in our mind how many models it’s going to be. That is a guideline. Last year we had 47 girls in the show which is more than we had ever had in the show. And this year we said we certainly can’t have more than that, so 47 was the max. I actually thought we would have less, but we did end up with 47 girls. As with other jobs, and shows, we met new girls that were great, but you also have all the girls that you love and you have the models that are under contract. So it is a pretty contentious final deciding process. I think the hardest decisions are who you are not going to take because you definitely want to refresh. So yes there is the idea that you want to have new girls in that haven’t done a show because that keeps it new and it has to happen, but because we weren’t going to do it with 50 or 55 girls you do have to say no to other girls. That’s what I meant to the ones you are going to say no to are the hardest decisions. There’s no mandate like we must have this many of this, this many new girls, this many Brazilians. It’s very organic. The final decisions are made by a very small group of people. Four people.

Do you ever have to fight for a girl?

You have to get four out of four votes to be a sure thing. If there are three yeses and one is a no, then yes I fight for girls.

Generally do people trust your opinion now at this point, I’m sure?

I hope so [laughs]. I presume so!

Of course it has been going on for so long now, that I’m sure you all have it down.

And the team has stayed the same for a long time. The core team, our bosses…

When did you start?

Sixteen years ago. Sophia Neophitou, the stylist, this was her fifth or sixth year, so you develop a rhythm, an understanding and how to work with each other. There are sometimes surprises too, like people you thought were going to be a sure thing for me and then, “No, that can’t be!”

Apart from VS which is kind of a whole different machine all together, what kind of shows are your favorite to cast?

I’m very lucky because I have clients that I really really like and clients that I’ve worked with for a really long time, so what’s changed for me in my career in recent years is I used to do a lot of shows and now I do fewer shows, that are really important to me. So the short answer is all of my clients right now are my favorite things to do because I’ve been able to edit that list. I’m not saying that in a cheesy way. I especially love working with Michael Kors and with Tomas Maier at Bottega Veneta. These are two people that I’ve been with for a very long time. I had a very very close and fond and sweet relationship with Donna Karan and this is my first season not doing Donna because she stepped away from business. So there was no Donna Karan show and I worked on that show for seventeen years. So that was a big change for me. It opened up a lot of time on my schedule which was bitter sweet. I joked about it a lot with agents, because one thing about Donna shows, one thing about her, like a few designers, is she liked to refine it all the way up until the end. So very famously there were always before the show midnight and one AM evening gown fittings. It was always evening gown fittings. I made that joke with a few, “But who will be fitting the evening gowns at 2 AM this season?”

Do you have a specific method of cataloguing all these go sees you do?

Well, I have a really weirdly photographic memory so I actually just catalogue people in my mind. Also because for any given job even if you allow yourself a pool of 300 models that’s already more than you’re ever going to book. But just a mental catalogue and I think your website is a very valuable resource because you can jog through it. But I have a mental idea, kind of like I can recall phone numbers. Now there are twenty plus women’s agencies in New York and men’s agencies on top of that. And I work in London, Milan and Paris. When ever I’m in a city I can recall phone numbers and dial them. You don’t have to now but I can pick up a land line and dial [#######] for Women in Milan…

The last question is if you had to give advice to a model on leaving an impression…

Do your research and be educated and know as much as you can about where you’re going and who you are seeing and what you’re doing.

That’s really pragmatic advice for a model to hear.

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5 Comments to “John Pfeiffer”

  1. Seth Sabal says:

    John is a class act, It is always a pleasure to work with him.

  2. Mark Pfeiffer says:

    That’s my baby brother; we’re all very proud of him…and there are a lot of us in John’s extended family.

  3. i knew John back in San Francisco in the late 80’s early 90’s before he moved to NYC. So happy to read this article, you have done very well John.

  4. Calvin says:

    I wish they asked this guy how Kendall Jenner got in without auditioning while there are girls who have walked for VS before still need to audition. So much for the expertise in casting!

  5. Marinos says:

    Such a boring and predictable cast at Victorias secret. I understand your urge at to have fascinating articles about sexy girls and all this frenzie going on in the media about special VIP people but dont underestimate your readers.