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IMG's Jeni Rose and David Cunningham Talk Evolutions In Model Scouting

After 20-plus years in the business each, they should know.
Jeni Rose and David Cunningham. Photo: IMG

Jeni Rose and David Cunningham. Photo: IMG

To get a sense for IMG's position within the fashion industry, one only needs a quick look through the women's board on its website, which is filled with Vogue favorites (Andreea Diaconu, Lara Stone), Victoria's Secret Angels (Candice Swanepoel, Elsa Hosk) and uncontested legends (Kate Moss). In this arena, as well as in the production of New York Fashion Week, the modeling agency is a big damn deal.  

Now navigate over to the "development" board. There you'll find a host of youthful faces, relative newbies to the business. That's where Jeni Rose and David Cunningham, IMG's head model scouts, come into play. 

With a collective 41 years at IMG between them — Rose joined the company just a year before Cunningham did — they're something of an institution. On a sunny summer afternoon, I went over to IMG's offices to hear how Rose and Cunningham got their starts in the scouting business and how things have changed since then.

Going back a little ways, how did each of you get into scouting?

JR: I knew I wanted to work in the modeling business since high school. I was in boarding school, and I called them up and pretended that I was casting a shoot and I needed copies of their books [of models]. People [sent them], crazily enough. I went through and figured out who everyone was.

I ended up working at a fashion advertising company that basically did catalogs. They were probably booking $10,000 in model fees a month, which was huge. They had a guy working as the casting director, and I got hired as his assistant. 

Three weeks after I started, [the woman above me] was fired, and they asked me if I wanted the job. I said yes, I’ll take the job — at the same salary as my present job, which was probably a great deal for them. I had such a large [casting] budget that I was able to get any models in. Every single day we weren’t shooting, I would have a casting, and I would say to every agency, "Send me every single person you have who’s not working." I figured it was my job to know who everyone was. So I would have these huge castings with girls like Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford. It was fantastic to see every model on the market; it gave me an amazing perspective. 

I was doing a casting with a young American photographer who had spent a lot of time in France, and she said, "Who did you cast?" And I was like, "This one, that one," and she was like, "I don't want those. I want really cool girls. I want the cool girls from City in Paris." You never booked a model outside New York. I mean, why would you?

This photographer was really on to something. I started looking at these faces and why she picked those girls who had pale skin and jet black hair and really short haircuts when everybody else looked very traditionally, classically beautiful. It really expanded my horizons, and I realized I could find those sort of models. So I started working at an agency with a friend of mine, and then we opened our own little agency in New York. We were quite hip at the time. We were finding really cool people in general, and from there I moved to France and started at Ford, which was absolutely the diametric opposite of everything I was doing. It was great to have the start-up, young agency, and then to work for a very traditional agency.

David, how did you get your start in scouting?

DC: I always thought I was going to work in the arts, and moved to Paris to do my studies in art and art history. After I finished up there, it was right when the Berlin wall had just fallen. So my boyfriend at the time and I packed up — he had a motorbike — drove to Berlin and figured it out. I wound up working in construction and welding, because I knew how to weld from sculpture. I did that for six or seven months and figured out that Berlin wasn't where we wanted to live. So we moved back to Paris.

In the middle of the night, I got a call from Susanne Bartsch, who throws amazing parties. I had known her from New York and we had mutual friends. She said, "I was wondering if you would help me work on an AIDS charity benefit that we're doing called the Balade de L'Amour?" 

For the Balade de L'Amour, I was kind of the wrangler for all the English-speaking people who were walking the runway. The whole concept was that no models walked the runway — it was only celebrities and AIDS researchers. My group was hysterical. I had Boy George, Neneh Cherry, Jane Birkin and all these English celebrities who had come from London. They sent Kate Moss, who was still starting out. It was 1991. She was too embarrassed to go onstage, as was Kylie Minogue, so they were just kind of running around with me all night. 

I went to work as the assistant to the art director of a commercial film production company in Paris. He was a great guy and a friend of a friend, and he was on the committee for Balade de L'Amour. [He] didn't want to do casting, so he asked me to film all the models. I knew how to splice film together, and I would give him the casting reel and he would take it to the client. I'd done a couple with him, and as I would hand it in, I'd say, "She's going to get the job. She nailed it." And the customer always went with the person I thought was going to be it. 

On a Playtex commercial, the last model of the day was this girl named Tess. It was this ridiculous thing; they were in underwear, and they were pretending that they were diving into a pool. We laughed and laughed, and she said, "Want to go grab a drink?" So we did, and she said, "Why aren't you working at an agency? You should really be working at a modeling agency."

I went in to meet with Nathalie Cros-Coitton, who ran Partners in Paris at the time, and we instantly hit it off. By the time I got home, she had left a message on my voicemail saying, "If you're interested, I have a manager who's going out on maternity leave. You'll just be a manager and you'll sit right next to me and you'll make mistakes." She was great, so I said okay. I did that for a few months and by that time I liked the job. I really loved [models] going from zero to 100. 

That manager/booker at the time came back, and a guy who owned an agency in London approached me. So I wound up working in London for a bit. That was a nightmare, and I came back to Paris saying, "I will bartend and paint." And then a friend of mine called and said IMG just opened in Paris. I said, "Oh god, I’m not interested in that job." Then I realized that bartending at night is not super conducive to painting during the day. Like, you have to sleep at some point. 

I called Natalie, who by that time had opened her own agency. She was like, "I'd love to hire you but I don't have anything available, but IMG is going to be amazing. They're new, but you should really go talk to them." So Natalie called Jeni.

JR: I had opened IMG Paris with another person. IMG is an amazing company to work for, but they always give you what you need in retrospect. You go and do the job, and then they'll give you the staff. There were two of us and we needed another person. We had found a girl there, [who was] the first model I signed at IMG — she was on the cover of Italian Vogue seven weeks later... so they said, you guys can have staff. 

We got a phone call a day later. They said, "We know a guy, and he's great. He's American and he speaks fluent French... and he has working papers in France." Perfect. So David came in. The sun was high in the sky at that point, and when we finished talking, it was pitch black.

Fifteen minutes into our conversation I thought he had to work there, and if he didn't work there, he had to be my friend. So afterwards I was like, "When can you start?" And then you started the next week.

When you both got into the business, scouting was confined to a relatively small number of geographic regions. What did your strategy for entering new markets look like?

JR: You basically have to figure out the way to scout in each place, because there's a really different way you go about it in every country. For example, in Brazil for a very long time they had these guys who would organize buses from certain areas and they would sell tickets to girls. You had to be [at least] 5'8" and you had to be such-and-such an age and then you could buy a ticket. That included an overnight trip to Sao Paolo, with a visit to a mall and a visit to a water park, and they would invite agencies along. It was kind of a genius idea. Every person you talk to in Brazil thinks they found Gisele because they all saw her at different places — at the water park, at the mall. 

Whereas in Russia, we would take the Trans-Siberian Railway from one end of Russia to the other, sleeping on the train, and then riding for hours to the next city. We would get off, take showers, go to a casting, get dinner, get on the train and get off 18 hours later. You could go from Vladivostok to Moscow. There are 6,000 registered modeling schools in Russia; we would stop and they would all come meet with us.

DC: One of the most exciting parts of our job is not just that we go someplace and do the same thing. Every place we go, we learn its culture and its business. We thought we knew what we were getting into when we went to India. We went into one modeling agency, and we thought we were going in for a casting, like you would anywhere else. We were like, "So... can we see some models?" And they would go to the computer and be like, "Here's her resume."

You try to figure out: if that's their sphere of the modeling industry and we have ours over here, where do they overlap?

Back then, what sort of prep work did you do in advance of making those trips?

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JR: [Reach out to] schools and scouts to organize castings for us. There were certain places where we really tried to make things happen that we've never been able to make things happen. Moldova is one place like that for us. It's a mix of Russian, Moldov and Romanian — it should be amazing, and we've never been able to really crack it. There are beautiful girls everywhere, but you need someone on the ground who understands the business enough to be able to be your eyes and your ears.

DC: It's really almost more valuable than finding the girls. When we have a partner in the place, they can say, "This girl just walked in the door," or "I spotted this girl. What do you think?"

JR: I can go out and walk around for three hours a day and not find anyone. Unless, of course, I was in Australia. Oh my gosh, it's great there.

Why's that?

DC: So many reasons. The people are just beautiful people. They can travel anywhere, and they're polite and well-mannered.

JR: They're fun.

DC: Speaking English is a huge leg up as well. The reason we opened the office in Australia is that nobody was really actively looking for models there. We saw a big opportunity and really pushed to open the Australian office.

How did you build up that international network of partners who could be on the ground scouting for you?

JR: Well, that's why we’re happy that we're doing so much Instagram scouting. It's a lot to maintain. I'm not so sure that it's not moving away from [on the ground scouting] at this point.

Just because it's so easy to scout on social?

DC: It's changed our business. There's no two ways about it. It's absolutely changed our business.

Were there any other similarly massive shifts in how you do business before social media came along?

JR: Not really. This is it. It's a game changer. Last week, we did meetings with five or six girls [from Instagram], and each one was more gorgeous than the next.

DC: More and more, people tend to think, "Why would I subject myself to go in and be evaluated by a modeling agent when I could just hashtag my photo, and they'll check me and out and let me know if they're interested?" A lot of the models we're scouting didn't let anybody know that they were hashtagging until they knew we were interested — and then they told their mom. There's that fear of rejection, and it's sort of eliminated this way. 

If social has been so huge for you guys, what's the utility of going out on the street now?

JR: Our mindset now is about having a lot of our own models — as a company, we would like to have girls [for whom] we're their mother agents, that we found on our own. That happens whether we're doing it through Instagram or standing outside a Target. We followed two tours in the UK [recently]. We came up with a schedule where we were at a concert every night for two weeks. We were just finding fantastic, super tall, gorgeous girls that never knew they could [model].

You guys have traveled the world scouting girls. What regions do you feel are still untapped at this point?

JR: I want to go more places in the US. Every summer I always say to David, "You can't believe how great it is at the state fair!" An old friend of mine who's a photographer and always shoots the rodeo was saying that you're crazy if you're not going here.

When I was covering New York Fashion Week: Men's, I was blown away by the fact that male models are often as old as 30. Are you scouting them older?

DC: Entry into the men's market is just an older age. Generally when we're looking for guys we're looking for 18-plus.

Does that make it harder to get them onboard, if they've possibly already begun their college studies or started a career?

DC: For guys and for anybody, the last thing you want is to derail somebody's life and everything they have going on. We're really honest, whether it's with a girl or a guy, in saying this is an opportunity and it might not work out. We believe in you, but there's no sure shot. It depends on the guy. Some guys are like, "Great, let me try it." They have a life that they can work it into. And some are like, "I'm studying to do this..." and we're like, "Do that." Be a really handsome lawyer. You know?

When you're scouting people in the street, how hard do you try to sell them on modeling if they seem hesitant?

JR: We never, ever take their number. We always give them our number. You'll see how interested they are if they call you. In France, it's a really lonely road because they never call you. But usually in America, they'll call. In the UK, it's 50/50. Maybe 70/30. 

I've watched some of our competitors — they were photographing the girls. I would really hate if somebody photographed my child and I didn't know about it. We're never doing that. And they were also asking for phone numbers, which we won't do, either. We have on our business cards all our social accounts so they'll check you out and come back to you [a few minutes later]. It's great because we're all in real time.

Were those rules you always had in place or did you develop them along the way?

JR: I think we've always done that. I just think it's right. I would not like to call the house of somebody going, "Hi, I met your daughter and I asked for your phone number and now I'm calling your house."

Diversity on the runways has been a big conversation in recent years. What sort of discussions are you guys having in the office on that front?

DC: It's funny because we're looking for great — whatever that means. We've come up against that in India a lot. They would say, "The girls you're interested in... they seem to have very dark skin. Is that an issue for you?" We were like, "It seems like it's an issue for you; we didn't even think about it." But for us, beautiful is beautiful. We're definitely aware of diversity on the runway. We're pushing for more and more diversity, not just women of color or men of color, but also size diversity and age diversity. And it's not just about the runway. There's a much bigger picture to how we widen it.