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.
A little over a year ago, Gina Barone joined agency The Lions Model Management, which represents models like Slick Woods, Ming Xi and Stella Maxwell, to serve as its New York Director. It's a pretty far cry from where she began her career: graduating high school two years early and studying psychology near home at Queens College at the age of 16.
"My family was kind of pushing me to be a lawyer or a teacher and I really did not want to go in that traditional route," Barone explains. "I wanted to expand outside. I wanted to meet people that were not from just my general area."
It was a chance connection with a family friend that introduced Barone to the modeling industry over 30 years ago. From that moment, Barone steadily climbed her way up the ranks at modeling powerhouse Wilhelmina before joining The Lions. She's been at the ground floor of many of the industry's biggest changes, so we hopped on the phone with her to get her thoughts on what it takes to be a model today, how she landed her job and why educating yourself in your own field is the secret to everything.
What first interested you in fashion?
My grandfather was a men's clothing designer. I loved magazines. I grew up in the '70s — Glamour and movies, I loved all of that. I love the arts in general, I love the entertainment field, I love seeing beautiful things, I love the artistry of photography and fashion, and I love people, so it kind of all worked together for me. I can't remember not being interested in fashion.
How did you end up in modeling in particular?
I was exploring a few different possibilities of careers and jobs, actually, and my mom knew someone who was the sister-in-law of one of the owners of a modeling agency. I thought, 'Oh, that sounds interesting.' I went on a job interview, and I was hired on the spot. It was all about timing; at the time that I went on the interview, that particular agency had lost a member of their staff, so they were scrambling to redo their team.
When I started, I was put on what they call the development board — the testing board — and it was basically the new faces that were green. Our responsibility was to teach them how to look like a model, how to go on go-sees — which are the appointments with clients — build their books, meet with photographers and get test pictures done for them. I did the open calls, which were girls that came in to try to be models. I met with photographers and hair and makeup artists two afternoons a week that we would work with; I scouted models; I booked some small-money jobs in catalogs; I booked some editorials. I started doing some traveling and scouting events. That was the beginning of my career.
I want to advise anyone, and I think it applies to any career: Whatever you do, educate yourself in the field that you're in. What I did, pre-computers, I would go to the international magazine stores — and I didn't have a lot of money then, I was new — and I would buy a pack of gum. I had a little notebook in my bag, and I would go through all the international Vogues and look at them and write down the names of the photographers, so I would develop my eye and start to recognize the names of who were the players, and from that, try to research how to get my talent in to see these photographers.
What did you learn in those early days?
Do more than what is expected of you. I immediately liked it — the atmosphere, the pace, I liked everything about it — so when you love something, you want to do more. You don't have to be asked.
The other part of it is — and again, I think this could apply to any career, but in this career in particular — relationships are extremely important. Value those, and also mentors.
How did you get from that development board to the director level?
When they saw that I was a hustler, for lack of a better term, and that I was really good with the clients and the girls, they promoted me to an agent that focused more on what they would call 'money.' I also played well with others.
When they saw that I excelled at that, I got promoted again to more of the star models. I paid attention to the agent there that was working with contracts. She was out once on holiday, and they handed me something just to see if I could handle it, and I did very, very well, so from that, they started giving me bigger and bigger jobs.
People would often come to me for advice, so I think from that they thought I had a leadership quality. I was made a head of a division — a board — and then from that, it just kept growing. I think that's because I really took it all in, I was excited and happy, and I wasn't ever afraid of hard work. They just kept giving me more and every challenge that I took, I took with enthusiasm and a positive attitude.
I became a director at 27, and then I took some time off when I had my son, who turned out to have some special needs, so I was semi-retired for seven years. When I came back into the business, I said, 'Oh, I'm going to come back and be an agent, and just kind of do this low key,' and that didn't last. I became a director at my former agency, Wilhelmina, of several divisions, kind of the bulk of the money there, and from there I showed up to The Lions.
What attracted you to The Lions?
First and foremost, the first person I spoke with — Julia Kisla, our CEO — I loved her straightforwardness, her honesty, but most importantly, the mission statement of The Lions. The idea of The Lions reminded me of when I first started in the business and the things that attracted me to the business; they are extremely creative. It's a small agency, each girl is unique and branded, so to speak, and looked at as an individual rather than a big giant factory. I liked the idea of that: Getting back to having time to be more creative. Then I met the three partners, who I respected massively before I met them based on their reputations.
The respect they had for the models — it's about the talent, not about you, and every decision that you make is based on what is the best decision for that talent and the agency, and they lived that. It made me feel so excited that there were people out there that were not only amazing at their job, but really good people and wanting to use this industry to do good in the world.
How do you and your team the models shape their public persona or create that personality-driven career for themselves?
Number one, we talk to them about everything about them — their passions, their goals. We are working with them daily towards their small goals and their long-term goals.
We are involved in every aspect of their career — their Instagram, their outside interests, their events that they go to, how they dress, everything — depending on the level of the girl. Obviously, if the girl has been in the business a while and is at a star level, I wouldn't have to help her on how to dress, but on a new face we might be doing that. We look at each talent as a brand in and of themselves, so it's just like any other brand; you have to make sure everything is marketed properly, but they are human beings, so we are constantly communicating with them to know where they are, because the goal you have when you are 20 may change at 22, or even in six months.
What are you looking for in new talent today?
We are looking for, from a beauty point of view, somebody who is unique and that inspires the team from a visual point of view. Personality is really important — looking for somebody that has that extra social spark. I don't know how else to define that, but just someone that we all collectively get excited about and want to work with, somebody that you would want to spend time with. We look for girls that look photogenic and have a fashion style, or something that we can work with and teach them if they don't have it out of the gate.
We look for people that have interests outside of modeling, just a full human being; nowadays, brands and consumers see authenticity. They don't want an anonymous, one-dimensional beautiful face, they want someone they can connect to on a deeper level and look authentic while selling you something, so we look for that when we take talent.
How have you seen the industry change since you started out?
Social media is certainly the biggest change. On a positive side, it's giving girls a voice where they didn't have a voice before. But it also, on the flip side, created a lot of competition I didn't have to deal with back when I started — not only with a lot of models, but now you're dealing with influencers. Influencers, to me, are a different category than models, but there is certainly more competition.
What is your favorite part of the job?
Connecting with such a diverse, incredible group of people, from agents to models to clients, that if I was a teacher or a lawyer in Queens, I probably wouldn't have experienced. And making someone's dreams come true — if I get a client or job for a girl she really, really wants, it makes me so happy.
What advice would you have for someone looking to get into modeling today?
Learn everything you can about the modeling industry — and that includes what models are relevant, photographers, stylists, old players. Be healthy in your body, in your mind. You have to be confident, and be prepared to be very, very strong, be able to accept rejection, but keep the eye on the prize. Get yourself an agency that believes in you and treats you with respect and dignity, not just a number, because even if it takes a little time to get where you want to go, if you have people that believe in you, that's the x-factor.
I've seen several agencies that are on top, and the reason they're amazing is because they took a girl and even if everyone said, 'Oh, no no no no no, that girl is never going to work,' that agent would say, 'Oh yeah? Watch,' and ultimately that girl became successful. You have to have someone that believes in you, period, end of story. But you have to start with believing in yourself.
What do you look for in people that would be a part of your team?
I look for passion in the industry. I look for a good personality, somebody I would want to spend 10 hours with a day. I look for someone that seems to be a hard worker, someone that can convince me that they should be part of my team — because if they can convince me, then they can convince clients to see our talent.