Come the 90’s and the supermodel business was booming. It would continue to do so and Marilyn had rooted herself as a power player– signing, among other stars for Paris, the controversial waif who broke the mold, Kate Moss–then still a fresh faced newcomer. The demand was changing, and Marilyn was its perceptive accomplice, always seeking the most modern (and intelligent) beauties. She would also be the first to open a celebrity division and 12 years after opening Paris, its New York doors would open in 1997. Models.com’s own Betty Sze had, at one point, worked there under Marilyn, so fittingly, she sat down with Gauthier to talk agency-shop.
Interview by Betty Sze
Below portrait and text by Steven Yatsko for Models.com
Photographs courtesy of Marilyn Gauthier
I like her personally, too. I like very much Helena Christensen and Carla Bruni. Naomi Campbell, too, I always had a great relationship with her, she was always very nice. I say that because some people might say the contrary, but no, she is very nice and faithful and generous. We had so many models, I’m not good with names. And Stella Tenant I like very much, Stella was incredible.
It’s funny, because all of those girls are still working! It’s not only looks – there are plenty of beautiful women.
I’m going to say we’ve been lucky, because all of those top models, and I’m not just saying this to be nice, they are great personalities and great human beings. A very important person in this time is Ines de La Fressange, she was with me for many years, and was very faithful. When the agencies separated she came naturally. She was in the era of the first intelligent, having-personality models – not just a model who would smile. She really brought something else to the business and the runway. She got the first big contract with us, with Chanel. It was was one of the first big fashion contracts a model ever got.
She is so French, she was perfect for Chanel.
Yes. Carla was just after that. She is also so very French, she is the “Parisienne”.
You were doing so phenomenally well in Paris, when did you decide to open in New York?
It was the late 90’s, in 1997.
What were the differences that you felt between Paris and New York? The market, the clients, etc.? You traveled back and forth a lot.
Before, the market was all Paris, but by the 90’s it was Paris and New York. So we had to be there for our models. We wanted to start small. We opened an office in another agency, it was Wilhelmina at the time, but we had our own office that was totally separated. We wanted to start like a French agency opening in New York, more editorial. Our model portfolios were different at the time, they were more editorial than many of the books of the girls in New York. We came a bit with our own way of working, which is closer to the clients and less commercial. Many people used to love to see our books, and to have more editorial girls available, you know. Before, we used to do a lot of bookings to New York direct from Paris, without having an agency in New York. The models were paid even more because they were coming from Paris, but there were just too many clients in New York. New York was becoming too important in the fashion world. We had to open in New York to be on the market. That’s the only difference I would say–we had more personal relationships coming from Paris.
You already had the name. Did the Marilyn Gauthier name already opened the doors for you here?
Yes, yes, yes.
What were some of your proudest, or most memorable, moments in the agency? Booking the Ines-Chanel contract was one of them. What else?
Oh there were so many! Much more recently we booked two girls for the Estee Lauder campaign at the same time.
When did you start booking celebrities? At the same time?
No, before New York. At the time we were the only model agency to open a celebrity agency. We opened with sports people. It was sports in the beginning. The only other agency connected to a model agency was IMG. Our idea was more to book for fashion, and to mix top models with top celebrities. We were representing at the time the French soccer team, who were world champions at the time.
The whole team?
More or less. The most important people like Zidane, and then, of course, they all wanted to be with us, because they liked the idea of a model agency. We were very honest, we were always paying them. All kinds of people were around these famous soccer players, and they all wanted to give them contracts, but it was never really clear. So we were an agency for them, but with just a separate division.
What was that called?
It was still Marilyn. Marilyn Sport and Celebrity.
When you opened up in Paris there were not that many women owners…
In the 80’s this was a men’s business, that’s for sure.
So there was Eileen Ford in New York, Sarah Doukas started in late 80’s in London.
There was City, and there was a small agency called Femme too. But otherwise it was a business of men, and the mentality, I could not really handle it, I must say. Because men who did this job at that time had no artistic reason. At City, in fact, I was supposed to go to part-time, and then I didn’t, because I ended up being a partner at Delphine.
What about that, was it all women?
After Prestige we made that agency called Delphine. We were 3 women, and we were 50/50 with a backer. He was just a backer, he was not involved except on the numbers.
But in terms of agencies, when you were one of the few women owners…were there other ones?
No, just those 2, and smaller agencies. Big agencies were men. There were good small agencies and the mentality was different. Little by little you could see, and speak to parents abroad, it was a good argument to be a woman. Things changed too.
When you opened in New York it was more about the style?
Exactly. When we opened our agency it was more editorial, more about the aesthetic, beautiful books– not commercial. When we first opened everybody was so nice. We were representing very important models, too. But we started strong right away. Small, that was my idea. I thought we should start small and get bigger little by little, but not open big. It’s better to open small.
People always ask me, they find it strange that Wilhelmina would let a rival agency open in there. I said, they had a friendship, Dieter (owner of Wilhelmina at the time) and Marilyn, and it was different kinds of clients that they went after.
There was no competition. Dieter thought it was a good image for them, to have editorial on the same floor. We were totally separate financially, of course. We were friendly with the bookers on the other side and never felt any competition at all. For me, it was perfect because we were coming into a place where the office was working. We would use the accounting, the kitchen, whatever. We never had a dispute or anything, so it was a great deal for us. We stayed longer than we thought we would stay, 2 or 3 years.
I have to say, when I left to go to Models.com, that was in 2000, it’s now been more than 15 years that I’ve been here at this company…but, I was so annoyed that you moved into that beautiful office on Union Square AFTER I left!
Oh, I love that space! I think 7 or 8 years we stayed at Wilhelmina. Then it was time to go.
What are some of the biggest changes you see in the business?
Of course, what has changed most are the celebrities coming in and taking jobs of the models, of top models. The campaigns and covers of magazines, too. That has been a change. And now, when it is a really big campaign, people really look at how many people are following you.
Social media wise…
Exactly. That is very important for huge campaigns. And even some top models as we know, like Cara Delevigne for example, and they have a lot of people following them. It is very important now for many clients. I always thought it was important and always push the girl to work on making that. It’s why I hired PR. I always thought it was important that models be modern models, you know? And then after they could access something more. If you are a model, if you do your career intelligently, you have to make them talk about you. Personality too, of course…and then you reach another level.
I feel like before all the social media happened, you were one of those people who took on those women who were beautiful and gorgeous, but also had something extra to go on to do other things.
Definitely. I never liked girls who were just beautiful, with nothing in her face, nothing special in the eyes. If there is nothing going on in the eyes you will fall asleep. It has to be something. Of course if there is a strong personality, that’s better, but even without being such a strong personality, there has to be something. She can be beautiful, but with a twist, and there has something going through the eyes to say that she is alive, she is somebody, she is more. Then, you see, she can do a long career and have a better career. I never liked the ones who were thinking, “Oh, she can be a good catalogue model.” I never thought like that. Some agencies would have a big catalogue division to make money, the bread and butter. I never did, ever. All of a sudden you’ll see a girl, and it’s like, “Wow, this girl, she is going to make it.” Like Lindsey Wixson, it was the same thing. And Ines de La Fressange was really my image for a long time. Ines is beautiful, she is tall, she has the body of a model, she is intelligent, she is friendly. She was bringing something more to the fashion world. Karl Lagerfeld really liked her. She was very close to him for a long time, and other designers, of course. Carla Bruni is an incredible personality too, she brought something. Now she is a musician and doing a lot of things. You can see after, with these girls, what they do. Stella Tenant is still modeling a lot, and I knew she would model a lot for a long time, because she has that interesting physicality and intelligence. She brings something more intellectual. She brings something modern, she is still very modern. It’s amazing.
Is there anyone you have found, like in a subway, and developed? Kate, you brought her to Paris, who else?
Veronica Webb, found her in LA, and she started in Paris. Someone we found in Los Angeles was Tyra Banks! She has a TV show, she is very sexy. She is more famous now in TV and does a lot of TV shows. I was in the jury on the show once actually.
Oh you guys found her…I remember she was a big runway girl in Paris. When were you on the show? Recently, 5 years?
Oh it was more than 5 years ago! All the girls came to Paris. She brought them to the agency and I talked to them. It was all part of the show.
She was at Marilyn too?
Yes, when she was very young. So many girls have been with us, you have no idea.
It’s funny, because when I worked for you, there was always an image of the Marilyn girl: beautiful, sexy, but with a twist. And now I feel like the new supermodels have that.
Yes! Like Karlie Kloss, I think she is even more beautiful in person because of her personality. She is clever, intelligent and look where she is now! She is more than a model. And the younger sister of the Kardashians sister, Kendall, she’s done Estee Lauder.
So for you the next generation are girls like Lindsey Wixon and Karlie Kloss?
Exactly, Cara Delevingne, Liu Wen, who did Estee Lauder in China. She is so famous because she did a reality show. That’s clever, when they know what to do, and while staying a model. You need to do other things to make you more interesting. As you age you have to interest people, you have to go with the times, to do these kinds of things like tv shows. I mean, not something stupid, but do something that will make you more popular. Stand out and be competitive and you can last for years.
Who will always be a legend to you?
Kate Moss for sure. Kate Moss is an exception. People like her so much and young people love her. And that is incredible, because she is a bit older, of course, but she still has a look, and she is very modern. People always ask me about Kate Moss. She is a phenomenon and she has been a phenomenon for years. She is still here, still doing big things! She doesn’t age, she doesn’t have one wrinkle! She’s lucky. She naturally does what she needs to do to stay in the press and in the media. If she doesn’t they always catch her looking cool. She is definitely very cool, naturally.
And what’s next for Marilyn Gauthier?
For me personally? I have a new project. It’s in fashion because that’s my world. It has nothing to do with a model agency, but it is in the fashion world. I do have a blog out now, it’s marilyngauthier.info and I love to do that, I love to do videos, that’s fun for me.
I saw some of your interview videos.
Alber Elbaz for example, who is the easiest person to interview because he loves to speak and speaks so well. And I’ve interviewed Pierre Cardin because I love love what he does and he’s 93 and in great shape. I love everything he’s done–so much that people don’t even know, the new generation. He is a real true artist–not only the clothes, but the furniture and the architecture. I love what he does!
You say Pierre Cardin… it is a whole lifestyle, a whole era, that he embodied.
And that’s when you really know what he did. He was before a lot of people, who have been inspired by him. Now he is 93, so a lot of people are inspired by what he did.
Who are some of the people you’d like to interview for your blog?
I would love to talk to Anna Sui, for example. In New York, Marc Jacobs. In Paris, quite a few designers, of course. If I could find Thierry Mugler, I would interview him, even now that he is not in the business. I’ve interviewed Christophe Robin, the man who does hair color. I interviewed this woman who is in Paris, who I think is incredible, she is in Paris and she is very well known, she does lingerie. She comes to New York at least twice a year, maybe even more 4 times a year, to make fitting for her clients.
And who do you like to wear?
I wear a lot of Lanvin. I wear McQueen. This summer I wore a lot of Isabel Marant. I always look at Dries van Noten, sometimes I find things that I like. Oh, Rick Owens I wear. I like his sports collection. I’m always looking around and if I see a new designer it’s always exciting. I always look who is doing what and I buy what I like. It can be a young designer or not a designer. I love Jean-Paul Gautier…I can’t afford his haute couture, I wish I could.
But you have some of his stuff?
Of course! And I keep it!
That’s right because he does’t do ready-to-wear now.
And he is a genius of couture, but it’s very, very expensive.
And it is also not very practical. If you’re coming to meet me, you are not going to come in a couture dress.
I wish I could!