New Pandemics is the Model Agency Shattering LGBTQIA+ Stigma

All photos by Richard Kern

In a world more connected than ever, diversity in all its forms should be an expected given. It should be even more likely in the fashion industry, a trillion dollar global business, comprised of people from all walks of life, that has purported itself as the cultural bosom to the marginalized. Yet, for models that identify themselves within the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, reality is quite different from expectations. As we learned in a recent forum, stories stuck out of agents and managers advising models not to come out to clients in fear of losing clients. Enter the self-described agency shape-shifter, New Pandemics, which looks to end the stigma and boost representation of the LGBTQIA community all in one. On the brink of New York’s Pride festivities this weekend, spoke to New Pandemics owner, Cody Chandler, and models Mecca Mozelle and Isaac Cole Powell to discuss Chandler’s motivation to start his own agency, how homophobia can be rampant even in an industry that profits off of LGBT creatives, and why queer representation matters.

Let’s start at the beginning, how did you first get into fashion and casting?
It was really by circumstance – my experience was originally in casting for the film industry. When I made the move to New York years ago as a wide-eyed naive boy from South Carolina, I was introduced to casting director, Barbara Pfister, through my stint at The Journal Magazine and the rest is history. I ended up working on numerous campaigns with her over the years.

What was the catalyst for going from casting to repping your own talent?
I realized when I conceived the idea for New Pandemics that just an LGBTQIA casting agency wasn’t enough. Since I wanted to cast new faces, I felt they would need support and guidance to navigate the landscape and avoid many common pitfalls in the industry. One of those being creating a career based on image alone-you’ll notice the majority of those managed under NP have an array of interests and skills not limited to the fashion industry. My goal is to allow them to use modeling as a platform to pursue their unique interests in whichever ways they choose.

Do you still think there is a stigma in being open about your sexuality or gender identity in the fashion business?
Indisputably yes. I wish I could say that’s just my humble opinion, but it’s a solid fact first-handily from accounts of numerous friends, acquaintances, and models. Marginalization would seem to be an anomaly in fashion, as it’s widely expected for many designers and those involved in the industry to fall somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. I think that’s where things get hazy, a large presence of Queer individuals in the industry doesn’t grant a Queer-friendly environment. Many of the agents who have advised models I know personally to stay closeted with the fear of losing job opportunities are in fact very openly gay themselves. It’s time to shift the narrative and stop perpetuating the belief that coming out equals a compromised career, let’s instead let our default response be one of empowerment.

“…a large presence of Queer individuals in the industry doesn’t grant a Queer-friendly environment. Many of the agents who have advised models I know personally to stay closeted with the fear of losing job opportunities are in fact very openly gay themselves.”

Why do you think visibility is so important in fashion, and culture as a whole?
Advertising has classically represented society’s shared albeit distorted version of the ‘ideal.’ Promoting visibility by putting Queer figures in prominent positions and ad campaigns stomps out marginalization and bullying – it also makes the demoralizing experience of coming out much more bearable for so many. The fact that films like Love Simon even exist and are being woven into the cultural fabric is really encouraging for the future. It’s time for those of us involved in fashion to follow suit.

What do you think the industry needs to improve on to get closer to being authentically diverse?
I think it’s very clear by observation alone that our ads and representations of figures in media don’t add up to the greater sum of those around us. We have to realize that being in positions of power or creativity comes with responsibility-that what we produce inadvertently has a ripple effect. I think as humans at our core we are all inherently good and want to do good, part of this means taking an inventory to make sure we’re cultivating an environment which not only values the masses but the unique individuals who make up our society as well.

How easy is it to find a viable talent pool and make sure that your agency represents everything? Is that even something that you inherently set out to do or more organic?
It’s a conscious effort and intrinsically important to the core values of New Pandemics as a company. It’s definitely a process and a work in progress, but not a hard one.

How do you go about choosing talent? Do they have to have a special “something”?
First and foremost, the talent signed to the agency tend to be charismatic and passionate in their own pursuits. That’s not to discount the wallflowers also notably represented on the board as well. If I said there was a unique formula and criteria for selecting talent that wouldn’t be true, but what you will find with everyone represented is authenticity and sincerity. I can honestly say there are no mean girls, they are all very supportive of one another.

“We have to realize that being in positions of power or creativity comes with responsibility — that what we produce inadvertently has a ripple effect.”

How do you want the company to evolve?
New Pandemics will continue to challenge the status quo, to expand the board and broaden the horizons of inclusivity. I also want to make it clear that despite having an embedded and sincere social purpose-New Pandemics is in no way falling into the territory of what I would call faux-lanthropy. NP will continue to push aesthetic boundaries in design and the very definitions that contextualize what it simply means to be an agency. It was born out of provocation, artistic integrity, and a nod to the LGBTQ+ figures of the past who paved the way and even afforded us the conditions for this agency to exist. New Pandemics is a shape shifter-so expect the unexpected.

Mecca Mozelle
Pronouns: she/her

How important was it to get signed by an agency that lets you freely express yourself like New Pandemics? How did you get connected/scouted/signed?
My individuality is what makes me, me. I feel that when I’m unable to express myself 100% it not only hinders my growth but my journey of life as well. When I received an email from Cody I was ecstatic to know that a project was in the works that would be completely devoted to the LGBTQ community; within the agency itself and also physically in the LGBTQ community. It was made very clear to me that the individuals that were scouted for New Pandemics were not only picked because we are all beautiful individuals but because we had morals, stood for something, and carried ourselves in ways that aren’t represented enough. I was always nervous that I was never good enough for the modeling world, but New Pandemics has given me the confidence and platform for not only my face to be seen, but for my voice to be heard as well.

Who are your heroes?
I’d have to say that my heroes are Eartha Kitt, Adwoa Aboah, and on a personal level my “fairy godmother” Monira. Eartha Kitt and Adwoa Aboah are my biggest inspirations, they are strong women who have been through things, they’re believers, survivors and most importantly are transparent. Having such a huge platform and still having the guts to remain authentic is heroic. And as for Monira … she is a family member who has never given up on me and has always helped me out at my worst (also the one who forced me to walk down a runway in 6th grade)

How crucial is representation in the industry and what would you like to see improved?
Representation in the industry is probably one of the most influential methods of connecting with an audience and having an effect on everyday people. I think seeing more black, Asian, or Spanish women in Vogue, a queer individual as the main character in a show, or an openly gay black man on the cover of GQ would break barriers, it would inspire the next generation. A way that the industry can improve on representation is to stay consistent. Show LGBTQ individuals not only during pride month, use more diverse individuals for covers and campaigns, and in many other ways continuously give hope to people who are on the outside.

Have any of your notions of the industry changed since you’ve started out?
Yes, truthfully I have always been nervous about what the industry would be like (thanks to the movie The Devil Wears Prada). But the commitment, creativity, and hard work that goes on behind the scenes is amazing and almost unbelievable at times.

As a mental health advocate, what lesson do you think the fashion industry needs to learn the most?
I think the fashion industry needs to learn the importance of dialogue about Mental Health, whether it be through visual art or verbal expression. There are many powerful creatives within the fashion industry, and I think that if delivered the correct way – campaigns and advertisements could communicate many messages that may lead people to think more for themselves and for the people surrounding them. Almost like Mental Health Propaganda. What I learned most about Mental Health awareness is that in order to improve all the negative factors that happen as result of not taking care of your mind, it requires being informed, motivated, and transparent about the topic. And thankfully, the fashion industry has the platform to communicate that.

Can you talk about your personal journey with mental health and expressing its importance?
My Mental Health Journey has been a rollercoaster but I have come very far. I have battled with depression for many years and developed major anxiety along the way. I have now been diagnosed with Manic Depressive disorder, which is a huge reason why I decided to begin my mental health movement #imwithyou; to improve the direction in which my mental health seemed to be going. Daily, I practice my spirituality and have learned to cope with the struggles of everyday responsibilities which can be heavy on someone with my diagnoses and the symptoms that I continually face. But through much research, many personal failures and successes, and creating my own platform and opportunities to bring comfort to those who deal with similar circumstances like myself … I’ve grown into the empathetic, courageous and vulnerable woman I never thought I’d be. My mental illness is not all that I am, my personal journey has shown me that. And with all the effort I have invested to improve my mental health, I’m able to tell my story and have opportunities that come along like with working with New Pandemics.

Isaac Cole Powell
Pronouns: he/him

Do you feel like models are discouraged to be open about their sexuality and gender identity?
Not anymore or at least not in my experience. The premise of New Pandemics is founded on embracing our queer identities as assets in the industry. I’ve only experienced encouragement.

Who are your heroes?
Barack Obama, my parents, Eartha Kitt, anyone who lives outside the box, anyone who speaks out against social injustice, Jonathan Van Ness, public school teachers

Have any of your notions of the industry changed since you’ve started out?
I had a notion of the word “model” which brought to mind a white man with a razor-sharp jawline, piercing light eyes, pouty lips, a barrel chest, great hair, perfect skin, and abs for days. Because that’s the man in every ad and store window at the mall in my hometown. But now my idea of a model is much broader and inclusive and I feel like it carries more significance because of how vital diverse representation is now.

How important was it to get signed by an agency that lets you freely express yourself like New Pandemics? How did you get connected/scouted/signed?
Extremely important. I don’t think I could have done it otherwise. I always thought to be a model I needed to look and act a certain way, be something other than my natural self. But when NP scouted me on Instagram, I was assured that my individuality was the appeal and that’s why I signed with them.

What more do you think needs to be done in order to boost representation of the LGBTQIA community?
I’m beginning to see more representation thankfully but now I think that the community and its allies need to do all they can to give support when we see ourselves represented. How long have we waited for a TV show like Pose? This show is providing career vehicles for trans actresses of color so now it’s our job is to support and watch that show so that more opportunities for representation can continue to arise. We have to send a message that our community isn’t just trending, it has longevity. We’re here to stay.

Congrats on Once On This Island‘s Tony Award! As a creative working with a diverse cast, can you talk about your experience working on a production that was out of the box? Is there anything the fashion industry can embrace from OOTI’s message?
Thank you!! The experience has been otherworldly. It’s been the most creatively fulfilling experience I’ve ever had as an artist. It’s rare to see something this unique on a Broadway stage. We’ve bent gender with some of the castings, we’ve got non-binary actors taking on major roles, and a rainbow of cultures and races onstage together every night. I think the fashion industry could take a note from the lyric in our final number “our lives become the stories that we weave.” Fashion representation tells a story and sends a message to everyone who sees it. I think those in power have a responsibility to weave a story of inclusion so that everyone can see themselves represented in fashion. And thankfully, I feel that story is finally beginning.