the modelling agency opening czech minds
The New Aliens agency is pushing for radical inclusivity amidst a conservative political culture.
The last time I saw Smokee Kween she was performing to a crowd in platform pumps, her lips in perfect synch with Man, I Feel Like a Woman. Tonight, Marek Loup has washed away his eyebrows, his peroxide hair brushing his shoulders, the hem of his gauzy black skirt skimming a pair of heeled boots. A button on his leather jacket reads FUCK HARDER. He's 16 again, an age he hates (the character Smokee is 25), and anyway, it isn't important. Nor is the pronoun I use to describe him, he tells me, sitting across the table in a Prague cafe.
Marek pulls out his phone to show me his first photos in drag, snapped by his mother. Then there’s one from a few years ago, in the pre-Smokee days, in which he sports a short crop of purple hair, barefaced except for a puerile grin. "Just a normal guy,” that person says now. And then, rather winkingly: “Little too gay.”
New Aliens, the agency that represents Smokee/Loup, looks -- on the surface -- much like any other modelling agency, with a roster of clients that includes Mercedes-Benz Prague Fashion Week. But New Aliens does nothing on surface level, beginning with its casting: Its "non-models" and performers represent a far more inclusive array of genders, sexual orientations, and skin colours than Czech society has fully embraced, according to directors Monina Nevrlá and Jakub Ra. "We are trying to give our perspective, to spread it to the Czech Republic, to Czech society, and to improve it a little bit," Ra says of the group. He adds, "I'm perceiving that's really difficult.”
A modelling agency with androgynous, multiracial and unconventionally beautiful talent isn't an entirely new concept in the fashion industry. But it remains something avant-garde in the Czech Republic -- where gay marriage is still up for debate (though attitudes towards homosexuality have chilled since the fall of communism), and where trans people must have sterilising surgery to change their legal genders.
Amnesty International has taken the country to task, repeatedly, for the discrimination and hate crimes endured by its sizeable Roma population, as has the European Court of Human Rights. The country has long fallen short of meeting EU migration quotas. The Czech prime minister came under fire last fall for refusing a proposal to accept 50 child refugees ("I went into politics mainly to look after Czech citizens. Why should we be caring for Syrian orphans?” the PM remarked).
New Aliens, purveyor of FUCK HARDER buttons, wants to update the identity politics of local fashion and advertising. A creative agency beneath the New Aliens umbrella hosts regular lectures at the Czech Fashion Council and spearheads performance-art activism. And New Aliens's parties are open to the public, serving the whole crowd vegan dinner.
While its talent pool has swelled to over 80 non-models and performers (including Ra's pet snail, Karel, who has purportedly already booked a job), there isn't yet enough interest to keep the Aliens busy. "Clients, they are still scared, [in the] Czech Republic, Slovak Republic," Nevrlá says. "They are very scared to use them because they are different, because people from normal society will be scared of them."
For its talent, New Aliens's radical inclusivity creates a community of outsiders, which Nevrlá and Ra liken to the houses of the New York voguing scene. Both the directors and several of the non-models tell me that the Aliens often turn to a private Facebook group for support with problems like depression and addiction.
“It's a family, because gay people and queer people choose their family," Loup says. "Obviously, I love my family. But with New Aliens, I feel free."
In addition to captivating good looks, the directors seek out open-minded individuals who could benefit from inclusion in the group. "In the casting [process], we see people that are not ready to open themselves," Ra says. "When we see some kind of potential, we accept the people to the agency. We are working with them and trying to give them a safe space, which is the most important thing for them to develop their personalities."
The group’s performance art also aims to raise local consciousness. Scifi Is the New Basic Bitch, an installation in Prague's historic Lucerna passage, mounted a defence of the feminine energy in beings of all genders. In Exposure, an event held at the National Gallery's Cafe Jedna, a tangle of Alien bodies personified the diverse cellular structure of a single living organism to argue for the role of complex community in contemporary art.
Loup, who responded to a call for talent and was cast last year, says that it was Ra's idea to use New Aliens to develop and promote Smokee, although Loup is also interested in pursuing modelling work. He was born and raised in Mladá Boleslav, an automotive-manufacturing city on the outskirts of Prague, and regularly commutes to the capital. He says Mladá Boleslav hasn't always demonstrated its support for someone whose appearance continually shifts between masculine and feminine; he estimates he's been beaten up "ten times maybe".
During our conversation, a middle-aged crowd assembles in the cafe, playing instruments and singing along to classic Czech music in my line of sight over Loup's right shoulder. It's a scene that could have taken place ten, or thirty, or fifty years ago, when Prague was the capital of communist Czechoslovakia. I'm surprised that Loup has asked us to meet here, amongst a demographic that may not be ready for what he and Smokee have to offer.
But readiness is hardly the point. "Of course, no one is ready for anything," Nevrlá tells me. "It's like, 'Are you ready for a new relationship?'" She adds, "How do you know if the people are ready or not if you don't show them that it is here and that we work like this?"