Poppies from the Platteland
Models from southern Africa are raking in the cash overseas, writes Shanthini Naidoo
The story goes like this. A gangly teenager with unusual, foetal or feline looks, not considered "pretty" by her classmates, stands head and shoulders above the boys in her school photograph. One day she is shopping at a flea market, or the tiny mall in Bloemfontein/Windhoek/Harare, sans make-up, hair in a ponytail and wearing slops and a T-shirt. Spotted by a model scout, she is told she has something special. A moment later, her bags are packed and she is whisked into the world of modelling - opening the Valentino fall collection in Milan, or appearing on the cover of Japanese Vogue or GQ in tousled locks, smokey eye-shadow and purple tights.
It isn't a unique tale, and applies to girls from Africa - who can forget Oluchi and Alek Wek - or far-flung corners of Eastern Europe and South America. The more unusual, the better.
But the story is playing on repeat for several South African models who are all the rage overseas right now.
Fashion blogger Robyn Cooke of StyleGuideCT says while local girls have been working "steadily for the last few years" there has been a spike in interest around South African talent. "It seems we have produced a recent crop of outstanding girls. Right now there are probably four high-profile models from South Africa."
She adds that South African girls are known for being hard working, good natured, well-spoken and educated, and possess the illusive "fresh face". "They are also able to cross over into high fashion from beach wear and swimwear, which we are well known for overseas."
Charlize, Charlene, move over for Candice Swanepoel. The 23-year-old from the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands has been draped across the covers of GQ, Vogue: Japan, Brazil, Portugal, Italy and is an established Victoria's Secret Angel. She is said to be one of the top 10 most highly paid models in the world.
Successful models can make a million US dollars a year (Swanepoel is rumoured to make thrice that), and there's no coming home until their run is over.
It's difficult getting a face-to-face with Swanepoel because she is booked to the hilt for shoots that are worth lots of cash for her. Her agent, Marlon Stoltzman, says: "She has no time for interviews right now. She'd love to do something for the fans back home but [last week] she was with her family holidaying in the States, then her brother graduates there and then she's shooting day and night. She can't afford to take time out to even be in South Africa. It isn't worth her while to work in SA. And local magazines just can't afford to pay her for interviews."
Her career will last until the cellulite kicks in , and then the next big thing will arrive on the scene. Meanwhile, she is the big thing right now. A local talent scout says she's a rare mix of the right body, height, hair and eyes.
Stoltzman has worked backstage for the prestigious IMG Models agency - which represents Gisele Bündchen, Kate Moss, Lara Stone and other supermodels - "for 30 seasons of fashion shows". He often babysits emerging models and guides them through the fame. Swanepoel tweeted a photograph of Stoltzman and herself on a plane to Turkey this week.
"We shoot tomorrow, travel six hours by car and then shoot again, fly back to Istanbul and then fly to London for a shoot on the same day," he laughs.
Stoltzman has managed well-known models like American Marisa Miller and local girl Dominique Piek. An established model, Piek, 27, swapped Somerset West for Rodeo Drive. The face of Ralph Lauren, she is dating Star Trek hottie Chris Pine. The two were photographed on the Cannes Film Festival red carpet, Piek in a cream Armani gown.
But, Stoltzman says, the industry can't get enough of Swanepoel. Apart from top-shelf modelling work, she is paid to be seen at A-list parties, most recently the Met ball in New York where she wore a rag&bone gown, accompanied by the designers.
She has moved on from last year's scandal about her weight, dismissing pictures of her emaciated frame as a result of stress from working so hard. She still gets a kick from seeing herself on billboards. In a recent tweet, she posted a picture of a life-size Victoria's Secret ad of herself, with a "V" hand sign, adding: "Never gets old. #Proud".
Katryn Kruger from Cape Town is what Cooke calls a fluke. While Swanepoel has worked for several years for her superstar status , 17-year-old Kruger's rise was instant. "She was spotted by Miuccia Prada, and there was no stopping her from there."
Kruger has covered Vogue Germany, Stella twice, and Interview magazine. She has opened fashion shows for Valentino and Givenchy and is a coveted Prada model.
Gavin Miller, CEO of Y models, who represents Kruger, says along with the glamour, it is a lonely life for the girls who make it big. "For any young girl, the hardest part is leaving family and friends. With all the model and scouting shows on TV at the moment, the public don't see the reality of the modelling world. It is not champagne, parties and fancy cars. It is tough and lonely. The girls need to pay their dues and work their way up. The public see the end product, but few realise how hard it is to get there."
He says an international modelling career will end at age 25, so the girls have to get in as much as they can. "It depends on the stamina of the girl because it is a difficult lifestyle. You do get exceptions, though."
It isn't difficult to fall off the rails. "Most girls take it in their stride, but we try to keep them grounded. Fame can be a difficult thing and people react differently to the pressure," says Miller.
Kruger, who answered questions by e-mail between assignments and travelling, agrees. "When I am overseas, I work so much that I don't have time to hang out. And at home I spend all my time with family and close friends - we hang out and do silly stuff like having sleep overs."
She appreciates the opportunities she has but looks forward to being in Cape Town. "It is important to me to go home whenever I can and just be me, a normal 17 year old. It is humbling to have my family treat me the same as always. I love that I can go back, be barefoot, wear no make up and play with my dogs. Having that normality keeps me sane."
Although there are several local models overseas, Kruger says there are no green and gold gatherings at the Springbok club.
"I have met one or two SA models, but we are all so busy and have crazy schedules that we don't really know when we will see each other. As for my social life, well, I don't really have one."
A typical shoot day means an early morning, a late night and then e-mails and phone calls home.
Her mother, Aletta Kruger, who works for the City of Cape Town, says while she rarely accompanies her daughter overseas, they try to have chaperones to help her.
"With every overseas trip, I gain new respect for Katryn for taking on the world at such a young age. Her first fashion show (for Givenchy in September last year) will always be special. Another big one was when she, as an unknown model, opened and closed the Valentino Couture in Paris in February. And I know for her, as a proud South African, the exposure in local magazines such as Elle and Sarie is special."
Aletta says letting her young daughter out into the world was a challenge for the family. " It is hard for any parent when a child leaves the nest, but when it happens so unexpectedly and so much earlier than anticipated, it is very emotional. We also knew nothing about the modelling industry, so we had to learn quickly and make some tough decisions."
Zimbabwe-born Nyasha Matonhodze, 17, who covered the Vogue May accessories cover, was shot by renowned photographer Mario Testino for Allure magazine and is a face of Louis Vuitton.
Matonhodze moved to the UK with her aunt at the age of eight and was discovered a few years later. She says life could not be any more different from her middle-class upbringing in Zimbabwe.
"I am going to visit places I thought I could never go to, and meeting icons. Every aspect is a thrill - waking up every morning knowing I do something I love.
"The worst is not having my family with me to experience the places I get to go to. I want to take them abroad one day. I haven't been to Zimbabwe for four years, but I make sure my family knows I am thinking about them. Their motivation makes me love my job even more."
She finds a bit of home when working with other African girls. "It is exciting because we share the same background and I relate well to the girls. My very good friend is Ajak Deng, who is from Sudan. She is pure inspiration."
Apart from adjusting to jet lag, she says it is still a surprise to see herself on a magazine cover. "I couldn't believe how far I have come. Now I can inspire people to believe that if you chase your dream you can achieve it."
Another sensation is Namibian Behati Prinsloo. At 22, she is also a Victoria's Secret Angel and was recently named the face, or body, of Seafolly beachwear.
Her agent at Storm Models International, Shelley Whaits, says there are "exciting things happening in Behati's career".
The zany model, sometimes photographed in odd clothing and pulling silly faces, lives in Manhattan a few blocks from Swanepoel. "Candice and I are really good friends and we work together loads. I love that African mama."
Prinsloo, who is the daughter of a preacher, was spotted by a talent scout while grocery shopping in Cape Town. "This is a huge shift," she says. "One minute I was living at home with my parents in a quiet part of Namibia [Grootfontein], the next I was moving overseas to live alone in a big city, to shoot with every top photographer, walk the top catwalks and then I became a Victoria's Secret Angel. Every minute has been so surreal, I am so grateful and so lucky."
She says she doesn't always recognise herself on magazine covers, but it is always a celebratory moment. "I never think that it's actually me. I always say 'that doesn't even look like me!' or 'whoohooo, I'm on a cover! and then I have to call home and tell the family."
She visits home over the December holidays, saying: "I miss Africa so much; my mom's food, the smell of the land after it's rained. And nature. We have an incredible home - no one should ever forget that."
Despite missing out on friends' birthday parties and family time, she says that somehow it works.
"I have been lucky enough to fly to the most insane locations and meet the most amazing people, but I feel like I miss out on the simple things in life because I'm always travelling. But my parents have visited me in New York and London. It has opened up their world to travelling, and seeing where I live and work is important to them. I love them so much."