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Search for Ireland's next top model

By Jane Hardy

Ellis, top modelling talent scout, will be in Victoria Square, Belfast, this Sunday at 3pm looking for the next Irish supermodel for a new RTE television show.

You know you’ve reached superstardom when you’re down to one name like Madonna, Sting and Twiggy. Ellis, one of the world’s most successful model talent scouts and the frontwoman of The Model Agent (RTE Two, January 2009), has attained that status via her work discovering the kind of faces (and bodies) that grace the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair.

The Model Agent is a welcome, slightly different take, on the reality TV show, bringing loads of glamour to the format, and giving practical insight into the world of modelling, but not cutting back on the inevitable competitiveness associated with the genre.

Fiona Ellis (44), now on the road, explains: “It is television and there will be that element of auditions and some girls will be rejected. But we face rejection every day in real life, not getting the grades or the frock you want, being dumped by the boyfriend, and we have to deal with it. We’ll do it kindly, I hope, as I believe in the positive rather than the negative. I’m not Simon Cowell. But if a girl hasn’t got what it takes, we have to be honest and suggest she considers something else.”

The idea is to follow Ellis’s scouting trip round Ireland, to Cork, Dublin and Belfast, then provide the 20 girls, who must be over 16, selected with ‘the tools of the trade’ and visits to London and New York to see from the inside how the modelling world works. Ultimately, one girl will win a modelling contract and appear on the cover of Image.

There is an impressive range of experts on the show. “We’ve got the Royal Ballet for deportment plus a good nutritionist because it’s important what girls eat. If they haven’t the energy, they won’t be able to do five castings a day. These girls aren’t travelling in limos, they’re crossing London with their A-Z.”

Ellis is passionate about her job co-directing the Independent model agency, and recalls spotting client Erin O’Connor, who will be mentoring the girls chosen, at a Clothes Show in Birmingham 13 years ago. “I saw this gangly teenager with railway tracks on her teeth, and she hyperventilated when I approached. But I thought ‘This girl has got something’. I find her incredibly attractive.” She contacted Erin’s parents, and the rest is modelling history. She’s also enthusiastic about this assignment, which will dispel some modelling myths. “I’ve been in the business 23 years, and it’s about nurturing and developing new talent. It’s not like Britain’s Next Top Model. The girls aren’t in a house, with the main challenge bitchiness, they’re given the real challenge of modelling.”

So what will Ellis be looking for when, with glasses on, wearing jeans and combats and with maybe a camera, she hangs out in Victoria Square? “I’d love to find an amazing Irish redhead or any classically beautiful girl but what you have to have is individuality. The Irish are definitely individual and great communicators which is also essential.”

Size and physique remain important too in this game. “Height is important, with a minimum height of 5ft 7in, and the girls must have a good healthy physique. I’m going to be bloody clear with you on this — I’ve never taken on a girl who looked ill.” She goes on to say that some models have “natural slenderness” but that anything anorectic or size zero won’t be tolerated.

As a mother, Ellis is emphatic that the modelling industry must take responsibility for the health of young models. “I’m a single mum with an eight-year-old daughter, Honey, and I feel strongly about this eating malarkey.”

It was partly her natural mothering instinct that got Ellis into the modelling business in the first place. “I’ve always had that instinct and my niche from the early days has been about encouraging new talent. How I managed negotiating fees, I don’t know, as I am incredibly dyslexic. So it’s all about the visual for me.”

She started at Models One as a gofer. “I had model friends. I was always putting avocado beauty masks on my face.”

There are plenty of urban myths about talent-spotting. Has she found anybody in unusual locations? “Eight years ago, I found one girl at the swimming pool in Ladbroke Grove. I was in the changing rooms at the time, as was she, and hurried to get dressed or else she might have thought, ‘What’s going on here?’”

Ellis takes pains to emphasize that a modelling career needn’t interrupt a girl’s education and cites the example of top model Lily Cole, who has recently started an undergraduate degree at Cambridge. “We encourage our clients to get their exams and go to uni, and the show’s trip to London will fit into the Irish half term.”

If Honey wanted to model, Ellis would be happy to see her on the catwalk. “If she had the ability, yes, and a good agent. After all, supermodels gain financial security and then do other things. Helena Christensen has her shops, Erin is vice-chair of the British Fashion Council. It’s a good job for the right girl.”

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