Brooklyn native Haylynn Cohen was discovered while skateboarding in a park and the rest is fashion history. Appearances on Vogue and in campaigns for Versace, Gap and Tommy Hilfiger soon followed. I caught up with Haylynn at her Malibu home to reflect on her career and find out what she is up to these days.
Can you talk about how you were discovered. What was your first job?
Sure. I was 15 in 1995. I had cut school from Lincoln High in Brooklyn and was skate boarding in Washington Square Park. I went to get a hotdog when Barbara Pfister, a casting director, approached me with a Polaroid camera. She said, “Hey, I’m casting for a Gap campaign with Mario Testino. Can I take your Polaroid”? I said no. She offered me a check for $200. I took the check and she took my photo. I went home and told my dad about the Gap shoot and he thought it was a scam. Two days later Barbara called me to say I’d booked the shoot. I took my skateboard with me and that was it.
Did you get an agent right away?
Mario took my dad and I to DNA and we sat down with them. They wanted me to drop out of high school and move to Paris. My dad, who is on the Board of Education, didn’t want to see that happen to me at 15 so we parted ways and I thought that was it. I’d had a fun experience and now it was over. I was fine with that ending.
We know now that it didn’t end for you. How did you go from walking away to getting signed?
Well, I went back to high school and a month or two later Barbara Pfister called me back for a shoot with Nathaniel Goldberg for W magazine. I showed up and several heads of top agencies were there. Some even sent gifts to my grandma and family, which I found odd. My dad set up some meetings but everyone wanted me to drop out of school and go to Paris. Faith Kates, the owner of Next, was putting together the new faces division. Tasha Tilberg was on the board as well as Emily Sandberg, Georgina Grenville and Sara Ziff. Joel, the head of the new faces division, and Faith said they would work around my school schedule. So I signed right then and there.
So what was it like at the beginning?
Every day we’d get a casting sheet, the call sheet and we would go to the appointments. We had our part. At the very beginning that was staying slim and being on time. Agents at the beginning know much more about the strategies of the job.
Who were some of your biggest supporters at the beginning?
My agents were for sure because they wanted to get paid. A lot of photographers: Nathaniel Goldberg, Mario Testino, Juergen Teller, Craig McDean, Fabio Chizzola; There were so many. Designers would book you year after year after year. Nian Fish was also a great supporter.
Did you feel professional pressures with a seemingly quick ascent to the top?
No, though it was not a slow build, I stayed in school. There wasn’t a pressure placed on me to succeed. I didn’t understand what was being built. The pressures were more personal. I was camera shy. I felt uncomfortable wearing dresses, makeup and heels. I didn’t like the attention but I went with the flow.
What about weight? Did you have pressures with that?
I saw a lot of the girls not eating. I knew some of them struggled with eating disorders. Fortunately I didn’t struggle with weight or fitting the clothing until I turned 27.
What happened at 27?
My body changed. I grew up.
What was your experience with substance abuse?
I definitely went out at night. As a model I had a lot of access. It goes with the job. It wasn’t predatorily motivated, it was just there.
What about traveling. Did you experience loneliness?
I started traveling at 15 and my dad did go with me at first. The most difficult thing to leave behind was my friends and my first boyfriend. That hurt. A lot of models leave their hometowns, states and countries. I was fortunate in that New York was my home.
How did you cope with traveling alone?
I had art projects I would do in hotel rooms. I spent a lot of time alone. I’m not inherently social. I read a lot. During runway seasons I was with a clan of other professionals that I knew which was nice.
Models do travel alone. How did doing runway shows bring you together?
We had a common experience that bonded us. We all knew what it was like to run the circuit and sustain the demands of doing runway. We stayed at certain hotels and worked long and late hours, often from 6 AM until 2 AM having to walk the shows and complete the fittings for the next days shows. You know, we all shared that. We stuck together. We supported each other. I spent a lot of time with some models.
Did modeling support your growth?
It did. In a way, modeling saved me. I had little direction at that time in my life. I was a skater kid. I one hundred percent rebelled against modeling and did everything I could to destroy it. I brought that to the table. Modeling did give me money but more importantly modeling gave me the freedom to explore. I experienced a lot and it gave me a work ethic.
Why were you so against it in the beginning?
It was definitely my nature at that time. I didn’t like what I thought fashion was about. I was like a kid rebelling against their parents. I rebelled against work. I rebelled against anything that came across my path.
Once your career took off did anyone talk about its expansion?
Creating a career of longevity was a big problem for fashion at the time. I think that was a big mistake that agents made with girls. Most agents did not think long term. It was the era of the “it girl” and there were new ones every season. At that time the focus was making a name for the girl as quickly as they could to make the most money they possibly could before she was replaced. The pace was so fast. A lot of models burned out. I think the smarter agents are pursuing that conversation now.
Your moment certainly lasted a lot longer than most. At one point you were in an enviable position with editorials, runway and campaigns. Then you made a switch to shooting catalogues. Can you talk about that moment?
There was a conscious decision when I was about 22. I’d been working for eight years at that point. Eventually it was going to end and I wanted to use the opportunity to make money. My agent told me I could do Saks Fifth Avenue three days a week and make money but Mario Testino would stop booking me. I’d just been on the cover of French Vogue and she said it wasn’t a good idea. I’d been told my time would be over sooner rather than later so I took the money when I was at the height of my day rate and before it was off the table. I wanted the stability of having regular clients.
The general conception when you see a girl on the cover of Vogue is that she’s making a lot of money to be there. Is this a misconception?
Generally speaking, yes. There is a misconception that a girl who is shooting strong editorials is making a lot of money. When you see a girl over and over in magazine spreads she’s not making tens of thousands of dollars. She may take home a check for $250 and sometimes her travel expenses are covered. The money comes after a lot of strong editorial shoots with great photographers.
So let’s say she’s been doing really great editorial. What happens then?
Once they know that you’re bankable and fun to work with, they’ll say maybe lets book her for a Prada or Gucci campaign. Campaigns pay well. That’s where the money is for an editorial girl, that and runway shows. It’s definitely a strategically longer game with higher stakes than catalogue models.
How do you stay grounded?
It’s very difficult to lose focus of the ground because your nose is always hitting the pavement. There’s a misconception that models need only be beautiful and everyone around them will make their career happen. It’s very hard work actually. Decisions must be made that can make or break a career. Expectations are high and it’s constant.
Your first step into a new line of work happened when you opened a restaurant.
I needed space for something else to occupy my mind. The industry can be completely encompassing. I wanted to have a place to go to at night and hang out with my friends. So I did it. My boyfriend at that time helped. We had all my favorite foods. I cooked in the kitchen. I waitressed. I bartended and I modeled. All my friends would come and hang out after hours. It was really fun. It was a nice hangout.
There’s a renaissance of the mid-nineties models. Are they coming back on their terms?
They’ve made their money and have a name and can be a lot more selective. It’s a special moment seeing those faces again.
Do you have any plans to return full-time to modeling?
There are great clients that I enjoy working with and when they call I like to do it because it’s a good time. We know each other.
Thank you for talking with me. One last question that everyone wants to know, what are you doing now?
I’m into a lot of home renovations at the moment. I just finished a house that I love. It’s a challenge and every house has a problem that is messy and needs to be solved. It’s alive for me. I have two children and my life is simple and full. I enjoy it.