Model Planet

IT WAS DIFFICULT to tell the age of many in the audience who sat languidly with detached expressions along the runway set up in the Jon Oulman Gallery in downtown Minneapolis a couple Friday nights ago. Despite the sticky heat, those left standing busied themselves kissing cheeks and patting backs. They fanned their dewy skin and high cheekbones with the evening's program; humidity became them. Meanwhile, someone was arranging the hors d'oeuvres on a table--bowls of expensive cheeses and salads along with the more pedestrian Ritz crackers and Bugles. No one touched any of it; such finger food makes sucking in your gut tough, especially when you're gazing out at a flock of featherweight models.

After a fashionable delay, the models descended the runway in gauzy fashions designed by locals Carole Bruns and Box of Bricks, all jutting hips and pouting lips. They walked in pairs and singly, some wearing little more than pained smiles, some seemingly nervous, some looking like they could fly into the spectator pit at a moment's notice and start punching. The audience applauded and emitted appreciative whispers, admiring the models' getups and vamping. The figures earning the loudest gasps of delight came courtesy of Vision Model Management, a Minneapolis-based agency deigned to promote high quality models and ethnic diversity.

Show over, Vision co-founders John Shoberg Zea and Nathan Yungerberg took up court away from the crowds. An unearthly beauty, clad in an off-the-shoulder gold-velvet dress and chomping away at a fistful of chips, approached them. "How'd I do? What'd you think?" Zea smiled wearily and told her to ask again tomorrow. "That's Chertch," he said, turning to me as she drifted off. "She's my personal pride and joy. I found her at the City Center McDonald's and turned her into my vision of black perfection."

All the models represented by Vision were discovered in the Twin Cities, a fact high on Zea and Yungerberg's bragging list. "A lot of people ask us, 'Why don't you move to New York or Chicago?' But the fact is there are vast resources of ethnically diverse people here in Minnesota. Any time you walk down Nicollet, you can see people from all over the world. And there's no competition here, so we don't have to worry about people stealing models from us."

Back at their studio in a downtown warehouse Monday morning, the two gurus keep their cool despite a phone that never stops ringing and the roar of trucks that grumble noisily below. We perch on the edges of armchairs draped in white sheets in their spacious digs. "We're into creating our own little world," says Yungerberg, as his partner flips through a recent spread in Raygun featuring one of his male models. "That's part of the reason that we wanted to get this space so bad. We were frustrated and thought no one is supporting us, no one is understanding us." Now, he says, "they come in here and there are models walking around, art on the walls--this is our world."

Eyeing a couple of models who have strolled in, Zea speaks faster; there's a lot to get done today, and this interview marks only the beginning. The pair do everything here, from teaching their models how to walk to advising them on diet and exercise, hair and makeup, and photography. "I think that we're the only agency or management company in town that really focuses on ethnic diversity. So many people were excited off the bat by what we were doing, but when we started developing ourselves and standing up on our own two feet as an agency, that made people nervous."

After a year in business, Vision now claims a stable of around 50 models--from Liberia, Korea, Israel, and other far reaches. Before the school year starts this fall, they'll be promoting kids' portfolios to many of their current clients, among them Dayton's, Aveda, Marshall Fields, and several out-of-state agencies on both coasts. Both men agree that Vision's vision--of models in every shade of skin humans come in, in haute couture, prêt-à-porter, jeans, two-dots-and-a-dash Morse code bikinis, on the runway and on the glossy page--is one the world's moving toward.

Yungerberg nods emphatically, getting up to answer the phone yet again as Zea continues. "It's not that we feel so special to do this, but it makes me feel good to know that we're not just talking about things--we're actually trying to get more minorities and different looking models, which sometimes means stronger models, into this media. We always hear people complaining because there aren't a lot of minority models out there working. A lot of times the general public or nonminority people say, well, that's because they don't want to do it, or there's not a lot of minorities trying to do it, or there aren't enough who are strong enough to do it." That's simply not the case, he says. "When we're on the phone dealing with people, they don't necessarily know that we're minorities ourselves, so they speak to us openly about why they do not want to take such and such a model. A Nigerian perhaps--with beautiful, strong African looks--and they'll say, 'Well, she's too dark or she's too exotic or too ethnic or too this or too that.' It's a problem. In many ways ours is a completely racist industry."

Light floods the warehouse studio, lending an optimistic tone to their remarks. "People can say whatever they want about us," Yungerberg tells me, taking up where his partner left off, "but I'll go on for another 10 years without making money if I can get these people out there and have them inspiring the kind of beauty that we want to be seen. For most people fashion is an industry and it's about money. I can't blame them--they can't possibly take on all these different models right now because ethnic diversity isn't the big thing yet. But minorities also buy expensive clothes; we buy makeup and we buy into this fashion lifestyle in every which way. If we're buying these products, then we'd better be represented in the marketing and advertising of this industry."

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