A cloudy Wednesday morning did nothing to quell the energy at Premier Modelling Management – the life-long project of former model Carole White.
Bright, white walls were lined with pictures of beautiful people, almost striking enough to distract from among the most unconventional of office pets – a lizard perched on a small tree. The green reptile, clearly beloved by the agents in the office, takes frequent excursions to sit on the shoulders of various employees. Just a small facet of the vibrancy of the place.
The modern and luxurious office was filled with talks of high-brow sponsorships, massive brands and expensive items as models strut in and out. One gets the feeling that they’re among something big, surrounded by passionate people well in their element.
Sitting down in White’s half-glass office, walls donned with yet more images of people who undoubtedly won the genetic lottery, it was surprisingly difficult to be intimidated, thanks to the humorous, kind and inviting atmosphere created by the former model. Even at 72, she could not be more of a chic and energetic character.
She sits back on the black leather sofa with her feet propped up on the coffee table and gets into the tale of her extraordinary life beginning with her start at Lucy Clayton Modelling School – the same place that trained Jean Shrimpton. “I learned how to walk with a book on top of my head and I learned how to get out of the car without showing my knickers because it was around the time when short skirts were really short. I learned how to do makeup – full makeup, eyelashes, fake hair, all that.”
In the late 60s agencies were only an option once you have finished modelling school. Since it was the early days of modern fashion photography models were also their own stylists, makeup artist and hairdressers: “You had to have tongs, false eyelashes, the right underwear, really high court shoes, hair pieces. You did your own hair and makeup.”
She then explains she quit modelling because she felt she was “rubbish” at and talked about her days working as a secretary which also did not last long, “I was rubbish at typing.” It wasn’t until she applied for a job as an agent at an employment agency which hired girls for exhibitions, when she finally felt like she found her true calling, “I did that for about a year… my boss came down to see my parents to say how good I was at my job.”
She worked as a trainee agent in the very school at which she studied modelling, to learn how to be a modelling agent but it wasn’t until she got a job at Bobtons, an old London modelling agency, that she finally learned how to spot a not just beauty but a true model. “The average man in the street thinks everyone is blonde and blue eyed but they don’t understand it. Good models are big tall gangles that probably played netball at school…”
For White, a model is not always a conventional beauty but also has to be unique. The desired ‘look’ is always fluctuating and changing thanks to centre of the fashion universe: the shows. “Each season the look changes and people don’t even realise it being slowly introduced,” White continues, “for example bombshell to alien. In that way your eye adjusts as an agent.” She adds on with a laugh, “The public don’t even realise they’re being brainwashed.”
White founded Premier with her brother in 1981 after Bobtons closed. She knew what the business was about and most importantly she knew how to scout – which is actually a talent in itself; “Not every agent can scout a girl on the street. Some can, some can’t but some have a talent for seeing it.”
Premier briefly partnered with Elite for 10 years after a second business proposal from John Casablancas, as White felt the first business proposal was less than favourable. “We told him to go away.” She explains, “We said we wouldn’t drop our name so we became Elite Premier because I knew these things don’t last forever. For 10 years we had Elite Premier and we had every single super model.” The agency looked after the biggest names in the industry: Naomi Campbell, Claudia Shiffer, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford. You name her, they’ve got her. Unfortunately the marriage of the two businesses did not last long and Elite’s name was knocked off after White bought the company back for only a pound. It was not a loss for Premier as White recounts, “We kept a lot of the girls, they were not malicious.” Nevertheless, White still has a high opinion of Casablancas, as she remembers him as “very charistmatic man.”
In the 1990s, life was truly on a up for White, and not just professionally, as she recalls a particular South Africa trip with some of the most famous people on the planet including Nelson Mandela, Quincy Jones, Mia Farrow, and Naomi Campbell. “We were all stuck on this train and I said to the woman organising it, ‘I will come with her (Campbell) but can I have my own bunk carriage? and she agreed.” She continues, “And I got there and I was sharing with Naomi and the wardbrobe was tiny… We went through the countryside and we went to Cape Town and then we stayed at a hotel and Mandela was there and we were all dancing.”
In 2011, Channel 4 filmed The Model Agency which followed White and her colleagues as they dash around the globe during show season. The producer came to knock on White’s office door three times before she agreed to do it, “The producer sort of talked for a long time and she really wanted to do this and I didn’t know I really wanted to.”
Since it was going to be broadcasted on television around the globe, there were also a lot of rules, as White recalls with a laugh, “There were certain things you can’t say. They put a line between the buildings and they had people there listening. We weren’t allowed to say various things – so of course we did.” All of the staff, bar one whom did not agree to be in it, were mic-ed up. The only place where the filming crew did not put microphones was the toilet. White comments, “During this tv programme we’d look up and go, ‘We’re hungry! Can we have a pizza and a bottle of vodka?’ And it would appear.”
The decision to broadcast the everyday workings of the agency was very powerful for Premier as the program was even aired in Australia, Canada and certain countries in Europe. White says, “People would come from Australia and film us and ask for our autograph. We’d be in a restaurant and they would approach us.”
The programme was helpful in not just training new agents in various agencies around the world but to show the world what being a modelling agent really entails. White says, “People don’t know what we do because it is considered as quite a frivolous job, were not brain surgeons. It’s actually a very important job for young people because you can take them from an uninspired future to something that can give them enough money to buy themselves and their granny an apartment.”
It was impossible to be sitting in the same room as someone who achieved so much in fashion without asking for advice. White says, “In fashion, the driving force is how passionate you are about it. Im very old but I still love my job, I find it exciting. It changes everyday, it’s like a crossword puzzle. You have to solve things. Everything is last minute in fashion and you’ve got to love it, and breathe it, and you’ll be successful.”