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Model-Turned-Photographer Debra Somerville

Fashion photographer Debra Somerville has experience on both sides of the camera. She started her career as a model in New York and Paris. To hear from someone who knows what it’s like to model and knows what photographers like in models—well, it doesn’t get any better than that, so listen up!

How did you get into modeling? I went to Hicksville High School in Long Island, and Lorraine Bracco was in my grade. She got into modeling. We were good friends. She said, “You can do it too. You should come with me.” She told me she made $500 doing a fashion show. I thought, Whoa! I graduated and went directly to New York. It was hard for me. I was short. A lot of agents wouldn’t look at me, but I persevered. Back then some models were 5’6″; they were called junior models. You could be a little shorter if you were really thin. That’s not the case anymore. I was with Zoli first and then I went to Ford. They sent me to Paris right away. I was 17. Lorraine was in Paris too—we ran into each other in the street.

Which agency were you with there? John Casablancas was just starting his agency in Paris. He picked me among three or four girls to come. Eileen—all the agencies—used to send new models to Paris. There are a lot of magazines in Europe, so if you needed tear sheets, you could get a book together really fast. I worked there for about year.

Tell us about John Casablancas. Are all the rumors true? Johnny—he’s slimy, I’ll tell you that. He basically would take all the models’ money and put it into one pool. Some models worked a lot and some not much at all. Everyone got a certain amount of money each week, through Johnny. It was like waitresses pooling tips!

Did you work well? Did you like it, aside from the agent shenanigans? I worked a lot, especially in Germany; they paid cash, so I loved it. I traveled all over on jobs. I went to Morocco on a magazine shoot. Then I was with Models One in London. When I went back to the States, I left my voucher book in Paris. Johnny owed me a lot of money. I went to Eileen Ford for help. She told me: “You left without your money. That was stupid. I can’t get your money.” It was all under the table then. It was very seedy. I was so young and naïve. I didn’t question a lot of things. But it was a great time.

Did you keep modeling in the States? I went to Nina Blanchard in California. She was such a nice woman and really took me under her wing. I didn’t work much in New York; I wasn’t tall enough.

When did you stop modeling?  When I was 20, I got into acting. Eileen kept trying to send me to Paris. She wanted to get rid of me because I wasn’t a moneymaker for her. I was very commercial looking and very aggressive so I started getting TV commercials. I started studying acting and taking dance, voice, movement lessons—every class I could take. It was a great life. I made a ton of money and commercials supported me through residuals. I didn’t really want to stop, but I grew into a different type— I couldn’t do teen stuff but also didn’t fit as a young mom.

How did you get into photography? All my friends were in the business, and they all needed pictures. I started shooting them and I just loved it.

Tell us about your fashion photography experience. I always just wanted to shoot fashion. I loved fashion and was comfortable in that area. My first boyfriend was a pretty famous fashion photographer at the time. He taught me a lot, and I took a course at the International Center for Photography. I really wanted to learn what I was doing and work in the dark room and all that. I veered off into fine art photography and really studied photography. Printing was amazing—I loved it. Then I started assisting fashion photographers. I assisted Robert Farber, among others.

What inspired you to launch your modeling “Images Workshop”? There really wasn’t fashion in Connecticut, so after moving here from New York I was shooting family and children for years. I applied a fashion approach to my kids’ portraits, so the photos looked like they came from a fashion magazine. I put up pictures at a coffee shop and got a huge response. Everyone wanted me to do pictures of their kids. A few years ago, I decided I wanted to go back to my roots. Stores like Wish List needed pictures but didn’t have a budget for models, so I’d scout out girls at the mall and teach them what to do and develop them. I started getting calls from parents, wanting me to hire their daughters. I realized there was nothing in Connecticut for young girls who want to get into modeling. They don’t know how to do it. Images Workshop is a soft landing before going into New York, where the industry can be really harsh. If I had a young daughter, I wouldn’t let her go straight to New York. I’d love to send my daughter to me!

Model Michel Ann

Michel Ann, Project Runway model discovered by Debra Somerville

What does your Images Workshop entail? It’s like a real shoot you’d do in New York. You come to studio, have your hair and makeup done, and I help style the looks. I have a very supportive approach. We have a great time. A lot of these girls won’t be models but they want to know what it’s like. It’s glamorous!

Is Images Workshop for aspiring models only?  No. A lot of girls are attractive and they want to give it a try. I’ve even had moms give it as a gift to daughters who aren’t feeling so good about themselves. They’re having a hard time in school with jealous, catty girls, and they need a self-esteem boost. Ninety percent of the girls can’t be models. A fashion model is 1 in a million. But there’s commercial modeling too, which most of my girls go toward. I’ve developed two little boys and one teenage boy also.

Model Sam Gold

Model Sam Gold, shot by Debra Somerville

Walk us through an Images Workshop. Before the day of the shoot, I meet with the mom (if the child is young) and the child, see their look, analyze how to shoot them, and talk about clothes. Sometimes a stylist will work with me, but the girls bring most of the looks. I have them drop the clothes a few days before so I can have everything organized ahead of time. I like to do five shots, as that’s typically what you need to put together a comp card. At minimum, you need a headshot, body shot, and a shot that shows personality. On the day of the shoot, the model comes clean/clean (meaning clean hair and a clean cosmetic-free face).  With the first look, we’ll do more of a clean plain look and then build on that. The hairdresser/makeup artist stays the whole time to do different looks with each outfit. Most of the time, girls have no clue what to do in front of the camera. I work with everyone. Sometimes I physically actually show them how to pose, and they all come out looking beautiful. If the weather is nice, we’ll go on location for a couple shots. I edit down the photos a bit and email them a couple of days later. I guide them through selecting photos to print. If they want to go further and do a comp card, I help them with that, and if they want a list of agents in New York, I can provide that.

Debra Somerville's Studio

Photographer Debra Somerville

Debra in Action

What is the cost? $500. They get all the photos. I can help with prints, but that is a separate cost.

Tell us about your upcoming Modeling 101 Workshop on April 28? Modeling 101 is an introductory workshop for anyone interested in modeling or fashion. It will be about 15 girls. They’ll get to see what a shoot is like. Pia, from PIA (Personal Image Artist) salon, will do hair and makeup on one girl and she’ll give the group tips on makeup application and the best products. Michel Ann, a Weston native who has modeled on Project Runway, and Sam Mae, who models internationally, will be coming to talk about their experiences. Agents from the Johnston Agency in New Canaan are coming to speak, and, who knows, maybe find their next new face! There is an enormous amount of work in this area, and they are the only agency around here.

I’m looking forward to attending, interviewing the special guest models, and scouting for Modeling Mentor Model Search contenders! After spending an afternoon with Debra while she shot my 9-year-old son’s acting headshot, I can promise all the girls—all of us—will have a great time!

Modeling 101 Workshop

Sunday, April 28, $75, 1 pm to 4 pm

Age 12 and up 


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