First down the runway is Smutty, with his tapestry of tattoos and spiky hair. Click. Next comes Jenny O, Sweden’s hottest export since the meatball. She’s tall, bald, porcelain from head to toe. Click. Then comes Atila, with his flowing, silken tresses. And Maltbie, the Waikiki surfer. And E.K., with her electric blond hair a dead ringer for Billy Idol. Click. Click. Click.
That’s the word, and the word along Fashion Avenue is that there’s a hot new model agency in town. Ford remains the Cadillac of the industry and Elite an increasingly respectable Lincoln Continental. But, at least as far as prestige goes, Wilhelmina and Zoli have been passed on the turn by modeling’s equivalent to the Saab Turbo. By Click, as in click of the camera. The agency specializes in “exotic looks,” and its success says something about the modeling world today.
The Click Agency is run out of offices near Carnegie Hall by Frances Grill, 55, a former art groupie and photographer’s rep, which is to say, a lifelong bohemian with wildly eclectic tastes. Give me your California volley-bailers (St. John Smith), says Grill, your Long Island clammers (Steve Aviano), the refuse of your teeming postpunk shores yearning to pull down $500 an hour. Add some notably well-sculpted athletes like Olympic swimmers Steve Lundquist and Rowdy Gaines. Throw in sundry famous relations: Matt Dillon’s brother, Peter Townshend’s daughter, Walter Mondale’s niece. And, of course, Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini’s little girl, Isabella, Vogue’s favorite cover girl and Lancôme’s signature product enhancer. And presto! You have a multimillion-dollar agency.
Grill objects to the notion ventured by the competition—by Eileen Ford and John Casablancas at Elite—that Click is simply capitalizing on “weird people.” She says she is reacting against modeling’s Nordic norm, which came to flower in such American beauty roses as Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley. “Ford created a very beautiful blond blue-eyed preppy look,” she says. “The image that pretty girl projected to me was straight out of J.C. Penney. The beautiful blondes were and are in every catalog across the nation. They were the catalog look, but they weren’t fashion.”
In a daring move Click has played down the catalog, the acknowledged meat and potatoes of modeling and has counted on a steady diet of high fashion. Click has aligned itself with the fashion photographer and his needs. Ergo the agency’s name: Click. During her years flogging photographers’ pictures, Grill says she was continually “frustrated dealing with the modeling agencies,” who dealt exclusively in classic beauties. “I appreciate a beautiful man and woman,” she says, “but [classic looks] don’t always say what it is you want to say with fashion.” Grill rejects the notion that she deals in freaks, preferring the phrase “odd looks.” Some of the men in her collection, she concedes, “do have long noses. They are too big, a bit awkward, looking like they might stumble over their own feet. They’re a little shy about being in front of the camera.” Which, she says, “is the way men should be.”
Grill’s own background is decidedly unglamorous. The daughter of a sometime union organizer, she was born and reared among longshoremen in the tough Red Hook section of Brooklyn. Frances and her sister, Rose, were often stowed in an orphanage when their father, refused work on the docks, couldn’t manage to feed his brood. “On the Waterfront,” she laughs, “gave my life dignity.” She was, she says, from the word go “a natural agent, always involved with musicians, sculptors, painters who were part of what was called the Beatnik Scene.” In the mid-’60s, Frances met a photographer named Frank Horvat, who “taught me how to see.” He also inspired her to represent a handful of photographers, which she eventually did to the tune of $100,000 per annum. For years she’d been saying she was going to start her own photo agency, then in 1980 an acquaintance called in a panic. He’d put a million bucks in his model agency, it was going bottoms up, did she have a panacea handy? “It was already hopeless,” she says. “But there were a few kids there capable of being models. I chose them and sent them to Europe to work.”
With an investment of just $100,000, Grill found an unlikely partner in Allan Mindel, a med school student who got hooked on the business during a chance visit to her office. She sought out the gaps in the modeling establishment, starting with men. “Zoli had provided the male image before,” she says. “It was very precious, very uptight, very formal, a nonavailable look. But I felt there was more.” What Frances did, in effect—with the help of noted fashion photographer Bruce Weber—was to flip-flop the current modeling stereotype. “We made the athletic boy the cover instead of the girl,” she explains. A case in point are Calvin Klein’s billboards and ads for men’s fragrance featuring Maltbie’s bronzed back (he’s known as “the Back”) lying upon a bedded damsel. “We took the image out of a precious point of view and gave that outdoors/sports-oriented person a space upon the page.”
Her real stroke, however, was to persuade Isabella Rossellini to turn paper doll. “She was an old friend,” says Grill. “One day she asked if there was any way she could help the agency. I said, ‘Yes. You should become a model.’ At which point she gasped.” Rosellini was a journalist, then married to director Martin Scorsese. She was also 29 and had never plucked her eyebrows, much less worn makeup. Then Bruce Weber took her picture, and nothing was ever the same again. Within eight months she hit 28 magazine covers.
Frances grows philosophical. “Ford reflects Eileen herself,” she says. “Eileen came out of an age when to create a model out of a daughter was really a shameful desire. She worked very successfully to give the business respectability. This is probably her major contribution. When John Casablancas came in, respectability in modeling was established and he had a more relaxed point of view. Ford was his idol and his competition. I didn’t have any competition because I was filling a gap and there were no guidelines for it. I do think I’ve influenced them. I think I’ve helped unite Johnny Casablancas with Eileen Ford.”
Grill has indeed, if only in their joint skepticism about Click’s future. “Trendy things come and go,” says Eileen Ford. “We have been in the business 38 years. I think they’ve been in the business for three. They have 35 more years to go.” And Casablancas: “They have some strange-looking models but the world just now wants classical ones, I think. It’s a double-edged sword. The weird looks gave Click its glory, but now they are stuck with it.” And that suits Frances Grill just fine.