For the latest edition of MMSCENE we talk to LISA OVADIA the Men’s Board Director at the FASHION MODEL MANAGEMENT in Milan. With more than three decades in the business, Lisa is actually the only director to never change her agency. She’s since day one with FASHION in Milan, and is at the helm of this leading agency for almost twenty-five years. Our Editor In Chief ZARKO DAVINIC sits down in Milan for an exclusive interview with her to talk about beginnings, the Instagram craze as well as the makings of a star.
When we talked a while ago you told me that you started working in the fashion industry really young?
Yes, I started when I was eighteen.
Did you know that you are interested in this business?
Not at all, it was really by accident. Probably this business was choosing me, I was studying literature at a University, nothing you could compare to fashion. I was not even in fashion and I did not even know who models were. At that time models were not something big, there was none of this media attention surrounding them. So models were something just sitting on a wall in big stores, and you would be just ‘ah okay it’s just advertising’ and that is it. So, my mom went to a trip to Egypt and came back to me to tell me ‘You know what I went to this cruise, and met this man who has a model agency who is so inspiring… So you should come with me to introduce you’. And since I was eighteen at that time naturally I wanted the opposite of what my mother asked me to do, and I said: “No Mom I do not care, I am so busy with school.” But I don’t know why, maybe it was written in the stars I somehow agreed to go with her. So I went with her and I see this agency with all these cards, and everything. So this man who was the Director of the agency right away asked me to come and work with them.
Honestly you know, I went to the University, my father had a business and I was helping him after school. But the director of the agency insisted, and eventually what I did I left the University since it wasn’t something I was very interested in to begin with. So I said to myself ‘Alright, let’s do it‘. So I left the University and started working as this little assistant.
But did you regret leaving your education?
Not at all, not at all. I believe I chose something more to just be with friends, not a profession I was really intent on. So I left the University but also kept the afternoon job at my father’s business. I was going to Fashion Models in the morning and heading to my dad in the afternoon. Considering I was the only child my Father intended for me to inherit the business. But after a while I got the offer to stay and work at Fashion full time, which was the hardest part. I had to face my dad and tell him I am not to come and work anymore, without much time to think about. My dad told me ‘You can do it but you can not come back’. So I had to take a choice and I did.
Was it hard?
I am not sure I can say that, but believe me I was really treated like a slave, my beginning was like…. the assistants now really they have no idea.
It was so difficult before, because today it comes down to a lot of emailing and sitting at your desk. And you are like, ‘oh I am tired of emails’.
Bravo! My time as an assistant was printing the cards, and you know arranging the books, cutting the papers going through all the magazines, it was 100s of magazines… so I was cutting these magazines. And they are calling me ‘Lisa Lisa do that, Lisa do this!’.
Daan Van Der Deen at FASHION by Igor Cvoro for D’SCENE
But it was a good way to learn the business, how long did you work as an assistant?
Believe me, I learned everything there is to from the bottom up, it lasted for around three for years, it was a long period. So at a certain point by chance two of the bookers left, and so they put me sitting there. And my first booking was a TV commercial!
That was a big thing back then.
Yes, and I was like ‘WOW’, so little by little I started to do this job and realized I really have a passion for it.
You saw that you can work with all these people in the industry?
Yes exactly and I could also speak languages, I was able to speak English but I could use my knowledge of French as well. Which I improved thanks to my travelling, fluent French absolutely helps. Cause you know back then if you didn’t know french they would treat you like an idiot. But when your French is good, they treat you entirely different. So it helps.
So how many years passed till you became a director?
Ah it passed quickly, I can say I was a very young director. I was 25 when I started.
It was a big responsibility.
Yes, and the person I worked with, my director was for sure a leader in this business. I had the best teacher, because he was terrible, he was treating me very badly. But I was thought how to do this business. So when I became the Director, it was because he decided to leave and his mind it was obvious that I was going with him.
He was leaving for another agency and decided to take his own staff?
Yes, of course. The day he left he said to me ‘C’mon‘ and I said ‘C’mon what? I am not coming‘. Can you Imagine how hard it was for me. Even tho this person was so hard to work with, I started with him and to say I would not come.
It was the better the devil you know situation?
Yes exactly, and what happened in the following 10 minutes the Fashion agency owners, while he was still in the office, sent me flowers with message ‘Welcome to the new director!‘
While he was still there?
Yes, he was still there. It was also very awkward in a way. So from that moment on I really felt that this is my calling, this was exactly that I am gonna do and this was exactly my life.
Last time we spoke, you told me you had strong offers to go and leave Milan, start an agency elsewhere. Why did you decide to stay in Milan?
I think Milan is the center of this business, even tho models and clients may think it shifted to other countries.
Edward Wilding at FASHION by Igor Cvoro for D’SCENE
Yes, there is a lot of competition between the fashion capitals.
I believe Milan was always and still is a place where a model can become known. At the time I started there were only American models working here. You were building models and building their careers in Milan and after they would go to New York and Paris, to settle down or do some other stuff.
But why do you think there is an impression Milan is losing the race?
I think fashion like everything in life, has timing. So I do believe it comes back and goes away and then comes back. Just like your grandmothers forty year old dress sitting in a closet.
You in your agency have officially now placed an ‘influencer’ category.
There are models who are already influencers, there are clients who are really obsessed with the term. It works, it’s another way to see the business.
Do they come already asking for an ‘influencer’?
Some do, but not everyone. Some need or like it more, but in the end we all have Instagram open all day. We follow all of that! I have to say there is also a separate office, the owner of Fashion is really forward thinking so we are creating a separate division. He sees what is happening in the future, he jumped on the idea and opened a new division couple of months ago.
But do you take influencers just based on the number of followers in addition to the influencers coming from your own ranks?
No I still need my fashion, even tho we can mix. I still believe that I like to keep my fashion part, but it is important to have both.
You are an avid user of instagram, do you ever go to a model’s page and ask them to take something down?
Honestly, I don’t. You know what I believe, who makes a mess on instagram he’s gonna have a messy book as well. I myself arrange the books of my models, I have my own way to see and I take out what I don’t think is proper.
But do you go to a model and tell them how to edit this ‘modern day book’? Everybody is now checking Instagram accounts when casting.
I think it’s kind of in a human nature. But I do believe that I prefer not to judge what someone’s feed is like, as if it is truly the way they live. Some people like to share too much and they show something which isn’t REALLY them.
So what about minimizing exposure. When do you decide and tell the model not to take a shoot or a job?
About the exposure, I have my own philosophy which honestly goes against other agents quite a lot. I always thought in my life once you know the direction you want to take a model the exposure is never a problem. The exposure I give to my models is the right one, in the end if you chose proper what they do, even if they are on a magazine and on stage every day they can do well. So I do not believe less of exposure is better. This is maybe a case for singers and actors. For models exposure is good.
Kit Butler at FASHION by Igor Cvoro for D’SCENE
But you have Wouter Peelen for an example, who is one of the biggest money guys who does not expose himself much.
Of course he and Will Chalker arrived to a point where they can do only what they want.
Yes they can even take a 6 month break.
But they listen to their agent as well, I am the first one if the client is not right for a boy to say ‘No, he’s not available‘. But not in a spoiled or a snobby way, since money is money.
But refusing jobs sometimes backfires?
Yes, of course. If you are refusing too many jobs the clients are gonna find somebody else.
Speaking of castings, what do you think of these scandals shaking the scene. Balenciaga controversy etc.
I do believe you can talk if you were there, and if you actually saw what happened in this scandal. I personally feel there is a bit of ego with some casting directors, snobbish attitude. In a way I don’t wanna defend the casting directors, but they do not decide where you do the casting! They are not choosing the location, but they can chose not to be unpleasant or unfair.
Do you think it really did go out of control in general, with thousands of models coming for some castings.
It depends if their agents are respectful or not. If a client comes to me I am gonna maybe add a few models more, however it is about being respectful. Because I am respectful I am never gonna invade a space. I do believe there are agents who bring millions of models, not caring about the client’s demands. But this is also our responsibility.
That is why I follow shows by bringing to Milan during a season only a limited number of guys. This season there were forty, and believe me with less guys I was having the right point. Because more would be a disaster. Everyone had something at least, even if it was one show they had something.
There are so many guys who don’t book anything.
Absolutely, and they get frustrated and lose money. You kinda burn, because what Instagram is doing is also burning in a way. It is also pushing for young guys, you see a boy and he’s 15! And you know how much i follow Instagram.
Paul Boche at FASHION by Igor Cvoro
Do you think that is too young? Do you take underage models for your board.
It has no logic, they are kids. I understand 17 but 15 is so young, it is a child. We are gonna wait for the model to turn at least 16 before talking about signing with their Mother Agents.
So what do you think for your agency, what defines a good FASHION MODEL.
A good Fashion Model, is a person who is healthy, takes good care of himself, has an education. I do consider how people act you know, if somebody is an unfair person and tends to lie. A person who is direct comes first for me. I like to have with my guys a very honest connection. I am like a big sister, sometimes I am like a mom, I always give advises, I am always there to talk to them about any problems. But In the meantime I want them honest and direct.
But you want them to tell you if they are not happy.
Of course, it’s the first thing to do. I want the model who has a problem with a job or anything else to come and talk.
But what about them wanting to go to another agency, do you let them go?
They go, I have stopped maybe two guys in my whole career. I do believe that people trust me when we talk, and I did convince them they were going in a wrong direction. But this happened only a couple of times. When a model wants to leave, I am sure that is the end of our relation.
Sometimes you even have to tell them yourself, ‘that is it’?
Exactly, a lot of times I say ‘that’s it’ and I do believe when I say it I do the best for them. I give them chance to do something better, to be free. Once in a while I look at my board, and I do the ‘cleaning’, and I am like OK he has no jobs, no updates, didn’t hear from them. Why keep him? I prefer to say ‘Thank you, we tried‘.
Is it also about not letting your agency forget you?
You know sometimes models think its up to the agency to call them and chase them around the world. This is something we have to do together, you know its not my job, it is OUR job. Update me, let me know where you are, how’s your life what are you doing. There’s a million of them and I am one.
How do you deal with so many personalities? One fell asleep, other is late….
I think I am strict, perhaps like my father was with me. I never scream, I never lose my temper. Explaining to them calmly what’s the problem, is the best way to make somebody understand. But you know there is always a basic respect that I want to maintain, we can be friends we can go out and take a pizza, but remember this is business. I am your director do not forget that. We also can’t forget we are working with human beings, it’s not stacking t-shirts. Personality is always a question mark.
Dan at FASHION by Igor Cvoro for D’SCENE
Everybody is different, it takes just one season to get to know somebody I guess?
Absolutely, If somebody is snobby I like to bring it down to normality. We are not saving lives, we are in a business of fashion. Let’s be professional but there is no reason for drama, don’t get dramatic cause a model is late. Just be professional, it can happen you are late sometime.
Going back to the socials and castings, do you ever cast from the instagram?
I check it out a lot, but I respect an agent. All of my career, never in my life did I fish a model. That is very important, I always respected the agents, I never took a model from another agent. If a model decides with a mother agency they want to move on, that is respectful. I never ask the models directly, it’s important to be respectful to my colleagues. There are a lot of agents who do not act like that.
There’s a lot of fishing going around.
Exactly, I respect my colleagues wherever in the world they are. I absolutely never contact the model, I always ask the mother agency. I will never send a model a message ‘you know I am Lisa and you dream to work for a big agency’….
So, what if a model contacts you and says he’s unhappy with his mother agency? Do you look into it.
I hate that situation, I tell the model to solve the problem before with his Mother Agency and then we can talk. Even if I never met their Mother Agent, to get inside of this relation for me is very bad.
Do you think Instagram is still the best source to scout, or do you consider other Apps and social networks?
I am not very video oriented, its more for me about the images. I guess Snapchat and that kinda stuff is for the younger generations.
But speaking of a video, do you think the modelling will go into the acting direction.
Maybe, but honestly I wanna remain on the side of the picture business.
When it comes to the healthy body image, do you ever tell a model they are ‘too skinny’?
I never interfere, I do address it with models who are in town. But we do not interfere with international models, I think the healthy look in Milan is overall very good and in a sense I hope it’s gonna go into the healthy direction. Even tho I am not a commercial girl, and I love this editorial side, more of an editorial guy.
Paul Boche at FASHION by Igor Cvoro for D’SCENE
It’s the time for the fresh faces. But do you think the brands want to save the money on the fresh faces?
No, I believe the brands always look for something new. What I see in almost 35 years of a career, is everything going in a circle. We are not discovering something new anymore.
Who from your guys you think will blow up in a two season.
That is hard to say, honestly I do believe if I take a new model, and I do not take a lot of them, I am very selective. I do believe all of them can be the next star.
You do not have favourites?
No it would not be fair, I get offered a millions of guys every day, and I say a million of NOs. But I don’t wanna be a snobby queen, the ones I sign are the ones I feel will work.
Where do you think our industry will go in 10 years from now.
I think in the 10 yeas we are gonna pass through what we passed in the last decade. But it leaves me in good spirit, it means that this business is gonna live forever. If I still feel a passion like that in this business after 35 years, this means this is an exciting environment. Not every job leaves you feeling like this.
So when do you think you would retire?
I have no idea, in a way it can be a dream. Live in a seaside, with my husband walking a dog in the beach. It could be fantastic. But it is not in a near future.
But you balance it really well?
I always wanted to do that, that is why. I always thought you can’t mix your job with personal life. When it’s mixed, I believe you do not see the reality of your life. Sometimes of course it can overlap, but there should be a divide. That’s my life – that’s my work.
But in the beginning did you have this idea of working day and night without sleep?
No! Maybe because I need eight hours of sleep, always! Who does not do that, I believe is not really sane. If i didn’t have these eight hours I would go crazy! If you can work the time right, you have to take your time to eat, to sleep, to enjoy to exercise and to stay with your family.
Do you tell your bookers to take it slow?
No I don’t [laughs]! No I work with them, sometimes we go out from here at 10 of clock. But you have to stop yourself! There is a point when I tell to myself, put the phone down and don’t look at it. You need to have a break!
What about Italy? And shutting down in August?
It’s not realistic, but I do see that the fashion busines in Italy stops in August. If we were here in August, we would not have what to do. I see people from other countries getting upset with us. But we were always doing that.
But you are on Instagram even in August!
Hahaha, but you know that I found big stars in August. I am on a beach watching my instagram and asking who is this marvelous model! It brings me luck. I am a very calm person full of passion, It’s probably a capricorn thing. I think it’s a better way to take life.
Probably when I am retired, if I am not on a beach I am gonna still work in fashion business with my knowledge and experience.
Keep up with Lisa Ovadia @lisafashionmodel
Photo of Lisa by Matteo di Pippo
Interview originally published in April 2017 edition of MMSCENE