More than 270 young hopefuls with two things in common — a height over 172cm and a burning desire to be the world’s next supermodel — lined up at Dubai Festival City on Friday for the UAE’s first participation in the global Elite Model Look Competition.
Friday’s event was the first of two UAE open castings for the contest (the next is in Abu Dhabi on May 3), run by one of the biggest modelling agencies in the world, Elite, as part of their global search for the next Cindy Crawford or Diane Kruger, both runners-up in previous contests.
Those selected by the five-member jury — of which I was a member — then go through to one more casting and then the national finals later this year. The winner of the finals goes to the global Elite contest in the Far East at the end of the year, a competition that has spawned models including Crawford, Kruger and Gisele Bunchen.
So who enters a modelling contest? The majority of the young men and women — aged 14-22 for women, and up to 28 for men — who entered said being a model was a childhood dream that was on its way to coming true.
“I feel words can’t express how I’m feeling,” said a breathless Ewa Sepiolo after being one of the 18 girls chosen for the national casting. “It’s one of my biggest dreams and it’s coming true.” Her supportive parents Anna and Mark stood by, beaming, and saying they’re confident she can balance a modelling career with school work. “She’s a very strong personality and highly motivated,” added Mark.
That kind of motivation is what makes a model stand out from a line-up of beautiful girls, said my fellow juror Adriana Usvat, a managing partner at FLC Models, the local company organising the contest with Elite Models Middle East. “They must have beauty, but it is not the most important. They should be comfortable, confident and really want to have this career. That shows in their face.” Also on the jury was Usvat’s business partner Ganesh Iyer, and Danielle Elmes, Group Fashion Editor at GN Magazines.
Filipina Nico Martin — the only one of her nationality in the contest, which took in candidates from all over the world — said she was hoping to not only fulfil a dream of her own, but also inspire fellow Filipinas to take up the career, a field in which she said South-East Asians are under-represented. “Other girls [in the Philippines] might have what it takes, but if they don’t see themselves on a magazine, they don’t realise they can make it,” said the 22-year-old.
Other candidates dreamt of careers in fashion, with modelling a route into the industry.
Andrea Brocca, who has made waves in the UAE as one of the country’s youngest fashion designers, found himself the centre of attention on the men’s runway with his distinctive look. He said he came after being encouraged by friends, didn’t see himself as a model — and expressed genuine surprise when handed a pass to the next round. “In Dubai you can do multiple things,” he said when asked if he’d take modelling as a career path. “I would do it of course, but long term, it’s design.” He cited Marcel Castenmiller and Abby Lee Kershaw as inspirational models.
Kazakh Jamila Bolat, 17, also has dreams of being a fashion designer and hopes a modelling career will give her insight into the industry — and help her treat models better when she’s dressing them. The high schooler, who starts a fashion design course in London next year, was one of the most stylish at the event, which saw aspiring models come dressed in everything from the model uniform of tight black leggings and t-shirts to mini-skirts more suited to a nightclub.
Not all the models selected were typically tall and skinny. One stunning, curvy candidate — who wouldn’t look out of place in a Victoria’s Secret commercial — burst into tears as she recounted her struggle with being overweight as a teenager. And one exceptionally slim girl was cautioned by juror Elite Models’ Middle East’s Shana Sebban Mannarini, who told her to start eating more.
Sebban Mannarini was looking out for new faces, and one male model who caught her eye was Indian-Afghan hopeful Shahbaz Khan, 20. He high-fived his father after getting through to the next round. Sebban Mannarini loved his unique look, saying he stood out because he was clearly doing something different than his family expected, but they were still proud of him.
“Secretly, you will catch me looking at spring-summer collections online — but then I will delete the history,” he said with a smile. “Dad wants me to be a doctor, but they aren’t that conservative. He really keeps me grounded,” he added citing Karl Lagerfeld and actor Sir Ian McKellen as his inspirations. “A good model should be gorgeous inside too, have confidence, knowledge and understanding. It’s hard work and you need to be committed. You can’t take it for granted”.
Sebban Mannarini said it’s all about potential and determination.
“When you see the contestants on the catwalk, you have to be able to visualise them in a runway show – ask, can you see them at Gautier? This will come into your mind immediately,” said the French model scout. “And they need to be determined – you can see that too.” For aspiring models, she encouraged them to attend the next open casting in May. “There is nothing to lose. This kind of competition has a bit of stress, but it’s the best way to start an international modelling career.”