A prominent authority in the modeling industry for the discovery, development and management of models for more than 30 years, Michael Flutie has discovered and/or managed iconic faces such as Stephanie Seymour, Milla Jovovich and Cindy Crawford. Michael began his career in model management at 22-years-old for Elite Model Management in New York where he worked directly with international model mogul John Casablancas. His successes led him to Paris, where he worked with legendary model and model agent Louise Despoints for City Models. His scouting contacts across the country make him an invaluable asset to New York agencies. Michael spoke to Emily Sandberg and me about his new venture with the E! network, what it takes to make it in the competitive world of modeling and how tough love is sometimes the only option.
You helped develop Scouted for E! What insight into the industry can this show offer that is unique from other modeling based shows?
Fashion has, for the majority, been depicted and documented in major cities. I’ve always felt that before New York or Paris or Milan, the true story begins with the discovery process of the model or talent. I wanted to take the cameras to the heartland of America and show how a girl or boy is recognized for their potential; specifically, for those young kids who have never dreamed or thought that they were beautiful. I’ve always believed that it is a Cinderella story and watching the work of the local scouts discovering new talent is really powerful. I wanted the scouts to be recognized for their expertise in giving people a chance and making dreams come true. Before supermodels and Hollywood stars attended red carpet events and graced the covers of magazines, they went to school, worked at fast food restaurants, shopped at malls and performed in high school plays. The stars of Hollywood and Madison Avenue were all discovered and Scouted showcases the beginning of that process.
You were embroiled in a highly publicized legal dispute with model Amy Wesson over breach of contract in 1997. What lessons did you learn from this time in your life and would you have done anything different in hindsight?
I was embroiled in trying to help somebody that I had scouted, created/developed, worked with and made into a very successful model, save herself from her own self-destruction from drugs and alcohol. My position of taking a legal stand with her was my hard love approach to wanting to save her life. The only way that I knew how to help, at the time, was to stop giving her bookings and stop feeding the ugly world that she got so involved in. I froze her contract until she cleaned herself up. I told her to not go to any other agency as I didn’t want her to self-destruct. I hope that experience caused the industry to learn that we have to be responsible for the young men and women who we introduce to the very fast-paced, financially-lucrative, glamorized adult world of modeling. Amy knows that I really care and love her and was looking out for her best interests and we’re good friends now.
Throughout the 1980’s you worked with Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymour, Tatjana Patitz and others. How has the modeling industry changed since the heyday of the supermodels?
The industry has become much more of a corporate business. There are a lot more models than there used to be. The opportunity to find an agent is easier with the Internet; you can submit pictures of yourself directly to the decision makers. Also, the expansion into Western Europe has made the field much more competitive. At the same time, brands are being much more cautious with their money, so celebrities have taken many more of the lucrative contracts that in the past would have gone to models. Celebrities are the lure for consumers more than models. As a result, they grace the covers of magazines more frequently than in the past.
You advocated for the fair treatment of models and even voiced support for a model’s union or guild to protect their interests. What framework do you think needs to be created to support new models entering the business?
There is a need for programs in modeling agencies that support safe conditions for models. I grew up in a time in the 80’s where there were closed backstage sets for a lingerie show and it was a very protective environment. I feel as though this has changed and I think that we have to take a look at the working conditions today. If, in fact, a young girl is working and home schooled, it should not be any different from a young actor working and being home schooled. The industry itself has to breed and support wellness and wellness programs so that girls are healthy and work proper hours and in proper conditions. I think that Paris and New York try to maintain regulations. However, in the fringe markets, this is more of a problem. An acknowledged guild in the industry could provide a great opportunity to set up and create standard guidelines for models to succeed without being harmed. That includes everything from nutrition and diet to business management and long-term financial strategy.
Now, more than ever, girls aspire to model as a career choice. What advice can you offer an aspiring model wanting to enter the fashion industry?
Find a really good agent that really believes in you. Always be professional. Study the industry. Be very responsible to the profession in terms of the clients, photographers and stylists that you work with as they are your lifelines to prolonging your career. Participate in the creative process, always take risks and don’t marry any man who doesn’t have a job and calls himself a producer.
Media doesn’t tell people what to think but it does tell them what to think about. Do you think the fashion industry is culpable of perpetuating an unrealistic body image?
It’s not just the fashion industry that is responsible for perpetuating unrealistic body images; it’s everyone in the public eye, from musicians, to actors, to athletes. It is the responsibility of advertisers, brands and designers to represent true body types. The fashion industry is definitely culpable of showcasing a specific model body type, but they are trying to do a better job at representing different figures. For example, the Dove beauty campaigns or the cover of Italian VOGUE have increased the use of “real people” in brand communications allowing a much more honest representation of what people look like and what is healthy.
Do you notice diversification in the modeling industry as more companies enter non-western markets?
Yes, I do. However, the same “It” girls are used in every show and campaign.
Social media has become an integral part of any business. How have you integrated social media into your business and how do you plan to evolve your brand?
By producing television shows through my production company Madwood, like Scouted, and through our management company Flutie, that specializes in representing experts, I intend to evolve my brand with the knowledge I’ve been blessed with over the past 20 years. With social media changing every day, we are trying to catch up by communicating via all social media platforms; our blog, Facebook and Twitter. However, there is nothing better than good old fashioned face-to-face meetings or picking up the phone and speaking to someone. Part of my brand is to integrate the use of social media on a global level but also remain personal.
Miu Miu’s 2012 Resort campaign features 34-year-old model Guinevere Van Seenus. At twenty years the previous models senior, do you think either model more accurately represents the demographic of the brand?
No. I think Miu Miu is trying to expand their brand. Miu Miu, as a brand, is much more youthful and I think that Prada is trying to increase their consumer demographic. With the increase in life expectancy, 40 is the new 20. Therefore, brands are responding to this by marketing and promoting products that are typically targeted to a younger market and associating them with more mature consumers.
What part does brand development play in creating a lasting and sustainable career for a model?
It’s a huge part of the brand identity and developing the DNA of someone’s persona. Talent Brand Management is a term that we created and coined in the year 2000 that defines this. It represents the management of the brand of a talent in understanding that not only celebrities and models can be representatives of brands, but also experts. These experts have an influential voice that consumers can associate with and value because it is based on education, knowledge and authenticity versus just good looks. By developing one’s brand, one is guaranteeing a lasting career.
Do you think we’ll see the return of the household name supermodel again?
With the increased interest in fashion on a mass level and with the kind of television programming that we’re creating, hopefully, the household supermodel will return. Beautiful men and women, who will be developed in brands as experts, will once again become the celebrities and hopefully grace the covers of magazines and new media platforms.
Follow him at @MichaelFlutie