Published by: MCR
Written by: Ted D. Davis; contact at TedtoWORK@gmail.com
Linda Pearls Fils-Aime (fills-ah-me) had a vision to create a modeling school, not unlike traditional modeling schools where individuals learn the craft of walking runways and gracing print campaigns in an attempt to sell the clothing and other wares of the world’s manufacturers while making a lot of money and living a fabulous life, but with a wonderful twist: At her school students confidence would be shaped to become future leaders through not only modeling but entrepreneurial training. Isn’t that wonderful? In an industry notorious for draining its muses youth and vitality to make billions of dollars and then disposing of them often before age thirty, Pearl has taken the responsibility to teach her students how to eventually own and operate their own agencies, or whatever business they aspire to break into.
Generally speaking, modern modeling is unregulated and relies on a compliant labor force of children, who often start their careers under the age of sixteen. Because models are considered independent contractors, workplace standards sparsely exist, sex abuse is quite prevalent and, as in the case of a New York agency who three models sued in 2011 for withholding some $750,000 of their earnings, theft is commonplace. Sara Ziff, whose resume includes campaigns as a face of Tommy Hilfiger, Stella McCartney, Dolce & Gabbana, and Balenciaga among others, says that when models are this young, are mostly without their guardians, and are often a long way from home, “the incentive to say nothing in order to keep your job creates an unconscionable environment of coercion”. In 2012 Ziff took measures to combat these abuses when she formed the Model Alliance, a non-profit whose purpose is to give American models working in the fashion industry a presence and voice. She says that despite the fierce image that model’s tend to portray both in art and life, most have little clout in their workplaces. Her plan is that the alliance will give them a wealth of it.
In the same vein, Fils-Aime opened the Pearl School of Modeling, which, in compliance with measures like the alliance, can serve to empower models before they reach the workplace. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Pearl’s adopted home (she is a native of Miami), the school is an apple of gold in a silver setting, characterized by its particular pleasant flavor of service to its students.
I spoke with her recently about herself, her school, and her mission to empower the world through empowering its women.
Let me preface this first question by saying that I didn’t ask Gail (Gail Preddy, 64, is our mutual friend, a graduate of Pearls school, and the individual who arranged for this interview) for your age and she never mentioned it, but the reverence and regard with which she’s spoken of you led me to believe that you were about 55 years old. When I looked around on your site and realized you’re a pup, I was both amused and made aware that despite your obvious youth, you’re more than worthy of Gail’s admiration).
Pearl (laughing): “Really? Well, I am a pup, figuratively. People tend to think I’m 25, 30”.
(Laughing): I hope I didn’t offend you. How old are you?
Pearl: “Not at all. I just turned forty. The agency I model for tells me that based on my look, I’m qualified to take roles from age 27-35”.
Obviously. What led to your initial training as a model?
Pearl: “At age 13 I used to walk slumped over with my head to the ground. My brother encouraged me to hold my head up and straighten my back, which introduced me to the concept of confidence. By age fifteen I’d grown to 5’10”. I was walking in a mall with a friend when a scout from a modeling school approached me and suggested I take some modeling classes because they thought I had the potential to be a model. I come from a family of eight children, there wasn’t a lot of disposable income, and I assumed that my mom would refuse it. Instead, when I told her about the opportunity she sat down with my father, talked it out, and decided to invest in my ambition. I was shocked and delighted. She told me that they weren’t investing in it in order to make me a model. Rather, they were investing so that I could refine myself as a lady”.
It was rough blueprint of your overall teaching concept.
That was brilliant of her. Where did that training take you?
Pearl: “At that time I wasn’t selected by any agency to model. I don’t believe it was personal. I just wasn’t what those campaigns were looking for. It affected me initially. I thought, ‘you’re not a model’. The experience did grow me as a leader, however. I learned to walk with a straight back and a knowing glance. I learned about the art of makeup and dining etiquette, which transformed me into a leader while in high school. I became captain of the basketball team, secretary of the NAACP, and president of the Minority Business Society. I thought I was all that” (laughing gleefully).
While in college, at Florida State, I did do some show and ads, but that’s it”.
Who would you have liked to work with?
Pearl: “Oh wow! Balenciaga, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Yves St. Laurent, and on and on. I would have loved to work with any of them. I’m an actor, singer, and rapper. So, after college, I was trying to make it into the music business, rapping and managing content on my YouTube page. I managed to get a casting call, and while there the director asked why I wasn’t working. When I told him I was trying, he asked if I was opposed to him sending my headshots to Ebony, because he felt they’d love me. I told him it was cool. (Ebony Fashion Fair, also known as the Ebony Traveling Fashion Show, was an annual fashion show founded and directed by Eunice Johnson, co-founder of Chicago, Illinois based Johnson Publishing Company, the birthplace of Ebony Magazine. The show ran from 1958 until 2009. Talk about black power!)
He forwarded the photos to them, and shortly thereafter I was on a flight to Chicago to meet them. After arriving I met Eunice Johnson, just 5’1” but fierce as they come. She walked up to me and asked that I let her look at me. I leaned forward so that she could. She then told me that I’m very pretty. Minutes later, I was informed that I was selected to work with them, and I embarked on a 200 hundred city tour. I was a tough adjustment at first, living on the road, but it quickly became a thrill, traveling and modeling.
Did that tenure lead to assignments with the mainstream houses?
Pearl: (emphatically) No! Let me say, Ted, that failure is not the end of the world. On one of my first stops with the company, my family attended, and when my brother saw me he said I looked like a skeleton. What do you think my reaction was, Ted?
You felt validated? Wasn’t the point of modeling then, to be ultra-thin?
No. I started eating more, which was not a good thing for a model! With Ebony, protocol mandated that we not get ten pounds under or overweight, and I went over (laughing). I couldn’t let go of what my brother said to me. I had to eat. After a number of failed weigh-ins, I was informed I’d been let go by the company.
What was your response?
I was dejected. I was disappointed. I felt diminished. But, I’d been dating a guy who attended Harvard, and he’d encouraged me how smart I am and that I should get an M.B.A. to prepare myself for life beyond modeling.
I was almost shocked to learn you’d earned it from an HBCU (she attended historically black Clark-Atlanta University in Atlanta). It’s not often anyone of any color chooses to earn a Master’s degree. Typically, even people who attend one as an undergrad attend a predominantly white college for a Post-graduate degree. Why’d you choose one?
Having attended Florida State as an undergraduate, I assumed the entrance process would be exhaustive. I initially applied to Emory University. I can’t remember why, but I was on the Clark-Atlanta campus one day and decided to drop by its admissions office to inquire. I liked the feel of the campus. When I inquired, the admissions officer told me that based on my qualifications I could get into the program immediately, which began three weeks later. I was floored. It would have taken much longer at a predominantly white institution.
I enrolled, earned the degree, and afterward taught a class in leadership, a sort of prerequisite to designing and implementing my modeling school curriculum.
That’s fantastic! I’m preparing to reenter college, and I’ve chosen an HBCU. The response times, welcome, and enthusiasm that I’ve experienced has been a thrill and a far-cry from that that I got at predominantly white institutions. I feel like part of a family already. My cousin told me to attend an HBCU long ago. I see what I’d missed.
In your Tedtalk, you say that unlike your competitors, your school focuses on building confidence and skills that equip women and girls to become leaders and entrepreneurs. Why don’t your competitors do the same? Are they just about preparing models for assignments and billing clients?
Pearl: “Traditional modeling schools place value primarily on beauty. I want girls and women to have training in leadership and entrepreneurship so that they’ll be well-rounded people like Tyra Banks and Kathy Ireland, rather than having their whole value based on their looks. The modeling industry tends to be predatory, and you need to be armed with as much confidence and skill as possible, so that you can be successful while you model and after modeling ends”.
Speaking of Tyra, she told The Breakfast Club that some of the older models don’t care for the current trend of breaking into the industry via the internet. Depending on who you ask, it’s viewed as not paying dues. She, however, loves the diversity that it brings to the industry. For instance, it’s made it easier for larger, thicker models to break in and thrive. What’s your feeling about it?
Pearl: You mean like being an Instagram model?
Pearl: “I think it’s great. Look, I love the diversity that it brings to the industry. Now girls don’t have to be 5’11” and reed-thin to be a model. There have been whole industries opened within the industry for athletic, thick, short, and all body types to model and represent brands. It’s great. There used to be one body type and one lane to enter the industry, and now there are so many more. It’s a natural development, and I’m all for it”.
What’s the market, specifically for models of color in Atlanta? Where can a young model who gets their start here expect to go?
Pearl: “There is a strong market in Atlanta for models from every background. There are several nationally known schools here, and of course, my school (laughing). Atlanta can serve as a fertile proving ground for anyone here who is looking to break into the industry”.
Have any of your students gone on to major print and Advertisement campaigns?
Pearl: “Yes! I’m proud to say that a graduate of my school was eventually signed to represent Balenciaga, Lady Ga Ga’s Princess line, Kim Khardashian’s cosmetics line, and a Times Square ad for an eyeglass line. As I said, Atlanta is definitely a launchpad for a modeling career, and we’re proud to contribute to it.
I recommend that prospective models here tap into acting because you can get up to 50 castings per day, which helps to ensure you’re exposed. Once our models complete their training, we send them to Ursula Wiedmann Models for consideration for signing. We want them to have the best chance to succeed in attempting to launch a modeling career”.
What do you like most and least about the industry?
Pearl: “What I like most is the ability to travel, and the artistry aspect, in terms of hair makeup, set design, etc. I fell in love with that aspect of the industry early on in my Ebony tenure. What I like least is the limitations that modeling places on the standard of beauty. It is better today in the sense of inclusion of models of a variety of heights, weights, hair textures, builds, and such, but overall that standard of beauty in modeling is what it was twenty-five years ago”.
What do you love about Atlanta? Why live there?
Pearl: I love Atlanta because Atlanta loves me! You know how women say, ‘I love my man because my man loves me’? (Laughing) Atlanta has been very good to me and I try to be good to it in return. My relationship with this city has been a blessing beyond what I initially assumed it would be.
When I arrived here in the early 2000’s I was immediately impressed by the wealth of prosperous, seemingly happy, successful black people, but I was turned off by the Old South vibe I got from it. I’m from Miami, where I grew up in a very diverse environment wherein people of all nationalities worked, attended school, and lived amongst each other, and that wasn’t necessarily the case here. Later, however, I discovered that if you hustle, a vision, and things that you want to accomplish, people will embrace, value, and promote you. The support system and sense of community that I’ve found have been wonderful overall”.
Ok. What five essentials should any stylish woman own now?
Pearl: “Oh wow! I was not prepared to answer that! When I think of it, maybe I’m not that fashionable. Just kidding. Let’s see. Ok. Every woman should own a badass black cocktail dress. You never know when you’ll need it for an event to honor someone else, or it could be the dress you’re wearing when you make a deal that could change your life. It’s classic. Every woman should own a clean white tee shirt and a great fitting pair of jeans, casual staples. A comfortable pair of heels is a must……….”
Ok? That’s four things.
Pearl: “And, confidence. You have to wear confidence. That’s how you look great whatever you’re wearing”.
Amen and amen. I love confident women. Ok, ladies, a fashion czar has spoken.
You’re Haitian. What should the world know about Haitians? What makes you special?
Pearl: “We’re the first successful rebellion against slavery. That’s something special, huh? In 1804, we kicked our captors off the island and reclaimed our freedom. We fought for and won our freedom first. Others staged courageous rebellions, but we’re the first to do so successfully”.
That’s exceptionally special. I didn’t know that. I’m proud to know it now. Montgomery, Alabama, where my father grew up, was one of the largest slave ports in American history. There are no stories of successful rebellions there. However, he did go on to amass twenty million dollar fortune. I’m sure slaves from Haiti once docked in Montgomery. Their spirit must have inspired daddy.
Finally, what’s big in the future for you and the Pearl School of Modeling?
Pearl: “What’s big? As I mentioned earlier, I’m a recording artist. I released an album in 2012 and I’m proud to say I’m working on releasing a second one in the near future. I sing and rap. I’m proud that I recently opened a new modeling school in Miami, and I’ll open another one in New York in the near distant. In Miami, we’ll direct graduates to Elite Model Management and Wilhelmina Models for signing considerations. I’m grateful for those associations for all of us. Those are great agencies.
Likewise, I plan to open a leadership academy in Haiti. As a daughter of the country, I want to be a part of developing and evolving its citizenry and culture. I feel that should start with young girls, who need to be trained to be leaders and entrepreneurs, so that they can do the work necessary to move the country forward”.
Bravo! I’m thrilled for you. New Yaaaaak? You’re going to open a school there? Wow!
Pearl: “Yup. Hearing your enthusiasm makes me even more excited about it. It’s the epicenter of all business in America”.
That is so dope! Will you be opening in it a place where the common folk live, or Manhattan (Laughing)?
Pearl: “We don’t have a site nailed down as yet, but I think Harlem”.
My lord. A woman after my own heart (Laughing). That would be tremendous. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. How can you be reached?
I wish you the very best.
Pearl: “Thank you so much”.
Ziff, Sara. (2012, February 13). The ugly truth of fashion’s model behaviour. The Guardian.
Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/feb13/