The fashion industry is changing. Designers are looking to diversify their runways by rethinking beauty in terms of race, gender, and size. Heavily retouched fashion images are less popular, and since 2017, when model and activist Cameron Russell started sharing stories from models of sexual abuse on the job, the industry has been forced to reckon with its predatory culture.
Former models, Valerie Emanuel and Anne Therese, believe the fashion industry can be a platform for driving ethical standards by disrupting the business of modeling. They founded, Role Models Management, a modeling agency, that is the physical manifestation of this belief. Role Models Management puts ethics, sustainability, environmental, and social justice at the core of their business. They vet the brands that they align with, ensuring they share values, and match talent from their roster accordingly. We chatted over email with the founders to learn more about their vision for the future of fashion.
How did you meet?
Valerie Emanuel (VE): The story about how we met still surprises us because the truth is that Role Models Management was an up-and-running business before the two of us met in person. We were connected via email by a common friend, who had heard both of us share ideas about an ethical modeling agency. After a phone call, we decided to make it happen. For the first three months of operation, Anne Therese was in Sweden building the website and putting together pitch and marketing materials, while I was in LA getting papers in order and meeting with models. When we booked our first client, we understood that we were on to something and said that maybe it’s time we actually meet. We used the little money we had at the time, and Anne booked a ticket to LA, and stayed with me for ten days.
Anne Therese (AT): From the very beginning we’ve never had trust issues or doubt in one another—we both just felt like this was what we were supposed to do. When you’re driven by that kind of intuition and passion, you just make things happen. The relationship between us is very unique, it’s almost like we’re sisters, everything is very straight on and unfiltered. It’s a no-bullshit business operation, haha!
What inspired you to start an ethical agency?
AT: We had both been modeling, and gotten a sense for the industry. The way the industry is set up, models simply don’t have a voice. You’re supposed to show up when told, do as your told, and in between, you better sit in a corner and follow orders. Models are known for their faces and poses, and not for who they are as people.
With a growing understanding of the natural beauty world and sustainable fashion, we thought that there must soon be a demand from companies to hire models that actually care. Models with a passion and with a voice they’re ready to share with the world so that the messages in their marketing campaigns can be even stronger. If you’re promoting ethical practices in your business, why not hire the model who is all about walking that talk?
How do you define an ethical agency?
VE: An agency that is transparent in the way it operates. We are open with our models about money, clients, and our conversations with our models are different than a typical agency. For example, we have an open door policy. We invite models to come into the office, call, and text us about pretty much anything—modeling or personal. Modeling as a career can be confusing and mentally challenging, and we want our models to know we’re here. At the end of the day, their wellness and self-esteem is the most important asset we have because it determines how they will show up on set and how they will present themselves to the client.
AT: We believe that models today have a responsibility to help set standards for a more just and sustainable future. We’re also doing all we can as an agency to help educate and empower our models to do so. We host events where we share important facts on fashion, food, climate, and other social issues, and we love to share the important work that our models are doing: from donating their times at animal sanctuaries to organizing beach cleanups around the world! Oh gosh, we’re so proud of our models!
Based on your past experience as models, how is your recruitment process different from traditional modeling agencies?
AT: Compared to most other modeling agencies we don’t just ask for pictures, age, and measurements, we want to know who you are. And most importantly, what you are passionate about! Many times we get submissions from men and women who look great and that have great potential as a model, but then the question remains: are you a role model? Since our mission as an agency is to represent models who are passionate about making a change in the world and who we believe have the ability to be a positive influence to other people, this part of the recruitment process is so important. We’re not asking people to be perfect, but you do have to stand for something and be willing to share that message with the world.
How are your relationships and dealing with brands different from a traditional agency?
VE: We’re working hard to build one-on-one relationships with brands so that we can fully understand their mission and ethos. There has been so much separation between different sectors of the industry, but we all have one common goal so we should act as a team, with everyone’s best interests in mind! We all have to be honest and have open conversations about everything including fair pay, models needs, and how we can help production run smoothly.
Do you think other agencies will eventually adopt some of your practices?
AT: We hope so! Models and entertainers can change the world—no, seriously—and they need to know that. o as agents let’s empower models to be change makers. The modeling industry has been way too competitive and destructive for too long, and it’s not just the models that are hurting from it—everyone who looks up to them and follows influencers are gonna follow what they do. So, let’s change beauty standards and show models as whole people rather than just an image.
What do you hope for the future of Role Models?
VE: Expansion! More of a presence in New York and Europe. London or Stockholm office is definitely a goal! But besides corporate growth, we hope to create a movement where other actors and models in the field follow the message. We would love to see more agencies educating their models on important topics and we hope that more and more models feel comfortable stepping into the shoes of being a positive inspiration in the world. It’s almost like the world has created this idea that you can’t both be pretty and smart, and you definitely can’t be pretty and have a big heart that wants to do good in this world. A person like that is too intimidating so we rather think that models are dumb. Well, that is wrong, and we hope to help models feel entitled to show off their inner beauty too!
What would a fashion industry utopia look like to you?
AT: Fast fashion is out and unsustainable, ethical and circular fashion is the new norm. We will see clothes made from natural textiles and brands that embrace repurposed and upcycled garments. Fashion will have gone back to what fashion used to be; art, quality, and craft that is made for humans with respect, both for the people and the planet. And with all the new technology and transparency, there really isn’t a reason why fashion shouldn’t look like this very soon.
Cover Photo: Role Models Management
Words: Laura Jones