In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
While her middle school peers were obsessing over pre-algebra homework or what to wear to the fall dance, 13-year-old Hailey Clauson was busy launching her career. Many models have that charming story about being discovered, say, selling fruit at an outdoor Russian market (Natalia Vodianova) or shopping at a local flea market in Durban (Candice Swanepoel); but Clauson went through a more traditional — and not always successful – channel: a casting call for Ford Models in Los Angeles. "I was interested in it and I went in and chased after it myself," the now 20-year-old Clauson tells Fashionista.
Friends and family had encouraged her to try modeling, plus she already expressed an interest in fashion. "I was in eighth grade, already 5'11" and I looked a lot older than I was," she adds. "I didn't fit in." (somewhat prescient in terms of the controversy that would come over the next few years.) "I wanted to see what would happen and they ended up signing me that day."
Clauson ended up booking her first job within "a few weeks" — a standard editorial shoot for WWD. She says shooting alongside professional models left her "in awe," although, due to her age, she legally wasn't allowed to pull exorbitant overtime. "I had never really worked besides babysitting in my life. It was long hours, but it was fun, so it didn't really matter to me."
Clauson made her runway debut at age 15, walking for Adam, Zac Posen and Calvin Klein. For her second season, fall 2011, she walked in a trio of prestigious shows — Diane von Furstenberg, Oscar de la Renta and DKNY. The only problem: that year, the CFDA had enacted a ban on runway models under the age of 16. Oops. And double oops since von Furstenberg was president of the CFDA at the time. (She was promoted to Chairman in July of this year.)
"[The CFDA] had changed the age and I didn't know," she says. "I was just working. But yeah, it was a bit of a controversy. I mean, [the controversy] lasted for five minutes... " But a whole new discussion started next year in March of 2012 when a 16-year-old (clothed) Clauson appeared in a Pop editorial posing with a couple of naked female porn stars, but, more disturbingly, in a close-up stranglehold shot. Cries of glorifying violence against women — especially young, vulnerable women — rang out shortly thereafter. And that August, Clauson's name was in headlines again when her parents filed a $28.5 million lawsuit against Urban Outfitters for selling a T-shirt featuring what they considered a sexually suggestive image of their underage daughter. The photo shows the then-15-year-old model in leather hot pants sitting astride on a motorcycle. According to Law360, Clauson's parents were aware of the session — and photographer Jason Parry claimed that her father signed off on the images — but didn't give permission to him to sell them later. (Urban Outfitters settled the suit for an undisclosed amount in 2013.) Still, Clauson doesn't have any regrets.
"I wouldn't do anything differently because everything happens for a reason," says Clauson, looking back. "But I think everyone's learned from the stuff that has been controversial. There's always some young girl being controversial in the industry, I feel like. People are always going to have something to say and you're just going to have to go with it." That, of course, doesn't mean words and comments don't hurt. "I was young, so I took it more personal than it was," she says in regards to the post-runway scandal. "You just don't understand. Luckily I had my mom telling me that it's okay, you'll get over it. It's hard to deal with something like that at that age."
By the time she turned 16, Clauson had packed her portfolio with ad campaigns for Gucci, Topshop, Jill Stuart and editorials in Vogue Italia, Vogue Japan, Elle, Dazed and Confused and Numéro. She's grateful for her family's support as she advanced her career at such a young age, "just to keep you grounded and remind you what the real world is because you can get sucked into any industry so easily." Her father accompanied her to the life-changing Ford Models casting call and her mother was a frequent backstage companion. "Everyone knew my mom was around, so she was always invited," Clauson explains. "She loves fashion, too. Sometimes she would be able to sit down and watch the shows, which was cool." The model likens the experience to a parent cheering on the sidelines at a regular teen's varsity basketball game. Being a sought-after model's number-one entourage member also has its perks of course, like that time mom accompanied Clauson to a fitting at Donatella Versace's atelier followed by dinner.
But family meals with Donatella Versace aside, Clauson does encourage aspiring models to wait and finish high school before jumping into the industry. She tried keeping up with her classes, but missed so many that she finished out her degree online. "Learn who you are as a person and become a really strong woman or man and then if you feel that you're ready to model after, then go for it and see how it goes," she advises. "But always stay yourself."
At age 20, Clauson is practically a veteran, but as she looks forward at next steps, the world is a wide open playing field. "I always wanted to go to film school, but lately I've been really interested in cooking, so I've been thinking about maybe going to culinary school or something," she muses. Paging Karlie Kloss. "It's all up in the air. I'm just trying to figure out my passions right now." She also cites acting and starting her own fashion line as career diversification possibilities.
As far as role models (pardon the pun), Clauson looks to the '90s supes, like Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington. "Because they were able to do everything," she said. "They were brands, they were fashion models, they did Victoria's Secret and Sports Illustrated... They did everything, which now I see a lot of the girls doing."
But for now, she's focusing on her brand and reaching that holy grail of modeling. "The ideal goal is to have a beauty contract [and/or] a fragrance contract," Clauson says. "But also just doing amazing photo shoots and leaving iconic images." Her approachable girl-next-door-meets-smoldering-bombshell branding is working out for her right now — case in point, a rookie spot in last year's Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue lineup.
"Being my weird awkward self kind of worked out."