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What Makes a Great Catalog Model?

From the Madewell catalog to Gap's e-commerce site, model Michele Ouellet is the "real girl" model of the moment. But how did she, and others like her, get there?

Over the past few years, for a certain demographic of shopper,  26-year-old Elite model Michele Ouellet has become something of a virtual best friend. There she is in Gap's latest email promotion, in Madewell's seasonal paper catalog, in photographer Jason Nocito's "Live in Levi's" campaign. Her ash-brown waves are thick and shiny, her eyebrows are just bushy enough. She's beautiful in an approachable, if still untouchable way. The kind of "perfect" shoppers at Gap, and Madewell, and Levi's, want to be. That is to say, a great commercial model.

Money girls, as the industry likes to call them, have always been a big part of the fashion business, thanks to catalogs and campaigns. But e-commerce has increased their exposure. Now, instead of seeing Ouellet in a monthly magazine or a bimonthly catalog, frequent shoppers might see her face once or twice a day on various websites. (And that's not counting her popular Instagram account.) The advent of online shopping has made commercial models more valuable than ever for brands. "If the girl is selling [product], then they'll book her again and again," says Gary Dakin, co-founder of all-size modeling agency JAG, whose clients include Calvin Klein underwear campaign star Myla Dalbesio and Torrid-favorite Philomena Kwao. (Who "sells like crazy," according to the agent.) 

The look of a commercial model has changed, too. Sure, there are still blonde-haired, blue-eyed Cheryl Tiegs types surfacing, but more frequently than ever brands want their models to reflect their diverse customer base. "There are different ideas of beauty," says Dakin. "There's Lupita, and then there's Julia Roberts. And there's room for both now." 

Personality, too, is a big part of it. "I think people are interested in girls who have life experience," says Oullet, who started modeling as a teenager but took a break in her early twenties to start a wine company with her mom. "I need dynamic individuals," says casting director Jennifer Starr. (She also happened to cast Oullet in the Levi's campaign.) "I have everyone come to my office and I put them on tape. I ask a lot of questions. I make little films." As for what she's looking for, compared to runway castings? "I need a girl who moves super well, who has a killer smile, and who, in Michele's case for Levi's, filled out the jeans. It's completely different." 

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That's not to say editorial and commercial models don't crossover beyond Victoria's Secret Angels walking in the occasional Prada runway show. Jacquelyn Jablonski is as present in the J.Crew catalog as she is on the runway, while another J.Crew star -- RJ Rogenski -- has become a favorite of just about every men's magazine. (Oullet, too, appears in editorial and occasionally walks the runway.) "There used to be the show girls, the editorial girls, and then there were the money girls," Dakin says. "Now the money girls are walking. And the girls walking are shooting. The catalogs wanted to be cool, and the runways needed more mass appeal."

For Oullet, it's less about  a specific medium and more about having fun. "Normally, I play myself," Ouellet says. "But I'm open to being cast as a different character." Cast away.