As one of my favorite models, Michele Hicks was a fixture on runways and magazines in the nineties before transitioning into acting. I recently caught up with her by phone to discuss modeling, roles for women in TV and her advocacy work.
Let’s start with you living in New York and getting into fashion.
I was in New York working in the night club business before I got into the fashion business. I worked the door, was a bar tender and then a manager. It was all timing you know. A lot of people in the fashion industry visited the club. People kept telling me I should try modeling. It was the early nineties and the look had changed. My look was more what was happening at that time so I took some pictures and I met with a couple of people and things happened quickly. At that point I left the night club business.
Was that when you were introduced to Steven Meisel and the point that your career took off?
Yeah. I went to an agency and there was an agent who took pictures of me and sent them to Steven. They asked me to come in and meet them and once that happened the agency was interested in signing me. My first two shoots were the safe sex campaign with Steven Klein and an Italian Glamour shoot with Steven Meisel.
That seems to be a theme among models I speak to. Once Steven gets into the mix that catapults them into the stratosphere.
I’m not sure how it is right now but definitely during that time. You know, if he is interested in you and shooting you then everybody else wants to shoot you too. I think it was a catalyst for a lot of people’s careers or at least in taking them to the next level.
Was modeling an aspiration of yours?
I tried to model earlier but my look just wasn’t in fashion at the time. I had to support myself so I didn’t have the option to keep pursuing something that wasn’t fruitful. I wouldn’t say it was a childhood dream, but it was definitely something I was interested in. I was always very interested in fashion, photography and clothes so it was a little aspirational but it didn’t seem realistic because I wasn’t getting any response. I put it on the back burner until people started telling me that I should really do it again.
At what point did you decide to transition into acting?
That was in the late nineties. I took a bunch of acting courses and intensive workshops to feel it out and see if it was something I was interested in. I knew I wanted to do something else. I knew I couldn’t model full-time forever. I also felt like I wanted to do something that creatively expressed myself better. L’Wren Scott told me about a script that her friends were trying to produce and said I’d be perfect for it. She told them about me and then I read the script and I was just obsessed with the part. That ended up being my first role. I remember calling my agent in Paris and saying this is what I’m doing next, this is my next career.
Did you have any reservations or concerns about the model-cum-actor label?
I did at first. It’s so different now, I wouldn’t care one bit today because everything is so mixed together. At the time models weren’t doing what actors were as much. I remember when I first started I stopped modeling because I thought I had to so I could be taken seriously. It probably wouldn’t have mattered.
What were some of the challenges with your transition into acting?
I didn’t really have too many. I was well known in the fashion business but people outside of the business didn’t know me as a model. I knew that my career as a model was going to end at some point so I had to make a transition. I have been lucky I have been able to model up until now and I’m forty. I also think doing other things keeps you interesting.
It certainly shows you to be a more dynamic individual. You have taken a lot of calculated risks in your life, one of them being opening a Pilates studio in the late nineties. How does risk factor into your decision-making?
You have to listen to your gut. With Pilates, I felt like it was an opportunity. There were no Pilates studios downtown and it hadn’t really hit in the media. The timing felt right. If you believe in something it doesn’t feel as much of a risk. It felt that it would be a missed opportunity if I didn’t do it.
Is it a fair assessment to say that you are somebody that trusts their instincts?
Yeah, whenever I don’t trust them it’s always bad. I’m not all calm and zen about it. I trust my instincts but I have the same anxieties that everybody else has. When you put things on the line you don’t know if it’s going to work out.
Let’s go back to acting. You have Public Morals on TNT coming out soon.
Yes, I do. I went to the premiere two days ago. It’s a huge cast of amazing actors. It’s a great part to play too. It’s set in 1960’s New York and there is a division called Public Morals in the police department that deals with vice crimes like gambling, prostitution and all of that.
Tell me about your character.
I play the wife of a mobster and her son is a cop.
Do you have a preference in terms of working in TV or movies?
Not anymore. Television is just offering so many opportunities, especially for women. A lot of time the characters are more interesting.
Many actors are talking about the lack of roles for older women. Maggie Gyllenhaal was told she was too old to play the love interest of an actor twenty years her senior.
I remember that.
You don’t hear it happening to men. I think it’s so absurd to say that a woman is not viable once she hits some arbitrary number.
Did you see the Inside Amy Schumer episode “Last Fuckable Day”?
Yes, I love Amy.
That was really funny. I’m sorry, I love that skit and what they did. It’s something that’s not talked about. There are women that are given amazing characters. I think, especially as you get older, that there are more interesting characters on TV for women.
I think there are parallels between modeling and acting. I interviewed Cameron Russell and one of the things that we discussed was her TED Talk. She talked about the power of image. I think as you age you gain experience, but for women in this industry that’s not valued. They want some ingénue portraying somebody with the experience of a forty-year-old which seems ridiculous.
That always looks ridiculous when they do that though. You see it in their face and in their eyes. You can’t fake that kind of life experience and wisdom, so I think talented directors don’t do that for the most part. I understand what you are saying but I think that’s where TV and especially cable TV has come in and been able to offer more opportunities. One of the top dramas on TV is the Good Wife. Julianna Margulies is the lead and she’s in her late forties. Maggie Gyllenhaal was amazing in The Honourable Woman. I think TV is giving women more opportunities and more interesting characters but there is a double standard that has been going on like you said.
Yeah. There is one other thing I want to cover. I know you are heavily involved with the Treatment Advocacy Group. How did you get involved with them?
You know, it’s a very personal story for me. My brother is schizophrenic so I have seen what that does and how families are affected by that and what kind of support families need to help deal with that. We are in a situation in this country right now where the whole mental health system has basically been dismantled. Most of our seriously mental ill are either homeless, in prison or have families that are so drained trying to deal with it and it’s appalling. For twenty years I’ve advocated for my brother and tried to get him the services that he needed. The Treatment Advocacy Group are affecting policy change. There are two bills in Congress right now, one in the House and one in the Senate. They are trying to implement some kind of change in the system.
Is part of the work also destigmatizing mental illness?
They are doing a lot of work on that front too. Everybody I know knows somebody or has friends who have a family member that’s dealing with it so it’s pretty widespread. It should be an open conversation and it shouldn’t be something that people stigmatize.
Follow her at @Msmichelehicks