Some borrowed money from their mothers and rose at 4 a.m. to take the early bus to New York City with the hope of beating the buff and brawny odds to become a male model.
More than 120 men lined up in Central Harlem Thursday for an open casting call by Wilhelmina modeling agency. The winner – to be chosen this month – gets a Wilhelmina modeling contract and an editorial spread in Bleu Magazine.
“This is an old school thing,” said Olga Tavarez, the main scout for Wilhelmina New York, noting that IRL casting calls have been largely replaced by the practice of trawling social media for new talent.
Tavarez, who grew up in Washington Heights, said the casting call — promoted on social media — was prompted by an exploding need for multi-ethnic models and her knowledge that “there’s a huge amount of beautiful multi-ethnic men who reside uptown.”
But the aspiring Zoolanders (men were required to be 6’1” or taller) came from all over the country.
Hasaan Keller, 23, came up from Washington D.C. on the bus. “I’m a starving artist just trying to make an income and praying for an opportunity doing something like this,” said Keller, who made $16 an hour as a Census Bureau phone canvasser. Keller, who boasted a modern, sculpted Afro, had artfully tailored and shredded his clothes into an appealingly kooky and youthful fashion statement.
Daniel Omphroy, Wilhelmina executive assistant, pronounced Keller a potential contender. “He’s beyond photogenic, to marketable,” said Omphroy, noting the assessment criteria is “the possibility we can make money off your look.”
But personality and experience counts, too, added Omphroy, who credited the election of Barack Obama in 2008 for the diversification of male model beauty norms. “The whole thing right now is the multi-racial look and multi-racial ambiguity. Because of the changing face of America, advertisers need to connect with a wide range of prospective consumers,” Omphroy said.
Jimmy Levar, 23 of Brownsville already had experience under his belt – and 13,500 Instagram followers. “I just did the Fall campaign for Armani: That was really cool,” Levar told Tavarez.
“Be sure to put that on the info sheet,” Tavarez urged.
Levar was making a go of being his own brand but showed up because “I need something bigger now. I’m not at the numbers (i.e. income) I’d like to be at.”
Levar was one of the few aspirants keenly aware that modeling is perhaps the only profession in the world where women routinely rake in multiples of whatever a man makes.
Did Levar have what it takes all the way? Tavarez was politely encouraging. “He has a very interesting, really cool, look. I love the hair – and he’s already done work on his own!”
The worst part the job, Wilhelmina employees agreed, is being an assassin of hope to those who, for whatever reason, don’t evince a look perceived to be marketable.
“I try to be very cautious and careful when I let people down. I understand it’s a very sensitive issue and they’re young,” said Tavarez. But, she continued, modeling “is a really hard, competitive business: Unless you can kill it, I don’t advise anyone getting into it.”
Rejecting people “is the worst part of all,” said Vivian Benitez, a scout from Wilhelmina LA: “You’re crushing someone’s dreams!” While only one person would be selected for the contract and photo spread, “at most, three,” would probably be identified as potential models for the agency, said Omphroy.
Many teenagers who wanted careers in the arts showed up just for the experience. “This is my first time doing something like this,” said Seymour Shaw, 16, a Lehman High School student who lives in Eastchester. “It’s really good experience to see how different this is from theatrical auditions. It’s quick and cool: No vocal warm ups!” Several contenders planned to become police officers if they didn’t wind up on a swimsuit shoot in the Maldives.
Dylan Grant, 24, a bartender who lives between Long Beach, L.I., and Williamsburg, was one of the few white guys to show up, and was asked to remove his shirt for his photographs. “I didn’t see anyone else taking their shirts off. I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” he said. Grant was unaware that Wilhelmina was looking for multi-ethnic models but was happy to toss his tee shirt into the ring. “To get paid to travel the world? It’s definitely attracting. But I’m also attracted to the art of modeling.” If it doesn’t work out, he plans to join the NYPD or become a professional golfer.
Most of the men were young, and at that age where careers are selected — a scary prospect in an era when salaries lag ever further behind the escalating costs of living. For many, showing up made more sense than a lottery ticket.
In the line that stretched outside the Rowhouse restaurant and snaked along the block, “there’s a little bit of competitive atmosphere — it’s surreal, actually,” observed Keller, who said he strove to “keep my emotions in neutral” in a setting that at times resembled an odd reality show.
But it was understandable that a lot of men wore ear buds, listening to music in their own individual sonic cocoons as they eyeballed their competition: “We all know what we’re here for,” Keller said.