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Why Skinny Young Models Are a Marketing Mistake

I heard Canadian agent Ben Barry on the radio the other day. He caught my attention for two reasons.

Ben Barry Models

Ben Barry Models

One, his research exploring cross-cultural consumer attitudes toward fashion reveals some provocative conclusions. Turns out the Western woman is more likely to buy a product modeled by someone close to her age and body type (this includes luxury brands like Chanel, which most women can’t afford until they are past middle age). This is not necessarily the case in Asia, where consumers respond to models who fit the mold of the Western beauty ideal. Barry—Dr. Barry—is no slouch, by the way; he’s not casually quizzing his mom’s friends. He earned a doctorate at Cambridge and is an Assistant Professor of Equity, Inclusivity and Diversity in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto. Barry also penned a bestseller (Fashioning Reality: A New Definition of Entrepreneurship) and is writing Refashioning Models: The Business Case for Diversity In Fashion. He’s been interviewed on CNN and Oprah. Long before that, a modeling magazine editor talked to him and featured the then 18-year-old in an article entitled “Ben Barry Agency Inc.: Canadian Boy Wonder Builds an International Reputation.”

This brings me to the second reason I perked up when I heard his name—it sounded so familiar. I got home and looked back through my stacks of Tear Sheet and sure enough, there was the story I wrote about Ben Barry back in 2001. Apparently my eyes were better then because the font is so small I can’t read it once it’s scanned, so here’s a recap:

APRIL 2001:

We all know how crucial the age factor can be in the fashion world: an over-the-hill 18-year-old can barely get in the door at most New York agencies. Ben Barry must have thought the same applied to bookers when he launched into a fast-paced career as a model agent at the tender age of 14.

Actually, he didn’t really “launch” into a career; he stumbled into it. But this eloquent 18-year-old hasn’t stumbled through a negotiation—or interview—since his freshman booker days.

Barry explained, “A friend of mine had taken a modeling course, spent all this money, and didn’t get any work.” (Sound familiar, anyone?) “I just wanted to help her out, so I photocopied some of her pictures and sent them to a magazine. The magazine proceeded to call and tell me they were interested in booking her. ‘You must be her agent,’ they said, and I sort of stammered, ‘Uhhh, yes,’ covered the mouthpiece and said, ‘Mom, quick, what’s your fax number at work?’”

With one successful deal Barry caught the booking bug and soon built a stable of lanky models through references from friends.

“There’s no course on being an agent, there’s no book you can read, so you have to learn by doing it and by talking to other agents,” says Barry, who found a mentor in Elmer Olsen, head of Elite Model Management in Toronto. “Most of the other agents were skeptical,” says Barry of his visit to Toronto several years ago to seek tutelage, “but Elmer was very welcoming. He taught me about how to charge and about usage fees. He let me sit at the judges’ table during Elite’s Model Look contest, so I could learn what to look for in new talent.”

Barry now represents 150 models, ages 5 to 60, and his models have been placed in Japan, Europe, and North America, with top agents like Ford, Elite, Next, and IMG. He has two people in his agency handling local bookings and covering for him while he goes to school (he’s in grade 13 at Ashbury College, where he’s school captain and valedictorian), but he handles all international bookings with early-morning calls to overseas clients and late afternoon check-in calls with his models.

Barry has refreshing ideas on applying sound business principles to the wacky world of modeling: “It’s important to understand this is a business. With each model, it’s a marketing process. I consider each model a separate business entity and I have a different business plan in each model’s file.” Most of his scouts are still in high school students, smack dab in the middle of scouter’s heaven. Like Barry, they can relate to the models and gain their trust. “I don’t charge any fees; we’re strictly a booking agency. Like any business, there are start-up expenses—photo shoots, promotional materials—and sometimes we finance these.”

While this entrepreneur plans to enroll in a business program at college next year (student or teacher…?), the Ben Barry Agency will continue to scout, book, and serve as mother agent to many models. Barry also has plans to expand and open offices in other smaller markets in Canada, where he will continue to put forward an ethical foot in the industry and let people know: “You don’t have to mortgage your home to make your kid a successful model!”


Since then, Oprah has told Barry, “Aren’t you something!” I’m pleased to say I knew that before she did.

Watch this video of Dr. Barry discussing his latest research: