Pretty in the Windy City

Kurt Soller

Growing up in Naperville, Jennifer McDonough dreamed of teaching elementary school. After earning two bachelor’s degrees, English and education, she sent out resumes. No success there. So she decided to go to her Northern Illinois University job fair as one last effort to find a teaching job.

And find a job, she did. But when it came time to work, the then 22-year-old had no textbooks, teaching plans or pre-teen students. Why not? Because McDonough had gone to that job expo as a college student looking for a teaching gig and left as a newly recruited fashion model. “Don’t ask me what they were doing at a career fair,” she says of the freelance agents who passed the 5-foot-9-inch redhead onto Ford Models, the world’s largest modeling agency.

Two months later, Ford sent her to work in Paris. Then Milan. Then Munich. Then Sydney. For new models repped by top agencies, Europe is a playground where girls (as they’re perennially called) can test out the runway and shoot editorial fashion spreads in avant-garde European magazines. Like a soldier at the end of a campaign, the mannequins return home with more skills, long client lists and, if they’re lucky, industry status and the American jobs that come with: Anna Wintour’s Vogue spreads, Marc Jacobs’ New York show and if they are truly “it,” household name recognition.

McDonough has none of these. That’s because she returned to Chicago. As the fourth-largest city for modeling in the United States (after New York, Los Angeles and Miami), the city is brimming with highbrow agencies like Ford and Elite and lowbrow but deep-pocketed clients like Kohl’s and Sears, Roebuck and Co. The two sides cooperate to form an industry entirely separate from New York’s edgy and elongated scene or Los Angeles’ bikinied and bronzed tastes.

In short, Chicago is America’s modeling Mecca. Sample sizes are a four instead of a zero. The client list, which largely includes Midwest department stores, fosters less competition and provides a consistency absent in runway modeling, which is based on a week long work schedule in each major city once per season (this week, for example, the men are sauntering in Paris). “Nothing pays better than a Versace shoot,” says Nick Shultz, a Northwestern senior with Ford’s Milwaukee division. “But if you work with Kohl’s or Verizon, they’ll use you over and over again. It’s a lot easier to get work out here.”

Shultz, who is earning a double-degree in voice with an ad hoc major in criminalistics, would know: He transferred from New York University after his freshman year. While in Manhattan, the 6-foot-1 prepster signed with a small agency that sent him to three castings weekly. During Fashion Week, he would occasionally walk for up-and-coming designers. When he became disillusioned with NYU, he transferred to Northwestern and signed with a small agency in Chicago that was subsequently bought out by Ford. He joined Ford’s Chicago division, thought it too anonymous, left the industry for a year and eventually found his way back through Ford Milwaukee, a smaller office based in his hometown. “Out here, it’s all about how good your smile is, how young they can make you look and how marketable you can be,” he says. “In the high-fashion market, they always use the word ‘edgy.'”

And “edgy” can push people over the edge. For McDonough, high-fashion modeling became stale as Ford jetted her to Paris and designers draped her in couture; neither paid the bills nor offered her stability. “Commercial work has been much more lucrative than the runway work – at least for me,” she says. “The learning experience was great, and how else could you travel the world at 22?” she asks before catching herself: “It’s definitely nicer to be home.”

As a Ford model, she isn’t allowed to disclose her exact salary, which is largely earned through catalog photoshoots. But she confirms it’s above the U.S. Department of Labor’s median estimate of $23,340 annually for models in 2006. The department estimates that the highest tenth percentile earns about $38,850 and the lowest tenth makes $15,960, which is on par with selling clothes at the local mall. Many have to provide their own health and retirement benefits, but might be eligible for cash advances from their agency. New models often go on photo shoots for free to build up a portfolio and they must maintain their look – new haircuts, for example – at their agency’s mandate but their own expense.

Like McDonough, Holland Rusch didn’t plan on modeling. While shopping for shoes in Morton Grove, a stranger came up to her and told her she was too tall (5-foot-11) to avoid her fate. She got in touch with a booker, set up photographs, and has had success with catalog modeling through several small agencies including Royal and BMG Talent Management. Though the 21-year-old augments her income with a different kind of modeling – she’s a Miller Lite Girl two nights a week – her career gives her enough income to pay her bills while working toward her bachelor’s degree, which she hopes to finish next year. So far, she’s done shoots for a Sears elliptical machine, a Londo Mondo bathing suit and a local television spot for Maybelline. Londa’s Bridal Design hired her to do an eight-hour shoot for its sewing catalog. She made $800.

Out in New York, haute couture comes with haute competition: Models vie for spots on Ralph Lauren runways with girls who’ve flown in from Buenos Aires or Kiev. There’s more potential to become the next Zeitgeist girl, but with more than 1,000 models in America’s fashion capital, success is even more unlikely. You’ll never be Giselle Bundchen or Gemma Ward or Cindy Crawford (who started off at Elite Chicago in 1985 before moving on) while you live in the Midwest, but you can have a lucrative fashion career – all without the meager salaries, weight issues, neurotic schedules and carnal cattiness that plague the model proletariat.

Take Elite model Holly Ridings. Like most models, she’s young, thin and beautiful. Instead of Kors runway shows, she does Kohl’s catalogs. You’ll see her on the walls of The Limited, not Louis Vuitton. She works about 35 hours a week, travels consistently and gets a break during the off-season in August. But Ridings is not your stereotypical model – She told Chicago magazine she makes $200,000 a year.

Compare this to Manhattan, where six-digit salaries are reserved for muses such as Jessica Stam (Canadian), Irina Lazareanu (Romanian) and 17-year-old Chanel Iman, a California-native who travels with her mother for Fashion Week in New York. Then London. Then Milan. Then Paris. Those girls can earn $100,000 a week as they travel from city to city and Pucci to Prada. But the models they share the runways with – anonymous waifs imported from the Ukraine or Brazil – might be paid in clothes, starved and replaced overnight.

Last February, the Council of Fashion Designers of America held a panel on eating disorders in response to accusations – we’re killing the girls! – flying in the industry after a Brazilian model died of anorexia. A Russian named Natalia Vodianova, fresh from her Vogue cover shoot, was there. “I come from a poor background,” she told the crowd. “I ate because I wanted to stay alive, and it never occurred to me to think of food in any other way.” Then she started dining with her coworkers. “At first I kind of sneered, thinking that this would never affect me. But as I began working, I began paying attention to my body shape for the first time … Eating was secondary. But I found a lot of new friends who were living the same lifestyle, and things were far too exciting to worry about.”

That’s the life Rusch is avoiding by staying in the heartland. “There’s competition and they go by your weight – that’s just the industry,” she says. “In Chicago, we’re thin. But in New York they’re … extremely stick thin,” At 5-foot-11, Rusch has a body that makes you question the line between thin and thin, making you think she’s influenced by the Zac Posens and Vera Wangs of the world. “There’s a whole new p
ressure out there because more designers work out of New York,” she says. “Chicago is trying to mimic that in some way by getting our models into the same shape.”

But even if Midwest models conform to the tiny shape of Vodianova, who said calling her 33-27-34 measurements normal would be “crazy,” they still wouldn’t have access to catwalks. In recent months, New York staples like Scoop and Intermix have opened in Chicago, confirming that the city does better with highly curated luxury stores than designers’ flagship boutiques. And for the most part, the moment an independent designer or Art Institute of Chicago fashion student gets buzzed, she heads to New York or Los Angeles. There, she can find the proper distribution channels, fashion publicists and, yes, models to inspire her vision.

Facing a dearth of designers, runway shows and editorial options, Chicago models rely on the catalog corporations, the occasional Neiman Marcus trunk show and Web sites like the Evanston-based Active Endeavors. The company, which closed their boutiques this week with plans to operate solely online, brings together designers from America (Rag & Bone), Paris (Catherine Malandrino) and Australia (Sass & Bide) to create one of Chicago’s only international brands. They’re often selling to clients in Los Angeles and New York, so they are an important vehicle for Midwest models, especially because only 2 percent of their shoppers are from this region. “We shoot models everyday as product comes into the Web fulfillment center,” says Abby Baine Dunn, the women’s buyer for the store. “We look for edgy young girls who emanate an overall of-the-moment fashion look.” She remains vague when describing the girls she works with, but says that Active hires Ford models because they “like to use the best Chicago has to offer.” In some cases, they’re looking for better. They have a special relationship with Katie Ford, the CEO, who allows them to work with New York girls and other “top models” when they’re in the city.

Neither Active Endeavors nor Sears, Kohl’s or Carson Pirie Scott & Co. (the three largest Chicago-area catalogs) release salaries for their models, but Shultz says the typical gig can pay anywhere from $300 to $1,500. And unlike the runway models who are scouted between the ages of 15 and 22 and work for three or four years before being upgraded to supermodel status or flung into complete obscurity, commercial print provides longevity as client relationships grow and customers switch from J.Crew to J.Jill. McDonough, who is too old for the runways because she is now 29, plans on keeping her bookings schedule consistent for the next few years, or as long as clients remain interested. Catalogs are in need of women of all types, so McDonough says her priority is to age gracefully. “If you’re working Kohl’s or Kmart, it’s all about how approachable you can look on camera and how normal, everyday you can look,” Shultz adds. “But by being, you know …”


“Yeah, that.”