Mary & Jeff Clark: Mother Model Management

Jeff and Mary Clark, owners and principals of Mother Model Management are a dynamic pair responsible for the discovery and development of models like Karlie Kloss, Grace Hartzel, and Ashton Kutcher. They have a soft spot for scouting for talent in the Midwest with regular open calls held in IA, TN, MO, IL, and yes, even Indiana. I met with Jeff and Mary last fall when they were in Indy for just this reason, and we had a great chat!

Polina Osherov: Tell me about your feature in Wall Street Journal in 2011. How did that come about?

Mary Clark: Honestly, we never sought it out. That happened because a casting director in New York was friends with the fashion writer at the Wall Street Journal who said, “Hey I want to do a story about where models really come from.” Jennifer Venditty, the casting director said, “I have the perfect couple for you.” So that’s how that connection happened. Then a few years later, the Nightline story happened –  the phone rang and it was ABC News and they’re like, “There’s a story about a young model who’s fourteen, who’s the face of Dior and we’re wanting to get a different perspective. We need experts. Will you guys speak to it.” We just looked at each other and were like, “Sure!”

PO: So, I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but how did you end up doing what you do?

MC: Well, I was the lady in Iowa that would do fashion shows at the mall for fun. This was 25 years ago. Then I ended up getting a call from a company in Cedar Rapids, IA called Cox Cable and they said, “We want to do a local fashion show and the producer, her daughter was in our daughter’s class, asked me, “Would you ever want to be in this TV Show?” And I was like, “Sure, why not?” That then lead to being on a local ABC affiliate, where I would go every Saturday and talk on the news. And out of that I started to meet girls that actually had potential. By ‘97, I had already placed a handful of models in New York, but then I discovered Ashton Kutcher and that changed everything.

Jeff Clark: I think what really changed everything is that you discovered me at a mall…(laughing)

PO: So walk me through this. You’re at the airport…

MC: I was traveling from LA with a group of the models in January of 1997. There’s a four hour layover in St. Louis before we go back to Iowa and I say to all these models, “Do any of you guys want to go to the mall?” We were all tired because our flight left at like four o’clock in the morning out of LA and so I was like I’m gonna go to the mall and pace around because there was a lot going on in my life. I was at this crossroads of I didn’t even know if I was going to keep doing that for a living. It didn’t make sense and I wasn’t really making money and I was a newly single mother of three. And you know, my mother is telling me, “You have to get like a normal job.” So never have I ever left the airport on a layover, except for that one time. I went to the mall, which was right by the airport and he was working at Structure. “Home of the six button polo!” So I found him (Jeff) in January of ‘97 and Kutcher in February.

PO: So what’s your (Jeff) take on this? This woman walks in…

JC: I was a manager and it was during the returns of Christmas. So the managers have to stay behind the counter, but when she walked in, I was like, “Whoa.” (laughing) I left my post and I was like, “Can I marry you?” (laughing)

MC: That’s the abridged version!

JC: That was an interesting time in my life as well. I was looking for a change. So when she gave me her card, obviously it was a good opportunity for me. Then we just became best friends over the course of time. We would literally talk on the phone every single day.

MC: Hours! Then it was about a month later that I discovered Ashton in Iowa City and the timing just worked. He was in a transition in his life too. Ashton had always dreamed of being an actor, it’s what he always wanted to do and I found out not that night that I went up to him but pretty soon thereafter that he had cashed his school loan check and was literally going to go buy a ticket to LA and just see if there was any way that he could make it work, but then he was like, “That’s crazy, I can’t do that.” And it was not that long after that I met him and then that summer, I took him to New York, and this was back when I used to go to this modeling convention, which now I think is a ridiculous thing, but at the time it was all I knew and Kutcher… he just… *snaps fingers* … It was like lightning struck.

By then, Jeff and I started to have different feelings and everybody around us was going, “Can you guys just admit that you’re falling in love?” So…yeah. So I found my husband at the mall. (Laughing)

PO: That’s awesome! What a great story! As far as the fashion industry, have you seen an evolution in the kind of a look that the industry wants these days? Or has it pretty much stayed steady since you’ve been in the business? Who dictates what’s in and what’s out – appearance-wise?

MC: A lot of it is dictated by designers and what their vision is for their current collection. We definitely found that with Grace (Hartzel) – she had the aesthetic that he (Hedi Slimane) wanted for the overall vision of his collection and the rest is history. But 9/11 was definitely a turning point. Before September 11th, heroin chic, odd looking girls were sought after. After 9/11 and the economy changing it went back to a more classically beautiful look. People weren’t wanting to take the risk of the really unusual girl. That’s when Giselle and that whole really just beautiful, sexy look became really popular. But I think that it’s swung back a little over the past few years.

JC: Everything has broadened from looks to shapes of bodies, everything. It’s almost to the point now where almost anything is accepted. And now a lot more is riding on the model’s character too. We’ve been hearing that a lot, especially this season, girls with character, boys with character. I believe models have to have a voice.

PO: Kinda like Cara Delevingne!

JC: Exactly.

MC: You can’t just be beautiful. It’s not enough.

PO: So you need the whole package. With these younger teenage girls, do they just naturally have it, or is it something that can be developed in them. Nature or nurture?

JC: I think the best girls are the girls that are okay with just being who they are.

MC: But sometimes they have to have help to discover who they are.

PO: That’s true, what do you really know at fourteen?

MC: You don’t. We’re traveling with this girl right now who’s sixteen and part of our role is to nudge her out of her comfort zone. She needs to blossom because she’s going to have to be interesting to people.

PO: Right. And be able to interact with adults and not be a scared child in a corner.

MC: Exactly. Because you’ll have a beautiful girl, and you bring her into show season, and she’s beautiful, but you take her out of Illinois and you drop her into New York City where you walk into a room and everybody’s tall, everybody’s beautiful and if all you are is beautiful with no personality, you’ll get totally lost if that’s all you have.

PO: There has to be something about you that stands out…

MC: 100%.

PO: You probably get lots of emails from aspiring models who just don’t meet the basic physical requirements needed for runway/high fashion. How do you deal with that?

JC: Years ago, when we got the emails, I would literally write back to everyone and say, “Hey, I’m sorry you’re not right for us,” But Mary would say too,”Maybe you should try this or focus on that.”

PO: Right, like you have more of an athletic body, maybe try fitness modeling, etc.

JC: Yeah. And now the inquiries are so frequent that answering them can be a full time job. So we’ve set it up on our website where you’ll get an automated response when you submit that says, “If we ARE interested you will hear from us.” That definitely helps us stay on top of it.

MC: Our criteria is right there: You have to be at least 5’8 and growing or 5’9, but invariably on a regular basis, a girl will submit saying “I’m 5’6 and will you still take me? I know I can’t do runway, but I have what it takes”. And I’m like it’s not just runway. It’s the business. In New York, even in Chicago, you have to be at least 5’8 and that’s really pushing it.

PO: It’s hard, isn’t it? You don’t want to crush somebody’s dreams. But at the same time the physical requirements are an industry standard and if a girl is going to have any chance of succeeding in that industry then…

JC: Still, if they were brave enough to come to a casting call, we do give them time, and be as kind as we can possibly be.

PO: So the process is, you find somebody and you place them, what happens in the meantime? Is there training? Is there education, classes?

MC: We definitely offer development. We have a great health coach that helps the girls establish good eating habits and an exercise routine. We personally don’t give that advice because we believe in having somebody doing it where this is their area of expertise. Beyond health related stuff, we have gatherings to get the girls together in a group and begin the process of getting their walk down and testing. We believe in a lot of testing. We work with great photographers who are willing to work with young models and help build their books without charging money as these girls develop. And then when the timing is right and we see that a girl is ready for the big picture we start sending them to castings. We’re very hands on and there through the entire process.

PO: So what percentage of the girls you scout and decide to take on make it to big time?

MC: If we find somebody with potential and they do what they need to do on their end, I’d say our success rate is probably 80%. It kind of depends on each individual case of “is this really for you?” and “to what degree are you wanting to go after it at a higher level?” But I’d say our success rate is pretty high. Or if we see that it’s just not working, our approach is always, it’s been great knowing you, we wish you only the best, but this is not a fit. Jeff really brought this into our business more so than me initially, the expectation “if you’re gonna do it, then let’s really do this and let’s do it at a really high level.” Either way it takes so much work to get one girl off the ground – people have no idea.

PO: How do you assess whether a girl has what it takes?

MC: Action. Out of all the beautiful girls with personalities, very few truly understand the workload and the sacrifices this career entails, and will do whatever it takes to succeed. You can’t just be enamored with the idea of being a model. We’re always very honest with the girls and the parents. We’ll tell them exactly what it really takes to be a Grace Hartzel or a Karlie Kloss. A lot of people eliminate themselves just because they don’t have the work ethic or the chops.

PO: What are the top five requirements for somebody to go all the way, apart from the physical?

MC: They can’t be overthinkers because there’s so much unknown. So if you’re the kind of person that gets up every morning and is like, “Well I don’t know what’s going to happen. I wish I knew.” Modeling at a high level is likely not for you.

PO: Isn’t that more parents than kids?

MC: It’s kids too.

JC: But usually both. If the parents need certainty and structure, often they pass it down to their kids.

MC: You need to be the girl that when we say, “You need to get on an international flight in 4 days, so we need to go and expedite a passport, you’d say, ‘Okay.’, and really be okay with it. And then we’d say, “When you get there, event though you don’t speak the language, or know anyone, you’re gonna take a cab, and go and meet with the designer.” And you’d say, “Alright.’” Not in a mindless way, but in an “I’m open to what is unfolding here, I’m not gonna try and micromanage it” way. The second quality is that you need to have an independent spirit. So for the girl that has to have her boyfriend or bestie next to her 24/7 this is likely not the right career choice either.

PO: So somebody that’s okay with being alone, in a strange city, and won’t crumple into a little ball…

MC: Yes. And the third quality is that you have to be a little bit fearless and able to navigate new situations. You’re gonna be constantly in situations where there are new people, new environments, and you have to be able to go in and be like, “Hey, yeah I’m so and so.” Also, being grateful, and gracious is important. Karissa (Lancaster) was telling us at breakfast about getting a call from a model thanking her for a good shoot and Karissa was like, “That never happens!”

PO: That’s the truth.

MC: And you know what, I tell you who was a master at that was Karlie Kloss.

PO: Got to have great people skills, basically.

MC: Yes! And confidence. You have to be able to take over the room in the right way. You have to make yourself known in the right way, not in the false way. I think about Abbey Lee and how she would come in and people would be like, “Who is that?” And Kutcher was the same way. Some people might not like your confidence, but clients usually want to see just that. Mind you not cockiness, but confidence.

PO: A very imprecise science, this!

MC: *laughs* There’s a lot to it!

PO: So what’s next for you guys?

MC: We’ve completely redone our website. We’re becoming way more social!

JC: More behind the scenes, and industry insight.

PO: People love that stuff.

MC: We want to share our story, share stories of the people that we meet on the road, not just our models. But then also the models too. Open up our world because everywhere we go, girls (and guys) come in with high expectations of being scouted and say, “I’m a model here (insert small town city name),” as though that somehow proves their ability to make it in the industry. And we take a look at them, chat with them and realize that they don’t have a clue about what it really takes, and how it works. It’s not all their fault – some of them are taught by others who don’t really fully understand the industry either. So we’re trying to address that more. You know, we put on a show every year – Tribute – and it keeps growing and we’re excited about that because I think it’s gonna become a greater and greater opportunity for new people to come and be seen. I also have an ebook – How to gain the attention of the top agencies in the World – which is a great insider look at the industry.

PO: You can download that on your website for five bucks, right?

MC: Yes! We really do have the desire to help as many people as we can, but at the same time, as a management company, we are small, and it takes a lot, doing what we do, so it’s hard to get everything done that we want to.

JC: And we’re not having any babies…(laughter)

PO: Well, technically you kinda have plenty of those already!

MC: We have 35 sixteen to twenty three year old women we’re working with. That’s more than enough!

PO: Well, thanks for taking the time to chat with me and best of luck with everything!

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