RENA NIAMH SMITH



Rena is one of those profiles within the industry that you strangely can put a face to, her presence is constant, she is the Social and Editorial Services Manager at Elite Model World and as models agencies go it is globally one of the biggest. She runs an Instagram account including Elite UK, Paris, Milan etc, all at the same time and here she gives us a some insight into Elite Model Look, the worldwide competition that has brought icons such as Cindy Crawford, Gisele Bündchen, Mona Tougaard and Mayowa Nicholas.


Words / Photography by Edwin S Freyer.


This is an interview extract. Find out the full version in the Fall Winter 2020 Issue 5.


You got into writing by freelancing for i-D Magazine, Dazed and Wonderland. Where did your interest in writing spark from?


My parents are really passionate about reading, so I grew up in a house with no TV but lots of books. I remember I was the only kid in primary school asked to bring in their own books because I had read everything in the library! At secondary school, I was obsessed with magazines, so I started my own all about the bands that my twin brother and our friends were in. I bunked school to go to press screenings at the indie cinema in Newcastle, and I did a radio show on a youth community project with my friend Jack. At university, I got into fashion blogging and the student media scene.


You've had various jobs in the industry working for the Sunday Telegraph, Net-a-Porter and Helen McAlinden before establishing yourself at Elite, what did you learn from your earlier experiences?


I’m extremely fortunate to have Helen McAlinden as a wonderful family friend, who let me come and assist her for a year. At a small label, they need help with lots of things so I was able to really learn how a fashion business works. I worked on their social media, design assistance, visual merchandising, copywriting and sales. More than that though, Helen is a very independent and imaginative businesswoman who taught me how to be brave in my career. At Net-a-Porter, I learned how copywriting fits into a vast and well-oiled e-commerce machine. At the Sunday Telegraph, I learned to meet a slick weekly print deadline. Working for a well-established luxury title opened a lot of doors to gathering interesting content, and I learned so much from so many wonderful, experienced editors such as Kate Finnigan, Anna Murphy and Kate Salter.


Elite Model Look / Arianna Carotta

Elite is one of the biggest networks with a presence in fifteen countries under the same name, and The Society in New York. What makes Elite different from other agencies?


I’d say a few things help Elite stand out. We are committed to building our talent’s profile not only as models, but as entrepreneurs in their own right. Women’s empowerment is something which our CEO Julia Haart really believes in and I am proud to be working for a company committed to equality. The Elite Model Look content is an incredible scouting tool that allows the network to find beautiful new models from all over the world. Finally, the sheer breadth of the agency network around the world, with our sister agencies: The Society, Women Management, Women 360 and Supreme, makes Elite Model World a global powerhouse in representation.


For people who don't know about EML UK, what insights can you give?


Elite Model Look is a contest to scout new talent, which takes place in countries all around the world. The format allows not just scouted talent to apply, but anyone who wants to become a model, and we find some incredible new models this way. For EML UK, we scouted at festivals last year, and hosted open castings at the agency for anyone to join. National Winners (one girl, one boy) from each country are then brought together for the World Final, where a Top 15 (ten girls, five boys) win guaranteed contracts, but many more of the 65 plus World Finalists get signed. I call it the Eurovision of modelling – it’s not well known in the UK – but in countries like the Czech Republic or Nigeria, it’s huge!


Image of Kaliel Russell and Nadia Soukri by Edwin Freyer for Elite Model Look UK 2019.

Reprinted courtesy of Elite Model Management London



Elite Model Look has proved itself as success story with Cindy Crawford and Tatjana Patitz in the 80s, Gisele Bündchen in the 90s, Fei Fei Sun in the 00s and Mayowa Nicholas and Yasmin Wijnaldum most recently. How has the formula for success changed over these four decades?


While the core mission to find new talent remains the same, the contest has definitely come a long way! The beauty pageant format was very popular when the project started, with shows like Miss World broadcast to millions. Thankfully, long-awaited and necessary progress made that format obsolete, and Elite Model Look became much more fashion-focussed. The pedagogic approach of the Bootcamp at Elite Model Look is what really sets it apart from other model competitions, as it’s where models learn everything from catwalk to social media. And what’s unrecognizable from the 1980s is the new category for digital creators, who are nurtured with digital masterclasses to become experts in their field. Because of the pandemic, most live castings have been suspended, so we are having to rethink what it means to scout and promote talent today.


What advice would you give to any aspiring models?


Being a model is the one job you don’t choose, it chooses you. My advice would be to absolutely go for it as soon as you decide you want to because the industry moves fast and you want to give yourself time to succeed. Contact all the agencies in your area, send them photos, or go for a walk-in – starting with Elite! Don’t get scammed – no reputable agency ever expects payment to become a model. Practice at home, do your homework on who’s who in fashion. The industry needs to open up to new kinds of beauty but diversity starts with the people who try out, so go for it! But I would also say that you shouldn’t be disheartened if it doesn’t work out. When I wanted to get into fashion, I did some modelling, but I never got signed. Don’t take it personally and work out what it was about modelling you were interested in – being in front of the camera, being part of fashion shoots, wearing great clothes – and do it your own way!


it has revealed just how deeply rooted an existing crisis is – the crisis of capitalism.

Elite Model Look 36º Worldwide Final / Arianna Carotta

It will be very difficult to determine an outcome of this crisis, but do you think the industry needed to stop and examine itself at some point?


Absolutely. The global pandemic has not simply added to problems in the fashion industry; it has revealed just how deeply rooted an existing crisis is – the crisis of capitalism.


There are many individuals trying to do good yet, overall, the business of producing clothes at an extremely low cost in countries where there are no regulations to protect either workers or the environment is morally bankrupt. During the pandemic, many fashion companies refused to pay for orders, leaving workers in overseas factories destitute. And here in the UK, lots of retail staff are employed on zero hours contracts and, as we saw in Leicester, garment workers are paid as little as £3 per hour, and are unprotected from the virus by companies putting profits before safety.


The Black Lives Matter movement brought attention to the ongoing problem of racism in the industry. While there have been many talented black individuals who are very prominent, behind the scenes, fashion continues to be overwhelmingly white and middle-class. The intern system, which I benefitted from, is totally prohibitive for most people, so the industry really doesn’t represent the population at all. The economic system I described above is based on a historic exclusion of black people from creativity and wealth. I would argue a kind of colonialism still exists today in the system which Angela Davis describes as ‘racial capitalism’.


So yes, we must think very hard about the system as a whole and pay attention to the warning signs. Extinction Rebellion are among those fighting to say that today’s fashion industry produces huge quantities of rubbish and trashes people and planet in order to make shareholders rich. I agree with their view that it’s really a life or death situation; if we want our grandchildren to reach old age, we have to face up to this grotesque system and change it.


You founded Future Heist in 2018 and have already interviewed Bethany Williams, Saffiyah Khan and Sarah Ann Macklin. What issues do you tackle in ‘get-into-deep’?


Future Heist is a podcast of conversations with change-makers. The initial idea was to shine a spotlight on the kind of people I meet in my spare time, at political meetings and protests. I wanted to give a platform to anyone who’s trying to make the world a better place, so the space opened up to socially-engaged entrepreneurs too. I always want to know the same things with each guest – what they do, how they do it, and what motivated them in the first place. I also want to inspire more people to take action, so I ask them how the listener can get involved! Check it out on Apple Podcasts and all good hosts. I am currently working on an episode with Clare Farrell, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, talking about some of the issues mentioned above. It is a passion project and I feel very honored to get to discuss ideas with these incredibly thoughtful and inspiring people.


Read Rena's interview in the Fall Winter 2020 Issue 5. Get your copy here.