the true story behind the demise of trump models
A relic from Trump’s lavish heyday, his modelling agency is closing amidst dissenting models and flagging business.
In October, the phones rang less. On November 9, they flatlined. All over New York, people were walking around teary-eyed, but at Trump Models's airy white office in SoHo, things were even bleaker. "It was like a cemetery," one source said. In the dead quiet, one word nevertheless felt unbearably loud, printed in giant lime-green capital letters on the glass entryway: TRUMP.
For most of its existence, the boutique agency had a staff of eight to ten bookers, an apartment for models to live in in the East Village, and a roster of about 150 beautiful but not unusually famous girls from around the world -- in other words, a fairly standard operation. And like most of New York City, the team at Trump never expected their namesake to win. "I thought the whole thing was a joke," said Atong Arjok, a former Trump model who is also a refugee, having immigrated from Sudan to California as a child. "It was hard to wrap my mind around. This is a name that opposes everything I am."
Last month, Trump Models, officially called Trump Model Management, sent out a letter to clients explaining the reasons for its closure, citing the larger Trump Organisation's desire to focus on core businesses like real estate, golf, and hospitality. Reached by phone last week, a rep confirmed that the agency is technically not operating, and will officially shutter at the end of May. The story of the agency's closure is, in one sense, straightforward: why would a President continue to own a modelling agency? But it's also a parable of a new reality for fashion, whose relative insulation from politics was punctured in November when Trump was elected president. The agency, founded in 1999, is just one of Trump's many connections to the broader fashion world. There are the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants, which he sold in 2015, the clothing lines, the daughters who've spent time on catwalks, and the long list of wives and girlfriends who've graced magazine covers. Despite vocal opposition from within the industry, fashion -- and the scores of beautiful women it tends to employ -- has played a crucial role in constructing Trump's personal mythology.
At a launch event for the agency in 1999, Trump raised a toast: "To the richest agency." In reality, Trump Models was hardly his most lucrative venture -- per his latest financial disclosure, Trump received an annual income of less than $2 million from the project -- yet it broadcast an image of wealth. Early on, when the agency threw parties, Trump was photographed at them. It signed Paris Hilton in the late 90s, and girlfriend Melania Knauss was soon on board by proxy, too, doing a shoot for British GQ on Trump's private jet. It also provided certain powers. From time to time, Trump hand-picked a contestant from his beauty pageants to offer representation at the agency. One Miss Utah, whom he offered to introduce to modelling contacts the year prior starting to Trump Models, recalled his method of introduction: "He kissed me directly on the lips. I thought, 'Oh my god, gross.'"
Despite vocal opposition from within the industry, fashion has played a crucial role in constructing Trump's personal mythology.
Meanwhile, the association did not always benefit the agency. "Some have been put off by its connotations of Vegas glitz," noted The New York Post soon after Trump Models launched, reporting that its name was being shortened to the "sleeker, simpler" T Management. A few years later, the name changed back. Said the agency's president in 2003, "Everything he puts his name on does well, so why not?"
Trump Models, insiders say, was never a top-ten agency. "They had one or two [successful] girls every couple years but it never stuck," casting director Douglas Perrett, of COACD, explains. But what it lacked in trendiness Trump Models made up in solid contacts and a nice, dependable staff, models say. Though models who worked at Trump during the mid aughts reported problems at the agency -- including uncomfortable living quarters and flouting of immigration law -- in a Mother Jones story last year, every model I spoke to who was there more recently emphasised she was treated well. "[Trump's] M.O. was being sweeter and more family oriented," said Imogen Whist, a Canadian model who signed in 2013. "It didn't have a snobby feeling." Hungarian model Eszter Boldov notes she was always paid, and that her bookers were professional."It was an amazing agency." Although the agency's apartment for models that she lived in was, she felt, overpriced (her bunk bed went for $3,000 a month), it was also one of the more comfortable ones she'd stayed in.
As far as the affiliation with Trump the person, nearly every model I spoke to who worked recently with the agency said that there was virtually none - until the election. "It was just another name, like Ford," said Sam Ypma, a former model from Canada who signed in 2011. "No one thought about what it meant." Nearly all of the bookers employed by Trump Models during the election declined to speak on the record for this story. (The one who did agree to an interview declined to give details of her experience, citing an NDA.) But model after model pressed the point: their agents at Trump, as they knew them, were the antithesis of everything they believed Trump, the candidate, represented. Politically, says Whist, "Everyone there was very liberal."
In late summer 2016, management sent an email to its models: "They basically said that while the agency was owned by the Trump Organisation, it has nothing to do with Trump's election or campaign," recalled Hartje Andresen, a model from Germany. Yet, in the fall, as the election grew closer, hope of maintaining neutrality grew faint. Andresen recalls going to castings: "I would sometimes hear things from other models like, 'How is it working for that asshole?' or 'Did he grab your pussy too?' To which I had to explain that I don't really work for Trump directly, and that I have a good relationship with my agents, all the while feeling deeply humiliated and ashamed."
Andresen's fellow Trump models and bookers understood her moral conflict, but most others in her life didn't. An environmentalist who grew up going to rallies and clean-ups, Andresen was asked over and over by friends and family when she would quit. "I explained at first that switching an agency is not something that can be done casually, that trust in your agents is essential, and many people underestimate the emotional, logistic and professional trouble," she said. But over time, "I started sounding less and less convinced, even to myself." Hartje signed with a new agency in April, ANTI Management, founded by a former booker from Trump Models, Gabriel Ruas Santos Rocha. (Rocha's new press person, who declined to make him available for an interview, was insistent that the name is not a response to Trump.)
I would sometimes hear things from other models like, 'Did he grab your pussy too?' I had to explain that I don't really work for Trump directly, and that I have a good relationship with my agents, all the while feeling deeply humiliated and ashamed.
Other models didn't last as long. Maggie Rizer, one of the 90s supermodels who made up Trump's Legends department, publicly announced her departure in an Instagram post on November 6th, two days before the election. "As a woman, a mother, an American and a human being, I cannot wake up Wednesday morning being the least bit related to the Trump brand," she wrote. As she explained to me via email recently, the decision wasn't easy. "I had become friends with my agent, Corinne [the company's President], and I felt a sense of loyalty to her.... At the end of the day I should never have joined an agency owned by someone I didn't respect, that was my mistake."
Meanwhile, bookers were jumping ship. Patty Sicular, who brought her roster of 80s and 90s supermodels to Trump's Legends department in 2012 as an independent agent, was the first to defect, though she said in an interview that it wasn't related to concerns about the agency's solvency. Sicular founded a new agency, Iconic Focus, in October 2016. "It was just time to move on," she said, noting that she couldn't give any more detail, due to signing a NDA. "It was something the models wanted and I felt also." When Sicular left, models like Carmen Dell'Orefice, Cheryl Tiegs, Beverly Johnson, and Karen Bjornson went with her.
Staff and model departures aside, everyone I spoke to cited the same reason for the agency's closure: lack of business. In January, a hair stylist, Tim Aylward, announced on his Facebook page that he was personally refusing to work alongside Trump Models on any projects. "The idea of having that man's name next to mine on a photo credit makes me sick," Aylward wrote. Friends in the comment section said they'd do the same. In February, the posts were characterised as a boycott in a Refinery29 article. As one source told me, similar things were happening behind closed doors. "One big casting agent went out of her way to, if she wanted to book a Trump girl, call her agency in London instead," the source said. "If you're not getting business, you just can't keep going."
The boycott comes amid a growing wave of activism across the fashion industry, from pre-election fundraisers for Hillary Clinton, to designers publicly refusing to dress Melania, to more and more models and influencers pledging support for #PlannedParenthood. For other models, like Hartje Andresen, the silver lining of the election - and the Trump Models saga - is a chance to make an impact. "When I started modelling, there wasn't even Facebook, she said. "Now we models have such a great platform to reach an audience through social media." Post election, Hartje joined the ACLU. And right before the election she also got involved with a group of model activists, dubbed the Model Mafia, who, last month, organised a bus of models to join the Climate March in Washington, D.C. "Society should worry when models have to demonstrate," one sign, which garnered over 500 likes on Instagram, read.
The boycott comes amid a growing wave of activism across the fashion industry, from pre-election fundraisers for Hillary Clinton, to designers publicly refusing to dress Melania, to more and more models and influencers pledging support for #PlannedParenthood.
Not everyone is as pleased. Kim Alexis, one of the Trump Legends, who started out doing Sports Illustrated covers in the 80s, finds the new reality of modelling where everyone sees her fame as a platform for something else exhausting. "It wasn't like that when we started out," she told me over coffee. "We didn't talk politics -- we talked about fashion and people and Studio 54." A Trump supporter herself, Alexis also finds the public discourse in fashion one-sided. "Other people are speaking out about what they want," she said. "I keep my mouth shut." Alexis is currently seeking new representation.
Before leaving Trump, Andresen tried to have conversations with agency management about options other than shutting down. "I had many suggestions, ranging from the idea of changing the name back to T Management, to supporting the ACLU and Planned Parenthood or similar organisations, to finding ways to provide healthcare for their models and agents, to using all their famous models to create a viral YouTube video demanding Trump to resign or change his policies," she said. "Unfortunately my ideas did not seem to fall on fertile ground - it appeared that the agency's ties to the Trump corporation made things like this impossible."
Text Alice Hines
Photography Michael Loccisano for Getty Images